This illustration, by the American artist John Shelton Eland (c. 1872-1933), re-creates the myth of Apollo and Daphne. Following the account of the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE)—whose poetry has served as inspiration for many artists that portray mythological stories—a nymph named Daphne (the woman surrounded by vegetation) had the misfortune of being near the gods, Apollo and Cupid, while the two archer-deities insulted each other in an argument over which of them had a better claim to their favorite weapon, the bow. Apollo won the verbal debate, but Cupid was eager to seek revenge. Flexing his sensual powers, Cupid roped in the innocent bystander, Daphne, to unknowingly participate in a palpable display of the power that desire has even over the gods. As the story goes, Cupid forced Apollo to fall in love with Daphne, who, in turn, was conversely inspired by the love-god to reject all erotic urges. And so, a chase began, in which lustful Apollo relentlessly tried to overtake the unreciprocating and quite terrified Daphne. Although Daphne was spry, she could not outrun fleet-footed Apollo forever. In the end, the only way for her to escape the clutches of her pursuer was to plead for help from her river-god father, Penéüs, and muster all of her own power as a nymph in order to bring about a supernatural solution to her problem. As the story goes, Daphne thwarted Apollo’s desires by transforming herself into a laurel tree. Ovid described the transformation, writing:
“She hardly ended her prayer when a heavy numbness
came over her body; her soft white bosom was ringed in a layer
of bark, her hair was turned into foliage, her arms into branches.
The feet that had run so nimbly were sunk into sluggish roots;
her head was confined in a treetop; and all that remained was her beauty.
Tree though she was, Apollo still loved her.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, book 1, approximately lines 548-553)
It is Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree that John Shelton Eland re-creates in his artwork. Daphne can be seen mid-metamorphosis as Apollo leaps forward in his futile effort to catch her before the transformation was complete. Although Apollo could not fulfill his Cupid-inspired passions, his devotion to Daphne was said to have continued. The complicated relationship between the god and Daphne evolved into Apollo having a newfound platonic affection for laurels.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.