I wanted to tell you my favorite story from Greek mythology. It’s the story of a mortal woman named Clytie who fell in love with Helios, the Sun God.
You might have seen Helios portrayed in paintings, etchings, and urns, commandeering a golden chariot in the sky, led by a team of fiery white horses. Helios used a lasso around the sun to take the ancient Greeks from night to day, pulling the sun behind him as he made his way around the earth.
This story is unique because it involves a mortal in love with a god, and not vice-versa. Most stories from Greek mythology involve a wily god who falls madly for a mortal and resorts to all manner of shenanigans and deceits to get his or her way. Usually, another god would be stricken with jealousy and smite a few unfortunate mortals, (secondary to the story); or the mortal would change form to escape the immortal’s clutches, e.g., Daphne and the linden tree, the daughters of Orion… and the god would have a major hissy fit.
Clytie fell in love with Helios, but he didn’t love her back. (It’s a long story — he loved her sister so Clytie had her buried alive, etc…) Not one to give up easily, Clytie kept on loving anyway.
Knowing that she could never give up her love, Clytie decided to surrender to her fate. She found a place for herself on the ground and sat there for eight days, watching Helios make his way across the sky. There’s a lovely poem in Ovid’s Metamorpheses that describes how she caught the morning dew.
On the ninth day, the gods took pity on Clytie and turned her into a flower; a flower that always watches the sun–the sunflower.
If someone were to ask me what my favorite flower was, I would probably answer lilac, hydrangea or peony. But if someone were to ban all the flowers on earth except for one, I would beg them to keep the sunflower.
I’ve always had a thing for sunflowers, but don’t we all? I planted a sunflower garden for my parents when I left their home long ago, and the flowers grew to incredible heights. There’s something about them that softens me up inside; it’s their human characteristics, I think.
There’s something human to me about sunflowers. They sprout so excitedly in the spring, like little kids on their first day of school. Then they grow full and lethargic during the mid and late summer. What is this but a mid life? Then fall finally arrives and sunflowers, in their last throes of worshipping Helios, are nothing if not human. Am I the only one who thinks sunflowers look human?
Tho’ guilty Clytie thus the Sun betrayed
By too much passion she was guilty made.
The book Lust for Life by Irving Stone has been my beach read since leaving Tinos. It’s an historical novel about the life of Vincent Van Gogh. In it, the author describes how Van Gogh was obsessed with the human form; he unceasingly sketched people in all manner of pose and work. Even when he painted or sketched trees or mountains or flowers, he tried to bring out the humanity and life in them through the lines and strokes he used. It seems so fitting to me now that Van Gogh painted so many sunflowers– the humanity was there all along.
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