The Plant of Joy

" God's Own Medicine"
Sir William Osler

Opium is an extract of the exudate derived from seedpods of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum.   The poppy plant was cultivated in the ancient civilisations of Persia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Archaeological evidence and fossilised poppy seeds suggest that Neanderthals may have used the opium poppy over thirty thousand years ago. Less controversially, the first known written reference to the poppy appears in a Sumerian text dated around 4,000 BC. The flower was known as hul gil, plant of joy. The Egyptian Eber papyrus of some 3500 years ago advises use of condensed juice of the unripe seed pod "to prevent the excessive crying of children". Papaver somniferum is the only species of Papaver used to produce opium. It is believed to have evolved through centuries of breeding and cultivation from a Mediterranean-growing wild strain, Papaver setigerum.

        Homer conveys its effects in The Odyssey. In one episode, Telemachus is depressed after failing to find his father Odysseus. But then Helen...

"...had a happy thought. Into the bowl in which their wine was mixed, she slipped a drug that had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories. No one who swallowed this dissolved in their wine could shed a single tear that day, even for the death of his mother or father, or if they put his brother or his own son to the sword and he were there to see it done..."

In some parts of the contemporary Middle East, chilled glasses of poppy tea are served to mourners at funerals to ease their grief.

        Papaver somniferum has long been popular in Europe. Fossil remains of poppy-seed cake and poppy-pods have been found in Neolithic Swiss lake-dwellings dating from over 4,000 years ago. Poppy images appear in Egyptian pictography and Roman sculpture. Representations of the Greek and Roman gods of sleep, Hypnos and Somnos, show them wearing or carrying poppies. Throughout Egyptian civilisation, priest-physicians promoted the household use of opium preparations. Such remedies were called "thebacium" after the highly potent poppies grown near the capital city of Thebes. Egyptian pharaohs were entombed with opium artefacts by their side. Opium could also readily be bought on the street-markets of Rome. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), author of the philosophical classic Meditations, regularly enjoyed opium; it may have contributed to his celebrated stoicism. By the eighth century AD, opium use had spread to Arabia, India and China. The Arabs both used opium and organised its trade. For the Prophet had prohibited the use of alcohol, not hashish or opiates.

        Classical Greek physicians either ground the whole plant or used opium extract. Galen lists its medical indications, noting how opium...

"...resists poison and venomous bites, cures chronic headache, vertigo, deafness, epilepsy, apoplexy, dimness of sight, loss of voice, asthma, coughs of all kinds, spitting of blood, tightness of breath, colic, the lilac poison, jaundice, hardness of the spleen stone, urinary complaints, fever, dropsies, leprosies, the trouble to which women are subject, melancholy and all pestilences."

Later authorities were scarcely less enthusiastic. Physicians commonly believed that the poppy plant was of divine origin; opium was variously called the Sacred Anchor Of Life, Milk Of Paradise, the Hand Of God, and Destroyer Of Grief. Medical pioneer Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689), sometimes known as 'the English Hippocrates' and 'the Shakespeare of medicine', writes....

"Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium."

This may be overstating God's benevolence; but by relieving emotional as well as physical pain, opiates have been understandably popular. Robert Burton (1577-1640), scholar, priest and author of Anatomy of Melancholy, commended laudanum - essentially opium dissolved in wine - for those who were insomniacs...

" reason of their continual cares, fears, sorrows, dry brains [which] is a symptom that much crucifies melancholy men..."

Indeed opium was probably the world's first authentic antidepressant. Unlike other pain-relieving agents such as ethyl alcohol, ether or the barbiturates, opium doesn't impair sensory perception, the intellect or motor coordination. Pain ceases to be threatening, intrusive and distressing; but it can still be sensed and avoided. In low doses, opium may sometimes be pleasantly stimulating rather than soporific. In the East, opium was typically treated as a social drug; and opium-smoking was a tool for conviviality. Nowadays a life of habitual opioid use evokes images of stupor and mindless oblivion, yet ironically Coleridge coined the word intensify to describe opium's effects on consciousness.

        A significant advance in opium-processing occurred in the sixteenth century. In freebase form, the alkaloids found in opium are significantly less soluble in water than in alcohol. Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1490-1541), better known as Paracelsus, claimed: "I possess a secret remedy which I call laudanum and which is superior to all other heroic remedies". He concocted laudanum [literally: "something to be praised"] by extracting opium into brandy, thus producing, in effect, tincture of morphine. His original witches' brew contained extra ingredients such as crushed pearls, henbane and frog-spawn. It was steeped in alchemical mumbo-jumbo: Paracelsus called opium itself "the stone of immortality". Thomas Sydenham, however, went on to standardise laudanum in the now classic formulation: 2 ounces of opium; 1 ounce of saffron; a drachm of cinnamon and cloves - all dissolved in a pint of Canary wine.

        Laudanum can be habit-forming. Yet the sometimes spectacular ill-effects noted by early modern writers when coming off laudanum probably owed more to its ethyl alcohol content than its opium. As their opioid tolerance increased, so did users' consumption of tinctures: De Quincey's florid withdrawal signs on abstaining...

"I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me; Seva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unuttemble slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud..."

...suggest an alcoholic's delirium tremens rather than a junky's cold-turkey.

        By the nineteenth century, vials of laudanum and raw opium were freely available at any English pharmacy or grocery store. One nineteenth-century author declared: "[Laudanum] Drops, you are darling! If I love nothing else, I love you." Another user, the English gentleman quoted in Jim Hogshire's Opium for the Masses (1994), enthused that opium felt akin to a gentle and constant orgasm.

        British opium imports rose from a brisk 91,000lb in 1830 to an astonishing 280,000lb in 1860. Despite British control of Indian production, most domestic imports came from Turkey. This was because of the superior morphine content - 10-13% - of Turkish opium; opium's varying potency depends on its particular growing conditions. For obscure reasons, opium was most popular among the rural peasantry of the Fens. The British Medical Association estimated that sparsely populated Cambridgeshire and its environs consumed around half of Britain's annual opium imports. This consumption was topped up by generous use of poppy-tea brewed from homegrown poppies.

        Youngsters were introduced to the pleasures of opiates at their mothers' breast. Harassed baby-minders - and overworked parents - found opium-based preparations were a dependable way to keep their kids happy and docile; this was an era before Ritalin. Sales of Godfrey's Cordial, a soothing syrup of opium tincture effective against colic, were prodigious. But Godfrey's Cordial had its competitors: Street's Infants' Quietness, Atkinson's Infants' Preservative, and Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup.

Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup

        Opium was viewed as a medicine, not a drug of abuse. Contemporary medical theory didn't allow that one could become addicted to a cure. However, the chemists and physicians most actively investigating the properties of opium were also its dedicated consumers; and this may conceivably have coloured their judgement.

        Writers of distinction certainly consumed opium in copious quantities. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote Kubla Khan in a dream-like trance while under its spell; opium promotes vivid dreams and rich visual imagery as well as gentle euphoria...

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Down to a sunless sea
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome, those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise."

Fellow English author Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) writes of "the marvellous agency of opium, whether for pleasure or for pain". De Quincey seems to have treated opium as a mood-brightening smart-drug. The author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) draws invidious comparisons with alcohol. He attributes a heightening of his mental powers to opium use...

"Whereas wine disorders the mental faculties, opium introduces amongst them the most exquisite order, legislation and harmony. Wine robs a man of self-possession; opium greatly invigorates it....Wine constantly leads a man to the brink of absurdity and extravagance; and, beyond a certain point, it is sure to volatilize and disperse the intellectual energies; whereas opium seems to compose what has been agitated, and to concentrate what had been distracted. ...A man who is often...brutal; but the opium eater...feels that the diviner part of his nature is paramount; that is, the moral affections are in a state of cloudless serenity; and over all is the great light of majestic intellect...."

        De Quincey states that not he himself, but opium, should be regarded as the true hero of his essay. Opium was his "Divine Poppy-juice, as indispensable as breathing". By reputation, opium users have dull wits, idle lives and diminished sensibility. This was not de Quincey's verdict. He made a habit of going to the opera under its influence - and found his experience of music delightfully enhanced...

"Now opium, by greatly increasing the activity of the mind, generally increases, of necessity, that particular mode of its activity by which we are able to construct out of the raw material of organic sound an elaborate intellectual pleasure...It is sufficient to say, that a chorus, etc of elaborate harmony displayed before me, as in a piece of arras work, the whole of my past life - not as if recalled by an act of memory, but as if present and incarnated in the music; no longer painful to dwell upon, but the detail of its incidents removed...and its passions exalted, spiritualized, and sublimed..."

Opium induces gentle, subtle, dream-like hallucinations very different from the fierce and unpredictable weirdness of LSD. Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) likens opium to a woman friend, " old and terrible friend, and, alas! like them all, full of caresses and deceptions." Across the Atlantic, in 1842, William Blair describes his experiences with opium in a New York magazine...

"While I was sitting at tea, I felt a strange sensation, totally unlike any thing I had ever felt before; a gradual creeping thrill, which in a few minutes occupied every part of my body, lulling to sleep the before-mentioned racking pain, producing a pleasing glow from head to foot, and inducing a sensation of dreamy exhilaration (if the phrase be intelligible to others as it is to me) similar in nature but not in degree to the drowsiness caused by wine, though not inclining me to sleep; in fact far from it, that I longed to engage in some active exercise; to sing, dance, or vividly did I feel my vitality - for in this state of delicious exhilaration even mere excitement seemed absolute elysium - that I could not resist the tendency to break out in the strangest vagaries, until my companions thought me deranged...After I had been seated [at the play I was attending] a few minutes, the nature of the excitement changed, and a 'waking sleep' succeeded. The actors on the stage vanished; the stage itself lost its reality; and before my entranced sight magnificent halls stretched out in endless succession with galley above gallery, while the roof was blazing with gems, like stars whose rays alone illumined the whole building, which was tinged with strange, gigantic figures, like the wild possessors of lost globe...I will not attempt farther to describe the magnificent vision which a little pill of 'brown gum' had conjured up from the realm of ideal being. No words that I can command would do justice to its Titanian splendour and immensity..."

We invite you to continue on with your reading and you will find the Reference at the end of the article. 

Editor: Deborah Shrira                     Updated: February 19, 2008