The history of the poppy and of opium and their expansion in antiquity in the eastern Mediterranean area


30. Coins depicting the poppy capsule


Pages: 5 to 10
Creation Date: 1967/01/01

The history of the poppy and of opium and their expansion in antiquity in the eastern Mediterranean area *

Professor, Dr P. G. KRITIKOS
Laboratory of Pharmacognosy, University of Athens, Greece, [translated by George Michalopoulos]


The poppy, both in plant and in capsule form, appears on various coins of the Greek and Roman period.

We append illustrations of a few coins which testify to the use of the poppy as a symbol of various divinities [ 142] (Fig. 30).

The original of this article is in Greek.

Part I of this article was published in the preceding number of the Bulletin (Vol. XIX, No. 3)

Full size image: 25 kB

Thus, on a coin of Ankyra Phrygia [ 143] (2nd century A.D.) the poppy-head is shown with two cornears (Fig. 30b); on the reverse of another coin from Ephesus [ 144] (79-81 A.D.), Concord is shown holding two wheat-ears and a poppy in her right hand and a cornucopia in her left (Fig. 30d).

On a Metapontian coin [ 145] the poppy is also shown with a wheat-ear (Fig. 30a).

30. Coins depicting the poppy capsule

On the reverse of a Roman coin [ 146] (81-96 A.D.)-on the observe of which is a profile of the wife of the Emperor Domitian represented as Demeter crowned with ears of wheat-three poppy-heads appear in a bunch of wheat-ears (Fig. 30c).

On another coin bearing the head of Athena we find a poppy-head as a complementary symbol; [ 147] (Fig. 30e).


A. Mekon and makon (Doric)

The etymology of the name is not certain.

In the Great Etymological Dictionary [ 148] it is stated that "the plant mekon is so called because of its length (mekos) ". We find this etymology extremely dubious.

According to Nicander [ 149] "the mekon is so called from me konein (not to raise dust), that is to say, not to be active ", and further [ 150] " the etymology of mekon is derived from me akonein, as the saying goes, that is, not to cause a bowel movement ".

According to Frisk, [ 151] the root of the word is of Slavic or Germanic origin. Thus in Russian it is termed mako and in German mago.

B. Mekonion (Latin meconium or meconeum)

Derived from mekon and denoting a substance pouring or squeezed from it.

C. Papaver (more anciently papauer)

The word is found chiefly in the Latin authors (Cato, Pliny the Elder, Celsus, et al.). It is not found in earlier Greek writers, but occurs in Dioskourides and the later writers as the Latin term for the poppy.

Thompson [ 152] states that it is derived from the Assyrian name for the juice of the poppy, Arat. Pa. Pa., which is found in the Assyrian Herbal. This interpretation is not supported by any subsequent continuity of evidence. The name is not repeated in later records; moreover it applies only to the juice and not to the plant.

XV, 1932, 1. 2434.

D. Opion (opium)

The word is first found in works of the first century A.D. Clearly the view is correct that it is derived from the Greek word opos (juice), and was transferred to Latin in the form of opium. It occurs in this form in Pliny the Elder and subsequent authors, and is found thus in Chassinat's Coptic medical papyrus.

On the other hand Galen's etymological interpretation taken from Philo, according to which it is derived from the article o and the word pion (rich milk), is very dubious.

Aphioni (modern Greek = opium) may have Persian origin.

Hypnosand Hypno (modern Greek) so called because it induces sleep.


It is known that the extraction of opium was made through the years by slitting the capsule vertically, horizontally, by circular notches, or slanting cuts.

The illustrations appearing below show the various types of notching (Fig. 31). We shall use them in drawing our conclusions on this point.

31. Various methods of notching the poppy capsule (Wasicky)

Full size image: 27 kB, 31. Various methods of notching the poppy capsule (Wasicky)

A comparison of methods of notching recorded in the texts and shown in archœological finds leads to the following deductions:

The more ancient method of notching was the vertical one. This is shown by the notches on the capsules of the goddess of Gazi, by the earlier of the Cyprian vases, and by the various imitations of notched capsules in the form of pins, pendants, ear-rings, etc. found in all regions of Greece and Egypt. This method is still evident in most of the later archœological finds.

The poppy and opium in antiquity (eastern Mediterranean area) 7

Some pin-heads show circular slits corresponding to type (a) capsule-notching (Corinthian and other pins).

We have not been able to gather information regarding the method of notching employed by the Sumerians, Assyrians and Persians.

Dioskourides mentions, on the one hand, a circular notching at the top of the capsule, and on the other, a vertical notching on the lower section thereof.

Finally, the slanting notches (type d) are found neither in the texts nor in archœological finds, with the exception of the Cyprian vases with pronged base II, discovered in Egypt. If we accept Merrillees's view, the slanting lines thereon represent slanting capsule-notches.

It is certain that in the region of Asia Minor [ 153] the three methods of notching are found in later years, and this is perhaps an indication that the third type may have been known in antiquity in this region, adjacent to Cyprus, and continued into later times.

On the other hand, the vertical method of notching has been maintained in India down to the present century. A detailed investigation might possibly show that this method of notching has been continued uninterruptedly from more ancient times, and that it may be associated with the advent of the armies of Alexander the Great bringing with them the process of notching the poppy-capsule practised in Macedonia.

Finally, we note that Pliny the Elder, possibly misinterpreting Theophrastus's statements about opium extraction, reports that opium was also extracted from the stalk.


It appears evident that opium was used in ancient times:

  1. By inhalation of its vapours (through the nostrils);

  2. Internally as a hypnotic and narcotic, taken in the form of a variety of preparations of the capsule or of opium: juice (mekonion), tablets, and other confections (diakodion);

  3. Anally by means of suppositories;

  4. Externally in the form of unguents and poultices, lotions for diseases of the eye, and liquids for earache;

  5. As a means of euthanasia in combination with hemlock (the Keian custom);

  6. In some forms also as a means of suicide.

We propose to devote attention chiefly to the use of opium by nasal inhalation, as reported in the texts, inasmuch as this is directly connected with the study of relevant archœological finds.

The method of smoking opium in a pipe as practised in modern times is not necessarily the one practised in antiquity.

In a previous study [ 154] we wrote that the ancient method probably consisted in throwing the opium on to a hot clay tile or plate. Since no opium-smoking pipe has been found to this day, we based our judgment on the discoveries at Gazi, among which were the receptacle shown in Fig. 2* (similar to that found in Java) the disc belonging, according to Professor Marinatos, to the equipment of the goddess - and the coals which were found on the floor of the building.

Specifically as regards the open and closed pipes found in Cretan excavations:

Open pipes. ( a) These were probably placed, as is popularly done today, over braziers, so that they were kept alight by a current running from bottom to top. In such cases, if a stone or tile were placed on the coals, and when it was well heated the opium were poured upon it, then its vapours would emerge concentrated from the upper mouthpiece without any overflow drip. Thus they would be more satisfactorily inhaled.

  1. Probably on the pipe placed over the fire in the above-mentioned manner a tile would be placed on which, when well heated, opium would be poured; the vapours rising from it would be absorbed by nasal inhalation.

Closed pipes. As these have holes in the lower lateral section it may be presumed that:

  1. Lighted coals or a burner were placed within them, upon which a tile was placed. By pouring opium upon it, concentrated vapours would issue and be inhaled through the open end; a current of air would form, coming through the holes and flowing upward.

  2. The tile was not placed on the coals or the burner but on the open mouth-piece where it would become hot, and the opium would be poured on it and inhaled.

In support of this theory we may cite the metal head found on some pins. In many cases this head is in the shape of a capsule, often notched. The theory is further supported by the phrase found in the texts concerning the nasal inhalation of opium. Smoking through a pipe is not mentioned.

p. 24. Vol. XIX, No. 3.

We suggest to archœologists that it might be interesting to find out whether the long metal pins (too long to warrant their use for attaching clothing or pinning up hair) were used as instruments for carrying the opium to the source of heat and producing vapours, as is done today. If so, it would be natural to use metal pins (needles) of greater length than those used today in order to insert the opium in the pipe for direct heating and vapour inhalation.

Against this theory two facts may be adduced:

  1. The existence of bone pins with notched capsuleheads (cf. Corinth and elsewhere);

  2. The discovery in graves of long iron pins with traces of cloth attached.

A detailed search for further information on the subject should yield positive conclusions on the problem of these pins. If so, the Gazi tray and pipes might be considered as instruments used for this purpose.

No information has come down to us regarding the method of opium smoking practised in antiquity, possibly because the use of the drug, primarily euphoric, remained hidden behind the walls of sanctuaries, where many capsule-shaped objects have been found.

Perhaps opium vapours were used at prophetic shrines in the process of inducing vaticination. Such a use of opium may provide the reason why physicians of classical antiquity did not describe the method of taking opium "by nasal inhalation".


It may be useful at this point to give our views concerning nepenthes, since we consider that it is directly related to the poppy.

This drug, mentioned by Homer, has preoccupied many scholars, ancient and modern.

Basing themselves on Homer's passage, Sprengel [ 155] and others believe that he refers to the juice of the poppy. On the other hand, Nicolas Monardes [ 156] thinks that it is a kind of hashish. Several other writers [ 157] identify it with various other plants ( helminthia echioides, elecampane, inula, coffee, etc.).

Others, including Plutarch, Athenaios and Philostratos, believe that no actual drug is concealed in the term "nepenthes ", which allegorically represents Helen's charm and fascination. Theophrastus either did not know of or doubted the existence of nepenthes, attributing it to a poet's imagination.

Lewin [ 158] identified nepenthes with opium, holding that the Greeks and Cretans were familiar with the poppy and used it. Similarly Wallnöffer & Rottauscher state that Homer informs us that Helen used a "juice of opium ". [ 159] This however cannot be gathered from Homer, who merely mentions nepenthes.

According to Snijder, [ 160] many writers claim that nepenthes was a preparation of henbane, and that Dioskourides (IV 68.3) states that this has a greater and better effect than the juice of the poppy. He himself, however, advances the opinion that nepenthes was probably a mixture of opium and henbane inasmuch as magic philtres are seldom "simple ", and usually "concoctions ".

As regards Anslinger and Tompkins's statement [ 161] that Homer writes in the Odyssey that Helen used an infusion of poppy, we must observe that the poet nowhere mentions any infusion. As stated above, many scholars consider nepenthes to have been a preparation containing opium.

Similarly, we note that Homer's description does not refer to the poisonous effects of the drug; it is purely representative: Gorgythion struck down by Teucer sank into death bending down his head as the poppy in a garden, laden with fruit, bends its head (under its weight).

Professor Marinatos in a recent publication [ 162] suggests that possibly the plants in the birds' beaks pictured on a bowl found at Pylos (koukounara) may be identified with "the pain-removing drug nepenthes ".

In our opinion, the view that nepenthes has no connexion with an existing drug - a view deriving from Theophrastus's statement that it was a poet's imaginary creation - is not well founded.

Furthermore the interpretation offered by some to the effect that nepenthes cannot be an opiate because of its bitterness, which precludes its being easily and agreeably taken, and because opium was not known at that time, is devoid of foundation, for the following additional reasons:

  1. Homer definitely states that Helen was introduced to nepenthes by Polydamna of Egypt, where the "life-giving earth bears many drugs ". It must therefore have been an actual drug, and one derived from a plant.

  2. Diodorus Sikeliotes (Diodorus Siculus) repeats the foregoing, and adds that today Egyptian women use it, because only the women of Diospolis possess the knowledge derived from high antiquity of this drug.

The poppy and opium in antiquity (eastern Mediterranean area) 9

  1. When mixed with sweet wine its bitter taste is mitigated.

  2. Because, in the light of all that has been set forth, it is evident that opium, which was earlier thought to have made its appearance in the fourth/third centuries B.C., was already known much earlier than Helen's time in Crete, in Cyprus, in Egypt, among the Sumerians and among the Assyrians; among the last-named the poppy was known as the "joy-plant ", as was opium also, according to some authorities.

  3. The poppy-capsule, notched, was known to Helen as is made evident by the finds both at the Menelaion in Sparta and at the temple of Artemis Orthia, upon which finds the poppy capsule is portrayed.

  4. The identification of nepenthes with hashish is not tenable, because the latter was already being taken by inhalation (Herodotus), and not processed in wine.

From the foregoing data it may be deduced that nepenthes can only be opium. Possibly it might not have been known to Theophrastus and some other ancient writers because its use remained a secret of the sanctuaries revealed to only a few.


The symbolic meaning which the ancients attached to the poppy is of especial interest.

Various scholars consider that plenty and fertility are symbolically represented by the appearance in the hands of statues of gods and goddesses of the capsule or the poppy itself, alone or combined with ears of wheat, or in the form of a garland composed either solely of poppies or of poppies combined with wheatears.

Oikonomos considers the combination of the poppy with wheat-ears as the principal characteristic symbol of Demeter, and this because the goddess is par excellence the goddess of agriculture; he further mentions that, as may be seen from the relevant passage in the Thalysia of Theocritus, a picture is given of the goddess bearing happiness in both hands.

The same goddess is considered to be a goddess of healing also.

Professor Mylonas, writing about the Mycenae ring, states that an agricultural goddess is represented on it. The identification of the goddess with Demeter is not, however, convincing, because in the prehistoric era in rural districts a goddess known as the goddessmother or goddess of nature was worshipped, and it is not easy to identify the agricultural goddesses of that era with those of the historic age. Seeing that the worshippers offer poppy-capsules, which have been iden- tified as symbols of agriculture, this goddess must be assumed to be one of the agricultural goddesses.

Writing further about the Gazi goddess, he states that, in accordance with Professor Marinatos's observations, the plant has medicinal properties; hence the poppy must be defined as a medicinal symbol, and the goddess as a goddess of cures. He insists that she cannot be Demeter, since she is associated with the double axe, which is not connected with that goddess.

Christian Zervos [ 163] writes that the poppy must be added to the list of the sacred plants of the Minoans and that its fruit was considered by them to be a symbol of immortality, and furthermore that the goddess of the Dead puts mortals to sleep at the end of their life, before hiding them beneath the earth, in order to awaken them to a new existence.

One may discern in this observation an analogy to the symbolism of the Eleusinian Mysteries regarding death, burial, and a resurrection in a new life - one relating to the life cycle of plants and beings generally.

As regards the Gazi goddess, named by Professor Marinatos "the goddess of the poppy, symbol of healing" because of the properties of the poppy, we have already suggested that since this goddess is shown in a state of ecstasy, she should be called "the goddess of ecstasy".

Among the Sumerians the poppy must have been regarded as a symbol of joy and exultation, as indicated by its name "Hul Gil ", meaning "plant of joy ".

We venture, however, to put forward the view that the symbolic meaning of the poppy, or more precisely of its capsule, varies each time according to the nature of the divinity portrayed.

Thus, in the hands of the prehistoric goddess-mother, agricultural deities, and in part of the later goddesses Hera, Demeter and Aphrodite, it can be regarded as symbolic of plenty (wealth) and fertility.

Specifically as regards the goddess-mother and Hera, who were protectresses of infants, we consider that the outstanding property of the poppy-capsule was therapeutic owing to its hypnotic qualities. Thus, representations of capsules are dedicated to the goddessmother at Solygeia, and the figurines so dedicated bear capsule-shaped pendants and adornments.

It is the pomegranate, with which the poppy is often confused, that was the symbol of fertility and so continues to this day.

In our view, many symbolic associations can be linked to the poppy:

  1. That of life or wealth by reason of the oil taken from its multitude of seeds;

  1. That of healing, because of its narcotic, hypnotic, and general curative properties;

  2. That of euphoria, voluptuous ecstasy, and increased fertility;

  3. That of sleep and death, which can be induced by the plant.

In all cases where the three capsules appear (Gazi goddess, Mycenae ring, Lovatelli hydria, et al.), they imply the multiple symbolic meanings listed above, corresponding to the multiple attributes of the goddess (life or wealth, therapy and well-being, and, by extension, fertility).

As regards the goddess Demeter, we are of the opinion that the poppy capsule (not the plant), found in conjunction with ears of wheat in the goddess's hands, is not symbolic of life, plenty, wealth and fertility, represented by the wheat-ear, but of health, because of the capsule's therapeutic properties. The two symbols combined betoken the goddess as the protectress of life (wheat-ear) and of health (poppy-capsule).

A confirmation of the above is plausibly suggested by the Orphic hymn on Eleusinian Demeter where we read: "The queen plentifully endowed with the fruits of the harvest, bearer of peace and blessed orderliness, and of wealth, the dispenser of well-being, and of health as well."

According to Greek mythology, the hypnotic properties of the poppy were known to the goddess (she ate poppies in order to sleep and to forget her grief at the rape of her daughter, and she gave poppies to Triptolemus to bring him sleep).

Moreover, Demeter is held to be among the healing deities. In some cases, next to her appears the Snake, a chthonian symbol, and later an attribute of Asklepios and the healing deities. Kern [ 164] refers to the goddess Demeter as a healing deity, to whom in fact offerings of poppy-capsules were made as a token of grati tude for the cure of an eye disease, probably because of the use of some poppy preparation as treatment for eye trouble.

Furthermore, we would again draw attention to one scene in the decoration of the Lovatelli hydria where three poppy-capsules are offered on a plate, whereas the whole decorative display shows incidents of the cleansing of Herakles, or, according to some scholars, stages in the initiation ceremonies of the Eleusinian Mysteries, in which knowledge of the poppy's properties surely played an important part.

In the hands of Apollo, Asklepios [ 165] and the gods of medicine, the poppy-capsules are clearly symbolic of the curative qualities of the plant, seeing that these gods were the special protectors of medicine.

In the hands of Pluto, Persephone, and the gods of Hades, the poppy portrayed on funeral monuments or found in graves is symbolic of death, owing to its lethal properties, known to classical writers who mention that its juice induces a swift and painless death.

The same symbolic meaning may be attributed to the poppy when held by statues of the gods of Sleep and Night, children of Death, because of its hypnotic properties.

Of especial interest is the symbolic meaning of the poppy-capsule in the hands of Aphrodite, goddess of pleasure and fertility. In this instance, the symbolic meaning is based principally on the pleasure and, by extension, the fertility derived from the poppy.

We have already seen that the use of the poppy and of opium was widespread in regions where Aphrodite was worshipped most devoutly (Cyprus, Corinth, Mekone or Sikyon, et al.), and this reinforces the foregoing views. This goddess was worshipped more anciently in different places under different names.

[ concluded]


The statements made in both Parts of this article (Volume XIX, No. 3, p. 38, and above on p. 7) asserting that opium may have been introduced in India with the invasion by Alexander the Great (327 B.C.) will attract considerable attention. The first recorded cultivation of the opium poppy in India dates it to the XVth century, and it is mentioned in the annals of the reign of the Moghul Emperor Akbar the Great, in the Ain-i-Akbari (late XVIth century). Bensussan suggests (p. 191) that opium was introduced into India most likely in the VIIIth century after the Arab invasion of the province of Sind, and that claims that opium was grown in the country in archaic times are not based on any "rigorous documentation ".

TheBulletin invites the attention of scholars to this controversy, and would be interested in contributions on this aspect of the history of opium.


For details as to the symbolic meaning of the poppy, see chapter IX.


M. O. Bernhard, Pflanzenbilder auf griechischen u. romischen Munzen, Ziirich, 1925, p. 29 plate III, fig. 17.


Ibid., fig. 19.


Ibid., fig. 16.


Ibid., fig. 18.


Ibid., fig. 20.


Great Etymological Dictionary, 583, 58.


Commentary on Nicander, Alexipharmaca, 1. 433, cf. RE2


Ibid., 444.


Hjalmar Frisk, Griechisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, II, Heidelberg, 1963, p. 255. Also cf. A. Carnoy, Dictionnaire étymologique des noms grecs de plantes, Louvain, 1959, p. 172.


Cf. p. 39, 40 of the present study.


A. Tschirch, Pharmakognosie, III, 1923, p. 631. Bernhard ( Pflanzenbilder auf griechischen u römischen Münzen, Zürich, 1925, p. 29) states that Demeter found the poppy at Mekone in Lykaonia (Asia Minor).


P. G. Kritikos, Der Mohn, das Opium u. ihr Gebrauch im Spaetminoicum III. Bemerkungen zu dem gefundenen Idol der Minoischen Gottheit des Mohns, Archives of the Academy of Athens, 1960, p. 21.


Sprengel, Geschichte der Botanik I, 1817, p. 38.


Cf. Emm. Emmanuel, Homer's Nepenthes, Minutes of the Academy of Athens, 1952, pp. 541-553.




Lewin, Phantastica, pp, 41 et seqq. Cf. G. A. Snijder, Kretische Kunst, Berlin, 1936, pp. 139-140.


Wallnöffer-Rottauscher , Der goldene Schatz der chinesischen Medizin, Stuttgart, 1959, p. 76.


G. A. Snijder, op. cit.


H. J. Anslinger and W. F. Tompkins, The Traffic in Narcotics, New York, 1953, p. 1 .


S. Marinatos, Some Hints about Eastern Mediterranean Mythology, AE 1964, p. 7.


Christian Zervos, L'Art de la Crète, 1956, p. 47.


Otto Kern, Archaiologike Ephemeris, 1892, pp. 114-118.


Oskar Bernhard, Griechische u. römische Münzbilder in ihren Beziehungen zur Geschichte der Medizin, 1926, p. 33.