Ancient peoples created origin myths for all sorts of objects—amber gemstones included. Greco-Roman storytellers created a sad myth about the origin of the honey-colored stone, connecting its origin directly to the gods. According to their tale, the creation of amber was linked to a depressing series of events surrounding the sun-god, Helios. As the story goes, Helios and a female deity named Clymene had a son named Phaëthon, as well as many daughters (known collectively as the Heliades). Phaëthon was a tragically presumptuous and arrogant figure, who had an unhealthy eagerness to prove himself a worthy heir to his sun-god father. Phaëthon’s excessive need to put his self-worth to the test eventually led him into disaster. According to myth, Helios was convinced or tricked by his son to relinquish control of the sun for a day. Phaëthon wanted to prove that he, like his father, could successfully steer the chariot of the sun on its daily celestial journey. Hoping to succeed in his endeavor, the ambitious youth readied the chariot of the sun and its fire-breathing horses, then set off on a doomed journey that would have grave repercussions for himself and his family. Not long into his flight, Phaëthon was said to have lost control of his father’s chariot, and as a result, the untamed sun set the earth alight. To protect the world, the highest god, Zeus, had to disable the chariot with a bolt of his mighty lighting. Although this saved the planet, it also killed Phaëthon. While the rest of the gods rejoiced, Helios, Clymene, and the Heliades mourned for their lost loved one.
A new chapter in the story soon began when Clymene and the Heliades tracked down the site where Phaëthon’s remains fell. They built him a tomb and spent months grieving at the youth’s resting place. The bizarre tale of what happened next differs from storyteller to storyteller, with some describing it as a mercy, others framing it as a punishment, and still other storytellers describing it as a neutral and spontaneous occurrence. Whatever the case, Phaëthon’s sisters, the Heliades, were said to have been suddenly transformed into poplar trees while they mourned for their brother. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), skillfully described the sad metamorphosis of the Heliades:
“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).
By the end of their transformation, the once humanoid bodies of the Heliades were completely changed into full-fledged poplar trees. From their earlier forms, all that the Heliades retained was the ability to bleed from their wounds and weep sappy tears from their newfound bark. As the story goes, these teardrops from the distraught Heliades poplars became the first pieces of amber. On this, Ovid wrote, “the tears flowed on; as they dripped from the new-formed poplars, the sun’s rays set them to beads of amber, which fell in the gleaming river, who sent them to be worn by the brides of Látium” (Metamorphoses, 2.364-366). The Heliades and their saplings reportedly kept up their tradition, annually mourning over Phaëthon together. A Greek-Sicilian historian by the name of Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE) continued this story, writing, “These poplars, at the same season each year, drip tears, and these, when they harden, form what men call amber, which in brilliance excels all else of the same nature and is commonly used in connection with the mourning attending the death of the young” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 5.23).
Of course, the tale recounted here is simply an origin myth, and even the aforementioned Diodorus Siculus bluntly stated that “the creators of this fictitious tale [about the Heliades amber] have one and all erred” (Library of History, 5.23). In reality, amber is fossilized resin that takes millions of years to form. Nevertheless, the story of the mourning Heliades and their amber tears remains interesting and worth retelling.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Etruscan amber artifact and an amber stone, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Smithsonian, and the MET.jpg).
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).