The Shape of Excellence | Omniversity

To celebrate our recent Eisner Award Nominations, we commissioned special research into the origins of trophies. The research was conducted in another collaboration with Omniversity and Adalbert Arcane:

For millennia we have understood that excellence must be noted and rewarded. But what shape should the award take? The sacred laurel leaf of ancient Olympics, the medieval trophy chalice, the Oscar statuette of the Academy Awards. The forms of award trophies are as many as there are disciplines and as old as civilization itself.

One of the oldest and most famous is the laurel leaf. The myth of Apollo and Daphne explains its genesis. Apollo mocks Eros, the god of love, about his lack of prowess with the bow. As revenge, Eros fashions two arrows: one makes Apollo fall in love with the nymph Daphne, the other makes Daphne hate Apollo. Daphne had already spurned many lovers, and Apollo proved to be her greatest challenge. Apollo was relentless, and after a lengthy pursuit, Daphne asked her father (a river god) for help. He heard the plea and turned Daphne into a laurel tree, allowing her to remain chaste for eternity. Apollo, thwarted, crafted a wreath from her leaves, turning her achievement of chastity into a cultural symbol for him and other poets and musicians.

Most interpretations focus on chastity/lust or predator/prey dynamics in the myth. They point to the thwarted animalistic impulses, essentially focusing on the sexual character of the doomed relationship. Doubtless, mythology flows from our animalistic depths, our natures. But why would the laurel leaf become a symbol of excellence? We must dig deeper.

In another story recounted to Socrates by his guru Diotima[1], we learn the genealogy of Eros. On the day of Aphrodite’s birth, the gods threw a celebratory banquet. At the end of the meal, Penia (poverty) came to beg for some food. Poros (wealth) was asleep drunk on Zeus’ nectar. Penia lay down with Poros to remedy her poverty. Out of this union, Eros was born. “Born on Aphrodite’s birthday, he is enamored of beauty, but since he is the son of Penia, he is always poor, indigent, and a beggar. At the same time, since he is the son of Poros, he is clever and inventive[2].”

The twin natures of Apollo (god of music, poetry, art, the sun, and a great warrior) & Daphne (a priestess of Artemis (Apollo’s sister), the goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals, the Moon, and chastity) are present in Eros’ origin. In his chase after Daphne, Apollo embodies Artemisian qualities (the hunt), giving the dynamic incestual overtones. It is as if, through his pursuit of Daphne, Apollo is also seeking something deep within himself… his repressed Artemisian qualities enter an incestual (read unnatural or forbidden by nature) relationship with his normal Apollonian self.

Additionally, Apollo & Daphne correspond to Eros’ twin natures, poverty and cleverness—and his third nature, the love of beauty, binds them together. Apollo chases after eternal love through the physical (animalistic and fleeting) beauty of Daphne, and Daphne (by running away) chases the infinite beauty of virtue.

The outcome of the story resolves their twin dilemmas. Apollo must access his inner Artemisian nature (the huntress) and gain the chaste prize of Daphne (love represented by the laurel). Daphne becomes one with her eternal ideal (chastity is renouncement/poverty of [animal] love) and transforms into something that is no longer human (tree). Daphne’s transformation teaches Apollo that there is something beyond his animalistic drive.

Both Apollo & Daphne must overcome their animalistic natures to gain something that is beyond human, an ideal. And what is excellence but reaching for something just beyond our grasp through the self-transformation of discipline? It is only through disciplined pursuit that we can grasp the elusive eternal ideal. The myth is about the deep struggle to achieve excellence. We must learn to tame our disparate internal natures and impulses into a kind of unnatural alchemical union from which we can birth… art, music, poetry… 

Other symbols of excellence exist, of course. A complete genealogy of excellence is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that for example, the medieval chalice brings to mind the sacred Holy Grail, the ultimate prize of Arthurian legend. The Christian halo is a physical manifestation of inner spiritual beatitude. There are many others. 

The comic book industry has several awards, but our ‘Oscars’ are the Eisner Awards. The Eisner is a globe. I have questions. The award takes its name after the great Will Eisner, a restless cartoonist who has contributed much to the medium. But why is the globe the shape of the trophy? The Academy Awards Oscar at least stands on a film reel and harkens back to the idea of a person being ‘knighted’ for their service.

As far as I can tell, the globe does not have a special connection to any Eisner creation. Maybe the most obvious reference for a globe is in Superman comics. A globe is the iconic topper of the Daily Planet, famous for employing Clark Kent, AKA Superman, arguably the most celebrated comics creation in the world. Is that the reason for the globe? Perhaps the globe has no connection to a specific comic by Eisner or even Superman. Maybe it is simply… a globe, a symbol for the global ambitions of the comics medium?

Do any of our readers know the story behind the Eisner globe? Pr do you have a theory? We’re genuinely curious!


1. As recounted in Plato’s Symposium.

2. What is Ancient Philosophy by Pierre Hadot, p 43.

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