Helianthus annuus, the Sunflower

It’s 2 weeks until the first Sensing Symbiosis event!

Seeing as we’ve been sweltering in a heatwave for most of the past two months, it feels appropriate to take a look at Helianthus annuus, the Sunflower.

The sunflower head is actually a composite flower, with many little florets making up the whole. The golden heads seem to me to radiate joyful energy, and it’s no surprise that it’s associated astrologically with Leo (one of the fire signs), as a field of the flowers resembles hundreds of tiny lions turning their shaggy faces up to the sun.

Strangely, the folklore commonly associated with the sunflower is not particularly cheerful.
The Aztecs called them ‘shield flowers’ and incorporated them widely in their rituals as offerings to Huitzilopochtli the god of war.

Darker than this is the Greek myth of Clytie and Helios. This myth was originally associated with the Turnsole, or Heliotrope, but later became attached to the Sunflower because of the common belief that they exhibit ‘heliotropism’- that is, the flowers will turn to follow the passage of the sun. In fact, only the immature flowers do so, while the mature blooms will eventually position themselves fixed in an east-facing position.

Clytie was a water nymph, and she was in love with Helios, the Sun. Some versions of the tale say she only loved him from afar, others that he toyed with her affections before dropping her. Either way, Clytie did not take rejection well, and when Helios got together with her sister Leucothea, she totally lost the plot.

Instead of coping with heartbreak in the usual way – by getting drunk with the Manaeds, writing terrible epic poetry, possibly having an ill-advised hook-up with a Satyr and crying on her fellow nymphs’ shoulders – Clytie decided to get revenge. She told her father about Leucothea’s love affair, and he responded by having her ‘defiled’ sister buried alive in the sand.

Having got her sister and rival out of the way, Clytie hoped that Helios’ affections would return to her. Unsurprisingly, ‘sociopathic murderer’ is not a particularly attractive look, and the grieving Helios refused to see her again.

This just fuelled the fire of Clytie’s obsession with Helios. She climbed to the top of a mountain and stripped off all her clothes. There she sat, neither moving, nor speaking, nor blinking. Just staring unceasingly at Helios the Sun, as he travelled past each day, untouchably far above her in the sky.

After nine days and nine nights, the gods took pity on her and changed her into a turnsole/sunflower, so that she could continue to watch the sun. I also think they did this because they thought she was clearly a liability and wanted to prevent her from doing any more damage!

Moral of the story: don’t mess with Nymphs.

The Victorians used to present this as a beautiful tale of unconditional love, but I see it more as an early stalking saga. Folklore and all its weirdnesses, and what that tells us about the people and the culture of those that told them, is a source of endless fascination to me, and I can’t wait to share more of this with you all at Sensing Symbiosis.

Join us for the first session on September 2nd in Bristol!