The poppy plant, Paper somniferums was known as far back as the time of ancient Sumerians. The ancient Sumerians called the flower the plant of joy. The Assyrians got their knowledge of poppies from the Sumerians, and they passed their understand of poppy cultivation to the Babylonians who passed it onto the Egyptians. Opium was used as a sleeping drug in Egypt so the opium trade flourished then. Egyptian Pharaohs were buried with opium artifacts.

(We have been reading about Greek civilisation and D’aulaire’s Greek Myths at home this year) The poppy plant and its hypnotic qualities were well known in the classical period of ancient Greece. It was regarded as a magic or poisonous plant and was used in religious ceremonies. At a later date it was also employed in the art of healing. According to Theophrastus, l0 the Mantineian root-doctor, Thrasyas wrote that from the juices of the poppy and hemlock an easy and painless death could be obtained.

The ancient Greeks had numerous Gods that were portrayed wreathed with or carrying poppies.

 poppy2Icelandic poppy

Paperver2   Welsh poppies

These Gods include Hypnos the god of sleep, Nyx the goddess of night, and Thanatos the God of death. The poppy was portrayed prominently in Greek literature.

The first written record of the poppy is found in Hesiod (eighth century B.C.), who states that in the vicinity of Corinth there was a city actually called Mekonê or POPPY-TOWN. This city got its name from the extensive cultivation of the poppy in the area. Some think it was because it was there that Demeter first discovered the fruit of the poppy.


The poppy also appears in Greek literature such as in the Argonautica, and was said to grow in the garden of Hekatê near Kolchis. 

“And there were overhanging grasses with roots sunken low,

And asphodel, and famed and lovely maiden’s hair.

Yew and camomile and the black poppy

Mighty plants, and white hellebore and monkshood too

And many other baneful plants that grow upon the ground “.

Homer in the Iliad also mentions the poppy:

“And as a poppy which in the garden is weighed down by fruit and vernal showers, droops its head on one side “.  Click here for all the legend stuff and info. 

Ancient Greek gods Hypnos (Sleep), Nyx (Night), and Thanatos (Death) either wore wreathes with poppies or carrying poppies in their hands.


Statues of Apollo, Asklepios, Pluto, Demeter, Aphrodite, Kybele, Isis and other deities were also decorated with a bunch of poppies (usually with ears of corn). Legend has it that Demeter, in despair over the seizure of her daughter Persephone by Pluto, ate poppies in order to fall asleep and forget her grief. According to Ovid, she supplied Triptolemus also with poppies in order to induce sleep. The poppy became one of the symbols of this goddess. On a basket at Eleusis it is portrayed in combination with ears of corn.

Poppy-capsules, with or without the addition of ears of corn, are also found on figurines, bas-reliefs, vases, tombstones, coins and jewellery. The poppy-head, with or without ears of corn, is found in the hands of statues of various gods of the nether world, and because of the multiplicity of its seeds, it is considered to be a symbol of abundance and fertility. Poppy capsules that contain the seeds are interesting shapes, they were used to decorate the heads of Minoan goddesses, see this picture > poppy capsule and then this picture.

Hippocrates made frequent mention of the poppy for its hypnotic effects and nutritive value. Alexander the Great introduced poppies to the Near East, starting the flowers long history in Asia.

Ancient Asian texts described opium as a medicine and opium was widely used as a social drug in India and China.

Smoking opium was considered barbaric by many Asian cultures. By 1729, the use of opium was such a problem in China that the Chinese emperor issued an edit banning the smoking of opium and its domestic sale for anything but medical purposes. In 1750 the British East India controlled all shipping of opium from the poppy growing areas of England. The stranglehold the British East India on the opium trade continued until it had a complete monopoly on the trade of opium. In 1796 the import of opium into China becomes a crime, but this does little to stop the rampant smuggling. In 1799 Chinese emperor Kia King bans opium completely to include trade and poppy cultivation.

During the Dark Ages, opium use wasn’t so popular anymore. And then poppies and opium was rediscovered during the increased exploration during the 15th and 16th centuries. Until then opium was eaten as a drug but then the smoking of opium was discovered during the 1500s. European trade ships spread opium across the known world. Opium quickly became the main trade commodity between England and India and China. The Dutch introduced the use tobacco pipe to smoke opium, which made it more popular. In 1803 Friedrich Seturner of Germany discovered the active ingredient of opium by dissolving it in acid then neutralizing it with ammonia. The resulting product was morphine, which is considered a miracle drug for its reliability, safety, and long lasting effects. During the early 1800s opium was introduced to the United States and became popular with writers and artists. Opium’s popularity reached its peak in Britain in 1830. In 1839 the first of the Opium Wars begin when Lin Tse-Hsu ordered all foreign traders to surrender their opium. By 1841 the Chinese were defeated, opening all of China to the West. In 1856 the Chinese were defeated in the Second Opium War allowing for the legal import of opium into China. By the late 1800s European countries were largely successful in cutting down on opium production in East Asia.


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