By: J Nighteagle
Poppies have had a strange mythology down the ages. Seen waving in the fields, the plants look innocuous enough. They grow from two to three feet tall and gorgeous vivid flowers appear from April to August. They last only a few days, and when the petals flutter to the ground bulging seed capsules appear. The tiny seeds, gray or brown, yield fine oil. The leaves , stems and capsules contain a milky juice which turns brown when dried; raw opium. The opium may be processed into the related narcotics that wreak havoc in the lives of addicts, but for ages played a role in ceremony and ritual.
Often the myths encompassed sleep, dreams or death. Poppies were considered sacred to Hypnos, the God of sleep in ancient Greece. Pictures and friezes depicted Hypnos with poppy heads in his hands and adorning his head. Poppies surrounded the door way to his realm. Hypnos brought prophetic dreams and soothed the pain of those suffering from emotional agony. Romans called this god Somnus, derived from the plant’s Latin name, Papaver somniferum “ bringer of sleep “ .
In a more sinister guise, the poppy has underworld connection and links with Thanatos or Hades, Greek lords of death. Archaeological finds at certain ancient sites confirm the poppy’s status as a sacred plant intimately connected with the rites of passage to the Underworld. Hades was said to have worn a cap that rendered him invisible when he abducted Persephone. Some mythologists believe that his cap was an allusion to his fantastic flower. An ancient recipe for invisibility advised steeping poppy seeds in wine for fifteen days, then drinking a glass of the brew for five consecutive days while fasting. The potion was then believed to make a person invisible at will.
Opium poppies have never been grown hear and in fact their cultivation is illegal. But an indigenous and less potent variety has a history among Native American tribes in the Southwest and in regions of Central America. This species , the prickly poppy, Argemone mexicana, is a spiky version of it’s more powerful cousin. The Aztecs, like the ancient Greeks, also used opiates for healing and ceremonial purposes – and identified the plant with the Underworld. For people who have suffered addiction, the ancient association with the abyss may be readily perceived.