Apollo - Fritz Graf (2009)




Immediately after his birth, while still on Delus among the goddesses who helped him into life, Apollo defined his spheres of influence: “Let the lyre and curving bow be possessions to call my own, and for humans let me proclaim the unerring counsel of Zeus” (Homeric Hymn to Apollo, 131f.). Music - or rather, to a Greek, mousik, the combination of instrumental music, song, and dance -, archery and divination are the fields in which the singer of the Hymn sees Apollo’s power at work. We touched upon archery in the first chapter, we will treat divination in the third: in this chapter, I shall look at the lyre, while being aware that it is tricky to segment the complex world of Apollo. The Hymn itself treats all three together. The foundation of Apollo’s main oracle at Delphi - or rather, in the Hymn’s perspective, his first, foremost and almost unique oracular shrine - is its second main topic, together with his birth. But the bow and the lyre are nearly as prominent. Twice, the singer presents his audience with the image of Apollo entering Olympus, and both times he insists upon the strong impression Apollo made on his fellow Olympians. In the opening scene of the Hymn, Apollo joins the assembly of the Olympian gods, his bow ready: the gods, alarmed and frightened, “all leap up from their seats,” but Leto serenely “shuts the quiver and takes the bow from his strong shoulders, to hang it from a peg of gold against his father’s column.” This is a timeless scene of Apollo’s epiphany, told to impress the audience with the power of the god who is both addressee and theme of the Hymn, and it prepares for the triumph of the young god who will easily shoot and kill the monstruous snake that lives in the mountains of Delphi. This first appearance in the Hymn contrasts sharply with the second Olympic scene, the young god’s first arrival on Olympus shortly after his birth on Delus. As soon as he enters the assembly, “the minds of the immortals turn to lyre and song” (188), and the Muses sing a hymn about gods and men. “The fair-tressed Graces and joyful Seasons, with Harmony, Youth, and Aphrodite the daughter of Zeus, hold hands by the wrist and dance” (192-194), and Artemis, Ares, and Hermes join them. “But Phoibos Apollo plays on the lyre, stepping fine and high” (200).

No other two scenes could be so different: alarm and fear contrast with a joyfulness that turns even blood-thirsty Ares into a young dancer. Joyfulness and dread belong both to this god, and are intimately connected. Apollo is the god of sudden death no less than of transports of musical joy.


The splendid scene of song and dance on Olympus combines what we can divide into two separate events: the dance of young women and men, and the performance of a song by a chorus of nine young women. Both are guided by Apollo’s lyre. His musical performance ties them together: it is this combination of a sung text, instrumental music and group dancing that the Greeks call mousik and that some contemporary scholars term “song-dance.”

In Archaic Greece, as in many other traditional socities, this complex of singing, dancing, and playing of an instrument is more than just entertainment. Its near ubiquity in early Greece is visible in the images of life in Homeric Greece with which Hephaestus, the divine blacksmith, adorned the new shield he was making for Achilles (Il. 18.483-608). The god and the narrator begin with two opposing cities, a happy and an unhappy one. While the unhappy city is attacked by a hostile army, two things characterize the happy city, justice and festivity. On its agora, the citizens take part in a murder trial, and justice is done; and “there were weddings and celebrations,” with bridal processions and wedding songs, “young dancers whirled around, and among them flutes and lyres gave voice.” Somewhat later, the poet has the god picture a vineyard with beautiful ripe grapes that young men and women are harvesting: “in their midst, a boy played the lyre, sweetly and full of desire, and he sings the beautiful harvest song (línos) with his clear-sounding voice; and they all together beat the rhythm and followed him, singing, shouting and jumping with their feet.” And finally, there is a place for dancing (khóros), “such as Daedalus built in Cnossus for Ariadne with her beautiful locks.” Young men and women are dancing, holding each others’ hand, the girls with wreaths, the boys with golden swords; their dance is intricate and precise, and “a large crowd stood around the dance place, full of joy, and among them two jesters were leading the song-dance and whirled round in their midst.”

The happy city is filled with entertainment. In the last scene, there is an audience, and there are two professional entertainers, but it is also a scene that represents a performance without a context, dwelling at length on the intricate dance movements: it is a virtuoso piece of narration. Still, there might be more than sheer entertainment and virtuosity. The young men and women are unmarried but ready for marriage, and their dance demonstrates their readiness and desirability for marriage. In the men’s case, the dance also signals their readiness for citizenship: they know how to collaborate as a group, and they carry the free citizen’s weapon. The harvest scene combines serious work - the harvesting of the grapes - with dancing and singing: the young people working in the vineyard do their work as a dancing chorus, lead by a young lyre player. Song and dance express the joy of a successful year and the anticipation of new wine, but they also help with the work. Common song and rhythmical movement transform the individual workers into a homogeneous group, unify and speed up their toil, and help them to forget fatigue. Harvest songs such as the Greek línos are known from many cultures. In Greek myth, their personification, Linus, is the son of Apollo and a Muse. The good city also is ruled by justice and lawful social reproduction: Themis, the goddess of divine Rightfulness, is among the divinities invoked in the wedding ritual. There is the wedding song, hyménaios, whose personifaction, the god Hymenaios, is either the son of a Muse, of Apollo or, somewhat more surprising, of Dionysus: this latter genealogy gives mythological expression to his somewhat ribald character. Song and dance contribute to the festivity of the event, but they also carry a social message: the not yet married but nubile young men present themselves as a homogeneous and collaborative group and demonstrate their bodily fitness.

All this indicates the high social relevance of the scene of Olympian mousik in the Hymn to Apollo: the gods’ actions mirror human concerns. The Olympian dancers are divine embodiments of what Archaic Greek society expected dance to be. It is a prerogative of youth (Zeus, Hera, or Poseidon remain seated spectators), presents harmony and beauty, and evokes erotic feelings among spectators and participants. The dance floor is the space where the nubile young women and men display their bodily charm and prowess, and where matches are made, by the bystanding parents as often as by the participating young people. The singers represent poetic performance in Archaic Greece: the Muses, daughters of Zeus and Memory (Mnemosyne), put to words what is vital in the group’s self-definition - among the Olympians, it is the opposition between the immortal gods and the weak and dependent mortals, the very opposition that fuels the performance of the Hymn.

In the same way as the god’s entry, frightening and splendid in his weapons, foreshadows his triumph over the Delphic snake, his musical performance on Olympus corresponds to the description of the festival of all the Ionians on Delus. Here, the very singer of the Hymn (“a blind man from Chios,” 175) performs his art; the Delian Maidens praise Apollo, Leto, and Artemis and “remember and sing a hymn of the men and women of old, and charm the tribes of humans.” The Delian festival with its games, the Delia founded by Theseus, is the event that, in Archaic Greece, defines the Ionians and shapes their cohesion and identity. Under the protection of Apollo, his mother, and his sister, “Ionians trailing their robes” gather once a year “with children and wives,” sacrifice and perform “boxing, dancing, and song.” This gathering was the splendor of the Delian sanctuary. In the sixth century BCE, when the Hymn was composed, the sanctuary had three temples, a very old one of Artemis, a very recent one of Apollo, and the magnificent sanctuary of Leto, set somewhat apart and adorned by a row of white marble lions along its access road, following the model of Egyptian procession roads. Apollo’s main monument was not the temple but the altar, the famous Keratôn or “Altar of Horns,” said to be built by Apollo himself. It was constructed by the left horns of innumerable goats sacrificed to the god, and thus proclaimed by its very form the zeal of the human worshippers, as did the huge Altar of Ashes in the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia. It was the focus of a dance peculiar to Delus, the geranos or “crane dance” that persisted throughout antiquity. According to Delian mythology, Theseus performed it for the first time when he returned with the Athenian youths saved from the labyrinth of king Minos, and its complex movements were said to mirror the way through the labyrinth.

The same complex of mousik characterized performance at Delphi; its games, the Pythia, were to Delphi what the Delia were to Delus. Originally held every eighth year, the games consisted only in the performance of a hymn, Apollo’s paean; the prize was a laurel wreath, comparable to the Delian prize of a palm wreath; athletics, already part of the Delian games at the time of the Hymn, were absent. Early in the Archaic Age, the games were reorganized; they were now held every fourth year, the musical contests were multiplied, and athletics were added after the model of the Olympian Games, with whose importance the Pythian Games competed. The musical performances consisted of cithara-playing, flute-playing, and singing to the cithara. This last discipline, kitharôidia, was deemed the most outstanding contest of the games since it combined musical and poetical invention: throughout the ancient world, Apollo himself was often represented as a kitharôidos, a singer to his cithara, in the long dress typical of such performers.


Despite the addition of flute-playing to the Pythian Games, the flute did not belong to the world of Apollo; his instrument was the lyre. The Hymn to Hermes tells the story of how this came to be: on his first day out, baby Hermes stumbled over a tortoise, killed it, and turned its shell into the body of the first string instrument. On the same trip, he stole Apollo’s sacred cows and slaughtered one of them, thus inventing the sacrifice. Hermes is the Greek form of a wide-spread mythical figure, the trickster; as in most mythologies, the trickster is also the inventor of culture, which in Archaic Greece means music and sacrifice that characterize communal festivities. When his older brother Apollo found him out, he was so impressed with the first citharedic performance Hermes gave that he eagerly accepted the lyre as a compensation for his sacrificed cow. When he asked for the lyre, Apollo stressed the effect of the new music: “Truly: joy, love and sweet sleep can be gained all together,” and he is eager to introduce it to the world.

In this same passage, Apollo compares flute and lyre. He characterizes himself as a helper of the Muses “who love dancing and the sweet ways of song, the flowering melodies and the call of the flutes that awakens desire” (451f.). Thus, mousik already existed before Hermes’ invention, and it was in the care of Apollo and the Muses, but its only instrument was the flute. The lyre, however, easily outdoes all this: “Nothing among the skillful feats at the banquets of the young has impressed my soul so deeply” (454). From now on, the lyre will be Apollo’s instrument. The flute was tolerated; after all, it formed part of the Pythian Games, and both lyre and flute were used to accompany sacrifices; but in the system of values ascribed to different instruments, the lyre ranks higher, well above the flute.

Mythology expressed this hierarchy of musical instruments in stories that talked about inventors and performers, and in the course of the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, this hierarchy of instruments became more rigid, as the myths make clear. Whereas the lyre had Hermes as its inventor and Apollo as its performer, the flute, although invented by Athena, was rejected by her and became the instrument of Marsyas. Marsyas was either a Silen or a Satyr, and he was not Greek but Phrygian. As Silen or Satyr, he was connected with Dionysus, and he was only partly human, more on the side of nature than culture; Silens and Satyrs were represented with horse tails and animal ears. As a Phrygian, he was non-Greek and had close ties with the Great Goddess Cybele for whose ecstatic cult he was said to have invented songs. The opposition that is visible here - lyre versus flute, culture versus nature, Apollo versus Dionysus and Cybele - turns into a violent conflict in another story that is known since the fifth century BCE. When Marsyas challenged Apollo to a musical contest, Apollo easily won and flayed Marsyas alive, to punish him for his arrogance (figure 2). The lyre ranked so high above the flute that even to challenge the hierarchy became a crime.

One reason for the opposition between these instruments lies in the way their different players were forced to perform by the very nature of their instruments. A citharedic performer sang a text that he accompanied by his lyre: the music was subordinated to the words. Flute-playing cannot be accompanied by words, at least not by the same person; the instrument alone has to tell the story. Saccadas of Argus, a flute virtuoso who won the first prize in the Pythia in three consecutive contests (in the years 586, 582 and 578 BCE), was famous for his musical compositions that evoked mythical events (what we would call program music). His instrumental pieces were able to narrate the sack of Troy, or the fight of Apollo with the dragon in five movements. Understanding the story necessitated close attention to the music, whereas the citharedic story called close attention to the verbal text.

Figure 2 Apollo and Marsyas in contest. Relief, late fourth century BCE. Athens, Greek National Museum. Copyright Alinari/Art Resource, NY.

The hardening of the antithesis between lyre and flute, which is visible in the myths of Marsyas, is a result of developments in fifth-century culture and education; both instruments had always performed in the Pythian Games. In education, the lyre was the aristocratic instrument that every cultured aristocrat should be able to play. In fifth-century Athens, aristocratic values decreased, and boys turned to the much easier flute: the story of how Heracles killed Linus, his lyre teacher, may reflect this change. The late fifth century also developed a new musical style which traditionalists such as Plato regarded as dissolute and dissolving the firm borderlines between the genres: its disorderly nature was thought to be as dangerous for the community as rock music was judged in its early years. The exponent of this new style was Timotheus (ca. 450-360 BCE), a citharede who was highly acclaimed as a performer of dithyrambs. Dithyrambs are connected with Dionysus, not with Apollo: although Timotheus still played the lyre, we sense a tension between the music of Apollo and of Dionysus. This will occupy as much later, when we will explore the prehistory of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Apollo.


The scene of Olympic mousik in the Hymn to Apollo is not isolated in Archaic Greek literature, which confirms the importance of “song-dance” in Archaic Greek society. From Homer to Pindar (early fifth century BCE), poetry depicts Apollo playing on Olympus together with the Muses, and the occasion is always a festival. In the first book of the Iliad, the singer describes a banquet of the gods where the food is accompanied by “the beautiful lyre which Apollo had, and the Muses who were singing, answering with beautiful voice” (1.604f.). At least two centuries later, at the very beginning of the classical age, the poet Pindar narrates the wedding of Peleus and Thetis: “With willing mind, the most beautiful chorus of the Muses was singing on Mount Pelion, and in their midst Apollo was leading manifold melodies, playing the seven-tongued lyre with his golden plectre” (Nemean Odes 5.23-25). Throughout Archaic Greek poetry, the banquets and festivals of the gods are accompanied by the music of Apollo and the chorus of the nine Muses.

This reflects social practice all over Archaic Greece. The song and dance of a chorus that was led by a musician who played the lyre accompanied the all-male banquets of the aristocracy as well as the religious gatherings of groups of all kinds. At the beginning of the first Pythian Ode (performed in 470 BCE), the poet Pindar addresses the lyre (phórminx) and puts its music into the context of a festival: “Golden lyre, common treasure of Apollo and the violet-haired Muses: to you the dancers’ footstep listens as it begins the splendid celebration, and the singers heed your signs whenever you elicit from the trembling strings the chorus-leading preludes.” But the effects of the music go well beyond creating a festive atmosphere. The tunes of the lyre quench Zeus’ weapon, the fiery thunderbolt, and they pour sleep over the eyes of his eagle. Mighty Ares, slumbering, forgets his weapons, “and its power charms also the gods’ minds through the art of Leto’s son and of the deep-breasted Muses.” Pindar easily outdoes the scene of Apollo’s entry to Olympus in the Hymn.

An admiring scholar called this Pindaric passage “perhaps the greatest praise of music ever written,” and it certainly resonates through later literature. This resonance was firmly rooted in the realities of Greek festival life, and went well beyond the performance of dance and citharedic song. Major festivals not only displayed musical and choral performances, they put a temporary halt to the nearly permanent inter-city warfare that charactized most of Greek history before Alexander the Great. It was not just the great panhellenic festivals such as the Olympia, the Athenian Mysteria, or the Pythia which were protected by a temporary sacred truce; local festivals could also enjoy the benefits of temporary peace. The quenching of Zeus’ thunderbolt and Ares’ sleep in Pindar, or Ares dancing with abandon in the Hymn to Apollo reflect the Greek understanding of what a festival was, and the truces surrrounding them were more than just a practical matter that allowed the embassies and visitors to passage to and from the sanctuary. Practicality was part of the motivation, but underlying it is the ideological reading of the festival as a space carved out from the grim reality of Greek life. To give just one example of a more local festival that combined a sacred truce with musical performances as its main content, I turn to the Spartan Hyacinthia, the festival of Apollo in Amyclae.

The festival was held in the sanctuary of Amyclae four miles outside of Sparta. The sanctuary dated back to late Mycenaean times, before the Spartans arrived in the valley of the Eurotas, and was famous already in the archaic period; down through the ages, it preserved a strange and highly archaic image of Apollo, “very old and fashioned without much art,” as Pausanias has it (3.19.2), similar to a tall bronze column in shape, with a helmet on its head and a lance and a bow in its hands. This warlike image stood on an altar-shaped base said to contain the grave of Apollo’s boy lover Hyacinthus whom he killed by accident with a stray throw of his discus. The festival lasted three days and attracted large crowds. Its first day was dedicated to Hyacinthus who received a sacrifice through a bronze door in his altar; observers noted the manifold signs of grief for his boy lover - no wreaths were worn, no bread or cakes brought to the sanctuary, no paean was sung; “everybody dines very orderly and then goes home again.” The second day was Apollo’s, an occasion for the main sacrifice to the god and for large and lavish meals for the Spartans, their guests, and their slaves. On this day, athletic and musical performances were held, as the local historian Polycrates tells us.

Boys in long, ungirded cloaks play the lyre; singing to the accompaniment of a flute, they strike all seven strings with their plectrum and hymn the god in anapaestic metre and in a high pitch …; numerous choruses of young men enter the theatre and sing traditional songs, and dancers move between them in traditional figures that are accompanied by flute and song.

Other young men performed riding exercises, while girls held contests, and a new cloak was presented to Apollo: his column-like image must have been dressed in such a cloak during the rest of the year.

This description makes one think of a New Year’s festival, and it was certainly one of Sparta’s most lavish festival periods. The strange, dark atmosphere of the first day, with its reversals of festive behavior, enhances the festivity of the second day: here as elsewhere, a ritual dichotomy intended to mark the suspension of normality translates, in mythological terms, into the opposition between a brilliant god and a dead hero, killed through a mistake of the god, his lover. Musical performances by boys and young adolescents are at the center of Apollo’s second day, and they combine the lyre, the flute, song, and dance: it looks as if the opposition between flute and lyre developed after the traditions of the Hyacinthia were fully established, as was the case with the musical contests of the Delphian Pythia. Our ancient witness emphasizes the lavishness and opulence of the festival. But the festival also hindered the Spartans from going to war: they regularly seemed to have refrained from military action not only during the festival, but well in advance of it. Apollo’s festive charm rests on the realities of Greek festival life.


During the Hyacinthia, as during the Pythia in Delphi, the festival on Delus and many other festivals of Apollo, choruses of boys, adolescents, or men performed the paean. The Hymn to Apollo describes how Apollo himself introduced this song to Delphi. When he led the Cretans up from the shore where they had built an altar to him, sacrificed and held a banquet,

Lord Apollo, son of Zeus, went before them, with the lyre in his hand, playing marvelously and walking with beautiful and high steps; they followed him beating the time, the Cretans, up to Delphi, and were singing a paean (ipaiona ) similar to the paean (paiones ) of the Cretans into whose hearts the divine Muse put sweet song.


In this account, the paean is a native Cretan song. The Hymn uses two terms for it that are closely related: the second term is the Homeric version of the later word pain (pain in the dialect of Athens), the former reproduces the cultic shout that exists independently or as a refrain of the paean-song, i pain. This double terminology has irritated some scholars who were uncomfortable with ambiguities; and since in Homer the god Pain is the court physician on Olympus, they understood paiones to mean “healers.” The Cretans would sing the song which they knew as the song of their own god-inspired healers. This is extremely intriguing and will occupy us later; the Cretan origin of the “song-dance” paean is what matters for the time being.

Over time, probably unhappy with the idea of the paean as a foreign import, the Delphians told a different story. When young Apollo was about to shoot the dangerous monster, local bystanders or his mother Leto were encouraging him, shouting either “shoot, Paean” (híe, Paián), addressing him by one of his cult titles, or “shoot, son, an arrow” (híe, paî, ión). The story must have been invented after the Hymn, and the word-play sounds like one of those etymologies fifth-century intellectuals were fond of. Still, the connection with the dragon story is significant. In Near Eastern and Indo-European mythology, the killing of the dragon is a founding event of cosmic dimensions. In Delphi, the shooting of the dragon is not only the founding event of Apollo’s main oracle but of his song as well. This gives to both a cosmic importance: the Delphic sanctuary, after all, contained the “Navel of the Earth,” the very centre of the cosmos; the paean is the song and dance that belongs to this center.

The juxtaposition of these two myths, however, points to an underlying problem. In recent years, several scholars have worked on the genre paean, and they all came up with the same insight: paean is a rather fuzzy genre whose one reliable characteristic is the shout “ ” This contradicts the Greeks themselves who had no problem defining the paean. The first definition appears in the beginning of Pindar’s third Dirge: “There are paean-songs in due season belonging to the children of Leto with the golden distaff.” The poet sees the paeans as the songs of Apollo and Artemis, and in what follows he opposes them to other songs, the dithyrambs of Dionysus, the wedding-songs of the god Hymenaios, and the dirges that the Muse Melpomene sings for her dead sons. Pindar’s voice is authoritative, and later grammarians used this passage to define the paean as the song of Apollo.

Real life is, as always, messier, whatever Pindar said, or meant. He might have simplified reality in order to achieve his goal, to give a forceful introduction to a dirge; his song moves from the celebrative and joyful paeans, dithyrambs, and wedding-songs to the dirge, in a complex move that opposes joy and grief and at the same time creates an atmosphere of glory that is part of the dirge for a dead aristocrat. When we look at what the ancients said about paeans, or at the extant songs themselves, we see a complex picture. First, we have to distinguish between paean as song and paean as shout; both can be described with the Greek verb paionízein, “to sing/shout paean.” The spontaneous shout i pain expressed surprise or joy, very rarely dismay, and it was used by men only (most Greek exclamations were gendered). In a more ritualized context, it could be used during sacrifice. But this exclamation was closely related to the song, since it functioned as its refrain and gave the name to the genre. Paeans were sung in different circumstances: before battle or after victory, at the beginning of a symposium, or before any risky undertaking, such as setting sail or, in comic parody, going to court. Paeans were also sung during the wedding ceremony, yet another uncertain beginning. In all these situations, the refrain could be understood as the invocation of a helping divinity, Paean, even though this divinity had a different name, Zeus in the banquet or Hera in the wedding ceremony; Greeks often addressed their gods not with their overall names, but used epithets as addresses that expressed a specific aspect of their personality and function. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, the divine recipient addressed was either Apollo or, later, Apollo’s son, the healer Asclepius. Even in a ritual context where another divinity seemed to be in the foreground, Apollo was not far away. A long and complex sacred law from the city of Miletus from about 450 BCE prescribes the activities of an all-male group of worshippers of Apollo Delphinios known as molpoí, “singer-dancers.” An important ritual was their procession from Miletus to Didyma during which they sacrificed and performed: “The paean is performed first for Hecate in front of the city-gate, for Dynamis, then in the Meadow at the top for the Nymphs, then for Hermes in Kelados, for Phylios, around Keraites, at the statues of Chares.” This traces the sacred topography of the processional road, from Miletus over a mountain pass to the statues that stood alongside the monumental entry into the Didymaean sanctuary, again, as in Delus, after an Egyptian model. The different sacred places along this road were more markers for the performance of the Molpoi than addressees of their song: they performed the paean because they were worshippers of Apollo.

The paean can thus be understood as a ritual performance that addressed a divinity in a situation of danger and uncertainty; one of Apollo’s functions was to be “Averter of Evil,” Alexikakos. It fits that, according to a Spartan tradition, a certain Thaletas of Gortyn halted a plague in Sparta; he is well known as the singer of paeans. To a Greek, it goes nearly without saying that the same song that asked for help can be performed again to thank the god when he has responded favorably: this explains the paean after victory, or the paean which the Greeks performed to Apollo Smintheus after the plague. At the same time, the paean was also viewed as a controlled and celebratory song, opposed to the wild and even subversive Dionysiac dithyramb. The performance of a paean during a wedding and during the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Athenian Panathenaia might be a result of this festive and celebratory character. However, it should be kept in mind that Mysteries rites and Panathenaia are also auspicious new beginnings, of the Athenian year at the Panathenaia, and of an entirely new relationship towards the goddesses of wealth and of the afterlife, Demeter and Persephone, in the case of the Mysteries. A similar richness of meaning accounts for paeans that, in Hellenistic times, were performed for kings and generals: on the one side, these powerful men were seen as real sources of salvation and help (or evil and destruction, if they were antagonized); on the other hand, it was only fit that rituals in their honor should be stately and festive.

Thus, the genre paean has no firm and clear-cut boundaries, but there is a firm core that has to do with salvation, and with Apollo or Asclepius. It is only from the sanctuaries of these two gods that we have inscriptions preserving entire texts of paeans, recorded on stone (sometimes even with musical notation) in order to keep the memory of the performance alive. There were developments after the Archaic Age: the paean was extended to Asclepius who, during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, became a much more powerful healer than Apollo, and to the kings and generals who were more immediate saviors or threats than any Olympian god could ever be. But even then, the tie with Apollo was often present. When the small city of Erythrai in Northern Ionia introduced the cult of Asclepius in about 375 BCE, the city assembly passed regulations for the cult of the new god: it bound it firmly together with the already established cult of Apollo. In the new city festival, both received a sacrifice, and the text stipulated that “first one has to perform the following paean at the altar of Apollo,” after which it gives the text of a paean to Apollo, then another paean for Asclepius. About ninety years later, in 281 BCE, the assembly decided to add a third recipient of a paean to the same text: King Seleucus whom the Ionian cities greeted as new overlord and liberator from a much harsher regime. Apollo, his son Asclepius, and the divine king are all lined up together as saviors of the city.


We have seen that Apollo was regarded not only as the divine musician, but also as the father of mythical figures that were personifications of certain types of songs: the harvest-song, Linus, or the wedding song, Hymenaeus. In his third Dirge, Pindar lists them not as sons of Apollo, but of the Muse Calliope who was singing dirges for them, since they died young:

One song sang ailinon for the long-haired Linus; another sang of Hymenaeus, whom the last hymn took away when at night his skin was first touched in marriage; and another sang of Ialemus, whose strength was fettered by a flesh-rending disease.

Linus, the story goes, was killed as a young man by the hunting dogs of his grandfather; Hymenaeus died young while singing the wedding song at the wedding of Dionysus and Ariadne. Ialemus is yet another son of Apollo: his song is the dirge (iálemos) that was sung the first time after his untimely death. The early death of so many musical heroes is somewhat disconcerting, although, as has been pointed out long ago, most heroes die an untimely death. One wonders whether this has to do with the predominance of child or adolescent choruses in Greece.

To this list, Pindar adds a fourth hero: “The son of Oeagrus, … Orpheus of the golden lyre.” Orpheus too was a son of the Muse Calliope; and whereas Pindar here gives him the Thracian king Oeagrus as a father, in another passage he claims that “from Apollo came the father of songs, the widely praised lyre player Orpheus” (Pythian Ode 4.176). Mythological consistency is less important than the immediate aim of the song: while the context of the former passage is lost, this second passage is a list of the Argonauts, “the voyage of the demi-gods” and Pindar stresses the nobility of the participants, many of them sons of gods, and their heroic undertaking enhances the glory of the victor whose praise Pindar sings, an aristocrat from Cyrene.

Orpheus is much more complex than his three (half-)brothers Ialemus, Hymenaus, and Linus with whom he shares only his untimely death. The story is well known (although fully narrated comparatively late, by the Roman poets Virgil and Ovid). When his bride died of a snake bite on their wedding day, Orpheus decided to fetch her back from the Underworld. His song easily gained him access and enchanted even Hades and Persephone; they gave him back his wife under the condition that he would not look back while walking in front of her up to the world of the living. But of course, Orpheus turned back, driven by his love and the uncertainty whether she would be following him. Having failed to honor this condition and returning alone, he fled to the wilderness of Thrace and was killed there, either by the incensed wives of the Thracians whom he brought under his musical spell, or by the menads, the followers of Dionysus whom he spurned, being a follower of Apollo. Throughout Greek tradition, Orpheus is the arch-poet, the originator of Greek poetry, the citharede who received his art, and perhaps his lyre, from Apollo and whose powerful songs enchanted the powers of the underworld, the animals and even rocks and trees in the wilderness of Thrace; a rare image shows his head singing on in Apollo’s presence, dictating a text to an attentive youth, perhaps his son Musaeus (figure 3). As an Argonaut, he easily outsang the Sirens who killed themselves out of shame for being beaten. Art shades into magic, and song (d) was closely related to spell (epd) in Greek thought; the Romans even lumped both together as carmina. Orpheus was also credited with spells that had miraculous healing powers. No wonder that the geographer Strabo derided him as “a wizard because of his music and divination, and because he peddled initiations into mystery cults.” The cults in

Figure 3 Apollo supervising Orpheus’ head that gives oracles. Attic red-figure cup in Naples, ca. 430 BCE. Reproduced after Minervini, Bulletíno Napoletano, serie nuova 6, p. 33, tav. iv.

question were the mysteries of Dionysus with which Orpheus became connected in the late sixth century BCE: the cult promised a privileged life after death through private initiations, and who would be better suited to give guidance through the Underworld than the singer who himself had gone down and returned alive, albeit without his beloved wife? Thus, the son of Apollo was turned into a prophet of Dionysus whose very followers were responsible for his death. Among his poems, a “Descent to the Underworld” was known already in the fifth century BCE. But the same poet was also credited with providing information about the origin of the world and the gods: several theogonical poems were composed under his name. In Orpheus, musical poetry (musik) is again more than entertainment: it has not only the power to enchant gods, humans, and nature, but to heal, and its words convey information about worlds otherwise unknown to humans, both in time and in place.

Other legendary poets were also connected with Apollo. Olen, a native of Lycia in Southwestern Anatolia, was said to have written the traditional hymns that were sung on Delus in the fifth century BCE; others even thought that he was Apollo’s first prophet in Delphi. Lycia is closely connected with Apollo: his mother Leto possessed the major sanctuary of the region, the Letoon in Xanthus, and Apollo himself had an epithet, Lycius (lúkeios), that ancient and modern authors alike understood to mean “Lycian.” Another son was Philammon, poet and lyre player who instituted girls’ choruses in Delphi and was among the first victors. He became the father of the poets and singers Thamyris and Eumolpus, both Thracians like Orpheus; Thamyris challenged the Muses and lost contest and life, Eumolpus moved to Eleusis and founded the clan from whom, until the end of antiquity, the Athenians selected the high-priest of the Eleusinian mysteries: the resonances with other Apolline themes are obvious. Then there was Abaris, a Hyperborean and priest of Apollo who regularly spent his winters in the north; he came to Greece led by Apollo’s arrow, and some claimed that he could fly on it. He foretold epidemics, and in Sparta he performed sacrifices that kept them away for good. Classical Greece knew him as a writer of oracles and spells; later, there were epical poems under his name, including Purifications and Apollo’s Coming to the Hyperboreans, as well as a prose theogony. One Aristeas of Proconessus, an island in the strait northeast of Istanbul, left better traces: already in the early sixth century BCE, Greeks read his poem Arimaspeia in which he narrated how, possessed by Apollo and accompanied by his servant in the form of a raven, he traveled far north and heard about the fabulous people up there, the Arimaspi who fought with the griffins, and the Hyperboreans, “The People Beyond the North Wind.” A local legend, preserved in Herodotus (4.15), tells how he died but was seen later in other places, while his body had disappeared. The same historian also narrates how Aristeas appeared in Metapontum in Southern Italy and asked the Metapontians to build an altar to Apollo, since they were the only Italians to whom Apollo had manifested himself, “and he, Aristeas, had accompanied him in the form of a raven,” Apollo’s sacred animal. The altar, an image of Aristeas and the laurel bushes next to them were still visible on the agora of Metapontum in Herodotus’ time.


Yet another sage had ties to Southern Italy where he founded his school, and he is relevant here as well: Pythagoras, son of Mnesiarchus, who settled in a city close to Metapontum, Croton, after he left Samus after the Persian invasion of 547/6 BCE. He was a sage (rather than a philosopher) who combined in his person ritual practices, religious teaching, and philosophical speculation, as did Empedocles of Acragas, priest, healer, wizard, and philosopher two generations later. Pythagoras was regarded by his followers as the reincarnation of Hyperborean Apollo; legend has it that he proved the truth of this assertion by showing his golden thigh one day, and that he met the Hyperborean Abaris, took away his arrow and made him his follower. Like Orpheus, he went to the Underworld and was regarded by his followers as being dead; after a year, he came back and, in order to prove his story, was able to tell of everything that had happened in between. His followers, the Pythagoreans, were deeply concerned with music, both as a model for the cosmic relevance of numeric harmony and as a means of purifying and healing the soul: speculation and ritual, musical practice and mathematical theory, opposites in our way of thinking, were closely intertwined in this world.

For a while, scholars used to call all these figures shamans. But the term has gone out of fashion, for several reasons. First, “shaman” is a term that originally belonged to a very small and clearly defined area among the Tungus in Northern Siberia: these societies believed that a specialist could communicate with the powers that govern the world and distribute or withhold health or a successful hunt. He did so in an ecstatic journey to these powers with the help of spirits that he had acquired during his initiation. Mainly through the work of the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, this narrow definition of a shaman has been broadened to encompass all religious specialists that combine ecstasy and healing; the underlying notion is that shamanism is a phenomenon that was shared at one time by most human societies. This assumption and its underlying evolutionary concept are highly problematic; it works only at the price of emptying the term of much of its specificity. As for Archaic Greece, a less general concept had been used to justify the term: at some point in the early Iron Age, it was argued, when commercial and colonial expansion had opened up the northern shore of the Black Sea, the Greeks came into contact with Eurasian shamanistic cultures, and thus stories and even historical figures based on shamanism entered Greece. The constant association of these figures with the Hyperboreans and Hyperborean Apollo seemed to confirm this: the Hyperboreans were the people “Beyond the North.” The problems with this theory are historical and methodological. Although the historical dates seem to fit more or less - Olbia at the mouth of the Dniestr was founded in about 600 BCE, both Aristeas and Abaris appear in the sixth century -, we do not know whether the cultures with which they came into contact (the Scythians of Southern Russia) knew shamanism in the same form as the Tungus in Siberia: the distance between the northern shore of the Black Sea and Siberia is considerable, and contacts are unclear at best. But even if this could be proved, it is obvious that none of these figures shared the pivotal social role of a Tungus shaman, not even Pythagoras; he was the founder of a religious sect and leader of a political movement. Early Greece had no shamans. If one insists on the term, one could claim that Abaris, Aristeas, and Pythagoras (and, for that matter, Empedocles) were somewhat influenced by Northern Eurasian shamanism; but the probability of such an influence is low indeed.

What, then, were these men, and why were they connected with Apollo? The first question is somewhat easier to answer than the second. Whether they were legendary or historical (but even then heavily overlaid by legend), they are examples of archaic wise men who posessessed special knowledge of rituals, divination, and healing and who had gained this knowledge through ecstatic experience. In the cases of Abaris and Aristeas, the colonial push northwards anchored the stories in an imaginary north whose depiction was based on travelers’ tales about the wonderlands north of the Black Sea. Aristeas’ Arimaspeia responded to a demand for stories about those far-away lands. Proconessus, Aristeas’ home city, was a Milesian colony, as was Olbia, and the Milesians were at the forefront of the colonizing movement. Pythagoras, on the other hand, was the historical founder of a secret society in Southern Italy that was politically highly successful and which combined an esoteric religion centered perhaps on the mysteries of a Great Goddess with philosophical speculation on arithmetic, music, cosmology, and healing. Contemporaries perceived him as being close enough to figures like Abaris that they narrated legends which linked the two even more closely.

One reason why Apollo was brought into the stories of such men was his close ties with ecstatic experience. As we shall see in the next chapter, he was, from early on, connected with ecstatic divination, be it institutional as in Delphi or freelancing as with Cassandra and the Sybil. At the same time, he was also the god of music and healing: at least outside the Homeric epics whose distaste of ecstasy is well known, Apollo looks like the divine template for these healers, poets, and miracle workers. The ecstatic side of his character found narrative expression in stories that associated him with travel and arrival from abroad. In this respect, he is similar to Dionysus whom one could characterize as “the arriving god.” Dionysus was thought to arrive from the East; in the prologue of his Bacchants, Euripides gives a geographical list of his travels that reach as far as Persia, Bactria, and Arabia. After Alexander’s conquests, India was added to the list: the Greeks associated the type of subversion that came with the ecstatic cult of Dionysus with the ambivalent delights and temptations of Eastern civilizations. Apollo was made of sterner stuff, and the tougher but not less marvelous lands of the Far North proved a more adequate expression of his character. The association with the Hyperboreans does not end with Abaris and Aristeas. In Delphi, the oracle ceased during the winter, Apollo stepped back, and Dionysus took over: Apollo, it was said, had travelled to his Hyperboreans. On Delus, the sanctuary contained the grave of two pairs of Hyperborean girls, Arge and Opis, and Laodice and Hyperoche, who had died there: the former pair had come “with the gods themselves,” the latter brought a tribute to the island when Leto was about to give birth (Herodotus 4.34); their cult was living testimony of Apollo’s tie with the Far North.


This chapter dealt mainly with Archaic Greece. In this epoch, the musical-literary-ritual phenomena connected with Apollo had a surprising unity which began to dissolve during the classical period. Pindar of Thebes, the last “song-dance” poet, and Empedocles of Acragas, the last sage who combined ritual wisdom, medicine, magic, and philosophy, are rough contemporaries; both were living outside Athens which was slowly moving to the center of the cultural stage. During the following centuries, when literature turned from orality and performance to literacy and reading (or at least reciting), Apollo the Musician changed into a narrower god of poets and poetry, both in Hellenistic Greece and in the Roman renewal of Hellenistic poetry after the mid-first century BCE. Republican Rome preserved an earlier state of affairs since her poets belonged to the guild of scribes who were under the tutelage of that arch-intellectual, Minerva. The proem of Callimachus’ Aetia (ca. 250 BCE), perhaps the most seminal text for several centuries to come, introduces Apollo as stern teacher of the young poet:

When I first put the writing tablets onto my knees, Apollo Lycius said to me: “Sheep, singer, have to be fat, but the Muse, dear man, should be lank. I command you not to walk the streets where cars are racing, … but on paths not trodden by anyone, even if they are narrow.”

The god himself thus authenticates a new literary program, and his voice will reverberate through late Republican and Augustan Latin literature.


With this, literature and cult seem to separate for good; the unity of song, dance, and musical performance, mousik, has fallen apart. In Archaic and Classical Greek society, this unity was placed under Apollo’s protection, and it played a vital social role; we shall see that this role was even more central to Greek politics in the Archaic Age than we might imagine. At the same time, literature and cult were already in some tension in the Homeric poems, insofar as Homer’s poems do not provide us with descriptions of contemporary institutions. They are reticent on large areas of religion such as the women’s cult of Demeter, or the ecstatic cults of Dionysus; the Homeric gods are as artificial and synthetic as is the Homeric language which corresponds to no dialect ever spoken in Greece. It is time, after two chapters on literature, to deal with the cult of Apollo: this will be the topic the next three chapters.