APOLLO IN HOMER - KEY THEMES - Apollo - Fritz Graf

Apollo - Fritz Graf (2009)




The Iliad, Homer’s poem on the anger of Achilles and its dire consequences, starts by invoking “the plan of Zeus” in order to explain the carnage and suffering its singer is about to narrate. But at this point, it is not Zeus who is holding center stage among the gods, it is Apollo, and his role is awe-inspiring and frightening, with no trace of the golden radiance that the classicism of our own time usually ascribes to him. The story, told to explain how it all came about, is familiar, but still worth retelling. At some point in the long siege of Troy, a certain Chryses, priest of Apollo at Chryse somewhere in the Troad, entered the Greek encampment, “carrying the sacred ribbons of Apollo Far-Shooter on his golden staff” (Il. 1.14f.). He wanted the return of his daughter, Chryseis, whom the Greeks had abducted during one of their raids along the coast, and he brought with him “immense ransom” (Il. 1.13). Agamemnon, the middle-aged commander-in-chief who had the girl in his tent and bed, rudely refused - a rash and unwise act by all accounts, as his army was well aware; Homer makes it very clear that the priest’s sacred status, not just the feelings of an elderly father, were violated. Brutally rebuked and frightened, the old man left, going “along the whispering surf line,” a pathetic image for all the fathers whose daughters have fallen easy prey to warriors, from Troy to Iraq and beyond. He did not go home along the beach, however, since Chryse is about twenty-five miles to the south, and he must have come by ship with his ransom: he needed the solitude of the lonely shore, and not only to grieve. Out of sight, he prayed to his god, Apollo Smintheus: “Let the Danaans [that is: the Greeks] pay for my tears with your arrows.” And Apollo reacted fast: “Down he went from Olympus’ peaks, fury in his heart, on his shoulder a bow and arrow case, and the arrows rattled on the shoulders of the angry god while he moved. And he arrived like the night.” At a distance from the Greek army, he sat down and began shooting his arrows into their encampment; the arrows brought illness and death, to dogs and mules first, then to the warriors. “And the corpses burnt in fire without ceasing.” After nine days of unmitigated horror, the Greeks consulted their seer, Calchas, and he revealed the reason for the deadly plague: “Because of his priest whom Agamemnon dishonored.” Agamemnon had to give in; Odysseus, the wily diplomat from the island of Ithaca, was dispatched to bring the girl back to her father, together with a lavish sacrifice for the god, a hecatomb, literally one hundred animals. The restitution was very formal: Odysseus handed her over to her father, the priest, at the altar of his god, Chryses prayed a second time to cancel his first prayer, the Greeks sacrificed their hundred sheep and filled the remainder of the day with yet another cult activity: “The entire day, the young men worshipped the god with song and dance, singing the paean, dancing for the Far-Shooter: he listened and enjoyed it.” They ended only at sunset, and they sailed home at night. And while they were away, Agamemnon had the army perform their own rites, purifying the encampment and offering “to Apollo a perfect hecatomb of oxen and sheep on the shore” (Il. 1.316).

It is the most detailed ritual sequence in the entire Iliad; only the description of Nestor’s sacrifice to Poseidon in the fifth book of the Odyssey comes close - and that description focuses on correct human interaction during a ritual, not on the god: the narrator of the Odyssey is interested in the social competence of his figures, not in any divine presence or ritual lore. Here, however, the god is at the very center, and this is emphasized from the start. It is none other than Apollo who is responsible for the fight between Agamemnon and Achilles that triggered the entire plot of the Iliad: “Who among the gods set them against each other in strife? Leto’s and Zeus’ son: angry at the king, he sent an illness over the army, an evil one” (Il. 1.8f.).

This initial role reflects Apollo’s prominence throughout the Iliad. He is a major player in the action of the poem, and with the exception of Zeus, no other god is mentioned as often as he is. He is the main protector of the Trojans; as such, he has his temple on the acropolis, the Pergamos, of Troy (Il. 5.446 and 7.83). He protects the walls of his city, and he constantly helps the main Trojan fighters - not only the archers Paris and Pandaros, but also Aeneas and, as long as he can, Hector, and he thwarts the attacks of the Greek heroes, Diomedes, Patroclus, and Achilles. Achilles will find his death at the hands of Paris and Phoebus Apollo, as he is well aware (Il.22.359). When Patroclus, having become reckless, attacks the walls of Troy, Apollo protects them, standing on a high tower, and pushes Patroclus away (Il. 16.700ff.); some days later, when the other gods leave the battlefield for Olympus, he goes to the city in order to protect its walls (Il. 21.538ff.). When Diomedes stuns Aeneas and then wounds his mother Aphrodite who shielded her unconscious son from Diomedes’ attacks, Apollo takes over, drives Diomedes away and brings Aeneas to his temple; here Leto and Artemis, Apollo’s mother and sister, nurse the wounded hero (Il. 5.344ff.). When Hector challenges a Greek, he promises to hang his armor in Apollo’s temple, should he win (Il. 7.83), and his victory over Patroclus is decisively helped by the god (Il. 16.787ff.). He is no easy god to deal with: when Diomedes or Patroclus try to resist him, he pushes them back and finally threatens them with hard words, and he yells at Achilles when the hero does not recognize him immediately. It is no surprise that, in the funeral games for Patroclus, the archer Teukros loses the shooting contest because he failed to promise Apollo a hecatomb of young sheep (Il. 23.865). This lofty attitude, however, is reserved for his dealings with humans only: when his uncle Poseidon, a staunch supporter of the Greeks, challenges him to a fight, Apollo just shrugs: “Don’t tell me that I am crazy enough to fight you because of miserable mortals” (Il. 21.463). The younger god had too much respect for his uncle, or was too well brought up, to fight him.

His main opponent, during the Trojan War, is his sibling Athena. Over and over again, the two can be seen counteracting each other, and not just in battle. During the games for Patroclus, Diomedes, secure of his horsemanship, is leading in the chariot race when Apollo, still angry at him, throws the whip out of his hand; Athena, observing this, picks it up, hands it back, breaks the yoke of another chariot and helps him win (Il.23.383). Their fierce opposition is all the more surprising as Athena too has her temple on the Trojan acropolis; but the one time we hear of it, when Hector ordered his mother to pray to the goddess and promise her a gift, she declined to help the Trojans (Il. 6.269-311).

Athena, of course, has her reasons for hating the Trojans, as has Hera with whom she conspires. Years ago, at the famous wedding of Achilles’ parents Peleus and Thetis, Eris, the goddess of dispute, promised a golden apple to the most beautiful goddess. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite fought over it, and the human judge whom they finally made decide their conflict voted for Aphrodite, the goddess of love, spurning wisdom and royalty, the bribes promised by Hera and Athena. The judge was Paris, son of Priam, king of Troy, and his abduction of Helen, the dazzlingly beautiful queen of Sparta with whom Aphrodite had bribed him, triggered the Trojan War: Helen, after all, was married to a prominent Greek king. Apollo, on the other hand, has no good reason for loving the Trojans or hating the Greeks. There is only one other story that connects Apollo with Troy: a generation ago, he and Poseidon had been servants of Priam’s father Laomedon for a year; Poseidon built Troy’s wall and Apollo guarded Laomedon’s cattle, or they both built the wall (Homer is somewhat inconsistent here). Laomedon, however, refused to pay his divine servants, instead he threatened them and chased them away. This still rankles with Poseidon and is the reason why he hates the Trojans (Il. 21.446-460, see also 7.452). If anything, the story makes Apollo’s strong and unique predilection for Troy even less understandable.

No surprise, then, that scholars tried to look for a reason outside the story of the Iliad, a reason that related to Apollo’s role in Greek cult. The answer they usually came up with was a historical one: Apollo originally was not Greek but Anatolian, and his origins in Asia Minor were still remembered when the Troy myth was formed: the god champions a city of his homeland. This answer, however, is not convincing. There is no doubt that the Iliad itself connects Apollo with Anatolia, more precisely with Lycia, a region in the southwest of Anatolia. The Trojans were helped by a large contingent of Lycian fighters that were led by Sarpedon and Glaukos (Il.2.876f.); when wounded by an arrow, Glaukos prays to Apollo, “Lord who dwells in Lycia’s fat lands and in Troy,” and Apollo helps (Il. 16.514). Apollo has a sanctuary not only in Troy, but also in Lycia, and it is well known even today. The rich sanctuary of Leto near Xanthos, Lycia’s main city, was famous already in antiquity, and it is well excavated and researched; Apollo and Artemis, Leto’s children, have their place there as well. Homer also sometimes calls Apollo lykgenés: ancient commentators (“scholiasts”) on Homer understood this as “born in Lycia,” modern linguists have their doubts, and they seem justified.

There is more. It is not just Apollo who protects the Trojans: Aphrodite and Ares do the same, although nobody would regard them as Anatolian divinities. Aphrodite has Oriental connections, since her main sanctuary was in Paphos on the island of Cyprus, but Cyprus is not Anatolia: the argument sounds like special pleading, and it cannot account for Ares whom Greeks could understand as a Thracian divinity, if they talked about ethnic origins of their gods at all. Even more seriously, explanations from hypothetical origins have run out of favor with scholars. It has become increasingly clear that it is not origins that matter but roles in stories and rituals. Often enough, tensions and oppositions that exist at the same time in a text or a ritual have been expressed by the Greeks as the result of a sequence in time and history: diachronical theories of origins served as a code for expressing synchronical tensions. Modern scholars, steeped in the historicism of the nineteenth century, however, took this seriously; by now, we have learned that such theories are mostly wrong. The best-known example is Dionysus, the god who brought carnevalesque disorder into Greek cities and disrupted the well-arranged and secure order of daily city life. Already fifth-century Athenians said that he had grown up in Anatolia; nineteenth-century scholars argued for an origin in Thrace (modern Bulgaria). Both theories run against historical facts: the god was already being worshipped in Bronze Age Crete.

Athena’s protection of the Greeks in the Iliad has been seen as part of a wider picture: Athena is the protectress of many Greek heroes. In the Iliad, she especially cherishes Achilles and Diomedes, in the Odyssey, Odysseus. In other stories, she protects Jason, the leader of the Argonauts, or Perseus, the slayer of many monsters; yet another protégé of hers is the mighty Heracles - on a relief from the temple of Zeus in Olympia, she even helps him carry the sky. This relationship has been explained from the role she plays as a protectress of the ephebes, the adolescent young men around the age of seventeen or eighteen: in most Greek cities, they served as the city’s frontier guards and standing army for a year, before becoming full citizens. The heroes are their mythical prototypes. Many heroes are young men who perform their main exploits before they reach adulthood and sometimes earn their role as adults (often kingship and a wife) through such exploits, such as Jason or Perseus: the heroes’ protectress is the ephebes’ protectress as well. Apollo has close ties with adolescent males as well, but these ties are very different. Only rarely is he said to be protector of a specific hero. Jason calls upon him when he sets out for his voyage and dedicates an altar to Apollo Embaterios (“He of the Embarkation”) who protects those who set out to the sea, and Heracles is said to have received his bow and arrows from Apollo. But Apollo does not protect them because he protects young men: he gave Heracles bow and arrows as the patron deity of archery, and Jason invoked him as the protector of passages in Greek cult. Apollo’s general connection with young men is more ambivalent. On the one hand, he protects the boys at the very moment when they turn into adults: together with the nymphs and the local rivers, he receives their hair when they cut it short as a sign of leaving their boyhood behind (Hesiod, Theogony 347). Achilles and Patroclus still were wearing their hair long (Il. 23.141), as does Apollo, the divine ephebe; and it is Apollo who protects Telemachus who is just coming of age in the main subplot of the Odyssey (Od. 19.86). But the same god is also responsible for the sudden death of young men, as is Artemis for the sudden death of young women. Telemachus, whom Apollo protects, could also become his victim: at least the suitors fervently wish that Apollo would kill him when they begin to perceive his growing independence (Od. 17.251). The suitors are young men at the age of military service; but their excess testosterone is not spent on campaign but in wild parties at the court of Odysseus, at the expense of his wife (or, in their reading, widow) Penelope. Penelope in turn, Odysseus’ faithful but harassed wife, wishes that Apollo would kill the most vicious among them, Antinous (Od. 17.494); Odysseus will oblige her by shooting Antinous first when he returns, as Homer describes in a masterfully detailed scene (Od. 22.8-21). In a myth narrated by old Priam, Niobe queen of Thebes mocked Leto, and her children took their revenge by shooting Niobe’s twelve children, Artemis the six girls, Apollo the six boys (Il. 24.602ff.). And when lamenting her dead son Hector, the Trojan queen Hecabe is struck that he does not look like someone killed in war, although his body has been cruelly maltreated by Achilles: rather, he looks “like one whom Apollo killed softly with his silver arrows” (Il. 24.578). It seems double-edged for a young warrior to be under the sign of Apollo; Athena’s protection is more robust. In this light, Apollo is the fitting god for the side that eventually will lose the war and whose main defender, Hector, dies in the course of the poem when Apollo has to leave his side.


Homer’s dark image of the angry god, descending from Olympus with his bow and his quiver full of rattling arrows, sticks in one’s mind. Apollo is the archer, as his sister Artemis is the archeress, and they both kill. Artemis’ archery is usually confined to hunting: she is the mistress of animals, and killing animals is as much her business as nurturing them; today’s hunters are still aware of the intimate connection that exists between nurturing and killing. Apollo can be a protector of hunters as well, but not very often; his archery is the more deadly art of the warrior. The mighty hunter Orion is protected (and killed) by Artemis; Apollo gave his weapon to the Lycian Pandaros (Il. 2.827) and to Ajax’s brother Teukros (Il. 15.441), the two most accomplished archers on the Trojan and Greek side, and to Heracles who used archery to kill foes and monsters alike. Apollo will guide the hand of the archer Paris when Achilles is being killed, as he guided the arrow of the archer he loathes, the Greek Teukros, away from Hector (Il. 8.31). Human archers had better pray to him before they shoot: in the shooting contest during the funeral games for Patroclus, Meriones vows a hecatomb of sheep to the god while his opponent Teukros shoots without praying (Il. 23.865): this explains why Teukros missed despite being generally recognized as the better archer. One sees how divine intervention helps to save face: Teukros is a bad worshipper, not a bad archer. However, prayer and sacrifice do not always help. Before Penelope’s suitors began the shooting contest that would determine who would finally get to marry her, they decided to offer a goat to Apollo (Od. 21.265). This did not prevent them from failing: it is the unlikely contestant, Odysseus in the guise of a lowly beggar, to whom Apollo granted the fame of victory (Od. 21.338. 22,7).

But in the world of Greek warrior ideology, archery is a problematic affair. A fight with spear and sword is straightforward, involves direct physical contact and needs as much courage as it needs training. The hoplite, the warrior in heavy armor, is the ideal Greek fighter. Most heroes in myth and often in cult are such warriors, and to fight in full armor in the hoplites’ closed line is the task and the pride of the fully adult citizen. Archers have a special talent that others might lack, and they certainly need much training, but they are sneaky and cannot be trusted. The ambivalent Paris is an archer, a warrior who prefers the bedroom: “Back from the war? You should have died out there, beaten by a real hero, my former husband!” - thus Helen greets her abductor after Aphrodite whisked him out of battle (Il. 3.428f.). Wily Odysseus is perfectly capable of fighting in heavy armor, but the Odyssey makes him an archer too: deceit is as much Odysseus’ tactic as the straightforward attack. Another archer, the Trojan Pandaros, sabotages the armistice which Greeks and Trojans are about to conclude early in the Iliad by shooting at Menelaos. Athena had talked him into it: like the audience who wants action, she has no use for an armistice that would end the war, and the narration. He missed Menelaos, despite his prayer to Apollo, only because Athena deflected the arrow to a less important bystander; the damage was nevertheless done, and the fighting went on (Il. 3.88-147). In the reality of Greek warfare, archers were either ephebes or they were foreigners, Cretans or Lycians; adolescents were nearly as marginal in the Greek city as foreigners. Again, Apollo is rather ambivalent; the hoplite’s goddess is Athena, with helmet, breast armor and shield.

Apollo’s arrows are as deadly as they are stealthy; sudden and unexpected death is their doing - the arrow that suddenly strikes from afar is an apt image for a sudden epidemic whose results are as terrible as its causes are unexplained. Already in Bronze Age narrations of the Eastern Mediterranean, we hear that a god is spreading a plague with his arrows. Reshep, the god of plague in the pantheon of Bronze Age Syria, shoots his arrows to send the “fires of illness”; on Cyprus where he was worshipped as well, he was identified with Apollo. Echoes of the same idea persist even in the Old Testament. “I shall heap on them one disaster after another and expend my arrows on them: pangs of hunger, ravages of plague, and bitter pestilence” - these are God’s angry words to his people (Deuteronomy 32.23f.). The image has lost nothing of its threatening force.

But he who sends illness can also cure it. In the Iliad, healing is not the special province of Apollo, but nevertheless it is he who heals the plague. This comes about from the way the plague started: when a wrathful god is sending illness, placating him is the only successful cure. Homer’s Chryses makes the mechanism admirably clear. His first prayer (“let the Danaans pay for my tears with your arrows” 1.42) triggers the plague, his second (“keep now away the terrible plague from the Danaans” 1.456) stops it. In another instance, healing is a result of Apollo’s more general power as a god: when the Lycian Glaukos is wounded by an arrow of Teukros, he prays to his god Apollo, and the god immediately closes his wound and gives him his strength back. Neither makes Apollo a specialized healer. There are specialists for healing in the Iliad, both among mortals and among the gods. The Greek army has two heroic physicians in their ranks who at the same time are leading a military contingent, Podalirios and Machaon, “good doctors,” the sons of Asclepios (Il. 2.729-733). They are efficient doctors; but when they are most urgently needed, when the Trojans attack the encampments, they are unavailable: Podalirios is in his tent nursing his own wounds, and Machaon is fighting. It is up to Achilles to use the herbal medicine learnt from his teacher, the wise centaur Chiron (Il. 11.833). The equivalent of these doctors among the Olympians is called Paean: he healed not only the wound Diomedes inflicted on Ares (Il. 5.899), he even cured Hades, the god of the underworld, when Heracles shot him with an arrow (Il. 5.401). Homer is reticent about Apollo’s role in healing, whether among humans or among gods. In later mythology, Asclepios is his son and has inherited his healing power from his divine father whom he will slowly supplant as a healer. Homer mentions Asclepios only as the father of the heroic physicians in the Iliad, and he never alludes to his divine origin; we have to wait until the Catalogue of Women in the late sixth century BCE for the full myth of Asclepios. Paean, on the other hand, is a somewhat baffling name: Paiawon, in an older form of the same name, was an independent divinity in Mycenaean Bronze Age Greece; after Homer, Paean is always used as an epithet of Apollo. Scholars have debated whether Homer regarded Paean as still an independent divinity or already as an aspect of Apollo. There is no decisive argument for either side, and perhaps Homer’s formulaic language retains a state of affairs that is out of date with contemporary religious reality.

To placate an irate god, however, is not that easy; one cannot just flick a switch. A god’s anger has to be calmed by ritual signs of submission and repentance; humans need to offer more than prayer: restitution and elaborate ritual honors are necessary as well. This explains the lavish ritual the Greeks performed in the sanctuary of Chryse. A hecatomb is an impressive and costly sacrifice, even if the figure of one hundred animals should not always be taken literally: repentance can always be measured by the value of the gift. On a purely human level, one should not forget that in Greek ritual the priest gets a good part of each animal, not only the tongue (which is highly valued as a choice cut), but also a thigh and the hide, and the sale of meat and hides adds additional income to the priest. Chryses must have profited nicely from a hecatomb, as did his god. Then followed the dancing and singing which lasted the larger part of the day: this was not so much entertainment of the human participants but a very specific form of honor for the god: a hymn is as much a “beautiful and marvelous thing” (in Greek, an agalma) as any work of art made from marble or bronze and dedicated as a gift to the god. In fact, Hellenistic cities inscribed hymns, sometimes with musical notation, and put them up in Apollo’s sanctuary. This was not meant as an exercise in literature, but as a way to record and therefore to make last the voice and the music of the hymn: as long as the stone stood in the sanctuary, the beauty of music and words resonated and perpetuated the ephemeral musical performance.

The performance itself is a combination of dance and song, executed by a chorus of young men, koúroi Akhaín, as Homer explicitly says. The combination of song and dance, the molpé in Greek, is widespread in Archaic Greek choral performance; young male performers, molpoí, however, are especially connected with Apollo, and at least in Archaic Miletus, they seem to play an important political role; we shall come back to them. The hymn they are singing is the paean, the form of hymn that is bound almost exclusively to Apollo: only his son Asclepios will, much later, receive paeans as well. Its name has to do with the refrain of the hymn, io Paianwhich is to be understood as a ritual shout addressed to the god, “yahoo Paian.” Thus, at least in the later paeans Paian is just another name of Apollo, especially but not exclusively as a healer. In the Iliad, the Greek kouroising their paean at the moment when they wish to obtain healing from Apollo. One would think that this would presuppose the identification of Apollo with Paion, the Homeric divine healer: if so, Homer certainly does not say it.

The narration is based on a precise model of how illness originates. Illness results from the anger of a god, and the anger results from a human transgression; the transgression must be rectified and the god must be placated and propitiated. Humans treat the god not so very differently from an angry but powerful ruler or chief; divine anger and human reaction are modeled on human experience. This model - one is tempted to call it anthropomorphic, “following human forms” - explains both epidemics and individual illness; it all depends on who is committing the transgression. Many myths, especially myths that explained cults in Greek cities (so-called etiological myths), used the model of collective transgression. To give one example: when the Athenians refused to honor Dionysus when his priests came first to their city, the god caused an epidemic sexual disease (“he struck the genitals of the men, and the disease was incurable,” says a scholiast on Aristophanes, Acharnians 243); an oracle ordered them to honor the god, and they introduced his festival in which the ritual display of models of male genitals, phalloi, played a central part. This model of transgression, punishment, and rectification had a long history. When, in fourteenth-century BCE Anatolia, an epidemic decimated the Hittite kingdom, king Mursilis II pleaded with his gods: “I have now confessed my sin before the Storm-god: it is true, we have done it;” but he also asked for mercy: “I kneel down to you and cry out: ‘Have mercy!’; … Let the plague be removed from the land of Hatti.” Almost two thousand years later, Anatolian people struck by illness still confessed their transgressions and put up costly inscriptions, often illustrating what happened with a relief. Many of these inscriptions have survived, such as the following from the second century CE: “To Zeus Sabazios and Meter Hipta, Diokles son of Trophimos. After I caught some doves of the gods, I was punished in my eyes; I now have confessed the power of the god.” In our case, the rectification concerned not the god as much as his human equivalent, the priest Chryses. Correcting Agamemnon’s mistake, the Greeks fully recognized Chryses’ sacred status as a priest and met his demand, the restitution of his daughter: this is why the shrewd politician Odysseus chose the god’s altar as the place of restitution. Propitiating rituals, however, always concern the divinity: Apollo received a hecatomb and a day of paeans and dancing. If another god had caused the disease, another rite would have been used: the paean, at least here, is not necessarily a healing hymn but Apollo’s specific ritual poetry.

But the story also uses a second paradigm of causation; we could call it ritualistic. While Odysseus and his delegation celebrated the god in his sanctuary in Chryse, the Greek army underwent a purification rite and performed a sacrifice on its own, another hecatomb of oxen and goats: thus, they too closed the period of disease and plague by rituals. The paradigm used here is one of pollution and purification. Again, the plague was the result of Apollo’s wrath because Agamemnon had insulted Apollo’s priest: a rash human act disturbed the concord and peace between humans and gods. Concord and peace had to be reestablished, and ritual purification achieved this aim. Purification is not so much a physical cleaning after an infectious disease, as we might be tempted to think, but a ritual act in order to restore harmony between the human and the divine world. Still, the term purification is more than a metaphor: dirt, as we know, causes an existing order to be disrupted - any substance that is perceived to disrupt an established order can be understood as dirt. Clay on a potter’s wheel in my study is part of how I perceive my well-ordered world; the same clay transferred from my shoes to the Persian rug in the living room is dirt because the order of the living room is such that there is no room for clay on the carpet. The disorder, the dirt, has to be removed, and order has to be restored. Homer does not explain how the Greek army did this; the only detail he gives is that they threw the lymata, the refuse, into the sea (Il. 1.314). In a real cleaning, the refuse is simply the dirt. A ritual cleaning is a symbolic act that uses images of cleaning to achieve its aim; here, “refuse” comes to mean a substance used to absorb the symbolic dirt - it is as if the sponge used for cleaning the carpet would not just be washed out but thrown away with its entire content of dirt. The sacrifice that ends the ritual - oxen and goats, sacrificed to Apollo on the beach - marks the moment when humans once again communicate with the god they had angered. The meal that usually ends a sacrifice demonstrates the newly established harmony where humans and gods find their peace once again in the community of the table. Homer narrates how the kníse, the smoke from the sacrifice that feeds the gods, ascended to the sky: the communication is restored.


Neither sanctuaries nor festivals are prominent in the Homeric epics (nor, for that matter, in Hesiod; although Hesiod’s Works and Days mention some festivals in their calendrical section). It is all the more significant that several sanctuaries of Apollo are mentioned in Homer, and that one of the few festivals for a named divine recipient that Homer describes is Apollo’s.

The festival was celebrated in Ithaca, on the very day when Odysseus, up to now in his disguise as a beggar at Penelope’s court, revealed his identity and took his revenge on the suitors. The narrator introduces it rather off-handedly. The suitors assembled in Odysseus’ hall, sacrificed “large sheep and meaty goats, fat hogs and a cow from the herd” (Od. 20.250f.) and had wine mixed to prepare for yet another sumptuous meal. Outside, in the city, a parallel action took place: heralds drove a hecatomb through the city, out to the sacred grove of Apollo “Far-shooter” where Ithaca’s citizens assembled (Od. 20. 276-278). The city festival lasted the entire day, and the citizens were unaware of the drama that slowly unfolded in the palace with the shooting contest that would finally decide on Penelope’s future husband. None of the suitors was able to string Odysseus’ powerful bow that served as the weapon for the contest. After most had tried and failed, the chief villain Antinous grew tired of it and proposed to defer the contest to the next morning. The people of Ithaca were celebrating a festival of Apollo, and the suitors too should fill the rest of the day with eating and drinking, not with a boring sporting event: next morning would be early enough to continue, after a sacrifice to Apollo (Od. 21.258-268).

But of course this was not what happened. The archer Apollo dominated the day, in a way the suitors had not expected - always too self-assured for their own good, they claimed that “Apollo and the other gods will be friendly to us” (Od. 21.356f.). Odysseus, still in the guise of a beggar, is given the bow, strings it easily and shoots the arrow through all twelve axe-heads set up as a target. He prays to Apollo to bring him fame (Od. 22.7), reveals his identity, and turns the weapon against the suitors, the first arrow killing brash Antinous. Already the Iliad had taught more than once that a successful archer should first pray to Apollo; we know that Odysseus would not miss - and, although she did not yet know the beggar’s true identity, Penelope also thought it possible that Apollo might bring him fame through the bow (Od. 21.338).

It is apt that Odysseus’ fateful archery should take place on the day the city of Ithaca performed a festival of Apollo “Far-shooter,” the patron of archery and master of silent killing; the butchery in the palace goes unnoticed outside. There might be more to it, however. Twice, Odysseus the beggar foretells that Odysseus the king will be back “on this very lykábas” (Od. 14.160-162, 19.305-307); and although linguists are still debating what this Greek word could mean, its most likely translation is “new moon day.” The new moon day is the first day in the regular, lunar calendar of all Greek cities, and like the waxing quarter moon, the seventh day, it is sacred to Apollo who sometimes in called Noumenios, “He of the New Moon” (Works and Days 770). And perhaps this was no ordinary new moon day, but, as has been argued, the first day in the calendrical year: the king’s return would coincide with the beginning of the new year, when the order of the cosmos is restored. But even if that goes too far - the thought is as suggestive as it is difficult to prove -, the return of the king on the first day of the month, in the sign and during the festival of Apollo, adds an additional depth to the story Homer tells. Festivals are not just occasions for merriment, as the suitors assume: they give order and meaning to the world.

The festival in Ithaca takes place in a grove, presumably outside the city. When Homer mentions a sanctuary, it usually has a correspondence in reality, provided, of course, it lies inside the geography of the Greek world. In the world to where Odysseus was blown by the storms, there are sanctuaries as well, such as the Posideion at the harbor of the island Scherie (Od. 6.266) or the sacred grove of Athena on the same island where Odysseus awaits the return of Nausicaa (Od. 6.291f., 321); in many respects, fairy tale Scherie mirrors an ideal Greek state. At present, however, no archaeological evidence can confirm that Apollo’s sacred grove on Ithaca reflects topographical and cult realities of the island. The other sanctuary on Ithaca that Homer mentions, the sacred cave of the nymphs where Odysseus hid his treasures upon his nocturnal arrival (Od. 13.103f., 347f.), has been explored and described long ago. Or rather, Heinrich Schliemann, the German merchant and hobby-archaeologist who found Troy, described an impressive grotto in Ithaca with traces of ancient cult that he identified with the place where Odysseus hid his treasures. He trusted Homer more than the geographer Strabo did, two thousand years earlier: “The poet,” Strabo wrote, “doesn’t give a clear account of Cephallenia, Ithaca and the other neighboring places; commentators and historians therefore vastly disagree with each other” (Geography 10.2.10). Whatever the reality behind the narration, a sanctuary of Apollo as the place of assembly for the male citizens of a community makes intrinsic sense, especially if the festival time is the New Year. That a ritual detail in poetry makes religious and social sense is, of course, no proof of its factual truth.

Troy is a more complex case of Homer’s imaginaire than the island of the Phaeacians. There must be some topographical reality behind his narration, otherwise Schliemann would not have succeeded in finding the city with the sole help of the Iliad. The citadel of Troy, the Pergamos, contained another sanctuary of Apollo, as we saw, this time with a temple where Leto and Artemis were curing Aeneas. We should not expect to ever find traces of such a temple any more than of the temple of Athena, at least in Bronze Age Troy; the Iliad, as a German scholar insisted, is no history text book. Iron Age Troy, the city that was established in the eighth century BCE under the name of Ilion, had a temple of Athena on its acropolis, but how this sanctuary relates to Homer’s narration is not quite clear. Is it earlier and independent from it? Does the narrator, an Eastern Greek familiar with the region, describe a known reality, including the odd seated image of the goddess on whose knees the priestess Theano deposited votive gifts? Or - the most extreme possibility - was the sanctuary built because Homer’s narrative was so compelling? Whatever the relationship, there is no indication of a corresponding sanctuary of Apollo. What matters with Homer’s Troy and its city cults is not any correspondence with the small settlement that colonizing Greeks had established in the early Iron Age among the impressive ruins of the Bronze Age town; what matters is the role that the two main divine antagonists, Athena and Apollo, play in the unfolding tragedy of the Trojans. Many Greek cities in Homer’s time had a sanctuary of Athena on their acropolis, such as the small harbor town of Emporio on the island of Chios, the impressive city of Gortyn on Crete, or the city of Athens; far fewer, however, had a temple of Apollo in their citadel.

Things look differently for Apollo of Chryse whose altar witnessed the restitution of Chryseis, the daughter of the local priest, and whose temple Chryses had roofed several times, as he claims in his first prayer (Il. 1.39). Thus, the sanctuary is more than the simple grove we hear of in Ithaca: besides the altar that could be enough to define a sanctuary, it had a (presumably wooden) temple with a thatched roof, and it had a priest of some standing and power. The Homeric epic does not mention many priests; besides Chryses, there is Theano, the priestess of Athena in Troy (Il. 6. 299), and there is Maron, the priest of Apollo in Thracian Ismaros who is living “in the sacred grove rich with trees,” and who gave Odysseus the wine that would be instrumental to his escape from the Cyclops Polyphemus (Od. 9.200f.); Maron, after all, is said to be the grandson of Dionysus (Hesiod, Fragment 238), and wine is indispensable for any Greek sacrifice. Theano, the wife of a leading Trojan nobleman, Antenor, is a typical city priestess, a member of the local aristocracy whom the citizens elected to her office; the office needs as much social consensus and dignity as special knowledge. Seen in the light of later Greek civic religion, Theano represents the type of priestess or priest that will be common all over the Greek world. The same seems to be true of two priests of the city of Troy, Dares the priest of Hephaestus (Il. 5.9f.) and Laogonos priest of Idaean Zeus (Il. 16.604): they belong to the city’s nobility, and their sons fight and die in the battle against the Greek invaders. The two priests of Apollo seem to be of a different ilk altogether - more imposing, closer to their god, and entirely devoted to him. Maron, grandson of a god, is living in the sacred grove, a professional dedicated to his service; Chryses has served his god long enough to have thatched the roof of his temple several times. When Chryses appears for the first time, Homer calls him aretêr, the “specialist for powerful words,” namely prayer and curse; his prayer to Apollo immediately turns into a curse for the Greeks. This is an unusual word; the common Greek term is hiereús, a word that designates the specialist for “working the sacred,” as chalkeús, the “blacksmith,” is a specialist in “working bronze” (chalkós). Apollo, the god of oracles, is a god of the powerful utterance, and a god whose oracular cult relies on specialized priests that devote their life to the service of the god, as we shall see presently.

In his prayer, Chryses addresses his god as Smintheus and as lord not only of Chryse, but of Killa and Tenedos as well. Tenedos is the small island off the coast of Troy, and Killa must be a town nearby for which Strabo had looked in vain; it must have been abandoned well before his time. The ancient and learned commentators of Homer refer the curious reader to Apollo Killaios, “He of Killa.” His sanctuary was on the island of Lesbos: Pelops, the hero after whom the Peloponnesus is named, founded it in honor of one Killos, his charioteer, who died a sudden death when passing through the island - one of those sudden deaths of young men for whom Apollo was thought to be responsible. But Homer presumably cannot mean this sanctuary; Lesbos is further south, and Chryses seems more locally minded than that.

The sanctuary of Apollo Smintheus in Chryse, at any rate, was well known in antiquity, and is still visible. It lies somewhat inland, off the western coast of the Troas, about 25 miles south of Troy. Early travelers from the mid-eighteenth century on, who had memorized their Iliad (or brought the book along with them), found and described it. Some even excavated impressive column drums and some inscriptions which attest to local games sponsored by one local grandee named Paulos, in the epoch of the Roman emperors: Homer’s fame had helped to give some glamor to an otherwise small and rather backwater place. Current excavations have not yet found anything spectacular beyond the fact that Greek settlers founded the sanctuary at a spot sacred already in the Bronze Age. Places could retain memories of sacrality over a long time, even without physical continuity of cult: there is no need to assume that Homer’s Apollo Smintheus was a Bronze Age divinity.

But what sort of divinity was this god? Unlike many epithets, the name Smintheus does not immediately speak to us: “The name of Smintheus is a perplexity for the ethnographer, and suggests an interesting problem for anthropology” (L.R. Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States, vol. IV 164). And it seems that the Greeks too had their problem with the term. But the need for an explanation must have arisen early, especially with an author such as Homer whose text was so important for the education and self-definition of the Greeks: already the rhapsodes who, in Archaic and Classical Greece, recited their Homer from memory, were asked questions about the meaning of strange words in their text. They had to have answers; they were, after all, public personalities. The epithet Smintheus, as the learned commentators tell us, would derive from the word for mouse in the local dialect. These locals, some then go on to tell, were immigrants from Crete where the mouse was still called sminthos. And they told two stories that had to explain what the somewhat repulsive but innocent rodent had to do with one of the most exalted gods of Greece; neither story holds water. According to the first, Cretans were emigrating towards the Black Sea, guided by an oracle that told them to found a sanctuary and a city where the “Earth-born ones” (gêgeneis) would attack them; they must have sailed away not without trepidation, since “earth-born” was a standard circumlocution for the giants whose mother was Gaia “Earth.” While they spent the night on the shore of what was to become Chryse, mice ate all the leather of their weaponry. Thus attacked and defeated by rather unexpected “earth-born” creatures, they understood the oracle, founded city and sanctuary and, Apollo being an important Cretan god, dedicated it to Apollo Smintheus (Strabo, Geography 13.604, after Callinus of Ephesus). The second story tells of the anger of Apollo towards one of his local priests; the angry god sent mice on his land that laid it practically waste. A friend of the priest placated the god and made him shoot the mice; the grateful priest instituted the cult of “Mouse Apollo” (Scholiast on Homer, Il. 1.39, after Polemo of Ilion). Both stories are told by people with some local knowledge: Polemo of Ilion was living around 100 BCE and came from the city that succeeded Troy, and Callinus of Ephesos was a poet who lived around 650 BCE in one of the major cities further south on the coast of Western Asia Minor. The sanctuary, and Homer’s story, must have been famous already in Callinus’ time, and Ephesos was close enough for him to have visited it. Both stories, however, are inventions in order to explain the cult, and they hinge on the idea that sminthos means mouse; we have no way to check whether this was true. I suspect that the Cretans called the rodent sminthos but not the inhabitants of the Troad who spoke a very different dialect; this would account for the narrative need to bring in Cretan settlers. Smintheus thus would be a word that neither the ancient worshippers of the god nor Homer’s audience would have easily understood. Since there are several cults of Apollo in the region, and words with the sequence -inth- belong to an older, non-Greek language, most likely the epithet preserves the name of an indigenous divinity supplanted by Apollo.

Whatever the accuracy of the etymology, the Greeks firmly believed that it had to do with mice; another local author tells us that there were sacred mice in the sanctuary. And when the locals wanted to enhance the image of the sanctuary, they turned to one of the most famous sculptors of their epoch (the fourth century BCE), Scopas of Paros. Scopas made for them not a new image of Apollo (that must have proved too costly), but at least a beautiful marble mouse that was placed beneath the foot of an existing cult image of the god (Strabo, Geography 13.604); local coins of the Imperial epoch show the god with the mouse. Apollo thus was understood as a god who kept away mice; this at least is what one of the two stories implies, and it goes together with a few other instances where the mighty god averts lowly pests.

To modern minds, made wiser by the experience of devastating plagues in early modern Europe that were spread by rodents (rats rather than mice, however), the Mouse-Apollo who sent the plague to the Greeks and killed mules, dogs, and men was irresistible: Homer must have known how rodents spread plagues, and the Greeks must have turned to him when ravaged by pests or plague. There is, however, no other indication that the Greeks were aware of the connection; no city that ever was hit by an epidemic turned to Apollo Smintheus - some cities called upon the oracular Apollo of Delphi or Clarus, and the Romans instituted a cult of Apollo Medicus, “Physician,” which seems much more sensible. To connect Apollo, mice, and plague is the result of our wishful thinking, and maybe of our surprise at seeing Apollo connected with simple mice. The surprise is modern, as is the insight into how plagues spread.

Besides these local shrines that play a role in the action of the two poems, there were the two major Greek shrines of Apollo, on Delus and in Delphi: both are mentioned by the narrators of Iliad and Odyssey. The island sanctuary of Delus is present in a small vignette only: Odysseus, always the charmer, compares the slender Nausicaa to the beautiful palm tree he once saw on Delus next to the altar of Apollo (Od. 6.162). Delphi is somewhat more visible, not the least because its stone temple impressed the contemporaries who were used to wooden buildings: twice Homer mentions the “threshold of stone” of Phoebus Apollo in “rocky Delphoi,” once together with the treasures kept inside (Il. 9.404f.), the second time when Agamemnon “stepped over the stone threshold to obtain an oracle” (Od. 8.80). Apollo’s main oracle was already well established at the very moment the Greek world becomes visible to us through Homer’s verses, and it already had made an impact all over the Greek world.


Apollo’s cults in Delus and Delphi are the central theme of a somewhat later text, the Homeric Hymn to Apollo. The Hymn is part of a larger collection of Greek hexametrical hymns that neatly falls into two distinctive groups: it contains five long hymns belonging to the Archaic and early Classical Ages, and twenty-eight short hymns, many of which are much younger. At some point in time, they all were ascribed to Homer, because they are all composed in hexameters, and at least the language of the longer hymns is more or less consistent with the language of Iliad and Odyssey. Furthermore, they were seen as being part of the project that Herodotus described as “Homer and Hesiod gave the Greeks their gods”: they contributed to an image of the Greek gods that was understandable and accepted all over Greece, so they had to be by Homer.

The Hymn to Apollo is the third in the collection, and it is the only one in which its author presents himself: he is “a blind man, who lives on rocky Chios” (173). The Athenian historian Thucydides (around 400 BCE) read this as a self-portrait of Homer (Histories 3.104), while a more recent ancient commentator disagrees and gives as the author a certain “Kynaithos of Chios who was the first to recite Homer’s verses in Syracuse in the 68th Olympiad” (according to a commentator on Pindar, Nemean Odes 2.1), that is in 504-501 BCE, somewhat too late for the Hymn, which most scholars date earlier in the same century. But this is only one of two perplexities surrounding this text. The other is its structure: it neatly falls into two parts - a Delian and a Delphic one -, so neatly, in fact, that most scholars are convinced that it had been composed from two originally independent hymns to Apollo, or that the second part was a later continuation of the first; the two parts respond to each other in an often surprising way. All major hymns are intimately connected with a specific local cult about which the text talks and in which the Hymn originally must have been performed - the Hymn to Demeter with the mysteries of Eleusis, the Hymn to Aphrodite with a local family in the Troad, the Hymn to Hermes with athletic games for Hermes in the Peloponnesus. Most scholars think that the Delian part was connected with Apollo’s cult on the island of Delus, the Delphic part with Delphi, or maybe with the cult of a local Apollo Delius and Pythius respectively; such cults were widespread. The combination of the two parts could have been caused by its performance at a joint festival of Apollo Delius and Pythius, such as the tyrant of Samos, Polycrates, performed in 522 BCE to celebrate the preponderance among the Aegean island states Samos had gained under his rule. Recently, however, an interpreter has found a tripartite structure in the Hymn: after an introduction (1-50), the text progresses from Apollo’s birth on Delus (51-126) to Apollo’s first appearance among the Olympians that also contains the self-portrait of the singer (127-182) to the extensive foundation story of his main oracular sancuary, Delphi (183-544). This would cast some doubts on the Polycrates theory, without making it entirely impossible: the Hymn is still organized around the two poles of Delus and Delphi.

Whatever the answers to these questions of authorship and origin, they only marginally affect the stories the text tells us; as to the date, a cautious assessment would put it somewhere in the sixth century. The Hymn is the most detailed literary document on the god, his mythology, and his two major cult places, and it is impressive and beautiful, both in the mythical narrative and the many parts that praise the god in a direct invocation. It begins with a powerful evocation of the divine archer at the moment when he enters Olympus, where the other gods are leisurely assembled. His sudden arrival spreads fear even among his peers: “They jump up, as soon as he arrives, all of them from their seats, when he tends his radiant bow”: this happened, the poet thinks, not once, but this is the way the god arrives always - his entry into the Iliad, full of wrath, “like the dark night,” is more than a coincidence. Only his mother Leto, sitting next to Zeus, stays calm, takes away her son’s bow and quiver and hangs them on a golden peg next to Zeus’ throne, and his father offers him a welcome drink in a golden cup. His archery, deadly and unexpected for mortals, is frightening even to the gods. At the same time, he is so visibly Zeus’ favorite son that his mother even eclipses Zeus’ legitimate wife, Hera goddess of rightful weddings, at least for the duration of the family picture. The poet’s following invocation focuses on Leto, “blessed, since you gave birth to two radiant children, to Lord Apollo and to Artemis Archeress, to her in Ortygia, to him on Delus” (14-16) (figure 1). Later in the text, we will hear that Apollo reveals to humans the will of his father: none knows it better than Zeus’ favorite son.

The invocation prepares the way for the first long mythical narration: it is Apollo’s birth on Delus that the poet is going to narrate. Once he has announced this topic, he is again carried away. In a long geographical catalogue, he describes the sphere of Apollo’s influence: “You reign over all humans,” from Crete and Athens to the Aegean islands and the cities of Ionia; Eastern Greece is the world. Unexpectedly, however, the catalogue turns into a list of places where Leto, pregnant with her son, tried to stay and give birth but was turned away. The island of Delus alone is easily convinced: as Leto insists, it is a barren and rocky island that has no other way of gaining fame. Delus agrees, but is cautious: “They say that Apollo will be all too violent, and a mighty power among gods and mortal humans” (67f.); will he not be disappointed with such an unattractive birth place and sink the island with one kick of his foot? Leto promises under oath that it is here that “for all time the fragrant altar of Phoebus will stand, and his sanctuary” (87f.) - no word, however, of the oracular shrine that Delus had demanded as well, for good reasons. Despite all the Apolline glamour, Delus does not contain an oracle of the god. But it will also contain, well beyond what Leto promises, a sanctuary of Artemis and a temple of Leto which is still famous today for the alley of white marble lions that leads up to it. These shrines might just be somewhat later than the Hymn.

Even on Delus, however, the birth takes time. Jealous Hera prevented

Figure 1 Apollo and Artemis among the Olympian gods, with Poseidon to the left of Apollo. Part of the Parthenon Frieze, ca. 440 BCE. Acropolis Museum, Athens. Copyright Photo Verdeau/Art Resource, NY.

Eileithyia, the birth goddess, from tending to her rival; only after nine days of painful labor, Eileithyia finally arrived at Leto’s side. Firmly embracing a palm tree, Leto gives birth, and “the goddesses around her are shouting loudly,” as do the human companions of a human mother. And like any human baby, the new-born god is washed and swaddled. But as soon as he is fed with nectar and ambrosia, he sheds the restraining baby linen and calls for the attributes of his divine power: “To me belong the lyre and the curved bow, and I will reveal the unchangeable will of Zeus to the humans” (131f.). Music and archery - the beneficent and the deadly use of the same strings - are his own, and prophecy as well, because he is so close to his father. And off he goes, to see the world.

The poet, however, spends little time with the world at large. His glance quickly returns to Delus and to the main festival on the island, “where the Ionians in their long dress assemble with their children and their worthy wives. They are organizing games and honor you with boxing, dancing and singing” (149f.). Again, we focus on the Eastern Greeks: Apollo, although lord of all humans, is a major divinity especially among the Ionians, those Greeks that inhabit the middle region of the Aegean islands and the adjacent Anatolian west coast, between the cities of Phocaea to the north and Miletus, Priene, and Myous to the south. In their annual festival on Delus, they celebrate, confirm, and renew the union of their city-states, all especially rich and proud in the sixth-century BCE; Chios, from where the blind singer of the Hymn comes, is one of them. The topics of the contest have a long Apolline history. Dancing and singing, molpé, were already dear to Apollo when the young men of the Acheans performed their paean in the sanctuary of Chryse, and the god himself is a master musician: whenever the gods celebrate a banquet on Olympus, his music and the song of the Muses entertains them, as not only the Iliad tells us (Il. 1.601-604); this very hymn describes such a divine banquet, adding that in Olympus the lovely Graces and the handsome youngsters Ares and Hermes are dancing as well (193-201). Boxing, the only combat sport the Ionians cultivate on Delus, is another of Apollo’s prerogatives: as Achilles announces, the god will reward “steadfastness” in the boxing contest during the funeral games for Patroclus (Il. 23.660). In Greek culture, boxing, like dancing, is very much a young men’s sport: it is the sport in which the “boys of Zeus,” the Dioscuri excel, and is already depicted as a boys’ sport in a Minoan fresco from the island of Thera (Santorini).

From Delus and, in a wide sweep into Anatolia, through Lycia, “lovely Maeonia and Miletos, beautiful city on the sea” (179), the poet has his god move towards Delphi or, as he says, “rocky Pytho” (183); the god is dressed in the long musician’s cloak and plays his lyre. Delphi was a center of music; its musical contests were famous at an early time.

After a new invocation to the god, the poet sets out to tell the second myth, Apollo’s quest for an oracular shrine. He follows his god who leaves Olympus (correctly situated in North-eastern Greece), walks first south to Euboea, then turns east, to the site of the later city of Thebes, “where there were no streets, nor roads through the plain rich in grain, nothing but forest” (228): we are dealing with primeval times, without agriculture or roads, although the route the poet describes follows a major road of historical times. Apollo sometimes pauses to check out a place, and sometimes the poet pauses to add a lengthy description; but always the god, unsatisfied, moves on, until he reaches Telphusa, a lovely spring in a quiet spot. He immediately likes the spot, intends to build “a temple and a grove rich with trees,” and starts to lay its foundations. The divine spring, however, is dismayed at the idea of becoming a major cult site of Apollo, and thinks of a ruse. She alerts him to the many horses and mules that would daily pass and drink of her abundant water, and - even worse - of the distraction the many chariots with their fast horses would cause to the visitors of the planned sanctuary. He would be better off by going up to the lonely mountains, to Krisa “under the ridge of Parnassus.” As a shrewd psychologist, she correctly realized that Apollo was looking for a quiet place. The god moves on to the place Telphusa recommended, “Krisa below the snowy heights of Parnassus, a hillside open towards the south; a steep rocks rises over it, and below there is a deep valley” (283-285); the description is suggestive even to the modern reader. And swiftly he again lays the foundations of a temple; human architects, Trophonios and Agamedes, add the stone threshold, and “countless races of humans built the temple with well connected stones, a marvel forever.” The poet is deeply impressed by the architectural achievement of what must have been one of the earliest stone temples in Greece. We lack information about how it looked; in 548 BCE the temple was destroyed by fire, and the site underwent a radical change. Historians of architecture, however, still admire a rain water drain that goes back at least to the seventh century BCE; its engineering quality speaks extremely well for the temple that went with it.

The Hymn depicts Apollo as a pioneer; he brings the civilizing force of architecture and cult into the mountain wilderness. Other accounts disagree and give both Apollo and his temple a prehistory. Apollo’s predecessor as an oracular divinity was Themis, who in her turn had followed Gaia “Earth” (Aeschylus, Eumenides 2f.). The stone temple built by Trophonios and Agamedes was preceded by, first, a laurel hut, then a round temple made from bees’ wax and feathers and brought by Apollo from the Hyperboreans who dwell in the far north, and finally by a temple of bronze built by the gods (Pindar, Paean 8; Pausanias, Guide of Greece 10.5-13). I shall return to this intriguing prehistory - it will suffice here to underline that the poet of the Hymn chose not to tell any such story. His god is too powerful to have had predecessors, and the stone temple he knows is too marvelous to follow more miraculous structures that would diminish its achievement and splendor.

The oracle, however, could not begin to work immediately; Apollo was distracted and threatened. Telphusa was more devious than the young god could ever have suspected; she sent him into great danger. Delphi was not deserted: a monster was living next to the spring that we know as Castalia, a huge female snake. Easily and swiftly, the archer god killed her: the poet is not interested in a fight whose outcome is clear to him and his audience, but in the snake’s story that follows in a long digression. Her main claim to mythical fame is the fact that she served as a nurse to the monster Typhon. Hera had borne him when Zeus had, from his head, given birth to Athena; the slighted wife decided to take her revenge on her husband. After all, he not only cheated on her regularly but he now even violated her monopoly of giving birth to their children.

This is not just a mythical embellishment to show off the poet’s abilities. Typhon was, after all, to become a major threat for Zeus’ kingship, and Hesiod describes in long and graphic detail the cosmic battle that followed Typhon’s bid for power (Theogony 820-867). In a later version of the same myth, Zeus even is caught and immobilized by his terrible enemy, and Hermes has to rescue him (Apollodorus, Library 1.6.3). Apollo’s victory is comparatively elegant, as befits the god. Myths of dragon fights are always situated at the turning point from a chaotic primeval era to the orderly time of the present. The Oriental mother of all dragon fights, the young god Marduk’s fight against the primeval goddess Tiamat in Babylonian mythology, was situated in a time before the creation of earth and sky; it was recited in Babylon during the annual New Year’s festival. Apollo’s foundation of his oracle follows the same pattern: it is a mythical feat that has cosmic dimensions, marking the beginning of the world as we know it. No wonder that neither Apollo nor his Delphic temple could have predecessors, and that Thebes, next to Troy the most powerful and marvelous city in the Greek mythical tradition, did not yet exist; the only human city we hear of belongs to the lawless Phlegyans (278).

After shooting the snake, Apollo leaves her body unburied, to rot in the heat of the sun. This is not only a fitting punishment for a lawless monster but provides the etymology of Pytho, Delphi’s epic name: the Greek root púth- means “to rot” and is connected with our adjective “putrid.” Then he takes his revenge on the insidious spring, covering her basin with a mighty rock and erecting his own altar nearby. From that day on, Telphusa was a spring whose water welled, rather unimpressively, from beneath a big rock.

But the sanctuary is still not finished. Apollo needs servants to perform the sacrifices and proclaim the oracles. Looking out over the sea, he spots a Cretan ship on its way to the Peloponnese; in the shape of a dolphin, he pulls the surprised merchants into Krisa, Delphi’s harbor below at the Corinthian gulf, and orders them to follow him on the steep path up to Delphi after having built an altar to Apollo Delphinios, “He of the Dolphin,” on the shore. The merchants are not exactly happy to be turned into sacred personnel, and when they see the desolate mountain wilderness around the temple, they revolt: “Lord, how will we survive? Please explain this to us: this lovely place has neither fields nor harbors” (528f.). Apollo, amused and annoyed at the same time, has an easy answer. “Each of you, with a knife in his right hand, will forever slaughter sheep; they will be ready in huge numbers, since the mortals will offer them to me” (535f.). Delphi’s temple economy needs neither maritime business ventures nor the toil of farming; whoever approaches the god for an oracle first has to sacrifice a sheep, and priests, as we know, get their share of meat and hide. The god is not only a fast marksman and excellent architect but also a clever religious entrepreneur; there is a reason why he chose merchants as his priests in Delphi. It was Christ, not Apollo, who drove the money-changers out of the temple.

Delus and Delphi are Apollo’s main sanctuaries in the Greek world, and in the Hymn, they are almost as old as the god. Both are rather unlikely places for major sanctuaries, as the poet of the Hymn is well aware: neither a tiny island, not much more than a rock in the sea, nor the small terrace at the side of a towering mountain seem made for the bustling crowds a major sanctuary attracts; a site in a large city or at least in a plain with easy access - such as Zeus’ sanctuary at Olympia, or the site of the spring Telphusa at the intersection of two major roads - would have been more obvious choices. Apollo has his city temples, such as the temple in Troy, but he has also the sacred groves well away from a city, on a mountain top or in the forests.


Apollo in Homer thus has many facets, and many faces. He is the protector of the city of Troy whose walls he helped to build, as he built his temple in Delphi. He is the protector of young men whose hair he receives at their transition from boyhood to adolescence, but he is also a swift and silent killer of males. His weapon is the bow, and his craft is archery; but he is also a boxer and an accomplished musician whose instrument is the lyre, and whose preferred song is the paean which is accompanied by dancing. His sanctuaries are often outside human settlements, and they often have the appearance of a sacred grove, with an altar but no temple; on the other hand one of the first and most impressive stone temples in Greece was his. And finally, he is the patron of divination: he is Zeus’ favorite son, as Athene is Zeus’ favorite daughter, and as such he has access to Zeus’ will and is willing to mediate this access to humans.

To anyone who has a methodical and tidy brain, this mass of details must appear bewildering and confusing. Earlier historians of Greek religion, committed to a model of evolution, tried to arrange the data in a complex model of development from one or two basic functions, but they could not agree on details. Such models are now widely discredited, and we shall have to find out whether there is some underlying order.