The Poppy – remembrance and symbolism of things past

As humans, we’ve been creating symbolism with flowers and plants since time immemorial.

Flowers can convey messages that we can’t always speak. They represent every sentiment one could think of, and as a floral designer, I’ve always been fascinated by this partnership between humans and the language of flowers.

With Remembrance Day upon us, I began to consider our link to the Poppy.

It ended up that I dug quite a bit further back in history than World War I & II.

I discovered an enormous amount of interesting information about the evolution of the poppy, and how it’s played a part in tandem with humanity over the centuries.

Probably the best known Poppy is the Papaver somniferum, which is the opium Poppy. It was domesticated by indigenous people from Western and Central Europe between 6000 and 3500 BC.  It’s believed that the use of opium may have originated with the ancient Sumerian people.

Papaver somniferum L. is one of the oldest cultivated plants with the hypothesis that this particular poppy is derived from the species Papaver setigerum, which grows wild along the Mediterranean region.

Western Asia is also considered the center of poppy’s origin. The oldest documented traces of poppies in Europe come from the Neolithic period, as evidenced by poppy seeds found in the Alps.

The ancient Egyptians of the eighteenth dynasty created containers made in the shape of poppies. These Juglets as they’re called, have been found with trace amounts of opium still inside.  The flower also appears on jewelry and other art objects from that era, and opium seemed to offer a ritual significance as its use was generally restricted to priests.

Poppies and opium then made their way around the known world via the Silk Road. In Turkey, the poppy has been a traditional plant since 3,000 BC, and the city Afyon in central Anatolia (Turkey) was named after them. “Afyon” in Turkish means “opium.”

The Wizard of Oz – Chapter 8

According to L. Frank Baum, (who we all know as the author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz), Poppies were mentioned in Greco-Roman myths as offerings to the dead.

The origin of the Poppy (Papaver) was attributed by the ancient Greeks to Ceres, who, despairing of regaining her daughter Proserpine, carried off by Pluto, created the Poppy in order that by ingesting it she might obtain sleep, and thus forget her grief.

The ancients considered the Papaver Rhæa, or Corn-Rose, so necessary for the prosperity of their Corn, that the seeds of this Poppy were offered up in the sacred rites of Ceres, (aka Demeter) whose garland was formed with Barley or bearded Wheat interwoven with Poppies.

Demeter rejoiced, for her daughter was by her side. Illustration by Walter Crane – (1914) – Public Domain

Ceres/Demeter is sometimes depicted holding Poppies in her hand. The quieting effects of the Poppy, which were well known to the Greeks, probably led them to represent the deities Hypnos (Sleep), Thanatos (Death), and Nyx (Night), either as crowned with Poppies, or holding Poppies in their hands.

A Minoan goddess represented as a terracotta figurine was discovered by archaeologists. With raised hands and seeds of opium poppies on her head, this female figure, known popularly as the poppy goddess, is thought to be a representation as the bringer of sleep or death.

Greek youths and maidens proved sincerity to their lovers by placing a petal or flower-leaf of the Poppy in one hand, which, on being struck with the other hand, was broken with a sharp sound, which denoted true attachment. If it failed to snap, that meant unfaithfulness. This superstition passed to Rome, and is still practiced in modern Italy and Switzerland.

Currently, many poppy seeds come to market from the European Union, and plantations are also located in China and Australia. In Slavic countries, the poppy seed is a traditional culinary delicacy.

In any case, there seems to be a relationship between Poppies and conflict.

The field poppy, Papaver rhoeas, on which the remembrance poppy is based, has long been associated with armies fighting in Europe.

The flowers often overgrew the mass graves left by battles, and this has been documented, at least back to a 1693 battle in the Netherlands between the French and English, as well as the battle of Waterloo, and of course WWI, where the enormous artillery bombardments completely disrupted the landscape. This destruction infused chalk soils with lime, and the Poppy thrives in that environment where their vivid colour can’t be missed in contrast to the surrounding disfigured terrain.

In closing, the themes for the poppy across the centuries, are for the most part nods to the underworld, sleep, funeral rites, and death, which seems like an appropriate symbol for all of the people who’ve died fighting wars.



Grow note

Poppy seeds like the cool of early spring or autumn to be planted.
They don’t like to be transplanted due to their rather long taproot. If you must move a Poppy, make sure to get as much soil around them as possible. Otherwise, it dries out in no time and you’re left with a dead plant. I say this from personal experience. : (
They sure are showy once they’re established. A real treasure in the garden!

Field of red poppies – S. Shelton, Postcard, ca 1903 Public Domain

 

Gift of Nature – An art exhibit in #MyHaliburtonHighlands

Bittersweet – Karen Sloan

Happily, (after an 8 year hiatus), I’ve picked up my paint brushes once again. 🙂

I’m also happy to share some more exciting news:

Gift of Nature“: A group exhibition of local artists  (including me), held this Thanksgiving weekend: (Oct. 12 & 13, 2019) at:

Sir Sam’s Ski & Bike, here in the Haliburton Highlands.

Of course, #MyHaliburtonHighlands is a beautiful place to experience any time of the year, but if there one season in particular where any artist will find inspiration, (even one who has experienced an 8 year block), it would have to be autumn!

Haliburton County is currently awash with brilliant colours in every shade nature can think of, everywhere one looks!

The weather is absolutely glorious for those many ‘leaf lookers’ who will want to witness this autumn splendour.

Stop in for a visit if you’re out and about!

Having thrown my hat in the ring for this art show, I’m looking forward to sharing my newest painting, alongside the wonderful work of so many other talented individuals.

In closing, I’d like to offer a big thanks to Sir Sam’s for hosting this event, and to the Arts Council of Haliburton Highlands for all of their hard work creating this event, and getting a group of creative types, who offer paintings, ceramics, mosaics, photography, jewelry and textiles, all assembled together.

Happy Thanksgiving! ~ Karen

Meeting with Owls – Whispers, hoots, and shrieks

Barred Owl

Here in the Haliburton Highlands, it’s not uncommon to hear owls hooting at night.

They call out to one another across the distance, through the darkness, in and around the forests that surround our house.

Calls range from high-pitched screeching vocals to the more familiar, low-throated husky hoots, put forth with rippled tones that can only be heard in their entirety if both they and you are perched near the same open window.

Depending on your point of view, an owl’s call can be thrilling or bone chilling. I choose the former!

Very recently I was over the moon after spying, quite by chance, a Barred owl perched, napping really, on a dead lower branch in an oak tree behind our home. It’s a rare occasion to see an owl up close during daylight hours. Even more of a thrill than hearing one at night.

Snowy Owl

The first owl I ever saw, a Snowy owl, occurred only months after moving to the country from Toronto. It was one of those exceptional winters where the snow never seemed to stop accumulating, and due to the extremely cold temps, Snowy owls ventured further south than usual in search of food.

While waiting at our driveway for my son, arriving home momentarily on the school bus, I spotted that Snowy owl in another tree near our house. Magnificent to say the least, I couldn’t wait to point out the owl to my son, who by now was climbing down the steps of the bus.  As we approached the house, and consequently the owl, it took flight, heading directly towards us, swooping not far above our heads, with the soft sound of feathers in flight as we watched it disappear in to the woods beyond.

My son, a youthful old soul, declared that owl was welcoming us to our new home. I describe this as a moment of bliss, where a mother and her child share a real treasure from nature, and a moment I’ll never forget. But, I digress…

Back to the Barred owl, I found myself stating out loud, “Don’t go anywhere. I have to find my camera!”, despite the fact that the window was closed, and the tree this owl occupied is 40 feet from our house. I suspect my cat Luna, the only audience within earshot, must have thought I was speaking to her, and in hindsight, she must have been wondering what the hell I was doing, camping out in the bathroom for such a long time.

It did occur to me at the time that I was forest bathing in the bathroom!

In any case, camera in hand, I grabbed the kitchen stool and shuttled on to the bathroom, where that particular window offered a better angle and view with which to attempt photographing this lovely creature. Sitting on that hard chair on and off for six hours, balancing the camera on the windowsill held steady with a lavender sachet as a prop, I took way too many photos and enjoyed every moment. The best part for me was when the owl flew away. If you’re interested, I had the forethought to capture it here on video.

As an artist,  I’ve depicted them in paintings and sculpture. For some reason, perhaps due to the mystique surrounding them, (among other creatures), they pique my curiosity and have been some sort of a muse over the years. I’ve tried my hand at producing creative depictions of them in various ways, including writing this post!

With this affinity for owls, and like many little girls, I was inducted to the Guides organization as a Brownie. I remember noting how all the group leader’s names were some sort of owl. My friend’s mother who volunteered was ‘Tawny Owl’. I really liked her, and perhaps because of this, I’ve never considered owls to be in any way threatening.

Think of the wise old owl in Winnie the Pooh who wasn’t in anyway threatening. More likely the voice of reason in that blustery, one hundred acre wood.

The owl’s reputation has been much maligned and misunderstood over the centuries. Their appearance, discredited by mankind, has unfairly earned owls negative connotations throughout history. Some of the myth and folklore surrounding them has sadly saddled them with all sorts of insidious labels.

Owl superstitions vary slightly, and each one is interesting, but as a general consensus European folklore especially, foretells that simply hearing an owl can lead to all manners of horrible things including death, war, destruction, pestilence, and more.

Ovid speaks despairingly of owls in his fifth book of ‘The Metamorphoses’, stating “Ignavus bubo, dirum mortalibus omen“, which (thanks to Google translator) loosely means, “Screech owl of evil omen”.

That’s a heavy burden for any creature to bear!

The owl is connected with birth. An ancient belief in England states that an owl appearing near the birth of a child foreboded ill luck to that infant for life.

Shakespeare alludes to this in Henry VI, part III, Act V. sc. vi, where the King, addressing Gloucester, says “The owl shrieked at thy birth, an evil sign.”

Shakespeare again alludes to the owl, this time in connection with magic. In Macbeth, the Witches are careful to introduce the ‘owlet’s wing’ into the bubbling cauldron.

In some areas of China, the owl’s voice is said to resemble the voice of a spirit or demon. Some equate its call with digging a grave, which may account for the lore that an owl’s cry portending someone’s death.

Because an owl’s Gaelic name is Ullaid, (and if you’ll humour me), I do wonder if there’s some connection between the Gauls and Celtic people to Homer’s Iliad. Due to Athena’s connection with that particular literary work, and her affinity with owls, this bird is often referred to as the “owl of Athena”.

Because of this, owls are still used as a symbol of knowledge and wisdom throughout the Western world. Back to the wise owl in Winnie the Pooh! In any case, naïve as it may sound, the two words Ullaid and Iliad side by side always struck me as something worth pondering.

As a spirit animal, the owl represents female energy, it’s connected to the moon, a messenger of truth, and with reference (and reverence) for North American Native Shamanic knowledge and their teachings, owls relate to the Medicine Wheel where the lesson is about removing pride and offering tolerance instead. Something, many people could take note of these days… Just sayin’.

Owls help keep the rodent population down and they’re terrific parents. Simply put, they’re beautiful birds. And, whether it’s wisdom or death, liberty or war, I’m sure the owl will continue to fascinate us for a long time to come.

The myth of this bird contains both dark and light, a balance, just like the two wings any bird requires for flight. As for me, I do hope for another visit from this, and other remarkable creatures, sometime in the near future.


References

  • Snowy Owl – Wikipedia
  • The folk lore and provincial names of British birds, by Swainson, C. A. (Charles Anthony), 1820-1887
    Published, 1886
  • Gaelic names of beasts, birds, fishes, insects, reptiles, etc. in two parts: by Forbes, Alexander Robert, Published, 1905
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses, With an English Translation by Frank Justus Miller, In Two Volumes
    Harvard University Press, Second edition, 1921
  • Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth. A glossary of Greek birds. Oxford, Clarendon Press 1895, pp 45-46.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (2001). Robbins Dexter, Mirijam, ed. The living goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 157–158. ISBN 9780520927094
  • Image of Athena holding a helmet and a spear, with an owl. Attributed to the Brygos Painter (circa 490–480 BC). The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Animal Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small,  by Ted Andrews