Stories from around the world tell how even the messy things that deities produce are valuable and important. In Shinto myth the god Izanagi has two deities come out of his eyes and another from his nose. The ancient Egyptian deities Shu and Tefnut were born from Atum’s masturbation.
So it’s no surprise that a goddess’ tears would take the form of amber or gold. In fact, three different stories tell how valuable a weeping goddess could be.
Greece: Sisters in Mourning
The best-known of these is probably the ancient Greek story of the Heliades, daughters of the sun-god Helios. They mourned for their brother, who was killed when he tried to drive his father’s solar chariot.
Phaethon’s body fell to earth in the river Eridanus. His sisters the Heliades stood by its banks weeping until they turned into poplar trees; their tears became amber when they landed in the water:
… So their tears still
Flow on, and oozing from the new-made boughs,
Drip and are hardened in the sun to form
Amber and then the clear stream catches them
And carries them for Roman brides to wear.
(Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Kennedy’s trans.)
In this version Phaethon’s mother, the nymph Clymene, must first find where his body came to earth, so she searches the world for him before finally coming to the Eridanus. This connects up with a Baltic myth about the sun-goddess.
Baltic States: Don’t Upset the Sun
The Lithuanian and Latvian sun-goddess Saule is a weeper; she cries frequently in the folksongs, or dainas, which preserve much of the mythology. She bursts into tears in the face of injustice; she also weeps when a zaltys (grass snake) is harmed, and her tears turn to amber as a reminder.
A group of folksongs record a myth closer to the Heliades’ story: in it Saule’s daughter is getting married, but as the thunder-god Perkunas leaves her wedding procession, he shatters a golden oak. Saule spends five years gathering the pieces, and then plants them. They do not grow, however, and she weeps. (Olcott: 9) This has an odd family resemblance to the myth of Clymene and Phaethon.
Saule’s tears are sometimes red berries, or rowan berries; one folksong says:
behind the Daugava there are dark forests with red berries.
These are not the berries of the earth they are the tears of Saule.” (Olcott: 8)
This may seem odd, but rowan is a powerful, magical tree in northern Europe, so it reinforces the idea that a deity’s tears have virtue people’s don’t.
Scandinavia: Searching for Odr
The Norse goddess Freyja weeps red gold for her missing husband, Odr. (You may have wondered what exactly red gold is. Apparently it is gold with a copper alloy. This seems to have been highly prized, perhaps because of the colour.) It’s often stated that Freyja weeps amber on the water, and gold on the land, but that’s not what Snorri says in the Poetic Edda:
She was married to someone called Od. Hnoss is the name of their daughter. She is so beautiful that from her name whatever is beautiful and precious is called hnossir [treasures]. Od went on long travels, and Freyia stayed behind weeping, and her tears were red gold.
The idea that her tears become amber when they touch water seems to be Donald MacKenzie’s.
While Freyja is not a sun-goddess, nor the close relative of one, the connection with treasure, the precious tears, and the loss of family have suggested a connection between her and the sun-goddess Sol. (The myth of Brisingamen is another such.) This is speculation, certainly, but since the god Freyr has power to make the sun shine and rain fall, it’s not unlikely that his sister had some association with the sun.
The basic storyline is still there: the loss of a loved one, the tears, and the transmutation of pain into something precious.1 If we accept the argument that the original Indo-European solar deity was female, maybe this was one of her myths.
There is another possibility. Phaethon fell into the Eridanus, which some located in Hyperborea, the land beyond the north wind.
Not surprisingly, from the time of Ovid onward many have connected the weeping Heliades with the amber that flowed from the north to Mediterranean markets. I can’t help but wonder if the story of a bright, beautiful goddess who wept precious tears came south along with the golden resin.
1. I like John Lindow’s comment on the case against Odin being Odr: Odin travels a lot, but no one seems to miss him. (Lindow: 247)↩
Ovid/ Melville, A.D. and E.J. Kenney 2008: Metamorphoses, Oxford World Classics, OUP.
Lindow, John, 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
Olcott, Marianini Demetri 2013: “Electron: Greek Etymology and Baltic Mythology”, Faculty Publications, San Jose University. (pdf here)