My photography class was asked this past term to do research. Originally the class was limited to researching an artist of their choosing, however this boundary was lifted and it was decided that we could research anything related to our practice. Some of us researched artists whose work we admired, while others researched techniques and materials.

I was interested in how “nature” could be represented in visual art. I spent a lot of time with the Oxford English Dictionary (last month I read Reading the OED) while doing research for this project. I spent many hours looking at the word heliotrope and how a plant which “turns its flowers and leaves towards the sun” has inspired so many.

Apollo’s lover, Clytie, was changed into a heliotrope so that she could follow Apollo, the sun God, as he crossed the sky. Christians have compared themselves to heliotropes, following God as if he were their sun. Bloodstone, also known as heliotrope, is type of quartz w/red spots caused by iron oxide. The red streaks were believed to have come from Jesus’ blood that fell on a piece of Jasper beneath the cross.


Heliotrope (the flower) and heliotrope (the type of quartz) were once ingredients in a middle-age potion. When placed in water, the iron oxide in the stone would turn the water red. The water would reflect light that, along with prayer, would control tempest. Heliotrope (the flower) was believed to cure sunstroke (as it could endure so much), and to make one invisible if one were to rub the plant’s juice over their entire body (maybe because Clytie was ignored by Apollo, but that seems like a stretch).

My favorite story of the heliotrope involves the philosopher/astronomer Thales. He was told by Pherecydes, another philosopher/astrologer, that the heliotrope can be used as a tool in astrological observations. Thales later became the first person to accurately predict a solar eclipse in 585 BCE. His prediction (possibly with the help of a heliotrope) halted the Battle of Halys. The battle marked the end of a 15 year war. The sudden change from day into night was seen as a sign from their Gods that they should make peace. Because eclipses can be calculated, the battle is the earliest historical event where the date is known with such precision.

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