How did hyacinths, the popular flowers, get their name? And what have they to do with homoerotic love, wind, discuses, and Greek mythology? As ever, we’re here to answer these questions, by taking a closer look at the classical myth of Hyacinth and how he came to give his name to the flowers.
Before we offer an analysis of the myth’s meaning and significance, here’s a quick summary of the tragic story.
Hyacinth myth: summary
Hyacinth, or Hyacinthus to give him his full name, was a Spartan prince. He was also a beautiful man. In fact, he was so beautiful that even gods fell in love with him: Apollo clapped eyes on Hyacinth and was immediately smitten with the young man.
The two of them were inseparable. One day, when they were practising with a discus, throwing it back and forth to each other, when a gust of wind suddenly blew the discus off course. It struck Hyacinth in the head, killing him.
Apollo was devastated by Hyacinth’s death, and as he stood over the young prince, crying for his loss, his tears merged with the blood from the man’s head-wound, and the tears and blood combined to create the flower, the hyacinth, which bears Hyacinth’s name to this day.
In many accounts of the myth, this was no mere accident. Hyacinth was so beautiful that Apollo wasn’t the only god to fall for his good looks: Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, was also taken in by his beauty. But because Hyacinth preferred Apollo and chose to spend his time with the other god, Zephyrus grew jealous.
And a jealous god is always bad news in Greek mythology. So it was, in this version of the story, Zephyrus, god of the wind, who caused the discus to veer off its course and fatally strike the man who had spurned him.
Or was it? Boreas, god of the north wind, was in some versions of the myth yet another spurned suitor who loved Hyacinth but was rejected in favour of Apollo. And in other accounts, Hyacinth’s admirers also included other mortal men: among them was a Thracian poet named Thamyris. Indeed, some writers have Thamyris as the lover of Hyacinth, who was cast aside when Apollo showed an interest.
But Thamyris may have already been out of the picture because of his hubris: he once boasted that he could sing better than the Muses, and when Apollo told them about the man’s brag, they robbed him of his singing voice and his musical talent, to put him in his place.
Hyacinth myth: analysis
When the Roman poet Ovid undertook his vast retelling of the classical myths, he chose the title Metamorphoses – meaning ‘changes’ or, more accurately, ‘changing shapes or forms’ – because he had observed how many classic Greco-Roman myths involved characters who were transformed in some way: women turned into spiders, winged horses turned into constellations, men turned into stags, and so on.
And a common trend among the myths is people dying and giving birth to flowers. Not literally, of course. That would be weird. But Narcissus dies and from his blood the narcissus flower (a kind of daffodil) was said to have sprung; and Adonis’ blood is said to have stained white roses, giving rise to red roses (alternatively, it was Aphrodite’s blood when she cut her food rushing to help Adonis). And the Hyacinth story is another example of this trope.
In a sense, such myths function as ‘Just So’ stories for how the natural world came to be: every flower has its own back-story, some memorable tale (usually a tragic love affair) which explains how it came to be. And the tale of Hyacinth is among the more tragic, but also more memorable because it is about a love (and jealousy) between men, rather than between the sexes.
And there has been some intriguing interpretative jiggery-pokery in relation to the whole Hyacinthus-hyacinth connection. Even in the classical era, writers were claiming that the petals of the hyacinth revealed the shapes of alpha and iota, two letters in the Greek alphabet: these letters, together, suggest Ai, the first syllable of Hyacinth’s name. If nothing else, we have to applaud the hermeneutic ingenuity of such symbolic interpretations.
But while we’re discussing language, it’s worth drawing attention to a linguistic oddity: the -inthos ending of Hyacinth’s name is fairly rare in Greek, and it’s been suggested – by Martha Barnette in her A Garden of Words, for example – that the name is from a non-Indo-European root and that the story of Hyacinth is a Greek appropriation of a much earlier story. As Barnette remarks, the motif of the handsome youth being mourned by a divine being recurs in many myths throughout numerous cultures, and was probably part of a classic vegetation ritual. Hyacinth’s beauty flourishes briefly only for it to be cruelly killed, but thanks to his transformation into the flower his memory returns every spring.
Many poets have been drawn to the Hyacinth myth over the centuries, including many female poets, despite the myth being very male-heavy in terms of its cast of characters. The modernist poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) wrote a poem, and Louise Gluck’s ‘Hyacinth’ references the ‘poor slain boy’ who, the myths tell us, gave rise to the beautiful flower.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.