Apollo - Fritz Graf (2009)
It has not been by chance that during this discussion of Apollo, I have so often relied on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Homer’s construction of divine personalities has exercised its suggestive power through the ages, and Herodotus was not the first to say so explicitly. The two sculptural images of Apollo that, in the last few centuries, have been standing out from a crowd of statues are ample testimony to this. The alluringly beautiful male arrogance both of the Apollo from the west pediment of the Zeus temple in Olympia and of the Belvedere Apollo are unthinkable without the Homeric portraits, and few scholarly discussions of the god could bypass them. The historian of Greek religion, however, has to resist this powerful pull. Walter F. Otto succumbed to it and wrote his splendidly one-sided The Gods of the Greeks. The Spiritual Significance of Greek Religion (Die Götter Griechenlands. Das Bild des Göttlichen im Spiegel des griechischen Geistes, 1929). His Greek gods are exclusively the gods of Homer: Homer is the “mirror of the Greek spirit,” and his gods are the almost sole incarnation of the divine in Greece. He can do so because, in the end, he did not propose to write a history of Greek religion but to present his readers with his very special view of Greekness and of the divine.
One-sided pictures, however powerful they may be, never capture historical reality. Apollo was always complex and contradictory, in the myths and cults of the Greek and Roman world as much as in his later reception. As each epoch produced its sculptural image of the god, from the small metal statuette in early Archaic Dreros to the chryselephantine statue in Julian’s Antioch, in the same way each Greek city had its own Apollo in the various functions that were determined by tradition and desire. The foregoing chapters tried to bundle these many roles of the god into a few main functions and to give them historical depth. Music and dance, divination, healing, the young, and the polis denote areas where Apollo played a major and sometimes a unique role, different in importance from city to city. The historian feels an intellectual pull to construct these fields into an underlying unity. Such a construction might satisfy a thinker’s need of neatness; but it sacrifices so much historical diversity that it loses all value for the historian of religion. The same is true for the endeavor to present a convincing prehistory of Apollo. When the Greek world becomes better visible after the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations and the following “Dark Age,” we perceive a complex historical world in which local traditions have had a long time to grow and develop, sometimes isolated from each other, sometimes in contact with other communities and regions and with the civilizations of the Ancient Near East through manifold contacts with Anatolia, Cyprus, Phoenicia, and Egypt: the bewildering multiplicity of local dialects and local writing systems that emerges during the Geometric Age is an indication of these multiple local developments, and a warning against assuming a break-down of communication in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean world. Many things might have been recent developments, but some traditions might reach back more deeply into the Bronze Age than we are willing to accept: the Mycenaean civilization as we discern it was a matter of a relatively homogeneous ruling class, and its traces offer only a narrow window into Bronze Age Greece.
The dialectic of the particular and the general, the pull of local traditions and of the desire for the unity of being Greek, is one of the major attractions in the study of Greek religion, and one of the major obstacles to an easy understanding of its history. To this, one has to add the dialectic of a polytheistic system that still defies convincing conceptual analysis. Vernant’s metaphor of a closed system is the best approximation available - but this system is not closed but wide open towards the entire Greek world, and to its surrounding civilizations. Religion is a closed system only by force, usually the force of dogma and the power of a centralized priesthood to impose such a dogma. Apollo’s many faces are part of this complex system: his image is shaped by the other divinities in the pantheon, most prominently Zeus and Athena, and by the divinities with whom he was identified, inside the Greek world and outside. In astronomy, the force that shapes celestial bodies beyond the force of their rotation is the gravitational pull of all other bodies; in religion, this pull is activated by the manifold desires and needs of societies and individuals to which the polytheistic system responds with its plurality of gods. If this book has succeeded in giving a first impression of the vaster cosmos that shaped Apollo, and of the many shapes resulting from it, then the author feels that he has done his job.