1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hyacinthus

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HYACINTHUS,[1] in Greek mythology, the youngest son of the Spartan king Amyclas, who reigned at Amyclae (so Pausanias iii. 1. 3, iii. 19. 5; and Apollodorus i. 3. 3, iii. 10. 3). Other stories make him son of Oebalus, of Eurotas, or of Pierus and the nymph Clio (see Hyginus, Fabulae, 271; Lucian, De saltatione, 45, and Dial. deor. 14). According to the general story, which is probably late and composite, his great beauty attracted the love of Apollo, who killed him accidentally when teaching him to throw the discus (quoit); others say that Zephyrus (or Boreas) out of jealousy deflected the quoit so that it hit Hyacinthus on the head and killed him. According to the representation on the tomb at Amyclae (Pausanias, loc. cit.) Hyacinthus was translated into heaven with his virgin sister Polyboea. Out of his blood there grew the flower known as the hyacinth, the petals of which were marked with the mournful exclamation AI, AI, "alas" (cf. "that sanguine flower inscribed with woe"). This Greek hyacinth cannot have been the flower which now bears the name; it has been identified with a species of iris and with the larkspur (delphinium Aiacis), which appear to have the markings described. The Greek hyacinth was also said to have sprung from the blood of Ajax. Evidently the Greek authorities confused both the flowers and the traditions.

The death of Hyacinthus was celebrated at Amyclae by the second most important of Spartan festivals, the Hyacinthia, which took place in the Spartan month Hecatombeus. What month this was is not certain. Arguing from Xenophon (Hell. iv. 5) we get May; assuming that the Spartan Hecatombeus is the Attic Hecatombaion, we get July; or again it may be the Attic Scirophorion, June. At all events the Hyacinthia was an early summer festival. It lasted three days, and the rites gradually passed from mourning for Hyacinthus to rejoicings in the majesty of Apollo, the god of light and warmth, and giver of the ripe fruits of the earth (see a passage from Polycrates, Laconica, quoted by Athenaeus 139 D; criticized by L. R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, iv. 266 foll.). This festival is clearly connected with vegetation, and marks the passage from the youthful verdure of spring to the dry heat of summer and the ripening of the corn.

The precise relation which Apollo bears to Hyacinthus is obscure. The fact that at Tarentum a Hyacinthus tomb is ascribed by Polybius to Apollo Hyacinthus (not Hyacinthius) has led some to think that the personalities are one, and that the hero is merely an emanation from the god; confirmation is sought in the Apolline appellation τετράχειρ, alleged by Hesychius to have been used in Laconia, and assumed to describe a composite figure of Apollo-Hyacinthus. Against this theory is the essential difference between the two figures. Hyacinthus is a chthonian vegetation god whose worshippers are afflicted and sorrowful; Apollo, though interested in vegetation, is never regarded as inhabiting the lower world, his death is not celebrated in any ritual, his worship is joyous and triumphant, and finally the Amyclean Apollo is specifically the god of war and song. Moreover, Pausanias describes the monument at Amyclae as consisting of a rude figure of Apollo standing on an altar-shaped base which formed the tomb of Hyacinthus. Into the latter offerings were put for the hero before gifts were made to the god.

On the whole it is probable that Hyacinthus belongs originally to the pre-Dorian period, and that his story was appropriated and woven into their own Apollo myth by the conquering Dorians. Possibly he may be the apotheosis of a pre-Dorian king of Amyclae. J. G. Frazer further suggests that he may have been regarded as spending the winter months in the underworld and returning to earth in the spring when the "hyacinth" blooms. In this case his festival represents perhaps both the Dorian conquest of Amyclae and the death of spring before the ardent heat of the summer sun, typified as usual by the discus (quoit) with which Apollo is said to have slain him. With the growth of the hyacinth from his blood should be compared the oriental stories of violets springing from the blood of Attis, and roses and anemones from that of Adonis. As a youthful vegetation god, Hyacinthus may be compared with Linus and Scephrus, both of whom are connected with Apollo Agyieus.

See L. R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, vol. iv. (1907), pp. 125 foll., 264 foll.; J. G. Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris (1906), bk. ii. ch. 7; S. Wide, Lakonische Kulte, p. 290; E. Rhode, Psyche, 3rd ed. i. 137 foll.; Roscher, Lexikon d. griech. u. röm. Myth., s.v. "Hyakinthos" (Greve); L. Preller, Griechische Mythol. 4th ed. i. 248 foll. (J. M. M.)


  1. The word is probably derived from an Indo-European root, meaning " youthful," found in Latin, Greek, English and Sanskrit. Some have suggested that the first two letters are from ὕειν, to rain, (cf. Hyades).