Through the Back Door of Myth: Before the Metamorphoses
Darkling they went,
Under the lonely night,
Through the shadow…
— Virgil’s Aeneid
Cursed to always repeat the last words she hears, Echo is a guiding spirit when it comes to regurgitated myths. Sisyphus rolls on, over and over, while Tantalus bows and reaches, without a bite or drop to drink. Narcissus remains narcissistic just as the winged Icarus falls, in yet another version of faulty ambition. Even mentioning these mythological figures will often garner a knowing nod: ‘No surprise there…that narcissistic creep flew too close to the sun…must have been tantalizing…it’d make anyone go mad, the ups and downs in that echo chamber.’ Popular myths still hold power, but much of the depth and richness has been leeched out of them, one cliche or malapropism at a time. So many of the timeless truths hidden in myth have been crushed to pieces by assumed familiarity, the cherry-picking of mythology. Many of these truths are beyond tragic and hidden by transformations and the hubris of gods and ruthless mortals, never mind the scholars. There is a back door in myths and legends, one that opens out and into the deeper darks of forgetfulness.
Help me! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger!
— Daphne, Ovid’s Metamorphoses
These are the pleas of the nymph Daphne, with the god Apollo on her sylvan trail, divinely intent on raping her. The earth would enclose her and her form would change. Daphne’s desperate words are met with the sudden metamorphosis of her body into a laurel tree, through the magic of her father, a river god. Faced with a changed Daphne, Apollo developed an obsession with the laurel tree after her metamorphosis, one that would later bestow the laurel wreath upon the victorious heads of athletes, poets, musicians and politicians, a practice that continues to this day. Where Daphne of the rivers, streams and brooks lost everything but material form, Apollo found sport and a narcissistic victory he never won, since this was never a game. Daphne escaped her genuine form and found a kind of rest in her woodsy silence, a tragedy-imbued survival in a brutal myth. Another door opens into a further darkness.
You know how Syrinx turned into a plant with reedy growth substituted for her own, when she had fled from Pan’s love, and how she still sings Pan’s desire…
— Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Machismo stomps sparks with his hooves while he plays the reed pipe and his name is Pan. When the rustic God of the Wild galloped in hard pursuit of the nymph Syrinx and drove her to the riverbank, Syrinx’s fellow nymphs transformed her into water reeds. This saved the nymph from his lusty clutches, since Pan embraced a handful of the reeds she had become. ‘You and I shall stay in unison!’, he grunted, most likely in a bass-baritone of false profundity. The sound that issued from the reed inspired the man-goat to cut varying lengths, whereby he fashioned the first set of panpipes, also known as the syrinx. While this tragic nymph’s name is also the root of syringe, Syrinx joined the rooted ranks of Daphne, ever-growing wildly, but just as forgotten. Another door opens darkly, beyond the dark of the further darkness.
And then she pulled apart the darkling branches and saw…
— Imagined Glance of Daphne
There is beauty in the darkness, a latent strength in the grim wind. Within the dark realm of the forgotten reeds and laurel tree — along with all the nameless and unnamed nymphs and heroines — there are whispers of unwritten lives lived before these metamorphoses. Rather than succumb to the will of the gods, nymphs and mortals faced death and transformation, eternal mockery and fates worse than death, in courageous battles mostly lost. Beyond such narcissistic perversions of the laurel wreath and panpipe, there were doomed Echos and Arachnids, countless Daphnes and a world full of reeds whistling in the wind. Such courage in the face of certain doom points to some kind of imagined past of a ‘true’ myth, imperative backstories of the neglected Changed Ones, the hidden words preceding the written ones, rather than those often empty words carved in dead stone that primarily focus on the blind will of the gods and heroes. These heroines backstories are written in water and air, punctuated by mountains and perform a roundabout the world in three flaps of the mermaid’s tail. The darkling branches in the darker wind point the way: Their end is their beginning…