Pharmacy in medieval Islam and the history of drug addiction

Pharmacy in medieval Islam and the history of drug addiction

Pharmacy in medieval Islam and the history of drug addiction

Sami Hamarneh

Medical History: Vol.16:3 (1972)


Drug addiction, especially through the use of poppy (Papaver somniferum Linn.) and hemp (Cannabis sativa Linn.), is the main concern of this paper. Although the use of these two plants in medieval Islam was extensive, yet little has been written on this timely subject by historians of medicine and pharmacology. Consulting contemporary original sources, it is my hope to sketch a history of their spread and consumption and the social, economic, political and medical consequences of their misuse. Other drugs of addiction, which were also in wide use then, will not be dealt with in detail.

The places of origin of poppy and hemp are assumed. But it seems probable that poppy was indigenous to Asia Minor and northern Mesopotamia, Persia and India, areas where poppy is still cultivated. There is no doubt that the ancient peoples of these regions used it as a remedy to relieve pain and induce pleasure or sleep. From these Asian countries, the poppy was brought to Egypt during the 18th Dynasty, if not earlier. Of the two closely related varieties known there, Papaver somniferum and P. rhoeas, the last was reported to have been cultivated in the gardens of the pharaohs, represented in their ornaments, and depicted in ancient paintings. In Greco-Roman times, Egypt, particularly the Thebes (Luxor) area of upper Egypt, became a famous centre for growing poppies and exporting opium (opium thebaicum) to the Greek islands and throughout the Mediterranean world. Through commercial sea routes and by way of Minoan Crete, poppy and its effective latex (juice), opium, were carried and used by the ancient Greeks. Kritikos
and Papadaki reported two legends in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, one that Demeter, in despair over the seizure of her daughter Persephone by Pluto, ate opium or poppy (nepenthe, in Greek) to sleep and lose consciousness of her grief; and the other that Helen gave it to Telemachus and his comrade to forget their sorrows. So extensive
was the poppy culture that poppy capsules were represented for ornamentation on statues of ancient Greek deities and have been found on excavated figurines, bas-reliefs, vases, tombstones, coins and jewellery.

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