Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Arrow's Graze

Sculpture by Bertel Thorvaldsen
There came one day when Cupid, the god of desire and son of Venus, took up the arms of Apollo, lord of the Sun, mischief on his powerful mind. Stringing the bow of Leto's son, he loosed a bolt to and fro, merrily playing and readying his aim. But Apollo saw him, and was incensed to fury at the young spirit. "Thou lascivious boy", spake he, "are arms like these for children to employ?" The Sun god berated Cupid, denouncing him as inferior in strength of body and of mind, of aim and eye. Might had been the conquests of the Sun gods bow, mortal and monster alike, the great serpent which terrorised the Delphic vale and more beside. "What is the power of desire, beside the fatal barb of my shot?", he mocked. But wily Cupid, cunning within him beyond his size, rounded on the god. "Mine the fame shall be, of all thy conquests, when I conquer thee". Vowing vengeance upon Apollo for his curses, Cupid, flying high to the peak of Mount Parnassus, brandished his deadly gift.

                    " Two diff'rent shafts he from his quiver draws;
                      One to repel desire, and one to cause.
                      One shaft is pointed with refulgent gold:
                      To bribe the love, and make the lover bold:
                      One blunt, and tipped with lead, whose base allay
                      Provokes disdain, and drives desire away.
                      The blunted bolt against the nymph he drest:
                      But with the sharp transfixt Apollo's breast. "
                            - CUPID CURSES APOLLO

Taking the arrow fixed with lead, the youthful spirit took deadly aim, and loosed the barb at his target. Far below upon the plain, there danced a naiad, Daphne was her name, daughter of the river Peneus. A fair lady beyond all others, the nymph had always been plagued by the advances of weak hearted men. But, shunning the ways of ordinary maidens, Daphne preferred the hunt to the arts of grace. Faithful to Diana, the Lady of the Moon and Hunt, many a time could Daphne be found, stalking her quarry in the forests. As the goddess herself, she swore herself pure, never to be violated in body, or in mind. The title of bride she scorned, the glades of the trees, she embraced. Often did her father chide her ways, for such passions were not the ways of other ladies and nymphs. But strong willed Daphne cared not, throwing her arms around her father's neck. "Give me, my Lord", she cried, "to live, and die, a spotless mad, without the marriage tye. 'Tis but a small request; I beg no more than what Zeus the Thunderer, sire of Diana, gave before". His angered gaze softened, and he at last relented, seeing the daughter he held so dear, granting her destiny. He granted her wish, but gave her warning - her wish would one day prove her punishment. Her beauty was as a curse now. Her own face would be her doom. It was to Daphne now, that Cupid's leaden dart flew swift and true, soaring through the Heavens, over plain and field and brook, piercing the nymph's oblivious side, banishing desire from her once and for all, cursing her to despise the first being she looked upon.

Apollo and the Muses
Painting by Jan van Balen
Not a moment to delay, young Cupid seized the golden barb from his quiver, and took careful aim. Just yonder stood the Sun god himself, Apollo in his rage. Steady was his hand, and keen his eye. A flash of gold, and the arrow whipped into the Sun god's breast, bearing upon its burnished tip the sparks of desire , dooming its victim to deadly infatuation with the first being he looked upon. His eyes averted by the shock of the dart, Apollo opened his divine eye, and down upon the mortal plain he gazed. It was there that he caught sight of her. Tender arms, and flowing hair, she danced through the sylvan glade. As the parched field in the high summer, when the traveller casts his flaming brand upon the grass, that was how the god was now afire. The golden point within fuelled a fire without mercy or respite, seizing his mind, all thought and hope now bent upon the nymph. His eyes passed over her dishevelled hair, her eyes as heavenly lamps, her delicate hands, and in that moment he was doomed.

With the celerity no god could match, but a god filled with raw passion alone could know, Apollo thundered down from the heights of Mount Olympus, all thought of other things, all hopes, all fears, all duties, banished from his mind. Into the shade of the great forest the light of the Sun came, and it was in that moment that Daphne turned and saw her admirer for the first time. Hideous revulsion and disgust raw flooded her, as the leaden bolt burned bright within her. With horror at the hateful figure she saw before her, the naiad turned tail in flight. More swiftly than any spirit had moved before, Daphne fled. Anguish mingled with fear when the Sun god saw her run, would he lose her? No doubt in the mind of the god, he made hot pursuit. Both spirits of the immortal gods, both unmoved by fatigue, both raced across the world, one doomed never to reach his quarry, the other never to leave it. The huntress was now as the hunted. Through open plains, through meadows, through mountains, through rivers and through valleys god and naiad chased, no hint of sweat upon either brow, for god, no hint of capture, for naiad, no hint of evasion. "Stay Nymph", Apollo cried, "I follow not a foe... Thou shunn'st a God, and shunn'st a God that loves!". To Daphne Apollo called, begging her to stop:

                    " Abate thy speed, and I will bate of mine.
                      Yet think from whom thou dost so rashly fly;
                      Nor basely born, nor shepherd's swain am I.
                      Perhaps thou know'st not my superior state;
                      And from that ignorance proceeds thy hate.
                      Me Claros, Delphi, Tenedos obey;
                      These hands the Patareian scepter sway.
                      The King of Gods begot me: what shall be,
                      Or is, or ever was, in Fate, I see.
                      Mine is th' invention of the charming lyre;
                      Sweet notes, and heaven'ly numbers, I inspire.
                      Sure is my bow, unerring is my dart... "
                              - APOLLO CALLS TO DAPHNE

Not half of the Sun god's pleas did bold Daphne hear. Long ago had she voweda life of chastity, here was her greatest test, and she would not violate her oath now. "Fear gave her wings", and as she fled with haste anew, the wind blew her flowing hair, and Apollo, stricken by flame again, was fired anew.

The Metamorphosis of Daphne
Painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
"She urg'd by fear, her feet did swiftly move, but he more swiftly, who was urg'd by love". Now at last, the god gained pace, and the gap began to edge closer. With such fury did Apollo thunder across the plains, he spared not one spare reserve of divine effort calling to her, focused as he was on just touching her. A glance behind, and pure Daphne spied the god bearing closer down, and the naiad grew pale with terror. The labours of her long bid for freedom wore heavy upon her soft shoulders, but still she did not bow to what could have been inevitable. Desperate now, she called to her father, Peneus, lord of the river, "Oh help", she cried, "in this extremest need! If water gods are deities indeed, gape Earth, and this unhappy wretch intomb; or change my form, when all my sorrows come." With the utmost need did Daphne call, and the god heard her. Pitying her daughter, remembering how he had warned her that she would be forever cursed by her beauty, he bowed to her final wish. An incantation he spake aloud, words of power radiating from the river. Apollo reached out for her, and Daphne gasped:

                   " Scarce had she finish'd, when her feet she found
                      Benumb'd with cold, and fasten'd to the ground:
                      A filmy rind about her body grows;
                      Her hair to leaves, her arms extend to boughs:
                      The nymph is all into a laurel gone;
                      The smoothness of her skin remains alone... "
                            - THE METAMORPHOSIS OF DAPHNE

With a howl of broken hope, Apollo looked on as the very pinnacle of his heart's desire changed to tree before his eyes, cursing the god that robbed him of his prize. Round her waist he threw his arms, but round a trunk his arms fell. Some warmth he found still, a heaving heart within. But in vain did he call her name, for once where there was naiad, there was now only the fair bark of a laurel tree, the first laurel tree. Apollo, stricken with tears, embraced the trunk and fixed his lips upon it. Wiping the tears from his eyes, the Sun god declared:

                   " Because thou canst not be
                      My mistress, I espouse thee for my tree:
                      Be thou the prize of honour, and renown;
                      The deathless poet, and the poem, crown.
                      Thou shalt the Roman festivals adorn,
                      And, after poets, be by victors be worn.
                      Thou shalt returning Caesar's triumph grace;
                      When pomps shall in a long procession grace;
                       Wreath'd on the posts before his palace wait;
                       And be the sacred guardian of the Gate.
                       Secure from thunder, and unharm'd by Jupiter,
                       Unfading as th' immortal Pow'rs above...
                       So shall perpetual green thy boughs adorn... "
                                - APOLLO'S PLEDGE TO THE LAUREL

Deep within the spirit of the tree, Daphne heard his words at last, and grateful was she, and the tree bowed respectfully to the god. Ever after was the laurel tree the symbol of victory, worn as a wreath upon the crown of champions, and never again did Apollo doubt the power of desire...

United Kingdom

Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(The Source for many of the myths of ancient lore, written by a Roman poet)

United States

Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(The Source for many of the myths of ancient lore, written by a Roman poet)  

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