Apollo and Daphne – An Impossible Love Story

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The myth of Apollo and Daphne is a tragic love story of unrequited love and loss. It has been depicted in art and literature for centuries and its many themes and symbolism make it a relevant story even today.

Who Was Apollo?

Apollo was one of the most popular and prominent deities in Greek mythology, born to Zeus, the god of thunder, and the Titaness Leto.

As the god of light, Apollo’s responsibilities included riding in his horse-drawn chariot every day, pulling the sun across the sky. In addition to this, he was also in charge of many other domains including music, art, knowledge, poetry, medicine, archery and the plague.

Apollo was also an oracular god who took over the Delphi Oracle. People came from all corners of the globe to consult him and find out what their futures held.

Who Was Daphne?

Daphne was the daughter of either Peneus, the river god from Thessaly, or Ladon from Arcadia. She was a Naiad Nymph who was famous for her beauty, which caught Apollo’s eye.

Daphne’s father wanted his daughter to get married and give him grandchildren but Daphne preferred to remain a virgin for life. Being the beauty that she was, she had many suitors, but she rejected them all and swore an oath of chastity.

The Myth of Apollo and Daphne

Apollo and Daphne

The story began when Apollo mocked Eros, the god of love, insulting his skills in archery and his small stature. He teased Eros about his ‘trivial’ role of making people fall in love from his arrows.

Feeling angry and slighted, Eros shot Apollo with a golden arrow which made the god fall in love with Daphne. Next, Eros shot Daphne with an arrow of lead. This arrow did the exact opposite as the golden arrows, and made Daphne despise Apollo.

Smitten by Daphne’s beauty, Apollo followed her every day trying to make the nymph fall in love with him, but regardless of how hard he tried, she rejected him. As Apollo followed her, she kept running away from him until Eros decided to intervene and helped Apollo to catch up to her.

When Daphne saw that he was just behind her, she called to her father, asking him to change her form so that she would be able to escape Apollo’s advances. Although he wasn’t pleased, Daphne’s father saw that his daughter needed help and answered her plea, turning her into a laurel tree.  

Just as Apollo grabbed hold of Daphne’s waist, she began her metamorphosis and within seconds he found himself holding on to the trunk of a laurel tree. Heartbroken, Apollo vowed to forever honor Daphne and he made the laurel tree immortal so that its leaves would never decay. This is why laurels are evergreen trees that don’t die but instead last all year round.

The laurel tree became Apollo’s sacred tree and one of his prominent symbols. He made himself a wreath from its branches which he always wore. The laurel treee became a cultural symbol for other musicians and poets as well.  

Symbolism

An analysis of the myth of Apollo and Daphne brings up the following themes and symbolism:

  1. Lust – Apollo’s initial feelings towards Daphne after being shot by the arrow are lustful. He pursues her, regardless of her rejection. As Eros is the god of erotic desire, it’s clear that Apollo’s feelings signify lust rather than love.
  2. Love – After Daphne is transformed into a tree, Apollo is truly moved. So much so that he makes the tree evergreen, so Daphne can live forever in that way, and makes the laurel a symbol of his. It’s clear that his initial lust for Daphne has transformed into deeper feelings.
  3. Transformation – This is a major theme of the story, and comes up in two main ways – the physical transformation of Daphne at the hands of her father, and the emotional transformation of Apollo, from lust to love. We also witness the transformations of both Apollo and Daphne when they’re each shot by Cupid’s arrow, as one falls in love and the other falls into hate.
  4. Chastity – Apollo and Daphne’s myth can be seen as a metaphor for the struggle between chastity and lust. Only by sacrificing her body and becoming the laurel tree is Daphne able to protect her chastity and avoid Apollo’s unwanted advances.

Representations of Apollo and Daphne

Apollo and Daphne
Apollo and Daphne by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

The story of Apollo and Daphne has been a popular subject in art and literary works throughout history. Artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini created a life-sized Baroque marble sculpture of the couple which shows Apollo wearing his laurel crown and clutching Daphne’s hip while she flees from him. Daphne is portrayed as metamorphosing into the laurel tree, her fingers turning into leaves and little branches.

Giovanni Tiepolo, an 18th century artist, depicted the story in an oil painting, depicting the nymph Daphne just beginning her transformation with Apollo following her. This painting became extremely popular and currently hangs in the Louvre, in Paris.

Another painting of the tragic love story hangs in the National Gallery in London, portraying both the god and the nymph dressed in Renaissance garments. In this painting too, Daphne is depicted in the middle of her transformation into the laurel tree.

The kiss Gustav Klimt
The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. Public Domain.

There is some speculation that the famous painting by Gustav Klimt The Kiss, depicts Apollo kissing Daphne just as she transforms into the tree, following the narrative of Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

In Brief

The love story of Apollo and Daphne is one of the most famous stories from Greek mythology in which neither Apollo nor Daphne are in control of their emotions or the situation. Its ending is tragic since neither of them find true happiness. Throughout history their story has been studied and analyzed as an example of how desire can result in destruction. It remains one of the most popular and best-known works of ancient literature.