Babes in the Woods: Longus’ Daphnis & Chloe

“[A]bsolutely no one has ever escaped Love nor ever shall, as long as beauty exists and eyes can see.” — Daphnis & Chloe, prologue

For our part, may the gods grant us proper detachment in depicting the story of others.” (ibid—and my new writing mantra)

[Daphnis & Chloe, Marc Chagall (1977)]

As threatened multiple times, we’re circling back to more of the early Greek novels this week and talking about Longus and his work, Daphnis & Chloe. I had planned to follow this up in a couple of weeks with the last of the 2nd century novels, Xenophon of Ephesus’ Anthia & Habrocomes (The Ephesian Tale), but honestly folks, A&H is like a Cliff Notes non-union mashup of Callirhoe and Leucippe & Clitophon. So if you want the rundown on that one, read my previous entries on the better versions of it and imagine their stories being told in a shorter, even less narratively coherent way, and you’ll pretty much get the gist of Anthia & Habrocomes. Though A&H does additionally jam in two iterations of the folklore motif generally referred to as the “Potiphar’s Wife” trope, and the story of a fisherman who keeps his beloved dead wife as a mummifed Real Doll in his house that is presented as sweet and not unhinged. I’ll do a full entry for Anthia & Habrocomes if y’all really clamor for it, but aside from these few weird additions, it really is just another Leucippe & Clitophon but with even more pirate kidnappings, death fake-outs, white slaving, and vague divine intervention.

[Because of its rushed style, there is some thought that the Anthia & Habrocomes we have may be a gloss of a longer work. Conversely, because of the uncertainty of when exactly all these stories were written, it is thought that A&H may be either a bad genre imitation of Callirhoe and Leucippe & Clitophon (think of all those teen vampire ripoffs that came out after Twilight)—or even possibly that A&H is the original work and the other two are more competent reworkings of an earlier idea.]

All of which brings us back to Daphnis & Chloe. As some of you might recall from my entry on Leucippe & Clitophon, I said that it and D&C were considered similar plot-wise. However, after reading both, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with the scholars who led me to that conclusion. Aside from using ekphrasis as a framing device, and the presence of some of the common plot devices that all four of the pre-3rd century Greek novels share (young love, pirates, romantic rivals), I found Daphnis & Chloe to be the most sophisticated and stylistically “modern” of these stories. Whereas Callirhoe, L&C, and A&H are structured as action-driven episodes, D&C is more like a series of vignettes interspersed with brief interludes of action. In the other novels, action leads to situations that must be heroically overcome; while in D&C, perils created by action are minor speed bumps in restoring the status quo. Our paired lovers aren’t globetrotting the Mediterranean in search of one another after a contrived love-at-first-sight meet-cute—this is a story of two teenagers who fall mutually in love with each other over a much more realistic timeframe. In short, to quote translator Jeffrey Henderson, D&C is “more internal and psychological than external” (introduction to the Loeb edition, p. 6).

This might explain why it has arguably been the most enduringly popular of the ancient Greek novels as well, inspiring works as disparate as Shakespeare’s The Tempest to the trashy 1980’s The Blue Lagoon. Its story has been the basis of lithographs by Chagall, a ballet by Ravel, and three operas (by voices as wide-ranging as Offenbach and Rousseau). Its basic plot has been adapted into medieval chanson poems, silent-era cinema, and a 21st-century radio play. Daphnis & Chloe is interested in its leads as characters—what they think and feel—more than it is concerned with holding its audience’s attention with cheap theatrical thrills. In terms of tone on a scale of high to low (think like between Proust and the same era’s penny dreadfuls), Daphnis & Chloe is probably the most “complete” work among the Greek novels, with Callirhoe, Leucippe & Clitophon, and Anthia & Habrocomes following in descending quality. I genuinely enjoyed D&C and Callirhoe, while Leucippe & Clitophon has its moments for sheer ridiculousness, but Anthia & Habrocomes, particularly on the heels of the others, was mostly just exhausting in terms of story and pace. If it was somehow the first, it left a lot of room to for posterity to improve on it.

[Léon Bakst’s original 1912 set design for Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé]

We know even less about Daphnis & Chloe’s author Longus than we do about the other Greek novelists, in part because no geographical nomen has come down to us, which leaves his origins and nationality much in doubt. We don’t even have sketchy medieval source material like the Suda to play with like we do for Achilles Tatius, or unverifiable autobiographical textual asides as we do for Chariton of Aphrodisias. Longus’ name is Roman, but like Achilles Tatius, the style of his Greek prose implies that he was a native speaker of the language as opposed to a native speaker of Latin writing in a second language (intro, p. 3-4). It has been speculated, based on his singular Roman name, that Longus might have been the freedman of a Latin family with the cognomen Longus, but there is no hard evidence to support this. Because the other Greek novelists tended to set their stories in their hometowns or in places they were familiar with, it is generally assumed that Longus was from the island of Lesbos, like the setting of D&C, but again, this is purely conjecture. Despite the lack of extant papyri versions of the text that usually assist archeologists and historians with dating, we are fairly certain, based on the textual style of the novel’s Greek, that Longus wrote it in the mid to late 2nd century CE, though like Anthia & Habrocomes, it may have been written as late as the early 3rd century.

As I touched on in my analysis of Leucippe & Clitophon, some scholars see Daphnis & Chloe as a genre parody of the bucolic, pastoral style, in part because Lesbos was an unusual choice of setting for a genre that tended to favor mainland locales like Arcadia. However, I didn’t see any real case for satire in the text as translated aside from some mild humor at the expense of our protagonist’s’ rather endearing naïveté. Henderson seems to agree with my reading, calling the tone of D&C somewhat more realistic than the sometimes overblown heightened idealism of the pastoral genre, but lacking the particular ironical posture of urban-sourced Greek literature meant to skewer plodding, dull-witted country folk (introduction, p. 6). The farmers and herders of D&C are by and large portrayed sympathetically by the narrator—particularly compared to most of the city people who flit in and out of the plot, who are more likely to be depicted as cunning and/or troublemakers. This is supported also by the novel’s finale, which sees our lovers chose a country life over one in the city even after they are both revealed to be socially superior to their bucolic upbringing.

[Daphnis and Chloe, Jean-Pierre Cortot (1787-1843)]

There is also a tangible sympathy and knowledge for the rhythms of the natural world and the agricultural calendar in the text of Daphnis & Chloe that belies the idea that is was written to be dismissive of this way of life. And Longus is careful to make sure everything happens at the right time for his protagonists living in a farming environment. We spend a lot of time with Daphnis, Chloe, and their flocks, but the teenagers’ routines change as the seasons do. When it would be the appropriate time for the grape harvest and wine pressing, they leave off their normal chores to pitch in with that because that’s what would have been expected in these rural communities. In the winter, our lovers see less of one another because sheep and goats would be penned in for the season and everyone is holed up in their family houses waiting for spring. The city frat boys don’t come joyriding until the summer when the weather is better, etc. The whole story is structured with this attention to detail—a realism sorely lacking in most of the other Greek novels.

In fact, it’s this obsession with the agricultural year and the obscurity of its author that has led some scholars to posit the idea that Daphnis & Chloe is an adaptation of cult texts from a set of traditions dedicated to Dionysus and his worship, and specifically the Orphic mysteries, a later ancient offshoot of that religious tradition. To be very brief, the Dionysian cult and Orphism were centered around the god’s chthonic qualities as a deity of death and rebirth. The earliest Dionysian worship focused on the god’s double birth—first from the body of his immolated mother Semele, then from the thigh of Zeus after his mother’s death—as well as his katabasis (journey through the underworld, from the Greek κατάβασις—κατὰ “down” and βαίνω “go”) to retrieve Semele from Hades and raise her to godhood. Orphism refined these practices to coincide with later Greek learning from Hesiod, Pythagoras, and the Socratic tradition. It connected Dionysus to an earlier iteration of the god, Zagreus—still a son of Zeus, but whose mother was the dual agri-underworld goddess Persephone instead of the mortal Semele. He is torn apart by the Titans, who eat him, but Zeus hurls his thunderbolt and destroys them. Zagreus is reborn in his Dionysian form when his heart is either sown into Zeus’ thigh or into Semele. Some of the Orphic texts say that humans were born from the ashes of the destroyed Titans, but as part of Zagreus was inside them, man has both a mortal part (the body from the Titans) and a divine part (the soul capable of immortality from Zagreus).

[[Orphism was named for the mythological poet Orpheus, both because of his similar journey to the underworld to save his wife Eurydice and because he dies torn apart by Dionysus’ maenads for failing to honor the god in his distracted grief for Eurydice, just as the god is torn apart by the Titans. Some traditions also give Orpheus credit for creating the rites.]

Both the cult of Dionysus and Orphism have commonalities with the little we know of the Eleusinian mysteries, in part because of their similar ties to wine, agriculture, and Persephone. Orphism also bears a passing resemblance to some of the tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism, as it sees the non-initiated as doomed to an endless cycle of reincarnation because without the mysteries, the soul cannot break free of the body, as well as Orphism’s focus on asceticism and vegetarianism. However, outside of a connection to agriculture and the wine-making episode, there is very little to tie the plot of Daphnis & Chloe to any of these concepts. Really the most seemingly Orphically-inspired element in the plot is an insert retelling of the myth of Echo, which changes the story from the nymph fading away to just her voice because of her unrequited love for Narcissus to her rejecting the love of the pastoral god Pan and he subsequently drives some shepherds and their dogs mad so that they tear her apart, leaving just her voice. But other than that, this is just a nice little story about two kids who fall in love and eventually get married. The journey between those two points is too naturalistic in stylistic structure to have served much of a didactic purpose without major retooling. And by then it’s basically the novel of Theseus.

[And trust me—as the girl who sees everything as symbolic of a Dante-esque katabasis, if there were serious underworld subtext to be gleaned from this story, I would have found it…]

Dionysus is also not the divine focus, such as there is one in the story. That honor belongs to the dryads (wood nymphs) and Pan, which makes sense in the scope of the novel. This is a story about peasants, shepherds, and two teenagers—the “lesser” immortals like nymphs and Pan fit better than the Olympian Dionysus. When the protagonists are in trouble, they pray to the dryads and Pan as deities more likely to hear their prayers and appreciate their offerings than the bigger members of the Greek pantheon.

The actual plot of Daphnis & Chloe starts with the common folklore trope of the highborn infant abandoned and raised by rustics. Both Daphnis and Chloe are reluctantly abandoned by their respective families with the trope tokens of their noble origins (Daphnis with a purple mantle and ivory-hilted sword, and Chloe with gilded sandals and gold jewelry), and both infants are saved by the life-giving nurturing of an animal (a she-goat and an ewe, respectively) in the heroic-divine tradition. Both babies are found by shepherds who decide to raise the children as their own, but one of the realistic elements I enjoyed was that the narrative has Daphnis’ adopted father Lamo briefly consider just taking the tokens and leaving the baby, which is a natural reaction for a very poor person possibly not in a position to take on another mouth to feed. But obviously, he’s a mensch, so he takes Daphnis in. Chloe’s adopted father Dryas has no second thoughts, but he finds her being suckled by the ewe within the dryads’ cave shrine, so presumably to rob and abandon her would have been much more obviously impious.

[Daphnis et Chloe, Louise Marie-Jeanne Hersent-Mauduit (1784-1862)]

But the tokens mark the children as special, and at first, the shepherd families raise them differently from “normal” farm children. They are taught to read and write (by whom is unclear…), given “daintier” food to eat, and kept back from herding and manual labor. But the god Eros, knowing Daphnis and Chloe are destined for each other, intervenes on this last part so they can meet and spend time with one another. He appears to both dads as a mysterious “handsome, headstrong boy” who commands them to send the children out to watch the flocks. They obey and most of the rest of the story is simply Daphnis and Chloe enjoying the pastoral life in each other’s company. Like other pastoral lovers, they are both beautiful and pure-hearted, which gives their growing attraction a gentle, naïve quality that is sweet rather than raunchy, even when it’s surprisingly sensual. They don’t know anything about love or sexuality, so, for example, when Chloe first sees Daphnis bathing naked, she’s very into it, but she doesn’t know why. Similarly, when a sassy visiting “city girl” named Lycaenium (“Little Wolf”—a common name used by prostitutes) teaches Daphnis about sex, she also explains that he’ll make Chloe bleed the first time they sleep together and Daphnis starts panicking because he doesn’t want to hurt his beloved Chloe. It sounds kind of silly and tawdry in summary, but honestly it’s all rather charming after dealing with the self-involved himbos of the other Greek novels.

Eventually, the stars align and the lovers’ real families learn they’ve miraculously survived, and both Daphnis and Chloe are welcomed back with open arms. Another realistic element Longus builds into the story are the very practical, likely common concerns that we learn led to the children being abandoned by their original parents in the first place. Daphnis’ father explains that he already had two sons and a daughter before Daphnis was born, and he was worried about being able to provide suitable inheritances for the children he already had, while Chloe’s father’s fortune was wiped out by the financial pressures of meeting the expected obligations Greek noble citizens had to their cities, like outfitting warships. While perhaps not understandable or excusable to our ears, these would have been circumstances readily comprehended by Longus’ contemporary audience. Fortunately for Daphnis, one of his brothers died in the intervening years, so his family is happy to have him back and Chloe’s family’s wealth has been recovered. Even better, the families are friendly with one another already and more than eager to form a marriage alliance. Daphnis and Chloe get hitched and are ushered joyfully to their nuptial bed, where presumably Daphnis has gotten over his hang ups about taking Chloe’s virginity.

[A painting by Henri Pierre Léon Pharamond Blanchard based on the 1788 French novel Paul et Virginie (by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre), which was based on Daphnis & Chloe.]

As I alluded to, there are “action” sequences in the story, but these are emphatically not the focus of the author’s attention. Daphnis is abducted by pirates, and Chloe by the aforementioned city frat boys on holiday, but neither kidnapping makes it out of the immediate vicinity, and the status quo is quickly restored with no one the worse for wear. There are romantic rivals, but none of them are a serious threat. Lycaenium knows she can’t compete with Chloe and is more of a sacred prostitute teaching the hero the divine mysteries of love than a bitchy Veronica out to cat fight with our angelic Betty. Both the bumbling cowherd Dorcon who’s infatuated with Chloe and the urban gay boy toy Gnatho who wants Daphnis even get redemptive arcs where they end up saving the couple from greater dangers, showing that the conflicts of the narrative are meant to be only minor obstacles and not the hair-tearing histrionics of the other Greek novels. Longus is much more interested in sitting in the sheep fields with his young lovers and listening to them muse their way through their emotions than titillating his audience with non-stop peril. But after watching Chaereas kick Callirhoe so hard everyone thought she died, listening to Clitophon believe Leucippe was dead for literally the third time, and dealing with their cursed Voltron-like combined form, the narcissistic blowhard that is Habrocomes, I am more than happy to join him.

[Another of Chagall’s gorgeous Daphnis & Chloe dreamscapes]
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