Do you know the “Telephone game”? As children we called it “Chinese whispers”, but this is racist (in exactly the same way “mumbo jumbo” is), so the name appropriately got the heave ho. In German it is called “Stille Post”. This game involves a child whispering to another child a rhyming phrase and this gets passed around to another child and another child in a circle. The entertaining part is how the original phrase changes as it gets passed around from person to person.
So where am I going with this?
This knack humans have for rewriting repeated information is also demonstrated in academia and the media, unfortunately for information that is published in articles, books and on blogs. Today’s cranky pants piece therefore takes wider aim than just fringe pseudos, or the media, because the source of this type of error is also due to sloppiness on the part of academics.
Dried papaver somniferum pods and seeds. Source Wikipedia.
How so, you ask?
Well, we are all experts in our fields, but I emphasise “in our field”, not all fields, so what happens when say a medical historian is writing a book or paper on a disease or drug that they are studying and they wish to open their discussion with an historical overview? The answer ought to be cross disciplinary interaction, ie: they talk to/read papers by someone who is an expert.
More often than not, however, academics may refer to previous publications from their own field. These publications themselves may have also done this, and their predecessors, until one ends up at an original medical or historical text from say 1888, by some scholar who drew a long bow with very limited evidence.
A telephone game that isn’t quite as amusing as the original.
A particularly fine example of this is the assumption that pops up in otherwise legitimate medical publications that the ancient Egyptians placed a crocodile on a patient’s head to treat migraines. Sure, a crocodile, on his head … pics, or it never happened... A recent paper by Egyptologist Lutz Popko (2018) has thankfully effectively debunked this myth ... spoiler alert ... it was an amulet.
Therefore, it is perhaps stating the obvious that this sort of thing is a real problem for the sharing of accurate information, and for educating the public, which brings us to today’s topic.
Opium use in the Bronze Age Near East
Two cultures are ubiquitously cited for the domestication and use of the opium poppy (papaver somniferum) in antiquity: ancient Egypt and Sumer. These civilisations are cited ad infinitum in papers, books, the media, drug and herbal websites, the Wikipedia page included, and naturally in pseudo science. Often Sumer is also credited with the first domestication of the plant.
However, the only places it is almost impossible to find discussion of these claims is from their specialist fields: Egyptology and Assyriology.
So much misinformation here - PBS News 1997 (accessed 2020) - cited in “0pium (Ancient Use)” Wikipedia.
Much as it would be convenient to shout “toeing the party line” and “it’s a conspiracy” to the rafters, or argue that the geriatric professors who somehow control the universe are in denial about drugs and drug use, (ooh ... shocking), the solution is actually that both fields spend a lot of time studying this stuff and they can find no conclusive textual or visual evidence to support these theories ...
Well that’s awkward.
In academia, no evidence is rather a big stumbling block to getting that PhD, or in fact for surviving a conference with your ego intact. However, the topics of the use of psychoactive and medicinal plants on the other hand have provoked numerous interesting studies.
But this is not why I am here, this post is about the myths that just won’t go away, so where exactly have these ideas come from?
Sumer (ca. 4000-2000 BCE)
The attribution of poppies to Sumer in both literature and the media is an astonishing mish mash of interpretations that are often all loosely based on the claim that the Sumerians called the opium poppy: HUL GIL, supposedly the “joy plant”. This name is, for the record, two signs (ideograms) in Sumerian, not one. Three if you include the determinative for plant.
The use of this term may be traced back to a publication by a medical doctor A. R. Neligan from 1927, “The Opium Question”. In it he cites personal communications from Assyriologist R. C. Thompson who believed he had found the word for opium in texts from Nineveh. Another Assyriologist A. P. Dougherty also gets the credit for the translation depending on your source. Their source was an article by P. Haupt from 1916, “Assyrisch irrû, Mohn” (“Assyrian irrû, poppy”).
Thompson later published his conclusions in 1949 where he claimed – Sumerian šamUKUŠ.RIM (Akkadian - irrû) was the poppy plants, papaver rhoeas and somniferum, and opium. He also went to town on possible epithets for the poppy like “plant of life”, or “maiden of the fields”, all incidentally very long bows and his identifications are extraordinarily inconsistent. Dougherty threw in the ḪÚL.GÍL variant for the transliteration of UKUŠ.RIM.
There are two problems: these are neither Sumerian period texts (Neo-Assyrian, ca. 700-600 BCE), nor is the translation correct, yes, ḪÚL (UKUŠ) is a sign that can mean “be happy” or “rejoice”, and this meaning will have been a factor in Haupt and others identifying the plant as a poppy. However, GÍL (or HAB) makes less sense here, it does not mean “plant”, it means “stinking” or “fetid”.
Also the sign that was used for plants was GIŠ/gesh (Thompson’s šam).
But regardless of the individual meanings of the signs, it turns out that the reading by Thomson and Dougherty is not correct: ḪÚL without the plant sign giš means “to be happy”, but with it the sign is read as - gišUKUŠ, (or irrû), and it is not a poppy, instead a sound argument has always been made for a vegetable. Assyriology lexica of the last 50 years list this plant as – “a cucumber”. gišḪÚL.GÍL (UKUŠ.HAB) is a “stink“, or “bitter cucumber”.
The Nippur medical tablet. Image Ⓒ Penn Museum.
The Nippur tablet (ca. 2100-2000 BCE)
Another common claim for this topic is that the opium poppy is first mentioned in a Sumerian cuneiform text from Nippur. This claim is sort of correct, the tablet with medical text is real, although it is definitely one, not many tablets. It dates to the Ur III period or slightly later, at the very end of Sumerian influence in Mesopotamia (some sources cite ridiculously early dates, which is awkward, as the Sumerians could not write ingredient lists, let alone complete sentences in 3800-3400 BCE).
However, again, the problem lies with using redundant interpretations of the damaged tablet. In 1959 Samuel Noah Kramer translated this text, but his identification of the word poppy has, like the others, since been rejected. In this case it appears his reading of the signs is no longer accepted. The standard reference for this tablet is Civil (1960) and, assuming my reading of his notes is correct, Civil identifies the two signs as GUGx (now GUG4), a type of marsh reed or rush.
Therefore, currently the identification of poppy plants or opium in Mesopotamian texts remains unresolved.
Robert Sepehr maintaining his lazy and casual approach to accuracy. From his Facebook page.
Neo-Assyrian images (ca. 700-600 BCE)
To add insult to injury, there are no secure identifications of the plant from the various arts of Sumer, or in fact confirmed examples from any early Mesopotamian culture. Those cool images of Neo-Assyrian ritual figures that are always shown for this topic are not only not Sumerian, but they cannot be confirmed to be holding poppies, no matter what some pseudo on the internet writes.
Fruits held by an Apkallu demon from Neo-Assyrian Nimrud, Pergammon Museum, Berlin. Image Wiki.
Iconography is highly dependant on the culture and their rules of representation. Because of this, the plants on these reliefs could just as easily be pomegranates or even lotus seed pods. Personally, I favour pomegranates, because poppies have a serrated circular crown, whereas pomegranates have pointy split open crowns, and these fruits are known to have held a lot of symbolic value in Mesopotamia. Poppies are also easily identified by the rim around the stem that is just below the pod. Pomegranates do not have these, nor do the plants on the reliefs.
The news is not all bad from Mesopotamia though, and archaeology while meagre has provided at least one interesting example of poppy plant residues that may well have been associated with medical and ritual consumption.
The excavation of a royal palace at the site of Ebla in Syria found vessels containing seed, flower, leaf and stem residues from herbs such as - euphorbia, calendula, chamomile, hawthorn, heliotrope, thyme and poppy. The palace dates to the late Early Bronze Age, ca. 2300 BCE which is slightly earlier than the Nippur tablet, and at least hints at the possibility that the opium poppy was present at the end of the 3rd millennium, however the botanist C. Wachter-Sarkady states that the samples were from wild plants of the papaveraceae family, so in this case these could also possibly be wild corn poppy remains (Wachter-Sarkady 2014).
It looks like the poppy was present in Mesopotamia around this time, but the name/s for these varieties and whether papaver somniferum was grown, and opium produced, are yet to be established.
Contemporary Assyriologists who specialise in this topic state:
“It seems that Papaver somniferum is absent from the cuneiform record or the
plant is hidden behind one of the many plant names that cannot be identified”.
(Professor Barbara Böck, forthcoming 2021)
And yes, to revert to my earlier observations, this is not a field that I am an expert in, so I asked someone who is. Professor Böck was very helpful and she also confirmed that ḪÚL.GÍL for the poppy plant must be an early error in translation.
Papyrus Ebers, Albertina Library, Leipzig. Image Wikipedia.
Ancient Egypt: The Ebers Medical Papyrus (ca. 1500 BCE)
Late Bronze Age Egypt is potentially a source for evidence supporting opium use in medicine, or at least an awareness of this, as the Egyptians were importing the little poppy pod juglets (ring base) from Cyprus that may have contained opium (Collard 2011, Chovanec et al 2015).
In fact, tests of juglets have found that most contained plant oils, and currently the only positive
evidence for opium in a Cypriot juglet is from a vessel that has no provenance, which basically means we
don't know where it came from (Merlin 2003, Bunimovitz and Leberman 2016).
Cypriot base ware juglets from the British Museum. Image Ⓒ British Museum.
Opium traces in an alabaster 7 sacred oils vase are commonly also claimed to have been found in a funerary context at Western Thebes dating from around 1350 BCE (tomb of Kha). This finding from 1925 has since been refuted after further testing of the alabaster vessels from this tomb in 1992 (Bisset et al 1996). So no joy there either, but this has not prevented further claims of a thriving opium industry in Egypt at that time.
From opium in a vase in the tomb of Kha to thriving industry - Rosso 2010
However, unlike Mesopotamia, the poppy plant was also held in high esteem by the Egyptians in their visual symbolism at this time, although it ought to be emphasised that this poppy was not necessarily somniferum, rather they valued the lovely bright red corn poppy with black markings - papaver rhoeas. Most depictions and plant remains of poppy from New Kingdom Egypt appear to be rhoeas.
This is another potential confusion that is even possible among Egyptologists, after all the word “poppy” refers to all varieties of papaver.
Faience tile with red corn poppies from late 18th Dynasty Egypt. Image Ⓒ Louvre Museum.
But the ubiquitous citation of the Ebers papyrus as evidence of the medical use of opium in Egypt is misleading. In fact, quite conveniently, I am working with a translation of the text at the moment, so when I first saw this claim I pricked up my ears, as this is also a spell that I had found amusing.
Remedy 782 - A remedy for quieting a crying child, that has the ingredients - špnn part of a špn (shepen) plant and propolis (or fly faeces) from a wall - grind them up, give it to the kid for 4 days and voila, no crying …. oh and seriously yuck btw.
It is probably worth pointing out that only 4 among the 877 remedies in this papyrus use špnn as an ingredient, the other 3 (440, 443, 445) are powders or creams that are rubbed on the head; possibly for hair loss, or some sort of skin lesion (like herpes), they are not consumed by the patient. If špn is related to the poppy, which is not confirmed, these might be poppy seeds ‒ or something completely different.
For the origin of the špn claim the same scenario exists as does for ḪÚL.GÍL, a resourceful medical doctor (Lüring 1888) concluded that the plant must be a poppy (papaver setigerum or papaver somniferum), because … well what else would stop a baby screaming? No evidence. Just, it could fit, so let’s make it fit ... and incidentally no mention of the effect of finely ground fly faeces on a crying child.
I would also add that I would hesitate to endorse the effectiveness of many of these remedies.
Therefore, contemporary Egyptological lexica and botanical texts, when they list the plant or fruit of špn, cautiously classify it as - (?), “identification unsure”, or “perhaps poppy”. When poppy is cited, which is rare, the “špnn part of špn” is listed as “poppy seeds”.
I have no idea where he pulled "gift of the gods" from, but if it is legit, it will be from the classical period when we have evidence of opium. However, I suspect this is creative licence built around the opening passages of the Ebers Papyrus, where Thoth is credited with promoting the writing down of remedies (not specifically opium).
Remedy 247 - The other remedy that may be cited for opium is for an illness in the head - a remedy that the goddess Isis made for the sun god Re - This claim is also erroneous, and translates the fruit or seeds of ḫꜣs.yt (khasyt) as the opium poppy pod. The example from Saunders above is a poor translation, and he incidentally leaves out an ingredient.
This claim is originally from Cyril Bryan (1930) who was loosely translating a German version of the Ebers papyrus by Henrich Joachim (1890). Joachim however hedged his bets in his translation and named špn (citing Lüring 1888), ḫꜣs.yt and ẖsꜣ.yt (citing Henri Brugsch 1880) as being the opium poppy. Bryan did likewise - three different plants were translated as opium poppies.
In this case the identification of ḫꜣs.yt is another elaborate telephone game and leads back to the hieroglyphic dictionary in which Brugsch made a tenuous linguistic connection to argue opium for the word ẖsꜣ.yt (hezayt) .. not khasyt, but hezayt... because he thought this was derived from the verb ẖs "to be tired". And, you know, opium makes you sleepy.
Two different words that look and sound “a bit” alike (in our English translation), that are incidentally still capable of confusing the hell out of me. And don't even get me started on the opium makes you sleepy bit....
However, all of this material is totally out of date, and right at this moment the identity of ḫꜣs.yt is disputed, but the poppy has ceased to play any role in this issue, it is probably a bryony. The other one, ẖsꜣ.yt, is thought to be an aromatic resin, like myrrh (Germer 2008).
To sum up, the Ebers papyrus does not provide conclusive evidence of opium use in Egyptian medicine.
Archaeological evidence has confirmed the first human domestication of the opium poppy may be dated to the Neolithic, 4000-3000 BCE from sites in Switzerland, France and Germany. Not the Sumerians, nor the Egyptians. Scientific evidence, on the other hand, appears in the eastern Mediterranean much later than this, in the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BCE). Archaeological evidence from Mesopotamia proper is inconveniently even later and from the 1st millennium (Merlin 2003).
And it is a singular handicap to any argument that there is no secure identification of a name for the poppy plant from Mesopotamian or pharaonic Egyptian texts … nothing … except the disputed - špn. However, there is no reason to assume that the Egyptians, at least after 1500 BCE, could not have had a word, but it may be among the names we don’t recognise …
In the case of Mesopotamia, the same applies, but it is unlikely that the Sumerians of the 4th or 3rd millennia knew the plant, as it too may have arrived from the west much later, long after the demise of Sumer, along with the Late Bronze Age interregional trade in Cypriot juglets. There is currently no secure evidence from the Sumerian period for the domestication of the opium poppy, although I see no reason to exclude the possibility.
The lexical identifications of ḪÚL.GÍL, ḫꜣs.yt and špn as papaver somniferum/the opium poppy plant were originally made in the late 19th and early 20th century, and these identifications have each been debunked since the 1970s ... They are redundant ... Therefore, anyone still citing these terms in the past 50 years has not done their homework, regardless of whether they were academic, a neo-pagan “Sumerian high priest” or a tin foil hat wearing pseudo.
The evidence for the narcotic opium and for ecstatic ritual drug use in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in the Bronze Age is currently flimsy at best. The same applies to the medicinal use of parts of the plant. This is not withstanding that we know the papaver plants were exploited for the seeds and an oil from the seeds (and who knows what else) by humans for approximately 6000 years, not just for the latex from the pods, therefore, it is also really important to remember that every potential ancient reference to the poppy does not equal opium.
Mmmm… poppy seed cake.
So to sum up the rather ridiculous situation illustrated here, the general public cannot be derided for believing a false claim that is plastered throughout reputedly legitimate texts and then is spread online in the media, Wiki, literature, and even government websites on drugs. This is hardly the public’s error, it is a preventable error that has multiplied exponentially over 100 years, like the telephone game, but sometimes with added aliens.
If you have nothing better to do, I suggest you try a simple Google search of HUL GIL … seriously, the results will melt your brain (and incite feelings of futility). But the question then arises, just what can a member of the general public (or a student) do when faced with this problem? – where you don’t know whether a claim in a text is correct;
First of all think critically, don’t think paranoid, they are not necessarily trying to deceive you. If something is not your field of expertise it can be stuffed up, but importantly, academics are human, we can make dumb mistakes when it is not our specialty, this does not make the rest of our research flawed.
However, there are two easy methods to check on a claim: Is the author an expert on this specific topic? If not, tread cautiously, try to confirm their statement elsewhere, did they provide source? ... double check, triple check even … preferably various reliable sources.
And secondly: How old is the source they are citing? Because if it is from the late 19th - early 20th century … seriously, back away slowly and try not to make eye contact. If a claim ticks both boxes, walk away briskly and definitely don’t share it in a paper or book … I’m begging you.
Trust no-one, or rather, to put it more accurately, do not trust people who do not provide sources, and trust information and experts when the available information supports this decision, because they really do know cool stuff. Don’t be paranoid, be cautious, and always, always, require that your source provides their sources.
This is the reason why citations are so important to scholars.
(updated April 2021)
PS: Poppy seed cake
- 60 gm butter + 1/2 cup sugar + vanilla (cream in a bowl)
- beat in 2 eggs
- add 1 cup poppy seeds + 1 cup flour (pinch bicarb) + 1 cup almond meal + splash of milk
- mix without overworking, put in greased baking tray,
- bake for 40-50 mins at 175°C/350°F (time depends on your oven)
- I glaze mine with a lemon and orange syrup (with glazed orange peel)
I must warmly thank two experts on these topics that I would not have written this without –
- Ebers papyrus - Dr Lutz Popko of the Science in Ancient Egypt website/Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae in Leipzig with whom I am collaborating at the moment and whose translation (and notes) were my source.
- Assyriology materia medica - Professor Barbara Böck of the Instituto de Lenguas y Culturas del Mediterráneo y Oriente in Madrid.
Also Frank Merten and Dr Silvia Gabrieli who hunted down texts for me.
References and further reading
Bisset, N. G., J. G. Bruhn, S. Curto, B. Holmstedt, U. Nyman, and M. H. Zenk 1994. ”Was Opium Known in 18th Dynasty Ancient Egypt? An Examination of Materials from the Tomb of the Chief Royal Architect Kha.” Ägypten und Levante 6: 199-201.
Böck, B. 2020. “Investigating the healing arts of Ancient Mesopotamia.”
Böck, B. pending in 2021 “Mind-altering plants in Babylonian medical sources.” In D. Stein, S. Kielt Costello & K. Polinger Foster, The Routledge Companion to Ecstatic Experience in the Ancient World.
Breen, B. 2018. “Opium or cucumber: Debunking a myth about Sumerian drugs.”
Bunimovitz, S. and Z. Lederman 2016. “Opium or Oil? Late Bronze Age Cypriot Base Ring Juglets and International Trade Revisited.” Antiquity 90(354): 1552-1561.
Chovanec, Z., S. Bunimovitz, and Z. Lederman 2015. “Is there Opium Here? - An Analysis of Cypriot Base Ring Ware Juglets from Tel Beth-Shemesh, Israel.” Mediterrranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 15(2): 175-189.
Civil, M. 1960. “Prescriptiens médicales Sumériennes.” Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale 54(1), pp. 60-72.
Collard, D. 2011. Altered States of Consciousness and Ritual in Late Bronze Age Cyprus. Nottingham University: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/12322/1/complete_text.pdf
Drenkhahn, R. 1976. Die Handwerker und ihre Tätigkeiten im Alten Ägypten. ÄA 31, 58-59.
Germer, R. 2008. Handbuch der altägyptischen Heilpflanzen. Harrasowitz, pp. 98-100, 131-132.
Krikorian, A. D. 1975. “Were the Opium Poppy and Opium Known in the Ancient Near East?” Journal of the History of Biology 8: 95-114.
Manniche, L. 2006. Ancient Egyptian Herbal. British Museum, London. pp. 130-132.
Merlin, M. D. 2003 “Archaeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World.” Economic Botany 57(3): 295-323.
Popko, L. 2018. “Some Notes on Papyrus Ebers, Ancient Egyptian Treatments of Migraine, and a Crocodile on the Patient’s Head.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 92(2): 352-366.
Vacca A., L. Peyronel and C. Wachter-Sarkady 2017. “An Affair of Herbal Medicine? The ‘Special’ Kitchen in the Royal Palace of Ebla” - http://www.asor.org/anetoday/2017/11/kitchen-ebla
Wachter-Sarkady, C. 2014. “Consuming plants: Archaeobotanical samples from Royal Palace G and Building P4.” In P. Matthiae and N. Marchetti, Ebla and its Landscape, California, pp. 376-402.
Sherratt, A. 2007. “Alcohol and its Alternatives: Symbol and Substance in Pre-Industrial Societies.” In J. Goodman, P. E. Lovejoy and A. Sherratt, Consuming Habits: Global and Historical Perspectives on how Cultures define Drugs. New York, pp 11-45.
Sinclair, A. 2021. "High
Times in Ancient Egypt: The Use and Abuse of Psychoactive Plant Identifications
in Alternative-Egyptology.” Presentation given at the Alternative Egyptology Symposium, Allard Pierson Museum, Amstredam, April 14/2012.
Obsolete sources for the opium poppy
Bryan, C. P. 1930. The Papyrus Ebers: Translated from the German Version. London, p. 40.
Haupt, P. 1916. “Assyrisch irrû, Mohn”. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 30: 60-66.
Joachim, H. 1890. Papyros Ebers: Das älteste Buch über Heilkunde. Berlin.
Kramer, S. N. 1959.
“The World’s Oldest Known Prescriptions.” CIBA Journal 12: 2-7.
Lüring, H. L. E. 1888. Die über die medizinischen Kenntnisse der alten Ägypter berichtenden Papyri verglichen mit den medizinischen Schriften griechischer und römischer Autoren. Leipzig, p. 45.
Neligan, A. R. 1927. The Opium Question with Special Reference to Persia. London.
Thompson, R. C. 1949. A Dictionary of Assyrian Botany. London, pp. 223-230.
Articles and books that regurgitate variations on the myth
Brownstein, M. J. 1993. “A Brief History of Opiates, Opioid Peptides and Opioid Receptors.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 90(12): 5391–5393.
Chovanec, Z. 2019. “Examining the history of the opium poppy in the eastern Mediterranean and central Europe”. OpenArchem - https://openarchem.com/2019/04/07/examining-the-history-of-the-opium-poppy-in-the-eastern-mediterranean-and-central-europe/
Cressey, C. 2011. “Ancient Sumer: Origins of Cuneiform Writing.” Pagan Friends Forum: Beltane 2011 - https://thepaganfriends.wordpress.com/tag/roadkill/#cressey
Cressey also repeats this in a Youtube video -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QtydlO6ES0
Doce, E. G. 2017. “Joy Plants: And the Earliest Toasts in the Ancient Near East.” ASOR blog - http://www.asor.org/anetoday/2017/03/joy-plants-earliest-toasts-ancient-near-east/
Duarte, F. D. 2005. Opium, Opioids: A Brief History. Revista Brasileira de Anastesiologia.
Halpern, J. H. and D. Blistein 2019. Opium: How an Ancient Flower Shaped and Poisoned Our World. New York.
Rosso, A. M. 2010. “Poppy and Opium in Ancient Times: Remedy or Narcotic.” Biomedicine International 1:8-87.
Saunders, N. J. 2013. The Poppy: A Cultural History from Ancient Egypt to Flanders Fields to Afghanistan. London.
Schiff, P. L. 2002. “Opium and its Alkaloids.” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 66: 2.
Wikipedia - Opium - Ancient Use (Pre-500 CE) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium
Woods, S. P. and D. N. Daniel, 2014. Neuropsychological Aspects of Substance Use Disorders: Evidence-Based Perspectives. Oxford.
There are many many more