Saturday, April 04, 2020


I’ve always been troubled by the myth of Daphne and Apollo. A story of pride, lust and loss, it seeks to explain how the laurel tree came into being. Pursued by an infatuated Apollo, Daphne, a river nymph who, in contrast to the mores of the time embraced chastity and thus a single life, is transformed into a laurel tree, so as to safeguard her virginity.

A feminist icon, falling victim to the patriarchy? Perhaps. For Apollo’s infatuation isn’t even real. Instead, it comes as a result of a blokey stoush between him and the god Eros, when Apollo insulted his equipment. The aggrieved Eros shot Apollo with a gold arrow, instilling in him a passionate love for Daphne. Eros in turn shot Daphne with a lead arrow, instilling in her, a hatred for Apollo and the chase began.

Not only does Apollo, labouring under the spell of Eros and consumed with lust, ignore Daphne’s continuous rejection of him, but Eros himself intervenes to assist Apollo to catch up with and corner his quarry. While for Apollo, Daphne is an object of desire, something to possess, for Eros, she is nothing more than a mere instrument of his own revenge, a foil for his own feelings of inadequacy.

Daphne’s “salvation,” also lies in the gift of the patriarchy. She does not choose to be transformed and possesses no power to do so. Instead, just as she originally petitioned her father, the river god Peneus to sanction her life of chastity, she must again seek her deliverance from him. "Help me, Peneus! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger! Let me be free of this man from this moment forward!"

Thus, it is not she who elects to be transformed into a laurel tree. That form is predetermined for her, by her father. It is the price she must pay for insisting on retaining her virginity and not being possessed by a man. Daphne may not have been physically raped, but her act of resistance has stripped her of her humanity. She is no longer Daphne.

Apollo, of course, being a god, suffers no punishment for his transgression Instead, not able to physically possess Daphne, he appropriates the symbolism of her sacrifice and transformation, thus concealing the enormity of his crime. Thus, he employs his powers of eternal youth and immortality to render Daphne evergreen stating, according to Ovid: "you also, wear always the perpetual honours of your foliage!" Daphne’s form is thus determined by her would-be rapist, forever.

Furthermore, while Apollo may not possess Daphne sexually, he will still employ her for his own ends, using her branches to adorn his hair, using her wood to make his arrows and his lyres. Even in her transformed state, he is able to violate her perennially and she is powerless to stop him. Eros, of course, the catalyst and instigator of this sexual assault, is nowhere to be seen.

The manner in which the myth has historically been depicted in art highlights its patriarchal aspects and the “ungendering” of the victim. All artists emphasise Daphne’s sexual allure. Bernini’s remarkable statue: “Apollo and Daphne” depicts Apollo clutching a nubile Daphne's hip, pursuing her as she vainly tries to escape him. Apollo, prefiguring his dominance over her, already wears a laurel crown, and Daphne is portrayed halfway through her metamorphosis into the laurel tree. No one is coming to her aid. In that statue, as well as Tiepolo’s famous baroque painting of the myth, Apollo is portrayed as youthful and naïve, ‘a good lad, who has just gotten a bit carried away.’ Significantly, in Tiepolo’s portrayal, Eros is also holding lasciviously rendered Daphne down to arrest her escape, even as her father rises to assert his rights over her. This then, is various an attempted gang-rape, or a dispute between men, about a woman.

In Gustav Klimt’s famous painting: “The Kiss,” a laurel-wreathed Apollo is portrayed in the act of taking possession: kissing an attractive, yet lifeless-like Daphne, whose feet seem to be bound by golden leaves. In an inversion of the myth, the scene is one of surrender. Here, everything revolves upon Apollo, in conversation with Ovid who, has Daphne, in her final form of the tree, observe "refugit tamen oscula lignum,"  “the wood flees the kisses again."

Enter local Greek-Australian artist Katrina Ginis, who, in her acrylic and metal leaf on paper painting: “Daphne,” provides a stark and thought-provoking retelling of the traditional myth. Firstly, what is noticeable is the absence of any male figure, protector or violator whatsoever. The male element of the myth is completely removed. This is deliberate. The artist is consciously inverting the myth in order, as she maintains: “to explore contemporary feminist concerns encompassing sexual harassment, objectification and oppression.”

Katrina Ginis’ Daphne does not need the protection of a man. The pater familias Peneus is replaced here by Gaea, the primeval Earth goddess and mother of all. She extends her hands, not to shield, or hide, or transform Daphne, but rather to support her. Daphne, not anyone else, is the agent of her own metamorphosis, determining the form and manner it will take. This is evidenced by the fact that Gaea does not touch Daphne. Instead, Gaea’s hands enclose rocks and a root ball, creating a heart shape. Here then, in pain, is life, and Daphne’s roots enclose it and encompass it. Unlike the outcome of the original myth, there is no male appropriation here. Even in her metamorphosed state, she, not anyone else, is empowered to be the master of her own foundation and is more than capable of defending it. Gaea’s act must thus be understood, in the artist’s words, as “a powerful act of inter-generational female solidarity.” It should not escape our attention that two more powerful women are present during her transformation: Νύξ, the primordial Night goddess, of whom Homer tells us in the Iliad, even the mighty Zeus was afraid, and Σελήνη, the lunar goddess and in some ways, the inverse of Apollo, since she was consumed with a mad passion for the eternally slumbering Endymion.

Daphne, as depicted by the artist, is saturated in femininity. The emphasis here is not on Daphne’s sexual choices or the concept of virginity  but rather, her role as an archetypal woman, in and of herself, a person, rather than an object, within an ultimately extraneous (because it is not depicted) patriarchal system. Katrina Ginis does not shy away from portraying Daphne as an erotic figure. Yet that eroticism is steeped in anguish. Indeed, possibly nowhere in the history of art, has there ever been a Daphne depicted with so much grief, a grief borne of being compelled to lose her own hypostasis and womanhood. As the artist explains:  “I feel it metaphorically exemplifies the manner in which women often feel forced to suppress or alter aspects of their identities to gain acceptance or ensure their safety within patriarchal societies.”

Yet there is another possible variant interpretation of Daphne’s transformation at the hands of Katrina Ginis. Rather than a grieving woman in the process of turning into a tree, it is plausible that what we are actually witnessing is Daphne the laurel tree, in the very process, after much suffering, but also with support from generations of other women, of triumphantly reclaiming her original womanhood. The expertly rendered expression on her countenance is thus not just one of despair for all she has endured and the forms the patriarchy have compelled her to conform to and to define herself by, but also, most tellingly, one of victory and achievement. This Daphne has, in transcending the patriarchy, managed to reclaim her identity. The entire composition is pervaded by a sense of immense immanent power. This is the reason why none of the offending or controlling male figures are depicted. In the very act of reversing the original metamorphosis, she has not just rendered these males redundant, but through her emancipation, an achievement all of her own, has set them at nought, creating in the process, an interesting dialogue with another work of art on the same theme, Audrey Flack’s sculpture: “Daphne: Earth goddess” at the University of North Dakota, where the deified Daphne’s branches actually bear fruit. In Ginis’ world however, this is not merely Spring. It is the Revolution.

A finalist in the 2015 Manning Art Prize, recipient of the Tolarno Hotels’ annual acquisitive prize and having exhibited her work at the Manning Regional Gallery, The Gallery Voltaire, The Black Cat Gallery and The Linden Gallery, Katrina Ginis’ close reading of the myth of Apollo and Daphne, has resulted in a considered and polysemic work of iconoclastic brilliance that defies clichés and opens new pathways for exploring and expressing all that is signified in one of the most disturbing but also most absorbing, myths of classical mythology.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 April 2020