Initial Reactions to Ovid, “The Transformation of Daphne into a Laurel,” an excerpt from Book 1 of The Metamorphoses, ca. 2 C.E. (poetry)

I am particularly attracted to works from this period due to relationships from mythology that can be attributed to families of giants from religious literature predating the period.  I find that Ovid has captured a common theme that was reflective in the texts of Sepher Ha Yashar (Jasher 2:20) relating to women not wanting to raise children, and the desire of those titans, demi-gods, or sons of the gods, to procreate with the most beautiful of women available.    The parallels between the themes in the ancient texts and this classical period work are fascinating, giving the impression that there may be a basis in the ancient religious texts to the mythology found in later periods. 

There are several passages in the poem that allude to these demi-gods having great supernatural powers, similar to the meta-humans we see in modern movies.  Similarly, we also see that their fathers are far more powerful. In the poem, Daphne’s father has the ability to transform her from her demi-god state into a tree – one way trip from the appearance.  This act of her father parallels the act of G-d in Enoch in changing the female fallen angels into sirens (1Enoch 19:2 as translated by R.H. Charles and Richard Laurence), a creature with no lack of reference in mythology or religious texts . Both Daphne and Peneus are subject to the will of Cupid, who is mischievous, sending their desires in opposite directions through a chemical induction by way of arrows (darts?). 

Beyond the above are the common romance issues of a man having a strong desire for a woman who has no desire towards him.  His pursuits are shunned, and she feels as a hunted rabbit because he will not take no for an answer, a common problem in our modern world.  In the end though, he still honors her and she accepts that honor willingly.  She almost seems to be regretful of her decision and request to her father that cannot be reversed. We see this often as well in modern society as a women rejects a courter early in the relationship, but later regrets that decision when he has moved on to other fields.

Historical Context

This particular poem is built around the pantheon religious system of the period.  In this framework, Daphne certainly qualifies as a muse, a goddess that inspired creative literature.  The polytheistic nature of the poem bolsters the connection between humanity and the “gods” by attributing human characteristics and concepts of love, lust, desire, self-will, self-determination, and even error onto the demi-gods from which the poem speaks.  Indeed, the poem identifies Daphne as a nymph, a supernatural race and Apollo (Peneus) as the god of music.

This period introduced the idea of the “Golden Mean”, a balance between extremes, which the poem plays against as a framework.  From Cupid two expressions are made and applied to Peneus and Daphne.  The first expression is of desire, and the second of rejection.  These two expressions are manifested in extremes that created problems for both until balance was achieved.  The dichotomy of their expressions give the appearance that Peneus was attempting to rape Daphne, and this may be the case as this topic was addressed in other poems within the body of the 15 books of “Metamorphosis”(Fantham, 2004, p. 63).  Of course, like many times in life, because an extreme was held to in the first place, there were costs later.  Perhaps the symmetry that was desired by the author was that this couple were at extremes, and this created the balance that the world needed in the mind of the author.

Democracy was developed, during this time period, as a form of government which bestowed a great deal more responsibility of how the nation was run among the people(MindEdge, 2014).  The separation between government and religion appears to have developed two tracts of philosophy toward understanding life.  There were those that worshiped the pantheon and focused on particular gods to give them favor in their sphere of influence, and those that sought to look at the ideology and morals that were found in the stories of the pantheon under more scrutiny(MindEdge, 2014).

The Greeks were very fond of human sport and competition.  They had games at regular intervals that later evolved into our modern Olympics called the Pythean Games which included categories for art and dance(Pythian Games).  The last portion of the poem plays on the importance of these games and ties the tradition of the adorning of a laurel wreath on the winners in relation to the religious figures of Apollo and Daphne in the Pantheon. 

Biographical Context

This poem was published late in Ovid’s poetic career, around 8AD (Ovid).  The author appears to be attempting to anthropomorphize creation to government by applying human like emotions and characteristics to their gods and that which gods became or that which became gods.   It was in this same year that he was banished the Tomis on the Black sea(Ovid).  It appears that Ovid died at Tomis about 9-10years after completing this work.  It is interesting to note that he had been married three times and that his father was disappointed that he chose this career path rather than that of law(Ovid).  Ovid is an accomplished career writer with many works, including one that he self identifies as the cause of his exile(Ovid). 

Style Characteristics

The poem is written in a hexameter epic format.  The poem is based in 6 metered wording which was common for this period.  This poem is part of a larger body of work consisting of 15 books moving from creation to the transforming Julius Caesar into a god-like character(Ovid).  In the English translation of the text, the metering may be lost compared to the Greek.  However the broken old English form and word variants help hold it together.

Current Relevance

This entire work is relevant in research that is currently ongoing into connections between mythology and religious texts and the possible basis in “fact” of the origins of many of these mythic characters.  Most myths have some basis in fact.  The facts get transformed over time to a level where they barely resemble the facts behind them.  Careful scrutiny, as even the early Greek philosophers were doing, into these myths can reveal some basis when compare to apparent unrelated older texts.  This becomes even more relevant when living in an apocalyptic generation where the events, technology, and ideas in an ancient world are supposed to manifest themselves in the modern day. 

Additionally, the poem along with other poems within the collection touch on the subject of rape(Fantham, 2004, p. 63). This is still a problem in modern society.  This poem could be used to bring about discussion on the subject and the extremes to which a person will go to escape such an event.   Certainly Daphne made an extreme choice to escape Peneus, one which she appear to regret later, but then she is safe such a humiliation at that point.  

Changing Perspective

Reading the poem really opened my eyes to the depth of information that may be buried in classical literature that could be re-assessed in new ways.  I’ve always had a fascination with old texts and finding correlations between them and certain religious texts, but this poem really put that into a firmer perspective.  Not having photos in the period, we really only have narratives to go by.  Physical evidences degrade and pass away over time.  How would someone in a potential far future assess the stories that are told today? 

Additionally, I see relevance of social topics within the poem that I had not realized were there with the issue of rape being addressed.  Rape is a very serious problem that has always plagued society, whether modern or ancient.  This is not an excuse though, but an acknowledgement.   I knew that anciently it was common during war, almost a spoil to be had by the winners of battle with the aim of destroying the bloodlines of the families that were conquered.    We still see it, but perhaps we don’t recognize the war anymore.  We address it as a social issue, and it is.  But it is a personal issue as well.  Almost three out of every four people that I personally know have had a sexual assault in their life, including myself.  This has profound impact on life that is difficult, if not impossible to fully overcome.  The intensity with which Peneus pursued his victim, and the implication that the drive may have been chemically motivated by Cupid’s Arrow, aligns quickly with modern rapes and the drugs and alcohol problems that drive many of those who commit these crimes.  Also, the extreme measures his intended, Daphne, is willing to undertake to avoid this in her life give reflection on the damage caused when it cannot be prevented.

References

MindEdge, Inc. (2014). Introduction to the humanities.  Waltham, MA: MindEdge, Inc.

Jasher online text, Sacred-text.com. 
Retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/apo/jasher/2.htm

Enoch online text, Sacred-text.com.
Retrieved from
http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/boe/boe022.htm

Daphne. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daphne

Ovid. Wikipedia Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ovid

Hexameter. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hexameter

Pythian Games, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythian_Games

Fantham, E. (2004). Ovid's Metamorphoses. Oxford, [U.K.]: Oxford University Press.

The Sages have said:

The rabbis have taught, the Holy One, blessed by He, will say to Messiah ben David, may he be revealed soon in our days. 'Ask of Me anything and I shall give it to you.' For it is written, Adonai said to me, 'Thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee. Ask of Me and I will give thee the nations for thine inheritance (Psalm 2:7-8).' And when he will see that Messiah ben Joseph will be slain, he will say before Him, 'Master of the World! I ask nothing of you except life.' G~d will say to him, 'Even before you said, "life," your father David prophesied about you, as it is written, 'He asked life of thee, Thou gavest it to him. (Psalm 21:5)'

Babylonian Talmud

[Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 52a]