The myth of Apollo and Daphne is a story describing what happens when lust faces rejection. It’s a tale about the power of love, the power of Cupid (or Eros in Greek) who can even blind the most powerful amongst the Greek Gods. In the myth, Apollo falls madly in love with Daphne, a woman sworn to remain a virgin. Apollo hunts Daphne who refuses to accept his advances. Right at the moment he catches her, she turns into a laurel tree, a scene famously depicted in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne sculpture.
The Myth Of Apollo And Daphne
The earliest source of this famous transformation myth is Parthenius, a Greek poet who lived during the 1st century BCE. Another notable source is Pausanias, a Greek travel writer of the 2nd CE century. However, the most lyrical attempt at presenting Apollo and Daphne’s story was carried out by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses a collection of Greek fables written in 8 CE.
In this article, we will first explore the story as told by Ovid. Afterward, we will take a look at the other versions. The final section will briefly present Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne famous sculpture.
Apollo Slays The Python And Offends Cupid
The story of Apollo and Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (I.438-567) took place right after Apollo killed the Python, the great snake that terrorized mankind. Apollo, called Phoebus by Ovid, pierced the Python with 1,000 arrows and founded the sacred Pythian Games named after the serpent. The sanctuary of Delphi, home to the famous oracle, called Pythia, was built on top of the Python’s dead body.
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After his triumph over such a powerful enemy, Apollo was full of arrogance. Seeing the god of love, Eros, better known as cupid, who was also a famous bowman, Apollo started making fun of him:
“Impudent boy, what are you doing with a man’s weapons?”
Cupid was often depicted as a winged boy which explains Apollo’s comment. Apollo felt that Cupid was stealing his glory by gaining fame as a famous archer. Having defeated the Python, he believed that he and only he was worthy of holding a bow and a quiver:
“I can hit wild beasts of a certainty, and wound my enemies, and not long ago destroyed with countless arrows the swollen Python that covered many acres with its plague-ridden belly. You should be intent on stirring the concealed fires of love with your burning brand, not laying claim to my glories!”
Cupid’s Reaction To Apollo’s Remarks
Cupid did not take the offense lightheartedly:
“You may hit every other thing Phoebus, but my bow will strike you: to the degree that all living creatures are less than gods, by that degree is your glory less than mine.”
The next thing Cupid did was something Apollo did not see coming. The god of love stroke his wings and flew right next to the god of music. He then shot him on the chest with a “golden arrow with a sharp glistening point”. This arrow did not kill or hurt Apollo. The true injury was not corporeal, it was sentimental, but Apollo would learn that soon.
With a second arrow, a “blunt one with lead beneath its shaft”, Cupid shot Daphne, a nymph who also happened to be a virgin huntress of the goddess Artemis. Daphne was very beautiful and many men came to ask her hand. However, she was devoted to hunting and following the laws of the goddess Artemis, who demanded chastity and virginity. Ovid writes that her father, the river god Peneus, disagreed with her life and asked her to settle down and give him grandchildren:
“It is my due, child of my heart, to be given grandchildren”, said Peneus.
“Dearest father, let me be a virgin forever! Diana’s father granted it to her”, Daphne always replied.
Apollo’s Love Meets Daphne’s Disgust: A Tragic Dead-End
Coming back to Cupid’s arrows, they both had special abilities. The one that hit Apollo, was an arrow of love and intense passion. The moment he got hit by the arrow, Apollo spotted Daphne hunting in the wild and unable to contain his passion went after her. However, the arrow that hit Daphne, was an arrow that filled the nymph’s heart with disgust for the god who appeared in front of her.
Cupid’s revenge was cruel. Apollo was madly in love with a woman who hated him with every ounce of her being.
Apollo’s love for Daphne was so strong that the god of prophecy was unable to foretell his future but still, his emotions were uncontrollable. He approached the nymph whom he now saw more beautiful and virtuous than she actually was. He started praising her again and again. But Daphne could not even stand his presence. Before Apollo could even get a proper response, Daphne had fled.
Apollo Chases Daphne
“Wait nymph, daughter of Peneus, I beg you!”, screamed Apollo but Daphne did not even look back.
The god kept begging Daphne to stop. He tried to explain that he posed no threat to her and that his intentions were good:
“I who am chasing you am not your enemy. Nymph, Wait! This is the way a sheep runs from the wolf, a deer from the mountain lion, […] but it is love that is driving me to follow you! Pity me!”
The chase went on as Apollo was becoming more and more paranoid. He was afraid that Daphne might fall and get hurt. In a hopeless attempt to make her stop he started explaining to her who he was. Besides, he was the god of beauty, prophecy, medicine, and music, no woman should be able to resist him:
“Rash girl, you do not know, you cannot realize, who you run from, and so you run. Delphi’s lands are mine, Claros and Tenedos, and Patara acknowledges me, king. Jupiter (Zeus) is my father. Through me what was, what is, and what will be, are revealed. Through me, strings sound in harmony, to the song. My aim is certain, but an arrow truer than mine has wounded my free heart! The whole world calls me the bringer of aid; medicine is my invention; my power is in herbs. But love cannot be healed by any herb, nor can the arts that cure others cure their lord!”
The Tragic Conclusion
“Like a hound of Gaul starting a hare in an empty field, that heads for its prey, she for safety”
With these words Ovid (Metamorphoses 525-550) describes Apollo and Daphne’s chase as the story was nearing its tragic conclusion.
Apollo focused on catching Daphne. He was running and running while the nymph could see that she was getting closer and closer to getting caught. At times Apollo could almost grab her but she escaped him at the last second. However, it was becoming clear that Daphne would be caught sooner or later. As moments passed Daphne was becoming exhausted. And then, finally, Apollo grabbed her:
“So the virgin and the god: he driven by desire, she by fear. He ran faster, Amor giving him wings, and allowed her no rest, hung on her fleeing shoulders, breathed on the hair flying round her neck. Her strength was gone, she grew pale, overcome by the effort of her rapid flight”
Right at that moment Daphne saw the waters of her father’s river, Peneus and screamed:
“Help me father! If your streams have divine powers change me, destroy this beauty that pleases too well!”
Peneus helped his daughter who was now firmly in the hands of Apollo. Daphne started transforming into a tree. Her hair became leaves, her arms branches, and her legs roots. Before Apollo could have a look at her face, she was gone. The only thing standing where Daphne stood was a beautiful laurel tree (literally a daphne tree in Greek).
Apollo’s Love Never Dies
Even after Daphne’s transformation, Apollo’s love did not wither away. The god took the leaves of the tree in his hands and kissed the wood of the tree. He then whispered:
“Since you cannot be my bride, you must be my tree! Laurel, with you my hair will be wreathed, with you my lyre, with you my quiver. You will go with the Roman generals when joyful voices acclaim their triumph, and the Capitol witnesses their long processions. You will stand outside Augustus’s doorposts, a faithful guardian, and keep watch over the crown of oak between them. And just as my head with its uncropped hair is always young, so you also will wear the beauty of undying leaves.”
And truly since then, the laurel became the sacred tree of Apollo. In the Delphi, the oracle would chew laurel leaves before receiving the divine wisdom that she translated into a prophecy. Also, the prize of the Pythian Games, the second most important Games in antiquity after the Olympics was a crown of laurel.
Other Versions Of The Myth
According to Parthenius, Daphne was the daughter of Amyclas (and not of Peneus) and lived in a group of women loyal to Artemis. As followers of Artemis, they had to retain their virginity and, consequently, no men were allowed in their ranks. However, Leucippus the son of Oenomaus, the king of Pisa, fell in love with Daphne.
To approach Daphne, Leucippus dressed like a woman and became her best friend living amongst the followers of Artemis. But Apollo who was also in love with Daphne and envious of Oenomaus used his divine powers to make Daphne want to bathe in a stream. When they arrived, Daphne and her female attendants stripped, but Oenomaus refused. Using force, the women tore his clothes. When they realized that it was a man that was with them all along, they immediately attacked him with their spears. This was not the end of Daphne’s misfortunes. Apollo, just like in Ovid, fell in love with the nymph and went after her. In this version, Daphne turned into a tree after she prayed to Zeus (and not to Peneus).
Pausanias, a Greek travel writer of the 2nd century CE, presents the same story as the above but with Daphne as the daughter of the river Ladon.
Hyginus, a contemporary of Pausanias, wrote that Daphne begged for protection from Gaia (Earth) who turned her into a tree.
Bernini’s Apollo And Daphne
The story of Apollo and Daphne has been particularly popular amongst visual artists throughout the ages. The transformation of a woman into a tree posed a true challenge to all those who wanted to prove that they could transcend the greatest problem in art; the depiction of movement. If nothing else, visually, that is exactly what the final act of Apollo and Daphne’s myth is about, rapid movement. Apollo is chasing Daphne who, moments before giving up, screams to her father for protection. The two protagonists are still moving as Daphne gradually transforms into a tree.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne (c. 1622-1625) sculpture managed to capture this moment perfectly. The sculptor also managed to create an unparalleled work of art that is still admired for its movement and grace. Apollo grabs Daphne and his hands almost seem like they are grabbing a real person. The desperation in Daphne’s eyes is evident as she can tell that she has been caught. At the same time, her hands are just starting to turn into branches.
Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne is righteously considered a masterpiece. One can almost feel Apollo’s desperation as his beloved one is transforming into a tree as well as Daphne’s transition from fear to relief. It is a very rare case for a sculpture to capture movement in such a way that one can almost see a whole scene unraveling, and Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne is certainly one of these rare cases.