Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Flower Power - the Original Hyacinth

A year ago today I recounted the legend of Prince Hyakinthos, the young mortal lover of the god Apollo who was accidentally killed. His blood was turned into the plant that was named after him. The hyacinth is a popular flower in modern gardens, though the original plant which the Greeks named after the tragic prince may not be the same one we call hyacinth today.

Several of the surviving written accounts of the legend, even though they were written in the 1st to 3rd centuries and many centuries after it originated, recall that Apollo cried out in grief when Hyakinthos was killed. The ambrosia and nectar of the gods couldn’t resuscitate him, so Apollo decreed “A new flower you shall arise, with markings on your petals, close imitation of my constant moans” (Ovid, “Metamorphoses”).

The markings on the petals resembled the Greek letters A and I, the vowel sounds which symbolise cries of grief and despair. The flower we today call the hyacinth has no such markings, but another flower does – the larkspur or delphinium, another popular flower in modern gardens.

The larkspur acquired it’s name because the flowers look like that have a spur that resembles that found on some bird’s feet. The name delphinium also comes from the flower’s shape. It resembled the nose of dolphin – “delphis” in Greek. Yet another explanation of the name features Apollo again, this time referring to his temple at Delphi.

And yet a 4th legend gives an origin of the flower which mirrors that of the hyacinth legend quite closely and may indicate the spread of a folk motif through parts of Ancient Greece that was attributed to several plants in different areas.

Ajax was Prince of Salamis. He joined the Greek side in the Trojan War, fighting alongside other legendary heroes like Achilles and Odysseus. By all accounts young Ajax was a giant of a man – not literally a giant – but with a huge, powerful body to rival that of Hercules. He was also self-confident and very brave. Unfortunately, this didn’t make up for a lack of intelligence.

Whether Ajax had the customary younger male lover is not recorded. He doesn’t seem to have been in a loving relationship that characterised that of Achilles and Patroclus during the Trojan War.

What led to Ajax’s downfall was the death of Hektor of Troy at the hands of Achilles. Achilles then had to decide which soldier was worthy enough to inherit Hektor’s armour. Ajax thought it should be him, since he considered himself to be a great warrior. But the armour went instead to Odysseus.

Ajax was furious and felt dishonoured by the snub. Instead of venting his rage on Achilles and Odysseus he charged out into the meadows and started killing sheep, claiming to be fighting the Trojan enemy. After a while he realised the error of letting his emotions get the better of him and descended into despair. Despair turned to shame and he thought the only honourable way out would be to kill himself. He impaled himself on his own sword.

As with Hyakinthos, the blood of Ajax seeped into the ground and from if sprang the flower we call the larkspur or delphinium.

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