The Papaver somniferum is not just a pretty flower, and the Ancient Greeks knew it. They were well aware of the powerful analgesic properties of the opium poppy and used it to treat pain and insomnia. It was a serious case of poppy love that shaped everything from ancient mythology to the English language.
Many Greek nocturnal gods became symbolically associated with the poppy, and the word opium itself comes from the Ancient Greek word for poppy juice, “opion.” This is a journey from magical poppy plants through mythology to modern words.
One of history’s longest drug addictions
Humanity was having a love affair with the opium poppy before we could even be bothered to write down our own history. Opium poppies, or as the Sumerians affectionately called them, Hul Gil (“joy plant”), were cultivated in Mesopotamia as early as 3400 BCE.
Seriously, about the same time that humans invented writing, we were also getting extremely high. Tell that to the next person who tells you that drugs are bad for your brain (but actually don’t, because many of them really are).
By around 1500 BCE, the Egyptians were busy writing medical texts advising people on the use of opium to stop a crying child. A word of advice, though—even if you do manage to get your hands on the ancient Ebers Papyrus and can for some weird reason read hieratic Egyptian, please don’t try that at home.
The Ancient Greeks quickly developed a love for the milky elixir, and the opium poppy soon weaved its way into mythology.
Gods are high in more ways than one.
The opium poppy was associated with various gods within Greek mythology. Both Hypnos, the personification of sleep, and his powerful mother Nyx, the goddess of night, were shown holding or wearing poppies that, while very pretty, actually symbolized sleep and death.
Hypnos’ twin brother, Thanatos (the god of peaceful death), was also depicted wearing a crown of poppies, linking opium to pain relief during death even in ancient times.
Even the entrance to Hypnos’s dark cave in the underworld was lined with poppies, and it’s a safe bet to assume it wasn’t because he was really into gardening. Lucky for him, though, today’s harsh penalties for growing the opium poppy didn’t exist in the underworld; prison is no place for gods.
Tales of Hypnos often revolved around sleep. Zeus’s wife and sister Hera once asked Hypnos to put Zeus to sleep so that he wouldn’t find out she was torturing his son, Hercules. I can’t be sure, but it’s fairly likely that Hypnos’ sleep-inducing powers didn’t come from being really great at lullabies. Who needs softly sung songs when you have hard drugs?
From mythology to language.
The gods associated with the poppy in Greek mythology still pop up within the English language today. Hypnos’ name in Greek (Ὕπνος) means sleep. From this comes the modern words hypnosis, a relaxed and suggestive state of human consciousness, and hypnagogia, the transitional state between being asleep and awake.
One of Hypnos’ brothers was Geras (Γῆρας), the god of old age. Geras was depicted as a shrivelled old man and represented the fear of old age and the poverty and bad health that came with it. From the Ancient Greek geras combined with iatrós (“physician”), we also get the English term geriatrics, the medical field of caring for the elderly.
When the Greeks were conquered by the Roman Empire in 146 BCE, Greek mythology was not forgotten, and neither was Hypnos.
The Romans incorporated many Greek mythological characters with their own and created the Roman equivalent of Hypnos: Somnus.
If that sounds familiar, it may be because the scientific name for the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is named after him. Somniferum is Latin for “I bring sleep” and comes from somnus and ferre (bring). His name also gave us the English word insomnia (in- “not,” somnus “sleep”).
Don’t listen to your parents—there’s always a favorite child.
Together with his wife Pasithea, the goddess of hallucinations or relaxation, Hypnos had four sons collectively known as the Oneiroi (Greek for “dreams”). They all lived in a dream world protected by the Gates of Morpheus, kind of like today’s rich kids.
His four sons were Phobetor, the personification of nightmares, Phantasos, known for making fake dreams, Ikelos, known for making realistic dreams, and the clear favorite child, Morpheus, the winged god of dreams.
Morpheus can appear in human form within dreams (cue The Matrix), and his name inspired the name of the opiate wonder-drug morphine.
Morphine is one of several opiates (analgesic alkaloid compounds) found in opium poppies. The hippies were right—flowers really can change the world.
Morphine was isolated between 1803 and 1805 by Friedrich Sertürner in what was the first isolation of an active ingredient from a plant. He named it morphium after the god Morpheus because of its ability to put people to sleep, and also because (5α,6α)-7,8-didehydro-4,5-epoxy-17-methylmorphinan-3,6-diol is a bit of a mouthful for most of us.
A true wonder drug, morphine acts on the central nervous system to decrease pain. Try having surgery without it.
Yet despite being the stuff of miracles, morphine only became widely used after 1853 following the invention of the hypodermic needle and syringe. And just like morphine, the word syringe is also derived from Greek mythology.
Syrinx was a nymph who asked to be turned into a tuft of reeds after Pan the satyr tried to rape her. It was a very strange request (she probably would have been better off with some counselling), but we’re not going to “reed” too much into it.
The sound of air passing through the hollow reeds made such a lovely sound that the musical instrument the panpipe, or syrinx, was named after her. From the Greek σύριγξ (syrinx) came the word syringe.
The Greek empire’s love and acceptance of opium laid the foundation for its popularity today. The famous Greek physician Hippocrates (c.460–c.370 BC), aka the father of Western medicine, called the juice of the poppy “meconium” and encouraged its use—and boy did we take his advice. In 2013 alone, an estimated 523,000 kilograms of morphine was produced.
But opium has been both a gift of history and a curse. Between 1889 and 1910, the evil nemesis of morphine, heroin, was widely marketed by the German Bayer pharmaceutical company as both a cough suppressant and a non-addictive substitute for morphine. It is one of the funniest (or least funny, if you’re one of those people who subscribes to the “sarcasm is the lowest form of humor” mantra) jokes in history. The story would probably make a good Greek tragedy.
The Ancient Greeks laid the foundation for much of Western society and modern medicine. It’s unsurprising, then, that so much of our language is derived from Greek mythology…and that our drug habits somewhat stem from there too.