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Poppy and opium in ancient times: remedy or narcotic?

Ana María Rosso

Abstract


Ancient Egyptian and Greek pharmacopoeias reveal frequent use of different drugs, somniferous or narcotic, which contain poisonous elements. Among the toxic plants enumerated by Dioscorides, we find poppy and others. Egyptians were fond of taking these narcotic or euphoric substances attributed to nepenthes, but it is difficult to prove whether ancient people were aware of modern aspects of addiction. Poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) and opium have a more interesting history. Probably introduced into Egypt in the Ancient Kingdom, poppy was widely cultivated during the times of Akhenaton and Tutankhamon and even later. Opium was used to make people sleep, to relieve pain and to quiet the nerves because it acts on the nervous system and psychic functions. Even today, the etymologies of the twenty or so alkaloids it comprises, among them morphine, thebaine and heroin, sometimes recall Greek beliefs and Egyptian places. The Smith and Ebers Papyri show medical applications of poppy plants: to cure breast abscesses, to calm crying children, as eye drops and in ointments. Composed of many grains, poppy capsules were believed to have aphrodisiac properties and were a symbol of fertility. There are a few other indications that these drugs were used, but no signs of addiction among ancient people.

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