Opium Poppy - Botanicals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Opium Poppy

(Papaver somniferum)

Caution! Potentially poisonous and, depending where you’re located, almost definitely illegal.

There are many species of poppies, however only two, the opium poppy and the wild setaceous poppy, which may be the root ancestor species of all poppies, contain morphine in any significant amount. Opium poppies were perceived as the most powerful and magical of the species for obvious reasons. However, opium poppies tend to be illegal, even if you’re only planning to add these pretty flowers to your garden, even if you have no intention of producing opium but only wish to use these plants magically or ritually. It is highly unlikely that most of us will ever have access to opium poppies. (Attempting to order them from a seed catalog will likely get you the wrong kind of attention. You try explaining to drug officials that you’re only interested in ritual use.)

As with mandrake root, when discussing historical medicinal use, only true opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is indicated; however, when discussing ritual or magical use, any of the many other poppy species may substitute. Vivid red corn poppies are the most popular substitute. They were also dedicated to Demeter (as are opium poppies) and serve similar magical function. Another substitute might be the red poppies classified as Papaver strigosum or “witch poppy.”

Opium poppies are most notorious as the source of opium. This overshadows every other use the plant has ever had—the leaves were once eaten as potherbs, and poppy seeds are nutritious and a source of cooking oil.

Poppies contain a tremendous amount of seeds; they are literally countless. Because of this, poppies are among the flowering plants most associated with human fertility. They are the floral equivalent of a pomegranate. As such, they were associated with the generative powers of the Earth and sacred to powerful goddesses.

Opium has been used as an aphrodisiac and intoxicant since the Stone Age, however ancient forms of usage were different than those of modern times. It was once less concentrated, the ancients not having access to derivatives or synthetics. The ancients didn’t have the technical capacity to isolate chemical constituents as is done today. There was little concept of “recreational drugs.” (There still isn’t in traditional societies today.) Instead opium poppies were understood as unique, sacred, both beneficial and dangerous and as packed with magic power as with seeds.

Opium has extremely ancient associations with human beings. Although its origins remain shrouded in mystery, opium poppies have been cultivated since that old time immemorial; no wild population exists. Some poppies may escape from a field and wander; abandoned poppy fields will thrive; but basically opium poppies live where people plant them.

Poppies were cultivated by European Neolithic cave dwellers. They are believed to have eventually traveled from Northern Europe to the Mediterranean during the later Neolithic period, following the amber trade route. By the Bronze Age, opium poppies were well distributed throughout the Eastern Hemisphere and used medicinally, as a food source, and as an intoxicant. The most ancient form of use, for instance, was an infusion, either opium poppyinfused water or wine. Helen of Troy’s elixir of forgetfulness, nepenthe, is believed to have contained opium as well as those other witches’ plants, mandrake and henbane.

Medicinal use of opium disappeared in Europe in the wake of the Black Death, hence its later associations with Asia where it was still used medicinally, ritually, and magically. (It was eventually reintroduced by the physician/ alchemist Paracelsus in the form of laudanum.) Although gone, opium poppies were never quite forgotten: perhaps because they retained their mystique, were mysterious and powerful, and because herbal skill and knowledge was required for safe, successful administration, opium poppies became associated with witchcraft. Opium poppies are believed to have been among the ingredients in witches’ flying ointments.

Because of their notoriety, it is easy to overlook the beauty of opium poppies: although they also come in other colors including white and purple, most are a vivid blood red, the color anciently identified with luck, life, and good fortune. That red color also emphasizes opium’s association with fertility power and the deities who preside over it.

Image The Greek Corn Mother Demeter drank opium to relieve her state of grief over the loss of her daughter Persephone. She wears a necklace formed from opium pods. Although very little is known about the religious rituals known as the Eleusinian Mysteries that were devoted to Demeter and Persephone, opium poppies seem to have played a part.

Image Hathor’s necklace is formed from opium pods and mandrake. Hathor is the ancient Egyptian goddess of joy and intoxication. In addition to opium poppies, Hathor presided over beer, wine, and musical intoxication, too.

Image Isis sometimes holds poppies, too. Thebes, in ancient Egypt, was renowned for its poppy fields.

Image Poppies are sacred to the Russian forest witch, Baba Yaga. The seeds are incorporated into her initiation rituals.

Image Nyx the Greek goddess of night, carries a bouquet of poppies, while her son Thanatos, “Death,” wears his poppies in a garland.

Image Hermes was also associated with poppies. Originally a shamanic fertility deity, associated with horned animals like sheep and goats, Hermes retains his function as messenger between realms. His home is in Mekone, which translates as “poppy town.” His magic staff can cause sleep if he wills it so. That staff with its two entwined serpents remains emblematic of the medical profession. Snakes and poppies were once representative of healing and the physician’s art.

Image Opium poppies are associated with the sacred physician, Asklepios, Apollo’s son. Visitors seeking treatment at the Temple of Asklepios were given poppy extract to induce curative dreams. Asklepios is sometimes depicted holding the readily identifiable opium capsules in one hand and his serpent entwined staff in the other. (Asklepios’ staff, unlike Hermes’ caduceus, only has one snake.)

Mythic associations are based on actual observation. Poppy seeds will remain viable within Earth for a very long time. Should the soil then be disturbed or churned up, long dormant seeds will suddenly germinate en masse and fields of brilliant red flowers will spectacularly bloom. The ancients identified this phenomenon with the resurrection of the dead and renewal of life, and it was vividly demonstrated during World War I when fields of battle in Flanders and Northern France blossomed with countless scarlet poppies.

Somniferum, the Latin name given to distinguish opium poppies from other poppies, derives from Somnus, the Roman Lord of Sleep, hence such related words as somnambulist and somnolent.

Today opium poppies are dreaded and banned as the source of illegal and dangerous narcotics. “Narcotic” in modern terminology implies “dangerous,” “addictive,” and frequently an “illicit” or “illegal” drug. However, in traditional medicinal usage, in the word’s most technical sense, “narcotic” indicates a substance that induces sleep. Narcotics, in the medical sense of the word, are powerful sedatives and soporifics; they relieve pain and put you to sleep, enabling healing to occur. For millennia, opium was the only reliable anesthetic in existence.

Alkaloids were first discovered by studying opium poppies—as were the entire concept of alkaloids. In 1803, a German pharmacist isolated the very first alkaloid. Discovering that it was highly narcotic and the primary active constituent of opium, he named it morphine in honor of Morpheus, the Greek Lord of Dreams. Opium has since been discovered to contain 40 other alkaloids.

Like Amanita muscaria (see page 152), another ancient intoxicant, the visual imagery of poppies is often divorced from the botanical’s physical effect. In other words, poppies serve as ornamentation for all kinds of illustrations dedicated to children or mainstream holidays. Poppies are so deeply imbedded within human culture that the image survives even where the actual plant and the rituals within which it featured does not.

Image Crimson poppies decorated a great quantity of European postal cards from the classic age of postcards, especially Christmas and New Year cards, the period corresponding to the Winter Solstice when Earth is sound asleep.

Image Poppies appear in the film version ofThe Wizard of Oz as the Wicked Witch’s magical tool.