Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a history of the world told through transformation. Starting with a strangely accurate (scientifically speaking) depiction of creation, the poem follows the travails of gods and men up to the Roman times when Ovid was alive. Much of it is full of overt sideswipes at Rome’s governing class, although most of these are too subtle for non-Romans like me.
The bulk of the poem is taken up by people getting turned into things: trees, birds, and an inordinate number of springs (these were originally weeping women). Sometimes these people have been transformed to be saved, often they’ve done something to annoy the gods, and some poor souls just seem to have got the gods on a bad day. Pity the humans who cross the path of Diana, the huntress, such as Actaeon, who “accidentally” sees the goddess bathing, gets turned into a stag, and is torn apart by his own dogs.
It’s a lot of blood thirsty fun. Much of the appeal of Ovid’s tales is their horror; most of the humans are aware of what’s happening to them as they are transformed, sometimes keeping their human minds, sometimes not. And luckily for us nobody back then, mortal or god, seems to be capable of pausing to consider the consequences of their actions before doing something stupid.
One subset of transformations is men becoming flowers.
Let’s start with Adonis, whose name is synonymous with male beauty. In the poem, Venus is giving her son Cupid a cuddle when he accidentally pricks her breast with his arrow. She falls head over heals for Adonis and gives up her godly duties. Instead, she follows Adonis as he goes hunting, protecting him from wild beasts and telling him stories.
Sadly, Adonis fails to heed her warnings and goes after a boar, which gores him in the balls. He dies, and after Venus sprinkles his spilled blood with nectar, it becomes a flower, “blood red in its colour, just like the flesh that lies underneath the tough rind of the seed-hiding pomegranate”:
“Brief is its season, for the winds from which it takes its name, the anemone, shake off those petals so lightly clinging and fated to perish.”
Ah, the fleetingness of youth and beauty!
Then there’s Narcissus, best known for falling in love with his own reflection. Here’s how Ovid puts it:
“As he strives to satisfy one thirst, another is born; drinking, he’s overcome by the beauty of the image that he sees.”
But Narcissus wasn’t just a vain fool. He was actually under the spell of a curse. Everyone was in love with Narcissus. The nymph Echo, who is cursed to repeat the last thing she heard, sees the 16-year-old Narcissus and:
“At the very sight of him grew hot… as torches smeared with highly flammable sulphur ignite themselves.”
Yeah, he’s hot. Anyway, he rejects her. In fact, he rejects all comers. Why? Because of his “inflexibility and pride”. Basically, he had high standards.
When he spurns a male lover he’s spurned one lover too many. The guy, probably thinking of Narcissus as a cock tease, goes to Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and asks, “May he himself love as I have loved him”. It’s the Ancient Greek version of Justin Bieber’s revenge song Love Yourself.
Narcissus falls in love with his reflection and suffers greatly for it. Eventually he figures out that he’s in love with himself, but he still can’t tear himself from his mirror image. He wastes away, and when the mournful wood nymphs come to find his body, all they can find is a flower, “whose white petals fit closely around a saffron-coloured centre” – a daffodil.
Finally there’s Hyacinthus. His tale we hear from the poet-musician Orpheus, who’s singing in a grove of trees. Orpheus is himself pretty gay at this point. With his love Eurydice stuck in Hades, “he originated the practice of transferring the affections to youthful males, plucking the first flower in the springtime of their early manhood”, thousands of years before Troye Sivan bloomed.
And among the trees is Cyparissus, who was once a boy loved by Apollo. Cyparissus had a weirdly close relationship with a beautiful stag. One hot day, for barely-explained reasons, the boy goes a bit mad and “transfixes” the stag with his “deadly javelin”. Whatever that might be a euphemism for, the stag dies. Cyparissus goes mad with grief and begs Apollo to let him mourn forever, who obliges by turning him into a depressed-looking cypress tree.
It’s from this queer context that the tale of Hyacinthus emerges. Hyacinthus is another beloved of the sun god Apollo, who preferred him “above all others”. One hot summer’s day the god and a bunch of guys are having a discus competition: “bodies shed garments and glistened richly with olive oil”.
Apollo has the first go – a throw to “shatter the clouds”. Hyacinthus, poor, innocent Hyacinthus, tries to catch the god’s throw. The discus returns to Earth, bounces off the ground, and hits him the face, fatally wounding him. Apollo grieves and wishes he could take the boy’s place, but he can’t. Instead he has to settle for Hyacinthus becoming a flower “shining even more brightly than Tyrian purple”. Apollo inscribes his cry of mourning, AI AI, on the flower’s petals.
In a postscript, Apollo foretells that the hyacinth will become linked to a Trojan hero, Ajax. Ajax has a war of words with Ulysses over who gets Achilles’ armour. Ulysses wins, and Ajax, with a cry of “lest anyone but Ajax conquer Ajax”, stabs himself with his own sword. A hyacinth grows from his spilled blood. This is less about Ajax being gay, and more about the the favour in which both Ajax and Hyacinthus were held by Apollo.
I’m not the first to pick up on the homosexual overtones of these tales and these flowers. Oscar Wilde famously wrote to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, addressing him as Hyacinthus. It was a way of communicating a love that “dare not speak its name“. In Communist Poland, the police created a secret register of gay men known as Operation Hyacinth.
Gays and flowers go together like scones, jam and cream. But long before gays were said to be pansies, they were first daffodils and hyacinths (with an honourable mention to anemones).