Today, I'm kicking off a new series, based on ancient Hellenic mythology. Like with the constellation series, in this series, I will take an often well-known piece of knowledge or myth, and will attempt to provide a more well-rounded view, or provide you with information you might not have about it. This series, in particular, focusses on the connection between certain Theoi and the various flowers, plants and trees we associate with Them through mythology.
I'm starting this series off with a flower, associated with a very tragic love story: the hyacinth. From Wikipedia: "Hyacinthus is a small genus of bulbous flowering plants in the family Asparagaceae, subfamily Scilloideae. Plants are commonly called hyacinths. The genus was formerly the type genus of the separate family Hyacinthaceae; prior to that it was placed in the lily family Liliaceae. Hyacinthus is native to the eastern Mediterranean (from south Turkey to northern Israel), north-east Iran, and Turkmenistan."
Within Hellenic mythology, we find Hyakinthos (Ὑάκινθος), a divine hero with a cult in Amykles (Αμύκλες), a village located southwest of Sparta.
From Apollodorus' Bibliotheca comes the follow telling of his myth:
"Clio fell in love with Pierus, son of Magnes, in consequence of the wrath of Aphrodite, whom she had twitted with her love of Adonis; and having met him she bore him a son Hyacinth, for whom Thamyris, the son of Philammon and a nymph Argiope, conceived a passion, he being the first to become enamored of males. But afterwards Apollo loved Hyacinth and killed him involuntarily by the cast of a quoit. And Thamyris, who excelled in beauty and in minstrelsy, engaged in a musical contest with the Muses, the agreement being that, if he won, he should enjoy them all, but that if he should be vanquished he should be bereft of what they would. So the Muses got the better of him and bereft him both of his eyes and of his minstrelsy."
So, as we understand it, Thanyris (Θάμυρις), grandson of Apollon through Philammon, was the first to experience love for another man. Yet, afterwards, Apollon Himself took an interest in the beautiful and youthful Hyakinthos, and they became lovers. Apollon and Hyakinthos either competed with a quoit (a type of discus), or--as Lucius Flavius Philostratus (Φλάβιος Φιλόστρατος) states--Apollon took it upon Himself to teach Hyakinthos all sports usually taught at the palaestra (παλαίστρα); ancient Hellenic wrestling schools. During a terrible accident, Apollon killed His lover. There is no mention of a transformation of Hyakinthos' body or spirit into the hyacinth in this account. For that, we must look to another source, the Roman poet Ovid:
"Phoebus for thee too, Hyacinth, design'd
A place among the Gods, had Fate been kind:
Yet this he gave; as oft as wintry rains
Are past, and vernal breezes sooth the plains,
From the green turf a purple flow'r you rise,
And with your fragrant breath perfume the skies.
You when alive were Phoebus' darling boy;
In you he plac'd his Heav'n, and fix'd his joy:
Their God the Delphic priests consult in vain;
Eurotas now he loves, and Sparta's plain:
His hands the use of bow and harp forget,
And hold the dogs, or bear the corded net;
O'er hanging cliffs swift he pursues the game;
Each hour his pleasure, each augments his flame.
The mid-day sun now shone with equal light
Between the past, and the succeeding night;
They strip, then, smooth'd with suppling oyl, essay
To pitch the rounded quoit, their wonted play:
A well-pois'd disk first hasty Phoebus threw,
It cleft the air, and whistled as it flew;
It reach'd the mark, a most surprizing length;
Which spoke an equal share of art, and strength.
Scarce was it fall'n, when with too eager hand
Young Hyacinth ran to snatch it from the sand;
But the curst orb, which met a stony soil,
Flew in his face with violent recoil.
Both faint, both pale, and breathless now appear,
The boy with pain, the am'rous God with fear.
He ran, and rais'd him bleeding from the ground,
Chafes his cold limbs, and wipes the fatal wound:
Then herbs of noblest juice in vain applies;
The wound is mortal, and his skill defies.
As in a water'd garden's blooming walk,
When some rude hand has bruis'd its tender stalk,
A fading lilly droops its languid head,
And bends to earth, its life, and beauty fled:
So Hyacinth, with head reclin'd, decays,
And, sickning, now no more his charms displays.
O thou art gone, my boy, Apollo cry'd,
Defrauded of thy youth in all its pride!
Thou, once my joy, art all my sorrow now;
And to my guilty hand my grief I owe.
Yet from my self I might the fault remove,
Unless to sport, and play, a fault should prove,
Unless it too were call'd a fault to love.
Oh cou'd I for thee, or but with thee, dye!
But cruel Fates to me that pow'r deny.
Yet on my tongue thou shalt for ever dwell;
Thy name my lyre shall sound, my verse shall tell;
And to a flow'r transform'd, unheard-of yet,
Stamp'd on thy leaves my cries thou shalt repeat.
The time shall come, prophetick I foreknow,
When, joyn'd to thee, a mighty chief shall grow,
And with my plaints his name thy leaf shall show.
While Phoebus thus the laws of Fate reveal'd,
Behold, the blood which stain'd the verdant field,
Is blood no longer; but a flow'r full blown,
Far brighter than the Tyrian scarlet shone.
A lilly's form it took; its purple hue
Was all that made a diff'rence to the view,
Nor stop'd he here; the God upon its leaves
The sad expression of his sorrow weaves;
And to this hour the mournful purple wears
Ai, Ai, inscrib'd in funeral characters.
Nor are the Spartans, who so much are fam'd
For virtue, of their Hyacinth asham'd;
But still with pompous woe, and solemn state,
The Hyacinthian feasts they yearly celebrate "
We, again, have the accident that killed Hyakinthos, yet in more detail: Apollon threw the disk with great skill, and as Hyakinthos ran to catch it, the quiot hit the hard ground and bounced back against Hyakinthos' head, striking him dead almost instantly. Apollon, in his grief, held the young man and cried bitter tears. From the drops of blood that had fallen onto the earth from Hyakinthos' wound, sprung the newly created flowers Apollon vowed to remember him by. Mind that this is a Roman source, and the ancient Hellens might not have added this part of the myth. This is something we will see again and again in this series, I'm afraid.
Ovid does speak about something interesting: a festival in honor of
Hyakinthos. There is historical evidence of this festival in Amykles. It was called the Hyakínthia (Ὑακίνθια), and lasted three days somewhere in early summer.
Hyakinthos' death was mourned the first day:
Hyakinthos received sacrifices, a solemn banquet was organised and it was possibly a day to remember all of those who had passed. We know for sure there were horse races, and most likely other sporting events. The second day was apparently reserved for a celebration of
Hyakinthos' rebirth, although it's unclear if the ancient Hellens celebrated that
Hyakinthos was brought back to life himself, or that he was brought back in the form of a flower. From Apollon's epithet 'Apollon Hayakinthios', we could conclude that
Hyakinthos was reborn as (a part of) Apollon. Numerous goats were offered to
Hyakinthos, and the day was concluded with a huge feast in which anyone could participate. This day was in praise of Apollon, for His love and
Hyakinthos' rebirth. We know less about the third day, indicating it might have contained elements of a mystery cult. It might also simply have been a sober day in which not much happened. All we know is that
Hyakinthos received a chitōn (χιτών)--possibly on the third day--not unlike Athena got for the Panathenaic games. Xenophon reports that the Spartans interrupted their campaigns in order to participate in the feast, making the
Hyakínthia a major Spartan holiday.
I have heard another version of this myth, where Hyakinthos did not die by accident, but was killed on purpose. This account comes to us through playwrights like Lucian. Lucian of Samosata (Λουκιανὸς ὁ Σαμοσατεύς),a Hellenic rhetorician and satirist who lived around 125 – 180 AD. His account is, again, a later one, as Ovid lived from 43 BC – 17/18 AD. Lucian wrote a dialogue between Apollon and Hermes. From this
"He was learning to throw the quoit, and I was throwing with him. I had just sent my quoit up into the air as usual, when jealous Zephyr (damned be he above all winds! he had long been in love with Hyacinth, though Hyacinth would have nothing to say to him)—Zephyr came blustering down from Taygetus, and dashed the quoit upon the child's head; blood flowed from the wound in streams, and in one moment all was over. My first thought was of revenge; I lodged an arrow in Zephyr, and pursued his flight to the mountain. As for the child, I buried him at Amyclae, on the fatal spot; and from his blood I have caused a flower to spring up, sweetest, fairest of flowers, inscribed with letters of woe.—Is my grief unreasonable?"
In this retelling of the myth, Hyakinthos was murdered by the Theos of the west wind, out of jealousy. Of note, here, is that the entrance to the Underworld was believed to have lied in the west, making wind coming from the west unfavorable, and might--in this account--simply allude to death coming fro Hyakinthos. There was a tomb of Hyakinthos at Amykles, however. It was part of a temple complex dedicated to Apollon that at least dates back to 800 BC. In this sanctuary, there was a tomb of Hyakinthos, located at the base of a statue of Apollon, indicating their involvement even further.
From what we can tell, Hyakinthos was worshipped at Amykles from at least the Mycenaean era (c. 1900 BC – c. 1100 BC). As such, Hyakinthos is a pre-Hellenic deity whose worship eventually became linked to Apollon--possibly when the Spartans overtook the area around 800 BC. His death at the hands of Apollon--or at least in His presence--indicates that Apollon quite literally overtook His worship, and even His name, as the epithet Apollon Hayakinthios became widespread.
Ironically, the hyacinth is most likely not the flower Apollon grew for his lost lover. It's more likely to have been an iris flower, or perhaps a fritillary or gladiolus. The similarities might be a matter of faulty translation or simple synchronicity. For me, it doesn't matter. In my mind, the hyacint will always remind me of the Theos-turned-youth who was the lover of Apollon and died tragically, long before his time.
Image taken from: Natural Selections.