I’ve been requesting several files from special collections and archives related to counterculture luminary and attempted social engineer William S. Burroughs. In the first batch I received, among other things, an invoice for purchase of a gram of mescaline sulfate ordered while he was living in London, February 1960.
Today I’ll be focusing on some letters related to an article in London’s Sunday Times about Burroughs’ claims to have beaten his addiction using an alkaloid from the blue lotus flower known as apomorphine.
The blue lotus, (botanical name, Nymphaea caerulea) is a plant shrouded in three millennia of hazy mystery and equal controversy befitting such an intriguing subject. Through years of it’s being venerated and memorialized in art and architecture as much seems to have been hidden as revealed. Like the glorious golden globe, concealed by the field of blue petals until dawn’s light awakens it to seeming life to beam along with the sun. It’s unique role in the development of medicine, religion and culture wasn’t even begun to be fully unveiled until the 1800’s. It is perhaps here that the beginnings of at least the modern academic controversy hearken back.
Even it’s nomenclature is at times confused or in dispute. the blue lotus, is in fact, a stylized lily. It’s official name in Latin, Nymphaea Caerulea, in fact is part of our origin of the word cerulean. Indigo and several other hues of blue may have began in the form of adjectives in Proto-Indo-European. The word indigo, for instance hearkens from “nila” which meant blue (as in the color of the Nile).
The irrigation of the Nile and the early botanical marvel that was stylizing the white lily into the blue lotus are perfect symbols of the growth of civilization out of wilderness. The white lily was an unscented aquatic flower that opened and night and closed at dawn. Early Egyptian botanists were able to, from it’s literal roots create a blue-petaled flower which a strong, sweetly pungent scent that opened it’s blue petals at dawn to expose a yellow center (symbolizing the sun arising from the blue field of the sky daily).
White lily had already been an important plant to the Egyptians and continued to be featured in paintings, but the introduction of the blue lotus began the veneration of a plant that would spread in the years to come from continent to continent, whose mystery over the years would only seem to increase as more puzzle pieces are discovered. Originally, it was assumed the blue lotus was merely an ornamental flower. Egyptians with blue flowers pressed to their mouths and noses was a common sight in many ancient Egyptian portrayals of daily life, history or in religious stelae (slabs of wood or stone used to house portrayals of things of religious and or historical importance).
Despite the fact that herbalists from as far back as the early document of medicinal history, the Ebers papyrus were using Blue lotus as an addition to recipes there has been heated debate as to whether or not the flower was merely used as ornaments. Up until the mid-1800’s (before George Moritz Ebers discovered the papyrus named after him in Luxor) blue lotus had been considered a mere ornament and any pharmacological use of the plant was considered ridiculous but evidence since then points more and more to the plant being a focal point to the development of religion, culture and yes, even a symbol of the rise of early civilization. From hunters and gatherers we became masters of our environment with basic technologies like irrigation and botany, evidenced in the breeding of these beautiful hybrid flowers that could also be used as medicine. In short, a vitally important step out of the darkness of pre-history.
The blue lotus’ importance to historical and cultural development, religion and medicine wouldn’t end in the sandy shores of the Nile. Nymphaea’s precious nature would prove to continue to play an important role in cultural development, trade and the art of multiple civilizations from it’s mention in Homer’s Odyssey in the portion on the island of the Lotus eaters and it’s resurgence in art of the 19th century when Ebers, Blavatsky and others sparked an interest in this mysteriously, exotic flower.
In our next chapter of the blue lotus saga we’ll continue along in Egypt and learn about the roots of this amazing flower that captivated revenants across the globe in it’s time.