As one of the most ancient 'culture plants' Poppies have been a companion to humanity since its infancy during the upper Neolithic period. According to archaeological studies, remains of Poppies have been found in prehistoric settlements in central Europe, Switzerland, Southern Germany and Southern England which date to at least 4000 BC. Scholars argue among themselves about the origin of this mysterious and strikingly beautiful magical herb. Some sources claim Asia as its original habitat, others the eastern Mediterranean region. Recent research seems to point at central and southern Europe as its original home, from where it is believed to have spread south to Egypt, east to India, Pakistan and China and north to England. Why Neolithic farmers should have cultivated a plant such as Poppy is also a point of argument. Some scientists have proposed the theory that it was grown for its edible seeds and the oil that could be pressed from them for use as a cooking oil as well as for lamp fuel. Whilst these uses may well have played a role, there are many other plants that could have been used for these purposes which would have been easier to process. It is more likely that our ancestors held Poppy in special regard for its psychotropic powers which may well have played a significant role within a ceremonial or ritual context.
Naturally it is difficult for Ethnoarchaeologists to substantiate their theories on prehistoric plant uses since organic matter has a habit of decomposing and conditions rarely allow for such substances to survive to the present day and age. Knowledge pertaining to the uses of plants was passed down through the generations as an oral tradition for thousands of years before written language was even invented. However, based on what we know about the roles that psychoactive plants play in primitive societies even today, it is more than likely that our ancestors were not ignorant of the hidden powers of Poppy. Furthermore, it is likely that knowledge regarding such 'magical' plants, which allowed humans to transcend the world of mundane concerns and to commune with the Gods, were particularly sacred and not the subject of everyday breakfast conversations. Thus, the clues are indeed vague. We have to look at ancient mythologies and imagery to trace the hidden meaning and significance of sacred plants, which in turn may give some hints to yet more ancient traditional knowledge.
In ancient Greece Poppies were considered sacred to Hypnos, the God of sleep. Ancient imagery often depicts Hypnos with Poppy heads in his hands and adorning his head. The doorway to his drowsy realm was also surrounded with Poppies. He brought prophetic dreams and soothed the pain of those suffering from emotional agony. The Romans knew this God as Somnus, a name which still echoes in Poppy's Latin name 'Papaver somniferum' - somnus ferre - bringer of sleep. But Poppy was also associated with Thanatos, or Hades the Lord of Dead and of eternal sleep, for it can also bring death. Such myths reveal Poppy as a plant of the Underworld, associated with both temporal and eternal sleep .
Indeed, some archaeological finds at ancient burial sites confirm Poppy's status as a sacred plant that was intimately connected with the rites of passage to the Underworld. At a site, known as 'Cueva de los Murciélagos' (Bat Cave) situated near Albuñol, (Granada) in Southern Spain evidence for this hypothesis has been discovered. The human remains found there were accompanied by bags of Esparto grass (Stipa tenacissima), containing numerous Poppy seed capsules. Subsequent carbon dating established the date of the burial at around 4200 BC. Likewise, a vase containing Opium remains has been discovered at the tomb of Kha at Deir el-Medîna in Egypt, though this is thought to be of a more recent age. (3000+ years old)
In the days of Antiquity Poppy was not just valued for its magical properties, its medicinal powers, particularly evident in the potent latex, were no secret. It was used as a sedative and painkiller, to calm hysterics, lighten melancholy and heal colic, diarrhoea and persistent spasmodic coughs. It was also considered to be a powerful Aphrodisiac. Dioscurides describes the process of obtaining the latex (raw Opium), which he calls 'opion' in detail:
In ancient Greece Poppies were sacred to Demeter, the Earth-Goddess who taught wo/mankind the art of wheat and barley cultivation. Her myth is a sad story, for her only daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, the Lord of the Underworld. One day, whilst out in the fields picking flowers and playing with her friends a deep chasm suddenly opened up in front of her and out came Hades. With one big swoop he grabbed the screaming girl and as quickly as he had appeared, vanished again into the abyss. Nobody had seen him commit this crime, for he was wearing his cap of invisibility. Demeter had heard her daughter's cry and as swiftly as a bird went off to find her - but in vain. Persephone had vanished and no one would tell Demeter whence she had gone. All over the surface of the Earth she searched for her lost daughter, neither eating, nor drinking as she went. Finally Helios and Hecate took pity on her and told her the truth. The story goes on to tell how Demeter, learning that Zeus had consented to Hades crime, swore never to set foot on mount Olympus again. Filled with rage and grief she refused to eat or drink or wash herself. She took refuge with some mortals, lived with them and suckled a mortal child, who grew to be 'almost' like the Gods themselves, but that is another story and shall be told another time... She taught her mysteries to the mortals and bid them to build a temple for her at Eleusis where they should perform her sacred rites each year at harvest time. And so it was done. But when she took leave from the mortals her heart was still full of grief for she was still without her daughter. For a whole year she let the Earth go barren until finally Zeus understood that he had to do something about the situation. He sent all the Gods to plead with Demeter, but to no avail. Finally he sent Mercury to make a deal with Hades to let Persephone return to the surface of the Earth and see her mother once again. But clever Hades secretly gave Persephone a seed of Pomegranate to eat before she left and thus ensured that she would return to him once a year.
During the long search for her abducted daughter Demeter was said to have found some relief from her pain by taking Poppy when she arrived at Mykon. Poppies are companion plants of wheat and barley, and the round-bellied capsules filled with seeds were regarded as a symbol of fertility. It is likely that Poppies also played an important role in Demeter's sacred rites at Eleusis. The mycologist Gordon Wasson proposes the hypothesis, that the active ingredient of the ritual brew given to the initiates at Eleusis was Ergot (Claviceps purpurea ), a psychotropic fungus that commonly grows on Barley. This hypothesis, though it has been much debated, is quite likely true.
The recipe for Kykeon was closely guarded, with the death penalty (or worse !) for profaning the Mysteries. Ergot is extremely difficult to dose correctly and would not necessarily have been reliable in giving the initiates such a blissful and ecstatic experience as it is often reported. With too large a dose, or if poorly prepared it can easily cause St. Anthony's Fire, a dreadful form of poisoning marked by convulsions, epileptic cramps and sometimes even loss of limbs due to foul blisters that literally rot the flesh away.
An aqueous extract of ergot infested barley would include the water soluble psychotropic alkaloids and exclude the non water soluble toxic alkaloids. (Opium is also soluble in water). The ergot from Paspalum spp (the source for industrial production of lysergic acid) contains only psychotropic alkaloids and not the toxic alkaloids, the same is probably true for Acremonium infested Lolium species (darnel or tares). - Ed.
Opium has been mentioned as a remedy against St. Anthony's fire, and it is highly likely that the sacred plant of Demeter was added to the ritual brew, both to prevent such cases of poisoning and to add a more peaceful and blissful dimension to the mystical experience of these sacred rites. Besides, the mysteries were a celebration of fertility and are said to have had a highly sexual content. Whilst Ergot can cause powerful visions and hallucinations, it is not generally known for its aphrodisiac properties. Poppy on the other hand had a well known reputation as a potent aphrodisiac and was also a symbol of fertility. Moreover, as has been demonstrated above, it was also connected to the Gods of the Underworld and thus combined all the aspects of Demeter's mysteries within itself.
Ergine (LA-111) a water soluble psychotropic alkaloid that can easily be extracted from Turbina corymbosa, Claviceps paspali (ergot of Paspalum), and Acremonium loliae (ergot of Lolium) can be considered an aphrodisiac in a similar manner to psilocybine and psilocine (Montezuma's aphrodisiac chocolate recipe). Opiates are certainly considered an aphrodisiac for women - however, like alcohol, they could be a male contraceptive - depending on the dose! - Ed.
It is interesting to note that after the 1st World War Poppies became a symbol of remembrance rather than forgetfulness. To this day it is customary in England to wear a paper Poppy each year on the 11th of November as a symbol of remembrance for the soldiers who died in Flanders. It is said that in the year after the war, when people first returned to the site of the awful battles all they saw were fields and fields of scarlet red Poppies, which reminded them of the blood that had been shed there. Whether these Poppies were Corn Poppies (Papaver rhoeas - common name Flanders Poppy) or Opium-Poppies is not entirely certain - but it is significant that since the rise of the Peace movement in England the habit of wearing a white paper Poppy as a symbol of peace and forgiveness has also become quite popular. Remembering Demeter's pain at the loss of her daughter we can be sure that partaking of the Poppy plant did not make her forget her pain, but simply eased it - perhaps that is the deeper meaning of the Poppies association with the killing fields of Flanders - we remember the dead, not to stir up the pain, but to ease it through forgiveness.
Another myth relates how Poppies had sprung from the tears of Aphrodite when she mourned for her beloved Adonis. Cyprus, the birthplace of Aphrodite, was one of the major regions of Poppy cultivation and it is thought that it was from here that Opium was first exported to Egypt. Numerous vases (known as Cypriote Base Ring I jugs) that resemble an upside down Poppy capsule have been found in Tell el-Amarna. Upon examination these vases, stemming from the period of the 18th Dynasty in Egypt, were shown to contain remains of Opium. It is hard to tell whether the contents of these juglets had been used for ritual or recreational purposes, - or both. It is known however, that in Egypt too, Opium had been used for its powerful aphrodisiac properties. Even Queen Cleopatra was apparently familiar with its uses. Her enchanting potion is thought to have been a combination of palm-wine, Opium and some type of nightshade (Mandrake?).
In Europe the use of Opium was widely spread since ancient times, but it was Andromachos' and his invention of Theriak which made its healing powers available on every market place. Theriak was a potion consisting of about sixty different substances which swiftly became one of the most commonly used panaceas throughout the old world. Paracelsus eventually simplified the recipe though it maintained the same popular appeal. The English Doctor Thomas Sydenham, developed yet another version of the elixir which became known as Laudanum. Apart from Opium it also contained Saffron, Cinnamon and Cloves, all macerated in spanish wine. The first serious cases of Opium addiction in the West developed on account of excessive use of Laudanum. This was due to the fact that Laudanum was often over-prescribed for children, which resulted in increased resistance to the drug in adulthood.
Throughout the Middle Ages Poppy not only gained popularity due to its medicinal powers but it also acquired quite a reputation in connection with folkloristic magic. It's associations with the goddess Aphrodite made Poppy a herb of choice for many love charms and potions and it was considered most effective as a divinatory herb with regard to matters of the heart. For example, one could determine from which direction one's true love would appear by tossing a piece of Poppy cake out of the door and sending a dog out to fetch it. From whence the dog would reappear provided the answer to the question. One could also use Poppies to obtain prophetic dreams about one's future husband - on St. Andrews night maidens would scatter Poppy seeds behind them to dream about their hoped for husbands. Alternatively one could empty the seed capsule and write a question of the heart onto a piece of paper, put this into the seed pod and place it underneath the pillow. The answer to one's question would be revealed in a dream.
As mentioned above, the plentiful seeds concealed in the round-bellied Poppy seed capsule had long been regarded as a symbol of fertility and prosperity. A traditional New Year's Eve custom was to prepare sweet-breads made with Poppy seeds as a magical food. Partaking of such bread was thought to convey the magical powers of the plant and thus bless the recipients with abundance for the new year. Alternatively one could make use of these properties by making a necklace with gilded Poppy heads, which could be worn as a charm. On the other hand, Poppy seeds hidden in the shoes of a bride was believed to make her infertile.
It was probably Poppy's association with the Gods of the Underworld that gave rise to a charm for invisibility. After all, Hades' had worn a cap that rendered him invisible when he abducted Persephone. It has been proposed that his cap was an allusion to this magical herb. At any rate, an invisibility potion could be prepared by steeping Poppy seeds in wine for 15 days. Thereafter a glassful of the brew should be taken for five consecutive days whilst fasting. This was said to make the person invisible at will.
Poppy seeds were also considered a magical aid against Daemons. If one was unfortunate enough to be pursued by such nasty creatures one could throw a handful of seeds in their path. This would distract the daemons from their aim as they would feel compelled to stop and count the seeds. This charm was even believed to ward off vampires who were sometimes thought to violate fresh graves. If Poppy seeds were put into the coffin with the dead person's body any preying vampires also lost their purpose for the same reason.
The Doctrine of Signatures consigned Poppy as a herb of Saturn and deemed its qualities, either cold and moist as in the case of white Poppies, or cool and dry for black Poppies. Thus they were regarded as an antidote for St. Anthony's fire (antipathetic), and as a remedy for melancholy (sympathetic). Of course Poppy was also associated with various witches brews and it has been speculated that Opium was one of the integral parts of the infamous Witche's Flying Ointment. Since no authentic written recipe for this salve exists the hypothesis is hard to verify. However, taking into account the tales of people who claimed to have used the ointment and considering the properties of Opium, it is more than likely that it was indeed an important ingredient. Other magical uses associated with witchcraft and magic during the Middle Ages include the use of Poppy leaves and petals, as well as raw Opium as an incense ingredient for rituals of divination as well as using Poppy potions in connection with orgiastic rites and sex magic.
Given such associations, it is perhaps surprising that Poppies even became absorbed into Christian symbolism. However, this is a typical development - many magically potent herbs that had long been associated with the old Gods eventually were 'christianized' by associating them with Christian Saints and symbols. Thus, the red petals of the Poppy and the cross-formation at the base of the petals were regarded as a symbol of the Passion and the Eucharists saw a symbol of the savior in the combination of Wheat and Poppies - the wheat representing the body of Christ, whilst the red petals of the Poppies were seen as his blood.
Meanwhile, the Arabs had spread Poppies and the knowledge of its uses in the East during their Asian crusades. Since the 11th century it was cultivated in many parts of Asia. As in Europe, they were much appreciated for their medicinal usefulness, though the Orientals seemed to be particularly fond of Opium's aphrodisiac effect. In India Poppies naturally became associated with Shiva, the shaman god of ecstasy and inner vision. Sadhus sometimes mixed the leaves with those of Shiva's other sacred plants, Cannabis and Datura. Opium is also thought to have played an important role as ritual drug in the practice of Tantra. It was soon absorbed into the Ajurvedic healing system and Indian doctors praised the aphrodisiac properties of the herb. The part of the Ayurveda that deals with potions and remedies for the reproductive system declares Opium as an effective tonic that could prolong erection and delay ejaculation whilst enhancing sensual pleasure. The aphrodisiac effect of Opium is said to be stronger when it is eaten rather than smoked. A certain preparation known as 'Oriental Happiness Pills', gained some fame in this respect. Sometimes known as 'Nepenthe', these pills were said to contain powdered tops of Cannabis, Opium, Areca-nut, sugar and spices.[Rätsch]
The knowledge pertaining to Poppy and its uses spread from India to China along the ancient trading routes. The Chinese also delighted in the aphrodisiac properties of the plant and some writers claim that China became one of the most fruitful nations on Earth due to its appetite for Opium. For several centuries the Chinese enjoyed Opium, either by eating it pure or mixing it with other herbs and substances also known for their aphrodisiac properties (e.g. Ginseng). Opium pressed into fish-shapes was sold as 'Ying-tsu-su' literally meaning 'fish and water are coming together' - an obvious allusion to sexual intercourse. [Rätsch] The habit of smoking Opium only arose in the 17th century and since then Opium dens have spread all over China. Their popularity may be compared to that of bars in the modern day western world.
Opium consumption became such a popular pass-time in China that it lead to serious social problems. Before very long, China began to consume more Opium than it could cultivate - a situation that was promptly exploited by the British. Previously Britain had been in debt to China since it imported more silk and spices than what it could trade for. Britain quickly realized the potential for exploitation with regard to China's Opium consumption. To supply China's growing need the British East-India Company soon planted massive Poppy plantations in Bengal. The Emperor of China, realizing the potential for financial and human devastation, tried in vain to restrict the flood of imports - but it was too late. The only result was an incredibly lucrative black market business. The British knew how to bribe the Chinese officials and thus ensure their co-operation - even in the face of death penalties threatened by the Chinese Government. The turnover of Opium on the black-market rose from 12000kg in 1729 to 2400000kg in 1835! Eventually China realized that it was fighting a loosing battle and in order to pay off its huge debt conceded to make deals with Britain. The trade deficit was supposed to be paid with tea exports to Britain. However, in 1838, Chinese officials unexpectedly destroyed 20 000 boxes of Opium which had been stored in Hong Kong, one of the most significant trading ports. This incidence caused the first so-called 'Opium-war'. After 2 years of fighting, China surrendered and accepted the demands of the British - a hefty fine as compensation for the boxes that had been dumped into the sea, as well as Amoy and Hong Kong as a booty for Britain. A further incident in 1856 caused yet more fighting and Britain, this time supported by France, invaded China. This war resulted in further trade benefits for the west and lifting of the restrictions on Opium trade. Due to a forced drug dependency China was firmly in the grip of the west. By 1885 the import of Opium had reached quite astronomical proportions - 180000 boxes of 60 kg each! The number of addicts still rose - by 1878 it was estimated at 20 Million people(!) - a situation that did not change until it was eventually 'allowed' to counteract the drug abuse in 1906.
These dark times in the history of Opium also cast their shadow on the western world. However, in the west the numbers of actual Opium users remained relatively small. These were mainly working class people who inadvertently became addicted to Opium containing medicine. At one stage Opium smoking became popular among a small number of people associated with the Avant Garde who were originally attracted to the exotic romanticism surrounding the drug. This fashion only lasted a few years but despite its short duration gave rise to several great works of literature. Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Thomas de Quincey, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Cocteau are all said to have been inspired by the Poppy- muse. The fad soon passed - yet a much more dangerous development was already on its way. Scientific advances had made it possible to isolate and extract morphine, the most potent alkaloid present in raw Opium . This substance was many times stronger - and far more addictive than Opium. At first its wondrous properties were much praised and it certainly proved its medicinal usefulness during the war of 1870 when it was much employed as an extremely powerful painkiller. The realization that many of the soldiers as well as other sick and suffering people were turning into addicts, came soon - but not soon enough.
Morphine use, and subsequent addiction spread through all layers of society. There were no official laws aimed at curbing the use of the drug. Whilst the users may have been suffering from their addiction, the habit as such was not considered socially unacceptable. This meant that their condition of dependency did not seriously affect the social life of the user, so long as they could obtain the drug on a regular basis. It was a tolerated dysfunction, perhaps comparable to modern day views on nicotine addiction. However, far worse grief was soon to come... - with the discovery of a still more powerful substance that, in allusion to its 'heroic action', became known as Heroin.
Heroin, a derivative of morphine turned out to exceed morphine's analgesic powers by several times.. It even appeared to cure morphine addicts from their habit if they used the new drug instead, - or so it was thought. Alas, Heroin's moment of glory was short-lived indeed before it's inherent dangers were realized and it's deadly nature became obvious. Unfortunately for the morphine addicts though, - one addiction had merely been replaced by another, far more dangerous and deadly one. The use of Heroin spread dramatically, first in America and later also to Europe. It is interesting to note that whilst America was never a major Opium producer, it still soon became the biggest consumer of the deadly derivative, whereas in many countries where Opium had a long history of use heroin never played a significant role.
Although Opium Poppy was never really cultivated in the New World and is now illegal to grow, an indigenous Poppy relation with lesser activity does in fact have a history of indigenous use among some of the Native American tribes, especially in the Southwestern regions of the U.S. and in parts of Central America. This species, known as 'Prickly Poppy' (Argemone mexicana) has definite Poppy features, though its leaves and overall appearance is much more prickly.
The dried leaves of this plant may have been smoked as an aphrodisiac among the Indians, and may well still be used in that way. The Aztecs, not unlike the ancient Greeks, apparently also associated the plant with their Underworld, and used it for healing and ceremonial purposes.
Whatever the magical and medicinal blessing of the Poppy may be, the dark side of its potent latex must not be underestimated. Whether in the from of Opium, Morphine or Heroin, opiates are addictive, and in that respect the difference between them is only a matter of degree. These days it is often argued that the problem of addicition is more a problem of an addictive personality structure, rather than the object of addiction. While this is no doubt true to a certain degree, it must be said that in a society suffering from a multitude of psychological dysfunctions addictive personalities have practically become the norm. Opium as such may not be much more addictive than Nicotine, perhaps even less so, as far as physcial addicition is concerned, but anybody who has ever been addicted to Nicotine knows how difficult it is to break the habit - even such non-gratifying one. How much more difficult to break a habit so seductive as that of Opium use!
The history of Poppy and the cultural uses of Opium and its derivatives aptly illustrate and reflect the psychological development of our civilization. Once upon a time respected and loved as a potent gift of the gods which could induce visions of divine bliss, it has now fallen from grace. Not that its inherent qualities have changed, but cultural attitudes and uses have profaned the sacred gift. In an effort to improve on nature's gift by exploiting and the power of one of its most potent plants, a poison has been created that turns its users into victims and takes them to the gates of hell. Removed from the sacred sphere where Opium (in its unrefined state) may have been used occasionally as a sacrament, the modern habit of using refined opiates recreationally, opens the doors for shameless exploitation and oppression, which furthermore has developed into a several million dollar black-market industry. The story of Poppy has much to teach us - not just about the herb itself, but more so about ourselves...
(A million questions could and should be raised at this point - but since this is an essay about the cultural uses of Poppy and not on the sociology of drug abuse, its instigators and victims, I shall leave it up to you, dear reader, to ask those questions and to find your own answers.)
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