It’s springtime in Canberra. The days are temperate, the sun lingers longer in the afternoons and the trees are glowing with effervescent green. Gardens are punctuated by bright splashes of colour from tulips, daffodils, cyclamens, anemones, irises and ranunculi growing in their midst. Riding through local suburbs I am struck by wave upon wave of floral perfumes – first sweet daphne, then mellow hyacinth, rich lilac, heady freesia, honeyed jonquils and aromatic wisteria. Which got me thinking: all these floral names evoke some wonderful Latin and Greek terms with some very interesting mythological stories to match.
The anemone or ‘wind flower’, for example, comes from the Greek ἄνεμος meaning ‘wind’. The petals of these flowers are so easily disturbed by the slightest breeze I can see how the flower acquired its name. The name reminds me of the Greek gods of the winds – Zephyros (the west wind, the gentlest of them all), Boreas (the north wind, fierce and gutsy and notorious for snatching a princess of Athens named Oreithyia) and Notos (the south wind). The steward of the winds was Aiolos. He collected the winds and bound them in a leather bag to help Odysseus sail directly homewards but, just as Odysseus’ dear island of Ithaca came into sight, the exhausted Odysseus fell asleep. Odysseus’ companions, thinking that the bag he was guarding was full of treasure, stole it. When they opened the bag, the wild and furious winds were released, a great storm blew up and the ship was driven far out to sea once more.
The narcissus is more commonly known as the daffodil and/or jonquil. The name is derived from the Latin ‘narcissus’ which, in turn, is derived from the Greek νάρκισσος and the Greek word νάρκη meaning ‘numbness’. The legend of Narcissus from Greek mythology is well known. Poor Narcissus has now acquired a bad reputation for vanity, self-infatuation and self-love but when he first caught sight of his reflection in the pool, he was unaware that the reflection was his or even that it was just a reflection (he tried to embrace it). There is an absolute innocence and lack of self-knowledge in the tragedy of Narcissus that is often overlooked.
The iris flower is named after the Greek word for ‘rainbow’ or ‘a bright halo of light’. It is also the name of the Greek god Iris, divine messenger of the Olympian gods. She is the female equivalent of Hermes, but she is less mischievous and found only in the heavens and on earth (never in the Underworld). In Book Five of the Iliad, Aphrodite is wounded in the fighting. A sharp spear tears through her immortal robes and gouges her wrist. Aphrodite lets out a piercing shriek “[b]ut Iris quick as the wind took up her hand and led her from the fighting…racked with agony, her glowing flesh blood-dark” (5.353-354).
Cyclamen is from the Latin cyclaminos which is in turn derived from the Greek word κύκλος meaning ‘circle’. These curious little plants produce round tubers, which are thought to have inspired the name. I can’t help thinking of the enormous Cyclopes, so named because of the single round eye in the middle of their foreheads. The Cyclopes were wild and brutish giants who represent the antithesis of Greek notions of respect for the gods and hospitality towards guests. Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops named Polyphemus is a favourite episode from the Odyssey and is often portrayed in Greek vase paintings. A lesser known tradition is that the Cyclopes were blacksmiths (with names like Brontes ‘Thunderer’, Steropes ‘Lightner’ and Arges ‘Flasher’) and were responsible for forging Zeus’ thunderbolts.
Daphne comes from the Greek word δάφνη meaning ‘sweet bay, laurel’. It is impossible not to be reminded of the myth of Daphne and Apollo when smelling this incredibly perfumed flower. Daphne was a beautiful nymph but like many of her kind, she wasn’t keen on male company. She preferred to live a carefree life in the wilds of nature. She was hotly pursued by Apollo but she resisted and begged her father, a river god, to transform her before she could be taken. Her father transformed her into a bay tree, and from that time on, the laurel became the sacred tree of Apollo.
Apollo continued to be unlucky in love. He next fell in love with a handsome Spartan youth named Hyacinthus. They liked to take turns throwing the discus. But on one occasion, Hyacinthus was too eager to collect the discus and it bounced and struck him in the head, killing him instantly. From the blood of Hyacinthus a flower grew, with petals bearing the Greek letters αἰ or αἰαι, representative of the sound of crying and grieving.
What evocative little wonders of nature these flowers are, with such interesting names, histories and associations! The stories range from the tragic, wondrous, exciting and frightening – almost as varied as the colours and shapes of the flowers themselves. And this is only a small selection. Too soon the wind will change, the petals will fall, the colour will fade and the heat of summer will come. Just like the seasons with their endless cycles, and the disappearance and reemergence of spring blooms, these mythological stories reappear and are told again and again in a myriad of forms.
W. Hansen, Classical Mythology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Homer, Iliad (transl. Fagles), London, Penguin, 1990.
The Horticultural Society of Canberra Inc., The Canberra Gardener (ninth ed.), Canberra, Pirion, 2004.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1625, Apollo and Daphne, marble sculpture, Galleria Borghese.
Image sourced from: http://nashvillearts.com/2014/09/see-berninis-apollo-daphne/