Origins and History of Opium

Publication Year: 
1994

Image retrieved from greekmyths-greekmythology.com on November 8th, 2013.

Image retrieved from hifzanshafiee.files.wordpress.com on DATE.

Fossilized poppy seeds and other archaeological evidence show the opium poppy was used by Neanderthal man as long as 30,000 years ago. Prehistoric use of poppies probably went beyond the use of opium, as the poppy yields abundant quantities of nutritious seed, which can be eaten raw or cooked. The dried plant also provides a clean-burning fuel and poppy straw is still used today for animal fodder. Its drug qualities could have also fulfilled a religious role of some kind.
Written evidence tells us the opium poppy has been with us for at least 6,000 years. Sumerian ideograms from about 4,000 B.C. refer to the poppy as the "plant of joy." Opium poppies were cultivated for millennia by the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt. In Greece, especially, the poppy occupied an important place in medicine and mythology.
Homer wrote that Helen of Troy served opium dissolved in wine as a potion to cause "forgetfulness of evil." The Greek goddess of agriculture, Demeter, searching for her daughter Persephone came to a place once known as "Mekone" or "city of poppies." It was there that she discovered that by tasting the gum oozing from the poppy capsule, she was immediately relieved of her sorrow. Because of this, ancient Greek drawings of Demeter often portray her holding a small bouquet of poppies.
Other Gods were shown with poppies, including Nyx (goddess of night), Hypnos (god of sleep), Morpheus (god of dreams), and Thanatos (god of death).
One Greek word for opium is mekon or mekone, the later being the name of the prehistoric city later known as Kyllene. The word mekone means something like “Poppy Town” is associated with Hermes and is the place where Prometheus first brought fire to humans. Our own word, “opium,” comes from another Greek word – opion – meaning “liquid.” The Greek word appears in many variations around the world. In Arabic the word is afioon, in Urdu, afim, and a-fou-yong in some dialects of Chinese. Even the Chinese word yen (which describes more that one aspect of opium) appears to derive from Greek. Even the Japanese mayaku may be related to the Greek mekone. In any case, opium was not cultivated in Japan until the 15th century, so the plant may very well have a “foreign” name there.
Images of poppy plants, often in ceremonial use, can be found on coins and drawings in the ruins of past civilizations in Greece and other areas of the Mediterranean. Although it is often said that opium smoking was not practiced by Europeans until the late 15th century ancient pipes found in Cyprus, apparently used for opium, date from the late Bronze age (c. 1200 B.C.) vases from this same period depict methods of incising the capsule, to gather opium.
As mentioned earlier, ancient Egyptian medicine made use of opium, and medical papyri describe hundreds of prescriptions containing opium. The substance appears in about one third of the formulas uncovered to date. Later on, the Egyptian city of Thebes became well known for its opium and the standard Egyptian opium was called Thevic opium. Today one of opium's most important alkaloids, thebaine, reminds us of this city.
The Romans used opium extensively, and the drug was sold every where in the streets of the eternal city. The Roman poet Virgil mentions opium in his Aeneid while Rome’s greatest physician Galen (who shaped European medicine for several hundred years) gushed over its properties in his medical treatises.
The famous Persian physician Abu Ali al Husein Abdallah ibn Sina (Known in the west as Avicenna) was another proponent of opium, prescribing it for diarrhea, cough, diabetes, anemia and other afflictions. Avicenna's medical work, Canon of Medicine, superseded Galen at the beginning of the Renaissance and became the basis for Western medicine right through the 1800s. Apparently Avicenna himself was an enthusiast of opium.
Persians and Arabs called the flower Qashqash (or similar variations – the name imitates the sound of poppy seeds rattling around in the dried capsule) and poppies and opium were an important part of their system of medicine.
As the spread of the word “opium” indicates, use of the poppy's juice seems to have spread outward from Greece – and fairly quickly. By no later than the eighth century A.D. poppies and the use of opium had spread throughout Arabia, India, and China. Its northward journey took a bit longer, but by the 11th century, opium was in use all over the Eurasian continent.
Although opium was known to medieval Europeans, the drug jumped in popularity when crusaders, returning from their attacks in the Middle East, brought back Avicenna's new medicines – along with silk, soap and remission from all their sins. A narcotic potion containing a large amount of opium was in widespread use in the Middle Ages. In medieval England we have a recipe for a knock-out drink used to render a patient unconscious “while men carve him.” other potions were simply used to bring on sleep. Sometimes called “dwale,” such an opium based medicine is mentioned by Chaucer in The Reeve's Tale:

To bedde goth Alyn and also John
Ther nas na moore – hem nedede no dwale.

Shakespeare refers to opium in Othello:

Not poppy, nor mandragore,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou ow'dst yesterday

Opium's rediscovery helped make the careers of Renaissance doctors such as Paracelsus (1490-1540) who referred to the stash of opium kept in his saddle as his “stone of immortality.” Paracelsus was also the inventor of laudanum (from the Latin meaning “praised”), an opium preparation still in use today. Although laudanum has many permutations, the original (probably in pill form) contained not only opium but henbane, rushed pearls, frog sperm, an cinnamon. Today laudanum is made by dissolving opium into alcohol, and is probably just as effective.
Laudanum and other opium-based medications got more popular in Europe until it seemed no self-respecting author or poet could call himself such unless he used it. Men such as Thomas De Quicney and Samuel Taylor Colridge were heavy users of opium, as was Edgar Allan Poe. Poems such as The raven seem to be the products of opium dreams, nebulous moods and fantastic images that reflect typical effects of opium.
Although there is no evidence that opium can make a dullard into a literary genius, it's clear opium was instrumental in the lives of some of these artists. And they didn't hesitate to credit their laudanum. When Coleridge awoke from an opium dream to pen his famous poem Kubla khan, he made sure to refer to his own “mother's little helper”:

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle around him thrice
And close four eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

pp. 11-15 Opium for the Masses by Jim Hogshire (1994)

Morpheus, god of dreams, opium, river of forgetfulness, ancient greek
avicenna, opium, ancient medicine, ancient persia, physician, crusades
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