The Psychology in Mythology: Apollo and Daphne

On a whim last week I picked up a copy of (Thomas) Bulfinch’s Mythology from Costco. Purely for the inspiration it might give me for my writing. However, after reading out a story to a friend it occurred to me it might be amusing to share my analysis of the characters from a therapist’s perspective. This is at the risk of coming across as one of those people who can never detach themselves from their work and just relax! Anyway, because this post relates to both my writing and the therapy work I have decided to post to both of my sites.

My professional website: philosophicaltherapist.com

My writing blog: sophisticatednonsense.blog.

Apollo and Daphne

The first line of a story is important. It sets the entire scene. In fact, the first line of a story should be the last line the author writes in my opinion. The first line of this fable tells us this: “Daphne was Apollo’s first love.” Here we have the word ‘love’ used and it is important to keep in mind that ‘love’ is a weasel word. It can mean almost anything to anyone. It might mean, “like” in the context of “I love ice cream”, it might mean sexual lust, “I love that babe in the swimsuit over there,” and it might mean a willingness to self-sacrifice, “the soldiers died for the love of their nation.” In fact love can mean just about anything a person wants it to mean: “if you loved me you would say ‘yes’ to me” versus “it’s because I love you that I say ‘no’ to you.” What does it mean that Daphne was Apollo’s first love? The reader should keep this question in mind all the way through this fable.

Apollo is a Greek god, he is quite a significant god with a huge list of achievements and accolades. Importantly, Apollo wastes no time in telling other people about all the wonderful things about him: in short Apollo likes to brag. This story opens with Apollo having just recently defeated the monster Python. Apollo slew this monster using a bow and arrow, a weapon he hadn’t used against anything other than small game before. So pleased was he in himself for using this weapon he taunted Cupid, another archer, by pointing out his superior skill with the bow. Why does Apollo feel the need to put Cupid down? He already has the Phythian games in his honour, yet he needs to impress upon Cupid how magnificent he is. Later when he is chasing Daphne he reads out a litany of his achievements to her in an attempt to woo her. Here we see that Apollo is fearful about his own self-worth, we might call him an insecure god who needs to brag and put others down before he can be satisfied with his own achievements. In this sense Apollo is a narcissist: he isn’t satisfied with self praise, he wants other people to praise him too – to reassure him of his superiority.

Cupid takes vengeance on Apollo out of “malice” which raises all sorts of questions. Was Cupid not justified in feeling hurt by Apollo’s mocking of him and his skill with archery? Here the author of the fable wishes to imply that Apollo is justified in bragging about his achievements and it is Cupid who is malicious for not magnanimously bowing and praising Apollo. This is our first indication that the moral values presented in this fable are distinctly different from those we tend to hold dear today. Which moral code is better? Bragging or humility? Why would we think bragging is poor behaviour? What could be wrong about humility? I am definitely on the side of humility because it indicates internal strength and integrity, however, consider that sometimes there are legitimate circumstances for one to brag: when applying for a job, when volunteering for task or mission, when introducing yourself to strangers in a crisis, etc… So it would be wrong to say there’s never a situation when bragging might be beneficial. Although these tend to be exceptional situations, not regular daily encounters.

It is worth pointing out that the Greek gods aren’t the most moral bunch. From Plato’s The Republic we learn that Plato is unhappy with Homer’s heroes and how the gods often reward them for evil acts such as stealing, murder, and rape. The first true injustice in this fable is Cupid’s where in order to punish Apollo for offending him with his bragging (indicating that Cupid is as insecure as Apollo is) he not only makes Apollo fall in love with Daphne, he involved Daphne in this plot against her will by making her feel repulsed by Apollo. It is interesting to note that Greek gods demand worship and sacrifices to them otherwise they get jealous and punish people by creating natural disasters and misfortune. In a sense, the Greek conception of godhood was of these internally unstable and emotionally volatile, yet powerful, beings. One wonders how much the projection of the Greek poets influenced their perception of these gods? Were the poets narcissists who got furious if the audiences didn’t appreciate and enjoy their poems and plays? Did they need constant attention and flattery from their audiences? Is that why the Greek gods are presented in this way? We see the world not as it is, but as we are.

Daphne is perhaps the most interesting character in this story. She is a beautiful woman who is something of a tomboy. She enjoys her independence and does not want a lover. She actually is not comfortable with her physical beauty. This desire of hers not to be attractive is uncommon among women, as most women enjoy their physical attraction and feel empowered by it. The women who don’t enjoy their physical attraction typically have suffered some kind of sexual abuse or harassment either physically or emotionally. These women tend to see their attractive features kind of like a sign that says “kick me” plastered onto their faces. The fact that Daphne is so uncomfortable with her physical attractiveness indicates that she has suffered for her beauty sometime in the past. Since she is a goddess, this implies that the other gods have been the cause of her suffering. We are reminded that these Greek gods don’t have their emotional baggage sorted out at all.

Daphne runs away from Apollo’s advances; not of her free will, her free will was taken by Cupid, as was Apollo’s. But just to make things confusing, Apollo recognises that Cupid’s arrow made him insatiably attracted to Daphne, yet even his knowledge of this doesn’t allow Apollo the freedom to say, “this is a trick, I do not really care for this woman,” which is either ridiculously illogical, or maybe Apollo is using Cupid as an excuse for stalking Daphne like an oversexed predator? Consider that Apollo can excuse Daphne for rejecting him, she doesn’t really intend to reject Apollo, she’s just under the control of Cupid’s arrow forcing her to feel repelled by him. But again, we know from Daphne’s backstory that she asked her father to be single forever. Daphne is not being inconsistent with her character by running away from Apollo, and Apollo is not being inconsistent with his character for wanting to have others, both human and god, to worship him. So why is Cupid even necessary in this story? I suspect he is there as a scapegoat for some of Apollo’s actions; at least the actions of Apollo that the writer does think are too egregious not to pass over without explanation.

When Daphne realises that the stronger and faster Apollo will inevitably catch her and rape her she calls to her father for help. His solution is to make his daughter turn into a laurel tree. In other words to make her ugly and impossible to rape. This is symbolic of the woman who wears ugly clothing and eats compulsively so as to make herself less attractive to men in the hopes they will leave her alone. Yet even after she is transformed into a tree, Apollo touches her. She recoils beneath the bark of the tree to his touch, she is disgusted with Apollo’s obsession with her and clearly wants him to leave her space. Yet does Apollo show any empathy or compassion for this woman whom he just hounded into self-degradation? Of course not as he makes it all about himself. He declares that the laurel tree will now be his tree. That way everyone will think of him when thinking of the laurel tree. In this way Apollo completely erases Daphne as even a memory, supplanting her entirely with himself and his sense of self-aggrandisement.

Now it is time to return to the first line: “Daphne was Apollo’s first love.” What does love actually mean for Apollo? It doesn’t appear to mean reverence for Daphne, he didn’t listen to her instead he bored her by bragging about how great he was. It doesn’t appear to be about having any sympathy for her, because when she turns into a tree he is disappointed that he didn’t get to rape her now that she was deformed and paralysed. It doesn’t appear to mean mutual attraction or affection, because it did not matter at all that Daphne did not want Apollo’s attention. Love appears to mean for Apollo a crude animal lust for Daphne; to over power her and force her to satiate his desires. Considering this, would it be an honour to be loved by Apollo? What does Apollo’s second and third loves look like? Is Apollo really a good god? What does the original author of this Greek myth to consider ‘good’?

What’s most interesting about these Greek myths about their gods is that the gods really are flawed like human beings. In this fable we can see familiar caricatures of people we might know in our day to day experiences. Personally, as an admirer of Plato’s work, I can understand why in The Republic Socrates wants to protect the children of Athens from being corrupted by stories like this one because they do send confusing and even corrupting messages to young children. The stories that we tell our children do matter and although this story never uses the word “rape” it certainly implies a rapacious character like Apollo can still be venerated.

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