Originally published in 1860 ‘The Seven Sisters of Sleep’ is a classic of Western drug literature. In over a hundred years, with no reprints until the end of the 20th century, the transformation in the importance of Mordecai Cooke’s book is exceptional. Titled in its first edition with a ‘popular history of the seven prevailing narcotics of the world’ it now carries the tagline ‘the celebrated drug classic’. And with good cause.
The book begins with a most poetic of openings. A short story, a fable possibly, which gives its premise over as the title of the book. Accordingly, Sleep had seven sisters who were jealous of her gift, which she waved over the creatures of earth “from pole to pole, and from ocean to ocean, she swayed her sceptre.” They tried to steal the sway but they bred discord. So Sleep said: “My minister of dreams shall aid you by his skill, and visions more gorgeous, and illusions more splendid, than ever visited a mortal beneath my sway.” And the seven sisters became entwined in their own splendour with the cultures of earth.
Who are these seven sisters for whom sleep counts amongst her family? Namely, tobacco, opium, cannabis, betel nut, coca, datura, and fly agaric. For Cooke, there is a plane of consciousness through which all these “narcotics” play a role. Just as sleep takes one away from a consensual reality, so too do her sisters and consciousness becomes a wave of chemical affection.
The plane of consciousness plays a fundamental role in Cooke’s racial outlook, which is pleasantly free of the extreme racism of the times and there is an implicit understanding that humanity is connected through its love of consciousness affection.
“To talk of the degraded Chinese as barbarians, indulging in an awful extent in opium, and the ignorant Hindoo and Arab, as in madness revelling in debauches of hemp confections, is an evidence of the workings of the same narrow-minded prejudices under which some who abstain from alcoholic stimulants rail and rave.”
The book is constructed through a whirlwind examination of cultural drug habits, tribal differences and geographical placements; entwined with economic and usage statistics. For all the different cultures, for all their different styles and habits; the connection of consumption is underlined throughout. Quotes are taken from explorers, scientists of various disciplines and first-hand accounts and the text slips easily between disciplines.
Yet, for all the classification elements of the book – very much in vogue for a time of burgeoning science – there are very literary aspects within the text as well. For example, the following description of an individual addled by long-term opium addiction, which uses numerous techniques to paint a picture with words:
“His body was bent forwards and greatly emaciated; his face was shrunken, wan, and haggard; his long skinny arm, wasted fingers, and sharp pointed nails resembled more the claw of some rapacious bird, than the hand of a lord of the creation; his head was nodding and tremulous; his skin wrinkled and yellow; and his teeth were a few decayed, pointed, and black stained fangs.”
It’s amazing how the descriptions of drug experience withstand the test of time; the only change lays within the substance itself. What was a description of hashish experience might well be laughed at now as being far to extreme for what is now considered a mild drug; but which might be perfect for classic psychedelics: “A man who believed himself entirely changed into brittle glass, and in constant fear of being cracked or broken, or having a finger or toe knocked off.” Either, as is popularly conceived, our language is limited in describing drug experience, or consciousness has since expanded and requires increasingly transporting substances to elicit the same response. Certainly a point of discourse and conjecture.
Mordecai Cooke (1825-1915) himself demonstrates a wide knowledge of different fields like history, science and literature. These attributes lend themselves to creating a well-rounded text, not too cumbersome and narrow to read and the speed of the text is both entertaining and grabbing. Although he brushed aside this text in his later career, as an eminent naturalist, mycologist and teacher, it retains the charm of an author dedicated to his work.
His middle-class Victorian perspective, although free of racism and with an injection of humour, still houses a small tendency to be morally objective. This is not, however, done with snobbery but with a slight medical pity.
According to Cooke, after using ‘narcotic hemp’ a psychosis can occur, which he describes with a literary force that still resonates today: “The mind then believes that it sees visions, and beholds beings with whom it can converse. The phenomena gradually develops themselves, until illusions take the place of realities, and hold firm possession of the mind, which would seem on all other points to be healthy and vigorous, but on this point, insane.”
The Seven Sisters of Sleep is as its tagline suggests, a ‘drug classic’. No-one with an interest in drug-related literature should be without a copy. Though, statistically speaking, it may not be a highly reliable source, it offers much, much more. As a cultural analysis, breathing life into the varied consumption of drugs across the globe, from a time of burgeoning understanding, it is reminder of what is perennial in humanity. Beautifully written, entertaining, educational and revealing. Outstanding book.