Daphne’s Appeal to Gaia

Apollo is usually depicted with a crown of laurel leaves. Roman coin 56 b.c.e. Photo by Classical Numismatic Group.


I have egg on my face. I thought I had scheduled this essay to post yesterday, but for some reason it did not.

As a followup to last week’s quiz, I’ve decided to begin writing about how the goddesses in the quiz are associated with their respective trees. I will be starting with the Greek goddess Daphne.

Daphne was a nymph (a young priestess) of the earth goddess Gaia. She attracted Apollo’s attention when he warned her about the deception of a man named Leucippus, who had dressed in women’s clothing to penetrate her sacred circle. The priestesses made Leucippus strip naked, confirmed the deception and killed him, but Apollo in the meantime had become obsessed with Daphne. She did not return his interest.

Apollo’s ardor was persistent, and Daphne eventually fled in terror. As Apollo gained on her, she called to her mother Gaia to save her from Apollo’s rape. Gaia responded by transforming Daphne into a laurel tree. In remorse Apollo pulled a branch from the tree and vowed he would always wear laurel leaves in remembrance of Daphne. This is why Apollo is usually pictured with a laurel crown, and why a person of high achievement in the arts or another realm of Apollo is said to “receive laurels.”

From Patricia Monaghan’s The Book of Goddesses and Heroines:

A priestess of Gaea, this nymph led secret women’s rituals in celebration of the Earth’s femininity. But the mortal Leucippus tried to penetrate their rituals in female disguise. The all-seeing sun, who had ulterior motives for his action, suggested to the women that they conduct their rituals nude, to be certain that there were no male intruders.

So the mortal was found and destroyed for his sacrilege. Then the sun-god’s motives became clear. He accosted the beautiful priestess and demanded that she sleep with him. She refused. Apollo grew violent. Chasing her, intent on rape, he overpowered Daphne. But she cried out to the goddess she served, Mother Earth, and instantly was transformed into a laurel tree. The repentant Apollo thereafter wore laurel wreaths in his hair and honored the tree as the symbol of inspiration.

From Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths:

Apollo was not invariably successful in love….he pursued Daphne, the mountain nymph, a priestess of Mother Earth, daughter of the river Peneius in Thessaly; but when he overtook her, she cried out to Mother Earth who, in the nick of time, spirited her away to Crete, where she became known as Pasiphae. Mother Earth left a laurel-tree in her place, and from its leaves Apollo made a wreath to console himself.

Graves usually relates the more violent myths to Greek political upheavals:

His pursuit of Daphne the Mountain-nymph, daughter of the river Penius, and priestess of Mother Earth, refers apparently to the Hellenic capture of Tempe, where the goddess Daphoene (“bloody one”) was worshiped by a college of orgiastic laurel-chewing Maenads. After suppressing the college — Plutarch’s account suggests that the priestesses fled to Crete, where the Moon-goddess was called Pasiphae. Apollo took over the laurel which, afterwards, only the Pythoness might chew. Daphoene will have been mare-headed at Tempe, as at Phigalia; Leucippus (“white horse”) was the sacred king of the local horse cult, annually torn in pieces by the wild women….

The Maenads were priestesses who practiced ecstatic rites, often involving drugs or alcohol.

The story of Daphne and Apollo was popular amongst the Greeks and there are many variations. It is interesting, considering the cross-dressing angle of the story, that one of the priestess daughters of Terisias was named after Daphne. (Teresias was the soothsayer famous for transforming from man to woman back to man.) This was probably once a complex myth that we only have in truncated form.

Daphne and Apollo
by Gian Lorenzo Bernini 1625.
Photo by int3gr4te.

The Daphne myth was a fairly common theme in Renaissance art. The lyrics of this song by John Dowland (1563-1625) speak of Apollo’s unrequited desire for Daphne.

Rest awhile you cruel cares,
be not more severe than love.
Beauty kills and beauty spares,
and sweet smiles sad sighs remove:

Laura faire queen of my delight,
Come grant me love in love’s despite,
And if I ever fail to honour thee,
Let this heavenly light I see,
Be as dark as hell to me.

If I speak, my words want weight,
am I mute, my heart doth break.
If I sigh, she fears deceit,
sorrow then for me must speak:

Cruel, unkind, with favour view
The wound that first was made by you,
And if my torments feigned be,
Let this heavenly light I see,
Be as dark as hell to me.

Never hour of pleasing rest,
Shall revive my dying ghost.
Till my soul hath repossess’d
The sweet hope which love hath lost:

Laura redeem the soul that dies,
By fury of they murdering eyes:
And if it prove unkind to thee,
Let this heavenly light I see,
Be as dark as hell to me.



Sources

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1960.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.

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