Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Apollo and Daphne

The narrative of Apollo and Daphne comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid was a Roman poet who lived from the end of the 1st century BC to the beginning of the 1st century CE.  His epic poem Metamorphoses is derived from Greek mythology and accounts for bodies changing into new forms, such as Daphne who turns into a laurel tree.

A Summary of Apollo and Daphne:

The myth of Apollo and Daphne is an etiological myth, in that it explains how the laurel tree came to be.  According the Ovid’s Metamorphoses Apollo began to ridicule Cupid for his tiny arrows and boasted how his arrows were of no match to any of the arrows the other gods possessed including himself.  The angered Cupid took one of his arrows dipped in gold and shot Apollo with it causing him to fall madly in love with a nymph, Daphne, and with another arrow dipped in lead Cupid shot Daphne causing her to be impervious to any lover.  Apollo chases Daphne follows throughout the woodlands, until they reach the banks of her father’s river, the Peneus.  Daphne prays to her father to save her and as Apollo begins to rest his hand upon her body she begins to transform; her soft body into bark, her feet turn into roots, and her hair and fingertips sprout leaves, until she is finally she is a laurel tree.

The myth of Apollo and Daphne is an etiological myth, in that it explains how the laurel tree came to be.  When taking a class on Greek mythology I had a chance to read Ovid’s story on Apollo and Daphne.  Before that I had come across this story many times, not in the written form but in the visual form of Bernini’s sculpture Apollo and Daphne. 

In 1622, Bernini inspired by two texts, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Giambattista Marino’s reinterpretation of Apollo and Daphne in his 1620CE poem Dafne, began his sculpture of Apollo and Daphne.  The poem Dafne puts an emphasis on the flight and immobility of the nymph, which builds up to the moment of her transformation. This emphasis on flight and immobility as well as Daphne’s transformation is captured by Bernini.  The sculpture captures the moment of Daphne in mid-transformation as the result of Apollo’s touch. 

Another work of art, found in the fourteenth century French translation of Metamorphoses, Ovide moralité, is a loose translation.  Ovid has an enormous impact during this time period; however the material of the stories were not appropriate for a Christian audience, for they contained stories of rape and adultery.  By Christianizing these myths, such as that of Apollo and Daphne, the focus shifts from a semi-erotic story of love to a story between a virgin and her divine suitor.   The illustrations adapted to this in their representation of Daphne and Apollo, for they are no longer youthful or nude, but dressed and the ecstasy of Apollo’s erotic love and Daphne’s flight is lost.  The illustrations were Christianized in order to teach Christian morals through pagan symbols.