Nature and myth in art

Published 30 August 2021

Author, classicist and comedian, Natalie Haynes, explores the theme of nature in classical mythology, from Bernini and Giambattista Tiepolo, to John William Waterhouse RA.

  • From the Summer 2021 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    It’s all Apollo’s fault, as Ovid tells it. Pierced by the golden arrow of Eros (his punishment for mocking the god of love), he pursues the river nymph Daphne like a predator. She rejects him and Apollo tries to talk her round by claiming that he’s not really a wolf chasing a lamb, lion chasing deer, eagle chasing dove. This isn’t hunter and hunted: it’s love that forces him to pursue her. And yet his relentless harrying forces Daphne to pray to her father to change her form. And Peneus heeds her prayer and turns his daughter into a laurel tree. Even now, Apollo cannot resist her. He embraces her branches, caresses her fresh-forming bark.

    Bernini’s sculpture of the pair stands in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Apollo is grabbing at Daphne as she is mid-transformation. Her hands have already turned to branches, leaves sprouting from her fingers. Her mouth is open in a silent scream, her eyes swivel, trying to look back at her pursuer. Yet Apollo looks almost serene as he wraps his hand around her hip. He may have told her they were not predator and prey, but it certainly looks that way. Here is nature, not red in tooth and claw but creamy in smooth white marble.

  • Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne

    Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25.

  • As so often in Greek myth – and particularly when it is collected and retold for a Roman audience by Ovid – nature is shown to be a set of contradictions: Daphne is saved by a river god, transformed into a tree. And yet her bucolic salvation is also her destruction. The laurel tree is safe from Apollo’s unwanted sexual desire, but the river nymph is lost.

    The idea that the natural world is entirely subject to the whims of love is one that we can find advanced by Lucretius, in his epic poem from the first century BCE, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). It begins with an appeal to Venus, thanks to whom (the poet says) every type of living creature is conceived. Cole Porter might have phrased things differently when he reminded us that birds, bees and even educated fleas do it, but the principle is broadly the same.

  • Giambattista Tiepolo, The Death of Hyacinthus

    Giambattista Tiepolo, The Death of Hyacinthus, 1752-53.

  • Sexual desire – whether reciprocated or not – is certainly integral to the stories the Greeks and Romans told about nature. Hyacinthus, a young man admired by gods and mortals alike, chooses Apollo to be his lover. But Hyacinthus is killed by a discus blow to the head (either by accident or the malice of a jealous lover, Zephyrus, god of the west wind). Giambattista Tiepolo’s The Death of Hyacinthus (above) imagines Hyacinthus sprawled beneath a horrified Apollo, although it appears to be a ball rather than a discus that has felled him. In Ovid’s version of the story, his body is compared to drooping flowers with broken stalks: a violet, a poppy, a lily. From the blood-soaked ground, a bright purple hyacinth sprouts.

    Another beautiful young man, Narcissus, attracts the attention of the mountain nymph Echo, but he rejects her advances, telling her he would rather die. Echo wastes away until she becomes nothing but a voice. Narcissus is finally cursed by another spurned lover, who prays to the goddess Nemesis that Narcissus should fall in love with someone he can’t have. Nemesis answers the prayer and Narcissus becomes infatuated with his own reflection. His misery is a double punishment: not only can he not have what he desires, but his tears of sorrow fall into the pool and cause ripples, so he can’t even see himself. First his beauty fades away, then his life. Finally his body disappears, replaced by a yellow flower. In John William Waterhouse’s painting of the myth, Echo and Narcissus (below), narcissi have already begun to sprout beside Narcissus’s outstretched leg, as he leans towards the water to find a better view.

  • John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus

    John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus, 1903.

    oil on canvas. Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool / Bridgeman Images.

  • Not all of the stories of mortals or nymphs being turned into plants and trees are so sad, however. For Philemon and Baucis, it is a reward. The old couple entertain two strangers in their home when none of their neighbours is welcoming. The strangers are Jupiter and Mercury in disguise, and they are so pleased with the humble meal they are given that they tell the couple to follow them up to the mountains, because their neighbours are to be punished for their unkindness. Ovid describes them climbing up into the mountains, tired and using their walking sticks. When they look back, they see every house is now under water except their own, which has become a temple.

    When Jupiter offers to grant them a wish, Philemon and Baucis ask to be allowed to die at the same time, so that neither has to bury the other. Their prayer is answered when their lives reach their end and they are turned together into trees. They see the leaves forming on one another and just have time to say goodbye. It is surely one of the most beautiful love stories in mythology. The couple do not have the passionate intensity of young lovers, but their steady devotion and generosity is rewarded with perpetual companionship.

  • It is such a sweet story that it’s almost possible to overlook the horrifying element: every one of their neighbours has been obliterated. And for what? Not answering the door to two strange men. But Greek and Roman gods do have a propensity for casual violence. And Ovid keeps the focus so tightly on the married couple that we forget the hugely destructive power of nature (flood narratives exist in multiple mythologies, from Deucalion and Noah to Utnapishtim in Mesopotamian myth).

    So the natural world is again presented as salvation and destruction, depending on one’s perspective. But consistently in Roman sources, a life lived in the countryside is presented as something desirable: Virgil writes extensively about rural life, including a whole book of poetry in the Georgics about beekeeping. He often employs nature similes in his epic poem, The Aeneid, for example, where Aeneas’ bustling Trojans are compared to ants trying to store wheat for the winter; Dido, injured by the barbs of love, is like a wounded deer. Virgil, like many of his contemporaries, needed both the culture and resources of Rome (the emperor Augustus’s close friend Maecenas was Virgil’s patron) and the beauty and simplicity – as he perceived it – of the countryside.

  • Titian, The Death of Actaeon

    Titian, The Death of Actaeon, c.1559-75.

  • Virgil’s contemporary Horace was also entranced by the idea of a simple life in the country. Is it a real notion of rural life that he embraces? Probably not. But perhaps compared with the noise and chaos and stench of the city, it was an understandable ideal. It is from Horace that we have the story of the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. The town mouse disdains his cousin’s plain food when he visits the countryside. But the country mouse finds that the luxurious scraps available in town come at a price: vicious guard dogs. Horace couldn’t have made a living as a poet without his metropolitan fans, but his heart was in the country.

    A hundred years or so after Horace, the epigrammatist Martial coins a phrase which is still in use today. Writing to his friend Sparsus, he explains that it is too noisy for him to sleep in Rome: that’s one of the downsides of being poor. It’s alright for Sparsus, he grumbles, with his fancy suburban villa overlooking the hills (and not the small streets full of teachers, corn grinders and ironmongers). Sparsus enjoys a taste of the countryside in the city: “rus in urbe”. But Martial has to go to the country if he wants some peace. Martial’s poverty, we might note, is not so great that it prevents him from having a second home.

  • Perhaps this is the essence of the Roman infatuation with an idealised countryside: it is something we can control if we bring it into the city. Left untamed, the natural world may be beautiful but it can be dangerous. Look at Eurydice, who according to Virgil is bitten by a snake as she flees the sexual predation of Aristaeus. She doesn’t see the snake precisely because the scene is so idyllic: it is hiding in the long grass that grows untamed next to a river.

    If you had to pick a single location where peril seems to be woven into the very nature of the place, it would surely be Mount Cithaeron. In Greek myth it plays a crucial role in Oedipus’s story (he is supposed to be abandoned there, as a baby, but is instead handed over to a man from Corinth, which enables the whole disastrous fate of this king of Thebes to unfold decades later). But there is also an earlier Theban king, Pentheus, who meets an unhappy end on the mountainside. He has resisted the worship of Dionysus, a wild new god who has seduced the women of Thebes into leaving the city for Cithaeron. In Euripides’ play The Bacchae, a herdsman tells of his alarm seeing them suckling wild creatures and having the strength to tear flesh from bones. Pentheus is dismembered by these women, among them his own mother.

    For the Romans the mountain also provides a sticky end for Actaeon, who catches sight of Diana bathing. This story inspired Titian’s masterpiece The Death of Actaeon (c.1559-75; left), which captures the moment when Diana has turned him into a stag, and he is torn apart by his own hounds. This too is nature, just as much as the desirable retirement Horace wants, or the source of inspiration Virgil finds. It is beautiful and terrifying at once, a place that can provide relaxation and retribution, life and death. But it is always there in our minds, even the minds of the city-dwellers. And if we can’t be in it, we seek to recreate it.

    Natalie Haynes is a classicist and comedian. Her latest book is Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths (Picador).

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