Daphne’s Salvation? by Natalie Weaver

Natalie Weaver edited

The Cleveland Symphony Orchestra last week put on a two-night production of Richard Strauss’s Daphne: A Bucolic Tragedy in One Act.  It was an outstanding collaboration between conductor, singers, instruments, and the stage and costume production and design team.  Included in the show was a lone Dancer who represented the emotional content of the music (as opposed to representing a single voice or persona in opera).  She nimbly wove about the stage painting a sort of visual poem of tones and feelings rather than articulated concepts.

I went to the show, expecting something really beautiful as I always find Strauss somehow soft on the ears.  And, it was a masterpiece to be sure.  Franz Wesler-Most, the symphony’s Music Director and the opera’s conductor, commented on the production in the program notes, observing that this opera is rarely performed because it is so difficult to sing, especially the role of Apollo.  This team made it look effortless, and it was as a result a tremendously satisfying, rich, and edifying night out.

I was confused during the show, however, about the story of Daphne.  Having read it in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and reprised in short elsewhere, I remembered the events surrounding this strange story differently.  It is the curious tale of girl being transformed into a tree.  In Ovid’s relatively brief treatment of the subject, Daphne is the child of Peneios and Gaea, respectively a river deity and the earth goddess.  Daphne spends her time, however, living in nature as a mortal.  She is beautiful but eschews the overtures of men, and she does not participate in midsummer and autumnal mating rites.  She unwittingly catches the eye of Apollo, who pursues her very much against her will.  Ovid describes a scene in which Apollo entwines around Daphne’s fleeing form, her hair, and her limbs during the chase.  As she is about to be overcome, Daphne cries out to her father to save her from the Apollo’s lustful advance and to take from her the beauty that has so burdened her by arousing the attention of men and gods.  Her father answers her prayer by causing Daphne to undergo transformation into a tree, which Apollo nevertheless continues to hug and molest because he can still feel Daphne’s trembling form beneath the wood.  Apollo will now use her to make his lyre, arrows, and crowns.

In Strauss’s libretto, the story unfolds slightly differently.  Daphne is here pursued by the shepherd Leukippos as well as by Apollo.  She rejects the shepherd outright, even though they spend some time fondly reminiscing about their childhood friendship.  Frustrated that his grown-up love has been refused, Leukippos in turn seeks to deceive Daphne by wearing women’s dress in order to enter her private circle with the goal of getting her drunk during a Dionysian orgiastic feast.  Daphne manages to escape this event just to encounter Apollo, who admittedly has better luck.  He tells Daphne he is responsible for the beautiful sunny day she so delighted in at the beginning of the opera and that, if she stays with him, she can enjoy sunshine all the time.  Daphne is moved but not fully, so she runs away here as well.

In the end, Leukippos and Apollo have a showdown over Daphne, with each accusing the other of trying to deceive her.  Leukippos is exposed as himself (not a woman), and Apollo is exposed as a god (not a mere cowherd on the foothills of Mt. Olympus).  In the fight, Apollo strikes Leukippos dead.  Daphne grieves the whole thing miserably, somehow ultimately thinking she is the one responsible for the death of Leukippos.  Apollo, moved by Daphne’s lament, seeks from his divine family forgiveness for his own harsh behavior as well as approval of his decision to turn Daphne into a laurel tree.  In this form, Daphne can now enjoy the sun and nature all the time, while men compete for her.  Only the best will wear her crown.

What a strange tale, yes?  And, what is it about?  I find myself thinking about this over and over again.  Is it merely an etiology of the significance of Laurel leaves?  Is it about perpetual virginity? Is it about rape and its physical, spiritual, relational and psychological aftermath? Is it about the domestication of the female?  Is it about blaming the victim?  After all, Daphne loses her freedom of movement through no fault of her own, and in neither rendering does she ask for this particular fate. Save me, yes, but like this?

I’m not sure I can answer my questions but I am certain that there is an unsettling quality to Daphne’s “salvation.”  On the one hand, Daphne’s newfound immortality is directly contrary to the human life of and within nature that she loved.  On the other, perhaps her transformation into nature directly gives her the opportunity to be endlessly cyclical, even at the cost of losing her humanity.  Daphne’s own divinity, by virtue of her parentage, does not seem to factor into the story.  Nor does her voice, her hopes for herself, her intentions, or her free agency warrant any respect among men and gods.  So, the free, beautiful, autonomous woman is transformed into a perpetual symbol of women’s bondage and men’s ability to compete for the right to claim her bounty.  It is another kind of crucifixion tale, also rendered as a story of salvation, whose ultimate achievement is the transformation of both human and nature into that which is contrary to its own being.

The most perturbing question for me remains this:  Are such stories descriptive of that which is or prescriptive of that which must be?


Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D.is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013)Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.

Categories: Art, General, Myth

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9 replies

  1. Love this post, Natalie. I’m convinced that stories shape who we are. Stories are constantly in flux as well, changing depending on the needs of the individual and community. So, to speak to your last question, I believe stories are both descriptive and prescriptive. Nonetheless, it’s up to “us” (individuals and communities) to unpack those stories (much like you did in your essay on Daphne), taking what is useful for us right here, right now and rejecting what is not.


  2. In partial answer to one of your questions: ‘daphne’ is the ancient Greek word for laurus nobilis and though the etymology is uncertain it surely predates the story Ovid tells. A source for him was no doubt Empedocles, for whom the laurel tree had special importance (it was the preferred form to be reincarnated in if you were to be part of the ‘vegetable’ kingdom (a lion was the preferred form if you were to be part of the animal kingdom)). Consistent with that belief he advocated abstention from laurel leaves (in addition to meat). Whatever the actual history may be, the attraction bay leaves had for symbolic and ritual purposes in antiquity can be directly appreciated by doing something a few herbalists still recommend: dried bay leaves burn in a dramatic fashion (try holding just one with tweezers over an open flame (hence an association with gold/fire/sun etc)) and produce smoke that can trigger a bit of a buzz. That may explain the prophetic power associated with their use by ancient priestesses.


  3. If I were to take on the myth of Daphne and seek any sort of positive message, I would begin with an ecological suggestion that trees are beings too, that is, they are living entities with great presence. And in fact there have been times sitting under a tree when I seemed to feel that presence of the tree somehow, that is, I could sense that the tree had its own being, whatever that means, and that it had sensible abilities of some kind. I might say I was Daphne, for a moment, because thinking that way I had identified with the tree, I had become the tree.


    • I was thinking the same thing too!
      I read recently that trees represent networks- vital fluids are passed through and shared to all parts of the tree big and small. Perhaps there is a positive message in this metaphor?


  4. That was a great reading, but I can’t go positive with it myself.


    • I’m thinking about writing a post on the film Ex Machina. The stories of Daphne leaves me with the same feeling that the movie did: all men are inescapably tied into patriarchy and cannot be trusted. Oddly, it forced me to confront my own distrust of men (always waiting for the other shoe to drop) and work towards moving beyond it.


  5. Thank you Natalie for your thought provoking post. I view the Daphne story as a metaphor for the actual conquest and cooptation of the Goddess Daphne’s Earth based spiritual rituals that predate the onslaught of patriarchy. The stories are clearly told from the dominant male culture but do at least preserve a sliver of what once was. From that sliver, we can glimpse the richness of those ancient Goddess rituals and the importance of the immortal, ancient, poetry and prophecy invoking evergreen known as the laurel. This ritual must have been for women only as that is the most likely explanation why Leukippos dressed as a woman; so that he could attend the festivities covertly.


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