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The Tragedy of the Sunflower

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

Sunflowers, a common symbol of happiness and warm weather around the world, were born from a story of foreign love, death, and greif.

"Apollo and Clytie", Laurent de la Hyre

The ancient Greeks believed that when the Earth was created, the embodiment of the sea, Oceanus, began to father thousands of children. These children were called the Oceanids, and they were the nymphs of the sea.

One of the Oceanids however -Clytie- was particularly fond of the shore. She grew cold easily in the ocean's currents and escaped to the shore to allow the water to lap at her ankles, taking comfort in the sun warming her skin. Clytie spent many days there, laying in the sand, and soon grew fond of watching Apollo drag the sun on its course through the sky.

It only took a few days of Clytie's watchful gaze for Apollo to notice her. She was hard not to notice: a sliver of bare flesh against dark, damp sand. The two grew enamored with each other quickly, spending many days resting on that shore. Over time, as you may have already guessed, they became lovers.

Clytie grew used to her routine: meeting Apollo in the early mornings near the water's edge and allowing the sun to turn her skin a bright shade of pink. Therefore, when Apollo did not show up one day, she was startled. The silence was suffocating. In fact, the sky was the dark shade of coal that day: Clytie did not once see the sun. A few days passed in such a way, and Clytie soon became lonely and cold in the darkness. She did not eat, nor sleep. She allowed the sand to engulf her body, hoping that if she stayed tethered to the beach, she would not miss Apollo's return.

After a week of such mourning, Clytie's sister-nymphs decided they could not bear to watch her suffer in such a way, eyes glossed over and lips wet with salty tears. The Oceanids' network spanned miles, and soon, they found Apollo.

Clytie, the nymphs whispered, using the sea-mist as their voice. Apollo has fallen in love with another woman, Leucothoe.

Clytie, understandably, was enraged. Her tears turned into ones of anger, her throat caught in a silent cry. She stood from the sand, for the first time in days, and flung herself into the chilly embrace of the sea. She used her sisters' guiding hands, as well as the currents, to carry her through the ocean to where Apollo was with Leucothoe, betraying her. After some time, she arrived on a foreign shore.

What madness it was for Clytie to arrive to a place so similar to her own: a silent shore, save gulls squawking and squabbling over dead fish. If she focused hard enough, she could imagine Apollo here with her, his head resting over her heart. The vision came and went. Clytie pushed it away and returned to her search.

Leucothoe was the princess of Persia. She was beautiful, and held to a high regard due to her father's title as King. Clytie went to the King, willing to seek his daughter out for centuries if it meant Apollo would be found beside her. When Clytie did find the King, who was seated comfortably in his citadel on the bluffs, she did not allow him to speak before she whispered -voice taut and dripping with malice- that his daughter was no longer a virgin.

The future the King had imagine disintegrated at once with those words of Clytie's. His daughter, who he now imagined to be soiled and dirtied by an unknown man, could no longer represent the beauty of his kingdom. His anger was perhaps as great as Clytie's, and he did not hesitate to storm down to the North beach where he knew his daughter spent his days.

The instant the King found his daughter, he buried her alive on that beach. As she choked on the sand, fingers piercing through the surface as she tried to escape, the King remembered how he once held those sweet little hands when Leucothoe was just a girl. When the sand finally laid still and her fingers sunk back down, he and Clytie both knew Leucothoe was dead.

Clytie awaited Apollo, hoping that he would return to her with apologies and tenderness. Instead, Apollo, having realizing what just happened, ran to Leucothoe's hidden body and pressed his eyes to the sand just above her belly. He wept viciously, keening over and trying to find her face in the sand. The disparity he showed angered Clytie greater: she knew not what she expected, though surely something more than Apollo's cries for this other woman. Clytie yearned for Apollo's despair to lead him to her arms: she wanted to comfort him, to be who he turned to. To be needed. To be wanted. This desire fueled her, and it forced her to the sea. She allowed the currents to carry her boneless body back to her home.

Seven days passed. Clytie did not eat, drink, nor sleep. Her usually dark, innocent eyes were mangled with a deep red sheen. Her hair was torn and tattered. Her skin was rough, peeling at the bend of her elbow and the bones of her ankles. When she twisted her body, convulsing in cries, she could feel her ribs through a thin layer of flesh.

On the seventh day, the Gods took pity on the young girl. Her face had not been dry since she’d returned home. She seemed hapless, desolate. She was vacant. The things that she used to find beautiful she no longer registered: birds diving into the water in search of a meal, figs dropping restlessly from a tree nearby. The sky was gray, as was the world around her.

On the eighth day, the Gods acted on that pity. With the last tear that fell from Clytie’s eye -drawing down her body in an even line- she transformed. When the teardrop reached the heel of her foot, it sprouted roots. Thick, coarse roots; ancient-looking. Then, her beautiful, pale legs turned to a stem. Finally, as she wept gratefully, she was silenced. Her head grew petals, all a deep sun-yellow, golden when they hit the light just so. Clytie was still in this new form. The flower’s leaves swayed in the breeze. It was silent.

Even in this state, though, Clytie could not forget her love for Apollo. As he began to fly his chariot once again, dragging the sun through the sky, she mustered all her energy to turn the bulb and petals of the flower, watching him. She never got rest. The sunflower was born.

"Clytie", John Martin

The Greeks believed that Apollo was cursed by Aphrodite after he’d wronged her in some light- perhaps something to do with revealing her infidelity to her husband (there are many variations to this ideology). Aphrodite saw how deep the love between Apollo and Clytie was, and she wanted to strip it away in every aspect as an act of punishment. Apollo had no say in falling out of love with Clytie and in love with Leucothoe. Apollo was a mindless vessel for Aphrodite’s anger, unknowing of what was stripped from him.

A tragedy in its truest form.


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