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Myths
by Des Kennedy
May 6, 2001

An unusually cool and moist spring on the coast might have prolonged the melancholia wrought by a very wet winter, had it not been for spring bulbs and perennials exulting in the wet and cool conditions. The aconites, snowdrops and crocuses seemed to linger far longer than usual. Lines became hopelessly blurred among early-, mid- and late-flowering bulbs, so that we had crocuses still hanging around while hyacinths and daffodils were in their prime and the early tulips were already blooming. The effect was a splendour of show that compensated handsomely for seldom seeing the sun. 
Plus the time was right for long pondering of the myths and legends that attach to the flowers of spring, many of which originate in the myth-rich lands of the Mediterranean. It’s fascinating how many of these old tales concern loss, rejection and death -- tragic narratives one wouldn’t readily associate with the exuberance of spring.
Crocus is a good example. Greek legend has it that the flower was named for Crocus, a beautiful youth of the plains who was consumed with unrequited love for Smilax, a shepherdess of the hills. The hapless youth pined away and died of a broken heart, whereupon the gods changed him into the flower which bears his name.
The theme of unrequited love, featuring a cold-hearted maiden and soft-hearted swain, echoes an old Persian legend that tells of a young man smitten by a beauty who declined to reciprocate. The snubbed lover fled to the desert to die a lonely death. As he pined away in the wilderness weeping for a love beyond his reach, each tear falling onto the desert sand was transformed into a beautiful tulip blossom.
The theme of tragic love is given a slightly more Hollywood spin in a tale about forget-me-nots. Here the story is of two young lovers meandering along a riverbank, the gallant youth plucking forget-me-nots for a posy to give to his beloved. But he accidentally tumbles into the torrent and is swept away. As he’s being dragged under, he flings the posy onto the bank and cries to her “Forget me not!” And, indeed, who could after a stunt like that?
A more upbeat version occurred “on a golden morning of the early world” when an angel spied a daughter of earth sitting at a riverbank twining forget-me-nots in her hair. Enraptured, the angel beseeched the powers of heaven to allow the earthling to accompany him into paradise. But the powers of heaven would only grant her immortality after she’d sown forget-me-nots in every corner of the world. She set about the task, aided each evening by her adoring angel. Eventually, the job completed, maiden and angel entered paradise together, as she had gained immortality “without tasting the bitterness of death.” 
Other heavenly goings-on had less happy endings. Consider poor Hyacinthus. This beautiful youth was loved by the sun-god Apollo, but also by Zephyrus, the west wind. One day when Hyacinthus and Apollo were playing quoits (a celestial version of pitching horseshoes), Apollo tossed his quoit and jealous Zephyrus blew it so that the heavy disc struck Hyacinthus on the head, killing him. Grieving Apollo changed the drops of blood spilling from his dead friend into hyacinths, a flower that came to symbolize vegetation reborn after being scorched by the hot disc of the sun and the desiccating west wind.
It was lecherous Zephyrus, too, who caused the death of fair Anemone, the nymph. Exiled by the jealous wife of Zephyrus, she died of a broken heart and her body became the windflower that returns to life at the return of spring.
And for a final tragic tale, we have poor Narcissus who idled away his days gazing at the reflection of his own face in pools. Though he came to symbolize self-absorption and egotism, he was enraptured with his own reflection because it so closely resembled the face of his lost sister. Nemesis, the god of vengeance, turned him into the flower we know today so that he would stand forever peering down at an image of himself.
What’s uncanny about all these old stories of springtime tragedy is how accurately they capture the sense of loss and unseasonal wistfulness one feels, even in a cool and moist season, as successive waves of springtime flowers so quickly fade away. 

 

 

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