And far and wide, in a scarlet tide, The poppy’s bonfire spread.
~ Bayard Taylor ~
Just living is not enough…one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.
~ Hans Christian Andersen ~
Remember that iconic scene in The Wizard of Oz when the fearsome foursome, AKA Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Dorothy have Emerald City in their sight and they are so excited they start to run toward it? But what they are running through is a huge field of poppies that the Wicked Witch has bespelled to put Dorothy and Lion (and Toto, too) to sleep.
Desperate, Tin Man and Scarecrow yell for help. Finally, hearing their plea, Glinda, the good witch of the north, sends snow. The white blanket breaks the spell, and the foursome continue on their way.
Something about that expanse of poppies stayed in my mind over the decades. I’ve had poppies in our garden, but I’d never seen anything like that field of poppies. Until this past May when Bob and I were in Umbria, Italy. As we approached the villa where we would stay with others in our small tour group, the small van sped along the last miles and farmers’ fields stretched out on either side of us.
Suddenly, we saw, in amongst the crops of wheat and lentils, hundreds and hundreds of poppies.
First, I was awestruck. Then, well, I couldn’t help but hear the Wicked Witch cackle, “Poppies, poppies.”
While I am most familiar with the red poppy, there are 120 different varieties of the flower around the world and, as a result, it appears in many cultural mythologies, having both positive and negative associations.
There’s the obvious association with the opium poppy which is the source of the drug but its are the poppy seeds used in baking and cooking.
Not surprisingly, in myths and fairy tales, the flower is associated with sleep (aha!) and dreams. In Greek mythology, the gods gave Demeter a poppy to help her sleep after Persephone was abducted. The poppy was the symbol for Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, and associated with Morpheus, god of sleep and dreams.
And speaking of dreams, it was believed that if you put poppy seeds under your pillow, you would dream of your future lover.
However, if instead, you put the seeds in your pocket, then they offered protection.
Its red color evokes the association with blood and sacrifice, one of the prime examples of this being the crucifixion of Jesus and his sacrifice.
With sacrifice comes remembrance, as in the case of warriors and soldiers. The first example of this is by the poet Virgil in his epic tale, Aeneid. He compared the bowed and bloodied heads of warriors in the tale to the bowed and scarlet heads of poppies. Centuries later, poppies came to be worn in remembrance of those who died in World War I, inspired by John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields, the site of brutal trench warfare.
In spite of its association with sacrifice and death, this bright-faced flower is also a symbol of regeneration, new life and renewal.
Once of the reason that the poppies populate the fields in Italy and elsewhere is that the seeds fall and lie dormant until something, like a farmer’s plow, or war, or some other disturbance, stirs the soil, helping them to germinate. Hence the association with new life and regeneration.
Whether they are yellow, orange, white, or the more familiar red, they are a beautiful flower that has been mythologized through the centuries.
In spite of having a spell cast on them…