THE METAMORPHOSIS OF KYPARISSOS
Kyparissos was in Greek myth a beautiful boy who lived on the island of Chios in the Aegean. He was one of the two boys known to have been loved by the god Apollo, at least according to the fullest and best-known account by Ovid, though, as will be seen, there was confusion about which god loved him. All, however, agree that he was transformed through grief into the tree of his name, cypress in English, a classical symbol of mourning. Here follow all the ancient writings about him in chronological order.
P. Vergilius Maro, Georgics I 20
Virgil was the most famous Roman poetof the first century BC. His Georgics, written in perfect hexameters, was finished not long before 29 BC. The translation is by G. P. Goold in the Loeb Classical Library volume LXIII (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1916), pp. 100-1.
In a long list of gods invoked by the poet:
|[…] and you, Silvanus, with a young uprooted cypress in your hand;||[…] et teneram ab radice ferens, Silvane, cupressum;|
Ovid was a Roman poet. His most famous work, the Metamorphoses, in fifteen books, finished in AD 8, tells of transformations in Greek and Roman mythology. The following is the first of the three boy-love stories in it.
The translation is by Allen Mandelbaum in his The Metamorphoses of Ovid: A New Verse Translation, 1993. The Latin comes from the Loeb Classical Library volume XLIII (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1916), pp. 70-74. Contrary to usual practice on this website, it is presented below instead of alongside so as not to upset the lay-out of the translator’s fine verse.
The story opens with the grief-stricken singer-musician Orpheus, “the poet” of the third line, having returned from the underworld, from which he had narrowly failed to rescue his wife Eurydike. During the ensuing years, “Orpheus had shrunk from loving any woman, either because of his unhappy experience, or because he had pledged himself not to do so.” Though many wished to marry him, “Orpheus preferred to centre his affection on boys of tender years, and to enjoy the brief spring and early flowering of their youth.” Explaining this is Ovid’s cue for telling a few boy-love stories, of which this is the first. When Orpheus sat down on a hill and played his lyre, one by one various trees came to him …
The cone-shaped cypress joined this crowd of trees:
though now a tree, it once had been a boy—
the boy beloved by the god who makes
the bowstring and the lyre's strings vibrate.
For, sacred to the nymphs who make their home
on the Carthaean plain, a stag once roamed—
a stately stag whose antlers were so broad
that they provided ample shade for him.
Those antlers gleamed with gold; down to his
chest, a collar rich with gems hung from his neck;
upon his forehead, dangling from thin thongs,
there was a silver boss, one he had worn
from birth; against his hollow temples glowed
pearl earrings. And that stag forgot his own
timidity and, without fear, approached
the homes of men; he let his neck be stroked
by all—yes, even those he did not know.
But, Cyparissus, it was you to whom~
he was most dear. You, handsomest of all
the Ceans, let him out to pastures new
and to the waters of the purest springs.
Now you weave varied garlands for his horns;
or, seated like a horseman on his back—
now here, now there—you ride him joyfully
with purple reins that guide his tender mouth.
But once, at high noon on a summer day,
when, heated by the sun's most torrid rays,
the curving claws of the shore-loving Crab
were blazing on the grassy ground, the stag
lay down to rest, to seek cool woodland shade.
And it was then that, accidentally,
a javelin's sharp shaft—it had been cast
by Cyparissus—pierced the stag; the wound
was fierce, the stag was dying: and at that,
the boy was set on dying, too. Oh, Phoebus
tried words that could console the boy: indeed
he urged him to restrain his grief, to keep
some sense of measure. But the boy did not
relent; he moaned still more; he begged the gods
to grant this greatest gift. to let him grieve
forever. As his lifeblood drained away
with never-ending tears, his limbs began
to take a greenish cast; and the soft hair
that used to cluster on his snow-white brow
became a bristling crest. The boy was now
a rigid tree with frail and spiring crown
that gazes on the heavens and the stars.
The god, in sadness, groaned. He said: "I'll mourn
for you, and you shall mourn for others—and
beside the mourners, you shall always stand.”
Adfuit huic turbae metas imitata cupressus,
nunc arbor, puer ante deo dilectus ab illo,
qui citharam nervis et nervis temperat arcum.
namque sacer nymphis Carthaea tenentibus arva
ingens cervus erat, lateque patentibus altas
ipse suo capiti praebebat cornibus umbras.
cornua fulgebant auro, demissaque in armos
pendebant tereti gemmata monilia collo.
bulla super frontem parvis argentea loris
vincta movebatur; parilesque ex aere nitebant
auribus e geminis circum cava tempora bacae;
isque metu vacuus naturalique pavore
deposito celebrare domos mulcendaque colla
quamlibet ignotis manibus praebere solebat.
sed tamen ante alios, Ceae pulcherrime gentis,
gratus erat, Cyparisse, tibi: tu pabula cervum
ad nova, tu liquidi ducebas fontis ad undam,
tu modo texebas varios per cornua flores,
nunc eques in tergo residens huc laetus et illuc
mollia purpureis frenabas ora capistris.
Aestus erat mediusque dies, solisque vapore
concava litorei fervebant bracchia Cancri:
fessus in herbosa posuit sua corpora terra
cervus et arborea frigus ducebat ab umbra.
hunc puer inprudens iaculo Cyparissus acuto
fixit et, ut saevo morientem vulnere vidit,
velle mori statuit. quae non solacia Phoebus
dixit et, ut leviter pro materiaque doleret,
admonuit! gemit ille tamen munusque supremum
hoc petit a superis, ut tempore lugeat omni.
iamque per inmensos egesto sanguine fletus
in viridem verti coeperunt membra colorem,
et, modo qui nivea pendebant fronte capilli,
horrida caesaries fieri sumptoque rigore
sidereum gracili spectare cacumine caelum.
ingemuit tristisque deus “lugebere nobis
lugebisque alios aderisque dolentibus” inquit.
Maurus Servius Honoratus, Commentaries on the Works of Vergil
Servius was a late 4th to early 5th century grammarian who wrote commentaries on the works of Virgil. They were only ever published in full as In Vergilii carmina comentarii. Servii Grammatici qui feruntur in Vergilii carmina commentarii edited by Georgius Thilo and Hermannus Hagen, 3 volumes, Leipzig, 1881-1902.
Eclogues X 26
Explaining a mention of Silvanus (but not the tree or boy Kyparissos):
|[…] for Apollo loved Daphne, Pan Syrinx, and Silvanus Kyparissos.||[…] nam Apollo amavit Daphnen, Pan Syringa, Silvanus Cupressum.|
Georgics I 20
Commenting on Vergil invoking the god Silvanus “with a young uprooted cypress in your hand”, as quoted above:
|Silvanus loved a boy named Cyparissus who had a tame deer. When Silvanus unintentionally killed her, the boy was consumed by sorrow. The lover-god turned him into the tree that has his name, which he is said to carry as a consolation.||Hic amavit puerum Cyparissum nomine, qui habebat mansuetissimam cervam. hanc cum Silvanus nescius occidisset, puer est extinctus dolore: quem amator deus in cupressum arborem nominis eius vertit, quam pro solacio portare dicitur.|
Aeneid III 64
Commenting on Vergil having written that when Polydorus was killed, “altars are set up to the dead, made mournful with sombre ribbons and black cypress”:
|BLACK CYPRESS. The tale about the cypress is of this kind: the boy Cyparissus was holding a stag in great affection and was himself loved by Apollo. Inadvertently he killed his stag with a javelin, and while he mourned this, disregarding the comfort of Apollo, he was consumed with grief; so that his memory should be alive, he was transformed into a mournful tree, the cypress, which is used for the dead.||ATRA CUPRESSO fabula [autem] de cupresso talis est: cum haberet in deliciis Cyparissus puer cervum et ipse ab Apolline diligeretur, inprudens cervum suum iaculo occidit, eumque dum luget neglecta consolatione Apollinis, dolore consumptus est; cuius ut exstaret memoria, in luctuosam arborem, id est cupressum, mutatus est, quae defunctis adhibetur.|
Aeneid III 680
Commenting on Virgil’s phrase “even as when on a mountaintop lofty oaks or cone-clad cypresses stand in mass”:
|Kyparissos, however, was the son of Telephos, loved by Apollo or, say others, by Silvanus. He captured a stag, asleep under a certain tree, weary from the heat, which he held in great affection, but suddenly awoken by a noise, believing it wild, he killed it with a javelin thrown in ignorance, by excessively weeping for which he earned the compassion of the gods; and so he was changed into a cypress tree, apt and consecrated with tears and lamentation. Consequently, cypresses, as if infernal, either because felled they are not born again, or because among the Athenians they are concealed from the front of the house as mournful. Others recount that this Kyparissos was the most beautiful and chaste Cretan boy, whom certain people wish loved by Apollo, not a few by Zephyros. He wished to retain his chastity uncorrupted: abandoning Crete, he is said to have come to the river Orontes and Mount Casius, and there to have changed into a cypress, which tree is for that reason consecrated to the dead, because once killed it doesn’t know how to be born again.||Cyparissus autem Telephi filius fuit, amatus ab Apolline, vel ut alii, a Silvano. qui cum lassatus aestu sub quadam arbore somnum caperet, subito strepitu excitatus cervum, quem in deliciis habebat, feram credens per ignorantiam misso telo occidisset, flendo nimium misericordiam meruit numinum, itaque in arborem cupressum conversus est, aptam et consecratam lacrimis et luctibus. ergo cupressi quasi infernae, vel quia succisae non renascuntur, vel quia apud Atticos funestae domus huius fronde velantur. alii hunc Cyparissum Cretensem puerum pulcherrimum et castissimum fuisse [tradunt], quem quidam ab Apolline, non nulli a Zephyro amatum volunt. qui cum castitatem suam incorruptam tenere cuperet, relicta Creta ad Orontem fluvium et montem Casium dicitur pervenisse, atque ibi in cypressum arborem commutatus, quae arbor ideo mortuis consecratur, quod caesa semel nescit renasci.|
Nonnos, Dionysiaka XI 361-365
Nonnos of Panapolis was a Greek epic poet whose main work, the Dionysiaka, a life of Dionysos, was written in the 5th century AD.
The translation is by W. H. D. Rouse in the Loeb Classical Library volume CCCLXIV (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1940) pp. 382-5.
Here another god, Seilenos, is advising Dionysos, who is heart-broken over the death of his loved-boy Ampelos:
|If you need a pain-healing medicine for your trouble, court a better boy: fancy can wither fancy. A young Laconian shook Zephyros; but he died, and the amorous Wind found young Cyparissos a consolation for Amyclaian Hyacinthos.||εἰ δὲ τεῆς ἐθέλεις ὀδυνήφατον ἄλκαρ ἀνίης, φέρτερον ἄμφεπε παῖδα· πόθος πόθον οἶδε μαραίνειν. καὶ Ζέφυρον κλονέεσκε Λάκων νέος· ἀλλὰ θανόντος ἡβητὴν Κυπάρισσον ἰδὼν ἐρατεινὸς Ἀήτης εὗρεν Ἀμυκλαίοιο παραιφασίην Ὑακίνθου.|
 Prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Mary M. Innes (Penguin, Hamondsworth, 1955) p. 227.
 The “young Laconian” was Hyakinthos and the god Zephyros was “the amorous wind”, so the meaning is that Zephyros found consolation for the death of one loved-boy (Hyakinthos) by loving another (Kyparissos).