As the discovery of poppy seed capsules at a neolithic burial site in Spain suggests, the healing and intoxicating powers of opium have long been known in the West and the Near East. The earliest recorded reference to poppy cultivation is from around 4500 B.C.E. in Sumeria (Lower Mesopotamia). In written records, the Sumerians referred to the opium poppy as hul gil, or the plant of joy. Knowledge of opium’s properties eventually spread throughout the Near East, and opium was widely used in ancient Greece and Rome.
References to opium crop up in the writings of both Homer and Virgil. In The Odyssey, the nepenthe that Helen drops into the drinks of her guests to relieve their sorrows after a long voyages is widely believed to be opium, which was commonly added to wine in ancient Greece. There is also speculation that the drug which Aeneas gives to the three-headed Hell-dog Cereberus to quell his anger contains opium, and Virgil refers to opium explicitly elsewhere.
The importance of opium in Classical culture can also be seen in its associations with several deities. The goddess of the harvest, Demeter, is often shown with poppies in her hair, and Morpheus, the god of sleep for whom morphine is named, was sometimes depicted as living in a cave filled with poppy seeds. Hypnos and Thanatos, the Roman gods of sleep and death, were sometimes depicted as chubby twins clutching poppies as well as each other. One famous statue of the goddess of fertility, Ceres (as Demeter was known in ancient Rome), shows her holding a torch as well as poppy pods, which indicates that opium was used to relieve the pangs of childbirth.
In the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, opium was widely hailed for its painkilling properties – which must have seemed downright miraculous at the time – and it was enthusiastically prescribed by the likes of Hippocrates and Galen as a panacea for all sorts of ailments. Opium was also widely used in the Muslim world, and the physician Avicenna became the Muslim world’s unchallenged authority on opium, preserving knowledge of its use in voluminous tomes.
The use of alcohol was extremely common in Europe during the Dark Ages, but with the return of soldiers from the Crusades, knowledge of a different sort of intoxicant – opium – began to spread in Europe. Opium became a highly sought-after commodity, and in the sixteenth century, around the time when opium was beginning its tenure as a recreational drug in China, the physician Paracelsus discovered that the alkaloids in opium were more soluble in alcohol than in water, although his discovery remained largely unnoticed until the English physician Thomas Sydenham compounded a proprietary tincture, which he named laudanum. By the eighteenth century, laudanum was widely used in Europe, and it is said to have inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kublai Khan, as well as a passel of other literary and artistic works.
Wherever opium smoking took root, it carried an air of foreignness. Ironically, the drug decried as “foreign mud” by Chinese officials became almost synonymous with the Chinese when they migrated to the US to mine gold during the California Gold Rush. Although the use of opium in the form of tinctures had been an integral part of Western medicine since ancient times, the custom of smoking the drug recreationally was inextricably linked to contact between East and West. Following the large-scale immigration of Chinese immigrants to the US in the nineteenth century, first to mine gold, then to build the transcontinental railroad, opium dens became a relatively common feature in cities and large towns across the country, particularly in the West. Chinatown opium dens attracted many white customers as well as Chinese, which fueled fears about the “yellow peril” and contributed to discrimination against the Chinese.
In Europe, France became the locus of opium culture, as French colonials inevitably brought the custom of smoking the drug back from French Indochina. By the early twentieth century, opium smoking had become common among certain social circles, particularly the artistic and creative class. The French filmmaker, artist, and writer Jean Cocteau was an opium smoker, as was Pablo Picasso. The photographer Brassai documented opium smoking in his famous photographic study of Parisian nightlife, and the practice was often romanticized, with Buddhas and other Eastern symbols highlighting the “exotic” cache which was attached to the drug.