Daphne’s Laurel Tree and the Me Too Movement

In ancient awareness, trees have continually played an important role in symbolism across the world, through many cultures and belief systems. Some examples include the Celtic Tree of Life, the Norse Yggdrasil (symbols particularly popularized in the neo-The_Ash_Yggdrasil_by_Friedrich_Wilhelm_Heinepagan movement of modern day), the Bodhi Tree, its very name meaning the awakening or enlightenment of Buddha, and the Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition. In each depiction, there are strong connections to humanity and the human experience. While the divine, or immortal may be connected to the tree, it is often in a human-like capacity that ascends into some type of enlightenment (in the case of monotheism, knowledge that leads to disaster). This can be explained by the idea that the tree is a mirror of humanity itself – ever rooted to the Earth by reaching for something greater, something higher, caught in a state in-between.

As symbols of humanity, there are plenty of male and female connections to them. However, there are very specific demonstrations of female links that seem to be Stone_Buddha_covered_in_tree_rootsrepetitive in Western culture. I’d like to examine these through the lens of the Greek myth of Daphne, the nymph lustfully pursued by Apollo until she is transformed into the laurel tree in order to escape. It is a timely myth to revisit for the modern audience, as many women via the Me Too movement have spoken out against male sexual misconduct, particularly from powerful men. It has spurred not only conversations on the sexual harassment, pressure and assault on women, but questions concerning sex and power dynamics.

In Greek mythology, there are plenty of stories that feature a deity and a mortal love-interest. In many cases, the female mortal or lesser immortal (such as a nymph) is unwilling, and is subsequently seduced, pressured, tricked or raped into compliance to the god’s desires. Frequently, these women become pregnant from the encounter and face tragedies or suffer greatly because of it. Because of this, it is not surprising that women would spurn interest from a god as at least an unwelcome complication, or laurel-forest-2228307_960_720greater, a life-threatening or ruining possibility.

Daphne, faced with Apollo’s lust (which is sometimes described as love but is clearly of a purely sexual nature) rebuffs him because she has declared a life free from the complications of men in the model of the goddess Artemis. Daphne treasures her freedom and lives a life hunting and roaming free in the woods. Edith Hamilton remarks that Apollo saw Daphne in a state of physical disarray while she hunted, yet he was entranced saying, “what would she not look like properly dressed and with her hair nicely arranged?”[1]

This is a significant statement, as it alludes to “taming” something wild. The trappings of civilization, where society will ultimately insist on marriage, childbirth and domestic activities for women, are all things Daphne wishes to avoid. The pursuit of Apollo can be symbolic of the pursuit of society for women to acquiesce with societal expectations. Further, submission to male authority.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini DaphneDaphne is described as athletic and when she flees, she gives a difficult pursuit for Apollo. But he is ultimately a god, so he is able to gain ground on her. Despite Daphne’s abilities, she cannot escape Apollo’s will. We could read this as despite female abilities and potential, women cannot escape society’s will.

Except Daphne does escape. She escapes by changing form, calling upon her father who transforms her at the last minute into a laurel tree. At this point, the myth describes Apollo’s continued “love” for her and elevation of the laurel tree in his esteem. But that glosses over the significance of Daphne’s shape-shifting as a proclamation of both the extremes women’s struggle with patriarchal cultural construction as well as a dire but possible avenue of escape. Daphne’s transformation makes her untouchable, even from men of power.

But what does that mean?

The cover of trees in both history and storytelling have provided exiles from society to

The Dryad
The Dryad

practice religions of their choosing, avoid capture and to create new lives. We might first think of Robin Hood’s Band of Merry Men. Yet it is the overtures of female mysticism that are strongly associated with the woods. In Western lore, the image of the forest dwelling witch pervades mythologies, fairytales and later religious persecution. In the latter, late medieval and early modern witch-hunts believed that women witches held ecstatic gatherings in the woods under the cover of darkness where they dedicated themselves to and engaged in sexual acts with Satan. The Maenads, the cult of Dionysius (or Bacchus in the Roman period) featured similar ecstatic and sexual forest gatherings of mostly women that often resulted in acts of violence.

The forest has often been a place of hiding, where things deemed socially unacceptable were practiced. It can offer refuge, but not without threat. The Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition is forbidden, but Eden partakes unwittingly in a trade of knowledge for John Roddam Spencerthe withdrawal of God’s protection. In Celtic culture, trees, or a grove can serve as a gateway to the realm of the faery, a mysterious world of amazement and entrapment, rife with equal parts wonder and danger. Such transformations and withdrawal from societal cooperation are by nature threatening to that society, but there is a freedom that can be found.

These examples have been loud ones, stories and events that often served as subconscious warnings against the desire for liberation from patriarchal structures. Yet the mythological figure of the dryad, or other faery stories such as “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” construct a different outcome. In the case of the dryad, a female nature spirit that lives within and/or is one with a tree, the transformation and womanhood coexist. If we considered Daphne’s transformation into the laurel, akin to the existence of the dryad, then indeed, Daphne not only escaped Apollo but society itself, becoming instead a protective presence.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful – a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.[2]

John Keats describes the faery woman – la belle dame sans merci (the beautiful lady without mercy) as Apollo may have described his sighting of Daphne as she hunted. But the power structure is different, the rules of society reversed or if you will, transformed. Here the faery woman has the power.

I saw pale kings and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gaped wide[3]

We could consider this from a negative perspective, that such a link is a sinister one, a LaBelleDame-Cowper-Lwarning to men of what could happen if women were allowed such self-direction. Indeed it hints at the very destruction of male power structures, “…pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death-pale were they all.”

However, in its place is the woman, forced to transform in order to escape. Despite this, she has changed herself and her reality. By doing so, she has saved herself from abuse and violence, and further has claimed an unconventional power over her person, ultimately escaping patriarchal cultural requirements.


[1] Edith Hamilton, Mythology (New York: New American Library, 1969), 115.

[2] John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad” Poetry Foundation. Accessed 08 MAR 2018.

[3] Ibid.

We have returned…

We have returned and are ready to kick-off 2018!

This year we’d like to welcome the addition of author and editor of Sky Forest PressCarrie Gessner. We’re excited to read her take on how modern fiction depicts women in historical and historically inspired settings. She brings her experience as an editor of a small press that features stories with female protagonists. In addition, she is an author of epic and contemporary fantasy novels, bringing a modern perspective to Unbound.

E.J. and K.P. are still kickin’ it, and looking forward to gabbing about what we love — history, literature, culture and how us gals are movers and shakers in it all.

Come for the history, literature and analysis. Stay for the vodka.

See you on the blog side!

The Morrigan and the Illusion of Identity

Growing up, one of my very favorite book series was The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. I actually, purely by accident, read the series out of order. I saw The High King at my local library and thought it looked like just the sort of book I would enjoy. Little did I know it was the last book in a series. I eventually read all the other books…then read them again…and a few dozen times more after that. In fact, I just revisited them over Christmas. They deal with typical themes found in children’s literature, but one of the profound messages it contains is its message on identity–delivered both through the hero-with-no-past, Taran…and also through three shapeshifting enchantresses.

If you’re unfamiliar with the books, they’re about an orphan boy (because all great fantasies start with orphans) named Taran who is raised by a great magician. But Taran has no magic of his own; he’s only the “assistant pig keeper” who, like most children in these tales, wants to seek adventure outside of the confines of his farm. In The Black Cauldron (the book, not the Disney movie), Taran and his adventuring group stumble upon the Marshes of Morva and three old women. The old women are comical, talking about things such as whether they should eat the adventurers or turn them into toads and what-not. Naturally, this makes the group uneasy (for they do not want to be turned into toads), but draws laughter from the young audience (who finds the idea rather ridiculous).

That night, the group camps outside of the three women’s home, and Taran sneaks up to their window, only to catch a magnificent sight–the three old women aren’t old after all, but young, beautiful maidens weaving a tapestry he can’t really see.1

The next morning, the women (old, again), offer to give Taran and his friends the cauldron they seek, if Taran will give up his most valuable possession–a brooch that helps him portend the future. Yet, even as he does so, he recognizes that the three women meant him to find the cauldron, and also that they meant for him to trade his brooch for it.2 This realization makes the young man uneasy–yes, the three old women look ridiculous and sound a bit flighty and perhaps seem frail…but they possess a danger he would do well to fear.

MachaIt wasn’t until years later, on re-reading this series yet again, that I even thought to take a peek at the “Author’s Note” at the front of the book. There I discovered that Alexander drew much of his inspiration for The Prydain Chronicles from the Welsh Mabinogi, and that many of his ideas and characters were a part of Welsh legend. Who, then, are the three old women from the Marshes of Morva? The women who appear as they wish to be seen? Whose power is dangerous because it is undefined?

The Morrigan is a Welsh triune goddess whose form changes as she wills, and who, it seems, possesses a power that is feared above else. She is the goddess of war and death, whose form as the raven is an ill-omen before battle. In fact, in “The Children of Lir,” one character says just that. Aoife, after having turned the children of Lir into swans against the gods’ will, faces punishment from her foster-father. She begs that he spare her life, and he responds:

“That I will, for the snuffing out of your soul is but to show you mercy. Answer this question, for you are bound to do so: of everything that is on the earth, or above it, or beneath it, or everything that flies or creeps or burrows, seen or unseen, horrible in itself or in its nature, tell me what do you most fear and abhor?”3

Shaking, she replies:

“I fear Macha, Badb, and Nemain, the three forms of the Morrigan, the goddess of war, of death and slaughter, and most of all, her blood-drinking raven form.”4

Because she says this, he deems her punishment to be trapped in the form of a raven andMorrigan haunt battlefields forever.

And therein lies the true horror of shapeshifting–does becoming the thing you most fear help you overcome fear? Or just become fear itself?

In the case of the Morrigan, she is feared because she is unknown. She is unknown because her nature can never be pinned down. She is the goddess of war, but also a mother. She presides over fear and death, but also over love and life. She takes, but she can also give. She is an ugly hag, a beautiful maiden, a raven, a banshee. She is the “Phantom Queen.”

Even her modern moniker–“phantom queen”–gives us insight into her nature. “Phantom” means “illusory” or even something that exists in one’s mind, giving the impression that she is not actually real. The wailing on the battlefield is all misleading; the raven portending death in war is a figment of imagination. In shifting her shape to take on other identities, the Morrigan has no identity at all.

Lloyd Alexander addresses this idea in the last book of his series, The High King, when the women of Morva come back to visit Taran after he has defeated the Death-Lord. They return in the form he once spied them in–beautiful maidens. Two wore robes of shifting colors, while the third remained shadowed in a cloak of black,5 depicting the shifting nature of the Morrigan, but also the constancy of darkness and fear. He admits that he did not recognize them at first, and one reminds him they choose their form as the situation “seems to require it.”6

They tell him they have come to deliver a tapestry to him–the same tapestry he’d seen them weaving all those years ago. It’s his tapestry, with the story of his life. They did not choose the pattern, they say; he did that. They just thought he should see what the result was of his choices.7 But, he tells them, he no longer sees his path clearly, and then says, “No longer do I understand my own heart. Why does my grief shadow my joy?”8 For this, they have no answer and fade away, leaving him (and us) to question.

And therein lies the truth of shapeshifting–we fear it because it is us.

At the end of the series, Taran realizes that he is not who he was before; he did not know himself then, and he isn’t sure he knows himself now. Perhaps we do become what we fear; we change our shapes “as the situation seems to require”; we lose our identity in the sea of identities.

By MBoy68 – Flickr: White-necked Raven, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Though Aoife lives the rest of her days as a raven, she is not burdened by the quest for identity, as the Morrigan is; as we all are. And perhaps it is not fit to think of identity as clothes we slip on and off. We fear what is illusory and crave permanence. But while permanence cannot be found in an identity that alters with the wind, perhaps it is through the illusory quest that we find our permanence. With every shape we put on, we come closer and closer to the true one.

For, as Alexander reminds his young readers, identity is perhaps more about altering our perceptions than our shapes. In Taran Wanderer, Taran goes to the Morrigan and asks for their help in uncovering who he really is. Instead, they offer to turn him into any animal he likes. Offended, he refuses their offer, and one of the women says, “We were only trying to make things easier for you.”9 It’s much easier, she seems to say, to change the outward appearance and accept that as inward reality than it is try it the other way around.

We often place value in appearances; “what you see is what you get.” And yet, so often, the outward appearance is a mask for a false identity. There is no easy answer or path for how to discern reality from illusion, but it is a journey worth taking.


“Is a man truly what he sees himself to be?’

“Only if what he sees is true.”10


Works Cited:

  1. Alexander, Lloyd. The Black Cauldron, 1965, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990, pp. 147-148.
  2. Ibid, pp. 160-161.
  3. Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Myths and Legends, Constable and Robins, 2002, pp. 64.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Alexander, Lloyd. The High King, 1968, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990, pp. 285.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, pp. 286.
  8. Ibid, pp. 287.
  9. Alexander, Lloyd. Taran Wanderer, 1967, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990.
  10. Ibid.

“With Pitiless Heart and a Woman’s Weapons”–My December Pick

As K.P. and I reflect on our past year’s posts, we decided to select first our favorite posts to write. Perhaps my “favorite” post is the one that started out to be the one I dreaded most–the post on our “women warriors.” This one was difficult for all the reasons I outlined in the original article, but once I got started, I kept finding more things to say. Though I also love my Arthurian articles, enjoying Camilla surprised me in a good way, and the article I procrastinated the most ended up being the most fun to write. So, without further ado, here’s a re-visit of “With Pitiless Heart and a Woman’s Weapons.”

“With Pitiless Heart and a Woman’s Weapons: The Carnage of Camilla”

Pythia of the Womb of Life and Death: The Significance of the Oracle at Delphi

With the year coming to a close, I thought I’d take the chance to talk a little about some of my favorite posts I’ve worked on this year. My top favorite is rather recent but was a joy to write…Pythia of the Womb of Life and Death. Awgawd, I could analyze these concepts in history and literature forever. I’m sure, for those who follow our blog regularly, you will notice that I am particularly fascinated with this theme. When I was a college freshman, a dear professor of mine introduced me to Marija Gimbutas. The perspective offered by Gimbutas captivated me and gave me a new lens to study history. While Gimbutas’s work is not perfect, it is monumental in that it challenged us to flip gender expectations in history on its head. When we do, suddenly a lot of connections come along with that perspective. Pythia and this article was one of those moments. You can imagine how tickled I was when that dear professor of mine agreed to contribute to Unbound (Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg – highly suggest you check her bio on our Guest Contributor page). More on that in my next blog post. In the meantime, I hope you can enjoy this article either again, or for the first time.


I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea.

Oracle at Delphi – 560 BC

220px-John_Collier_-_Priestess_of_DelphiShe stands close to associations with the Earth, the musty damp womb of the dirt where decay and birth exist simultaneously. You can find her only after a journey, you can hope she will proclaim that you are destined for greatness or give clarity for your decisions, but she may also give omens of dread, of doom or mere unsatisfying riddles. Whatever she utters, for ill or good, are the words of divinity.

delphi-ancient-city-ruins-greece-mainland-tour-europe-dp7874493-1600_0Read the great mythologies of Ancient Greece and you will encounter over and over the Oracle at Delphi, the Pythia. She dwelled at a place that must have seemed to the ancients was the opening to the womb of the Earth itself, a seam from which the vapors arose giving the Pythia the power of prophesy. Her words…

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Death, Lust and Fire: The Many Aspects of Women in the Ancient World

Winter is the cold, long dark. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, made popular by the Game Thrones television show has even thrust the phrase, “winter is coming,” into common use. Many people complain of the snow, ice and frigid temperatures, longing for the warmer seasons or to finally, “move somewhere tropical,” where they can escape the ache in their bones.

But ancient belief systems did not compartmentalize their experience of the year into good or bad categories. They were simply folded into seasons, times of particular purpose for either agricultural or pastoral peoples. Winter was indeed the cold, long dark. It was threatening and required preparation in order to survive. But it was also a time of rest, of slowed movement, kinship and fire.

Women’s lives and roles were much the same. The trajectory of marriage and motherhood as the singular destination of women was not popularized until Christianity took hold. Instead, women of the ancient world existed in multiple spheres, in many 1280px-John_Bauer-Frejaroles, sometimes in sequence, sometimes simultaneously. There wasn’t a common of locked-in fate or unalterable identity that was held for a lifetime. Certainly there were exceptions, just as there were exceptions to the marriage/motherhood role of Christian Europe. These were viewed as parts of a woman’s life. The ravages of disease, childbirth and violence most likely helped promote this, as women who survived could easily find themselves a mother or wife one moment and not the next. Since the emphasis on virginity and sexual faithfulness did not hold the strength it did in the Christian world, this additionally contributed to freedom of movement for women into many roles.

This is most clearly demonstrated in the myriad of identities held by female divinity. In last week’s article, E.J. articulated the many aspects that the Celtic goddess Brigid held. From prophetess, poetry, midwife to smithy, Brigid seemingly did it all. Some goddesses

Tjangvide Stone – Warrior welcomed to the Norse afterlife

seemed to embody aspects that were in conflict, such as the Norse Freyja who traditionally is attributed as the goddess of love, but whose roots are clearly in early fertility worship. She is not only the patron of love, but of lust and death, picking first from the glorious Viking dead to reside in Folkvangr, near her home.[1]

The Hellenic stele inscription that serves as our theme for this month, also describes the life of woman who not only was a mother, but a priestess for multiple deities as well as serving as a patroness, possibly as a mentor. The multiple aspects of ancient goddesses reflected well the reality of a woman’s life—varied, often changing but all part of the same person.

Hailed in neo-pagan beliefs is the concept of the triple goddess, described as the “maiden, mother, crone.” This refers to three major phases of a woman’s life based on age and roles she may play. These aspects are derived from many examples of ancient divine figures, but more importantly the number three when referring to female roles. Ancient divinity abounds with triple aspect goddesses.

The Norns in Norse mythology held dominion over even the Viking pantheon. Loosely, they represented what has occurred, what is currently occurring and what will occur. The Ancient Greek mythos includes The Fates who oversee the thread of life, spinning, measuring and finally cutting the lives of mortals. Even the Celtic Brigid with her manyMorrigan identities is segmented into three aspects where she represents the maiden, mother and crone. The dark and often chilling Celtic goddess Morrigan is among those who play seemingly competing roles as she represents both war and fertility. Sometimes “Morrigan,” is instead a title that contains three goddesses: Badb, Macha, Nemain.[2] These associations are varied as at times these aspects are depicted as sisters of Morrigan and in others they represent goddesses of war and death with hazy lines between their specific roles.

There are many arguments that could be made for social improvements that came along with the establishment of Christendom, or conversely the degeneration of society due to the loss of ideas from the pagan world. There is a fascinating relationship between the ebb of pagan beliefs, the rise of Christianity and the value of women (where value varies significantly on the role of wife and mother). However, to the credit of many ancient pagan societies, the female identity was originally fluid and changing. Ultimately acknowledging the realities of life and women’s place within a community, culture and in the great divine.


[1] “Freya the Goddess of Love.” Norse Mythology. Accessed 18 NOV 2017.

[2] “Morrigan.” Encyclopedia Mythica. Accessed 18 NOV 2017.