Amber Legends

The Heliades - Sisters of the Sun, born to father Phoebus, God of the Sun and mother Clymene, a nymph. They live forever now as poplar trees, weeping amber tears for the loss of their brother, Phaeton...

The weeping sister treesPhaeton's father (Phoebus, god of the Sun) allowed him to drive the Chariot of the Sun across the sky, but it was too much for young Phaeton, as it would have been for any but Phoebus. As the sisters mourned they found themselves turned to poplar trees, and ever after wept tears of golden amber.

Here the Heliades are shown in their transforming moment of misery, accompanied by their mother, Clymene, frenzied for her inability to save them. Although three sisters are portrayed here, Ovid seems to name at least five sisters in his telling of their famous ending...

    ....And all the daughters of the Sun went there
    giving their tears, alas a useless gift;--
    they wept and beat their breasts, and day and night
    called, "Phaethon," who heard not any sound
    of their complaint:--and there they lay foredone,
    all scattered round the tomb.

    The silent moon
    had four times joined her horns and filled her disk,
    while they, according to an ancient rite,
    made lamentation. Prone upon the ground,
    the eldest, Phaethusa, would arise
    from there, but found her feet were growing stiff;
    and uttered moan. Lampetia wished to aid
    her sister but was hindered by new roots;
    a third when she would tear her hair, plucked forth
    but leaves: another wailed to find her legs
    were fastened in a tree; another moaned
    to find her arms to branches had been changed.

    And while they wondered, bark enclosed their thighs,
    and covered their smooth bellies, and their breasts,
    and shoulders and their hands, but left untouched
    their lips that called upon their mother's name.

    What can she do for them? Hither she runs
    and thither runs, wherever frenzy leads.
    She kisses them, alas, while yet she may!
    But not content with this, she tried to hale
    their bodies from the trees; and she would tear
    the tender branches with her hands, but lo!
    The blood oozed out as from a bleeding wound;
    and as she wounded them they shrieked aloud,
    "Spare me! O mother spare me; in the tree
    my flesh is torn! farewell! farewell! farewell!"
    And as they spoke the bark enclosed their lips.

    Their tears flow forth, and from the new-formed boughs
    amber distils and slowly hardens in the sun;
    and far from there upon the waves is borne
    to deck the Latin women.

To enjoy the full text of this work, visit the Perseus project pages for Ovid's entire work, and Bullfinch's Mythology pages for another telling of the story of Phaeton and his family.

 

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