Ovid on Apollo and Daphne, Revisited

Sometime in the first century BC the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, popularly known as Ovid was banished to a fishing village on the edges of the Roman Empire, by Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, for what Ovid described as ‘carmen et error’ or ‘a poem and a mistake’, where he remained in exile until his death in AD 17 [1] His seminal work, Metamorphoses and the poetry therein is what brought me to revisit the tale of Daphne and Apollo. I feel inclined to parse the esoteric bound in this story, but I think Ovid’s (now controversial) handling of this popular mythology was a great way to begin an appreciation of it.

His three-volume lovers’ handbook, Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) may have been his undoing. A contemporary of the older Virgil but quite unlike him in seeking not to ingratiate himself within the emperor’s favour, Ovid’s books perhaps made a mockery of the moral reforms by Augustus. Adultery, for example, which was always illegal in Rome, was now severely scrutinised and punished by law and it has been surmised that Ovid may have had an affair with the royal women or may have witnessed a royal scandal that incited the emperor’s wrath that led to his eventual banishment. It is exile that drove him to write the famous couplet, which sounds like a death knell to any poet, “writing a poem you can read to no one / is like dancing in the dark.” He was forced to make Tomis on the Black Sea coast (Constanța in modern-day Romania) his home, which was so remote a place, that even Latin was rarely spoken. 

Ovid Banished from Rome (1838) by J.M.W. Turner. J. M. W. Turner – The Athenaeum (http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=21466)

His distress at being silenced thus by the emperor, is suggested to have (according to Marguerite Johnson, Associate Professor of Ancient History and Classical Languages, University of Newcastle) – “been enacted over and over again in the ‘Metamorphoses’ in the most grotesque of ways. Ovid’s tales describe tongues being wrenched out, humans barking out their sorrows instead of crying, women transformed into mute creatures by jealous gods, and desperate victims bearing witness to their abuse through non-verbal means”. She says, “The Metamorphoses is an epic about the act of silencing. Jealousy, spite, lust and punishment are also consistently present in Ovid’s chaotic world. So is rape”. [2] It sounds like a death spiral for a poet, to have wound his thoughts into an Ant Mill of sorts, while mulling over the abuse of power and constraints of powerlessness through an incessantly looping consciousness, that’s expressed plainly though his poetry.

It was in an episode of the BBC radio 4: In our time, produced by Simon Tillotson, that Melvyn Bragg discussed Ovid with guests Maria Wyke, Gail Trimble and Dunstan Lowe, academics from separate universities of the UK, aired recently in April, 2021. It was what spiked my interest in Ovid’s exile by Augustus due to his ‘carmen et error‘ which led to his unbridled creative outpouring. It was in the way he handled mythical themes given the background that made me look into his poem on the story of Apollo and Daphne. Reworked ancient myths through interpretations which reflect the land, language and powers that be a poet swears allegiance to, can utterly confound someone two millennia later, whose only source of information is fragments of original work through the eyes of those that deemed such texts important. When one speaks neither classical Latin nor ancient Greek, the alternative is to study the possibly diluted and embellished stories of writers in a long line of those that translated and interpreted Ovid who in turn interpreted the work of the Greeks. ‘Metamorphoses’ itself is a highly poetic work, composed in dactylic hexameter that merits attention along with the vivid imagination of the poet. Why he chose to write the way he did was controversial, even for his own time.

I was particulary struck by his poem that recites the tale of the God Apollo and the nymph, Daphne in Book 1: Lines 473 – 567 of the Metamorphoses [3] It’s a story of power, arrogance, fear and more disturbingly, attempted rape. The classicist Amy Richlin who applies feminist theory to Ovid’s most famous work and the rapes described therein, has noted “The silenced victims, the artists horribly punished by legalistic gods for bold expression … read like allegories of Ovid’s experience …”[4] Perhaps, Ovid was resignedly reliving his own treatment at the hands of the powerful Augustus.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25, marble, Galleria Borghese, Rome. Photo source: Alvesgaspar / Wikimedia Commons.

His fifteen book epic in Latin Hexameter was written sometime in AD 3-8, he wrote of the ‘Ages of Man’ where Gods and men moved from across the ages through Gold, then silver to bronze and finally to Iron, where mankind struggles against increasing corruption, endures brutality and injustice [5] It has been observed in Vedic literature that mankind is in the current age of Kaliyuga, where man is known to be farthest from his spiritual development. The stories may have been based on etiological myths but they delve into a fearful realm of power dynamics that strike closer to home than the distant stars they may be based upon. It’s a powerful poem and disturbing enough that it has been suggested, trigger warnings be provided to university students who study this work, as it is a roller coaster of sex, violence, censorship, abjection, depravity and gender politics.

I have particularly enjoyed Lachlan Mackinnon’s take on Ovid: Apollo and Daphne that appeared in Vol. 17 (January 1995) of the London Review of Books [6] The original translation from Latin is also available at Wikisource [7] and at the Theoi texts library [8]. They are short reads of less than a hundred lines. Jason, who blogs at Philosophical Therapist has done a wonderful analysis of the poem through a therapist’s perspective [9] Ruben Cordova has created a collage of the various works of art depicting the pursuit of Daphne by Apollo that include the most famous, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s , Apollo and Daphne, c.1622-25, marble displayed at the Galleria Borghese in Rome to Francesco Albani’s Apollo and Daphne, c. 1615-1620, oil on copper mounted on wood, housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris among others [10].

Apollo, the Olympian and God of music, medicine, poetry, light, archery, art, plague, oracles and knowledge, came to be associated with the Titan Helios, during Hellenistic times, especially in the fifth century BC as the personification of the Sun. It was Utu or Shamash in ancient Sumerian myths who was the God of the Sun and divine justice. The Romans, eventually considered Sol as the God of the Sun, separate from Apollo.

Apollo killing Python. A 1581 engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I (Source ~ Wikipedia)

There are varied views on what is considered to be an etiological myth that has possessed the imagination of scholars, artists and the public over many centuries. It is how Ovid depicts in his poetry, the brilliant and possibly most beautiful Graeco-Roman God of the sun, music, poetry, eloquence and archery that helped spawn creative imaginings over the years. The story itself tells of Apollo who having slayed Python, the progeny of Terra or (Gaia in Greek mythology), confronts the romantic, cherubic Cupid with an air of contempt while saying to him:

What are you doing with such manly arms,
lascivious boy? That bow befits our brawn,
… we managed to lay low the mighty Python,
whose pestilential belly covered acres!
Content yourself with kindling love affairs
with your wee torch—and don’t claim our glory! [10: from Charles Martin’s 2005 prose translation]
Cupid (Source ~ Wikipedia)

Such arrogance kindles a certain vengefulness in Cupid or by various accounts, Eros ( in Greek myths, the son of Aphrodite with Ares or in Roman myths, the son of Venus and Mars or Venus and Mercury) who does not take kindly to such humiliation and proceeds to set the myth in motion, with much vindictiveness, if one were to follow Mackinnon’s humour filled version of Ovid’s Apollo and Daphne [6]

He stretched and flew off to a toehold on Parnassus,
aimed with his left arm and let slip two arrows.
The first was lead, a sullen, lightless shade:
it shivered when it struck white Daphne’s heart and sent her
into her father’s arms to vow life-long virginity.
The second, golden arrow pierced Apollo with such
fire that it seemed his bones burned with desire.
One glimpse of Daphne seared along his heart
the way a careless cigarette-end lights a hayfield.

Enters the scene, the nymph Daphne, the beautiful daughter of the River God Peneus, a virgin huntress of the goddess Artemis [11] sworn to not answer to her father’s wishes along the lines of marriage or progeny:

Often her father has said, “daughter you owe me a son-in-law,”
Often her father has said, “daughter, you owe me grandsons”;
to which she replies: “O dearest father, allow me to enjoy perpetual
maidenhood! Previously Diana’s father allowed this.”[7][Wikisource]

The rest of the poem is, as you hold your breath, the image of a God overtaken by lust and a nymph reluctant to his advances, in a chillingly fearful escape. It is a myth so vividly poetised that it spawned marble sculptures, suggestive paintings, racing heartbeats and trigger warnings to university students. Ovid describes the flight of Daphne and compares it to a frightened animal. In fact Apollo’s entreaties to her are to remain still or stay herself and not run like a frightened hare or a deer, all the while that he pursues her like a skilled hunter. His advantages betray him for in the very moment as he gains on her, Daphne cries out to her father:

“Father, bring help! O Rivers, if you have divinity,
destroy my shape by which I’ve pleased too much, by changing it!” [7]
Peneus averts his gaze as Apollo, pierced by Cupid’s arrow of desire, pursues Daphne, transforming into the laurel (Apollo and Daphne, 1625, by Poussin) (Source ~ Wikipedia)

In a sad twist of fate, she turns into a laurel tree, her heart beating within, as Apollo finally holds her in embrace and caresses the bark that has encased her once soft bosom. As she remains rooted to the ground, her arms branch out into laurel leaves that quiver under his embrace where:

Phoebus Apollo admired and loved the graceful tree, (For still, though changed, her slender form remained) and with his right hand lingering on the trunk he felt her bosom throbbing in the bark. He clung to the trunk and branch as though to twine. His form with hers, and fondly kissed the wood that shrank from every kiss. And thus the God; “Although thou canst not be my bride, thou shalt be called my chosen tree, and thy green leaves, O Laurel! shall forever crown my brows, be wreathed around my quiver and my lyre; the Roman heroes shall be crowned with thee, as long processions climb the Capitol and chanting throngs proclaim their victories; and as a faithful warden thou shalt guard the civic crown of oak leaves fixed between thy branches, and before Augustan gates. And as my youthful head is never shorn, so, also, shalt thou ever bear thy leaves unchanging to thy glory.” Here the God, Phoebus Apollo, ended his lament, and unto him the Laurel bent her boughs, so lately fashioned; and it seemed to him her graceful nod gave answer to his love. {Line 553 in [8]}
Apollo and Daphne by Piero del Pollaiolo from Wikipedia

I find a strong sense of mirroring of the Apollo/Daphne myth in social nature that begs to strive for the separation of the emotional from the physical or even distance the connection between these aspects so as to deal with them as separate manifestations. Why ever would Apollo not be aware of the need to temper his desire for Daphne with more than a transient feeling of lust? In fact, the presence of Cupid as triggering it, absolves Apollo of having agency to his own actions. He desires Daphne as another conquest, an expression of his power as a God. On the other hand, Daphne does not act contrarily to what she had originally indicated to her father, that she wished to remain devoted to her cause as a virgin huntress. Sexual dynamics are often a sore point in human society visible especially in the laws devised around them where perhaps, reproductive success has been the basis for tribal exclusivities. Is it any wonder that a desirable brilliant God like Apollo should be shunned by a beautiful Nymph in Daphne, replaying perpetually and surreptitiously, a moral code for women while presenting through such a convoluted idea, the recipe for masculine success. What else should one surmise out of a quivering evergreen laurel fashioned into a wreath for every Roman hero in the arboreal paralysis of a Daphne? Had she lived, Apollo would not have simply parted her limbs, for in death too he has shorn them off her, simply to adorn himself.

Perhaps there is something esoteric bound in this tale, some opaque cosmogony about the universe and its descent into chaos or its manifestation from it, but such an idea appears quite insipid next to mythic erotica suggestive of attempted rape. This is hardly disguised in the literary fancies of the ages that seek the erotic in only the sexual.

Is there really to be a separation of desire or lust from love for a story to possess the imagination of mankind? A fire for example, cannot in itself be considered destructive to life nor would a river be equipped to simply drown a heartbeat. There is the ontological in the coexistence of Apollo and Daphne, like those underwater volcanoes on Earth or the ice caps on a meltingly hot Venus* [12] or more recently tectonic motion on the morning star, that move like broken chunks of pack ice** [13] that inspires one to seek meaning in a myth that hides more than it reveals.

I was quite impressed by Lachlan Mackinnon’s take on Ovid’s poem, so much so, that it inspired me to attempt a reconfiguration of the Apollo/Daphne myth. I have chosen to construct a poem based on this, set to the origin of the cosmos, to reinterpret the attempted violence as well as the gender bias; to reclaim the myth for the esoteric that it veils. It’s a work in progress and I should post it tomorrow or this week at least, since it turned out to be of epic length and needs to be trimmed to finesse. Thank you for reading !

BBC Radio 4: In our time philosophy ~ Ovid, aired on 29th April 2021 ~https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000vhk5

Notes:

*The data on Venus obtained by Mariner V and Venera 4 are interpreted as evidence of giant polar ice caps holding the water that must have come out of the volcanoes with the observed carbon dioxide, on the assumption that Earth and Venus are of similar composition and volcanic history [12]

**A new analysis of radar images taken by NASA’s Magellan mission, which mapped the surface of Venus in the early 1990s, revealed evidence of tectonic motion. This motion on the Venusian surface looks like blocks of crust that have moved against one another, much like broken chunks of pack ice. Pack ice are the large pieces of floating ice that can be seen in a mass together in polar seas, like the waters around Antarctica [13]

On Kundalini Awakening: According to Tantra, kundalini energy rests like a coiled serpent at the base of the spine. When this dormant energy flows freely upward through the seven chakras (energy centers) and leads to an expanded state of consciousness, it’s known as a kundalini awakening [14]

On Oceanus: Oceanus, in Greek mythology, was the river that flowed around the Earth (conceived as flat). Beyond it, to the west, were the sunless land of the Cimmerii, the country of dreams, and the entrance to the underworld. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Oceanus was the oldest Titan, the son of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaea (Earth), the husband of the Titan Tethys, and father of 3,000 stream spirits and 3,000 ocean nymphs. In the Iliad, Book XIV, Oceanus is identified once as the begetter of the gods and once as the begetter of all things; although the comments were isolated, they were influential in later thinking [15][16]

Eros: Eros, in Greek religion, god of love. In the Theogony of Hesiod (fl. 700 BCE), Eros was a primeval god, son of Chaos, the original primeval emptiness of the universe, but later tradition made him the son of Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love and beauty, by either Zeus (the king of the gods), Ares (god of war and of battle), or Hermes (divine messenger of the gods). Eros was a god not simply of passion but also of fertility [17] Eros was multiplied by ancient poets and artists into a host of Erotes (Roman Cupides). The singular Eros, however, remained distinct in myth. It was he who lit the flame of love in the hearts of the gods and men, armed with either a bow and arrows or a flaming torch. Eros was often portrayed as the disobedient but fiercely loyal child of Aphrodite [18]

A note on Sumerian, Greek and Roman Sun Gods through the millennia: Utu (also known as Shamash, Samas, and Babbar) is the Sumerian god of the sun and divine justice. The Titan deities in Greek mythology preceded the Olympian deities and while Helios is a Titan God of the Sun, Apollo is Olympian and presides over much more as the god of Music, Art, Archery, Plague, Poetry, Medicine, Light, Oracles and Knowledge. It is from the 5th century BCE that Apollo, originally a deity of radiant purity, was more and more interpreted as a sun god. Under the Roman Empire the sun itself came to be worshipped as the Unconquered Sun or Sol [20]

References:

[1]~https://poets.org/poet/ovid

[2]~https://theconversation.com/guide-to-the-classics-ovids-metamorphoses-and-reading-rape-65316

[3]~https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph.php

[4]~https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/269219.Pornography_and_Representation_in_Greece_and_Rome

[5]~https://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/The_Myths/Ages_of_Man/ages_of_man.html

[6]~https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v17/n02/lachlan-mackinnon/ovid-apollo-and-daphne

[7]~https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Metamorphoses/Daphne_and_Apollo

[8]~https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses1.html

[9]~https://philosophicaltherapist.com/2017/04/27/the-psychology-in-mythology-apollo-and-daphne/

[10]~https://glasstire.com/2021/02/08/cupids-revenge-apollo-and-daphne-by-ovid-and-bernini/

[11]~https://www.thecollector.com/apollo-and-daphne/

[12]~https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17775046/

[13]~https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/21/world/venus-pack-ice-activity-scn/index.html

[14]~https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/types-of-yoga/kundalini/kundalini-awakening/#:~:text=What%20is%20a%20kundalini%20awakening,known%20as%20a%20kundalini%20awakening.

[15]~https://www.britannica.com/topic/Oceanus

[16]~https://www.theoi.com/Kosmos/Okeanos.html

[17]~https://www.britannica.com/topic/Eros-Greek-god

[18}~https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Eros.html

[19]~https://www.worldhistory.org/Utu-Shamash/

[20]~https://www.britannica.com/topic/Helios-Greek-god

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