Femininity has been subjugated by man since the beginning of time. Take a look at classical mythology: the ancient discipline is ripe with stories of gods manipulating mortal women and goddesses alike into sexual rendezvous, messing with the natural order of things in order to get what they want. Zeus can change into any animal he wants so he can allure by deception, and many other gods and demigods cast curses on their women to take away their agencies: they become animals, plants, monsters, you name it.
There’s this one myth that I keep going back to, the myth of Apollo and Daphne. In this one, it’s the female who does the shape-shifting. It begins as follows: Apollo, a god, notices Daphne, a young nymph, when walking through the forest one day. She’s stunning, so of course, he immediately falls in love with her. Set upon seizing her for his own, he chases after her. Daphne, however, has already committed to lifelong chastity under oath of the virgin goddess Artemis. As Apollo closes in on her, Daphne quickly prays to her father, the river god Peneus, to destroy the beauty that entices Apollo, and soon her body twists and transforms into a laurel tree. Though her beauty still prevails in her tree form, all Apollo can do now is embrace her trunk and fashion himself a crown of laurel leaves in her remembrance. As a tree, Daphne escapes Apollo’s sexual advances and maintains her virginity while still upholding her extreme beauty.
But there’s a catch that isn’t really talked about in this myth: Daphne’s tree form does not completely spare her from Apollo’s advances. Sure, it protects her from rape, but the tree’s appearance is still as beautiful as her nymph body was—Apollo still feels affection for gorgeous Daphne. In poet Ovid’s original translation of the myth, Apollo proceeds to touch her branches and kiss the wooden bark as if it were tender skin. His ability to tear off some of her branches to craft a laurel wreath to wear upon his head suggests that he retains his ability to dominate her after all. Some critics call the wreath his “consolation prize” as a result of the chase. At any rate, he still wins something. But what is Daphne left with? She loses her agency and her ability to be mobile after her transformation, and he succeeds in his quest to capture her. The myth in itself is a chasing game in which male Apollo is the hunter and female Daphne is the prey. She must sacrifice her very being in order to escape the danger of what would be her rape. It is difficult to say whether or not Daphne triumphs in the end, because although she preserves her virginity, she still does not fully escape Apollo’s unfettered desires, and she still loses a crucial part of her—both her human-like body and the branches Apollo rips from her trunk.
Now picture this: a new Daphne. When walking through the forest one day, the god Apollo notices her, but today, she notices him too. They’re both thinking, “you’re beautiful,” which in this context basically means “you’re sexy.” They approach each other slowly and start to talk, no frantic running or chasing, and they really hit it off. He pours libations, and they both drink. Daphne’s a virgin, but she’s not really interested in pledging her cherry away to some goddess in the sky. Honestly, she’s pretty horny, and she feels ready to go for gold. Apollo couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
Apollo’s presence brings out a boldness in Daphne that she’s never really felt before, and she asks him, “Do you want to go somewhere?” That “somewhere” becomes Apollo’s apartment, then his bedroom, then the sheets upon his bed. He repeatedly caresses her face and hair, the softness a far cry from the rough textures of tree bark and leafy branches, saying, “You’re so beautiful. I’m serious.”
And then, with Apollo, whom Daphne had only known for about thirty minutes, the inevitable happened. Her very first time. It was just about everything she hoped it would be. Apollo kept telling her that he wanted to see her face while they fucked. He kissed her chest over and over; he said he loved the pureness of her mortal body, not yet explored by man. Daphne played with his necklace; he played with her nipples. She bled on his sheets. She told him to keep going until he got what he needed. He asked her if she was okay over and over again. She responded with “yes” each time. One hour later, he held her against his chest and stroked her naked back. She cried a little, but not from feeling sad. Maybe she just needed to process the transition from one phase of life to the next. He let her, and he brushed the drunken tears from her cheeks. He held her hand and walked her back to her little home in the forest, giving her a gentle 3 a.m. good-night kiss before parting ways. All this from a complete stranger, and a god at that. Daphne was hopeful. So sex can be this good. Men can be this good. Who knew.
After this, Daphne kind of gave her body away to Apollo to manipulate how he liked. He was a smooth dude, and Daphne basically did as she was told. After all, she was brand new at this. She didn’t want to overthink it, didn’t want to ruin things. Because this love affair with Apollo stretched and extended; it gave her something she’d never had before it. Everything about her he loved: her ass, her lips, her breasts, her skin, her teeth, her pussy. He told her what it felt like to be inside of her. She’d never known what she was like inside; she didn’t know it could feel like something significant. Like something worth talking about. She coveted this admiration, this fascination with her body that no one before him had ever expressed. She felt like an absolute treasure, no longer ashamed of her mortality.
Sometimes, he referred to her as “my queen.” Her, a mere nymph, suddenly a queen. She absolutely indulged in that shit—all the undivided attention he gave to her. He liked watching her face when he played with her clit, and she liked watching him right back. He wanted to see her reactions; she wanted to see how much these reactions pleased him. It turned him on, feeling her shiver all over and hearing her cry out while her face morphed into contortions of electric joy. She relished in the new sensations he showed to her. She had always wanted to be wanted like this. Maybe she was just afraid no one else would love her in such a way; maybe she was afraid she wouldn’t find an admirer as devoted as he is—was.
But this type of intimacy—this “friend with benefits” tagged transaction—never seems to progress neatly, neither in ancient Greece nor in modern day. What Daphne wanted and what Apollo wanted just didn’t always align. She wanted the pleasure, the admiration, but she knew things between them could only exist in a bed. And now she was curious—she wanted to branch out. Find other gods or nymphs or centaurs to drive her wild. But he was starting to get protective of her, as if he wanted her all to himself. Daphne could sense it in the kisses he placed on her forehead, in the invitations he sent asking her to come over for dinner, in the gifts he offered to buy for her. Every time he accidentally said “I love you” when they were tangled up naked, an amalgamation of limbs both mortal and immortal. Daphne always corrected him, “No, you don’t,” she’d tell him, kissing his lips into silence.
Eventually, Apollo figured out what he had to do to win her undivided affection. He had to take away the most valuable thing Daphne had, and then maybe she’d be his forever. He had to start by shaking her at 6 a.m. and climbing on top of her still-sleeping body, putting something inside of her that had no business being there under circumstances such as these. How could he make her his forever? She was all at once a laurel tree, immortalized by his intrusion. She’d never be able to leave him now, he thought. All he had to do was reach the very deepest core of her trunk, the most intimate, most vulnerable place of her entire being. Her place. A place she didn’t fully understand yet but a place she loved dearly and kept mostly to herself.
Apollo still wears a stolen crown of her leaves on his head, but look at how bountifully she can grow even without that branch he ripped away from her, even with that stain of his greed nestled deep inside her core. In the depths of winter, she shrivels a little from the memory of him, but then spring comes and she blooms so magnificently. She stands strong and sturdy, and she’s able to drink in sunshine and tether herself into the ground and cast shade over the nymphs who dance joyfully in circles around her base. She feels a need to protect them, now.
Trees change from season to season. They are remarkable in their ability to shapeshift and withstand a wide variety of extremes from the dynamic environment around them. There is so much happening underneath that peaceful, seemingly static outer layer of bark. Enough to form scar tissue each autumn so their leaves can drop, produce hormones to prevent the threat of winter dehydration, and protect these same cells with lipids to prevent them from freezing over entirely. They learn how to protect themselves with each overturning cycle. Then comes the tree’s spring, and all good things with it. Life regenerated in full bloom.
Still, as ever, the laurel tree is prone to subjugation. But Apollo didn’t know what a tree was capable of. He didn’t know that trees have secret powers.
Hallie O’Neill is a recent graduate of Drake University with a degree in writing and anthropology-sociology.