The Tale of Apollo and Daphne

In this week’s lessons, we have been translating the story of Apollo and Daphne. The Roman poet Ovid includes this story in his Metamorphoses, a large poem which features many examples of people changing into things, and sometimes things changing into other things too.

We have been looking at his version of the classical creation myth and flood stories already this term. It is with the story of Apollo and Daphne that he suddenly shifts to very different sorts of stories. The story starts off with Cupid being “iratissimus” (‘very angry’). We talked about how he had been angry because Apollo had told him that his sphere of influence – love – was trivial.

Cupid plucks two sorts of arrows from his quiver – an “aurea sagitta” (‘golden arrow’) which causes love, and a “plumbea sagitta” (‘lead arrow’) which causes repulsion. He aimed a golden arrow at Apollo’s heart, but a lead arrow at the nymph Daphne. Immediately Apollo falls in love with Daphne, but she is repelled by him. He starts chasing her and she runs away, while he calls after her saying: “non sum agricola. greges non observo. Iuppiter est meus pater!”. (‘I’m not a farmer. I don’t watch the flock. Jupiter is my father!”). We discussed the implicit humour in the idea of one of the mighty Olympians resorting to persuading a feeling nymph as to his ancestry!

Daphne calls to her father (Peneus, a river god) for help. This is where we noticed that things started to get strange. At first, Daphne’s body felt a bit heavy (“grave”). Then, her hair started to change to leaves, her arms to branches, and her feet to roots. Before long, she was a laurel tree!

Apollo continues to love her in her tree form and declares that the laurel tree will always be his tree. We discussed how this is a story that explains why the laurel is associated with Apollo, and also how the name Daphne means “laurel tree” in Greek.

We also looked at how nymphs are in some ways elemental – so Daphne was already connected to nature in a deep way, and perhaps the transformation was the process of revealing her true form. We also wondered whether this change was a response to her plea to her father, and how helpful this response might have been!

We also continuing work on our boards for the Festival in lessons, and you have all been working hard on painting, designing and planning!