Mars, Pluto & the Poppy – Flower of the Underworld

I have just walked the labyrinth in my garden to mark the armistice, and found myself, on this day of remembrance, meditating upon the symbolic qualities of the poppy.  It is said that when WWI veterans returned to the fields of Flanders the year after the end of World War 1, they saw fields of red poppies where the bodies of their fellow soldiers had fallen, and it is said to have reminded them both of the blood that had been spilt there.  The poppy was then instituted as the symbol of remembrance and it has been traditional to wear one in your buttonhole in the first weeks of November each year to remember those who gave their lives.

“In Flanders fields the poppies grow between the crosses row on row…” (John Macrae)

It has always struck me as so deeply significant, both that November should be chosen as the month of remembrance and that the poppy should be its symbol.  As I have discussed at length in earlier blog posts, this is the season of the dead, the season of the scorpion, and it is the time when traditional cultures in the northern hemisphere honour their ancestors, remember the dead, and conduct underworld initiation rites, of which the poppy is commonly found as the traditional symbol.

The poppy has always been associated with both sleep and death.  In Greek mythology it is a flower of the Underworld, and the twin brothers Hypnos / Somnus (god of sleep) and Thanatos / Mors (god of death) both have poppies closely associated with them.  These two sons of the goddess of Night live in a cave that one reaches having travelled along the river of forgetfulness, the River Lethe.  Near to the entrance of the cave, shadowy figures beckon the sleeper into the cave with fingers to lips ushering in silence, and shaking bunches of poppies in thier hands.  Hypnos is often depicted with poppy heads in his hands and adorning his head.  He is also said to have carried a goblet of poppy juice in his hand as he welcomes the sleeper into his realm.  This obviously makes us think of opium, which can induce a liminal experience between sleep and death, and was the drug of choice for the romantic poets.  Interesting that with so much current focus on the war in Afghanistan, we find that their most coveted and valuable asset (not to mention the most controversial) is the opium poppy.

Archaeological finds at ancient burial sites confirm that the poppy was used as a sacred plant in underworld rites of passage rituals.  In some variants of the Perspehone myth it is through an underworld poppy that Kore (destined to become Perspehone), the innocent daughter of Demeter, is tempted into Hades realm.  And in her long, desperate search for her daughter, Demeter is said to have found temporary relief from her pain from ingesting the poppy.  It is interesting to note that the poppy is a companion plant of wheat and barley, the grains which Demeter granted as gifts to humans.

Poppies make us think of blood, with their bright crimson colouring, and of death with their black core.  I’ve been reflecting on this in relation to the sign Scorpio, for these two colours represent the colours of Scorpio’s two ruling planets – Mars (red) and Pluto (black).  In the Greek tradition, Mars is called Ares, and was the most disliked of the Olympian gods – his warring impulses not suiting the palette of the supposedly more philosophical Greeks (Mars was a more celebrated figure in the Roman tradition).  Yet Ares was certainly an ally of Pluto/Hades – unsurprisingly as the wars he helps to start offer up so many souls to Hades realm.  When considering the influence of Mars, we should remember that many of the qualities that are celebrated in remembrance of those who die in war are governed by Mars.  Courage, devotion to the cause, passion, focus, loyalty and leadership in battle – these all belong to Mars.  And dying courageously for the cause unites Scorpio’s two ruling planets perfectly.

There is a more profound aspect to this synthesis of Mars and Pluto, red and black – that again brings the poppy to mind. Having the courage is to enter into an unknown realm – to sacrifice what is known, what is safe, what is predictable and familiar.  And as those poppies grow up between the crosses in the fields of Flanders, they perhaps honour that instinct that Kore-Persephone first modelled. For, in her story, she willingly sacrificed her own pure innocence for the crimson promise of underworld passion, embodied in the poppy, and entered willingly (at least, if not consciously) into possibility of death and transformation that follows closely in its wake.

So I find myself reviewing my position toward the red poppy, which I have always tended to want to replace with a white one, more indicative of peace and light.  Yet for our Scorpio phase of the journey, meditation upon the red poppy seems entirely appropriate. However I might feel about the absurdity and futility of war, there is no denying the compelling power of the Mars archetype. It will always seek to find an outlet for its powerful red energy, and our innate fascination with death and transformation will, however unconsciously, draw us through Mars’s warrior impulse into Hades realm.  And until we finally grasp as a race that we are all interconnected and that when we aggress or kill another we are really aggressing or killing an aspect of ourselves, swords will continue to be drawn, in ignorance, in the name of that red-blooded god.

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