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Poppies and Their Important Role in Religion, Politics, Medicine and Mythology

Updated on July 4, 2017
Poppies come in many colors and are a bright addition to any garden.
Poppies come in many colors and are a bright addition to any garden. | Source

No Garden Should Be Without Poppies

"As for marigolds, poppies, hollyhocks, and valorous sunflowers, we shall never have a garden without them, both for their own sake, and for the sake of old-fashioned folks, who used to love them." - Henry Ward Beecher

Poppies, along with many other flowers such as the carnation, hyacinth, anemone, lily, sunflower, rose, sunflower and violet are closely associated with customs from various cultures. Here, we are going to take a look at some of those customs and the role that poppies have played and continue to play.

The Poppy Goddess

The Importance of Poppies in Religion...

The terra cotta figurine of a woman known as the "Poppy Goddess" was discovered in Gazi, Crete sometime between 1400-1100 B.C. The figurine shows the woman with both hands raised and seeds of opium poppies on her head and she is said by historians to represent a Minoan goddess as the bringer of sleep or death. Historians also theorize that the woman's raised hands indicate that she is a deity that is gazing forward; and her open palms are an indication of some type of sudden revelation.

J. A. Sakellarakis, author of Heraklion Museum Illustrated Guide, published in 2003, thought the goddess could have been offering a greeting or a blessing, or she could have been praying. He also theorized that it might have symbolized her appearance on earth in human form.

In Grego-Roman myths, poppies were considered offerings to the dead, but English poet and author Robert Graves (24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985), who was also a student of Irish mythology, felt that the poppies' bright scarlet colour symbolized the promise of resurrection after death.

And sometimes the poppy flower is simply grown for its unbelievable beauty.
And sometimes the poppy flower is simply grown for its unbelievable beauty. | Source
Poppy flowers have always played an important role in religion, politics and mythology, as well as medicine.
Poppy flowers have always played an important role in religion, politics and mythology, as well as medicine.

...and Politics

Shortly after World War I ended in 1918, the poppy began to symbolize remembrance of the "fallen" soldiers of that war. It was a time that almost every family was affected and the hope was that the remembrance would prevent future wars. But, apparently lessons were not learned and World War II came and went some decades later. Even today, almost 100 years after the end of WWI, there are those who believe that we can expect a World War III.

In spite of that belief, every autumn the artificial poppy is seen on lapels everywhere as people continue to remember those who lost their lives in those wars. Essentially, only the names on "remembrance walls" have changed; little else, as people debate each year what the poppy truly symbolizes.

"In Flanders Fields"

(Note: As well as their role in religion, medicine and mythology, because of the trench warfare in the poppy fields of Flanders (Belgium) during World War I, these colorful flowers have also become a symbol of the remembrance of soldiers who lost their lives during wartime. The famous poem "In Flanders Fields" was written by Major John McRae, second in command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery.)

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

...and Medicine

The journey of opiates from being considered a medicine to becoming a menace to society has been an interesting one, indeed. Opium seeds contain both morphine and codeine, and therein lies the problem for some (addicts), and the solution for others (physicians). In ancient Egypt, doctors would advise their patients in pain to eat poppy seeds containing those pain-relieving drugs that are still widely used today, but highly regulated by the government. That discovery, however, didn't begin with the Egyptians, as the earliest reference to the crop was in 3400 B.C. in Southwest Asia (Mesopotania). The Sumerians of that region passed it on to the Syriacs (Assyrians) who then passed it on to the Egyptians. As word of the "healing" powers of the opium plant spread, demand for it became great and farmers began planting it to meet the increasing demand.

Addiction to opium begins with the planting of a single seed, and those seeds are planted by impoverished farmers all over the world.

Morphine, which acts directly upon the central nervous system, is considered the most powerful pain-relieving agent available. It is the most abundant alkaloid found in opium and the fastest relief for agonizing or debilitating pain. Sales of morphine originated at the Merck chemist shop in 1827. Today, Merck Pharmaceuticals is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, and morphine is used in hospitals worldwide.

Codeine also has some pain-relieving properties and it is the second-most abundant alkaloid in the opium poppy. Most often, however, codeine is used as a cough relieving agent, but it is habit-forming and today is available only by prescription.

Just about any information you would need to know about opiates can be found in the Merck Manual, the digital version of which is available online. If you're old school and still want a book to peruse, they are available as well through Amazon. I use the Merck Manual religiously for information that I believe to be definitive on the subject of medicines. The professional version is written for health care professionals - and that's the information to which I appreciate having access.

...and Mythology

Poppies were associated with Hypnos, the god of sleep, by the Greeks; and Morpheus, the god of dreams. The drug morphine gets its name from Morpheus. There are many societies that associated a symbolic meaning of the red color of some poppies with blood and passion.


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