Apollo - Fritz Graf (2009)



Why Write a Book on A God?

Greek gods, everyone agrees, possess rounded, complex, and full-blooded personalities, not unlike the humans who worshipped them, Pericles or Sappho or Alexander the Great. There are many books on Alexander and not a few on Sappho or Pericles; but when one looks for books on one of the Olympians, one finds far fewer books than one would have thought. Certainly, Karl Kerényi’s monographs on Zeus and Hera, Demeter, or Dionysus have found a wide readership, but the author’s interests are shaped and limited by the underlying Jungian psychoanalysis that reduced the gods to concretizations of an archetype; the same is true for the few books that take their inspiration from Sigmund Freud. These books aside, especially English-speaking scholars have been hesitant to devote a monograph to a single god. The single volumes of Lewis Richard Farnell’s The Cults of the Greek States use the gods as an ordering principle for information on cults, and Arthur Bernhard Cook’s Zeus is far from being a monograph on the father of the gods; it is a compendium of rare and strange rituals. Since the days of Sir James Frazer and Jane Ellen Harrison, scholars on Greek religion have always been much more interested in rituals than in the divine recipients; myths - which would have narrated divine biographies - were thought as somehow being generated by ritual, and thus of secondary interest only.

More recent scholarship has reinforced the scholarly reluctance to focus on a single god as if he were not essentially different from Pericles or Sappho. Ritual (especially sacrifice) in its social and communal function remained at the center of research. The recipients of sacrifice were of secondary interest. Furthermore, Greek religion was understood as having a rather precarious unity: the basic unit of religion was the polis, the city-state; some scholars underscored this by writing books on Greek Religions. In the pantheon of two different cities, the same god could have two very different roles: in a classical paper, Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood showed how Persephone in Locri had roles that in other cities were fulfilled by Artemis or Aphrodite. Following the lead of Jean-Pierre Vernant, the Parisian scholar whose work was instrumental in reshaping research on Greek religion, a god was thought as being determined by all the other gods in the pantheon of each city, not unlike in linguistics a specific meaningful sound, a phoneme, is determined by all the other phonemes of the same language. Thus, Vernant did not write on the god Hermes, he wrote on “Hermes and Hestia” who defined each other in a complex interplay of roles and functions. With very few exceptions, only coffee table books that centered on ancient art have dared to focus on one single god.

The coffee table books, perhaps unwittingly, make an important point. Each Greek god has an iconography that is individual and recognizable; and although some local temple images might have strange and unusual features, usually the same god looked about the same whether one saw his image in a temple in Sicily, Athens, or Smyrna: the Athenian Phidias created not only the gold-ivory image of Athena on the Athenian acropolis, but also the image of Zeus in his temple in Olympia. The same is true for mythology. There were local myths; most are lost, some surface in inscriptions or in the fragments of the lost books of local historians, and they shaped the way locals thought and talked about their Zeus, their Athena, or their Artemis. Despite local traditions, the power of the stories narrated by the epic singers and, after them, on the Athenian stage was stronger than the local stories; repeated and reread through the centuries all throughout the Greek cities and far beyond, it was these stories more than anything else that shaped the way one imagined a divine personality. With the professionalization of cultic entertainment, these same stories of the gods travelled from city to city. Herodotus already had underscored the role Hesiod and Homer played in shaping a panhellenic mythology: “They have created the theogony for the Greeks, given the gods their names, defined their fields and functions and described their forms.”

The Greeks, like all other worshippers, did not only perform rituals: they imagined the recipients of their prayers and sacrifices, they talked about them to each other, well beyond the limits of the city-state, and they had images made of them. The figures of gods took shape in a forcefield created by local myths and rituals on the one side, the Panhellenic stories and images on the other; from early on and increasingly over time the panhellenic pull was strong and often dominant. Given this, it should be possible to write a book on a single god. The task needs some circumspection: one has to keep in mind that, unlike with Pericles, with the gods there is a play between local and panhellenic traditions, and they may look somewhat different in different places. There is another characteristic that prevents gods from being as uniform as humans: it is the multiplicity of roles and functions they play in Greek life. This multiplicity is expressed in a multitude of cultic epithets (epicleses in scholarly terminology). Most of them are speaking: Athena Polias is the protectress of the polis, Zeus Kataibates is the Zeus who “descends,” katabainei, in lightning; Poseidon Asphaleios is the god who guarantees the safety, asphaleia, of the city walls when an earthquake hits. These epithets map the roles a god plays, and these roles may be so diverse that we are almost unable to imagine a unity behind them: what has Zeus Meilichios, the “mild” Zeus who manifests himself as a gigantic snake, in common with the god of storms who rules the world?

My first five chapters unfold this diversity of the god Apollo. It manifests itself in a series of functions and fields that can be described and that often are marked by a specific epithet, and in stories that show the god acting in a specific role. The first chapter concentrates on Homer and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the earliest and immensely influential narrations of Apollo’s myths and cultic roles; a central image is that of Apollo the Archer. Each of the next three chapters focuses on one specific field where Apollo’s protection was vital and where he himself excelled: music, oracular divination, and healing (where he was eclipsed over time by his son Asclepius). The fifth chapter is more complex: it looks at Apollo as the protector of adolescent men and the many political roles that accrued to him in this role. In mapping the provinces of Apollo’s activities, I will not even try to find a unity that would underlie the different roles; the Aristotelian enterprise to reduce multiplicity to one single origin never convinced me when dealing with Greek gods. Instead, in my sixth chapter, I will have a look at the different theories with which past scholars have tried to find a local and temporal origin for Apollo; the question still defies a clear and certain answer. My final chapter will follow Apollo through the centuries, from the Roman Empire through late antiquity to the present times. Given the amount of time and space, I will barely scratch the surface, and each reader will miss something that he might deem important. There is even less of uniformity than before, although each epoch and place is building on the insights of the preceding epoch.