One of the most famous tales of Ovid’s Metamorphoses describes Apollo’s unsuccessful pursuit of the nymph Daphne (Met. 1.452-567). The actions of both Apollo and Daphne in this story are governed by a vengeful Cupid who shoots them each with an arrow: a golden arrow lobbed at Apollo instills an overwhelming ardor for Daphne, while a lead arrow that strikes Daphne causes her to recoil from the god’s passionate pursuit.
This story has been the focus of numerous discussions, especially in recent years by those interested in Ovid’s portrayal of women, gender, sexuality, and violence. One detail of the story, though, has gone unremarked in all but the most superficial terms: the materials out of which Cupid’s potent arrows are fashioned.
In this paper, I am interested in the lead of Daphne’s arrow in particular and the cultural valences of this metal, especially its use as an antaphrodisiac and abortifacient. Both of these uses may inform and enrich our reading of a narrative crafted by a poet known for engaging not only the literary tradition but also the social and political realities of his own day.
The use of lead as an antaphrodisiac is attested in both magical and medical sources. Galen, for instance, prescribes placing lead plates over the groins of athletes to prevent nocturnal emissions induced by erotic dreams, while the cooling qualities of lead made it ideal also for recording magical curses that, among other purposes, were designed to chill the erotic desires of a beloved towards some third party. The lead arrow in Ovid’s narrative, when considered against this larger context, serves as more than a visual counterpoint to the shiny golden missile aimed at Apollo; it becomes a particularly apt tool in the hands of an angry Cupid keen to ensure that Apollo’s desire for Daphne remains forever unrequited—a sterilis amor (Met. 1.496).
Perhaps there is a yet another level of meaning to the lead arrow: lead, in the form of white lead, was used as an abortifacient. When we consider that in another version of the story of Apollo’s first love, this told by Pindar, Apollo successfully pursues a nymph, marries her, and has children with her, the abortifacient qualities of lead become relevant to Ovid’s narrative. Ovid’s Cupid, performing his vengeful acts before a learned audience aware of this literary antecedent, may have wished not only to ensure that Daphne would frustrate Apollo’s advances, but that even if she were somehow apprehended by the god, she would never become pregnant and bear his children.
If we are willing to entertain this latter interpretation, then we can also consider the implications of the tale of a sterilis amor (meaning both unrequited and barren) as it relates to Augustus’ legislation aimed at encouraging marriage and procreation, and the further irony that Augustus’ own Palatine home, watched over most faithfully by Daphne’s laurel (postibus Augustis eadem fidissima custos, Met. 1.562), would remain childless.
The kind of interpretation proffered in this paper becomes possible only by venturing beyond the analysis of “intertexts” narrowly defined and giving due consideration to contemporary cultural practices, in this case as they relate to fertility and reproduction in Greco-Roman antiquity.