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Plants that Used to Be People (According to Greek Myth)

As an avid lover of Greek mythology, I know a lot of fascinating creation myths. Did you know that lots of rocks, mountains, and plants, according to Greek myth, used to be people? According to the Greeks, there are a number of flowers and plants that we wouldn’t even have were it not for some godly antics.  

 

  1. Laurel- This is one of the most famous transformation stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and one you might be more likely to know. According to Ovid, the god of the sun, prophecy, and a whole host of other things, but most importantly for this story, archery, made the mistake of making fun of the god Eros’ (Cupid’s) little baby bow one day. Eros, being petty and annoyed as the Greek gods usually are, proceeded to use that puny bow to shoot Apollo with an arrow that caused him to fall deeply in love with the nymph Daphne. Unfortunately for Apollo, Eros shot Daphne with an arrow that made her absolutely hate Apollo. After a long chase through the countryside, Daphne, frightened and exasperated, prayed to her river-god father for help. Just as Apollo was about to catch her, Daphne’s father came to the rescue…by turning her into a laurel tree. Apollo, who just couldn’t take a hint, proceeded to declare the laurel his sacred tree and took it as one of his symbols. 

  2. Anemone- The word anemone usually brings to mind Nemo’s underwater home, but anemone is actually a type of flower too. These blooms come in purple, pink, and bright red, for reasons we’re about to see. Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, took mortal lovers from time to time, including the handsome Adonis. Adonis was, like many notable mythical heros, an avid hunter. One day while out on a hunt, he got on the wrong side of a wild boar and was gored. As he lay bleeding out, Aphrodite’s tears as she wept for him mixed with his blood to create the anemone flower as a sign of her love, devotion, and sorrow. 

  3. Hyacinth- Another beautiful flower created from not-so-beautiful circumstances. Hyacinth or Hyacinthus was a really good-looking young man who caught the eye of Apollo (yes, again). There’s a couple different variations on what exactly happened next, but sources generally seem to agree that Apollo’s interest in Hyacinthus was mutual, so they had a pretty good relationship. Seems like everything should work out well then, right? Not so. While Apollo and Hyacinthus were playing a game of discus (kind of like ancient Frisbee, but with heavy bronze instead of plastic), Apollo got a little too enthusiastic and accidentally struck Hyacinthus with the discus, killing him. In some versions, this is really the fault of one of the wind gods, Boreas or Zephyrus, who also took a fancy to Hyacinthus and got jealous of his relationship with Apollo. Either way, Hyacinthus’ death so grieved Apollo that the hyacinth flower sprang up from Hyacinthus’ blood. (It’s a common theme.)

  4. Mulberries- Anyone who has ever encountered a mulberry tree in their life knows how distinctive and strong the berries’ reddish-purple color is. According to legend, the berries actually used to be white. (If you’re following the pattern of these stories, you might be saying ‘uh-oh’ right now.) They only became their current color after the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. Now,  you can think of Pyramus and Thisbe as a sort of ancient Romeo and Juliet. Two young people very much in love, but forbidden from seeing each other. Naturally, they snuck out one night to meet each other. Naturally, it didn’t end well. Thisbe was early to the meeting, which was set to take place under a mulberry tree. But while she was waiting for Pyramus, a terrifying lion, jaws bloody from its previous meal, came along. Sensibly, Thisbe freaked out and ran away, but she accidentally left her veil at the meeting site. Now along comes Pyramus, who got to the mulberry tree and was horrified to see the bloody lion chomping on Thisbe’s veil. Thinking that the lion ate his love, Pyramus drew his sword and fell on it. That, of course, is when Thisbe came back to see if the lion had gone away, only to find Pyramus bleeding out. Equally distraught, Thisbe took Pyramus’ sword and did herself in too. Their blood stained the mulberries, and the gods permanently changed the berry color to honor the doomed lovers.

  5. Heliotropes- Unrequited love hurts–and sometimes, it even changes your physical form. The ocean nymph Clytie fell deeply in love with the god Helios, who drove the sun across the sky every day (sometimes conflated with the god Apollo, who you may have noticed doesn’t have a great track record on this list). Helios, however, was more interested in another nymph-goddess figure, Leucothoe. Clytie, jealous of Leucothoe, tattled about Helios and Leucothoe’s relationship, which got Leucothoe killed. Unsurprisingly, this tactic did not actually make Helios fall in love with Clytie. Instead he shunned her, which made her so distressed she sat outside without eating or drinking, just watching Helios’ chariot, or the sun, cross the sky. Eventually she turned into a heliotrope, a flower whose name literally means “sun-turn” and is said to follow the movement of the sun across the sky even to this day.

  6. Reeds- Much like the story of Daphne and Apollo, this story features another nymph who was not interested in a god and a god who didn’t care. In this story, the nymph was Syrinx, known for her chastity. The offender was the god Pan, a half-goat nature god who was probably not big with the ladies, being half-goat and all. Pan fell in love with Syrinx on sight and gave chase. Syrinx, fleeing from the god called for help from her river-nymph friends, who promptly turned her into water reeds. Pan then added insult to injury by using some of those reeds to create his signature instrument, the panpipes.

The Greek gods were constantly interacting with mortals, nymphs, and other beings, and those interactions resulted in new flowers, trees, and even animals. Next time you’re admiring nature, take a look around and see if you spot any of these species–and stay away from any wandering gods, unless you’re looking to spend the rest of your life as a tree!

 

Mallory Fitzpatrick is a senior at John Carroll University, who loves reading, writing, and travel. 
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