Opiated References, Or Memetic Scholarship & the Perils of Uncareful Citation

Wherein is Explored an Uncareful Tradition of Commentary on the Antiquity (or Lack Thereof) of Knowledge of Opium Addiction


While working on updates to my analysis of Terence McKenna’s bibliography for Food of the Gods, I encountered a consistently repeated mistake in the literature on the history of opium. This page details the nature of the mistake and offers a correction to that literature. This, then, is a post about historical myths. Precisely because the case itself is of relatively low stakes, it offers a useful case study for how such historical myths (almost inevitably) develop out of uncareful transmission chains, like a game of citation ‘telephone’; the case study is therefore instructive in thinking about potentially more consequential accumulated historical errors.

Early 17th Century Travel Literature

In 1613, as the European seagoing powers jockeyed for power on the now-global stage, an Essex-born, Cambridge-educated pastor, Samuel Purchas (pronounced “Per-kiss”) (1577-1626), who would become the chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury the following year, published a popular volume of travel literature that would sell well enough and quickly enough for him to produce two revised editions in as many years (and a fourth edition a decade later). Purchas took advantage of the ongoing spate of sea voyages to exotic lands and his proximity to the Essex shipping town of Leigh-on-Sea to gather together and narrate what amounted to a pastiched bricolage of other people’s travel narratives–Purchas himself had never left England or traveled within a few hundred miles of Essex.

While much of the opium literature that cites Purchas as an early source of information about cultural habits and perceptions only mentions the short title of his book, Purchas His Pilgrimage, it is worth repeating the full subtitle (and extended frontispiece), if for no other reason than that these long, and now sadly out of style, British subtitles are delightfully evocative, often offering a much clearer sense of an author’s overall perspective and goals than the more concise titles in style at present. In this case, the full frontispiece of reverend Samuel Purchas’ 1613, 800-page, travel collage, dedicated to the Archbishop of Canterbury, reads: Purchas His Pilgrimage, Or Relations of the World and the Religions Observed in All Ages And Places Discovered, From the Creation Unto the Present–In Four Parts–This First Containeth A Theological And Geographical History of Asia, Africa, and America, with the Lands Adjacent. Declaring the Ancient Religions Before the Flood, the Heathenish, Jewish, and Saracenicall in all Ages Since, in those parts professed, with their several Opinions, Idols, Oracles, Temples, Priests, Fasts, Feasts, Sacrifices, and Rites Religious: Their Beginnings, Proceedings, Alterations, Sects, Orders and Successions. With Brief Descriptions of the Countries, Nations, States, Discoveries, Private and Public Customs, and the Most Remarkable Rarities of Nature, or Human Industry, in the Same.

A Memetic Tradition Begins

Authors outlining the history of opium have consistently pointed to this 1613 publication by Purchas as the first published account of an awareness of the addictive potential of opium. The apparently prototypical exposition of this in the opium literature, by the Oxford-trained British author Alethea Hayter, looks like this (the exact details of the quote, and those that follow, will be important):

The mythology of opium flowed into Europe in the stories of returning travellers from the East, who told of the endurance feats of the Tartar couriers, and even of their horses, when both man and beast were fortified against fatigue by opium; of the Turkish soldiers who took the drug to nerve their courage before going into battle; of the travellers in Africa and Asia who valued it because, as Purchas puts it, “they suppose I know not what conjunction and efficacie both of Mars and Venus therein; but being once used, must daily be continued on paine of death,” though some escape by taking to wine instead.

This awareness that opium is addictive is rarely found so early as 1613, when Purchas his Pilgrimage was published.

(Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, 1968, pp. 21-2)

Hayter cites (in her endnotes) the 1613, first edition, of Purchas’ book. It is worth noting, about this passage, that Hayter’s direct quoting of Purchas concludes at the words “paine of death;” her comment about the use of wine is her own paraphrase and not a direct quote from Purchas–this will become relevant as we proceed. In all likelihood, she was not in possession of Purchas’ 1613 text or else she would have realized that no such line is to be found there. The quote is actually from the revised 2nd edition (1614) and is absent in the first edition (1613). This is, no doubt, a relatively minor correction in the overall scope of the history of opium. However, what it does that is more important is to underscore that once an attribution is in print, it can be very difficult to correct, and later authors often come to rely on the authority of those who have come before. It shows how easily a misattribution can become “truth” as it continues to be communicated. Thus, despite the absence of this passage in Purchas’ book (as cited), nearly all future authors who have written on the subject have repeated Hayter’s misattributions (of which the dating of the text is not the only instance).

For example, a 1973 British heroin policy book, Heroin and Behaviour: Diversity Among Addicts Attending London Clinics follows Hayter’s lead and cites her influence, although changing Hayter’s “rarely found so early” to a more definitive “the first mention”:

The addictive quality of opium was known and the first mention of this seems to be by Purchas writing in 1613. Of travellers in Africa and Asia who used it he wrote “they suppose I know not what conjunction and efficacie both of Mars and Venus therein; but being once used, must daily be continued on paine of death.”

(p. 23)

In Martin Booth’s Opium: A History (1998):

Inevitably, with such an extensive application of opium for a huge range of illnesses, addiction was common, yet it was hardly ever addressed and was generally accepted as the price one paid for the relief of pain. One reference to the hazard of addiction may be found in Purchas’s volume, Purchas His Pilgrimage, published in 1613:

“…they [travellers in Africa and Asia] suppose I know not what conjunction and efficacie both of Mars and Venus are therein; but being once used, must daily be continued on paine of death.”

(p. 30)

We have the development of a tradition within the opium literature. The same meme is being repeated and misunderstandings accrued, apparently based on secondary imitation rather than primary research.

Again in Peter Lee’s Opium Culture: The Art and Ritual of the Chinese Tradition (2006):

…Western physicians seem to have been generally unaware of the drug’s addictive potential until the early seventeenth century. In 1613, Samuel Purchas made the observation that “being once used, must daily be continued on pain of death, though some escape by taking to wine instead.”

(p. 7)

By this point in the extended game of telephone, the “observation” itself is now being attributed directly to Purchas, whereas in reality Purchas was simply reporting what he had read or heard in the reports of others. Further, and tellingly, Hayter’s extended paraphrasing of Purchas (“though some escape by taking to wine instead”), has been concretized as if it were part of Purchas’ original statement, and her attribution of the statement to “travellers” has become parenthetically inserted into Purchas’ own quote. It is somewhat ironic that Lee has misquoted Hayter’s misattributed citation and done so without crediting or citing Hayter–a form of plagiarism belied by the compounding of mistakes that reveal both his reliance on, and his misread mimicking, of the earlier source that he failed to attribute.

Two recent histories of opium, Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium by Lucy Inglis (2019) and Opium: How an Ancient Flower Shaped and Poisoned Our World by John Halpern & David Blistein (2019), omit the anecdote entirely. Inglis’ book mentions the more common anecdote about Purchas, also described in each of the books mentioned so far, that it was a dreary, opiated Samuel Taylor Coleridge who fell asleep while reading a copy of one of Purchas’ “pilgrim” books. It was during this slumber that his poem Xanadu came to him fully-formed in his opium dream, which he was only partly able to scrawl down before losing the fading dream memory of the rest. That is another interesting story altogether and would be a distraction here.


This brings us finally back around to Terence McKenna and his (1992) book Food of the Gods, whose citation led me down this path in the first place.


On page 194 of Food of the Gods (Chapter 12: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: Opium and Tobacco, note 4), Terence quotes Hayter (1968) as part of a general argument about the distinction between ancient and modern perceptions of opium:

Though opium’s habit-forming quality was mentioned by Heraclides of Tarentum, in the third century B.C., this was something even physicians were generally unaware of until nearly two thousand years later. We who have been raised with the notion of addiction and disease may find it hard to believe that chemical dependency upon opiates was not noted or described by medical authorities until early in the seventeenth century. Samuel Purchas, writing in 1613, observed of opium that “but being once used, it must daily be continued on paine of death, though some escape by taking to wine instead.” Alethea Hayter comments that “this awareness that opium is addictive is rarely found so early.”4

It is noteworthy that, because of the way he breaks up his citation here, Terence also partly plagiarizes Hayter’s research–and does so in a way that causes him to perpetuate her dating error–even though he doesn’t attribute the comment about Purchas to her. The endnote 4 that concludes the paragraph only cites Hayter’s direct quote from page 22 of her book (“This awareness…is rarely found so early”), although Terence also borrows the directly preceding quote from Purchas and the attribution to the year 1613 from Hayter, which begins on (her) page 21 (a page not included in his citation). In other words, the only attribution Terence gives Hayter here is for what he puts in quotes, making it appear as though the quote from, and details about, Purchas were part of his own original research. Indeed, if you look at pages 21-22 of Hayter’s book, the extra borrowing (and misattribution) by Terence is clear:


As in the case with Lee (above), it becomes clear that Terence borrowed the information, mostly uncited, from Hayter, that he did not read or cite Purchas himself, and that he misread the boundaries of Hayter’s direct quoting vs. paraphrasing of Purchas and as a result included her paraphrase of Purchas (about wine) as though it were a direct quote from Purchas. Indeed, Terence appears to be the first to have made this mistake, which could mean that Peter Lee was plagiarizing Terence who was plagiarizing Hayter (although, to be fair to Terence, he does at least cite her at all–which is what allowed me to sort this all out).

In 1992, Terence writes “Samuel Purchas, writing in 1613, observed of opium…,” and in 2006 Lee writes “In 1613, Samuel Purchas made the observation that opium…” Lee copies two of Terence’s mistakes: 1) attributing Hayter’s paraphrase about wine directly to Purchas, and 2) attributing the observation directly to Purchas rather than having Purchas acting as a reporter of the observations of others. Lee compounds this by making no reference at all to Hayter who he apparently doesn’t realize that he is quoting by proxy; he doesn’t cite Terence either.

At this point, things are getting rather sticky. Each step along the way is adding another small layer of distortion from the original publication, which each author claims to be directly representing, but there is no evidence that anybody in the chain has directly checked what Purchas himself wrote….even Hayter. This seems like a good time, then, to turn to Purchas himself.

Return to the Source

As you will see, in Purchas’ original text, which is part of a chapter on the “Creatures, Plants, and Fruits of India,” there is no specific reference to travellers at all. This seems to be part of the tradition added by Hayter, who very well may, herself, have been borrowing from another source quoting Purchas. This seems likely, given that the 1613 edition that she cites doesn’t contain the passage in question and that, where the passage does appear, in later editions, “travellers” are not the users mentioned by Purchas. This makes it unlikely that Hayter had the source to hand and suggests the possibility that she, too, is plagiarizing an earlier source quoting Purchas while pretending, with her citation, that she had consulted the original. It is perhaps noteworthy, in that sense, that Hayter doesn’t provide a page number citation in Purchas’ (1613) text but only cites the whole book.

Purchas’ original full quote about opium that is being drawn on here is not found in the 1613 first edition of Purchas His Pilgrimage but rather in the 1614 second and revised edition. In it, the expanded Chapter XII on “Creatures, Plants, and Fruits of India” contains the following (and full) commentary on opium:

Opium is the juice of the heads of black poppy being cut – a dangerous drug, used much in Asia and Africa, which makes them go as if they were half asleep: they suppose I know not what conjunction and efficacy of both Mars and Venus therein: but once used, must daily be continued on pain of death, which some escaped in Acosta’s company by the help of wine.

This is directly preceded by a description of olive trees and directly followed by a mention of bhang (“of like use, especially with slaves and soldiers, made them drunk, merry, and so to forget their labor.”) and so represents the entirety of Purchas’ passage on opium.


Several things are of note here:

1) Purchas describes travellers’ reports of opium being “used much” in Asia and Africa rather than writing that it is the travellers themselves who use opium. This is notable because the memetic tradition of writing about this has picked up on Hayter’s, rather than Purchas’, identification of the opium users as “travellers,” and it is her description and not Purchas’ that has been repeated subsequently in all of the cases mentioned– although in each case, the claim is attributed directly to Purchas rather than Hayter, often without even citing Hayter or anyone else, making it seem as though this were each author’s own research.

This is the real irony that I see here: authors failing to properly cite their resources, and, in doing so, perpetuating the errors of the sources that they are simultaneously relying on, and sometimes failing to cite at all, or citing without actually checking the source cited or, if checked, misreading it.

2) In her treatment of Purchas’ quote, Hayter chooses to paraphrase the concluding remark about wine to make it more general (“…some take to wine…”), thus eliminating Purchas’ quite specific reference to a single specific report, by Acosta, about the use of wine among his company, to temporarily alleviate the withdrawal symptoms of opium. Other authors, notably Terence McKenna, have perpetuated Hayter’s generalized paraphrase, even going so far as to cite it directly as Purchas’ own language. However, the original passage makes clear that it is a specific reference rather than a general claim. This is further evidence that Hayter did not consult Purchas directly but was cribbing another uncited source.

3) Perhaps more importantly in this tradition of telling the history of opium, the original passage also makes clear that Purchas was not the first to describe the addictive properties of opium but, rather, that Purchas himself was simply reporting what he had read in another book and therefore was not making a novel “observation” of which he was the earliest known author. Thus, Hayter’s claim that Purchas was the earliest to mention this association is belied by Purchas’ own text. Had any of the writers in this tradition of opium history-telling checked Purchas’ books, it would have been abundantly clear that Purchas was not the earliest reference, since Purchas himself cites another author (Acosta) as the source of his information.

The Portuguese physician and natural historian Cristóbal Acosta‘s book (written in Spanish) is Tractado de las Drogas, y medicinas de las Indias Orientales, con sus Plantas debuxadas al biuo por Christoval Acosta medico y circujano que las vio ocularmente, En el qual se verifica mucho de lo que escriuio el Doctor Garcia de Orta, Dirigido a la muy noble y muy mas leal ciudad de Burgos cabeca de Castilla y camara de su Magestad (Treatise on the Drugs and Medicines of the East Indies, with its plants drawn by eye by Cristóbal Acosta, a doctor and surgeon who saw them with his own eyes, in which much of what Doctor Garcia de Orta wrote is verified, Addressed to the very noble and most loyal city of Burgos, head of Castile and chamber of His Majesty) was published in 1578, thirty five years ahead of Purchas’ first edition, and based, in part, on Acosta’s own direct experience, which Purchas was only reporting–and, Acosta himself cites earlier authors on opium, including the Garcia de Orta whose writings are claimed to be verified by this text.

Within a whole chapter on opium in Acosta (Chapter LXVIII [68], “Del Opio”), we find the passage that Purchas had read and referenced and which Hayter omitted Purchas’ reference to, spawning some of the confusions in the historical tradition being considered in this post:

(Opium. Chapter 68)

(bottom of pg. 313)

Y que supiesse, que solo este remedio a uia para les quitar el uso, y falta del aunque era remedio para ellos muy duro, y enojoso, porsen contra suley: mas q pues necessidad de la vida tanto les costrenia que era por fuerca suffrirlo. Y afsiyoles yo les fuy dando el vino por la orden del dicho Turco, y ninguno dellos murio, y antes de un mes no quisieron el vino, y no les hizo dano la falta de opio: y acometendole por vezes con vino, y tentando a uno con un poco de opio, que yo tenia enla botica, que en la naue lleuaua para curar a los enfermos, ni opio ni vi no quisieron.

[And he knew that only this remedy was available to take away their use, and lack of it, although it was a very hard remedy for them, and annoying, because it went against their law (author’s suggestion: perhaps against their nature or habit?): more than the necessity of life would cost them so much that it was by force to suffer it (author’s note: in other words, they had to be forced to undergo abstinence). And afterwards I gave them wine by order of the said Turk, and none of them died, and within a month they did not want the wine, and the lack of opium did not harm them: and accosting them at times with wine, and tempting with a little opium, which I had in the pharmacy, which I brought in the ship to cure the sick, they neither wanted opium or (even) to see it.]

Part of the irony here is that had Hayter done due diligence and checked Purchas’ first edition (1613), she would not only have found an earlier published source (1578)  describing awareness of opium addiction and noticed that the passage she was interested in was only added in later revisions but would have actually found that the addictive potential of opium was addressed in the 1613 first edition after all….just not in the passage that she quoted–which, as we now know, didn’t exist in that edition and wasn’t added until the subsequent revision, a year later.

Back in Purchas (1613), we find the following passage that, until now, seems to have eluded the tradition of historical scholarship on opium and which serves as an actual reference to opium addiction in Purchas’ first edition. In this sense, the tradition has been correct that Purchas’ 1613 text contains a reference to opium addiction (although that same tradition has elided Acosta from that history, despite allegedly describing European, rather than simply Anglophone, awareness). However, the tradition has been accidentally correct, quoting the second edition while citing the first. What they could have quoted from the first edition is the following, in “Chapter 7: Of Cambai, and the neighbouring nations”:

Chapter 7, pg. 407

“This Machamut deserveth mention for one thing, wherein the Sunni hath fierce beheld his like. He so accustomed himself to poisons, that no day passed wherein he took not some: for else he himself had died, sayth Barbosa, as it fareth with Amfian, or Opium, the use whereof killeth such as never took it, and the disuse, such as have.”

But, had the historical record included this reference, it would have complicated things further, since here is not only a clear reference to “the disuse” of opium killing those who have started using it, but also another reference to an earlier source on opium addiction on which Purchas is relying rather than innovating, namely “Barbosa.”

Duarte Barbosa (1480-1521) was a Portuguese officer, pastor, scrivener, and travel writer in Portuguese India. His circa 1516 Livro de Duarte Barbosa (Book of Duarte Barbosa), roughly 70 years prior to Acosta’s text, and published in English in 1918 (used in image and quote below), offers another even earlier reference to awareness of the addictive potential of opium also, as the others, focused on “Cambaya/Cambaia” (modern Khambat in Gujarat, India), and clearly the source of Purchas’ 1613 statement:

“… And he could never give up eating this poison, for if he did so he would die forthwith, as we see by experience of the opium¹ which the most of the Moors and Indians eat; if they left off eating it they would die…”

“¹ Opium. This account of the practice of opium-eating, and its gradual effects, is very accurate. The Portuguese word used, “amfiam,” is taken from the Arabic afyūn which is itself derived from the Greek . Ramusio also uses the Portuguese term and explains it by the Italian oppio.”

This not only takes evidence of European awareness of the addictive properties of opium back into the early 16th (rather than 17th) century but also points us, along with a series of potential etymologies, toward yet another even earlier source of writing about opium: Ramusio.

Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485-1557), Italian geographer and travel writer, was something of an Italian proto-Samuel Purchas. While he, himself, traveled little, his book Navigationi et Viaggi [Navigations and Travels] (Volume 1, 1550) compiled the first-hand accounts of those who had. Ramusio was perhaps the first to have done so and so set a precedent that would lead to Purchas’ own Pilgrim books. Among other firsts, Ramusio’s text contains the first European literary reference to tea, in its section on China.

Interestingly, in light of the current analysis, Ramusio’s account of of the Indies was, itself, based on the work of an even earlier author, whose unpublished work he had acquired but whose name he did not know. We now know that this author was the Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires (1465-1524 or 1540). Pires’ Summa Oriental que trata do Mar Roxo até aos Chins (Summary Text on the East, from the Red Sea to China) was never published and was presumed lost (until located in an archive in 1944); it was based on his travels, beginning in 1511, accompanying the Prince of Portugal as his “factor of drugs” to India and was composed between 1512 and 1515.

In the text, Pires speaks of the king of the Deccan, “called Sultan Mahamud Xaa…” This is presumably the same ruler, of the same name, spoken of in the previously cited passages by other authors, and says of him that he is “addicted to opium and women and spends all of his time in this way.”

Purchas, in his text, glosses Idalcam as a kind of “captaine” to the king, the title, he says, derives from the Persian Adel-ham, meaning “King (or Prince) of Justice.” In other words, the king is addicted to opium and women, and so are his officers or courtiers or officials.

This analysis, then, pushes back literary reference to awareness of opium addiction, in European sources, back a century beyond what is currently reflected in histories of opium published since the latter half of the 20th century. More poignantly, it uncovers and excavates the contours of a previously unnoticed tradition of historical mythology through which successive authors have borrowed from each other (sometimes without attribution) in ways that have both obscured and distorted the original sources from which their claims ultimately derive. While the historical tradition ends up being accidentally correct in their attribution of awareness of opium’s addictive potential to Samuel Purchas in the first edition of Puchas His Pilgrimage (1613), it has done so by repeatedly (mis-)attributing to him a passage that was only subsequently added to later, revised, editions. This oversight occurred, and was repeated, despite that a passage on opium addiction does, in fact, appear in the earliest edition. Both passages, however, indicate the existence of earlier texts that historical scholarship should have picked up on and included in their chronologies. That they didn’t do so is good evidence that this historical tradition (beginning at least with Alethea Hayter) was developed in absence of any direct interaction with Purchas’ texts, despite direct citations to him.

Terence McKenna played a role in this tradition by way of uncareful citation; his misleading citation of only part of what he borrowed from Hayter, and his misreading of what he did borrow, uncited, seems to have influenced others who picked up his mistakes, carried them forward, and extended them further. This analysis hopefully serves as a partial corrective to this particular historical tradition but more fundamentally offers a venue for considering the broader phenomenon of historical mythology of which it is an example and provides an opportunity for reflection and a reminder and goad to do better. No doubt, and perhaps inevitably following Muphry’s Law (yes, Muphry’s!), in my attempt to correct the record, I have made my own mistakes and am initiating further traditions. In that regard, for the most part, I don’t necessarily blame most of the authors treated here for their oversights and am very acutely aware that we can each only perform so much due diligence without having to eventually cross-reference the whole cosmos.

[Please, correct me, on points fine and broad, if you are able–and, if you can improve any of my translations, don’t hesitate to comment!]

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