Wednesday, 14 August 2013


Envy is a terrible thing. It tears friendships asunder, levels cities and topples nations. An emotion the gods of the pagan world were no less susceptible to than their human subjects. Mortality was never a barrier to jealously, as the curse to never be content with one's lot in life afflicted the Olympians as much as men. Sometime the gods even envied their own worshippers. Here is the story of one.

Zephryus the West Wind
Painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Long ago, before the high days of ancient Greece, in the days before even Agamemnon the High King, the city state of Sparta was in its infancy. Long before the days when Spartans reigned inexorable on land, the richly destined city was little more than a village, deep in the valley of the Eurotas in the shadow of Mount Taygetus. King Amyclas ruled over a modest realm of simple folk, pious and rustic. One day a boy was born to the royal house of Sparta, Prince Hyacinthus was his name. Joy erupted in verdant Sparta, and Spartans far and wide flocked to catch a glimpse of the handsome Prince. Spartan mothers were swift to sing the praises of the boy's beauty, Spartan fathers of the strength in his arms. Not even the Olympians were blind to the event, all celebrating the birth of such a fine heir, and the great grandson of Zeus the Thunderer himself. The spirits of the cosmos were no less taken, and one above others, Zephryus the lord of the West Winds. In the days of the Classical World, it was the societal practice for an older man to take a young boy under his wing, and teach him the ways of the world, free from the constraints and biases of the boy's family. No less so at Sparta, renowned for this custom. The West Wind took a shine to the boy, and moved to greet the Prince.

Apollo & Hyacinthus
Painting by Jean Broc
But it was the golden rays of the Sun which smiled most fondly upon the Prince. Apollo the keen eyed archer, father of the arts, was smitten at once with the Spartan Prince, and moved without delay. "Phoebus Apollo for thee too, Hyacinth, design'd a place among the Gods, had Fate been kind...". In Hyacinthus Apollo 'plac'd his Heav'n, and fix'd his joy". The Sun shone brighter than ever before on the golden valley of the Eurotas, and the Spartans bathed in warmth. The god's hands forgot the string of the bow and chords of the harp, as Apollo's mind was turned to the Spartan Prince. All the while the West Wind blew a gentle breeze, Zephryus pursuing young Hyacinthus, eager to take the boy under his celestial wing. But young Hyacinthus, awed by the light, turned to Apollo of the golden mount. Phoebus Apollo was overwhelmed with joy, delight that his should be the fate of the Spartan Prince. Meanwhile Zephryus lurked in despair and grief, soon to turn to envy and wrath.

Sunlight flooded Eurotas, as Apollo and Hyacinthus ran in the ancient plains. The wisdom of a god Hyacinthus gained from Apollo, the innocence of youth Apollo from Hyacinthus. Then came a day, a day of days, when Hyacinthus was old enough to learn the ways of a man. To the young Prince Apollo yearned to teach the feats of the martial body and of athletic glory. To the noble sport of the discus the sun god turned, a majestic sport for a Spartan boy, to build good strength and competitive spirit. Hyacinthus marvelled at the golden disc, as though the Sun obeyed Phoebus in his hand. Apollo bade the boy watch him well, and took a deep breath and poised for the throw. Divine sinews groaned, and godly muscles unfurled for the feat. With a cry,

 " A well-pos'd disk first hasty Phoebus threw,
   It cleft the air, and whistled as it flew;
   It reach'd the mark,a  most surpising length;
   Which spoke an equal share of art, and strength.
   Scarce was it fall'n, when with too eager hand
   Young Hyacinthus ran to snatch it from the sand... "

The Death of Hyacinthus
Painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Awed by the supernatural throw, swift footed Hyacinthus ran in pursuit, eager to fetch the discus for his master. To the young Prince the sun god called, but in vain, for Hyacinthus alas could not be swian. Zephryus the Western Wind, his jealousy raw, took a deep breath and blasted raw. The wind then blew the discus from the straight and true, and Apollo looked on, helpless as the mighty disk, flew now a weapon of death. The metallic star slammed into Hyacinthus' head, and with a scream of final innocence, the boy fell to the land, never to rise again. The West Wind smiled in spiteful malice. Apollo shouted in disbelief, and ran over to the dying youth. The coldness spread through the Spartan Prince, and the light left his eyes, as Phoebus Apollo raised his head to the stars and wailed his grief. Taking the nearby herbs of Taygetus, he to the lethal wound vainly applied. "The wound is mortal, and his skill defies". Just as a wilting lily lowers its head, so too now Hyacinthus bowed to Death.

But Apollo would not his Fate accept. "O thou art gone, my boy, Apollo cry'd, defrauded of thy youth in all its pride!". Not now would Hades take his fill, not from so fair a spirit so cruelly snuffed out. "On my tongue thou shalt forever dwell; thy name my lyre shall sound, my verse shall tell". In that moment the sun gods power the young body transfigured. Youthful Prince white in the clutches of Death no more, now a beautiful flower, as yet unnamed, blood from the fatal wound, its petals coloured, mingled with the tears of the god of the Sun. Forever, Apollo decreed, would it bear the boys name. The flower we call Hyacinth today...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

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