Spirituality and Mythology

Why men can’t take ‘no’ for an answer

While Apollo and Daphne are traditionally seen as a story of unfulfilled love, to the modern eye it seems to be a very different affair

Time and again, movies have depicted the helplessness of a girl or a woman towards her predator (read rapist). Men, and lately teenagers (in Drishyam and Mom) have been unable to take ‘no’ for an answer and have reacted violently to denial. Though Pink tried to highlight ‘No means no’, this often direct refrain is rarely understood, and only raises the ‘anger and humiliation’ of the predator to avenge his ‘insult’, often again with an act or attempt to rape.

“Here is a brilliant scene from Pink where actor Amitabh tries to explain why men should take refusal seriously.”

In a different article we discussed how rape is a potent weapon to silence the woman, and this act, though often avenged through acts of retribution or justice in due course (often delayed), what is often missed out is the trauma of the victim. The aforementioned films have often depicted this trauma, which definitely has left the victims scarred for life. The depiction of Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS) of the victim in Mom is heart-wrenching enough to hinder any parent from enjoying the movie for the drama, by being caught up in the event.

Myths have often depicted such acts in great detail, but society has changed many such narratives to suit its needs. The myth of Apollo and Daphne, often seen as an example of failed love, is one such example of male domination and female suffering. Sculptors and painters have depicted them in high erotica and it’s worth gazing at the art, which has often led to missing the wood for the trees.

Apollo is the son of Zeus and Leto, and one of the most handsome gods of the Greek pantheon, who, depending on the myth, is the god of poetry, music, the sun, etc. Daphne, a nymph, is the daughter of the river god. She is a free spirit and has decided to enjoy her individuality and remain a virgin, much to the disappointment of her father, who longs to see her married and with children. Apollo, fresh from the success of having killed the giant python, sees Daphne and falls in love with her and proposes to her. Daphne isn’t interested in anyone and rejects him outright.

Apollo, not deterred by her rejection, pursues her, first by bragging about himself and his prowess and then threatening her.

Somewhere in the wooing, lust overtakes love and Daphne is beginning to realise that her simple denial isn’t going to be enough.

She flees, with Apollo following close at her heels. This flight and the chase have been evocatively portrayed by Ovid in his Metamorphosis, and it begins to seem less a pursuit of love and more the chasing of prey by a predator. Very clearly, Apollo isn’t accepting the denial and won’t leave Daphne to her voluntary virginity; obviously, Apollo doesn’t know the meaning of ‘no’.

White statue of Apollo and Daphne
Image Source

The chase soon becomes a hunt and Daphne can see her imminent rape. Ovid describes the flight as “In an open field, one runs for game, one safety”. Daphne is left with no choice but to urge her father to change her form before she’s raped. She’s willing to forgo her form, which brought her the present predicament, to avoid the lustful advances of the god. Daphne’s father responds to her request and soon, “a heavy numbness seizes her limbs; her soft breasts are surrounded by a thin bark, her hair changes into foliage, her forearms change into branches; her foot, just now swift, now clings because of sluggish roots”, as she turns into a laurel tree. Metamorphosis goes on to describe the last moments of Apollo feeling her, placing “his hand where he had hoped and felt the heart still beating, under the bark; and he embraced the branches, as if they were still limbs, and kissed the wood, and the wood shrank from his kisses.” Sheer disgust from Daphne, even in her dying moments.

The myth ends with a strange irony. Apollo declares “Always my hair will have you, my lyres will have you, my quivers will have you, laurel tree.”

Daphne, even in her transformation (read death), has no choice but to adorn Apollo’s head. While she managed to save her virginity, she ends up being owned by Apollo forever.

For ages, we’ve eulogised this myth as one of unfulfilled love, from the perspective of the man, but have never seen it as a story of male domination and female silencing on denial.

Related reading: Violence was lurking close to murdered techie Swathi

Was this a conditioning over the ages or was this subverted on purpose, as from time immemorial certain women (if not all) had no choice? Nymphs were considered to be sexual creatures in ancient Roman times, and thus the term ‘nymphomaniac’, though Daphne had vowed to be a virgin, much like the goddess Diana. Daphne, however, is no goddess, and thus her being pursued by a god isn’t seen as out of place. Her ‘no’ is of no consequence and her ultimate transformation too is in vain.

Not much has changed. Even today, boys and men aren’t able to take ‘no’ for an answer from a girl or a woman. Denial is often seen as rejection and reason enough to rape. While time might have coloured the myth into a case of love and often the myth begins “Daphne was Apollo’s first love” and ends with the depiction of a ‘grieving Apollo’, reading between the lines very clearly shows an unyielding man making sure advances towards the victim. His ‘courting’ is even shorter than his ‘threats to yield’ and the victim loses herself, to be silenced forever and tragically ends up as ‘his’.

Time to read the myths afresh?

NB – Quotes are from the text of Metamorphosis by Ovid


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