The Amber Tears of Apollon and the Heliades

This blog post sprung into being largely in regards to a conversation on the subject of the amber tears of Apollon on my facebook page. The conversation began when I found a reference that I wish I had found when I was writing “The Name of Apollon” that I found a suggested name root proposed quite convincingly by Arthur Bernard Cook in his book “Zeus, A Study  in Ancient Religion.” He shows evidence that the Doric name for Apollon as Apellon (accent on the e) may have been derived from the word apellon (accent on the o) which refers to the black poplar. Poplars, as we know, are the very tree that the Heliades, the seven daughters of Helios, turned into in the grief for Phaeton’s death. This is the generally known myth regarding the source of amber. However, Apollodoros Rhodios tells us that the Keltoi (or more likely a known version that was attributed to the Keltoi as a distant foreign *exotic* people from the region that it was surmised that Hyperboreia was located) that the tears of amber were not from the Heliades, but were shed by Apollon in his exile.

This only gets confusing when we see the Apollodoros clearly confuses two myths in this reference to Apollon’s exile. One is the myth in which Apollon is cast down into slavery to Admetus for slaying the Cyclops in vengeance for the death of Asklepios, and the myth in which Apollon went into self imposed exile for slaying the dragon Delphyne.  When compared to the myth of Phaeton and the Heliades we have a very strong vein shared in common with the alternate version regarding Apollon, sorrowful death and destruction (Delphyne and Asklepios for Apollon, Phaeton for the Heliades) that is necessary for rebalance and ordering that which had the harmonic order disrupted. This is something I have addressed before when speaking of the tears of Siva and the tears of Apollon here.

In the case of Phaeton, the young son of Helios, the sun swinging wildly from its perfect course, out of harmony with the earth and the heavens caused the heavens to burn, the seas to dry up, and the earth to freeze. Zeus strikes him down to destroy the disruption. Zeus does likewise to Asklepios who disturbs the natural order of the cosmos by reversing death. Apollon, who is usually a rebalancing and destroyer of disruptions to harmonic order, in reaction slays the Cyclops smith of his father. Apollon too here is operating against his own nature and is cast into slavery as a corrective measure. Both exile and slavery serves a similar purification purpose in the Greek religion. Herakles himself submitted himself to a period of slavery for his purification. This is likely the purpose for the confusion of the two myths of Apollon. Not that the author got them confused, but it is likely an intentional identifying factor. Wether to his imposed slavery or self imposed exile, Apollon is weeping the tears of Amber for what  was done. It is grief and sorrow that all men express  for change that is necessary for maintain the order of nature. For death. It is that the thing for which men grieve, and when we have a god as close to humanity as Apollon who grieves likewise there is established a link of symbolism for us. It is a natural part of experience to grieve for our loss, and sorrow is part of mortal lot. It is a tool of  the mortal experience. The amber tears are sacred as the divine compassion and love that recognizes the necessary suffering and loss that occurs in life. The experience of sorrow is purifying in itself as we can understand when we are experience particular cathartic moments. This nature renders the amber as purifying itself like the laurel leaves.

If Cook is right and the Doric Apellon bares relation to the black poplar tree, this may be a link in the myth of Phaeton and the Heliades as being among his divine “court”? Likewise Dryope, a beloved consort of Apollon,  who became a nymph of the black poplar when carried off by the hamadryads and replaced with the tree much like Daphne as Cook points out. This could also be part of the symbolic root of the Agyieus stone at the entrance which may have represented the formless god similar to a black poplar trunk, in vein similar to their purpose of garlanding it with daphne leaves. The connection to the poplar with the entrance to the home could be considered in relation to the natural habitat in which the tree grew in loamy soil. As Apollon’s first original Pythion temple in Athens was in a rather swampy area this can give some obvious connection to those specific conditions being particular to Apollon in general, but the position of the Heliades in poplar form at the river bank is perhaps more precise in its symbolism….the border between land and sea. It could then be seen as appropriate to garland the Agyieus stone of the household with a string of amber.This can be especially useful for those who do not have the ability to garland it regularly with fresh laurel.

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