The Power of the Poppy by Kenaz Filan

Originally published in 2011 ‘The Power of the Poppy – Harnessing Nature’s Most Dangerous Plant Ally’ by Kenaz Filan is a review of the human-poppy relationship from pre-historic to modern times. Filan has previously published works including ‘The Haitian Vodou Handbook,’ ‘Vodou Love Magic’ and ‘Vodou Money Magic’.

The book is divided into four parts. The first deals with the history of the human-poppy relationship from prehistory to the present ‘war on drugs’. The second section, entitled Alchemy, looks at the various substances that we have extracted from the poppy. The third, Acolytes, discusses some of the most famous poppy users and what their relationship was with the plant and its derivatives. And, finally, Filan looks at Techniques and Conundrums, which examines various methods of ingestion and the opiate addiction model.

The opium poppy – Papaver somniferum – is believed to be descended from the wild poppy – Papaver setigerum – which originally came from the Western Mediterranean. The poppy began to be cultivated agriculturally about 7500 years ago. Filan cites an archaeological dig that took place at Raunds, in Northamptonshire, England, where eight poppy seeds were uncovered and dated between 5800-5600 years ago.

The reason for cultivation is proposed to be two-fold; firstly, medicinally and, secondly, for its psychoactive properties. At some point the poppy lost its ability to self-seed and, in times of famine, was deemed not to be a useful crop. According to Filan, the poppy needed to find another use. It “had to adapt itself to meet other needs. And one of humankind’s strongest drives – stronger, in many cases than the instincts for procreation, security, or even self-preservation – is the urge to seek pleasure” (Filan 15). In the poppy’s psychoactive properties, humanity found a new role for the plant.

Geographically speaking, as the Mesopotamia area became increasingly farmed and irrigated, it also became a hotbed of poppy cultivation. Filan cites a Sumerian tablet, from the 4th millennium B.C., as an early reference to the collecting of poppies. The Sumerians used the ideogram Hul Gil, meaning joy plant, to describe the plant. He also reviews evidence from Egypt, round the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age, and in Roman society. Interestingly, there is also brief run-down of how poppies were employed by writers like Hesiod, Ovid, Galen and Marcus Aurelius. The dichotomy of value, with which Filan has framed poppy use, is exemplified by the poet Virgil who uses it to demonise Carthage, but also recognises that it is useful in the economy of the Roman’s.

Aside from the West, Filan also discusses the exporting of poppies from European traders, through Muslim territories and then out into the Far East. As a cultivated plant it began riding the waves of economy and is, therefore, a plant whose expansion is intrinsically linked to its relationship with humanity. Not only was a new species cultivated but its encroachment into new geographical areas was also facilitated by humans, who valued it highly in trade with one another.

The sixteenth century doctor Paracelsus popularised opium, a poppy derivative, with his recipe for laudanum pills (a tincture of opium made with alcohol) as a multi-ailment remedy. He inspired the following generation, most famously Thomas Sydenham, to follow suit and opium became one of the most widely used medicines during the following centuries. Filan does a run down of the popular poppy derivatives, their discovery and what they have been used for. These include: opium, morphine, codeine, heroin, kompot, oxycodone, methadone and fentanyl.

Aside from the impact the poppy made on medicine in the West, Filan also discusses it in relation to the colonial era of the same period, which is to say the exportation by the Dutch East India Company and later the British East India Company. Opium became something of a political and economic tool, which stretched the value of the poppy far beyond any medicinal or hedonistic category. The Opium Wars between China and Britain exemplify this, and while the topic is obviously complicated and has scores of books already written on it, Filan does an admirable job of contextualising the wars within the wider review of his own book. He also begins to unpick the reasons why China saw opium as a public health risk and how the image of Chinaman smoking opium became a racist motif within the wider cultural anxiety of Britain in the nineteenth century.

In the Acolytes section Filan deals with some of the notable users of opium and other poppy derivatives and how the drugs made an even deeper mark on the cultural landscape of the West. These include the nineteenth century romantics like the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey and Elizabeth Browning; and also writers and musicians from the twentieth century like William S. Burroughs, Charlie Parker and Lou Reed. While these are rather brief, and indeed could easily become a whole work in themselves, they do demonstrate the heaven and hell struggle of the human-poppy relationship. He says of Coleridge that opium was “the cause of his poetic brilliance and his ultimate failure” (Filan 130). This personalises and further entrenches the medicinal dichotomy between opium’s ability to relieve pain and yet also be a highly addictive substance.

The final section Techniques and Conundrums briefly reviews the various methods of ingestion that we have developed over the years – tea, pills, smoking, insufflation – how it is cultivated, and finally a look at dependence, addiction and tolerance. Much like the rest of the book these are very broadly described categories and one gets the impression that the final chapter dealing with Getting Clean and Staying Clean is something of a tag on. Although, having said that, as a review of approaches it would be obviously missed. Rather it is the lack of critical engagement that seems to give the impression of a superficial addition. Overall however, the book is clear and concise, covering a wide range of disciplinary approaches and, while all the sections can be found in more detail elsewhere, The Power of the Poppy is good opening book for anyone who is new to the topic.

Via the House

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1 Response

  1. Mafficker says:

    You might want to check out ‘Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens’ (2010) MA Rinella, Lexington Books
    ISBN 978 0 7391 4686 6

    I am reading it now. Very worthy of your attention! Mx

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