Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, is an annual cultivar that grows from three to five feet tall and has white-to-pink, red, or purple flowers. The opium poppy is one of the most significant plants in history, having had considerable impact on the human condition and quality of life; both for good and bad.
Although it is often believed to be first cultivated in Asia, the opium poppy’s home actually lies in northern Italy, southern Germany and Switzerland, dating back at least 4,000 years as evidenced by fossil remains of poppy pods found in Neolithic Swiss lake dwellings. There are reports that the plant is also native to southern France, Spain, and northwestern Africa. Opium was said to be consumed by the ancient Egyptians, as well as the Greeks.
The opium poppy is one of the most important medicinal plants in the history of pharmaceuticals. It contains a latex - loaded with up to fifty strong alkaloids - which was known in ancient times as “the juice of the plant of forgetting” and as “tears of the moon.” Regarded as the nourishment of divining dragons and as a sleeping and dreaming agent, the Minoan culture used opium to induce ecstatic states for religious ceremonies. The shaman would give oracles and divine the future while under the influence of opium. According to Theocritus, the poppy grew from the tears that Aphrodite shed as she mourned her youthful lover Adonis, hence another of its earliest names “tears of Aphrodite.”
It is likely that the psychological effects of opium may have been known to the ancient Sumerians, based on early documentation of a Sumerian tablet (3000 B.C.E.) that described a “plant of happiness,” through the use of their symbols for poppies: hul = "joy" and gil = “plant.” The first literary notes of the opium poppy occurred in Homer’s Illiad and The Odyssey (850 B.C.). Hippocrates (460-357 B.C.) prescribed drinking the juice of the white poppy mixed with the seed of nettle.
Ancient peoples considered this a sacred medicinal plant and a source of powerful shamanic potions. The opium poppy was a magical ritual plant among the Germanic tribes. They reportedly planted poppies in fields that were known as odâinsackr and revered as convalescent sites where healing miracles would take place.
Papaver somniferum was considered sacred to the Germanic god Lollus. The name Lollus suggests the German word lallen (“slur”). It is surmised that Lollus, who was an oracular god known to “speak in tongues,” could have actually been slurring from being inebriated on opium. Speaking in tongues, also known as glossalalia, is a type of unconscious flow of speech that has been known since ancient times and appears both in shamanic rituals and religious cults.
The Great Mother goddess Cybele was depicted holding poppy capsules in her hand, as was Hypnos, the god of sleep and the “resolver of cares.” Hermes (or Mercury) carried the plant in his left hand. Thanatos, or Death, was decorated with garlands of poppies, while Nyx, the goddess of the night, was portrayed with poppies wrapped around her temples. Poppy seeds were an important ritual smoke offering to Hypnos, the god of sleep, at the Orphic mysteries, a cult of Dionysus.
Pliny the Elder, the ancient Roman author and naturalist, warned of the dangers of opium; however, its use as a medicine created addicts, such as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the great Arabic physician Avicenna died of an unintentional overdose of opium in wine. Later addicts included Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dumas, Edgar Allen Poe, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. So feared was addiction that France prohibited the sale of opium in the mid-1700s.
Its latex is collected by piercing the immature seed pod with a knife and then scraping off the coagulated latex into a container. When this powerful latex is exposed to air, it coalesces into the dark brown, dry, sticky mass known as opium, derived from the Greek word opos, which means “plant juice.”
Papaver somniferum was documented in China dating back to the fourth century A.D., when famed Chinese physician and surgeon Hua To used preparations of opium with Cannabis indica to help sedate patients before undergoing surgical procedures. By the fifteenth century, opium was used in great quantities in Beijing and celebrated as the best of all aphrodisiacs.
Women in Oriental harems used opium in a drawn-out ritualistic fashion. They would spend their evenings ingesting opium pills and inhaling hookahs filled with opium smoking mixtures, dreaming of far-off worlds beyond their lattice-windowed “jails.” They preferred eating opium because the effects lasted longer and their dreams would linger until the sunrise. They would partake so much opium that it would produce amnesia; night after night they followed this ritual of induced chronic insomnia followed by amnesia. Soon they would forget their faraway homes and families, and their lives before the harem.
Widespread opium use began in China with the introduction of the tobacco trade by the Dutch in the 17th century. The Chinese mixed opium with tobacco and would smoke the mixture in long-stemmed pipes. This practice was adopted throughout the region and resulted in increased opium smoking, both with and without tobacco. By the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company controlled the prime poppy growing regions and dominated the Asian opium trade.
Morphine was first isolated from opium in 1805 by the German pharmacist Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner, who named the bitter white crystalline alkaloid morphium after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. We know it today as morphine.
By the late 1800s, opium was being heavily used in China as a recreational drug. The Imperial court banned its use and importation but large quantities were still being smuggled into China by the British. The Emperor petitioned Queen Victoria for help but was ignored. In reaction, the English initiated the Opium War of 1840-1842 purely from economic motives, which led to far-reaching changes in world politics and the shape of international trade. The British required that the opium trade be allowed to continue. In addition, the Chinese were forced to pay a large settlement and cede Hong Kong to the British Empire.
By the 1850s, pure alkaloids, rather than the earlier crude opium preparations, were being commonly prescribed for the relief of aches and pains, coughs, and diarrhea. This period also saw the invention and introduction of the hypodermic syringe. Opium contains morphine, codeine, noscapine, papaverine, and thebaine. All but thebaine are used clinically as analgesics to reduce pain without a loss of consciousness. Thebaine is without analgesic effect but is of great pharmaceutical value due to its use in the production of semisynthetic opioid morphine analogues such as oxycodone, dihydromorphenone and hydrocodone.