The “joy plant”, a persistant factoïd

In spite of the doubt argued and presented since the mid-1970s, then 80’s, and even more recently, the idea that the poppy was widely used in the Mesopotamian world is still tenacious.

The opium poppy is of interest to several disciplines (medical, anthropology, geopolitics, etc.) and more particularly its use in medicinal or ritual recipes, since the ancient period in the Near East and in the Mediterranean area. It is precisely to illustrate the thousand-year-old narcotic use of the opium poppy that a factoid is still used today in scientific literature.

It is the translation of the two ideograms Hul and Gil engraved about 4000 years ago on a clay tablet written in the Sumerian language discovered in Nippur in 1954. This tablet could be the oldest record of medical knowledge in Mesopotamia (Civil 1960). According to its graphic style, it dates from the time of Ur III (2100-2000 BCE). These ideograms refer to a “plant of joy” supposedly referring to the opium poppy (Terry and Pellens 1970). In spite of the doubt argued and presented since the mid-1970s (Krikorian 1975), then 80’s (Merlin 1984), and even more recently (Nencini 2022), the idea that the poppy was widely used in the Mesopotamian world is still tenacious.

Verso of the clay tablet BC14221 (in Civil 1960: no figure number). Babylonian section, university Museum, Philadelphia, USA.

This would appear to be a translation error or a hypothetical formulation on the part of the translator (Raymond Dougherty), which was later repeated in a more categorical manner. Furthermore, Civil’s (1960) description of the tablet does not mention the two ideograms or the plant, but the author admits the bias of its transcription. Finally, no archaeobotanical remains of opium poppy have been found at the archaeological site of Nippur.

Obviously, the scientist cannot verify by himself all types of sources, and cannot handle all the disciplines, in this case cuneiform writing, that he engages in his interpretative process. We are all likely to take up factoids, especially when it is an introductory element to more advanced research in the medical or sociological fields. To date, therefore, there is no scientific evidence that opium poppy was present in Lower Mesopotamia around 2100 BCE !


  • Type: Medical clay tablet. Cuneiform signs/ Sumerian language.
  • Site: Nippur (Irak).
  • Chronology: according to the graphic style of the writing, the medical text is dated from the time of Ur III (2100-2000 BCE) (Civil, 1960). The notice of the PennMuseum indicates the Early Dynastic IIIB (2500-2340 BCE).
  • Conservation: Babylonian section, University Museum, Philadelphia, USA (BS14221/ P269190 – CDLI Number). Notice


Civil M (1960) Prescriptions médicales sumériennes. Revue d’assyriologie et d’Archéologie Orientale 54:57–72

Terry CE, Pellens M (1970) The Opium Problem. Vol. 115. Montclair, New-Jersey (1rst edition 1928).

Krikorian AD (1975) Were the opium poppy and opium known in the ancient Near East. Journal of the History of Biology 8:95–114

Merlin MD (1984) On the trail of the ancient opium poppy, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. Rutherford, Madison, Teaneck

Nencini P (2022) Facts and Factoids in the Early History of the Opium Poppy. The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 36:000–000

AS, 08/31/2022

Citer ce billet
Aurélie Salavert (2022, 29 août). The “joy plant”, a persistant factoïd. Opium Poppy. Consulté le 25 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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