“I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me; Seva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unuttemble slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”–
Thomas de Quincey (1785 – 1859): Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
‘Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper’, New York, 12 May 1883
|Cécile Paul-Baudry: Fumeuse d’opium,1912|
Georges Barbier Fantasia
Big O, black stuff, block, gum, hop/hops, ah-pen-yen, Aunti, Aunti Emma, black, chandoo, Chinese molasses, Chinese tobacco,
dopium, Dover’s deck, dream gun, dream stick, dreams, easing powder, fi-do-nie, gee, God’s medicine, gondola, goric, guma, joy plant, midnight oil, O, ope, pen yan, pin gon, pin yen, pox, skee, toxy, toys, when-shee, ze, zero
|GeorgesBigot, Chinese Opium Den|
|Léon Busy: Smoking Opium, French Indochina circa 1915|
|Charles Edouard Edmond Delort, “A Voluptuous Smoke”|
Opium has been actively collected since prehistoric times, and may be first referenced as the soma plant ubiquitously mentioned in the Rig Veda -1500 BCE (personally I believe the reference is directed to Amanita muscaria, but that’s an argument for another day). The dried natural latex of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), opium contains approximately 12% morphine alkaloid, codeine and non-narcotic alkaloids such as papaverine, thebaine and noscapine. At least 17 instances of Papaver somniferum from Neolithic settlements have been reported throughout Switzerland, Germany, and Spain. The first known cultivation of opium poppies was in 3400 BCE Mesopotamia by Sumerians who called the plant hul gil, the “joy plant”. Tablets found at Nippur, a Sumerian spiritual center south of Baghdad, described the collection of poppy juice in the morning and its use in production of opium. The Assyrian, Egyptian, Indian, Minoan, Greek, Roman, Persian and Arab Empires all used opium for medical and recreational purposes as well as various religious ceremonies. Opium is mentioned in the most important medical texts of the ancient world, including the Ebers Papyrus and the writings of Dioscorides, Galen, and Avicenna.
|White girl smoking opium, 1909|
|Photographs by Jean Agelou, 1910|
Henry Sebastian, 1932, ‘Opium’
|A. Matignon, “Awakening from Opium” 1911|
Although some Muslims believe hadiths such as in Sahih Bukhari, prohibits every intoxicating substance, the use of intoxicants in medicine has been widely permitted by scholars. The Persian physician Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (845–930 CE) maintained a laboratory and school in Baghdad, and recommended its use for the treatment of melancholy in his Fi ma-la-yahdara al-tabib, “In the Absence of a Physician”, a home medical manual. From the 16th to the 19th centuries Anatolian opium was eaten in Constantinople as much as it was exported to Europe. In 1573, for instance, a Venetian visitor to the Ottoman Empire observed many of the Turkish natives of Constantinople regularly drank a “certain black water made with opium” that makes them feel good, but to which they become so addicted, if they try to go without, they will “quickly die”.
Between 400 and 1200 CE, Arab traders introduced opium to China; the earliest clear description of its use as a recreational drug came from Xu Boling in 1483, who wrote that it was “mainly used to aid masculinity, strengthen sperm and regain vigor”, and that it “enhances the art of alchemists, sex and court ladies”. A century later Li Shizhen listed standard medical uses of opium in his Compendium of Materia Medica (1578), but also wrote that “lay people use it for the art of sex”, in particular the ability to “arrest seminal emission”. This association of
opium with sex continued in China until the 12th century. In 1736 the opium pipe was described by Huang Shujing, made from bamboo rimmed with silver; stuffed with palm
slices and hair, and fed by a clay bowl in which a globule of molten opium was held over the flame of an oil lamp. This elaborate procedure requiried the maintenance of pots of opium at just the right temperature for a globule to be scooped up with a needle-like skewer for smoking, forming the craft of “paste-scooping”.
Above, photographs of a Paris Opium Den, Brassai 1931
|White Women in Opium Den, Chinatown, S. F.; Louis Philippe Lessard|
|Opium Smokers, Montmartre, Paris circa 1910|
Opium dens became prevalent in many parts of the world in the 19th century, most notably China, Southeast Asia, North America and France. Opium dens in China were frequented by all levels of society, and their opulence or simplicity reflected the financial means of the patrons. In urban areas of the United States, particularly on the West Coast, there were dens that mirrored the best to be found in China but there were also many low-end dens which were more likely to admit non-Chinese smokers.
|Opium bottle label, 1883|
Opium smoking arrived in North America with the large influx of Chinese who came to participate in the California Gold Rush. San Francisco’s Chinatown became the site of numerous opium dens soon after the first Chinese arrived around 1850, and by the 1870s the problem of opium addiction was acknowledged by the city at large. In 1878, the city of San Francisco passed its first anti-opium ordinance. Due to eradication campaigns opium was driven underground, but it remained fairly common in San Francisco and other cities in North America until around World War II. In New York the most popular “opium joints” were located on Mott and Pell streets in what is still Manhattan’s Chinatown; all the city’s opium dens were run by Chinese, except for one on 23rd Street that was run by an American woman and her two daughters. New York City’s last opium den was raided and shut down on June 28, 1957.
Above: Photography by Mert and Marcus, March 2011 issue of Interview Magazine
|Girl with Opium Pipe, Marina Richter|
|La Casa del Opio – Cesar Vaz|
|Above: “Am I not Beautiful” series by Damian Hevia|
|Bai Ling, Playboy Magazine June 2005|
|Opium den: Kate O’Brien|
|Marilyn Monroe Nude in opium house: Karine Percheron-Daniels|