Saturday 12 January 2013

Flower Power - Cypress

We return to the young male lovers of the sun god Apollo for today’s Flower Power, if you can call a tree a flower – it’s still botany.

There was a young guy called Kyparissos from Chios, an island just of the coast of modern Turkey, who, as is often the case in these myths, was gorgeous and athletic. And as with Apollo’s other boy lover Hyakinthos, Kyparissos had been coached by the sun god in sport. With Hyakinthos it was the discus, with Kyparissos it was javelin throwing.

According to one ancient source Apollo turned to Kyparissos as consolation after the tragic death of Hyakinthos, something to bear in mind for later.

In the meadows and woods around Chios there lived a large stag that was sacred to the island’s nymphs. This stag had got so used to people that it often wandered into the towns and homes where it was petted and fussed over, no more so than by young Kyparissos. He even used to make flower garlands for it and rode on its back.

One hot summer’s day, not unlike the one on which Hyakinthos was killed, Kyparissos was out in the meadows with his javelin. Perhaps he was doing some target practice, throwing his javelin at tree trunks. The stag was sheltering from the heat by resting at the foot of a tree, and in the darkness of the shadows Kyparissos couldn’t not see it. He threw his javelin, and on retrieving it discovered that he had killed his beloved stag. He was quite distraught as you can imagine. Not only had he killed a favourite companion, but a sacred animal of the nymphs and a popular beast in his community.

Once again it was the brightness of Apollo the sun which caused an innocent life to be lost. In despair Kyparissos called upon Apollo to end his own life as punishment. But Apollo had already lost one lover recently, Hyakinthos, and didn’t want to lose another. He was sure Kyparissos would overcome his grief. He was wrong. Eventually the youth died from his grief. For the second time Apollo turned the body of a lover into a plant.

From Kyparissos’s body grew a tree which the ancient Greeks named after him – the cypress tree. Apollo was sad at his second lover’s death so soon after the first and chose to make the young man and the cypress a symbol of mourning – “You shall be mourned sincerely by me, surely as you mourn for others, and forever you shall stand in grief, where other grieve” (the words of Apollo from “Metamorphoses” by Ovid).

Ever since then the cypress tree has been placed in graveyards. By association it became sacred to the Fates and the Furies and the gods of the Underworld. Romans would place branches of cypress over the bodies of respected citizens  prior to their burial. Even into the 19th century the cypress was used as a symbol of mourning.

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