Ovid alone tells this story. Only a Roman could have written it. A Greek poet would never have thought of an elegant dress and coiffure for the wood nymph.
Daphne was another of those independent, love-and-marriage-hating young huntresses who are met with so often in the mythological stories. She is said to have been Apollo’s first love. It is not strange that she fled from him. One unfortunate maiden after another beloved of the gods had had to kill her child secretly or be killed herself. The best such a one could expect was exile, and many women thought that worse than death. The ocean nymphs who visited Prometheus on the crag in the Caucasus spoke only the most ordinary common sense when they said to him:—
May you never, oh, never behold me
Sharing the couch of a god.
May none of the dwellers in heaven
Draw near to me ever.
Such love as the high gods know,
From whose eyes none can hide,
May that never be mine.
To war with a god-lover is not war,
It is despair.
Daphne would have agreed completely. But indeed she did not want any mortal lovers either. Her father, the river-god Peneus, was greatly tried because she refused all the handsome and eligible young men who wooed her. He would scold her gently and lament, “Am I never to have a grandson?” But when she threw her arms around him and coaxed him, “Father, dearest, let me be like Diana,” he would yield and she would be off to the deep woods, blissful in her freedom.
But at last Apollo saw her, and everything ended for her. She was hunting, her dress short to the knee, her arms bare, her hair in wild disarray. Nevertheless she was enchantingly beautiful. Apollo thought, “What would she not look like properly dressed and with her hair nicely arranged?” The idea made the fire that was devouring his heart blaze up even more fiercely and he started off in pursuit. Daphne fled, and she was an excellent runner. Even Apollo for a few minutes was hard put to it to overtake her; still, of course, he soon gained. As he ran, he sent his voice ahead of him, entreating her, persuading her, reassuring her. “Do not fear,” he called. “Stop and find out who I am, no rude rustic or shepherd. I am the Lord of Delphi, and I love you.”
But Daphne flew on, even more frightened than before. If Apollo was indeed following her, the case was hopeless, but she was determined to struggle to the very end. It had all but come; she felt his breath upon her neck, but there in front of her the trees opened and she saw her father’s river. She screamed to him, “Help me! Father, help me!” At the words a dragging numbness came upon her, her feet seemed rooted in the earth she had been so swiftly speeding over. Bark was enclosing her; leaves were sprouting forth. She had been changed into a tree, a laurel.
Apollo watched the transformation with dismay and grief. “O fairest of maidens, you are lost to me,” he mourned. “But at least you shall be my tree. With your leaves my victors shall wreathe their brows. You shall have your part in all my triumphs. Apollo and his laurel shall be joined together wherever songs are sung and stories told.”
The beautiful shining-leaved tree seemed to nod its waving head as if in happy consent.