Apollo was the ancient Greek god of the sun, light, music, medicine and art. He was the twin brother of Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt and nature. Daphne was Apollo’s first love and this was not brought about by accident, but by the malice of Eros (Cupid), the mischievous son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Apollo saw the boy Eros playing with his bow and arrows, and being proud of his recent victory over Python, the evil snake that had pursued his pregnant mother, he said to Eros: “Why do you play with warlike weapons, boy? Leave them for hands worthy of them. Look at my worthy bow and arrows with which I won my battle with Python, who stretched his poisonous body over acres of the plain!”
Aphrodite’s son heard these words, and replied: “Your arrows may strike all things and kill without error, Apollo, but mine shall strike you, and make you regret your words!” He stood on a rock of Mount Parnassus, and drew from his quiver two arrows of different effect, one to excite love, the other to repel it. The former was of gold and sharp-pointed, the latter blunt and tipped with lead. With the lead shaft he struck the nymph Daphne, the daughter of the river god Peneus, and with the golden one Apollo, through the heart. Immediately, the god passionately fell in love with Daphne, and at the same time, she abhorred even the thought of loving. She delighted in woodland sports and the hunt. When her father asked her to relent and marry to give him a grandson, she said: “Dearest father, grant me this favour, that I may always remain unmarried, like Artemis.” He consented.
Apollo loved Daphne, and longed to make her his own. He followed her; she fled, swifter than the wind, and would not be swayed by his sweet words. “Don’t run,” he said, “I am not an enemy, but someone who loves you. I am the god of song and the lyre. My arrows fly true to the mark; but an arrow more fatal than mine has pierced my heart! I am the god of medicine, and know the virtues of all healing plants. But, now I suffer an illness that no balm can cure!”
The nymph continued to run, and would not hear of his entreaties. The god grew impatient to find his wooing rejected, and, sped by Eros, was about to reach her. As her strength failed and saw that she was about to be caught, she called upon her father, the river god: “Help me, my father, Peneus! Open the earth to swallow me up, or change my form so that I may not be caught and raped!”
Her father heard her and he granted her request. A stiffness seized Daphne’s limbs; her bosom began to be enclosed in a bark; her hair became leaves; her arms became branches; her feet drove in the ground, as roots; her face became a tree-top, retaining nothing of its former self but its beauty. Apollo stood amazed. He touched the stem, and felt the flesh tremble under the new bark. He embraced the branches, and lavished kisses on the wood. The branches shrank from his lips. “Since you cannot be my wife,” he said, “you shall assuredly be my tree. I will wear you for my crown. With you I will decorate my harp and my quiver; and when the great Roman conquerors lead up the triumphal pomp to the Capitol, you shall be woven into wreaths for their brows. And, as eternal youth is mine, you also shall be evergreen, and your leaf know no decay.” The nymph, now changed into a laurel tree, bowed its head in grateful acknowledgment and the god since then wore a garland of laurel.
The painting above is Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s “Apollo Pursuing Daphne”, c. 1755.