On Wilds, and Woods: Writing Liberty

Sophie Mayer

Word association:

                                    Liberty? :: Library.


In the library, I read:

līber free < the same Indo-European base as ancient Greek λεύθερος.

Eleuthero- used in botanical compounds: eleutheropetalous, eleutherophyllous and eleutherosepalous – having the petals, leaves, sepals distinct.

libr- , liber book, believed to be a use of liber, the inner bark of exogens

(Oxford English Dictionary)


Liberty. Library. Tree.

The Romans believed that bark, peeled in strips, was the first writing material. It’s a strange twist of history that we now have books made of wood pulp, which retain the arboreal vocabulary of “leaves” in their construction.


In the Ancient Near East, the phrase “by tree and stone” meant “the old ways.” Carolina López-Ruiz traces the phrase through the Ba’al Cycle, Homer and Hesiod, Jeremiah and Thomas, Plato, and the Qu’ran. She unpacks its compressed meaning, replanting the cliché it had become by the time of the Gospels in fertile soil:

1. primeval elements connected to the origin of mankind (hence also fertility);

2.  transmission of restricted, divinely inspired knowledge, and, as a derivation of this:

3.  speech in crucial (revelatory?) circumstances

(When the Gods Were Born)


Before there were books, there were trees.

Once upon a time trees were temples of the deities… The different kinds of tree are kept perpetually dedicated to their own divinities, for instance… the bay to Apollo.

(Pliny the Elder, Natural History XII)


Trees were sanctuary: many temples to the Olympian pantheon had groves of trees around them, and archaeologists agree with Pliny that once the trees themselves were the temples.

No wonder Daphne fled into the trees.

Impatient of a yoke, the name of bride

She shuns, and hates the joys, she never try'd.

On wilds, and woods, she fixes her desire

(Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated by John Dryden)


The myth of Daphne’s flight from the god Apollo is one of the best-known Greek myths – but there are no literary sources for it before Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Apollo chases, intent on rape: Daphne flees. At the last possible moment, her father Peneus, a river god, hears her cries and turns her into a tree: the laurel, which took her name. Hearing Peneus mourn, Apollo repents, and swears the laurel will remain sacred to him forever. Thus, the use of laurel to make wreaths, giving us the term laureate.

In Hebrew, Daphna is a girl’s name meaning laurel, but also victory.


Victory is why Ovid is telling the story. Apollo has just founded the Pythian Games, where singers and musicians competed to sing his praises. They marked Apollo’s victory over the Pythia, a serpent created by Earth after the Flood.

The Pythian Games took place at Delphi, Apollo’s major shrine, known as the navel of the world.


There’s another story about Daphne and Delphi. Pausanias says that

in earliest times the oracular seat belonged to Ge, who appointed as prophetess Daphnis, one of the Nymphai of Parnassus.                         

(Description of Greece 10.5.5, trans. Jones).


Diodorus says that Daphne became the priestess at Delphi by another means: the daughter of the seer Tiresias, she was taken prisoner with her sister Manto when the Epigoni sacked Thebes, after the events related in Sophocles’ Theban plays. Manto means ‘seer’, and Apollodorus says she is the mother, by Apollo, of the seer Mopsus.

In some versions, there is only one daughter; in some (mirroring Oedipus and his two daughters) two. Manto – the seer; Daphne – the laurel. One to bring the leaves; one to read them.


A snake, a tree, a woman, a male god: it’s uncannily familiar, although the elements are rearranged as in a dream.

Across the ancient Near East, archaeologists find clay figures of women holding snakes, and evidence that even in classical Greece female seers burned leaves to give themselves visions. The snake, the tree, the woman: the old ways.

Apollo and the Olympian gods sweep across Greece, displacing Gē (or Gaia). Trees and women lose their power, or are forced to subjugate it to the new pantheon.


Bay laurel (laurus nobilis) is native to the Mediterranean Basin and the Black Sea. In the Miocene, laurel forests fringed the entire Mediterranean: the sacred stands of laurels around shrines such as Delphi are remnants from before the Ice Age.

Laurel is as old as stone; it was there before the Flood.


There are two sisters, taken captive in a war. They have lived through terrible events at Thebes. They know there is no safety, only precarity. Each chooses what she understands (understanding the risks) as freedom.

Manto, fathered by Tiresias the seer of Thebes, works with the new regime; tries to change it from within, to preserve the old ways. Daphne, mothered by Tiresias the outlaw, takes to the trees.


‘On wilds, and woods, she fixes her desire.’


Ovid was banished to Tomis, in the wilds, and woods, of Dacia on the shore of the Black Sea (in modern Romania), in 8 CE, the same year the Metamorphoses was finished. Ovid wrote that the reason for his exile was carmen et error, “a poem and a mistake.” 

Metamorphoses celebrates, through a narrative of the world from its creation, the Pythagorean belief in mutability. It’s a subversive manifesto with a simple slogan:

Everything changes.

That’s not something an emperor, or an empire, wants to hear.


Like Augustus, Apollo was a patron of the arts only insofar as they praised him. The laurel wreath is a reward for preserving the status quo.

But it’s also a reminder of Daphne inside the tree – of the one who got away, who refused the god and his “yoke.” Friedrich Nietzsche, drawing on the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, praised the Dionysiac impulse in art – chaotic, ecstatic – over Apollonian individuality and rationality.

What if there’s a way between?


There’s a third story about Daphne, told by Pausanias. Apollo wasn’t the first to desire Daphne. Leukippos, a prince of Pisa, disguised himself as a woman and asked to join her band of hunters; she accepted him. But Apollo was jealous, and inspired Daphne and her band to want to bathe. When Leukippos’ deception was revealed, Daphne’s hunters tore him to death.

It’s clearly a version of the myth of Artemis and Actaeon; Pausanius says that Daphne was dedicated to Artemis, and in his account it’s Artemis who turns her sacred virgin into a tree. Could Daphne, the laurel, be an aspect of Artemis, goddess of wooded high places? And could the Artemisian be the alternative we need?


A girl becomes a tree just like that – but what is a tree? It’s a green pause, a way out of the conundrum of serving the state or being destroyed. A way of speaking with the world not apart from it.


At the end of her too-short career, the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta started working with amate, bark paper, widely used by indigenous Americans throughout their long history. It was the source of a new aesthetic freedom.

In her earlier work, the Silhuetas series, Mendieta disappears into the earth, leaving only the outline of her body. Instead, she was instead drawing the outline of leaves, finding the tree in the paper. These amategrams often had names in Taino, the indigenous language of Cuba, such as Itiba Cuhababa, Old Mother Blood.


When I think about liberty, I think not about leaving, but what is left – what is set free by surviving. I think about the survival of Mendieta in her work, of the tree in the paper, of the girl in the tree.

The choice she made in extremis is ours as writers: speak for and with the status quo, or protest and risk transgression. Risk the elision of your history, from priestess of Gē to prisoner of war to pinup girl to plant matter.


I sit in the library with stacks of dead tree, trying to understand the courage of her choice.

It’s 23rd December, 2013. Maria Alyokhina and Nadezdha Tolokonnikova, members of artist-activists Pussy Riot, have both been released from prison, where they should never have been, under a general Russian amnesty for political prisoners. Having been on hunger strike in protest against prison conditions, both women say they wished to serve out their sentences and continue organising on the inside.

The god forces you into the cage of branches, but in there you can say, with Nadya,

We are freer than all those who sit opposite us on the side of the prosecutor, because we can say what we please and we do.

(Testimony in the trial of Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samutsevich for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’, 8 August 2012. Translated by Sasha Dugdale)


Like the Greenpeace activists released under the same amnesty, Pussy Riot have protested on environmental issues, trying to prevent deforestation in the Krasnodar region. For them, the rights of women, LGBTQ people and trees go together: they are vulnerable to power because it knows they are free.


Līber (freedom) and liber (bark) have nothing in common, etymologically, but in the story of Daphne – and of Ovid, whose Daphne is the one most of us know – there’s a haunting connection.

In among the repetitions and inversions of Daphne’s multiple history, her story asks whether the mantic voice, the sacred voice of tree and stone, will submit itself to the Sun God, light of rationality and patriarchy. If liberty demands otherwise, it offers the possibility of taking root as taking a stand, of growing an inner bark that will carry words, of growing leaves that will always remind the praise singers that it’s possible to say ‘no.’


Sophie Mayer co-edited the prizewinning activist poetry anthologies Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, Binders Full of Women and Fit to Work: Poets against Atos. Her most recent collection is songs of the sistership (knives, forks and spoons, co-authored with Sarah Crewe). She is currently working on a non-fiction book, Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (IB Tauris) and a new poetry collection, O. (Arc). www.sophiemayer.net








While government watches you, who watches the government?