“Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream by Thomas Dormandy, is that rare thing: both an extraordinary work of scholarship and a rip-roaring read.”—Rebecca Rose, Prospect
Opium: Reality's Dark Dreamby Thomas Dormandy
Opium and its derivatives morphine and heroin have destroyed, corrupted, and killed individuals, families, communities, and even whole nations. And yet, for most of its long history, opium has also been humanity's most effective means of alleviating physical and mental pain. This extraordinary book encompasses the entire history of the world's most fascinating drug
Opium and its derivatives morphine and heroin have destroyed, corrupted, and killed individuals, families, communities, and even whole nations. And yet, for most of its long history, opium has also been humanity's most effective means of alleviating physical and mental pain. This extraordinary book encompasses the entire history of the world's most fascinating drug, from the first evidence of poppy cultivation by stone-age man to the present-day opium trade in Afghanistan. Dr. Thomas Dormandy tells the story with verve and insight, uncovering the strange power of opiates to motivate major conflicts yet also inspire great art and medical breakthroughs, to trigger the rise of global criminal networks yet also revolutionize attitudes toward well-being.
Opium: Reality's Dark Dream traverses the globe and the centuries, exploring opium's role in colonialism, the Chinese Opium Wars, laudanum-inspired sublime Romantic poetry, American "Yellow Peril" fears, the rise of the Mafia and the black market, 1960s counterculture, and more. Dr. Dormandy also recounts exotic or sad stories of individual addiction. Throughout the book the author emphasizes opium's complex, valuable relationship with developments in medicine, health, and disease, highlighting the perplexing dual nature of the drug as both the cause and relief of great suffering in widely diverse civilizations.
“Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream by Thomas Dormandy, is that rare thing: both an extraordinary work of scholarship and a rip-roaring read.”—Rebecca Rose, Prospect
“Thomas Dormandy is an elegant, dryly amusing writer who plainly has an unquenchable appetite for research.”—John Preston, Daily Mail
“…[A] lively and fascinating chronicle of opium…The book is a remarkable synthesis of different fields of knowledge.”—Peter Swabb, Daily Telegraph
“…[A] scholarly yet wonderfully readable book.”—Teresa Levonian Cole, Country Life
"Rich in stories and an entertaining read, Dr Dormandy has traced the many lives of opium, from the Stone Age to the War of Terror." —Yangwen Zheng, BBC History Magazine
“Rich and engaging . . . a rare triumph.”—Washington Post
The Washington Post
- Yale University Press
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OPIUMReality's Dark Dream
By THOMAS DORMANDY
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Thomas Dormandy
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePetrified buns
The Alpine winter of 1854 caused much hardship. Children lost their ears and noses to frostbite and the frail and elderly died. But the cold also provided the strong and industrious with exceptional opportunities. Little steamers had started to criss-cross Lake Zurich during the previous summer; and the low water level now created the right conditions for building landing platforms. Such a facility would do wonders for the tourist trade of the small lakeside community of Meilen. But almost at once the diggers ran into difficulties. Jutting from the bottom of the lake were a dozen almost immovable wooden poles. They had obviously been implanted there by humans; but what kind of humans and when and for what purpose? The answers were soon revealed. The mud around the poles yielded a profusion of stone and wooden artefacts as well as fossilised objects, including petrified apples, raisins, hazelnuts and what looked like buns about three inches across. Until then all prehistoric finds in Europe had been accessories of death graves, weapons, necessities of the afterlife. The Meilen excavators had uncovered the stuff of fairy tales, the remains of a Stone Age lake village where people actually lived.
The discovery made headlines. Soon an expert team from the University of Zurich under the leadership of Professor Ferdinand Keller had difficulty in keeping thieving archaeologists at bay. But nothing could stop the flurry of sensational newspaper reports, inevitably followed by prehistoric romances (a now happily defunct literary genre), calendars, children's toys, dioramas and expensive forgeries. One of the sensations, as revealed by Professor Keller, was that the petrified buns contained recognisable fossilised poppy seeds. The professor even identified the seeds as belonging to the cultivated white rather than to the wild red variety. When fresh and processed, he suggested, they would have had a mild opium-like effect.
His interpretation was disputed by jealous colleagues. Professor Maurice Rochat of Nancy argued that even unfossilised the seeds of different kinds of poppy, none of them bigger than a pinhead, were impossible to distinguish. But Professor Keller, a patriotic Swiss, had already started to venerate his lake-dwelling ancestors and stuck to his guns. His forebears were obviously a prudent lot why else would they build their dwellings on stilts in lakes and swamps as well as being honest and hard-working. They deserved the occasional break. No breathtaking works of art emerged as would a few decades later in Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain; but that in no way excluded artistic achievements. Lake water is not a hospitable milieu for paintings and the treasures could have perished. Alcoholic fermentation may also have been discovered; but the people of Lake Zurich were no drunks, certainly not. The building of houses on stilts must have called for planning and ingenuity. The cultivation of the white poppy also required a high degree of expertise. It gradually transpired that the villages flourished early in the sixth millennium BC; that is, the late Stone Age. The lake dwellers may therefore have been the first humans to taste opium.
* * *
The people of the ancient civilisations of the Near East probably came next. In a Sumerian ideogram of about 4500 BC roughly the age of Abraham the poppy is called Hul Gil or the 'plant of joy', the first known such expression of high regard. Besides praising it, the tablet briefly instructs how the juice of the pod was to be collected at dawn and how it should be converted into a drink. The Assyrians who followed the Sumerians seem to have had special iron scoops to score the pods and let the sap ooze out. They called the juice aratpa-pal, the possible root of the otherwise obscure papaver. The Persians, history's first empire-builders, recorded using poppy extracts for medicinal purposes. But it was the Valley of the Nile which the classical world and historians ever since have identified as the cradle of opium.
Though sizable on the map, the area which was regularly flooded by the great river and could therefore sustain life was smaller than present-day Belgium. Not much land to waste; but for thousands of years sustaining life included the cultivation of the poppy. The fields around Thebes (today's Luxor) on the Upper Nile in particular acquired a reputation for the richness of their growth as early as the third millennium BC; and the 'divinely elevating effect' of Theban opium was still the toast of Britain's Prince Regent in early nineteenth-century Brighton.
Two remarkable papyri are especially useful for understanding Egypt's fascination with the poppy. The discovery of both is linked to the name of Edwin Smith, generally described as an American farmer and excavator resident in Egypt in the 1860s. In fact Smith was probably more a maker than a digger-up of antique remains; but he was no ignoramus. He at once recognised the value of two scrolls offered to him by more proactive grave-robbers and paid what he later described as a fair price for them. The first, known today as the Edwin Smith papyrus, is preserved in New York. The second and even more valuable was named after Georg Moritz Ebers, a Berlin Egyptologist who never went near Luxor but bought the treasure from Smith and translated the hieroglyphics into German.
In these ancient texts, about three thousand years old, every medical and surgical ailment was covered. The longest sections dealt with the heart, regarded as the site of confluence of all body fluids blood, tears, urine and sperm and where opium was believed to act. (The brain, by contrast, was considered a squashy filling, unnecessary in the next world and therefore discarded before mummification.) Separate chapters covered pregnancy, gynaecological complaints, intestinal diseases, parasites, eye and skin problems, snake bites, decaying teeth, burns, fractures, deformities and methods of contraception. Everywhere the emphasis was on practical management and no sharp dividing line was drawn between afflictions of the body and turbulences of the soul. It was this unitary approach which justified the use of poppy juice in a surprising range and variety of ailments.
It also makes some passages familiar to ears attuned to the modish term 'psychosomatic'. It is only the term which is relatively new. In Egypt as in most other ancient civilisations healing depended on establishing spiritual contact with a god as much as on any medical ministrations to the body. When lucky and deserving, the god would take the complaint on himself and, if need be, consult more specialised deities. In one passage of the Ebers papyrus the victim of a severe headache identifies with the god Horus as an intermediary and it is Horus who exclaims: 'My head, my head, oh my head is bursting'. 'Which part of your head?' asks a sympathetic fellow god, Thoth. 'Upper part of my forehead and my right temple,' replies Horus. 'This is grave. I shall have to solicit the advice of Ra,' says Thoth. Ra, an all-wise power usually identified with the sun, is sympathetic and threatens the demons who have been such a plague with terrible punishment. 'I shall cut off thine trunks, you naughty spirits!' But that, it seems, is not enough: the demons continue to afflict Horus (and the patient). Ra recommends a well-tried poultice made of the skulls of catfish. Horus applies the poultice; but, though it eases the pain, the relief is temporary. Then Ra concludes that only a special extract made from poppies will relieve the suffering and orders his acolytes to prepare a concoction. Horus swallows it and lo! his headache disappears. So does the patient's.
Poppy juice sweetened with honey was also a remedy for the looseness of bowels, a common complaint in Egypt as it still is. In depression it lightened the spirits. It eased the suffering of patients afflicted with the Bilharzia parasite and bladder stone, both still prevalent. In the painful dressing of wounds and the setting of fractures it assuaged the agony. It must have been a godsend in the drilling of jawbones for dental abscesses, an operation which, judging by skeletal remains, seems to have been performed not infrequently. Because even mixed with honey the draughts often tasted bitter and smelt nauseating, administration by suppositories and enemas was often preferred. The analysis of dreams as a diagnostic tool was highly developed by the priests of Karnak and poppy juice was sometimes administered to induce stirrings of the not-yet-so-named subconscious. The potions also helped in most forms of dying. Nothing suggests that ancient Egyptians exalted the stiff upper lip; but, like most people of the Fertile Crescent, they valued dignity and a brave and noble countenance. Nor was the afterlife forgotten. No pharaoh would be buried without a few dried poppies and implements of poppy harvesting to serve him on the journey and in future abodes. At the other extreme of life, a special preparation mixed with milk was recommended to quieten infants with 'colic'. With so many uses, the plant was held in affection: it was incised on funerary monuments and painted on the walls of temples.
Poppy juice, like other remedies, was rarely if ever prescribed on its own. Medical treatment on the banks of the Nile always included prayers, incantations, healing amulets, purifying rites and changes temporary or permanent in lifestyle. Remedial and sacred baths would be performed before embarking on complex treatments; and parts of the body would be shaved and tablets inscribed with messages to the gods would be applied. But such communications too would often be soaked in poppy juice; some of the divinities addressed clearly appreciated a well-prepared concoction. Sexual practices were scrutinised and regulated, circumlocutions in some periods being as inventive as in Victorian Britain. The fact in particular that opium could counteract carnal urges did not escape the notice of the pharaonic healers. Incest was a grave sin in the Old and Middle Kingdoms (though not among royalty and under the later dynasties) and, when feared, poppy juice was an effective prophylactic. Unlike most modern textbooks, the papyri recognised that some ailments were incurable and should therefore be treated with prayers rather than with medicines; but even in such cases poppy juice was prescribed to ease the passing.
Inevitably over a period of thousands of years medical practices both in Egypt and in Mesopotamia changed. A high degree of specialisation developed in the Nile Valley under the XVIII dynasty in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BC, a time of intense artistic and spiritual ferment. Written note taking of individual patients became formalised. Medical clichés would blossom even in hieroglyphics: indeed pictograms were well suited to convey platitudes. Many case histories would mention consultations with specialist dentists, bone surgeons, gynaecologists, gastroenterologists, oculists and experts on drugs and potions. The last were among the most highly esteemed. They advised on the processing of the poppy, an expertise requiring long training as well as inborn aptitude.
* * *
The blessings of Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisation were spread by the Phoenicians and other seafaring people. Their traders sold special knives for incising the capsule of the poppy; and, sailing along the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast, found profitable markets. In the 1930s digging up Minoan remains on the island of Crete archaeologists unearthed a charming female figurine with a come-hither smile (usually described as archaic) and crowned with a tiara of poppy capsules. The lady, initially labelled the Goddess of Healing, seems to have adorned a windowless opium den which, buried under volcanic ash, survived unchanged for three thousand years. Even more surprising was the collection of bronze needles found on mainland Greece in the 1970s and dating from before 1500 BC. Mystifying at first, they were probably prehistoric yen-hoks, the pins used by Chinese mandarins centuries later to pierce wads of opium over charcoal grills and let the wisps of smoke billow to their nostrils. Some of the heads of the prehistoric needles are hollow and fashioned into the shape of poppy pods.
Phoenicians also carried and sold copies of medical texts enshrining the discoveries of Egyptian and Mesopotamian doctors. Hippocrates revered the physicians of Thebes and Karnak; and even Galen, notoriously sparing of praise other than of himself, would write with approval of the cures performed by Amenhotep, son of Hapu. The Greeks too began to ponder what the secret of the poppy might be. And how did one particular species of the plant and no other acquire its magical properties?
Chapter TwoThe magical seepage
To the second question there is still no certain answer. Some botanists believe that the opium-yielding white poppy evolved naturally, the result of mutations in response to quirks of climate and geography. But others have suggested that Papaver somniferum was the result of deliberate selection by generations of prehistoric cultivators. That may sound far-fetched but would not be unique. Though spread over millennia, the cumulative ingenuity of these pre-human plantsmen equalled anything their modern descendants have achieved.
Poppies are a bounteous tribe: no less than 28 genera and over 280 species flourish in the temperate and subtropical zones of the northern hemisphere. Many have been and still are cultivated for their beauty. The Welsh poppy, the blue or Syrian 'tulip' poppy, the charmingly reticent off-white Alpine poppy, the subarctic Iceland poppy, the lush purple California poppy are wonderfully cheering and ornamental. In the wild the flower is a single bloom; but double blooms and varieties with serrated and fringed petals have been bred. Among the most exquisite though difficult to grow are the Pink Chiffon and the Oriental Paeony, both natives of Asia Minor and for centuries the adornment of Byzantine empresses.
In all this rich multiformity it is only the P. somniferum and the P. bacteatum which produce opium in significant amounts, the former being the easier to cultivate. It is an annual with a growth cycle of 120 days and requires a moderately rich, well-cultivated soil. In the wild it is most likely to flourish in earth that has been recently dug, ploughed or, most effectively, torn apart by shrapnel. Blood is a good fertiliser. The best climate is warm to temperate with not too much rainfall during the early stages of the development cycle. Sandy loam is ideal since it retains moisture and nutrients and is not too hard to penetrate for the delicate first roots. The opium poppy is a 'long-day' photosensitive plant: that is, it needs to grow through a period of long days and short nights, preferably with direct sunlight for at least twelve hours a day.
All this may sound demanding; but in most parts of the world the plant is easy to grow. It does not require regular irrigation or expensive chemicals; it has few pests and therefore does not depend on insecticides or fungicides. This is what makes it in poor countries an irreplaceable cash crop. The seeds are naturally sown by the pod blowing in the wind and shaking its contents like a pepper pot; but when sown deliberately they are dropped in rows of shallow holes made by a stick called the dibber. About 5,600 grammes are usually sown per acre. The timing depends on weather conditions and forecasting and requires intuition and experience; but other cash crops like peas, beans or tobacco can be planted alongside the poppy. All highly satisfactory for the poor farmer and his numerous brood.
The seeds germinate quickly and within six weeks the plant is established. It first looks like an ugly young cabbage, consisting of a bare stem or peduncle and secondary branches called tillers. Both stem and tillers are covered with velvety hairs. Eventually the plant can reach a height of between 90 and 150 centimetres, the tooth-edged leaves appearing on alternate sides. As the single buds at the ends of stem and tillers develop, the stem and tillers bend under their weight; but as the buds mature the stems too strengthen and begin to point upwards. About ninety days after germination the flowers start to bloom.
The event is magical though the poppy does not display its full glory at once. For about thirty-six hours it looks crumpled like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. But then, suddenly, the four petals separate and expand, each slightly overlapping one neighbour. Their delicacy and freshness have enchanted artists since time immemorial. They are the first flowers children paint. The traditional opium poppy is usually described as white but is more ivory-coloured; and there are rarer pink, crimson, faintly purple and multihued varieties. The colour fades delicately from the base to the edge of the petals. Even in countries where the plant is a weed, the moment of flowering is relished, at least by visiting townies. Inside the flower a ring of spikes, so-called anthers, marks the site of the future pod. Swarms of insects descend and get on with their job.
Excerpted from OPIUM by THOMAS DORMANDY Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Dormandy. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Thomas Dormandy is a retired consultant pathologist, Whittington Hospital, University of London, and Brunel University, London. He is the author of several books, including the prize-winning The White Death: A History of Tuberculosis. He lives in London.
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