Of sleep and soothing for infants, of love spells and aphrodisiacs in the sweet hours of the night, of sweet death and the welcoming of the realms beyond life. The poppy appears in the three essential periods of life, when a person comes into the world, when they mate and procreate, and when they die. It is, in fact, one of the plants that has been with us since ancient times, with a visible influence on cultural, social, and spiritual aspects (present in people’s daily lives as medicine, food, ritualistic and magical tool, and narcotic substance).

Species of poppy

The most frequently used poppy species, whether for cooking, healing, or bewitching, is Papaver somniferum, native to southern Europe and cultivated in Romania, especially in Transylvania. This is the species I refer to in this monograph.

The field poppy, Papaver rhoeas, grows wild in fields, especially in cereal crops, along roadsides, and in meadows. Its flowers are commonly called “paparoane,” and they were used medicinally by the people to treat coughs and sore throats, for insomnia, to hasten eruptions in diseases like chickenpox or measles.

Derived from “paparoane,” which often specifically refers to the flowers, the field poppy or red poppy is also known as “paparoane,” “paparună” in Bucovina, and “păpăruie” in Transylvania. However, in Vasile Voiculescu’s “The Village’s Book”, the name “paparoane” is attributed to the white poppy, specifically the species Papaver somniferum var. album. The doctor writes that this variety is used for soothing, for toothaches, and sore throats.

Opium, afion, tiriac, magiun

All of these terms, often used interchangeably, describe the extract of the juice from poppy capsules and its derivatives.

Opium entered Romania as a remedy and narcotic through the Turkish route, along with a series of extravagant habits that charmed our rulers. The names of the substances consumed also arrived through this route. The term “afion” in popular archaic language defines poppy juice but is also used to name the plant itself and sometimes even to explain the dizziness caused by consuming poppy extract. The term “afion” comes from Turkish “afyon,” which, in turn, traces back to the Greek “opion,” a diminutive of “opos,” with the meaning of juice. Andrei Oișteanu notes the spread of the term “afion” in the popular language, especially in relation to sleep, highlighting its widespread use as a remedy against insomnia.

“Theriaca” is an opiate preparation used in antiquity as a remedy for snakebites. The term itself originates from the Greek word “therion,” meaning “wild animal.” The original recipe contained opium, as well as viper meat, which apparently was also essential as an antidote against venom. Around this term, several derivatives emerged. The route through which it came to us is still Turkish, where “tiriaki” is used to name both opium and its consumer, known as “tiriachiu” in Romanian. Similar to how “afion” made its way into spoken language, “tiriachiu” came to function both as a noun and an adjective. A “tiriachiu” person is one who suffers from the well-known opium dizziness, which is further equated with a hangover. From nickname to name, there was only a small step, and many examples can be found in history, such as Boyar Constantin Tiriachiu, politician Alexandru Teriachiu, and related names like Tereacă, Tirică, Țiriac, etc. Andrei Oișteanu makes a crucial note about the significance of “tiriac,” which seems to transcend its use as a therapeutic remedy, citing an old snakebite incantation whose final formula is “the cure from ‘tiriacul'” in a context where classic incantations end with the saying “The spell from me, the cure from God.” The use of the word “tiriac” in this manner, within a sequence of verses that have the quality of remaining intact over the years, reveals this term as having miraculous powers. Here, “tiriac” functions as a magical concept.

From the same range of words related to opium consumption that entered the Romanian language is the term “amoc,” which is defined in the dictionary as fury, madness, violent outburst, and more precisely, a tropical mental illness due to narcotic consumption that manifests as dangerous behavior. DEX specifies the French origin of the term, but the French themselves borrowed it from the Malay language along with the substance that causes this symptom. The Malay “amok” is the fury or madness caused by opium as well as its absence. The East is, in fact, the land where opium originates, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, cited in the works of Romanian writers referring to narcotics.

Although opium consumption was one of the beloved Turkish customs of Romanian rulers, boyars, and merchants, it only gained significant momentum later when the country’s elite was already following a Western model. At that point, opium took on a romantic nuance and became more than just a muse but also a source of inspiration for artists and writers of the time. It became a symbol of the civilization Romanians aspired to. Discussing the poetry of Macedonski, the first Romanian poet to write about narcotics, Oișteanu mentions that “Opium’s Rondeau” is “an element of synchronization with the European culture,” a culture where the literature of narcotics was already flourishing. Otherwise, even in the era of direct Turkish influence, the opium extract was the privilege of intellectuals. Dimitrie Cantemir recorded that “there is no poet, no accomplished scholar among the Turks who would not use that poppy juice continually and to such an extent that it may seem unbelievable to someone who has not seen this.” Most of the records of opium consumption in our literature have this romantic aura, regardless of the period being discussed and whether the writer agonizes in the absence of the narcotic, a sign of addiction. The adoption of opium as a narcotic, especially by artists and the wealthy elite who could afford such a habit, is evident. It was less prevalent among those with spiritual aspirations, like the dervishes who used it to access elevated states of consciousness to feel a connection with divinity, or among soldiers (in the Turkish army, opium was given to soldiers to make them more combat-ready, and upon returning home, they continued to consume it because they had already developed addiction).
Another opium-based preparation initially used as a therapeutic remedy and later spread as a narcotic is “magiun” (the Romanian term for marmalade). In Lazăr Șăineanu’s dictionary, “magiun” is mentioned as a combination of opium, poppy, and aloe, which, to be consumed, was dissolved in water or coffee. Petru Culianu also describes this recipe in his novel “The Emerald Game”, calling it a greenish marmalade made from poppy seeds, “the true elixir of immortality, an exceedingly expensive opiate”.

The therapy with poppy and opioid therapy

Poppy has been cultivated in Europe since the Neolithic period, and its uses were most likely for therapeutic, spiritual, and recreational purposes. Cesar Bolliac documented the consumption of poppy among the Dacians, stating that they inhaled the smoke not only in fumigations but also from pipes. If fumigations attest to the plant’s therapeutic function, the specially crafted pipes suggest that the plant might have been used as a narcotic as well.

Medicinally, we have already seen that poppy is included in popular recipes for insomnia, coughs, sore throats, toothaches, and for speeding up eruptions in diseases like chickenpox and measles. In the “The Village’s Book”, Dr. Vasile Voiculescu emphasizes that poppy should not be taken without a medical prescription, and no form of poppy tea should be given to children. This special mention may indicate excessive consumption of plant extracts among the rural population. Moreover, Valer Butură, in his ethnobotanical encyclopedia of Romanian plants, which compiles popular information passed down through generations, clearly writes that “poppy tea from dried capsules or seeds boiled in milk was given to children for sleep”. “And the child, drinking this intoxicating juice, immediately falls asleep and sometimes even sleeps for hours, sleeping the sleep of the dead, forgetting to cry, forgetting everything, as our Romanian women often say” (Simion Florea Marian, Popular Romanian botany vol. 2). A more delicate use of poppy, dedicated to children who cannot find peace and sleep, involves placing poppy flowers or just poppy capsules in children’s bathwater. For the same purpose, but with a symbolic, even magical role, poppy heads are placed in the bathwater in which newborns are baptized so that they do not suffer from restlessness and insomnia. Poppy is also used for “stiff necks, chills, goiters, fevers, hair, astonishment, as well as many other ailments”.

Opioid therapy was introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages by Arab doctors and alchemists. The renowned physician Paracelsus promoted opium as a universal panacea and created the “laudanum paracelsi,” opium dissolved in alcohol, which was later adopted by various illustrious doctors from different parts of the continent. Opioid therapy became revered in Romania as well, with one of its fervent advocates being the Transylvanian pharmacist of Saxon origin, J.M. Honigberger, who wrote, “Opium is in Europe, as well as in India, one of the most important healing agents.” There are also documents attesting to the existence of opium-based remedies in pharmacies in major Transylvanian cities in the 16th century. Opium, in various forms, used in popular medicine, also appears in the manuscripts of Artur Gorovei: “spirit mixed with opium is good for rubbing on the painful area,” and “tiriac in a recipe for an elixir that multiplies life, makes one very healthy and free from any ailments, strengthens virtue, sharpens the intellect…”

As expected, there are also documents that contest the medicinal value of opium, calling it a poison, or more precisely, emphasizing the danger of using this therapy, such as the one written by Prof. Vasilache Slăvulescu. He was prescribed opium for a cough but, by prolonging the treatment, ended up close to the grave. Oișteanu emphasizes that this is one of the rare Romanian documents where opium is discussed as a poison rather than a remedy.

Poppy contains numerous alkaloids, including morphine, thebaine, codeine, narcotine, and papaverine, compounds still used today in the production of a variety of medicines, primarily for the same therapeutic purposes as in the past.

The deceptive sleep

Fairies wearing wreaths of poppy flowers on their heads and dancing naked – this is how the poet Iancu Văcărescu describes them. Their wreaths may have only a decorative and symbolic role in his verses, but considering the magical function of wreaths used in relation to archetypal characters, we can consider poppies as instruments of enchantment in this case. Their narcotic power is used here in the service of the fairies who are said to daze and beguile those who cross their path on the Night of Sanziene (Midsummer Night).

Poppy used as a sedative by the hero in the story also appears in Petre Ispirescu’s fairy tale “The Emperor Thief”. It is dissolved in alcohol, just as Ileana Cosânzeana did to escape with Făt-Frumos from the court of the Fates, only this time the opium was placed in brandy, not wine, as in the legend of the poppy.

It seems that this was a practice deeply rooted in popular culture, used by thieves who wanted to rob, not only by beautiful maidens and youths. In Ion Luca Caragiale’s novella “Fast train No. 17,” this is the method used by some bandits to rob their compartment colleague. They give him “sweet wine with dregs” to drink and make him smoke a cigarette with opium.

Women who want to lull their husbands to sleep so they can meet their lovers also use this method. A dance from Moldavia goes like this:
“- Come, Ileana, to the clearing,
Ileana, Ileana!
Let’s dig up a weed,
Ileana, Ileana!
The poppy weed,
Ileana, Ileana!
So that we can give it to the husband,
Ileana, Ileana!
So he sleeps, sleeps on, (…)
– I would go to the clearing,
My darling, my darling!
But I can’t do it at will,
My darling, my darling!
Because I’m afraid of the evil husband (…)
We’ll dig up the weed,
And put it in my place,
So he damn well sleeps.”
(folk song collected by Simion Florea Marian in ”Popular Romanian botany” vol. 2)

The expression “so he damn well sleeps” is replaced in some songs with “so he will be damned” This could suggest that unhappy wives are willing not only to induce a sweet sleep that could give them a moment of happiness with others but even the sleep of death, which could free them from their “ugly” husbands forever, aș is revealed in a song from Muntenia:
“(…) All around the bed,
The husband’s bed,
Put the poppy flower
So he will be damned!”
(folk song collected by Simion Florea Marian in ”Popular Romanian botany” vol. 2)

However, there are also cases where women torment their husbands but then change their minds, and of course, they have the antidote for their evil spell at hand:
“This man has been dear to me,
I’ve been hanging on to him for three years;
But now, for about a month,
We’ve been angry because of a lie.
And I give him poppy,
So he will be damned;
And I give him a rye leaf
For him to love me again.”
(folk song collected by Simion Florea Marian in ”Popular Romanian botany” vol. 2)

Love spells, aphrodisiac, natural opiates

Girls who want to be loved by boys put poppy flowers under their pillows or enchant them with poppy flowers:
“- And who enchanted him?
– The beautiful girl from his village.
With three poppies from three gardens,
With water from three fountains.”
(folk song collected by Simion Florea Marian in ”Popular Romanian botany” vol. 2)

And when the spell works, and the girl finds her chosen one, on the way to the wedding, before putting on her shoes, she places as many poppy plants in them as the number of children she wants to have.

Poppy also holds a special place in erotic literature, not only symbolically associated with love but also used as an aphrodisiac. ”Decadent” poets who wrote about the amorous powers of the plant, the “opium eaters,” were accused by Nicolae Iorga, among other conservatives, of “sick eroticism” and “turbulent debauchery”. Mircea Cărtărescu describes poppy as “the flower that dilates the pupils of women and makes them eager for intercourse.” In his novel “Blinding,” the inhabitants of a village get high on “the opium-laden dust” called “gypsy seed” which women strategically sprinkle in all the food, leading to a truly uninhibited collective orgy in which “everyone, boys and girls, masters and wives, engaged in intimacy, amidst dogs and children, mother with son, father with daughter, brother and sister, and so they continued…”

It seems, however, that opium as an aphrodisiac is primarily dedicated to women, with its effects on men being different. Mircea Eliade writes about this aspect in the novel “Isabel and the Devil’s Waters”: “Opium enhances female sexuality and suppresses that of men.”. Nevertheless, opium often appears in aphrodisiac recipes, unisex mixtures, often alongside the ultra-potent cantharides.

Poppy is closely associated with everything related to love and procreation, and its narcotic effect is similar to that produced by natural opiates, endorphins, endogenous morphines, which are organically created in the pregnant woman’s body and transmitted to the fetus. Pliny the Elder even hypothesized that this substance, which he called “meconium” (in Greek, poppy juice), is produced in the fetus.

At the gates of the beyond

According to the beliefs of the people of Bucovina, the poppy flower guards the gates of Hell and deludes the souls of the dead to enter there instead of going to Heaven:
“And the poppy flower,
Sits at the gate of Hell,
And it continues to grow and bloom
Deluding many souls…”
(folk poem collected by Simion Florea Marian in ”Popular Romanian botany” vol. 2)

Romulus Vulcănescu describes the same landscape with poppies growing near the Apa Sâmbetei River (Saturday’s Water River is usually appearing in Romanian mythology as the river crossing the planes of the dead), deceiving the souls that pass to the otherworld: “You cross a red field of poppies; you see no trace of devils.”

This motif also appears in Romanian folk tales when the hero approaches the otherworld and must cross a field of sleep-inducing flowers, and his test is to resist the alluring slumber.

In relation to death, poppy does not only appear symbolically in songs and tales but also in the recipes of offerings for the deceased, such as ritual bread and ”coliva” (traditional funeral food made of boiled wheat). The association between poppy seeds sprinkled on ”coliva” and the otherworld is so ancient that in the Orthodox Christian texts from the 17th century, ”coliva” is rejected as pagan, and it is explicitly forbidden to bring it into the church for consecration.

Poppy is used to help souls pass to the otherworld and not remain in this world as restless spirits. In this sense, poppy seeds are scattered along the path of the deceased to the cemetery, with the saying, “May the restless soul eat one seed at a time and not consume the hearts of its relatives.” Poppy seeds are sometimes placed inside the coffin, making the deceased count them, thereby making them forget about those they have separated from and the world in which they lived.

The Legend of the Poppy

The legend of the poppy, collected by Simion Florea Marian from the Transylvania region, features Ileana Cosânzeana and Făt-frumos (an attempt to translate this name would be Most-beutiful-lad) as protagonists, and even Sfarmă-piatră (an attempt to translate this name would be Breaking-rocks). It follows the classic line of folk tales in which the very beautiful emperor’s daughter awaits her chosen one, going through an endless series of suitors, none as handsome as her, and therefore rejected one after another. When Făt-frumos appears in her life, it’s love at first sight, and they remain spellbound by each other, and naturally, he takes her to his parents’ home at the edge of the world. Perhaps not so classically, the trials to which the king is subjected do not occur before his marriage to his queen (as his beauty serves as a guarantee also for his masculinity) but after some time when he decides to visit his aunt at the end of the earth. Although she wants to accompany him, Ileana is advised not to venture as the journey is too long and too arduous for someone like her. She obeys, and he sets off on his journey.

After seven years of crying day and night, withering and nearly dying, Ileana sets off one night to find him. On her journey, she encounters a man who could “crush the most terrible rocks with his fists,” and he tells her that her beloved is held prisoner by the emperor of the Fates. He advises her on how to release him: to offer herself as a maid to the emperor but be careful not to eat any of the food she is offered at his court; instead, she should nibble on a root he gives her to lose her appetite. When the emperor starts to worry about her condition, Ileana tells him that she suffers so much after her lost love that she can’t swallow a single bite. Then the emperor feels pity and releases Făt-frumos. “When they saw each other, they cried and laughed for joy.” They receive a house from the emperor to live in, but Ileana Cosânzeana sticks to her plan, plants the root from which she nibbled, and from it grows some red flowers. When she shakes them, they leave behind capsules filled with seeds. One evening, she takes these capsules and puts them in the emperor’s wine, and everyone immediately falls into a deep sleep. This is the moment when Ileana takes Făt-frumos and leads him to the place where the rope, which she had descended some time ago, is still hanging. She pulls it, and Sfarmă-piatră pulls them up. They take this man home with them and respect him for life.

“The following year, from the seeds that Făt-frumos’ wife had sown behind her, as a reminder of her journey, some plants sprouted. These plants still bloom like red blood, and their seeds are used to make sleep remedies. The name of this flower is the poppy.”

In this legend, we find the central elements around which the folklore of poppy is woven: love, as poppy is seen as an aphrodisiac and is closely related to love in various rituals; sleep, as an essential therapeutic effect due to its sedative, calming properties; and protection, as the plant is used in incantations for this purpose. Incidentally, there’s a reason why Ileana Cosânzeana nibbles on the poppy root – it is used medicinally to alleviate stomach disorders and, indeed, to suppress appetite.


An incantation for the frighten, to soothe, dedicated to moments when a person is scared, upset, distressed, when their mind is restless and prevents them from sleeping at night, when vulnerable and more susceptible to being “touched” by such mythological beings who are nothing more than embodiments of unclean spirits that haunt folklore.
“A great man came
From the great forest,
Hairy man,
And a skittish one,
With his hairy hands
And his hairy feet,
With long, sharp teeth,
With a big face,
With a terrifying look.
He came on a night
When N. was upset,
Sick and fevered.
He came out of necessity
To frighten N.,
To shorten his days,
To diminish his life. (…)
“If you do not listen to me,
And do not leave N.
And if you do not keep away (…)
I will cast you into the sea,
Over 99 seas,
Over 99 lands,
To melt and dissolve you,
To leave you as the foam on the sea,
Like water on salt,
Like dew in the sun,
Like a dry poppy stem
Split in four… (…)
From me, the incantation,
From God, the remedy.”
(collected by Simion Florea Marian in ”Spells, charms and dissolutions. Romanian popular incantations”)

Incantation for Milking Cows, learned from a Roma woman knowledgeable in the art of spells, always used on a Monday, Tuesday, or Saturday. The verses are repeated nine times, and out of these nine repetitions, only one is effective.
“(…) But you, Stirigoaie,
You Moroaie,
You enchanteresses,
You hags!
You will lose yourselves
And go away
To Emperor Ler,
To your own shanty.
There you shall go,
There you shall sit,
There you shall perish,
There you shall languish,
On the Moon you will forsake her.”
May she remain clean
And illuminated
Like the dew in the sky,
Like the mantle of Holy Mary.
If you do not leave her
And you do not perish,
Now I will pierce you,
And I will wound you.
I will cut you with the knife,
I will blow upon you with my soul,
I will incant you with my tongue…
May I not be a sinner,
For I have taken nothing
Except for a dry poppy stem,
Split in four,
Only what was allowed by the Lord,
Pure, clean,
Measured by Holy Mary…
From me, the incantation,
From God, the gift!”
(collected by Simion Florea Marian in ”Spells, charms and dissolutions. Romanian popular incantations”)


1. Andrei Oișteanu, Narcotics in Romanian culture: history, religion and literature, 4th edition, Iași, Polirom,
2. Simion Florea Marian, Popular Romanian botany Volume II, Editura Academiei Române, Suceava, 2010
3. Valer Butură, Romanian ethnobotany encyclopedia, Editura Științifică și enciclopedică, București, 1979
4. Vasile Voiculescu, The Village’s Book, All medicine at hand, Ed. III-a, Fundația Culturală Regală ”Principele
Carol”, Insitutul de arte Grafice ”Luceafărul” S.A., București, 1938
5. Simion Florea Marian, Spells, charms and dissolutions. Popular Romanian incantations, Editura Coresi, București,

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