Daphne’s Laurel Tree and the Me Too Movement

by K.P. Kulski

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. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44475/la-belle-dame-sans-merci-a-ballad

[3] Ibid.

Sappho: The Dangerous and Desirable Educated Woman

by Ava de Cenizas

Born six hundred years before the common era, Sappho exists solely within two poems and a few lyrical fragments. As a result, the contours of her story reflect the feverish desires of the paternalistic Greco-Roman culture more than any accurate historical knowledge of the preeminent poetess herself.[1] Her admirers lauded her poetry. Plato, theorized as a proto-feminist, called Sappho the tenth Muse. In more modern times, the early Church transformed her titillating love of women into the perversions of a pre-Christian culture. But to us, she shows another face: Sappho as the educated woman lighting the way for a younger generation.

Sappho Things

We know that Sappho was born in mid 600 B.C.E.[2] She spent a sizable portion of her life in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Despite the speculations of her sexuality, Sappho was likely married, although not to Kerkylas of Andros, a coarse joke from Sappho’s afterlife in Roman comedy. The name roughly translates to “Dick All-cock from the Isle of Man.”[3] Her daughter was named Cleis. She had several brothers. Or so we think.

Literate, Sappho belonged to an elite family. The dialect Aeolic her medium, she wrote and sung in a sophisticated meter that now carries her name, Sapphic. The subject, often the love of a woman:

Iridescent-throned Aphrodite, deathless

Child of Zeus, wile-weaver, I now implore you,

Don’t–I beg you, Lady–with pains and torments

Crush down my spirit….

And to Sappho, Aphrodite promises:

Now she runs away, but she’ll soon pursue you;

Gifts she now rejects–soon enough she’ll give them;

Now she doesn’t love you, but soon her heart will

Burn, though unwilling….[4]

Did Sappho cultivate young naïve women as her acolytes? Did she indoctrinate them into the cult of the goddess of love? Did the “her” in Sappho’s lines even exist?

Sapphro Sultry

The true nature of this salacious love has swamped discussion of Sappho’s relation to major cultural and political forces on Lesbos during her lifetime. But recent scholarly work attempts to extract Sappho from the hedonism. She is enthroned as the leading member of a circle of highly educated, aristocrat women bound by love, loyalty, and polity. Sappho’s words now seem clever political criticisms of rival families rather than frivolous love. Amid the conflict in Mytilene, Sappho and her family fled Lesbos for southern Italy, willingly or banished.[5]

Every new discovery of her lyrics tucked away in the lining of a sarcophagus tantalizes us with more hints, not answers. The “true” Sappho remains veiled.

But she is not lost. If “[e]very age creates its own Sappho” as the “metonym for all women,” then from her sparse history, let us reclaim this. In a sphere dominated by the erudite male, who pontificated on all aspects of society, including the woman’s role, Sappho seized power through the act of writing and song .[6] And those stodgy men expressed “rapturous admiration for her exquisite style.”[7] Even if the ensuing two thousand years have garbled the message, Sappho’s impact remains indelible on Western literature. Whether she wrote luscious poetry to beguile her female lover or as political satire, Sappho spoke her own truth. So should we in our own writing.

Ava de Cenizas

Sappho Sleeps

[1]When it comes to the fragments of poetry that remain from Sappho, “There are lies (the handbooks), damned lies (the ancient biographies), and statistics.” Parker, H. Sappho’s Public World. In Women poets in ancient Greece and Rome. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press (2005).

[2]Mendelsohn, D., “Girl Interrupted: Who was Sappho?” The New Yorker (Mar. 16, 2015); “Sappho,” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/Sappho (accessed April 15, 2017).

[3]Parker, H. “Sappho Schoolmistress,” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 123 (1993).

[4] “Sappho’s Hymn to Aphrodite,” The Stoa Consortium,  http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/vandiver.shtml#meter (accessed April 15, 2017).

[5] Parker, H. “Sappho Schoolmistress” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 123 (1993).

[6] Katz, M. “Sappho and her Sisters: Women in Ancient Greece,” Signs Vol. 25, No. 2 (Winter 2000).

[7] Id.