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Hyacinthus and Apollo: Growing Flowers from Blood

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

Apollo, known for his many lovers, perhaps experienced his strongest grief following the death of Hyacinthus: a prince with everything to lose.

"Apollo and Hyacinthus", Nicolas-René Jollain

Apollo was one of the most worshiped gods in the ancient world due to being a "jack of all trades". Twin brother to Artemis -the goddess of the hunt- Apollo had great power over medicine, music, light, poetry, art, and the plague. However, more memorable than his power were his plethora of different lovers.

Hyacinthus was born beautiful. He was a Spartan prince, the first son in the family, beloved and worshiped by everyone in his empire. He was a symbol of Spartan society, and the baseline for all men in his generation. Apollo was always taken by uniqueness and power, and soon became enamored with the prince as he grew older. Apollo tentatively got to know Hyacinthus, and the two spent many hours playing field games and strumming the lyre. Hyacinthus was different than Apollo's numerous other lovers: he was a delicacy. His bloodline was royal, his garments near-godly. Hyacinthus was pale-skinned from lack of labor and soft-haired, curls adorning the top of his head like a halo. There was nothing left to be desired.

One day, Apollo came down to play discus at dawn in the Spartan citadel's courtyard. It was the pair's favorite game, and they consistently grew more competitive as they played more matches. As they played, though, they were unaware of a decision being made above them: Zephyrus, god of the west-wind and controller of natural elements, was becoming overtaken by envy. He, too, had fallen in love with the Spartan prince and could no longer handle watching Apollo love him when Zephyrus could not.

Thus, the idea "if I cannot have him, no one can" was born. Zephyrus, able to control the wind, guided the discus disc from Apollo's hand to Hyacinthus. It struck him squarely on the skull, traveling so fast nobody would have been able to survive it. Hyacinthus, despite his prestige, was not immune to the strength of a god. Hyacinthus fell and Apollo caught him, unaware that it was not his fault that Hyacinthus had been struck by the disc.

Apollo, now panicked, cradled Hyacinthus' dying body. The stone disc was still laying on the soil, bloody and cracked, and Hyacinthus' skull mimicked it. Apollo held the prince's head to his chest, sobbing so viciously his cries could be heard throughout the empire. As Hyacinthus' eyes began to flutter shut, Apollo realized he didn't want to let him go. He could not fathom Hyacinthus disappearing into death, unseen again. Unable to stand so beautifully before his people, or his family. Unable to remain a symbol of perfection.

And so, as blood spilled onto the Earth beneath them, Apollo transformed the blood into seeds where Irises sprouted. He cried watching the flowers grow up around them, penetrating the garden in color. When Hyacinthus' body finally went limp, all that remained were purple-petaled flowers.

An Iris Flower.

While the story originally mentions the Iris sprouting from Hyacinthus' body, the Hyacinth flower is directly named after this tale. It's a sister-flower to the Iris and shares similar structure and color.

Nevertheless, it's important to remember the Iris as a catalyst to this story for two reasons. The original tale mentions the "A" shaped lines on the flower's petals, triangles pointing to the center, as Apollo's screams. The distinct "AAA" sound heard when someone's in deep pain is represented through the flower's markings. His cries for his lover were so poignant that they were marked onto the Iris permanently. Secondly, the flower displays the colors of royalty: purple, a dye reserved for ancient kings, and gold, the color of wealth and adornment. The Iris is both Hyacinth and the pain felt by Apollo, a mixture of their love. A mixture of both their identities.

Those identities, of course, have been shunned by historians for decades. This story is distinctly queer, featuring male affection, though it's been altered to fit straight society over the years. In all paintings and sculptures depicting Apollo and Hyacinthus, Hyacinthus is drawn to be 'smaller' and 'slimmer' in order to promote the feeling of a heterosexual couple rather than two men. Despite discomfort around this myth, though, the lesson still stands. Rather than allowing Hyacinthus to travel into the afterlife and live eternally, Apollo damns him to live on earth forever as a flower. While this may be seen as an act of utmost love, it also is selfish: Apollo just wanted to admire Hyacinthus' beauty forever instead of allowing him peace.


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