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The De-Paganization of Daphnis and Chloe in the Christian West

From: Essays in Medieval Studies
Volume 28, 2012
pp. 83-96 | 10.1353/ems.2012.0001

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Daphnis and Chloe is a late Hellenistic pastoral romance, in all probability dating from the late second or early third century of the Christian era. Its author was one Longus, probably a resident of the island of Lesbos, as the surname was fairly common there. Otherwise, we only know that he was a highly-skilled rhetorician of the Second Sophistic, based on a reading of the romance itself. Daphnis and Chloe tells the story of two abandoned infants, each raised by different families on the island of Lesbos. They herd their flocks together, and as their physical attraction for each other grows, they try to discover the mysteries of sex, unsuccessfully, despite a general sex ed instruction by the elderly cowherd Philetas, who had been ordered by Eros himself to teach them, and a more specific "hands-on" initiation of Daphnis by the former prostitute Lykanion. Eventually, through a series of events that occur during a visit by the estate's master, they learn the identity of their respective true parents by means of the recognition tokens which had been abandoned with them. Daphnis's true father is the master himself, and Chloe's another wealthy inhabitant of Mytelene, the principal city of Lesbos. The two are restored to their families, and they marry, but choose to remain in the country as masters of the rural estate on which Daphnis had lived as a peasant-slave.

Symmetrically structured around the seasons, the tale includes such highlights as Daphnis's fall into a wolf pit and rescue by Chloe; the cowherd Dorcon's disguising himself as a wolf to try to abduct Chloe, but suffering injuries at the jaws of the children's dogs; the elderly peasant Philetas's discourse on Eros; two abductions—Daphnis's by pirates/cattle rustlers, and Chloe's by invaders from a neighboring city; Daphnis's sexual initiation by the aforementioned Lykanion; a grape harvest, a winter birdhunting; and the attempted procurement of Daphnis as a "boy-toy" by the parasite Gnathon, who, once Daphnis's true identity is known, redeems himself by rescuing Chloe from an abduction by one of her other suitors.

What most distinguishes Daphnis and Chloe from other works of Greco-Roman antiquity is its portrayal of what we today call pagan religion. The heart, and dare I say, soul, of Daphnis and Chloe is the feeling that the principal characters are under the loving protection of benevolent divinities: three Nymphs, the woodland deity Pan, with whom the Nymphs are in close alliance, and Eros, the life force of the universe, of whom the other divinities may be merely manifestations. Chalk, in fact, has seen Daphnis and Chloe as a mystical text exalting Eros, if, I would note, mysticism can be fun. The gods appear in the form both of epiphanies to wide-awake characters and in prophetic dreams—sometimes to characters who have been temporarily put to sleep for the very purpose of receiving the counsel of a god. Especially interesting is the portrayal of Pan. He displays his customary lust and cruelty in the last two of the recounted myths in this story, naively (and comically) criticized by Chloe, when she asks Daphnis to swear to the sincerity of his love by his goats, not Pan, who is not trustworthy in matters of the heart. In the main narrative, however, Pan is never anything but fiercely and benevolently protective toward Chloe and the young pair. In other words, the gods of Daphnis and Chloe are not the nasty pagan deities of Homer and Virgil, subsequently ironized by Ovid, but nature-deities, ever favorable to humankind, love, procreation, and the fertility of the earth, livestock, and humanity.

At the hands of Daphnis and Chloe's sixteenth-century humanist translators/ adapters, they may become something different—or disappear altogether. Such differences are present in the work of four sixteenth-century authors, first with regard to the portrayal of pagan religion and the gods themselves, and secondarily, with respect to social attitudes affected by religion—at least in the Christian West—particularly attitudes toward sexuality and homosexuality.

Evidently a manuscript (F) containing Longus's work, part of the Greek romance Clitophon and Leucippe...



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