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Daphnis: Inventor of Bucolic Poetry

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

DAPHNIS, the legendary hero of the shepherds of Sicily, and reputed inventor of bucolic poetry. The chief authorities for his story are Diodorus Siculus, Aelian and Theocritus. According to his countryman Diodorus (iv. 84), and Aelian (Var. Hist., x. 18), Daphnis was the son of Hermes (in his character of the shepherd-god) and a Sicilian nymph, and was born or exposed and found by shepherds in a grove of laurels (whence his name.) He was brought up by the nymphs, or by shepherds, and became the owner of flocks and herds, which he tended while playing on the syrinx. When in the first bloom of youth, he won the affection of a nymph, who made him promise to love none but her, threatening that, if he proved unfaithful, he would lose his eyesight. He failed to keep his promise and was smitten with blindness. Daphnis, who endeavoured to console himself by playing the flute and singing shepherds’ songs, soon afterwards died. He fell from a cliff, or was changed into a rock, or was taken up to heaven by his father Hermes, who caused a spring of water to gush out from the spot where his son had been carried off. Ever afterwards the Sicilians offered sacrifices at this spring as an expiatory offering for the youth’s early death. There is little doubt that Aelian in his account follows Stesichorus (q.v.) of Himera, who in like manner had been blinded by the vengeance of a woman (Helen) and probably sang of the sufferings of Daphnis in his recantation. Nothing is said of Daphnis’s blindness by Theocritus, who dwells on his amour with Naïs; his victory over Menalcas in a poetical competition; his love for Xenea brought about by the wrath of Aphrodite; his wanderings through the woods while suffering the torments of unrequited love; his death just at the moment when Aphrodite, moved by compassion, endeavours (but too late) to save him; the deep sorrow, shared by nature and all created things, for his untimely end (Theocritus i. vii. viii.). A later form of the legend identifies Daphnis with a Phrygian hero, and makes him the teacher of Marsyas. The legend of Daphnis and his early death may be compared with those of Narcissus, Linus and Adonis—all beautiful youths cut off in their prime, typical of the luxuriant growth of vegetation in the spring, and its sudden withering away beneath the scorching summer sun.

See F. G. Welcker, Kleine Schriften zur griechischen Litteraturgeschichte, i. (1844); C. F. Hermann, De Daphnide Theocriti (1853); R. H. Klausen, Aeneas und die Penaten, i. (1840); R. Reitzenstein, Epigramm und Skolion (1893); H. W. Prescott in Harvard Studies, x. (1899); H. W. Stoll in Roscher’s Lexikon der Mythologie; and G. Knaack in Pauly-Wissowa’s Realencyclopädie.