Seven Plants and the People That They Used to Be
History is full of legends about transformations, whether it is people becoming animals, animals becoming humans or inhuman tricksters hiding their true features to deceive or murder their unfortunate victims. In particular, the Greek myths feature many gods who – either as a punishment or out of pity – turned people into animals, plants, and even ponds!
This week we take a look at the unlucky people, transformed into plants by the Greek Gods.
Persephone’s most famous legend may have been her abduction and forced marriage to Hades, but the goddess quickly became a powerful force in her own right. As wife of Hades, she was therefore a queen of the underworld, and someone to be feared. The Greeks knew her as Dread Persephone and feared to say her name aloud.
One poor fool who managed to incite Persephone’s anger was the Naiad, Minthe. She was daughter to the god of the river Cocytus – one of the rivers that ran through the underworld.
One legend states that Minthe was known for her beauty and, living in the underworld, had once been a lover to Hades. When Hades fell in love and married Persephone, he cast Minthe aside. Heartbroken and jealous, Minthe was heard saying that Hades would soon grow bored of Persephone and return to Minthe who was far more beautiful than the goddess. Furious, Persephone transformed Minthe into a sprig of mint.
This legend may have come about because the Greeks used mint as part of their funeral rites, and so the plant was associated with Hades, and with death.
Unlike Minthe, the princess Smyrna did nothing to incite the wrath of the gods and was instead a casualty of Aphrodite’s anger with the people of Cyprus. When King Theias and the people of Cyprus began to worship the god, Dionysus, they neglected their worship of Aphrodite. Wishing to punish the king and his people, Aphrodite made Smyrna fall in love with her own father.
Disgusted by her own feelings, Smyrna attempted to commit suicide. She was discovered and saved by her nurse, who came up with a plan to save her charge’s life. The nurse arranged for a tryst between the king and a ‘mysterious stranger’. Under the cover of darkness, Smyrna was able to visit her father. Eventually, the king learned the truth of who had been visiting him at night. Blinded with rage, Theias would have struck Smyrna down then and there, if she hadn’t managed to escape.
Alone, homeless, and pregnant, the gods took pity on Smyrna, transforming her into a myrrh tree. As she was pregnant when she was transformed, the tree managed to bring forth a perfectly healthy baby boy. The boy’s name was Adonis, who would ironically grow up to become Aphrodite’s most favoured and famous human lover.
Adonis would later die during a hunt, and his blood would mix with Aphrodite’s tears to create the anemone flower.
Hyacinthus was a Spartan prince, known for his great beauty. He was so beautiful that two different gods fell in love with him. One was Zephyrus, the god of the West Wind, the other was the sun god, Apollo. Hyacinthus ultimately chose Apollo, over Zephyrus.
Later, Zephyrus came across Apollo and Hyacinthus playing discus with each other. Still angered by the rejection, Zephyrus sent Apollo’s throw off course. The discuss hit Hyacinthus in the head, killing him.
Mourning his lover, Apollo refused to fulfil his duty and lead Hyacinthus’ soul to the underworld. Apollo instead mixed his tears with Hyacinthus’ blood (much as Aphrodite had with Adonis) and brought forth his lover as a flower – the beautiful hyacinth.
Hyacinthus was sadly not the only time that Apollo was unlucky in love. Nor was it the only time that someone he loved was transformed into a plant.
Apollo, the god of archery, once made the mistake of insulting Eros’ archery skills. Much like his mother, Aphrodite, Eros did not take well to being insulted and quickly decided to get his revenge. Eros shot Apollo with an arrow that would make him fall irrevocably in love with the nymph Daphne. He also shot Daphne with an arrow that would make her despise Apollo, and never return his feelings.
Apollo did not accept the rejection, and pursued Daphne, who fled from him. Frightened that she would be caught, Daphne prayed to her godly father for help. He father transformed Daphne into a laurel tree, so that she could never be captured by Apollo.
Unfortunately, this was not completely successful, Apollo declared the laurel sacred to himself and took to wearing a crown made of laurel leaves.
Another lover of Apollo that came to an unfortunate end, Cyparissus was the grandson of Hercules. He had been gifted with a tame white stag who had become his close companion and friend. When the stag was killed (in some versions by someone else, in others accidentally by Cyparissus himself) Cyparissus was so distraught that he lay by the stag and wept.
Giving up on life, Cyparissus begged the gods to let his tears flow forever. In response the gods transformed Cyparissus into the Cyprus tree. In accordance with the legend, the Cyprus became a symbol of mourning, traditionally planted in graveyards, and sometimes said to protect these places from evil spirits.
In this legend, the nymph Clytie was arguably responsible for transforming herself into a flower.
Clytie was in love with the sun god, Helios (a god often subsumed into the Apollo mythos). Unfortunately, Helios did not return her love. Helios was in love with a different nymph – the beautiful Leucothoe. A jealous Clytie spread the story of their affair, ensuring that it got back to Leucothoe’s father and ultimately leading to the other nymph’s death.
Unsurprisingly, Helios was infuriated with Clytie and what she had done to his love. He spurned her, refusing to have anything to do with her. Distraught, Clytie sat outside, refusing all food and water in favour of watching Helios’ chariot soar across the sky. Eventually, she transformed into a Heliotrope – to this day, continuing to watch the sun move across the sky.
The story of Syrinx is very similar to the legend of Daphne and the laurel tree. The naiad Syrinx was known for her sworn chastity, she was a skilled huntress, and part of Artemis’ entourage. Pan encountered her and was struck by her beauty and skill.
Syrinx fled and Pan gave chase. Knowing the god would soon catch her, Syrinx threw herself into a river, begging her fellow naiads to save her. As a last resort, they transformed her into the reeds that lined the river’s edges.
Much like with Apollo, this was not the escape that she might have hoped for. Pan heard the wind whistling through the reeds and was enchanted by the noise. He cut the reeds down and used them to create the first set of panpipes – which became his signature instrument.
Though there are many differences between these legends they do make one thing clear, and that is not to mess with the gods of Ancient Greece! Whether you have offended them in some way, or are just asking for help, there is always the risk that their answer will be turning you into a tree!