(from) “Opium & The Opium Appetite”, published in 1870 by Alonzo Calkins, MD
Editors note: This is Dr. Calkins’ short introductory chapter with some interesting classical references to the Opium Poppy and its widespread medical and popular use in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome.
Chapter I: The Poppy – Its History, Mythic And Traditional
“Pro magna, teste vetustas Creditur.”- Ovid.
“Pauvres humains, qui bonheur attendez, Levez vos coeurs et nos dictes entendez.” – Rabelais
In the ancient mythologies; Greek and Roman, the early existence and use of the Poppy have abundant attestation. Cybele, mother of the gods, is represented on the old monuments as wearing a wreath of poppies, a symbol of fecundity (Jacques).
The Romans accounted the plant a gift of Demeter or Ceres, the goddess of corn, and she is described as bearing a sceptre in one hand, and in the other the symbolic capsule.
Ovid introduces Night advancing with the significant emblem in her coronet: “Interea placidam redimita papavera frontem Nox venit, et secum somnia nigra trahit.”
Somnus also was often painted as reposing upon a bed of snowy poppies. Silius Italicus speaks of him as wandering about by night, scattering from his loaded horn the medicated herb as he passes along: “Curvoque volucris Per tenebras portat medicata papavera cornu.”
Virgil in the Georgics instances the injunction to make an offering of the poppy to the infernal deities for the repose of the manes of Orpheus: “Inferias Orphei Lethaea papavera mittes.”
Catullus adverts to the “Lethaea papavera” and Tibullus to the “medicata papavera.”
Homer, earlier than any of the rest, who dates about 900 b.c., names the poppy among the familiar embellishments of the garden. The poets, careful observers of natural phenomena and faithful chroniclers of antique lore as they ever are, have thus assigned to the poppy a prehistoric existence as also a foremost preeminence. Expede Herculem – allusions thus distinctive and positive must have an origination outside of the mere unsubstantial creations of the poet’s brain.
Diodorus relates that the women of Thebes were acquainted with an herb having properties analogous to those of the poppy certainly, though he does not specify the name. Pliny, while he does not include the poppy in his enumeration of the indigenous products on the Nile border, plainly well understood its virtues, as is evident from the following passage: “Succus papaveris densatur, cui non vis soporifera modo inest, verum si copiosior hauriatur, mortifera per somnos.”
The poppy was evidently known to the Romans at least five centuries before the Christian era, being spoken of by Livy as conspicuous in the gardens of Tarquinius Superbus. Hippocrates, 460 b.c., was acquainted with the same, and among all the physicians and herbalists of his period, the plant ever holds a prominent place. The famous Mithridaticum, which consisted of thirty-six ingredients, and upon which, as a basis, Andromachus, physician to Nero, compounded his Theriaca, contained poppy-extract in large proportion. Here was the Philonium also, an opiated electuary (as commonly supposed, combining hyoscyamus), a compound experimentally known to Plato, who, it appears, was wont to innovate upon his vegetarian habitudes with something more potent than beans and cress. This doughty champion in the van of the philosophers thus turns up in a novel association, as a pioneer to the long line of opium eaters.
Dioscorides, the Linnaeus by anticipation of his day, and Galen, the erudite physician of a period somewhat later, both accord to the poppy a precedent rank.
To Egypt, mother of the ancient civilization and cradle of art, medical writers have from earliest times been prone to point, as having been also the original herbarium of the botanic world. All refer with various speculations to the Nepenthes of the Odyssey as described in Lib. iv. 220. Thirty centuries since it was, as we measure the veiled past, when on the occasion of a nuptial banquet in the halls of Menelaus, at which Telemachus was present as a guest of honor, Helen, the famed in Trojan story, is related to have commingled for the use of her company a cordial of some sort: “A mirth-inspiring bowl, To clear the clouded front of wrinkled care, And dry the tearful sluices of despair” as it would do through twenty-four hours continuously.
The essential element, or what imparted to this liquor its intoxicant virtue proper, has been generally thought to have been a poppy-essence. Such is the view maintained by the learned Sprengel; and Van Swieten indicates his belief in the following passage: “Papaver, instar Helena: Nepenthes, oblivionem omnium malorum inducit.” That the prevalent opinion in the time of Claudian was in accordance with this, is plain from the following significant passage, indicative both of the origin of the plant which affords our opium, and of the primitive mode of preparation. The lines belong to an epithalamium dedicated to Palladius: “Nuiacm pingue desuuat vulnere cortex.”
The Nepenthes, a complex compound, and what Pliny thus adverts to as the “Nobile Nepenthes oblivionem tristitis afferens,” not unlikely, as indeed Dioscoridcs suspected, combined the Cannabis besides.
At the beginning of the present century and later, says Lane, among the common people of Egypt the Cannabis in one or another form, as compared with opium, was in more familiar use; and to this day a wine is made corresponding in character to the description by Dioscorides, and which, mingled with their booza or barley-wine, bears the name of bandji.
In Constantine, Algeria, the fashion at the soirees is to smoke the herb, and also to commingle the wine in their coffee; and thereupon ensues singing and dancing with hilarious extravagance in every way. Galen adverts to a virous liquor made from the seeds of the hemp, a beverage anciently used for its exhilarating inspirations. This much is rendered certain, the Cannabis was a familiar stimulant in the period of the Caliphate.
Very noticeable is the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures, amid references to balsamics and other aromatics, with their confections, make no distinctive allusion to the poppy, nor indeed to any narcotic extract, unless myrrh be so accounted. For such omission there is to be found a measurable explanation, perhaps, in the consideration that the Hebrew family, that “peculiar people” though having sojourned in the land of Egypt, their “house of bondage” for four hundred years, were kept nevertheless by the ruling power carefully segregated from the indigenous race, and under the governance of rigid taskmasters who made their lives “bitter with hard bondage.” The “strong drink” repeatedly spoken of in Leviticus and the prophetic writings was inebriating rather than soporific (Prov. XX-I, and Isa. V.- 11); though myrrhated and absinthiated liquors were employed of old for their recognized stupefactive powers. Vide chap. xxii.