This peculiar illustration, created by the German artist Johann Wilhelm Baur (c. 1600-1642), recreates a sad myth about the Heliades—a name given to the daughters of the sun-god, Helios. In the scene shown above, the Heliades mourn for their young brother, Phaëthon, who was struck down by Zeus’ lightning after the presumptuous young man tried (and spectacularly failed) to drive Helios’ chariot of the sun. What happened next differs from storyteller to storyteller, with some describing the fate of the Heliades as a mercy, others framing it as a punishment, and further storytellers describing it as a neutral and spontaneous occurrence. Whatever the case, the Heliades were said to have been suddenly transformed into poplar trees as they mourned around their brother’s grave. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), who opted to portray the event as a torment upon torment, gruesomely described the scene:
“The sisters had done their lamenting as usual (constant practice
had turned into a habit), when Phaëthusa, the eldest,
wishing to sink to the ground, complained that her feet had gone cold
and rigid. When lovely Lampátië tried to come and assist her,
her limbs were suddenly rooted fast to the place where she stood.
A third who was making ready to tear her innocent tresses,
found she was plucking off leaves. Then one of her sisters moaned
that her legs were caught in the grip of a tree trunk, just as the other
woefully cried that her arms were changing into lengthy branches.
To crown their amazement, bark began to enclose their loins,
and gradually covered their bellies, their bosoms, their shoulders and arms,
till all that appeared was their pleading mouths calling out for their mother.
What was a mother to do but scurry about back and forth,
wherever her impulse led her, and kiss their lips while she could?
It wasn’t enough. She attempted to strip the bark from their bodies
and break the young branches off with her hands, but all that emerged
was a trickle of human blood, like drops from an open wound.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2.345-360).
Such is the myth that inspired Johann Wilhelm Baur’s illustration. Unfortunately, the sorrows of the abovementioned mother, Clymene, would not end with the smiting of her son, Phaëthon, and the transformation of the Heliades into poplar trees. Another of Clymene’s relatives, named Cycnus, was similarly transformed into a swan.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.