by Emma Biggins
The bright scarlet poppy of the cornfields – popaver rhoeas – is immediately familiar to any Brit. To the modern mind, it stands as a symbol of remembrance for those who have died in armed conflicts. Received opinion has it that this association stems from the poppy’s love of churned earth (the very same reason which causes it to thrive on arable land). It flourished in abundance over the churned, corpse-rich soils of the Western Front after WW1. Others add that its bright red petals, appearing like a vivid splash of blood amidst waving grasses and cereal crops, are a scarlet reminder of our own mortality which is both eye-catching and unmistakable. However, the poppy’s association with death stretches far back into history, beyond WW1 and into antiquity. Indeed, this relatively common bloom has a wealth of symbolism behind it which inspired artists, myth-makers and story tellers for generations before it reached its incarnation as the symbol of the Royal British Legion.
Dionysus and Demeter
Dionysus and Demeter
When poppy symbolism is studied, three main themes can be extracted – those of sleep, death, and delirium. Often these three are intertwined – with delirium in cults like those of the Greek Dionysus being considered akin to a ‘death’ of the old persona in order to ‘birth’ the worshipper anew. This delirium would be induced through the use of alcohol, psychological frenzy-building and perhaps the use of opiates. Opiates are of course derived from the poppy, which makes at least this aspect of its symbolic derivation clear. Meanwhile, sleep and its vivid, wild dreams has always been closely associated both with death and delirium. Interestingly, the poppy features most prominently in Ancient Greece as the flower of the Goddess Demeter. Demeter still exists in the modern mind as an enigmatic, naturistic presence which can be utilized to sell perfumes and other such floral, feminine mysteries. Demeter was at heart a goddess of the corn, and poppies flourish in cornfields, so her association with poppies is perhaps not surprising. What is interesting is that Dionysus and Demeter, often linked by academics, are both associated with poppies. According to some versions of the myth of Persephone, Demeter created and ate poppies in order to gain sleep and thus some respite from her agonizing grief over the loss of her daughter. However, this aspect of Demeter’s tale may be an echo of an earlier myth, and an earlier incarnation of Demeter as poppy goddess – a myth of which only fragmentary evidence and speculation remains today.
The Poppy Goddess
The ‘Poppy Goddess’ is an ancient Minoan sculpture, pre-dating the Hellenic myths but undoubtedly a contributory factor in their formation. This ‘goddess’ consists of a female torso with upraised hands, resting upon a cylindrical base. Her expression is neutral, yet not unkind, and her intricately braided hair is adorned with poppy capsules – at least one of which has been positively identified as of a type which was used to make opium in the Minoan world. Speculation as to her purpose, attributes, and mythic/symbolic role remains rife, but it seems relatively clear that she was associated with rites involving poppies – perhaps as bringers of healing sleep, of ‘mind-expanding’ delirium, or even offerings to the dead. These aspects of sleep and death (mingled with the delirium of dreams) later resurface in the poppy crowns worn by the brothers Hypnos and Thanatos - Ancient Greek personifications of sleep and death.
The Perils of Disregarding the Symbolism
Clearly the poppy’s association with death has a lot more than its love of churned, gravetop earth to it. While this may be a major contributory factor to its symbolism, there are plenty of other flowers which enjoy similar conditions yet have never been associated with death. Cornflowers, for example, speckle churned farmlands worldwide, and frequently pop up on new graves, yet cornflower symbolism is fragmentary and usually associated with the particulars of day-to-day life rather than the deep mysteries of death. It would appear that the ancients were well aware of the deadly aspect of the poppy as opium, and that its attributes of mortality (especially when considered in the light of its secondary associations with sleep and delirium) carry a cautionary message for those who partake of the juice of the poppy. It’s a message to which the modern world should have listened. The Pre-Raphaelites, for example, were well aware of the poppy’s ancient symbolism. Poppies feature in the foreground of Edward Burne-Jones’s The Princess’ Tale to make it clear to the viewer that the small boy in the painting is, in fact, dead and being comforted by the Virgin Mary in the afterlife. John Everett Millais punctuated his painting of Ophelia with a bright red poppy, in order to indicate the delirious nature of Ophelia’s tragic death. Alas, the model, Elizabeth Siddal, would later die of a laudanum overdose, rendering this painting horribly prophetic. Disregarding the symbolic warnings of their ancestors, the Victorians indulged in the opiate laudanum as a cure-all, using it to treat everything from morning sickness to brain tumors. It would claim the lives of thousands – including those of many babies - before the authorities would realize what the Ancient Greeks knew thousands of years ago: opium, while it soothes pain, induces sleep, and can bring about euphoric delirium, will kill you in the end. However, by the time it was banned it was too late. The market for opioids was well established, and it would not be long before laudanum and its cousins would be transformed into that scourge of modern society – heroin. Heroin continues to claim the lives of many, and many more are even now struggling to rid themselves of its curse.
With the cessation of World War One, therefore, the development of the poppy as a national symbol of remembrance was a natural progression from its earlier associations with death. It would appear that, in the modern world, its symbolic attributes of delirium and sleep have gone by the wayside. However, look a little closer and it is clear that they are not far beneath the surface. Many of those who returned from WW1 were ‘shell-shocked’. They appeared to have undergone a complete personality change, and many observers were of the opinion that they had been ‘driven mad’ by their experiences. Nowadays we would state that they suffered from PTSD and send them to get psychiatric aid, but in those days the condition was very little understood. Such suffering veterans would be sedated, calmed, or dosed in the vain hope of improvement – with poppy-derived laudanum.
About the author:
Emma Biggins is now a freelance writer, but before she decided to take her first steps into the precarious world of penning articles for a living she worked in the financial sector advising people on what not to do with their money. Now she's raising her own family, working from home and finding out exactly where the dollars don't go..