Wednesday, 10 July 2013


The Cypress Tree
Painting by Vincent Van Gogh
Considered the iconic tree of the Mediterranean, the symbol of the rolling hills of Tuscany or the rugged mountains of Greece, the humble cypress tree had a far more potent, and sinister, meaning to the Ancient Romans. Even today, journeying through Italy, you will find many a shadow of a cypress falling across a graveyard, a silent sentinel watching over the darker places of the world. Its characteristic pencil like form is never far away in this land, and rarely absent from the tourist's photograph. But why this mournful association? Why the favoured foliage of the afterlife? It all began with a story nearly two thousand years ago, the story of a young boy who would give the cypress its name, and its story...

Long ago, on the idyllic pastures of the island of Caea, there was bred a mighty stag, its stature and beauty never before known. In majesty and power, all of his kind he excelled. A wonder to behold, to the nymphs of Cartha he was sacred held. Dignity was written in his face, vast were his antlers, enough to grant him ample shade. The horns gilt seemed, as the sun beams danced of their shining points, casting all around in their radiant glow. So brilliantly burnished was his coat, it seemed as though all the precious stones of the world were embedded in every lock. Nature itself seemed to bow before his stride, and soon the fear of the locals was lost, and even strangers would come forth to pat his proffered neck.

But there was a young boy among the Caeans who adored him most. By all accounts an ordinary boy, blessed with no great strength of arm, divine beauty nor unearthly wit, but a heart of gold he hid within. A country boy, he cared nothing for the grand affairs of the world, but cared in abundance for what his eyes could see and ears could hear. An uncommon empathy he held too for all living things, for in the wild he lived, and learned to reside in peace with the creatures, and spirits of the forest. Then one day, came the regal stag, and all was changed:

       " Much was the beast by Caea's youth caress'd,
         But thou, sweet Cyparissus, lov'dst him best:
         By thee, to pastures fresh, he oft was led,
         By thee oft water'd at the fountain's head:
         His horns with garlands, now, by thee were ty'd,
         And, now, thou on his back wou'dst wanton ride;
         Now here, now there wou'dst bound along the plains,
         Ruling his tender mouth with purple reins. "

Cyparissus, Apollo & Hyacinthus
Painting by Alexander Ivanov
Many came before the stag awed by the beauty of its form. Cyparissus came, drawn by the beauty within, for he sensed a grace within, bound with his adoration of nature and al living things. Soon both boy and beast began a friendship such that man and loyal animal only can, like the shepherd and his faithful hound. Many a lazy afternoon could you find them, resting by a pool in the forest glades, retreating from the burning rays of Apollo's sun. Across the far reaching plains the boy and his stag would race, their contest the amusement of the gods high on Olympus. The villagers were puzzled, but delighted for young Cyparissus and his unconventional friendship, sensing the hand of the divine at work.

Then one day, Cyparissus went into the forest hunting, hoping to bring back some prize boar for his family, a spectacular feast indeed. A scorching summer day, the burning arms of the Sun pierced the foliage, and sweat fell from the boy's brow. His faithful companion had bounded joyfully ahead into the brush, bidding the boy on. But, suffering from the heat too, the mighty stag sought refuge in the shade of the bushes, laying his weary limbs across the grass. Suddenly, distracted, the boy heard the snort of a boar close by. Not twice does opportunity strike, not two moments does one wait when hunger strikes. Cyparissus levelled his spear and took his aim, wary of his nearby friend. Bringing back his hunting arm, he launched with all his might, but no! A bead of sweat brought forth from the fiery Sun fell into his eye. A stinging sensation swept his eye, and the boy blinked, and his aim went awry. A blood chilling cry rose to the skies, as Cyparissus rubbed his sore eye. The pain passed, he looked up, excited to find his quarry.

Cyparissus mourns
Painting by Jacopo Vignali
Horror swept through his mortal frame, and cold dread, when he saw no boar thrashing at the foot of the tree. Unknowingly, unwillingly, oblivious, Cyparissus had cast the deadly dart, but his worst nightmare had it transfixed upon its brazen point. There lay the mighty stag, and never a more tragic sight there lay. The hideous truth of his error laid bare, the young boy fell to his knees, tears welled up inside. The stag writhed in pain, blood spattering the forest floor, its cries rending the air. Frantically, Cyparissus tried to staunch the wound, but the hands of a boy are scarce enough to stem the flow of blood that gushed forth that day. Calling out in desperation, the folly dawned upon him, and his heart began to break. At last, the cries grew silent, the body still, and the stag lay motionless, its staring into the wilderness. Cyparissus howled to the skies. He would have taken his own life there and then, had not Phoebus Apollo, lord of the Sun, taken pity on the boy. Had not his burning rays caused the boy's aim to go wide... Cyparissus, determined to feel his guilt for all time, and expiate his crime, asked the god to allow him to mourn for all time. Himself fighting back his tears, Apollo granted his final wish, moved was he. The blood drained from the boy, his legs fused together, and leaves grew where one was his skin, and hard weeping bark underneath. A thin and lanky young boy, so too was the form of the tree which he took.

Apollo looked on in grief, and declared that this was ever after to be present at the ritual of mourning, and the tree was named. Cypress, the tree of mourning. Still today it watches over graves...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

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