The symbolic value ascribed to poppies reaches back in time, beginning with Sumerians, who regarded it as a flower of joy. When the Sumerians encountered Assyrians, poppies passed into new hands. The Assyrians cultivated the flower and shared information on growing the plant with Babylon, then through Babylon to Egypt. By the time of the Pharaohs, poppies were prized for producing opium, then used to help people sleep better.
Poppies in China
A legend from China tells a heart-rending story of devotion and ascribes the value of faith and devotion between lovers to the poppy. It begins with Lady Yee and Hsiang Yu, who were husband and wife. Lady Yee so loved Hsiang Yu that she went with him into battle, not wishing to be separated. On the day when the odds of survival became hopeless, Lady Yee picked up her husband's sword and danced in hopes of easing his sadness. When that effort failed, she committed suicide only to have a field of poppies bloom where she fell.
The ancient Greeks used poppies to represent fertility and vigour. Greek athletes, in fact, consumed poppy seeds in their wine with a bit of honey to improve their strength and keep them healthy.
There was, however, a sadder side to this flower. The myths tell us that Demeter created poppies to help her sleep through her grief when her daughter Persephone was lost to the underworld for six months out of the year.
Greeks shared their stories with the Romans, who in turn introduced poppies to Europe. The Romans placed the poppy under the domain of Somnus, who governs sleep.
In Europe, women wear white poppies on Remembrance Day to represent peace and the fervent desire to see war end throughout the world. Red poppies symbolise fallen soldiers.
John McCrae wrote a poem called, "We Shall Keep the Faith." This poem spoke of poppies dotting Flanders Field, a World War I cemetery in Belgium and France. After reading this, a University of Georgia professor promised to wear poppies daily to commemorate the honoured dead.
Moina Michael, fondly known as the poppy lady, worked her entire life to get poppies recognised as the symbol of veterans. Thanks to her efforts, poppies were regularly distributed by 1924, and funds raised from their sale went to veterans.
Christian art uses poppies as a backdrop to the Passion of Christ. Alternatively, some carvings use poppies to represent sleep, meditation, rest or death.
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