Apollo was a bit of an arrogant sod, and prone to bouts of his own sense of superiority. One day, after felling a mighty serpent, he came across Eros playing with his bow and arrows.
Amused at the sight of the mere boy playing with weapons, Apollo joked “What have you to do with warlike weapons, saucy boy? Leave them for hands worthy of them. Behold the conquest I have won by means of them over the vast serpent who stretched his poisonous body over acres of plain! Be content with your torch, child, and kindle up your flames, as you call them, where you will, but presume not to meddle with my weapons.” He then showed the god of Love the snake carcass.
Eros sighed, picked up an arrow, and shot Apollo. The arrow made the god of archery fall in love with the nymph Daphne, the daughter of the river god Peneus. Eros, being one who enjoyed a joke at Apollo’s expense, also shot an arrow into Daphne. But instead of making her fall in love with Apollo, the arrow was designed to make her repulsed by any thought of love.
Apollo wooed Daphne as best as a god can, but she rebuffed him, and every other suitor, at every turn. Apollo’s love only increased for her, and Daphne soon feared for her own safety, as everywhere she ran, Apollo followed, possessed with the thoughts of her beauty.
It was when he cornered her at a the river did she beg her father for help.
“Help me, Peneus! Open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger!”
Scarcely had she spoken, when a stiffness seized all her limbs; her bosom began to be enclosed in a tender bark; her hair became leaves; her arms became branches; her foot stuck fast in the ground, as a root; her face became a treetop, retaining nothing of its former self but its beauty.
Apollo stood amazed. He touched the stem, and felt the flesh tremble under the new bark. He embraced the branches and lavished kisses on the wood. The branches shrank from his lips. “Since you cannot be my wife,” said he, “you shall assuredly be my tree. I will wear you for my crown. I will decorate you with my harp and quiver; and when the great Roman conquerors lead up the triumphal pomp to the Capitol, you shall be woven into wreaths for their brows. And, as eternal youth is mine, you also shall be always green, and your leaf know no decay.”
The tree was what we would call the Laurus nobilis, the same tree that provides us with the Mediterranean Bay Leaf. It became one of the symbols of Apollo.The laurels that sit atop of Olympic athletes and the baccalaureate’s that college graduates receive, all are traced to this myth.