Long symbolic of eternal life, poppies were placed in ancient Egyptian burial tombs. The ancient Greeks offered poppies to Demeter, the goddess of fertility, and Diana, goddess of the hunt. Greek athletes were given a mixture of poppy seeds, honey, and wine. The Romans also believed that poppies could help to heal a broken heart.
In a Greek legend, Somnus, the god of sleep, created the poppy to help Ceres, the corn goddess. Ceres searched in vain for her lost daughter, Prosperine, who had been taken to the underworld by Pluto to be his wife. In her grief, Ceres could not make the corn grow until she was soothed to sleep by poppies and regained enough energy for the corn to sprout again.
In a romantic Chinese legend, the beautiful and courageous Lady Yee was married to Hsiang Yu, a noble warrior, and she accompanied him in all his battles. With defeat imminent, Lady Yee danced with Hsiang Yu's sword in the face of death before killing herself. Poppies sprang up around her grave, symbolic of her loyalty, her honor, and of eternal life.
Due to the opium that can be extracted from some poppy varieties, the flower can symbolize sleep and oblivion. The reference is picked up in the film, The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy falls asleep in a field of poppies.
The red poppy has come to signify sacrifice, and has been a symbol honoring soldiers since the Napoleonic wars. After World War One the fields of Flanders, where so many had died, were covered in red poppies, and their flowers came to symbolize the sacrifice of those who had laid down their lives. White poppies are associated with consolation, the imagination, and dreams, while yellow poppies, also known as Welsh poppies, denote wealth and success.