CLAS 3308: MYTHS AND THE CULT OF ANCIENT GODS
NOTES ON APOLLO (TOPIC 5)
Images of Apollo and Artemis:
Apollo and Artemis attack the Giants: #4
Apollo and Artemis punish the children of Niobe: #5
Apollo & Artemis punish Tityos #6
APOLLO, god of prophecy and healing, often called Phoebus, perhaps
meaning "Shiner, " is one of the most important Greek gods; he is also
by far the most complex and difficult to understand. In many stories he
is inseparable from ARTEMIS (the Roman Diana), goddess of
wild animals and the hunt, whose cult shows signs of reaching back into
the Paleolithic Period, when hunting was a principal source of food. In
still other myths, Artemis acts independently and achieves an identity
of her own. With their mother, LETO (a Titaness), they form a sort
of divine family, although in origin they had nothing to do with one another.
Leto is evidently an ancient mother goddess (an easy explanation) and was
worshiped as such in Lycia and perhaps on Crete, but in Greek myth she
is simply the mother of the divine twins, who are ever ready to defend
Apollo fulfills in the divine community the same function as the oral poet in the human, playing for choral dance and singing and entertaining at the banquet. Thus he was called Musagetes, "leader of the Muses," the spirits who enable the oral poet
APOLLO THE FAR-DARTER, GOD OF PROPHECY
The historical origin of Apollo is unknown, as is the meaning of his name. Many think his cult must have come from Asia Minor because he is called Lycian--that is, from Lycia--and because in Asia Minor there were many sites of his cult. However, Lycian could just as well mean "wolflike," perhaps because at an early stage he protected shepherds from wolves. Wherever Apollo's cult comes from, it has taken on associations with the far north: In winter, while Dionysus ruled at Delphi, Apollo dwelled among the Hyperboreans, "the men beyond the North Wind." By the eighth century B.C., Apollo was already a great god. In the Classical Period, Apollo is sometimes called a sun god--as Artemis was by then thought to represent the dark and the moon--but in origin he had no connection with the sun. Though represented as an archer god, he is not a god of hunters; his arrows are the shafts of disease, irresistible, unseen, striking down the luckless. This association is made explicit in our oldest reference to him, at the beginning of the Iliad, where Apollo is the dangerous god of plague, called Lord of Mice, the plague-bringers.
As soon as Artemis and Apollo were born,
the hitherto floating islands of Delos and Ortygia (where Artemis was said
to have been born) were anchored in their present places. The sacred palm
that Leto grasped was a landmark outside the elaborate temple complex that
sprang up on Delos during the Classical Period; true to Leto's prediction,
Delos, whose area is only two square miles, became one of the richest and
most celebrated religious shrines in all Greece (today the island is uninhabited).
From other sources we learn that sacred swans arrived as soon as Apollo was born. They carried him to the shores of Ocean beyond the North Wind, to the land of the Hyperboreans--perhaps Siberia--where Apollo spent a year before returning to Greece. Another tradition reports that, only days after the twins' birth, Hera released the giant Tityus from the earth to rape Leto, but Apollo and Artemis cut him down in a shower of arrows, and Zeus condemned him to eternal punishment in Hades.
APOLLO AT DELPHI
Apollo's role in prophecy was especially associated with the oracular shrine to him at Delphi, perched on a precipitous slope of Mount Parnassus near the Corinthian Gulf. The second part of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo begins with an account of how Apollo, after being born, joined the gods on Olympus.
Apollo's destruction of the serpent Python is a Greek form of the ancient Eastern story of the dragon combat. The rest of the hymn reports Apollo's vengeance against Telphusa for sending him to a dragon-infested mountain: he buries her beneath a cliff and builds a small shrine for himself. While wondering how to get priests for his temple, Apollo spies a Cretan ship at sea. Taking the form of a dolphin, he leaps on board, a terrifying portent. The sailors huddle together while Apollo guides the ship to Crisa, the coastal village near Delphi. There he reveals himself as a handsome man in his prime, with long locks drooping over his shoulders, and makes them priests of his temple. Evidently the poet derives Delphi from Greek delphis, "dolphin," the form in which the god appeared to the sailors. When the Cretans see Delphi perched on a precipitous slope, with no place for crops or herds, they fall into despair. But Apollo comforts them: They will have plenty to eat from the rich offerings brought there, and so they did.
Other sources complete the tale.
Having killed the dragon, Apollo had to be cleansed from miasma, "blood
pollution." He therefore traveled to the Valley of Tempe, in Thessaly
at the foot of towering Mount Olympus; there he was ritually cleansed.
Every eight years the Delphians celebrated the death of Python and the
cleansing of Apollo. Because Apollo was himself cleansed of miasma (stain,
pollution), he could free others from it too, and many pilgrims journeyed
to his temple at Delphi to submit to the appropriate ritual of purification.
THE DELPHIC ORACLE
Images: Herakles tries to become the god of the oracle #1 #2
The second half of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo makes much of the god's eagerness to establish an oracular shrine so that he might enjoy its income and renown, but it tells us little about the history of the shrine and even less about the procedure followed there. Like the shrine at Delos, Delphi was a pan-Hellenic religious center to which all Greeks paid respect, regardless of their unending political differences. The oracle at Delphi functioned under Apollo for over a thousand years (c. 800 B.C.-A.D.394); it was the most renowned oracle of the ancient world. The Greeks regarded Delphi as the center of the world, a location determined by Zeus when he sent out two eagles, one from each horizon, to see where they would cross. In the temple at Delphi stood a conical stone called the omphalos, marking the site as the world's "navel."
According to legend, there was an earlier oracle at Delphi, which functioned under the goddess Gaea or Themis, and many scholars interpret the slaying of Python, the earth monster, to stand for Apollo's displacement of the earlier earth oracle. The notion of the world-navel, in addition to the fact that at Delphi oracular responses were always given by a woman, encourages the view that the shrine did once belong to an earth goddess, but archaeologists have found no evidence to confirm it. The prophetess at Delphi was called the PYTHIA after the dragon Python. Originally she was a young virgin from the local village, but older women later served in this office. She seems to have had no special training. Most scholars understand her to have functioned as a medium, someone whose body served as an instrument for divine orders, although the precise nature of her inspiration remains a mystery. Ancient traditions report that she inhaled vapors from a chasm in order to achieve a state of ecstasy, but no chasm has been found beneath the temple. Other accounts state that she chewed hallucinogenic laurel leaves, but the laurel, sacred to Apollo, has no hallucinogenic power. The Greeks were as puzzled as we by how the Pythia functioned. When preparing to answer questions, the Pythia took her seat on a bronze tripod in the inner sanctum, the section "not to be entered," of Apollo's temple. Questions were put by a male priest after the inquirer had made appropriate sacrifice (the priests received the meat). The Pythia, possessed by the god, made replies, which the priests recast in a poetic form to give to the inquirer.
Although most questions were of a personal nature, questions of communal interest were also asked. In the days of western colonization, during the eighth century B.C. and later, Apollo was consulted about where to settle, what gods to worship, and what form of government to adopt, and Delphi became a center for the exchange of information about all of the Mediterranean world. The literary accounts of Delphic responses, however, are famous for their dark ambiguity. Herodotus tells us about Croesus, king of Lydia, a rich and powerful ruler threatened by the Persians, who considered making a preemptive strike. Though not a Greek, he sent messengers with gifts to Delphi and asked what the outcome of the struggle would be. "If you make war on the Persians," he was informed, you will destroy a mighty empire." Thus encouraged, he attacked, but was defeated and captured; the empire he destroyed was his own.
Later (480 B.C.) when the Persians attacked Athens, the city inquired of Apollo how it might be saved. "Trust in your wooden walls," the oracle replied. Because there was an old wooden palisade on the Acropolis, some Athenians took refuge there and were wiped out. Themistocles, the Athenian general, embarked the rest of the people in the newly built Athenian fleet, which engaged and annihilated the Persian navy: the ships' hulls were the "wooden walls" of the oracle. In such literary accounts of oracular responses we must remember the prejudices and preferences of our written sources, whose principal purpose was to tell a good story. In addition to its role in prophecy, the shrine at Delphi came to have a broadly ethical authority, encouraging the virtues of moderation and restraint and denying projects that were reckless or did not take sufficient account of the uncertainty of human fortune. Carved on the temple were the exhortations "Know yourself" and "Nothing too much," mottoes with similar meaning: You are only human, so don't try more than you are able (or you will pay the consequences). A recurring theme in Greek myth is the man or woman who loses sight of human limitations and acts arrogantly and with violence, as if immortal.
As the oral poet was the bearer, through his song, of traditional male aristocratic Greek culture, Apollo the singer became the god of the Greek aristocrats, a projection of their own self-image. Many stories were told about Apollo's skill with the lyre, in art his most common attribute. According to a story made famous by Ovid and beloved by European painters of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the satyr Marsyas, master of the double-flute, challenged Apollo to a musical contest, the winner being allowed to do as he liked; Apollo won easily and flayed Marsyas alive.
APOLLO'S UNHAPPY LOVES
Apollo was claimed as ancestor by families of prophets. However, many stories tell of his unsuccessful love affairs, which for some reason were numerous and beloved in late antiquity; Ovid makes much of them in his Metamorphoses. Such stories sometimes refer to Apollo's power to make human beings prophets, and the riddle and danger of this power. Priam, king of Troy, and his wife, Hecuba, had twins, HELENUS and CASSANDRA. Cassandra grew into a woman beautiful enough to rouse the lust ofApollo and shrewd enough to demand that he make her a prophet in return for her favors. Apollo agreed, but Cassandra nonetheless refused to sleep with him. Instead of taking back his gift, Apollo added a condition: although Cassandra would always speak the truth, no one would believe her.
Repeatedly she prophesied the ruin of Troy; no one listened. When Troy fell, Cassandra was carried off as booty by Agamemnon and butchered, along with her captor, by Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra. Today we call a "Cassandra" someone whose truthful words are ignored. A similar story is told of Apollo's love for the first SIBYL AT CUMAE, to whom he gave as many years of life as the grains of sand she could scoop up in her hands. She accepted the gift, then refused to sleep with him. Apollo, though true to his word, failed to grant a lasting youth to accompany her very long life. The Sibyl grew older and older until she shriveled up like a cicada. One of the best-known affairs is his love for Daphne, a nymph, daughter of the river god Peneus in Thessaly. She rejected him, but he pursued her into the mountains. To escape, she prayed to her father, who changed her into a laurel tree. The story is etiological to explain why the laurel is Apollo's sacred plant.
Apollo, no less than Zeus, was subject to the attractions ofyoung men. He loved HYACINTH, a beautiful boy. One day they were practicing the discus (as good aristocrats do). A gust of wind caught the discus so that it swerved into Hyacinth's head and killed him. Apollo caused the hyacinth flower to grow from his blood. Ever after, the dead youth was honored each year at his tomb near Sparta. Hyacinth's name is certainly pre-Greek, perhaps a dying god of fertility.
Apollo, god of prophecy, is also god of healing, and one of his tragic love affairs was connected with the origin of the Greek god of medicine, ASCLEPIUS, whom he conceived on a mortal woman, Coronis. While pregnant with Asclepius, Coronis slept with a mortal named Ischys, a thoughtless deed witnessed by a crow, who reported it to Apollo. The wise and virtuous centaur CHIRON knew well the art of medicine (although we are not told where he learned it) and taught the infant brought to him, Asclepius, all that he knew. Asclepius became a great doctor, even raising the dead. Athena had taken from the neck of the slain Gorgon Medusa two phials of blood: That from the left side of her neck cured all ailments, that from the right brought immediate death. The first phial she gave to Asclepius, who with it revived Hippolytus, son of Theseus, dragged to death overjagged rocks after Theseus cursed him. Asclepius is generally pictured with a serpent, often wound about a staff, no doubt because the snake has the ability to restore its health and vigor by shedding its skin. Serpents were kept in his shrines. The name of Hygieia "health" personified, said to be his wife or daughter, gives rise to our word hygiene.
In his functions as god of prophecy and healing and of the musical and poetic skills so valued by the Greek aristocracy, Apollo came to embody order against barbarism. reason against unreason, and what many have called "the Hellenic spirit." In the Classical period Apollo represented the Greek aristocratic ideal of young, vigorous manhood. On the pediment of the temple to Zeus at Olympia, whose cult statue was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Apollo stands calm and beardless, arm outstretched against the savage Centaurs trying to carry off Greek women. In the Persian Wars, by supporting nonresistance to the invaders through many oracles, the Delphic Oracle lost much of its old respect, but in matters affecting individuals it remained influential. A friend of Socrates asked, "Who is the wisest of men! " The oracle replied, "Socrates." This puzzled the philosopher, until he realized that other men thought that they knew a lot; Socrates alone realized his own ignorance. About A.D. 100 Plutarch, himself a priest of Apollo, wrote a gloomy work on the growing decay of the oracles. They were finally closed down by the emperor Theodosius about A.D. 390. Long before this, we are told by the Christian historian Eusebius in a burst of wishful thinking that the emperor Augustus (27 B.C.--A.D. 14) went to Delphi to ask who would reign after him. The Pythia gave no answer, so Augustus asked why the prophetic shrine was silent. At last the god replied through the priestess:
"A son of the Hebrews, a god and ruler over the blessed, has bidden me leave this house and return to the realm of Hades. Depart from this altar in silence, and never come back with your queries."
Back to top