The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Papaver somniferum Linnaeus


Opium Poppy




Papaveraceae (Poppy Family)

Forms and Subspecies


Over the course of time, numerous sorts, forms, varieties, and subspecies have been described for this highly variable plant. The most important are:


Papaver somniferum var. album DC. (white blooms)

Papaver somniferum var. apodocarpum Huss. (acaulescent seed capsule)

Papaver somniferum var. glabra (produces an especially high-quality opium; Macmillan 1991, 417*)

Papaver somniferum var. hortense Huss. (flat stigmal disk)

Papaver somniferum var. nigrum DC.

Papaver somniferum ssp. setigerum (DC.) Corbière (this may be the wild form; cf. Grey-Wilson 1995, 172*; Macmillan 1991, 417*; Zander 1994, 417)

Papaver somniferum ssp. somniferum


An unusual form, called hens and chicks, has the capsule surrounded by small secondary capsules (Grey-Wilson 1995, 173*). In addition, a number of cultivars have been produced as ornamentals, e.g., ‘Black Peony’, ‘Golden Peony’, ‘Pink Chiffon’, ‘White Cloud’, et cetera (Grey-Wilson 1995, 172*).

Papaver somniferum var. glaucum (Boiss. et Hausskn.) O. Kuntze is now regarded as a separate species: Papaver glaucum Boiss. et Hausskn. (the so-called tulip poppy) (Zander 1994, 416*).



Papaver glaucum Boiss. et Hausskn.

Papaver nigrum DC.

Papaver officinale Gmel.

Papaver setigerum DC.

Folk Names


Adormidera, aguna (Lithuanian), amapola, amapola de opio, biligasgase (Kannada), black poppy, bloed-zuipers-bloem (Flanders), calocatanos (Gallic), feldmohn, garden poppy, gartenmohn, guia-guiña (Zapotec), kasa-kasa (Tamil), kashakhasa (Malayam), kavl-a-kûknâr (Persian), kishkâsh (Arabic/Yemen), koknâr (Persian), koquenar, madi-huada (Mapuche, “lovely gourd”), magan, magen, mâgen, mâgenkraut, magesamo, maggona (Estonian), maggons (Latvian), mago, magsat, magsomkraut, mâhan, mahonnus (Vulgar Latin), mahunus, mak (Slavic), manus, mechones, meconium, mekon, miconium, mohn, namtilla (ancient Assyrian, “plant of life”), nocuana-bizuono-huseachoga-becala (Zapotec), oehlmagen, oehlsaamen, opium poppy, papaver (Latin), papâver, papaver album, papavero indiano (Italian), papavero somnolente, papœg, papula, pavot des jardins, pavot somnifère, popig, popœg (Anglo-Saxon), poppy, post (Hindi), pôst-a-kûknâr (Afghani), posto (Bengali), schlafmohn, schwarzer magsaamen, slaapbol (Dutch), white poppy, ying su ke (Chinese)


This early illustration of the white-blooming variety of the opium poppy is botanically accurate. (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633)


Folk Names for Opium


Affion (Arabic), affium, afin (Kannada), afion, afu-yung (Chinese), afyun (Arabic), ahiphena, amapola (Spanish), amfion (Portuguese), amphion, amsion, aphenam (Sanskrit, “foamless”), aphim (Hindi), aphu (Marathi), arfiun, chandu, maslach (Turkish), meconium, meseri, milk of poppies, misri (Egyptian), nagaphena, O, offion, ofium, opio (Latin), opion (Greek), opium, poust, tschandu, tschibuk



The opium poppy is known only as a cultivar. Although it is often thought that the plant was first cultivated in Asia, its home actually lies in central and/or southern Europe (Grey-Wilson 1995, 169*). Poppy was being cultivated in northern Italy, Switzerland, and southern Germany as early as the Neolithic period. It probably was used both as a source of food and as an inebriating plant: “[T]he inebriating and sedative effects of the seeds and the oil obtained from them may not have escaped the lake dwellers. In any case, both the type of use and the frequency of its occurrence and the quantities of poppy seeds that have been found demonstrate that we are looking at an important cultivar of the lake dwellers” (Hoops 1973, 233; cf. Hartwich 1899). Although it has not yet been possible to determine exactly when humans began growing poppies in the southern and northern Germanic territories, the practice certainly dates to a very early time. The Germanic peoples planted poppies (Proto-Germanic magan) in poppy or maganfields that were known as odâinsackr and were regarded as convalescent sites at which Odin/Wotan would effect healing miracles.273

The poppy is one of the most important medicinal plants in the history of pharmaceuticals. It contains a latex—the “juice of the plant of forgetting” (Ovid)—known in ancient times by such names as tears of the moon and tears of Aphrodite. When the latex is exposed to air, it coagulates into a brown mass known as raw opium or simply opium. The methods for obtaining opium were discovered not in Southeast Asia—as is so often assumed—but in Stone Age central Europe, in the area of Lake Constance or in Provence (Hartwich 1899; Seefelder 1996, 11).

The earliest mention of the poppy, however, is on a Sumerian tablet (ca. 3000 B.C.E.), where it is described as the “plant of happiness.” The first literary mention is in Homer’s Iliad (cf. nepenthes). Our word opium is derived from the Greek opion, “latex [of the poppy],” which in turn is derived from opos, “plant juice.” Roman reports demonstrate that the Gauls were well aware of the opium poppy and its properties (Höfler 1990, 93*). Walahfried Strabo (809–849), in his hexa-metric Hortulus, praised the psychoactive effects of the German opium poppy as “sacred to Ceres” (Schmitz 1981, 380; Stoffler 1978, 91). The Vikings are known to have used opium for medicinal purposes, and probably also as an inebriant (Robinson 1994, 547*).

At the present time, we still do not know when the Egyptians first began to use opium. Some authors have conjectured that the poppy was already known and being used in the time of the Old Kingdom, while other authors have suggested that the Egyptians did not become acquainted with and come to appreciate the plant and its opium until the time of the New Kingdom or even late antiquity (Bisset et al. 1994; Merrillees 1962).

In China, opium has been documented as far back as the third century. The Chinese physician Hua To used narcotics of opium and Cannabis indica in surgical procedures (Geddes 1976, 201). The Arab scholar Avicenna (= Abu Ali al-Hosein ben Abdallah Ibn Sina, 980–1036), who is considered to be the most important physician of the Middle Ages, is known as the “father of sleep” because he introduced the use of opium into Islamic medicine (Seefelder 1996, 52ff.).

In fifteenth-century Beijing, opium was celebrated as the best of all aphrodisiacs and apparently was used in great quantities (Duke 1973, 393). In Siam (Thailand), opium was highly regarded by the kings of Ayutthaya since at least the fourteenth century. At that time, production was probably already in the hands of the mountain tribes, who still number among its most important producers (Geddes 1976, 208). During the Middle Ages, opium was listed in all European pharmacopoeias (Schneider 1974, 3:20*), and opium preparations were used as anesthesias (cf. soporific sponge).

In 1670, the English physician Thomas Sydenham invented laudanum, a tincture of opium, saffron (Crocus sativus), cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), powdered cloves (Syzygium aromaticum), and Spanish wine that was to have a far-reaching impact. Until the nineteenth century, laudanum was one of the most effective of all universal remedies and was also drunk for its inebriating effects.

In the seventeenth century, opium was one of the most important trade articles of the Dutch East India Company (Meister 1677, 93*). The Württemberg pharmacopoeia of 1741 characterized opium (= meconium thebaicum) as a “divine medicine” (Schneider 1974, 3:21*). Goethe described it as the “quintessence of the sweet slumber juices” (Faust 1). Morphine, isolated from opium by the German pharmacist Sertürner (1805), was the first pure active plant substance ever to be extracted and made available; the event revolutionized the pharmaceutical industry.

Opium became famous through the works of many nineteenth-century authors. Thomas de Quincy (1785–1859) saw in opium a manna, an ambrosia, a panacea, a universal remedy, a “mysterious balm to fulfill all human wishes” (De Quincey 1985, 183).

The Opium War of 1840–1842, which the English initiated purely from economic motives, led to far-reaching changes in world politics and the shape of international trade (Behr 1980; cf. Geddes 1976, 202f.; Solomon 1978). In the 1920s, the use of opium took on social forms that appeared threatening to the ruling class and ultimately led to global prohibition (Johnson 1981; Kohn 1992*). Today, opium is important primarily as the starting point for the illegal production of heroin.



This cultivar has spread into all regions of the world. Large areas of cultivation—either for the pharmaceutical industry or for illegal heroin production—are found in the Golden Triangle, northern Thailand, central Asia, Turkey, Mexico, Tasmania, and Austria.

In Switzerland, the opium poppy now occurs as a wild or feral plant (Lauber and Wagner 1996, 144*).


Just as the flowers of Papaver somniferum can vary in color and size, the seeds also appear in a variety of colors. (Photograph: Karl-Christian Lyncker)




The plant is easily propagated from seeds, which should be broadcast in spring. Some of the seeds will germinate after ten to fifteen days. The seedlings do not like to be transplanted. Once poppies have appeared in the garden, it is relatively certain that they will always reappear, for the plant sows itself quite readily. It also can become wild and begin to appear in neighboring gardens. When harvesting the capsules, care should be taken to leave the heads of some of the plants untouched so that they can ripen and produce seeds for the following year. Poppies will also spread if the dried plants are composted, as the seeds will be distributed with the compost.

Poppies thrive best in warmer soils that are rich in nutrients, contain a great deal of humus, and are well tended. The plant requires a great deal of lime and consequently prefers lime-rich soils (Heeger and Poethke 1947, 236). For more on commercial methods of cultivation, see Griffith (1993).



This annual plant possesses a distinct taproot, from which the perpendicular, simple or only slightly branching stem (as tall as 175 cm) develops. The gray-blue or, more rarely, greenish leaves are ovate-oblong with a more or less serrated margin or irregular lobes. The long flower stalk, which can be either hairless or only slightly pileous, bears a single flower with four petals that can vary in color (white, pink, violet, bluish, purple, light red, luminous red, dark red, almost black). The pistil itself already bears a resemblance to the fruit capsule. The smooth, round, capsule-shaped fruit has a corona and ranges in size from 2 to 6 cm, depending upon the location, sort, variety, and subspecies. It can be rather slender in appearance or very obese-gibbous. One capsule may contain up to two thousand of the tiny, kidney-shaped seeds. The seeds can be creamy yellow, brown, blue-green, or black in color. In central Europe, the plant flowers in June and July. The fruits are mature by August at the latest. A white, milky sap (latex) flows throughout the plant.

The opium poppy is easily confused with the tulip poppy, Papaver glaucum Boiss. et Hausskn. [syn. Papaver somniferum var. glaucum (Boiss. et Hausskn.) O. Kuntze], which does not contain any psychoactive alkaloids. It is also occasionally confused with the Oriental poppy (see Papaver spp.).


The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is a popular ornamental.



A dark violet–blooming variety of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum var. nigrum).


Psychoactive Material


—Fruit capsules (fructus papaveris immaturi, capita papaveris immaturi, pericarpium papa-veris, opium capsules, poppy heads)

—Opium (latex)

—Seeds (semen papaveris, poppy seeds)

—Leaves (folia papaveris, poppy leaves)


Preparation and Dosage



The leaves are collected during the period in which the fruit capsules are maturing, and are dried in the shade. They can be smoked alone or in smoking blends. A rather subtle opium effect will become apparent after consuming several joints. The dried leaves also can be brewed or boiled to make a tea.

The two most important products are the capsules (poppy heads) and the milky sap (latex). The plant contains the greatest amount of latex at the end of the flowering phase and while the fruit is first ripening. The latex level declines again as the capsule matures. For this reason, both the capsules and the latex are harvested shortly after the flowers have wilted. The capsules are broken off where they connect to the stalk and are used fresh or set out to dry. To dry, they should be spread out in a single layer (perhaps in the sun), as they may otherwise become moldy. The seeds continue to mature as the heads ripen and will be usable for sowing the following year (although they will not be as vital as those of a completely matured plant).


In Southeast Asia, the dried leaves of the kratom tree (Mitragyna sp.) are smoked as an opium substitute.



The arils of the Californian chestnut (Aesculus californicus) were formerly used as an opium substitute.


The latex, which oozes out of incisions made in the ripe capsules, dries to a brown mass known as raw opium. The highest yield can be obtained when


the capsule wall is cut with a small, special knife perpendicularly or obliquely to the longitudinal axis in the afternoon or evening hours between the 8th and the 10th day after the petals have fallen off. The white latex that emerges quickly hardens and turns brown. The sticky mass can be scraped off and collected the next day. Each capsule can yield app. 20–50 mg of raw opium. At least 20,000 poppy capsules are required to obtain 1 kg of opium. This corresponds to a poppy field approximately 400 m2 in size. (Wagner 1985, 162*)


The brown raw opium is then pressed into balls or flat cakes that will slowly dry into a hard, crumbly, solid mass. The balls or cakes should be stored in a dark, airtight location.

Opium is consumed in numerous ways: orally (opium eating, opium drinking), rectally (as a suppository or enema), smoked, or, when sterilized and dissolved in a saline solution, injected. Opium has a very bitter and characteristic taste (earthy-herby) that, once tasted, will not be forgotten.

Opium usually contains about 10% morphine (although concentrations can vary considerably). A moderate psychoactive dosage consists of the amount of opium that contains about 30 mg of morphine, i.e., around 300 mg (0.3 g) of opium.

In Rome, “slumber drinks,” whose main ingredient was opium, were very popular during the time of the Caesars (cf. soporific sponge). These drinks were also known as “pain-relieving catapotium.” One recipe that has come down to us lists the following ingredients: sili (presumably Chaerophyllum temulentum L.274), Acorus calamusruta (the seeds of either Ruta graveolens or Peganum harmala), castoreum (a glandular secretion of beavers), cinnamomum (cinnamon, probably Cinnamomum verum), “tears of the poppy” (opium), panax root (undeterminable), mandragora (mandrake root, Mandragora officinarum), dried “apples” (presumably mandrake fruits), Lolium temulentum, and peppercorns (Piper nigrum; cf. Piper spp.). The ingredients were chopped; raisin wine (cf. Vitis vinifera), a very sweet and heavy wine, was dripped in; and the entire concoction was then rubbed into a mass (Schmitz 1981, 380; Seefelder 1996, 36). This mixture is strongly reminiscent of the later, opium-laced soporific sponges as well as theriac.

In China, aphrodisiac “spring agents” were mixed from opium, ginseng roots (Panax ginseng), and musk.


A normal and a mutated form of the poppy capsule (Papaver somniferum), known as hens and chicks.


There are a number of methods for preparing an opium or poppy tea. The freshly harvested capsules can be boiled in water for fifteen to twenty minutes (until they look like well-cooked vegetables). After the liquid has cooled, strain and drink. A clearly effective dosage consists of two handfuls of capsules per person. The tea tastes like artichoke water. The pods can be boiled together with the juice of half a lemon (which will apparently have a favorable effect upon the solubility of the alkaloids). The dried capsules can be prepared in a similar manner. These, however, are best when ground (e.g., in a coffee grinder), thoroughly moistened with ample lemon juice, and then boiled in water for a short time. Allow to sit for ten to thirty minutes, then strain and drink. This preparation has a slightly unpleasant taste.

The fresh, not fully ripened capsules can be made into an opium and rum pot. A container that can be completely sealed is filled to the brim with opium capsules, after which rum is added until all the fruits are covered. To improve the bitter taste and to potentiate the effects, several female inflorescences of Cannabis indica or Cannabis sativa and flowers of Datura metel or another Datura species (Datura spp.) may be added. Seal the container and allow the mixture to sit in a relatively warm location for six months. Then pour off the liquid and vigorously squeeze the opium capsules in a strainer. As little as one shot glass of the liquid will induce clearly perceptible opium effects.

In ancient and late ancient times, opium was usually dissolved in wine (Vitis vinifera) for consumption (Krug 1993, 14*). Both the poppies and opium were also added to beer and mead. In his sixteenth-century herbal, Tabernaemontanus provided a recipe for barley mead whose active ingredient was magsaamen (= Papaver somniferum)! In India, a drink was made from wine, hemp seeds (Cannabis indica), poppy seeds, and opium (Duke 1973, 392). Opium is also an ingredient in bhang drinks (cf. Cannabis indica). In ancient India, opium was swallowed mixed with araq (alcohol).


Opium is obtained by making incisions in the unripe fruit capsules of the opium poppy.


“In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Praise be to Allah, whose might created opium and whose power allows it to heal diseases.”






(GELPKE 1995, 51*)


“The Indians [= from India/Indonesia] use this afion or amfion [= opium], before the Javanese and Malay, also the Malabarans, Ceylonese, as well as the Moors from the Arabic Coast, as well as the Persians and Turks, usually to increase their sensual pleasures.”






(1677, CH. 9, 29*)


Opium is one of the key ingredients in the Oriental joy pills. In the Orient, opium, either alone or mixed with such other substances as hashish (cf. Cannabis indica), spices, ambergris, musk, olibanum (cf. Boswellia sacra), and powdered pearls and precious stones (lapis lazuli, rubies, emeralds), was made into little balls—which were sometimes even gilded—that were swallowed or administered anally (Croutier 1989, 55). A ball 0.5 to 0.7 mm in diameter was the dosage for a rectal suppository, which was pushed as deeply into the rectum as possible. There it would quickly dissolve, so that the effects would become apparent after as little as ten to fifteen minutes. When administered in this manner, great care needed to be exercised with dosage.

The use of poppy capsules, poppy seeds, and opium as incense is very ancient. Opium and bitumen were inhaled as fumigants for treating toothaches (Schmitz 1981, 380). During the Middle Ages, a medicinal and psychoactive incense was made using opium, Mandragora officinarum, and arsenic (Seefelder 1996, 200).

In China, smoking opium (chandu) is produced by dissolving raw opium in water and bringing it to a boil. The resulting mass, which remains moist, is then allowed to ferment for several days or weeks. Fermentation is complete when an elastic, kneadable mass results. The chandu is now ready for use. When used alone, chandu is not “smoked” but, rather, heated in the bowl of a pipe and vaporized. The vapor is inhaled deeply (Hogshire 1994, 86). A dosage for an opium pipe is a ball of opium the size of a pea. For noticeable visionary effects, several pipes should be smoked at short intervals. The desired effects typically begin after the fifth pipe.


In twentieth-century Europe, it was believed that opium was a Chinese invention as well as a typical Chinese vice. This led to the image of the Chinese opium den, which continues to etch its way into many people’s minds. (Magazine illustration, Germany, ca. 1920.)


In China and Laos, opium was and is mixed with tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) for smoking (Geddes 1976, 202; Westermeyer 1982, 56). In Laos, the resinous remains (a condensate of the smoke or vapor) are scratched out of frequently used opium pipes, mixed with raw opium, and sold under the name khe dya-feen, “little opium tails” (Westermeyer 1982, 56). In Sumatra, opium is mixed with the leaves of Ficus hypogaea (von Reis Altschul 1975, 53*). In India, opium is smoked with hemp (Cannabis indica) or wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica). In Morocco, dried poppy capsules are smoked to induce sleep (Vries 1984*), and sometimes chicken dung is added to smoking opium to extend it (Bourke 1996, 161*).

Laudanum is a tincture that was originally made of opium, saffron (Crocus sativus), cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), clove powder (Syzygium aromaticum), and Spanish wine (cf. Vitis vinifera). It was later produced using just opium, saffron, and high-proof alcohol (70% ethanol) (opii tinctura). The pharmaceutically standardized tincture should contain about 1% morphine. The largest single therapeutic dose of opium tincture has been listed as 1.5 g (Wagner 1985, 165*).

Ritual Use


Opium was ingested in the Minoan culture to produce the ecstatic states needed for religious ceremonies (Kritikos 1960). On Crete, seeresses would give oracles and divine the future while under the influence of opium:


Around 1300–1250 B.C.E., in the land of the goddesses of health and healing [Crete], opium was inhaled or used as an incense; this is evidenced by an ash heap and a tube-shaped vase with an opening on the side that was found during excavations . . . of the divine idols of Gazi. . . . The same effects were expected from opium smoke as were later of tobacco smoke: cheerfulness, forgetfulness, or ecstasy. (Faure 1990, 123*)


Demeter, the earth goddess and mother of grain, who was adorned in wreaths of poppies, was originally venerated on Minoan Crete. From there, her cult spread to the other Greek islands and the mainland. One of her sacred plants was the poppy (cf. kykeon):


The inebriating plant can be demonstrated to have been everywhere in the Demeter cult, which was not limited to Eleusis, but was found throughout the entire settlement area of Magna Graecia, for example, in Enna on Sicily, upon whose sacred mountain a Demeter shrine was enthroned in which quite riotous initiation mysteries were also held. Similar rites and festivals were associated with the goddesses corresponding to Demeter, for example, Cybele in Asia Minor and later Ceres in Rome, as the influence of the Greek cults of the gods manifested themselves in the new centers of power. (Seefelder 1987, 19)


In the ancient world, the poppy was regarded as the nourishment of divining dragons, as a mysterious magical plant, and as a sleeping and dreaming agent. According to Theocritus, the poppy grew from the tears that Aphrodite shed as she mourned her youthful lover Adonis. The plant was sacred to many gods and goddesses: The Great Mother goddess Cybele was depicted holding poppy capsules in her hand, as was Hypnos, the god of sleep, the “resolver of cares.” Hermes/ Mercury carried the plant in his left hand (cf. moly). Thanatos, or Death, was decorated with garlands of poppies, while Nyx, the goddess of the night, was portrayed with poppies wrapped around her temples.

In late antiquity, poppy seeds were an important ritual smoke offering to Hypnos, the god of sleep, at the Orphic mysteries (a cult of Dionysos). The poppy also symbolized the prophetic dream. Opium appears to have been used in the sacred incense of Epidauros and in preparations for inducing the healing and vision-giving temple sleep. Poppies and opium occupied a firm place in the religious healing cult of ancient times (Krug 1993*).

The opium poppy was also a magical and ritual plant among the Germanic tribes. It was sacred to the southern Germanic (Frankish) god Lollus. Ludwig Bechstein described an amazingly long-lived pagan custom in Der Sagenschatz des Frankenlandes [Treasury of Tales from Franconia] (1842):


One can still read of a purported pagan idol whose type and name belongs to Franconia quite alone. This is Lollus, Löllus, or Lullus, whose special veneration is said to have taken place on the Main River (near the later city of Schweinfurt). The bronze image of the idol, in the form of a youth with curly golden hair, was found. From around his neck, a garland of magsamenköpfen (poppy seed capsules) hung down over his chest. The right hand of the image is reaching for its mouth and grasping the tongue with its thumb and index finger; in the left it holds a cup of wine, in which stand ears of grain. Apart from a loincloth, the body was completely naked. The image is said to have stood in a sacred, enclosed grove by the banks of the Main, and the people are said to have brought it offerings of grapes and ears of grain at certain times. (In Hasenfratz 1992, 109f.*)


The name Loll(us) suggests the German word lallen (“slur”). In other words, Lollus was an oracular god who, so to speak, was inebriated from opium and/or wine and slurred his words, perhaps “speaking in tongues.” The name Lull(us) is suggestive of lullaby, “to put to sleep.” After all, even in the present day one can sometimes hear of the rural custom of administering some poppy juice (raw opium) to restless or crying children to put them to sleep. Perhaps the image of Lollus represents an iconographic recipe: poppy heads (opium) are added to wine along with grain (perhaps ergot; cf. Claviceps purpurea). If a person partakes of this drink, then he or she will “speak in tongues.”275 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 in religious cults (Goodman 1974).

Opium played a role in the meditations and mystical rituals of several Islamic sects and secret societies (Sufis, dervish orders). Because of the secrecy of their traditions, however, no details are known about such activities (Seefelder 1996, 56).

Women in Oriental harems were quite fond of using opium and developed certain rituals in their dreary solitude:


The nights in the harem swelled with keyf (ultimate fulfillment) induced by opium pills and the drowsy peace of sated senses. The women indulged in drawn-out opium rituals, spending the evenings inhaling hookahs or eating opium, the “elixir of the night,” dreaming of faraway lands beyond the latticed windows. Mostly, they preferred eating rather than smoking opium because the effect lasted longer, dreams lingering until the rising of the sun. Amnesia followed; night after night of this induced chronic insomnia. The women began forgetting their distant homes, their lives before the seraglio. In order to remember, they told stories to one another. A thousand stories of faraway lands, stories told in the night. At first it was a thousand nights of stories, but even numbers brought bad luck, so they added one. (Croutier 1989, 56)


In Asia, opium was often used as an aphrodisiac in the erotic rituals of the Taoists and Tantrists (cf. Camellia sinensisOriental joy pills).

In Asia, opium is still used today by fakirs, yogis, sadhus, and shamans (cf. Aconitum feroxCannabis indica). The shamans of the Miao, a mountain tribe in northern Thailand, smoke opium before a healing ceremony in order to enter the trance that is needed to heal (Geddes 1976, 218f.). In this condition, they can travel to heaven and act on behalf of the ill person while they are there. In Thailand, opium is also used as an offering to sacred trees and rocks. According to a legend of the Akha tribe (Thailand), the first poppy plant arose from the heart of a beautiful woman who was killed because she had given herself in love to all the men (Anderson 1993, 117*).



A statue of Tammuz (sacred ram) standing on a plant that was found in Ur and dates to the time of the Sumerians may be one of the oldest poppy artifacts. The flowers depicted on the statue are strongly reminiscent of those of Papaver somniferum (Emboden 1995, 100*).

“I dropped some more laudanum into the glass. The night was a coat that provided warmth and security, I pulled it more closely around my body. Time became space, quite thick, like a small chamber that lay no longer inside the pyramid but far below it. Nothing occurred any more, only peaceful quiet, unassailable solitude.”





Your sun is stronger than the

sun of Africa.

I have no parasol against it.

If it is true that I inebriate myself,

then it is more on you than on opium.

JEAN COCTEAU (1988, 57)



The poppy flower and the opium that is obtained from its fruit capsule have long been used as seductive names for sensuous perfumes. (Advertisement in a German magazine, ca. 1915)


One of the most spectacular artifacts of ancient times is the Cretan “poppy goddess.” This terra-cotta piece, which dates to the late Minoan period (1400–1100 B.C.E.) and was in the shrine at Gazi, depicts a half-naked woman with raised hands who looks, ecstatically enraptured, into the distance and wears a headband into which three incised opium capsules have been placed. This poppy goddess has been interpreted as a “personification of the goddess of sleep or of death” (Sakellarakis 1990, 91).


In ancient times, the poppy was sacred to the goddess Demeter. Opium, the juice it yields, was known as the tears of Demeter. (Greek relief of Demeter with poppy capsules, Corinth, first century)


A number of incised poppy capsules are depicted on the portal of the former Eleusinion in Athens. A golden tablet from Mycenae shows Demeter giving three poppy capsules to Perseus, the founder of the “mushroom city.” A Boeotian plate shows the same goddess with a torch, two ears of grain, and two opium capsules. A coin of King Pyrrhus of Epirus depicts the goddess as the earth mother with ears of grain and opium capsules. In a terra-cotta relief from the Campani Collection, Demeter peers ecstatically into the infinite while holding spikes of grain and incised opium capsules in her two snake-entwined hands. A bouquet of ears of grain and poppy flowers is clearly recognizable on the mystical chest (kiste mystica) of the Eleusinian cult. Poppies and poppy capsules were portrayed on numerous ancient coins dating from the seventh century B.C.E. on (Seefelder 1996, 15).


A set of Chinese utensils for smoking opium. (San Francisco, Chinatown, ca. 1920)


Ancient Egyptian frescoes frequently depict the poppy, usually in association with mandrake fruits (Mandragora officinarum) and lotus flowers (Nymphaea caerulea). While some authors interpret the poppy that is shown as the opium poppy (Emboden 1995*), others usually see it as the Flanders poppy (Papaver rhoeas; Germer 1985*) or, more rarely, as the Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale; cf. Papaverspp.) (Seefelder 1996, 13). The Egyptian Museum in Berlin houses a (New Kingdom) statue of Isis as a cobra, surrounded by ears of grain and opium capsules.

In Ayutthaya, the ancient Siamese capital, incised poppy capsules were carved into quartz crystals during the fourteenth century. In Thailand (Siam) and Burma, “opium weights”—which were used to weigh other things besides opium—were made of metal alloys fashioned into the shape of animals (ducks, lions, birds, elephants). Regarded as symbols of luck, they were used even as a means of payment (Braun 1983; Greifenstein n.d., 55ff.). Today, they can be found only in antique shops. In the nineteenth century, numerous miniatures (book paintings) with erotic contents were painted in Thailand. Many of these depicted the so-called opium dens. Not only was a great deal of opium smoked in such places, but all forms of erotic play were indulged in as well (Haack 1984, 55, 121).

Over the course of time, numerous devices for smoking as well as inhaling opium have been developed (Hartwich 1911*). An ivory opium pipe found at the shrine of Astarte (a predecessor of Aphrodite) at Kition (Cyprus) was dated to the twelfth century B.C.E. (Karageorghis 1976); it may be the oldest archaeological evidence of opium smoking in Europe. In Thailand, water pipes are usually fashioned from bamboo tubes and round gourds or coconut shells (Cocos nucifera). In China, water pipes were made from brass following the same principle. In China, Korea, and Japan, long, thin pipes with small bowls—which held exactly one dose of opium—were especially common. These pipes are frequently depicted in Chinese and Japanese art.

In the Middle Ages, opium was the subject of countless Arabic poems, stories, and novels (Gelpke 1995*). Many of the stories in The Thousand and One Nights either were inspired by opium or are direct descriptions of opium and its effects (Croutier 1989, 56).

In the nineteenth century, opium was both a very widespread people’s drug, e.g., as “poppy tea” in England (London et al. 1990), and the drug of choice for many artists (Berridge and Edwards 1987; Kramer 1981). It was supremely important to many poets and writers, who immortalized it in their works (Hayter 1988). Novalis (1772–1801) sang the praises of opium in his Hymnen an die Nacht (“Hymns to the Night”), Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) wrote most of his work while under the influence of opium, and E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822) also knew of and utilized the effects of opium. Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) wrote about opium in The Artificial Paradise (cf. Cannabis indica) and worked his experiences into the collection of poems known as The Flowers of Evil.

From a literary point of view, Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859) had an especially important influence and helped set the tone for later authors and imitators. His book The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater appeared in London in 1822 and has served as a kind of template for later literary treatments of the effects of opium and its associated dependency.

Descriptions of the joys and sorrow of opium use have made their way into many novels and literary reports of self-experiences (such as diaries) (Cobbe 1895; Cocteau 1948; Detzer 1988; Ekert-Rotholz 1995; Jones 1700; Magre 1929; Schweriner 1910). Even the Opium War has become the subject of literary treatments (e.g., Fraser 1987; Thompson 1984).

In the nineteenth century, opium was the subject of many paintings. Carl Spitzweg (1808–1885) produced a painting in 1856 (Chibuk Smoking Oriental on a Divan) that portrays Oriental opium smoking (Seefelder 1996, 61). In his oil painting The Siesta (1876), John Frederick Lewis depicts a beautiful woman in Oriental garb, inebriated on opium. His painting In the Bey’s Garden, Asia Minor (1865) portrays a lady of the harem as she picks flowers next to a large opium poppy plant. Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) used the same motif as the subject of his oil painting Odalisque (1845). The oil painting Odalisque and Slave, (1842), by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), shows a woman, inebriated on opium and almost naked, as her servant plays music for her. The eunuch in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s (1824–1904) oil painting The Guard of the Harem (1859) is shown holding a meter-long opium pipe in his hand (Croutier 1989, 31, 45, 55f., 124). The Lascar’s Room (1873), a picture by Gustave Doré (1832–1883), has become a kind of archetype for the opium dens. In the art nouveau movement, the opium poppy was often used as a floral element or was placed at the center of focus.

Many nineteenth-century Japanese woodcuts depict erotic scenes in which lovers are shown smoking opium from long, thin pipes before, during, or after coitus and while drinking tea (Camellia sinensis) (Marhenke and May 1995*). The effects of opium also inspired several colored woodcuts by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) (e.g., Smoking Ghost).

During the Golden Twenties, opium smoking was often portrayed in pictures and illustrations of Berlin society and other circles in Germany and in San Francisco. The drawings of Paul Kamm, Max Brüning, and D. Fenneker were especially popular and were published in several magazines (Berliner LebenDer Junggeselle, and others). These illustrations played a great role in helping to develop the stereotype of the opium den (cf. morphine). A German emergency currency note (value two marks) of the time shows a physician armed with an enema syringe as he utters the words “I am Doctor Eisenbarth, I cure the people with my own art. The night watchman Didelum, I gave him 10 pounds of opium.”

In several volumes of the popular children’s book series Mecki, the hero, an anthropomorphic hedgehog, is shown smoking opium conspicuously often. His visions are shown in words and pictures (Mecki among the Chinese, 1955; Mecki and Prince Aladdin, 1958; Mecki on the Moon, 1959).

Opium is also a subject of several comic books (e.g., Hergé, Tim and StruppiThe Blue Lotus; Francis Leroi and Marcelino Truong, The Bamboo Dragon; Daniel Torres, Opium).

In music, the most conspicuous traces of opium can be found in Hector Berlioz’s (1803–1869) Symphonie Fantastique, which serves as a kind of soundtrack for imagining an opium experience. Apart from this, almost nothing is known about the influence opium may have had on the music of the nineteenth century.

The cover of the album Spitfire (1976), by the psychedelic band Jefferson Starship, shows a Chinese woman riding on a dragon growing out of the smoke of her opium pipe. A short-lived British neopsychedelic band of the mid-1990s was called Opium Den. The California avant-garde metal band Tool titled its first album Opiate (BMG 1992).

In the 1960s, a film version of De Quincey’s The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was made in England.

Medicinal Use


As early as the time of the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptians were aware of the sleep-promoting effects of the poppy: “A remedy for too much crying in a child: Ȉspn [poppy] seeds; fly dung from the wall; is made to a paste, strained and drunk for four days. The crying will cease instantly” (Papyrus Ebers, 782, in Manniche 1989, 131*).

Such uses of the poppy and poppy juice have been preserved even into our day.276 In modern Egypt, opium is said to incite men to war and to love and to produce spectacular dreams. It is usually eaten mixed with spices, or it may be smoked. It is a popular aphrodisiac, especially in Oriental joy pills. The ancient Assyrians valued even the root as an aphrodisiac (Thompson 1949, 227*).

Opium was one of the most important medicines of the ancient Hippocratics, who used it to treat almost all illnesses, especially dropsy, diarrhea, uterine disorders, inflammations of rectal fistulas, hysterical complaints, and, of course, sleep disorders (Krug 1993*; Rätsch 1995a, 240–249*).

In Germanic folk medicine, poppy juice (opium) was taken internally to protect against nocturnal pests, bloodsucking vampires, nightmares, and nickel goblins (Höfler 1990, 94*). As late as the twentieth century, pharmacists were still making poppy pacifiers to calm small children (Nadler 1991, 58*). “The dried poppy leaves are only occasionally used as sedatives in folk medicine” (Heeger and Poethke 1947, 235).

Opium is used throughout the world as a folk medical treatment for coughing (cf. codeine) and diarrhea (Fleurentin and Pelt 1982, 92f.*; Paulus and Ding 1987, 394*).

The opium poppy was also an important ingredient in poplar ointment (unguentum populeum; cf. witches’ ointments). In her Kräuterbuch (“Herbal”), Elisabeth Blackwell wrote, “The leaves are taken among cooling ointments, they are considered useful for burned areas, inflammations, acute swelling, and come to the unguent, Popul.” (Heilmann 1984, 106*).

Opium is used in homeopathy (usually in higher potencies) according to the medical description for such conditions as agitated states (Bomhardt 1994):


“Opium will expand beyond all measures,

Stretch out the limitless,

Will deepen time, make rapture bottomless,

With dismal pleasures

Surfeit the soul to point of helplessness.”



“Baudelaire went to a baseball game and bought a hot dog and lit up a pipe of opium.”




The art and literature of the Golden Twenties were shaped primarily by the use of opium and other psychoactive substances (morphine, cocaine). (Book title, 1920)


“To Hypnos—

a smoke offering of poppy seeds—

Hypnos, who rules the departed

and mortal humans without exception.

As well as the living beings,

as many as the broad earth nurtures—

For you alone govern them all,

you approach them all,

with softly wrought chains

binding the bodies, a remover of cares,

giving comfort to the exertions

and healing consolation to all afflictions.

You turn away the worries of death

and preserve the souls.”




An opium smoker and paraphernalia:

A) spoons for cleaning the pipe bowl;

B) needle for picking up the opium;

C) longitudinal view of the pipe bowl. (From Hartwich 1911)



The resurrection of Kore (Persephone) in spring. The goddess of rebirth, shown here in Minoan garb, bears three poppy capsules in her hand. The two plants to the sides of the goddess may be mandrakes. A man (rhizotome) is shown serving as a birth-helper. (Seal, Boeotia, fourth century B.C.E.)


Hahnemann said that the effects of poppy juice are more difficult to evaluate than almost any other medicine. The effects of opium, as they are expressed in the insensibility of the nervous system, the suppression of bodily functions, the sleepy dazed feeling, the lack of pain, the inactivity, the general sluggishness, and the lack of vital reactions, represent the main indications for the homeopathic use of this drug. (Boericke 1992, 571*)




The entire plant (except for the roots and flower petals) contains a latex that coagulates into opium. Opium contains some forty alkaloids, known collectively as opium alkaloids. Opium can contain 3 to 23% morphine, 0.1 to 2% papaverine, 0.1 to 4% codeine, 1 to 11% narcotine, and 0.1 to 4% thebaine; the other alkaloids are present in only trace amounts (Heeger and Poetke 1947). The composition of the alkaloids, and in particular the morphine concentration, can vary greatly. Modern techniques make it possible to determine quickly the morphine content of a particular sample (Hsu et al. 1983).

Callus tissue has been found to contain the alkaloids sanguinarine, norsanguinarine, dihydrosanguinarine, oxysanguinarine, protopine, crypto-pine, magnoflorine, and choline (Furuya et al. 1972).

The characteristic scent of opium is the result of some seventy substances, of which pyrazine appears to play an especially important role (Buchbauer et al. 1994).

Poppy seeds contain practically no or only slight traces of alkaloids (Norman 1991, 49*). They are rich in oil, carbohydrates, calcium, amino acids (apart from tryptophan), and proteins. However, codeinecan be produced from the seeds through the process of digestion with pepsin.



In the older literature, the effects of opium are compared to those of wine (cf. Vitis vinifera) remarkably often (Schmitz 1981, 384). All opium users make a clear distinction between the effects of smoked opium and those of ingested opium (Cocteau 1957, 86). When eaten or drunk, opium usually has stronger physical effects that are perceived as a paradisiacal state and blissfulness:


Opium . . . loosens the soul from its entanglements with everyday things and the outer world. . . . Opium makes one silent and gentle. It inspires and gives flight to the imagination, including the erotic, increases sensitivity and the sense of tenderness, while simultaneously diminishing the need to move and be active, the need to communicate, ambition, sexual potency, emotions, and aggressiveness in general. (Gelpke 1995, 42*)


Descriptions of the effects of opium tend to place great emphasis on the cheerfulness that develops and the soothing effect this has upon the mood:


Opium . . . communicates serenity and equipoise to all the faculties, active or passive: and with respect to the temper and moral feelings in general, it gives simply that sort of vital warmth that is approved by the judgment, and that would probably always accompany a bodily constitution of primeval or antediluvian health. Thus, for instance, opium, like wine, gives an expansion to the heart and the benevolent affections: but then, with this remarkable difference, that in the sudden development of kindheartedness that accompanies inebriation, there is always more or less of a maudlin character, which exposes it to the contempt of the bystander. . . . But the expansion of the more benign feelings incident to opium is no febrile access but a healthy restoration to that state the mind would naturally recover upon the removal of any deep-seated irritation or pain that had disturbed and quarrelled with the impulses of a heart originally just and good. (De Quincey 1998, 41)


Although the contents of the visions may be shaped substantially by the individual, there are many reports of their vegetative nature: “Opium is the only vegetable substance that communicates the vegetable state to us. Through it, we get an idea of that other speed of plants” (Cocteau 1957, 91f.).

Opium users describe encounters with the soul of the plant, often in the form of an enchantingly beautiful and loving woman or goddess (Schwob 1969). Telepathic and clairvoyant states (e.g., seeing through walls) are often said to be characteristic of the effects of opium (Arsan 1974).

With irregular or occasional use of opium, the “ecstasy of the opiophage is strongly permeated with sexual conceptions, while parallel to this a strong arousal of the sexual apparatus [has been] observed” (Hirschfeld and Linsert 1930, 252*).

Opium’s effects are the result of a synergy between the primary alkaloids: The main active constituent, morphine, has sedative-hypnotic, narcotic, antitussive, respiratory-suppressing, and constipating effects. Papaverineincreases the flow of blood into the corpus cavernosum of the penis; codeine is the best cough medicine known. The effects of opium are manifested quite rapidly and persist for six to eight hours at an almost constant strength.

Among the undesirable side effects of opium use are constipation, nausea, and vomiting (which usually occurs the following day). Metoclopramide (e.g., Paspertin) is an effective antidote for these symptoms. Chronic use can lead to dependency structures with “addictive behavior.” However, the so-called addictive potential of opium is not as great as portrayed by the sensationalistic press and uninformed politicians.

Commercial Forms and Regulations


The opium poppy is classified as a drug, trafficking in which is not allowed (German BtMG Anlage II). In Germany, only 10 m2 of one’s own garden may be planted with opium poppies. Since 1984, only “detoxified” poppy capsules, from which the morphine has been removed, may be sold in German flower shops. In Denmark, poppy capsules have been illegal for decorative purposes since 1986 (Roth et al. 1994, 536*).

Opium is subject to numerous drug laws throughout the world and may be prescribed only on special forms. Opium is available for sale today only in India and Pakistan (see Cannabis indica). It appears as though both the pharmaceutical lobby and organized criminals (Mafia) have a great interest in the difficulties associated with prescribing opium. As a result of these difficulties, the former is able to market its very expensive synthetic opiates and the latter are in a better position to sell illegal heroin.


The German band Die Toten Hosen seems not to be propagating a new religion with its album Opium fürs Volk (“Opium for the People”) but to be intent on distributing the narcotic. (CD cover, 1996, JKP Records.)


“Here it pleases me well, in

the circle of my light little poems

to now make mention of

the field poppy [Papaver], which the mother Latona

partook of in sorrow for the rape of her daughter, so it is said,

that longed-for forgetfulness frees the breast

of its cares.”





“When I am under the spell of opium and the present has pulled away from my mental eye, then Ot-Chen and Chen-Hoa appear to me like two fairy-tale princesses, and it pleases me to rock in old, wonderful dreams. The smoking chamber Chen-Tas expands and becomes a magnificent marble palace in which I care for the divine peace as a sovereign prince. The tumult of Fouchow Road is submerged, and I feel myself surrounded by the majestic calm of the old forests in which my imperial ancestors once walked.”



(1920, 151 f.)


“The Slovakian mother who wishes to heal her epileptic child walks fully disrobed three times around it without anyone seeing her, and uttering a spell, she shakes from a poppy head the seeds into her hand and shakes these around the child; then the poppy is swept together and, with the cut-off nails of the fingers of one hand and the toes of one foot, but crosswise, from the right hand and the left foot or vice versa, she stuffs these into an infernal tube and buries it where the sun will never shine.”





(1996, 219*)




See also the entries for Papaver spp., Oriental joy pillssoporific spongecodeinemorphineopium alkaloids, and papaverine.


Arsan, Emanuelle. 1974. Emmanuelle oder Die Schule der Lust. Reinbek, Germany: Rowohlt.


Behr, Hans-Georg. 1980. Weltmacht Droge. Vienna and Dusseldorf: Econ.


Berridge, V., and G. Edwards. 1987. Opium and the people: Opiate use in nineteenth century England. London: Yale University Press.


Bisset, Norman G., Jan G. Bruhn, Silvio Curto, Bo Holmstedt, Ulf Nyman, and Meinhart H. Zenk. 1994. Was opium known in 18th dynasty ancient Egypt? An examination of materials from the tomb of the chief royal architect Kha. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 41:99–114.


Bomhardt, Martin. 1994. Opium. Homöopathische Einblicke 20:5–22.


Boyes, Jon, and S. Piraban. 1991. Opium fields. Bangkok: Silkworm Books.


Braun, Ilse, and Rolf Braun. 1983. Opiumgewichte. Landau, Germany: Selbstverlag.


Buchbauer, Gerhard, Alexej Nikiforov, and Barbara Remberg. 1994. Headspace constituents of opium. Planta Medica 60:181–83.


Cobbe, William Rosser. 1895. Doctor Judas: A portrayal of the opium habit. Chicago: S. C. Griggs.


Cocteau, Jean. 1948. Opium—Journal d’une desintoxication. Paris: Libraire Stock.


———. 1957. Opium: The diary of a cure. Trans. Margaret Crosland and Sinclair Road. London: Peter Owen Limited.


———. 1988. Ich war im Paradies. Bielefeld, Germany: Pendragon-Verlag.


Croutier, Alev Lytle. 1989. Harem: The world behind the veil. New York: Abbeville Press.


De Quincey, Thomas. 1998. Confessions of an English opium-eater. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Detzer, Eric. 1988. Poppies: Odyssey of an opium eater. San Francisco: Mercury House.


Duke, James A. 1973. Utilization of Papaver. Economic Botany 27:390–400.


Durresi, S., and P. Rizo. 1991. Determination of the contents of morphine in the capsules of two varieties of poppies grown in Albania. Planta Medica 57 suppl. (2): A100–1.


Ekert-Rotholz, Alice. 1995. Mohn in den Bergen: Eine junge Frau verfällt dem Opium. Frankfurt/M.: Fischer TB.


Farrère, Claude. 1920. Opium. Munich: Thespis-Verlag.


Fraser, George Macdonald. 1987. Flashman—Der chinesische Drache. Frankfurt/M. and Berlin: Ullstein.


Furuya, T., A. Ikuta, and K. Syono. 1972. Alkaloids from callus tissue of Papaver somniferumPhytochemistry 11:3041–44.


Geddes, William Robert. 1976. Migrants of the mountains: The cultural ecology of the Blue Miao (Hmong njua) of Thailand. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Goodman, Felicitas D. 1974. Speaking in tongues: A cross-cultural study of glossolalia. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.


Greifenstein, Ute I., n.d. Fremdes Geld. Frankfurt/M.: Commerzbank und Museum für Völkerkunde.


Griffith, William. 1993. Opium poppy garden. Berkeley, Calif.: Ronin.


Haack, Harald. 1984. Der Liebe zur Freude: Erotische Buchmalerei aus Thailand. Dortmund: Harenberg.


Hartwich, Carl. 1899. Über Papaver somniferum und speziell dessen in den Pfahlbauten vorkommende Reste. Apothekerzeitung: 39–41.


Hayter, Alathea. 1988. Opium and the romantic imagination: Addiction and creativity in De Quincey, Coleridge, Baudelaire and others. Wellingborough, U.K.: Crucible.


Heeger, E. F., and W. Poethke. 1947. Papaver somniferum L., der Mohn: Anbau, Chemie, Verwendung. Die Pharmazie suppl. 4 (1): 235–340.


Hillestad, Agnes. 1980. Glycoproteins of the opium poppy. Phytochemistry 19:1711–15.


Hogshire, Jim. 1994. Opium for the masses. Port Townsend, Ore.: Loompanics.


Hoops, Johannes. 1973. Mohn. In Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde, 3:233–34.


Hsu, An-Fei, Dorothy Brower, Ronald B. Etskovitz, Peter K. Chen, and Donald D. Bills. 1983. Radioimmunoassay for quantitative determination of morphine in capsules of Papaver somniferumPhytochemistry 22 (7): 1665–69.


Husain, Akhtar, and J. R. Sharma. 1983. The opium poppy. Lucknow, India: Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants.


Jevons, F. R. 1965. Was Plotinus influenced by opium? Medical History 9.


Johnson, Bruce D. 1981. Die englische und amerikanische Opiumpolitik im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert: Konflikte, Unterschiede und Gemeinsamkeiten. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 2:656–61. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Jones, John. 1700. The mysteries of opium reveald (. . .). London: Printed for Richard Smith.


Kapoor, L. D. 1995. Opium poppy: Botany, chemistry, and pharmacology. Binghamton, N.Y.: The Haworth Press.


Karageorghis, Vasso. 1976. A twelfth-century BC opium pipe from Kition. Antiquity 50:125–29.


Kramer, John C. 1981. The metapsychology of opium. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 13 (1): 71–79.


Krikorian, Abraham D. 1975. Were the opium poppy and opium known in the ancient Near East? Journal of the History of Biology 8 (1).


Kritikos, Pan. G. 1960. Der Mohn, das Opium und ihr Gebrauch im Spätminoicum. Athens: Archives of the Academy of Athens III.


Kritikos, Pan. G., and S. N. Papadaki. 1967. The history of the poppy and of opium and their expansion in antiquity in the eastern Mediterranean. Bull. Narcotics 19 (3): 17 ff.; (4): 5 ff.


Lamour, Catherine, and Michel R. Lamberti. 1972. Les grandes manœuvres de l’opium. [Paris]: Éditions du Seuil.


Latimer, Dean, and Jeff Goldberg. 1981. Flowers in the blood: The story of opium. New York: Franklin Watts.


London, M., T. O’Regan, P. Aust, and A. Stockford. 1990. Poppy tea drinking in East Anglia. British Journal of Addiction 85:1345–47.


Magre, Maurice. 1929. La nuit de haschich et d’opium. Paris: Flammarion.


Merlin, Mark D. 1984. On the trail of the ancient opium poppy. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.


Merrillees, R. S. 1962. Opium trade in the Bronze Age Levant. Antiquity 36:287–92.


Moorcock, Michael. 1988. Der Opium-General. Bergisch Gladbach, Germany: Bastei-Lübbe.


Rush, James R. 1981. “Opiumfarmen” auf Java in der Kolonialzeit. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 2:568–71. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Sakellarakis, J. A. 1990. Heraklion—Das archäologische Museum. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon.


Schmitz, Rudolf. 1981. Opium als Heilmittel. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 1:380–85. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Schweriner, Oskar T. 1910. Opium. Berlin: Carl Duncker.


Schwob, Marcel. 1969. Das Opiumhaus. In Das Spiegelkabinett, ed. W. Pehnt. Munich: dtv.


Seefelder, Matthias. 1987. Opium—eine Kulturgeschichte. Frankfurt/M.: Athenäum.


———. 1996. Opium: Eine Kulturgeschichte. 3rd ed. Landsberg, Germany: ecomed. (Very good bibliography.)


Solomon, Robert. 1978. The evolution of opiate use in China: The origins of the illicit international trade. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs 10 (1): 43–49.


Spence, Jonathan. 1972. Das Opiumrauchen im China der Ch’ing-Zeit (1644–1911). Saeculum 23 (4).


Thompson, E. V. 1984. Opium und Mandelaugen. Munich: Knaur.


Westermeyer, Joseph. 1982. Poppies, pipes, and people: Opium and its use in Laos. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Papaver spp.


Poppy Species




Papaveraceae (Poppy Family)


The genus Papaver, to which Papaver somniferum belongs, has some seventy species, more than any other member of its family (Grey-Wilson 1995, 128*). While the genus Papaver is very rich in alkaloids, psychoactive species are few (Sariyar et al. 1994). Prickly poppy (Argemone mexicana), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), and greater celandine (Chelidonium majus L.; cf. Mandragora officinarum) are all closely related to Papaver.


Papaver bracteatum Lindl. [syn. Papaver orientale var. bracteatum Ledeb.]—Oriental poppy

This Oriental poppy is endemic to the Caucasus, eastern Turkey (Anatolia), and northwestern Iran. Its taxonomic history is more than confusing. There are many similar types, i.e., ornamental forms that have been produced by breeding this species with other species (Grey-Wilson 1995, 138*). While this species does not contain any opium, morphine, or codeine, it does contain a large amount of thebaine (C19H21NO3), the precursor substance for the pharmaceutical synthesis of morphine, codeine, and Nalaxon (Morton 1977, 124*). Some chemotypes exhibit concentrations of up to 98% thebaine in the total alkaloid content (Brenneisen and Borner 1985, 303; Kettenes et al. 1981). It is hoped that increasing the cultivation of Papaver bracteatum for pharmaceutical purposes will help limit the cultivation of Papaver somniferum (Kettenes-van de Bosch et al. 1981).


Papaver orientale L. [syn. Papaver pollakii A. Kerner]—Oriental poppy

This Oriental poppy is endemic to Anatolia (Turkey) (Grey-Wilson 1995, 156*). It develops into an herbaceous perennial that can grow as tall as 80 cm. As a result of its distinctive beauty, it is an extremely popular garden ornamental. There are numerous cultivars of Papaver orientale (e.g., ‘Cedric’s Pink’, ‘Mrs. Perry’, ‘Goliath’) that are widespread ornamentals (Grey-Wilson 1995, 157*). The plant, which is occasionally characterized as psychoactive, is difficult to distinguish from Papaver bracteatum and is sometimes mistaken for Papaver somniferum. It does not contain any significant opium alkaloids. The main alkaloid is oripavine or isothebaine, which is of interest only to the pharmaceutical industry (Brenneisen and Borner 1985, 303).


Papaver rhoeas L. [syn. Papaver strigosum (Boenn.) Schur]—Flanders poppy, Shirley poppy The annual Flanders poppy—also called the wild field poppy (or corn poppy, wild poppy, pavot coquelicot)—is a wild European and Mediterranean plant that is sometimes confused with Papaver somniferum. The variety Papaver rhoeas var. oblongatum occurs on Cyprus and is one of the sacred flowers of Aphrodite (Georgiades 1987, 2:64*; Rätsch 1995a, 245*).

The ancient Assyrians called the plant ukushrim or irrû and apparently used it in a manner similar to that of true opium (Thompson 1949, 225*). The plant was formerly used as a children’s sedative and sleeping agent (Schneider 1974, 3:26*). The psychoactive, opium-like effects that are sometimes attributed to the plant are doubtful.

The main alkaloid in the aboveground parts of Papaver rhoeas is (+)-rhoeadine (0.06%). The total alkaloid content is 0.11 to 0.12% (Roth et al. 1994, 534*). Also present are the alkaloids allocryptopine, protopine, coulteropine, berberine, coptisine, sinactine, (+)-isocorydine, (+)-roemerine, and (+)-rhoeagenine (Kalav and Sariyar 1989). Several of these alkaloids are also present in Eschscholzia californica. In contrast, no opium alkaloids are present.


Many poppy species (Papaver spp.) have extremely colorful flowers.



The Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale).









In the wild, the Flanders poppy (Papaver rhoeas) can cover entire fields.



This variety of Flanders poppy (Papaver rhoeas var. oblongatum) is found in Cyprus. (Wild plant, photographed in Cyprus)



The yellow horned poppy (Glaucium flavum) is indigenous to the Mediterranean region. (Wild plant, photographed on Naxos, Greece)



The Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale var. bracteatum), cultivated in many gardens as an ornamental, also contains opiates. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)



The wild Flanders poppy (Papaver rhoeas) has only weak sedative properties. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)


Glaucium flavum Crantz [syn. Papaver cornutum nom. nud., Glaucium luteum Scop.]—yellow horned poppy

The horned poppy is indigenous to the Mediterranean region (Grey-Wilson 1995, 41*). Dioscorides described it under the name mekon keratitis:


After eating or drinking this mekon keratitis, the same manifestations appear as with poppy juice [= opium; cf. Papaver somniferum]. One also counters it with the same agents. The fruit is collected in the summer, when it is dry. The decoction of the root is taken with wine [see Vitis vinifera], it helps against dysentery. (Dioscorides 4.68)


The plant was formerly used in folk medicine together with honey to treat ulcers (Grey-Wilson 1995, 36*). The horned poppy is sometimes characterized as psychoactive. The plant does contain glaucine, which has the same effects as codeine (Roth et al. 1994, 374*).



See also the entries for Papaver somniferum and morphine.


Brenneisen, R., and S. Borner. 1985. Psychotrope Drogen. IV. Zur Morphinalkaloidführung von Papaver somniferum und Papaver bracteatumPharm. Acta Helvetica 60 (11): 302–10.


Kalav, Y. N., and G. Sariyar. 1989. Alkaloids from Turkish Papaver rhoeasPlanta Medica 55:488.


Kettenes-van de Bosch, J. J., C. A. Salemink, and I. Khan. 1981. Biological activity of the alkaloids of Papaver bracteatum Lindl. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 3 (1): 21–38. (Includes literature useful for a deeper understanding.)


Sriyar, Günay, Aynur Sari, and Afife Mat. 1994. Quarternary alkaloids of Papaver spicatumPlanta Medica 60:293.