Daphne and Apollo

Boasting of his defeating Python and establishing his oracle at Delphi, the son god Apollo tells Cupid to put away his bow and arrows because there is no way the son of Venus could match the son of Zeus as an archer.

Like his mother, Cupid has a quick temper, and he means to bring down Apollo for his arrogance.  To settle the score, he fires a golden arrow into Apollo to quicken love and a leaden arrow in to the beautiful Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus, to deaden love.

So of course Apollo falls in love with Daphne and pursues her.  He begs her to stop running from him, declaring:  “I am/the one who has invented medicine,/but now there is no herb to cure my passion; my art, which helps all men, can’t heal its master.”

But Daphne will remain a virgin.  She doesn’t want whatever Apollo has to offer.  She runs on until Apollo is within reach of her, when she begs her father, “‘Help me, dear father; if the river-gods/have any power, then transform, dissolve/my gracious shape, the form that pleased too well.” 

Daphne metamorphoses into a laurel tree as Apollo’s hand is upon her heart.  Her gain would be his loss, but she gains again; Apollo loves her so much that he honors her by wearing her leaves, which become a symbol of victory.  He tells her she is his tree.

That is a win-win situation, and it is a tragedy.  It’s a win-win because Apollo remains Apollo and Daphne remains Daphne.  There is no rape, no imprisonment, no being carried away.  Apollo is responding to his nature as the son of Zeus and Leto; he has tremendous power but also tremendous compassion--and his love is genuine.  Daphne is responding to her nature as the daughter of Peneus and Ge (Gaia).  Child of a river god and Mother Earth herself, she has “no surrender” tattooed to her soul. 

And off she goes until she feels Apollo’s hand on her heart.  She cries out to her father that she might protect her integrity.  He responds:  he turns her into a laurel tree.

I wonder how that felt to Apollo as he finally felt her warm and beautiful body in his hands.

That moment passes, though,and there she is:  a laurel tree with a lover who promises to wear her leaves everywhere.  The laurel wreath thus becomes a symbol of victory.

Myth expert Joseph Campbell calls this a tragedy because Daphne refuses the life-generating force of Apollo.  I think Campbell sees tragedy because he is focused on Apollo.  Focus on Daphne, and you see life itself impelled by the desire to be just that at all costs.  Freedom has a price, and Daphne pays it.  The tragedy?  Her father, who loves her and desires grandchildren, forsakes his dreams to protect his child’s integrity.

The ancients were engaged in a serious and meaningful conversation about what it means to be alive.When Apollo made the laurel the symbol of victory, he was not being ironic; he was honoring the woman he loved but could not possess.  He is honoring Daphne, who is true to herself even to the point of surrendering her life to protect her integrity.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell argues that Daphne is a failure, that her calling out to her father for help represents her clinging to her childish ego and refusing the call to adventure that would transform her life into the life of a hero.  This argument misses a few things, though.  First, in calling out to her father, she calls out to her own nature; the search for the father is, as Campbell says, the search for the self.  Second, her cry calls for and leads to complete transformation.  She surrenders to that life-changing experience at considerable personal cost.  Third, Apollo accepts the change with grace.  He is not angry or vengeful.  Instead, he honors Daphne by making her story a victory emblematic of victory itself.  The victors who wear the laurel crowns are victorious because they have exceeded personal limitations in ways that extend themselves into greater spheres of influence.  They are heroes who make the return journey.

Cupid--Eros, the god of physical love, in the Greek pantheon--teaches Apollo, son of Zeus, a valuable lesson about humility as the son god and god of music and medicine learns that he cannot have everything he can touch.  Here might be a lesson in the dangers of overreaching.  It’s one thing for Apollo to claim his greatness--and even that’s a bit much for Cupid--but another to lay claim to another’s--Daphne’s.  Daughter of the river god Peneus, Daphne will choose her course, and she won’t be stopped.  Beautiful, eternal, victorious Daphne invites us to think about what is possible when we are true to our natures and how, in doing so, we might take our rightful place under the sun.