Apollo and Hyacinthus - by Joseph Manning

It may seem that the emergence of LGBT+ love stories is purely symptomatic of modern society, but ancient myths show us that they are anything but modern. One such example is from ancient Greece, with the tragic tale of Apollo and Hyacinthus. As with all stories, there are variations to the narrative, but one of the most famous versions comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses – a Roman narrative poem that collates various myths from the Greek tradition, such as that of Apollo and Hyacinthus.

As many romances do, this story begins with an obsessive crush. Having fallen head over heels for the mortal man Hyacinthus, the god Apollo gives up his shrine at Delphi, his famous lyre, and his bow and arrow, to spend all his time with his new love. On one tragic day, while the couple is having a friendly competition of discus throwing, Apollo makes a throw that cuts the clouds. Hyacinthus, wanting to impress his godly love, tries to outdo him. Sadly, as all mortals who go up against a god find out, this ends in disaster. After a powerful throw from Hyacinthus, the discus bounces back against the ground and strikes him dead. As a testament to his love, the weeping Apollo promises to remember him always by creating a flower, the hyacinth (although this flower isn’t what we would consider a hyacinth today, with the flower from the myth being what we call an iris). Apollo’s heartbreak is so severe that his tears leave a mark on the flower’s petals. Ovid concludes with a bittersweet ending, recalling the real-life solemn festival in honour of Hyacinthus – performed each year in Sparta – which shows that Apollo’s promise was kept after all.


In another popular version of the myth, the death of Hyacinthus is instead caused by the jealousy of the god Zephyrus. In this version, Zephyrus also falls for the young man and becomes enraged when he chooses Apollo. In his jealousy, the god sends a gust of wind to deliberately send the discus flying into Hyacinthus, thus killing him. The myth then follows the other versions with the mourning of Apollo bringing about the hyacinth/iris flowers. But, whether Hyacinthus’ tragic death is caused by a terrible accident or a terrible crime of passion, the love Apollo has for him is apparent.


This can be further seen in versions of the myth more closely tied to religious practice, as in these the story does not end with Hyacinthus dying. Refusing to accept Hyacinthus’ death, Apollo actually succeeds in bringing him back to life and makes him an immortal god in heaven. This additional ending is what is actually celebrated at the shrine mentioned by Ovid, with the Spartans using the death and resurrection of Hyacinthus as a metaphor for the cycle of nature. According to Pausanias this relationship was so important that Hyacinthus is depicted being carried to heaven at the throne of Apollo in Sparta. Thus, despite depicting a homosexual relationship, this myth was fundamental to Spartan religious life and continued to be popular with later authors, such as Ovid in ancient Rome.


The relationship between Apollo and Hyacinthus was an important part of Greek and Roman religion and myth, emerging alongside the establishment of Classics as a popular topic of study in the last few centuries. However, with such an emergence, certain elements were deemed incompatible with society at the time, particularly given the enshrinement of Greece and Rome as cultural pinnacles. This can be seen in Mozart’s opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, which was written in 1767. Finding the homosexual love triangle from the myth problematic, Hyacinthus was replaced with a female character, Melia, shoehorned in as an alternative love interest for Apollo and Zephyrus. Hyacinthus, meanwhile, plays the role of Melia’s brother – Zephyrus murders him and blames Apollo as a way of preventing Melia’s father from giving her away to him. This instance of LGBT+ erasure effectively makes the myth unrelated to the original, thus preventing an engagement with the ancient world as it actually was. Instead, the story does nothing but rewrite history to reflect the society and culture in which it was written rather than the one from which it originated.


Given the social progression achieved today, such myths can once again be explored and acknowledged truthfully. It can be easy to think of stories of LGBT+ romance as a trend of the modern-day, but the romantic tale of Apollo and Hyacinthus proves that the only thing that can be considered modern is trying to deny that such stories exist.

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