Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Opium Eaters

     The term 'opium eater' first came to prominence with an autobiography written by Thomas De Quincy,  'Confessions of an English Opium-Eater' (1821) which recounted his torments and pleasures brought on by his laudanum (opium mixed with alcohol) addiction and its effect on his life (see post: The Author and the Addict). But well before De Quincy's time, opium was already a scourge on societies in the Middle East, the Far East as well as in Europe.

Thomas de Quincy
     There is evidence that opium has been actively collected since prehistoric times. Some postulate that opium may be the 'mythical'  'soma' plant mentioned throughout the Hindu holy book, the Rig Veda. Indian scholars maintain that the verses and the history contained in them have been orally transmitted thousands of years before.
     'Soma 'is Sanskrit for moon, describing both the shape of the opium poppy bulb and its nocturnal juice emission, which in ancient times would have been visible by moonlight only. In Afghanistan, the male name 'Redey', means 'poppy' in Pashto; the same word 'rddhi' in Sanskrit meaning 'magical', 'medicinal plant', 'heart-pleasing'.  Today, the countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India, and Burma still account for the world's largest supply of opium.

The Opium Poppy - Soma?
     Soma was an important ritual drink for the early Indo-Iranians. The Rig Veda calls the plant the 'God for Gods giving it precedence above Indra and the other Gods.
     Not everyone agrees that 'soma' was indeed the opium poppy. Ephedra sinica (E. sinica)could also have been the original 'soma'. Ephedrine and pseudoephidrine are bot hactive constituents of E. sinica, compounds which are related chemically to amphetimines (see post: The Author and theAddict).
     Evidence of Papaver somniferum (the opium poppy) has been found in archaeological site of Neolithic settlements in Switzerland, Germany, and Spain, including the placement of large numbers of poppy seed capsules at a burial site. (dated to 4200 BC) The first known cultivation of opium poppies, the domestication of the plant, was in Mesopotamia, approximately 3400 BC, by Sumerians who called the plant Hul Gil, the 'joy plant'. Opium was used as a medicine but also, in combination with poison hemlock, to euthanize patients (or prisoners).
Nyx and Hypnos
     In Egypt, opium use was restricted to priests, warriors and magician. In Crete, a statue of the Minoan 'goddess of narcotics shows the figure wearing a crown of three poppies (1300 BC) and, along with the statue, equipment to smoke the drug. In ancient Greece, the gods Hypnos (sleep), Nyx (night), and Thanatos (death) all were adorned with wreaths of poppies around their necks - recognition of bothe the 'favorable' and less 'favorable' effects of opium.
     Arab traders introduced opium to China between 400 and 1200 AD.which perhaps was the start of a long and painful history of addiction in that country. The Persian physician Avicenna (Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina) considered opium as the most powerful of the stupefacients. His book The Canon of Medicine was translated into Latin in 1175 and later into many other languages and remained authoritative into the seventeenth century.

     In Europe, publication of travellers' tales described the non-medicinal use of opium by the peoples of the Middle East. Pierre Belon (1517-1564) wrote 'There is no Turk who would not buy opium with his last penny. They eat opium because they think that they become more daring and have less fear of the dangers of war'. Cristobal Acosta (1515-1592) noted that opium was used throughout the East Indies 'both as medicine and food in a way that a worker looks upon his bread'.
     Opium came to Europe as a medicinal drug but soon was also adapted, as in the Middle East, as a way to see the world through different eyes, a means to deaden the sorrows of life. In the west, one of the most famous of the 'opium eaters' was King George IV of the United Kingdom and Ireland (1762-1830). King George led an extravagent life style with little attention paid to the governance of the British Empire. He died, obese and addicted to opium (laudanum).

King George IV
     Thomas De Quincy's 'Confessions of an English Opium-Eater' was well-received (at first published anonymously) but criticized for presenting a picture of the opium experience that was too positive and too enticing to readers. Up to that point in history, there has been little systematic study of narcotics and De Quincey's account assumed an authoritative status, dominating the scientific and public views of the effects of opium for several generations.  
     De Quincy's influence spread to the world of writing with one of the characters of the Sherlock Holmes story, The Man with the Twisted Lip (1891), an opium addict who began experimenting with the drug as a student after reading De Quincy's 'Confessions'; to the world of music as inspiration to one of Hector Berloiz's most famous pieces, Symphonie Fantastique which a powerful section that included an 'opium dream'. More generally, De Quincey's 'Confessions' influenced psychology and abnormal psychology as well as attitudes towards dreams and imaginative literature.
Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

     Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) was an English poet, literary critic and philosopher best known best known for his poems 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and 'Kubla Khan'. Throughout his life, he suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression (possibly bipolar disorder). As a child, Coleridge suffered from poor health that may have stemmed from a bout of rheumatic fever and other childhood illnesses. He was treated for these concerns with laudanum, resulting in opium addiction.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

     Prosper Mérimée (1803 – 1870) was a French dramatist, historian, archaeologist, and short story writer,  best known for his novella Carmen, which became the basis of Bizet's opera of the same name. When not on his travels, Merimee required sedation to cope with the 'strain of living' and found comfort with drugs. He feared that, without laudanum, he would be 'sterilised by irritable boredom'.

     Beyond these figures of history, there were many more who became 'opium eaters', names unknown to history. Many of these addicts were to be found in the Far East, a result of the Opium Wars (Anglo-Chinese Wars) - the First Opium War from 1839 to 1842 and the Second Opium War from 1856 to 1860 - in which the British empire forced the Chinese Qing Dynasty into accepting import of opium into their country.
Rime of the Ancient Mariner

     One more prominent individual should be mentioned in the history of the English 'opium eaters'. Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890) was a British explorer, soldier, translator, writer, poet, hypnotist, orientalist scholar, fencer, ethnologist, folklorist, linguist, diplomat and long-time smoker of opium smoker. Burton called it ;'hat sweetest of all smokes' and first discovered it while in India, where he translated the Karma Sutra
     Burton was an adventurers who went  on a search for the source of the Nile in Africa and while searching always brought along his skilled Indian pipe boy whose sole purpose opium-smoking paraphernalia and prepare his opium pipes for smoking.
Sir Richard Burton

     Anna Seward (1747 – 1809), not an addict herself,  was an English poet, known as the 'Swan of Lichfield'.
Seward said it best in her sonnet: 'To the Poppy'

So stands in the long grass, a love-crazed maid,
Smiling aghast; while stream to every wind
Her garish ribbons, smeared with dust and rain;
But brain-sick visions cheat her tortured mind,
And bring false peace. Thus, lulling grief and pain,
Kind dreams oblivious from thy juice proceed,
Thou flimsy, showy, melancholy weed.
Anna Seward

       *The history of narcotics use: subject of research for the novel Whip the Dogs - Amazon Kindle

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