Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE -17/18CE) or Ovid, the canonical Roman poet, is popularly known for his ‘magnum opus’ (Latin, best work) Metamorphoses (Latin, transformations). A long narrative poem using genres, such as elegiac, tragic, epic, mock-epic and pastoral, Metamorphoses defies categorisation. It comprises of 15 books and discusses over 250 ‘Hellenistic’ (having direct ancient Greek influence) myths in verse. Metamorphoses begins with the creation of the world and sets itself up as history, engaging with the life and death of Julius Caesar. Ovid ‘adapts’ (refashions) the myths of love, war and violence amidst the gods and humans and records the transformation of animate and inanimate beings in nature.
One of the myths he deals with is the story of Apollo and Daphne. Apollo, the privileged son of the king of Gods, falls in love with a beautiful nymph and pursues her. Echoing the metaphor of the hunt, this popular theme is rendered variously by poets, painters and sculptors from the time of the Renaissance.
Daphne flees, not wanting Apollo’s attentions, but is unable to shake him off. Unable to counter an advancing Apollo, Daphne appeals to Gaea, mother earth, for protection. She is turned miraculously into a laurel tree just as Apollo is about to lay his hands upon her. Unfazed, Apollo breaks off a bough from the tree and wears it upon his person. Subsequently, the tree gains significance in Greek and Roman culture as a tree sacred to Apollo. It is appropriated as a symbol of honour and its leaves, made into wreaths, are bestowed upon poets, warriors, athletes and political leaders.
Long after the leaves of the bay laurel were replaced with medals, trophies or citations, the expression ‘laurel’ continued to be used in the English language. The axiom ‘resting upon one’s laurels’ harks back to ‘classical antiquity’ (ancient Greco-Roman period). The axiom warns against relying on past achievements instead of working hard to maintain one’s position or rank. Similarly, the expression that schoolboys and girls make their institutions proud by ‘bringing home laurels’ refers to distinctions and awards won in academics etc.
The laurel tree, also known as the bay tree, is native to the Mediterranean region and has large fragrant leaves that contribute cooking flavours in Greek and Mediterranean cooking. The bay leaves of the European laurel are very different from the Indian bay leaf or tej patta.
Apparently, the Indian bay leaf has three spines down the middle unlike the Mediterranean bay laurel which has a single spine. The matter is also clinched by words prevalent in local cultures to describe the bay leaf. Tej patta is also known as the tamal patra in Sanskrit. Greek and Roman traders referred to it as the malabathron and malabathrum, respectively. The bay laurel leaves, referred to as dafni in Greek, forever recall Daphne’s metamorphosis into an aromatic tree, and highlight the etymological differences between Indian and Mediterranean bay leaves.
The Daphne myth speaks of the obliteration of women’s identities and how it is imperative for women to take on new identities in order to resist being ‘subsumed’ (absorbed) in their entirety in patriarchal societies.
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