Not only the name of Scooby Doo’s beautiful friend, but also that of a νύμφη (a sexually active unmarried κορη, ‘maiden’), Δάφνη (Daphne) means ‘Laurel’ in Ancient Greek and, according to mythology, she was just as sweet as a flower. The story of this independent woman, independence which could also earn women the title of νύμφη despite their actual sexual activity, is quite telling.
Daphne had no small parentage; she was the daughter of Γῆ (Gaia), Mother Earth herself, and a river god named Ladon. River gods and Mother Earth get together quite often to create small rivers, ponds, lakes, and any other inland water sources which, in turn, were taken care of by the Naiads, daughters of Nature such as Daphne.
As sweet as the Naiad gig sounds, there was one catch for for these women who dedicated themselves to nature more than marriage: sexual victimization. In this case, the beautiful and independent Daphne caught the eye of Apollo, god of reason and son of Zeus. Enter the power of the cautionary tale. Apollo, uncharacteristically bragging about his ability with the bow, offended the greatest archer of the pantheon, Eros. In his righteous anger, Eros shot Apollo with a golden arrow which caused any god or man, when struck, to fall in love with the person they saw next. Apollo saw Daphne and then, in order to make his revenge complete, Eros shot Daphne with a lead arrow, which caused her to reject the first god or man she saw. Thus begun the chase of Apollo, as Daphne attempted to avoid him. When Daphne thought herself caught she implored to Zeus for her freedom. The Father of the Gods, in turn, changed Daphne into a Laurel tree.
The story (and there are variants, although they all end in the same way) speaks of women and their capability of choice – or lack thereof. This, of course, was a cautionary tale designed to ‘help’ women understand the dangers of the world, especially when they roamed the woods independently, where men abounded. As creatures who fell victim to Eros and his golden arrows, men could not be held responsible for wanting some action, but women could be held responsible for what was described as nymphomaniac behavior; thus responsibility fell on women, but not to choose, but to summon the power of their father (Zeus) and protect themselves by virtue of the men they were associated with. The assumption was that if women were caught (and let’s remember a woman of suitable age for sexual approach was anywhere from 13-15) by a pursuer, there would be nothing she could (or should) do to prevent forcible rape. The only solution was self-destruction; but even that meant self destruction at the hands of the men who controlled her life.
Control is the key here. Controlling women’s behavior through cautionary tales that scare them into believing there are no options when pursued relentlessly by a male. Instead of helping Daphne defend herself, Zeus changes her; instead of chiding Apollo, Zeus takes care of the supposedly offending party, Daphne, who should not have been out in the woods by herself. These themes are extremely pervading in our modern world and, despite the romantic notions of mythology we must remember that it is empowerment that brings strength, not cautionary tales that bring fear and anxiety. If women (or goddesses) are pursued, they should be able to fight; if they have to report abuse, they should be believed and, if the criminal is caught, he should be punished to the full extent of the law. Empowerment is equality, anything less, is simply, well, Ancient.
Scooby Doo’s Daphne is admired for both her beauty and smarts, for her sense of style and her independence; we should all aspire to hold such a position in the eyes of others. When it comes to women’s control of their own sexuality, don’t think like the ancients.