Apollo - Fritz Graf (2009)




In the Iliad, Apollo sent the plague, but also healed it. Homer’s narration inserts itself into a background of Near Eastern story-telling. Apollo used arrows to spread a disease, as did Erra, the Near Eastern god of war and disease. And like Erra, Apollo was incensed about human behavior. Erra was angry because mankind neglected his cults, Apollo because Agamemnon violated the honor of his priest; in both cases the epidemic ended only when the god’s wrath had been calmed. Ending the plague, however, was more difficult than triggering its inception: whereas the prayer of his priest, Chryses, was sufficient to set Apollo against the Greeks, the reverse prayer of Chryses had to be supplemented by ample atonement. In order to placate the god, the Greeks offered him a hecatomb, danced, and sang the paean for an entire day.

Unlike Erra, however, Homeric Apollo is not necessarily a plague god and a divine healer. Attack and release are part of a specific action pattern that explained disaster through a story of divine anger and allowed human counter-action through the ritual of placating the god. Throughout antiquity, and well beyond the world of the Greeks and the Romans, both individual diseases and vast epidemics could be understood as having been sent by a god whose rights a human had violated. Countless myths follow the same basic narrative sequence of the Chryses story, and many ancient texts attest to it as a personal experience. It has four parts: (i) knowingly or unknowingly, humans anger a god; (ii) the divinity sends a disease; (iii) divination determines the divine agent and the reason for divine wrath; (iv) a ritual placates the divinity and restores health. In the late fifth century BCE, the unknown doctor who wrote the treatise On Sacred Disease recognized the same pattern behind the traditional cure of epilepsy, and he vehemently argued against it: for him, epilepsy, the “sacred disease,” was not a punishment sent by a god that would need ritual cures. Plain medical art is enough. There was no need for a seer to diagnose from the patient’s symptoms which of the gods was thought to be responsible for the attack:

If the patient imitate a goat, if he roar, or suffer convulsions on the right side, they say that the Mother of Gods is to blame. If he utter a piercing and loud cry, they liken him to a horse and blame Poseidon. Should he pass some excrement (as often happens under the stress of an attack) the name of Enodia is invoked; if it be more frequent and thinner, like that of birds, it is Apollo Nomius. If he foam at the mouth and kick, Ares has the blame.

Nor is there any need for elaborate ritual means of healing, “purifications and incantations,” a special dress, and a special diet; the patient would be better off consulting his doctor than his seer or purification priest.

In the realities of ancient life, this chain of action and reaction, of divine intervention, human illness, and human ritual, did not have to be continous and unbroken; it is a construction to make a severe illness understandable and to find human action against it. Outside the intellectual needs of theologians, doctors, and poets, the explanation of a specific disease is less relevant than the protection which a superhuman being can give against the random attacks of maladies that have been the lot of humans since time immemorial. For countless centuries, afflicted humans turned towards powerful ancestors, gods, or saints, depending on their belief system. “Being at a loss, and having no treatment which would help, they concealed and sheltered themselves behind the divine and called the illness sacred, in order that their utter ignorance might not be manifest.” This analysis, through which the learned Greek doctor tries to discredit the priests, might be called sneering and unjust, but it is not entirely wrong. Helplessness in the face of omnipresent disease has made humans turn towards the gods much more often than has the effectiveness of supernatural cures. Even in our epoch of industrialized medicine, religious healers and saints – Christian, Muslim, Hindu – still command an impressive following, and numerous pilgrims assemble at the shrine of the Virgin in Lourdes or walk for days to the temple of the Hindu and Muslim saint Ramdev in the Thar Desert in Northwestern India. Whereas in theory any divine agent should be able to help, in practice some are vastly more successful than others, in the past not otherwise than today.

Among the Olympians of Greek and Roman religion, Apollo was the most successful healer, and he might be more closely connected with illness already in Iliad 1 than the story is willing to concede. The paean that the Greeks address to him was generally used in healing songs, and Apollo the Doctor was worshipped in many places in Eastern Greece, from where Homer was said to come. Apollo shared this function with a local hero from Thessaly or Messene, his son Asclepius, who in the course of time eclipsed his father’s reputation as a healer and appropriated his father’s sacred song, the paean. The paean’s name itself is connected with Paeon, the name of the gods’ private physician in Homeric epic and one of Apollo’s epithets in later Greece, where it is usually spelled Paean (Paián).


In the Homeric epics, Paeon (or rather, in Homer’s spelling, Paiôn) appears only rarely. In the Odyssey, the Egyptians are called “kinsmen of Paeon” because everybody in that fabulous country excelled at medecine and pharmacology (4.232): whoever Paeon was, he was a healer who knew his herbs and drugs. In the fifth book of the Iliad, the narrator describes how the mighty hero Diomedes, guided by Athena, fought and wounded even the gods: Ares himself was injured and rushed up to Olympus to show Zeus his “immortal blood,” in a rather puerile act of hurt pride. Zeus did not seem to care overmuch, but at least “he ordered Paeon to heal him” (5. 899). Paeon promptly applied a salve that brought immediate relief. He had done the same for Hades, a generation before, when the Lord of the Dead received an arrow in his shoulder from Zeus’ son Heracles (Il. 5. 401).

At a first glance, it looks as if, to the epic singers, Paeon was an independent god of healing. But there is a problem with this. Outside these Homeric passages, Paean is only once attested as an independent healer, and again in epic poetry. In a fragment of an obscure poem ascribed to Hesiod, Apollo, and Paean are clearly treated as two divinities: “If neither Phoebus Apollo [this singer says] does save us from death, nor Paean who knows remedies for everything” (Hesiod, Frg. 307). Everywhere else in ancient texts, the name Paean is a used as cultic epithet of Apollo that defines him as healer, in the same way as the paean is Apollo’s song. It is thus possible that in the Homeric poems, too, the name Paeon really designated Apollo; Greeks and Romans could use epithets alone to stand in for a divine name, such as Delius for Apollo or Olympius for Zeus. When, in 73 BCE, Cicero accused Verres, the governor of Sicily, to have stolen “a marvellous and venerable statue of Paean” from a sanctuary of Asclepius, he meant an image of Apollo the Healer; the epithet alone was sufficient, and the context was clear. In Homer’s case, scholars have argued that he was reluctant to use epithets like this; a decision either way is not easy. It may well be that already the Homeric singers were uncertain about Paeon’s identity; if pressed, different singers might have given different answers. It is interesting to note that a later scholar in Egyptian Alexandria, as puzzled as we but more radically minded, replaced Paean with Apollo in order to “clean up” the Odyssey passage.

Singers would have been uncertain with good reason. The name Paie-ôn had been handed down in their oral tradition from late Bronze Age Greece. Among the many divine names preserved in the texts of the Mycenaean Greeks, written in the so-called Linear B script, there is one Paiawon who received offerings, together with other divinities, Athena, Enyalius, and Poseidon. Paiawon is one of the Greek Bronze Age gods and goddesses whose cult disappeared after the collapse of the Mycenaean world; he left a trace only in the oral tradition that becomes visible to us through epic. If we can rely on the singers’ memory (and there is no reason that we should not), Paiawon was a god of healing, a divinity with a formidable knowledge of herbs and drugs, the Mycenaean equivalent of the many healing divinities attested in the Bronze Age cultures of the Ancient Near East.

There is no evidence for Apollo from the Mycenaean period, and it seems safe to assume that he was not present in the pantheon of the Bronze Age Greeks (see Chapter 6). He must have arrived later replacing Paeon, whose name then became Apollo’s epithet, expressing this fusion of divine personalities. In Iron Age Greece, Apollo Paean is present in several cities through all, from fifth-century Athens to Hellenistic Sicily and Lydia in the Imperial Age. There is no telling at which epoch Apollo was identified with the Mycenaean god, but it must have happened early, perhaps well before the age of Homer. After all, Apollo is worshipped as well as a healer in the Iliad, albeit not of gods, as Paean is, but of men: when the hero Glaucus is wounded, he calls upon Apollo, and the god tends him and stills the pain (Il. 17.528). And it may be more than just a consequence of Apollo’s partisanship for the Trojans that he saves Aeneas from the battle and carries him to his temple where Leto and Artemis tend the wound he received from a sharp stone thrown at him by Diomedes (Il. 5.445).

This opens up a parenthesis on how we envision the fusion of different deities as a historical phenomenon. There is some guidance from later, better documented times for such a process, which was often the identification of a native local god with the imported god of immigrants or conquerors. Gods exist only as far as they are believed in, and belief usually manifests itself in cult, in prayers, sacrifices, processions, thank-offerings for their help. Thus, in order for a divinity to exist, there must be worshippers, a group that regularly performs a cult. “No man is an island”: communication among groups leads to exchanges about one’s own gods. Both groups may then see that these gods are very close in function and even appearance. From here, it is only a small step to the insight that each group is actually worshipping the same divinities, only under different names. This happened in early Bronze Age Mesopotamia, when the Sumerian-speakers who were living in the south of the vast plain of Euphrates and Tigris realized that many of their gods were the same as those adored by their northern neighbors, whose language was Akkadian. The Sumerian Enki, the trickster god, was understood as being the same as the Akkadian Ea; myths were borrowed and exchanged, and in the course of time, local scholars drew up entire lists of such linguistic equivalents, dictionaries of divine names. Another variation on the same process is visible when Greek merchants, mercenaries and travelers arrived in Egypt some time before 600 BCE. They tried to make sense of the complex pantheons of the Egyptian cities, and they did so by identifying Egyptian gods with their own. The result is visible in Herodotus’ splendid account of Egyptian religion in the second book of his Histories: Isis was the same as Demeter, or Osiris as Dionysus. The Greeks, unlike the more scribally minded Akkadians, did not draw up lists; but when they finally conquered Egypt several centuries later, they fused the personalities in cult as well. The god whom the natives worshipped under the name of Amun was worshipped by the Greeks as Zeus, and since they were used to differentiating many single forms of Zeus by epithets, they hellenized the Egyptian name, turned it into an epithet and called the Egyptian god Zeus Ammon. The basis for such identifications was sometimes flimsy and impressionistic, which was certainly the case with this example: Amun was the supreme god of the Egyptian pantheon, and that was enough for the Greeks to call him Zeus, notwithstanding his ram’s head.

Projected back to the undocumented transition period from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, this means that a group of people who worshipped a god called Apollo met Mycenaeans who worshipped a healing god Paiawon, and since their Apollo was, among other things, a healer, they identified the two. Over time, it was the cult of Apollo that spread all over Greece, while Paiawon slowly disappeared, for uncertain reasons: perhaps the people who brought Apollo and who must have been non-Mycenaeans became dominant, or Apollo was perceived as such a powerful and helpful god that the descendants of the Mycenaeans took him over und subordinated their own Paiawon to him. Whatever the process, we only see its result: many local cults of Apollo with the epithet Paean, and a dim memory of a god Paiawon in the traditional oral stories of the early Greek singers.


Overall, epithets that attest Apollo’s healing power are not very common; we gain the impression that, after the Archaic period, the healer Apollo became somewhat less important. The inhabitants of Lindus, on the island of Rhodes, had their Plague Apollo, Apollo Loimios: he must have helped them during an epidemic. But there are two epithets that are widely attested: Iatros “Doctor” and Oulios. “The Milesians and the Delians call Apollo Oulios, which means ‘Provider of Health’ and a sort of Paean, since the word oulein means ‘to be healthy’”: thus the geographer Strabo (14.1.6). When he adds: “Apollo, that is, is a healer,” he may have been pointing out an aspect of the god that to his readers was no more self-evident, or he may have been simply stating the obvious. There are a few other cities whose inhabitants worshipped Apollo Oulios, and there was at least one association of doctors that did the same.

This association was at home in the South Italian city of Velia, and it has been found by archaeologists in the splendid excavations of this city, halfway between Naples and Reggio di Calabria. Velia was a Greek city, inserted into a native settlement whose name it adopted and hellenized: the Greeks called it Elea. Elea was founded by settlers from Phocaea, a small city not far north of Miletus; the Phocaeans were intrepid and enterprising sailors who, for a while, dominated the Western Mediterranean. Elea grew fast and turned into a beautiful and large city, as its ruins still show, with a spectacular tunnel under its acropolis hill that connected the old town with a more recent quarter. But its main claim to fame was not its beauty nor its richness, but its learning: it was the home-town of the philosopher Parmenides (early fifth century) and the philosophical school founded by him. Parmenides’ revolutionary and intricate thinking about Being and Non-being deeply influenced Plato, and through Plato the entire Western philosophical tradition. But Parmenides left more tangible traces than this in his city.

When a visitor of early Imperial Velia entered the city from its harbor, a stately building on his right, immediately after the gate, would have aroused his curiosity. If he yielded to his impulse, he would have walked up a wide flight of stairs and entered a large court, surrounded on three sides by arcades; in its center stood an altar. A door to his right led him into a hall and, through it, into a large garden that again was surrounded by arcades. Both in the entrance court and the garden, he would have seen many portrait statues, most of them unmistakably Roman: their inscriptions showed them to be doctors and former presidents of the religious club housed in this complex: like any other decent club, this one too demonstrated its proud past through a picture gallery of its former presidents. Three statues, however, stood out among the busts of all the Roman notables: a statue of Asclepius (what we would expect in a doctors’ club), a statue of Apollo, singing and with the lyre in his hand, and the portrait head of a bearded Greek philosopher: “Parmenides,” as the inscription said, “son of Pyres, Ouliades, nature philosopher.” “Nature philosopher” (phusikós) is the common Greek term for what we now call Presocratics, and Ouliades means literally “clansman of Oulios.” Here, it cannot be anything but an honorary title: Parmenides was understood as the first member of this club that derived its legitimation from Apollo, and whose members in Roman Velia must have been mostly (or solely) doctors; we can assume that the altar in the court was dedicated to Apollo Oulios. It is, nevertheless, somewhat intriguing that this Apollo was represented as a musician. It might be nothing more than a coincidence: the statue is a copy of a famous classical Apollo, and the club bought and displayed it because of its fame. But it might just be that they attributed a special significance to a musical Apollo: at least among the Pythagoreans, music was regarded as a cure for psychic troubles. Pythagoras saw himself as a follower of Apollo, and his most prominent Sicilian follower, Empedocles, was both a phusikós and a physician.

The other epithet of Apollo as a healer is Iatros, “Doctor.” Apollon Iatros was worshipped all over Ionia and the Black Sea colonies which the Ionians, especially the Milesians, founded between the seventh and the fifth century. He certainly was central in Miletus’ most prominent and most northern colony, Olbia on the Crimea, at the mouth of the river Dniepr, the Greek Borysthenes. When Milesian settlers founded Olbia in about 600 BCE, they took their native cults with them, as Greek settlers usually did; this suggests that Apollon Iatros (or Itrós in the local dialect) must have had a cult in Miletus itself, although we lack direct evidence. In Olbia, Apollon Ietros gained remarkably in importance, as did other forms of Apollo. The city’s oldest sanctuary belonged to Apollon Ietros, Apollo Delphinios (another important Milesian god) had a temple next to the agora, and an Apolline oracle, presumably from Didyma, prophesied the future of the city in steps of seven, Apollo’s sacred number: seven years, seventy years, seven hundred years. Settling so far north in a climate that is much harsher than the climate of Turkey’s west coast, the settlers must have felt an acute need for divine protection of their health: this explains the rise of Apollo “Doctor.” The same is true for other Milesian settlements along the Black Sea coast. The were built next to the often swampy mouths of the great inland rivers, such as Tyras at the inlet of the river Dniestr or Istrus in the wide delta of the Danube. Swamps bred disease, in antiquity no less than today.

But health was only one of the concerns of Apollon Iatros, as it was with most other healing divinities. The desire for children, especially male children, was another, and the perception of divine assistance with this problem was often expressed by the choice of the child’s name. Greek personal names were easily understood by any native speaker. They were usually composed from two Greek words, one often the name of a god: Apollo-doros is the boy “whom Apollo has given.” All over the Greek world, we find boys and men whose name contained the word Iatros, such as Iatrokles, “the Fame of Iatros,” or Iatrodoros, “Gift of Iatros.” The names indicate that the parents, or at least the mother, had prayed to a divine healer for a healthy son, and the wish was fulfilled. It need not have been Apollon Iatros: there were many places where Iatros did not refer to Apollo but to a Heros Iatros, a “Hero Doctor,” as in Athens. In the cities of Ionia and their colonies, however, where this group of personal names is especially common, we can safely assume that parents wanted to thank Apollo “the Doctor” for his assistance.


In a world infested with hostile bacteria and often enough plagued by hunger and drought, the need for health is universal; a god whom people believe to be an efficient healer will gain widespread cult. Apollo the Physician made a career for himself not only in the cities of Greece and in the Greek colonies around the Black Sea. As soon as he gained fame in the flourishing colonies of Southern Italy, his worship spread north, to the Romans and the Etruscans.

Ap(u)lu among the Etruscans

To the Etruscans, Apollo came early, and was primarily known as a character in Greek mythical narratives. As with almost everything else we know about the Etruscans, the evidence is archaeological. Engravings on bronze mirrors have survived to show us scenes from well-known Greek myths featuring Apollo. A beautiful life-size terracotta statue of the god was part of a group that represented his fight with Heracles for the Cerynthian hind and stood on the roof of a temple in the Etruscan city of 

Figure 6 Apollo from the temple in Veii, late sixth century BCE. Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome. Copyright Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

Veii (figure 6). When the bronze mirrors have his name inscribed, he is called Apulu or, shortened, Aplu.

All this is mythology, not cult, and for a long time, scholars on Etruscan religion could find no indication for the cult of Apollo in their material; the fact that Etruscans dedicated votive gifts in Delphi did not prove a local cult back home. There is, however, one dedication to the god from Etruria itself. The bronze statuette of a sitting boy in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is dedicated to Aplu; although all archaeological context is lost, its style hints at a time and a place: it is thought to have been made in the third century BCE and dedicated in a sanctuary in Southern Etruria. Similar statuettes are known from many sanctuaries all over the Eastern Mediterranean, and they had usually been dedicated in the shrine of a healing divinity. A large number was found in the sanctuary of Eshmun, the Phoenician Asclepius, in Sidon, and others came from sanctuaries of Apollo on the island of Cyprus. Parents dedicated them to thank the god for saving their children from an illness, or for having given them the son they desperately longed for. The person who dedicated the Etruscan image to Apollo would have done it for the same reason.

The Etruscan Aplu has no epithet, and the dedication to him as a protector of children is the only certain information we have about his cult in Etruria. Since there is no archaeological context for the Boston statuette, it is unclear whether it should be understood as coming from an independent sanctuary of the god, or as a dedication in the sanctuary of another divinity; in another Etruscan sanctuary, Aplu is worshipped together with Ceres. Nor is there any certain way of knowing how the god came to the Etrurians. He may have come from Southern Italy where Apollo had many sanctuaries, or he may have come directly from Greece, as in another case. One Greek merchant from the island of Aegina dedicated a large stone anchor in Graviscae, a harbor town of Etruscan Tarquinia, to Aeginetan Apollo; such dedications might have inspired an independent local cult. Or, finally, the god may have come from Rome where Apollo the Doctor, Medicus, had an important cult.

Roman Apollo Medicus

The Roman historian Livy tells how, in 433 BCE,

a plague brought everything to a halt. They vowed a temple to Apollo for the health of the Roman people. After consulting the Sibylline books, the duumviri [the Senate Committee for Ritual Matters] performed many rituals in order to placate the wrath of the gods and to avert the plague from the people; nevertheless, in the city and on the countryside, many humans and many animals perished. And since the farmers suffered from the disease, the officials feared widespread hunger and sent to Etruria, to Cumae, and finally to Sicily for grain.

(Livy 4.25.3–4)

Two years later the Romans dedicated a temple to Apollo (Livy 4.29.7): they must have attributed the end of the epidemic – although it was more a tailing-off than a dramatic conclusion – to the Greek healer and been thankful for it, despite its long duration and catastrophic impact.

They built the temple in a place where there was already an altar to the god, an Apollinar as the Romans called it, erected as early as 449 BCE for reasons unknown to us. In the temple, they added Apollo’s mother and sister, Leto/Latona and Artemis/Diana – not surprisingly, given the very frequent Greek practice of worshipping the entire Apolline triad in Apollo’s sanctuaries. The temple stood on a high podium, as all temples did in Rome, and it was located a short distance northwest of the Capitol, at the southeastern border of the Field of Mars. At that time, the sanctuary would have been more or less isolated in an open space. Later, other temples were built close by, and in 13 BCE, Augustus inaugurated a large stone theater immediately to the west which he named after his grandson Marcellus, whose early death had crushed his hopes of making him his heir and successor. The theater is still a landmark of contemporary Rome. Next to it, visitors can still see several columns of Apollo’s temple, although not of the early Roman one. The construction of Augustus’ theater impinged rather heavily on the old sanctuary, and the temple, already restored several times over the centuries, was replaced with a more modern one.

Before Augustus built his own temple to Apollo of Actium on the Palatine, the temple of Apollo Medicus was the only temple of Apollo in Rome. The Romans regarded the god basically as a healer. He received dedications as “bringer of health” (salutaris) and “provider of medicine” (medicinalis), and the Vestal Virgins addressed him in their routine prayers as Apollo Medice, Apollo Paean to the very end of paganism.

Two centuries after the consecration of the temple of Apollo Medicus, between 212 and 208 BCE, the Romans instituted games in his honor, ludi Apollinares. This was another period of acute crisis for Rome – not because of a plague this time, but because of a foreign invader: Rome was engaged in a desperate struggle against the Carthaginian army of Hannibal, but things were not going well for them. In fact, the Romans later regarded this war, the Second Punic War (218–201 BCE) as the longest and most dangerous of the many wars they had to fight. As often happened during the long agony of this struggle, oracles were consulted to help Rome hobble along after yet another set-back. Both the Sibylline books and the oracles of an ancient seer, Marcius, recommended that the Romans turn to Apollo and institute games in his honor. At first, these games were held annually but on varying dates, whenever the god’s help was needed. But when yet another epidemic hit Rome in 208 BCE, the senate decided to perpetuate the games and gave them a firm date, July 13. This remained until the end of pagan Rome, and the games were always very popular.

Later Romans debated the reasons for the games of Apollo. Livy insisted that it was “not for the sake of health, but of victory.” An etiological story seemed to confirm this: during the first performance of the games, we are told, an enemy (the story is rather vague about his identity) attacked the festive city. While the citizens were frantically trying to get hold of their weaponry (for one did not usually watch horse races and other spectacles in full armor), “a cloud of arrows was seen to fly against the enemy and drove him away and made it possible for the Romans to turn back to the games of the hospitable god again” (Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.17.25). Clearly the god did not like his games to be disturbed by hostile foreigners. The story must be an invention, and it could have been modeled on the story of how Apollo defended his Delphic sanctuary against the marauding Gauls in 278 BCE. But whatever its origins, it turned Apollo the Healer into Apollo the formidable Archer.


In the course of the late second and first centuries BCE, the Romans expanded northwest, into what is now France. At first, they conquered the south and made it into their province, Gallia Transalpina; we still call it Provence, after the Roman word. This move secured the land passage from Italy to Spain after Rome’s Spanish conquest. When, in 58 BCE, Julius Caesar became governor of Gallia, he systematically extended the power of Rome northwards, up to the Rhine. In doing so, he broke both Roman law and international customs with an undeclared preemptive war against the Celtic tribes of Gaul and a massacre that raised protest in the Roman senate. But Gaul became Roman for good, and with it the cults of Gaul.

In his Report on the War in Gaul, one of the most skilled pieces of propaganda ever written, Caesar talks about the religion of the people he conquered, and he gives a list of gods: “In second place [after Mercury], they worship Mars, Jupiter and Apollo, and they believe of them about the same what the other people do: Apollo averts disease …” (Caesar, On the War in Gaul 6.17.2). In this somewhat one-dimensional view, healing is Apollo’s only function. Or rather, any male divinity in Gaul who would heal or avert disease would be called Apollo, whatever name the natives had given him. Tacitus had called this kind of reasoning interpretatio Romana, “the Roman way of explaining things.” It was the same basic method used by all ancient cultures in dealing with their neighbors’ gods, as we have already seen: they would look for one or a few salient traits a foreign god had in common with one of their own divinities, and that would settle the matter. Different divine names were just a matter of language; they could be translated from one language into another, as any other word. Roman conquerors, administrators, merchants, and settlers in Gaul (and elsewhere) would use the Latin name, and over time, the natives would follow suit.

Because of this linguistic habit, ancient sources are able to name several temples of Apollo in Gaul. The first sanctuary we hear of is in a Greek account ca. 300 BCE about an island off Gaul, either Britain or one of the Channel Islands: the local tradition had Apollo born here. Roman inscriptions confirm the ubiquity of Apollo all over Gaul, often in connection with one of the many thermal springs there (France, after all, is still the country of mineral water). Archaeological research showed how many Gallic sanctuaries of Apollo fused native traditions with new influences: they usually had the square shape typical of indigenous temples. Inscriptions often record a native name as well, treating it as an epithet, such as Apollo Belenus or Apollo Grannus, or, more typically Celtic, Apollo Toutiorix, Apollo “Leader of the Clan.” Some cults gained popularity well beyond the border of the province. The emperor Caracalla, chronically ill, was visiting healing sanctuaries throughout his realm, but could find no remedy, “neither from Apollo Grannus nor from Asclepius or Sarapis” (Dio Cassius, Histories77.15.5). Grannus, or Apollo Grannus, had his main sanctuary in Aquae Granni, a spa that eventually became the German Aachen, capital of Charlemagne’s empire. By then, the cult had long disappeared: most of the healing sanctuaries of Apollo in Gaul were destroyed during the Christianization of the fourth century CE, though a few were taken over by a local saint.


Perhaps the debate of the Roman theologians on why the games were founded was misguided, and there was no fundamental opposition between Apollo the Healer and Apollo the helper in battle. Bow and arrow, Apollo’s constant attribute, are weapons of attack as well as weapons of protection: they kept away the enemy from the games, but sent the plague into the Greek camp before Troy, and they also killed the seven sons and seven daughters of Niobe, the proud queen of Thebes who had belittled Leto for giving birth to only one boy and one girl (figure 7). A copy of a famous group of Niobe and her dying children was among the artwork exhibited in Rome’s temple of Apollo, as was a statue of Apollo the Archer: his deadly power was never forgotten.

A series of oracles from Clarus point to the same direction. During a period after the middle of the second century CE, five different cities in Western Asia Minor were suffering from an epidemic, and they sent an embassy to Clarus for help. In some cases, the disease must have been 

Figure 7 The slaying of the Niobids. Attic red-figure krater by the Niobid Painter, ca. 460–450 BCE. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Copyright Alinari/Art Resource, NY.

the plague (whatever its exact medical definition was) that the armies of the emperor Lucius Verus caught during a campaign in Mesopotamia in 165 CE and brought back with them to the West, spreading the germs wherever they went, to places as far-flung as Britain. But since no oracle is clearly dated, more local outbreaks of disease cannot be excluded. In one answer, the god recognized an attack of sorcery and recommended a ritual that would destroy the sorcerer’s hidden voodoo dolls. Such rituals were practiced in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, and one cannot but admire the deep ritual learning of the Clarian god, or of his priests. In all other answers, the god diagnosed the wrath of the gods as reason for the disease and prescribed complex rituals of purification and sacrifices to placate them. In three cases, he added a final recommendation in order to avert future epidemics: “At every gate, consecrate the sacred image of Clarian Apollo, equipped with his arrows that destroy disease, as if he would aim far at the disastrous plague.” Apollo the archer not only sends the disease with his arrows. His weapon also keeps it away.

Disease, that is, is just another enemy, a sort of evil demon secretly trying to sneak in through an unguarded city gate; the guardian archer is as able to fend it off as he is able to drive away an attacking horde of foreign foes. Today, we differentiate between enemies and germs, or between war and disease, which Greeks and Romans would not necessarily have done: Apollo, the excellent sharp-shooter, kept both away. We understand Apollo the Physician as a specialization of a function the god had all over the ancient world, “Averter of Evil,” Alexikakos. As such, he and his sister Artemis – an excellent and frightening archeress herself – were often invoked as “Guardians of the Gates,” Propýlaioi, to keep out evil from the city, as did Hecate who, in many respects, is Artemis’ close relative. And just as images of triple Hecate also guarded domestic dwellings, an image of Apollo protected the entrance of many Greek houses – this time not an anthropomorphic statue, but a column or pillar as the sign of Apollo who protected the doors, Apollo “He of the Street,” Agyieús, as the Greeks called him.

When the plague is driven out, health is restored. Health, then, could be nothing else than the absence of disease. This has a philosophical ring to it: one can define the good simply as the absence of evil, as did the Epicureans. Others, demanding more of life, prefer to have real good follow the driving out of evil; to a Platonist, the idea of the good is the highest reality he can think of. The philosophical debate is far from idle; it mirrors attitudes to life that are reflected in religion as often as they are in philosophy.

Apollo, to stay with our god, can preside over both ways of looking at things, as the ritual cycle of the Thargelia teaches. The Thargelia is a festival common to all Ionians, and it gave its name to the month Thargelion, the second last month of the Ionian year; in the climate of the Aegean, the year did not end with the mild winter but with the summer heat that parched all vegetation. Festival and month thus go back at least before the moment sometime at the end of the Bronze Age or the very beginning of the Iron Age when the mainland Ionians settled across the Aegean on the west coast of Asia Minor and took with them the calendar of their lands of origin. The main day of the Thargelia was the seventh Thargelion which the Ionians regarded as Apollo’s birthday. The same day was Plato’s birthday, while the sixth was the birthday of Socrates and of Artemis; the Greeks regarded this as more than a coincidence. In Athens and the Ionian cities of Ephesus and Colophon, the sixth of Thargelion was also the day when the scapegoats (pharmakoí) were driven out: a ritual which fascinated scholars even in antiquity. The pharmakoi – two in Athens, one for each gender – were captives who were fed by the state. On sixth Thargelion, they were adorned with a necklace of figs, led through the city in a procession with the music of a flute, often beaten up and finally driven out of the town. Stories that tell how they were killed are extrapolations from the ritual that spell out its hidden meaning: the scapegoats were the embodiment of all that was evil in the town and so had to be destroyed. After this ritual purification of the sixth day, the seventh was the day of renewal and plenty. New corn cakes were baked and carried to Apollo’s temple in another procession, together with a pot that contained a pulp cooked from the first, immature ears of corn and with twigs that were adorned with wool and hung with bread, fruit, and small containers of oil and honey; after the procession, these twigs were hung over the house-door. In Athens at least, new fire was brought in from the sacred hearth at Delphi and used to rekindle the public hearth in the council-house from which then the private households got their own new fire, as did the temples. New fire is the most powerful ritual symbol of renewal and belonged to many New Year’s festivals in ancient Greece as well as to other moments of radical renewal: after the crisis of the Persian War, the Greek altars got new fire from the Delphic altar. In a ritual movement reminiscent of the Spartan Hyacinthia with its contrast of grief on the first day and exuberance on the second, the cycle of the Thargelia represents the renewal after the cleansing of the city from evil. Unlike the cases we talked about earlier, where happiness returned simply after the city was purged from disease, the ritual of the Thargelia did not simply purify the town but added new and tangible goods, from cakes and honey to new fire.


In later Greece, Apollo the Healer was much less prominent than Apollo the patron of divination, or of music. From the fifth century BCE onwards, another healer, Asclepius, enhanced his own standing all over the ancient world. The Iliad mentions Asclepius as a healer taught by the centaur Chiron: the wise centaur bridged the gap between nature and culture and possessed, among other things, a deep knowledge of healing herbs.

Myths and sanctuaries of Asclepius

After Homer, Asclepius’ story is narrated in three different local forms. The most common version is first heard in Pindar’s third Pythian Ode (about 474 BCE). Here, Asclepius is Apollo’s son by a local, Thessalian heroine, Coronis the daughter of Phlegyas, king of the mythical Phlegyans. Apollo fell in love with the beautiful princess; but when she was pregnant with his son, Coronis, “in the errors of her heart,” gave in to the advances of a local prince, Ischys. Worse, “she waited not for the coming of the marriage feast.” Apollo’s sacred animal, the raven, informed the god of his lover’s brazen infidelity (this was the common version; Pindar, the pious theologian, prefers to trust the power of the omniscient god: “He perceived it in his mind that knows all things”). Angry at the deception and infidelity, Apollo shot his human rival and sent his sister Artemis to kill Coronis. Some later writers add that Apollo also punished the unlucky messenger bird; before this affair, it had been white. Having killed his lover, Apollo still cared for his unborn son: he snatched the baby from his mother’s pyre and gave him to Chiron to be raised. So it was from Chiron, and not from his father, that Asclepius learnt the art of healing.

In Archaic Greece, Asclepius is firmly connected with Thessaly, as are the Phlegyans, his mother’s people. His sons Podalirius and Machaon are not only the physicians in the Greek army before Troy, they are commanders in their own right, with warriors from the Thessalian cities “Tricca, Ithome, and Oechalia.” The location is not only a matter of mythology: Tricca had a sanctuary of Asclepius that the Greeks regarded as “the oldest and the most famous” (Strabo) – this then was where the sons of Asclepius came from. The cult of Apollo is closely connected with that of his son: before entering the innermost sanctuary of Asclepius in Tricca, one had to sacrifice to Apollo.

The second version of Asclepius’ myth can be pieced together from the fragments we read in the Catalogue of Women (ascribed to Hesiod, but composed in the late sixth century BCE). Here, Asclepius is the son of Apollo and Arsinoe, the daughter of king Leucippus of Messene. This leads us to an entirely different region, the Southwestern Peloponnese, and connects the myth with another important sanctuary of Asclepius. For many centuries, Messene was subject to Spartan rule; after it regained political independence, the Messenians built a splendid temple to Asclepius. It stood on a square in the center of their town, with smaller sanctuaries under the arcades that surrounded the square. The myth precedes the sanctuary by more than two centuries, and there must have been an older cult in Messene about whose location we know nothing.

The two myths clearly disagree with each other; there is no way to combine the Thessalian and the Messenian origin of Asclepius. Given the early dates of both versions, we have no certain means of knowing where Asclepius came from. Messene and Tricca both compete, and Strabo’s remark on the sanctuary of Tricca – that it was “the oldest and the most famous” – takes sides in this debate.

Technically, Asclepius is a hero, the son of a god and a mortal woman. But some sons born from such a union became much more powerful than most other heroes and could be regarded as gods: Dionysus, the son of Zeus and the mortal princess Semele, was an Olympian god; Heracles, son of Zeus and the Theban queen Alcmene, was elevated into Olympus after his death. A similar fate awaited the hero Asclepius: thanks to his healing powers, he quickly came to be regarded as a divinity. Epidaurian texts narrating his miracle cures, for one, always call him “the god,” and in late antiquity, he could even be called Zeus Asclepius.

When grown up, Asclepius became the best physician that ever existed. Carried away by his success, however, he forgot the limits that Zeus had set to mortal men: he tried to resuscitate the dead. Zeus killed him with his lightning, restoring the cosmic order which Asclepius threatened out of arrogance or out of greed; some at least say that he was seduced by money. No mortal can become immortal, if not by the decree of Zeus; to Greek story-tellers, the art of the physicians had the potential to break down these firm limitations of human existence.

During the late Archaic Age, Asclepius’ cult began to spread. In the early sixth century BCE, it arrived in the lonely forests near the small Peloponnesian town of Epidaurus. Here, Apollo had a long-standing cult on a hill-top overlooking a beautiful valley. In the later Bronze Age, there had been a peak sanctuary on this hill; it is unclear whom the Mycenaeans worshipped there. The cult died out before the end of the Bronze Age, but the memory of the sanctuary must have lingered on. After an interruption of several centuries, the locals built an altar and then a small temple to a new god whom they addressed as Apollo Maleatas. The sanctuary of Asclepius was built in the valley below Apollo’s shrine, and the two shrines and their owners belonged closely together: even many centuries later, when Asclepius’ sprawling healing sanctuary had by far eclipsed his father’s modest hill-top shrine, official documents still address Apollo Maleatas and Asclepius together. Local theologians rewrote the myth of Coronis; this is the third version of the Asclepius story. When secretly pregnant with Asclepius, she accompanied her father, who had business in the Peloponnesus. In Epidaurus, she furtively gave birth to a boy and exposed him in a lonely forest glen nearby. As happens always in such tales of exposure, the baby was miraculously saved – not by his divine father, however, but by helpful animals. A goat suckled him, the watch-dog of the herd guarded him, and finally the goat-herd followed his animals, found the boy and brought him up as his own. This explains not only why Asclepius’ main sanctuary was far away from any major settlement, but also why Asclepius rejected goat sacrifices and why there were sacred dogs in his sanctuaries. There were also sacred snakes, and they were explained by another story. When he promised to resuscitate the dead son of king Minos, Glaucus, Asclepius retreated into the woods in order to think about a cure. A snake wound itself around his staff; angered at being disturbed, he killed it, but then observed another snake bringing an herb and reviving its dead companion. He used the same herb to cure Glaucus, adopted the snake as his sacred animal, and made the staff with the snake his symbol.

The Epidaurian sanctuary grew rapidly and spread its cult far and wide. Many tales were told about how patients, grateful for the god’s assistance, introduced the cult of the healing hero into their home towns. In 421/420 BCE, Asclepius arrived in Athens; at about the same time, an inscription attests his worship in Etruria; the form of his name it used, Aiskhlapios, derives from the dialect of Epidaurus. The cult also spread to the island of Cos where it was connected with the famous medical school that claimed Hippocrates as its founder; in 366 BCE, the cult of Asclepius was added to the sanctuary of Apollo Cyparissius. The modest shrine in its cypress grove (hence Apollo’s epithet) rapidly grew into a large religious healing complex; it that was so impressive that, in the third century BCE, the inhabitants of the Italian town of Fregellae adopted its architectural form for their own sanctuary of Asclepius. In the later fourth century BCE, “Archias, son of Aristaechmus, was healed in Epidaurus after spraining his ankle while hunting”: this was the reason why he brought the god’s cult to the city of Pergamum in Northwestern Asia Minor (Pausanias 2.26.8). In this sanctuary too, Apollo and his son were worshipped together; and it too became a major healing institution throughout antiquity. In 293 BCE, when Rome was ravaged by yet another epidemic, the Roman senate sent an embassy to Epidaurus to ask for an image of the god. Instead, a sacred snake slipped into the ship. The Romans sailed back to Italy; when traveling up the Tiber on the last leg of their voyage, the snake slid off the boat and settled on the Tiber island. In this way, the god indicated where he wanted his sanctuary to be. The healing tradition on the island survived pagan Rome: a twelfth-century well in the church that supplanted the sanctuary still claimed healing properties for its waters.

Rituals of Asclepius

Sanctuaries of Apollo the Healer were indistinguishable from those of other gods; they all had an altar, a temple, and a retaining wall as their main architectural elements. There were no special cures in these sanctuaries, prayers and sacrifices were enough to bring divine assistance. This was different with Asclepius. The main ritual in all his sanctuaries was incubation, a ritual that made the god appear in a dream; he would either advise the dreamer as to therapy, or actually heal him. At nightfall, the patients retired into a sleeping hall, after a sacrifice to the god and many other powers that were supposed to help them. Among them were Themis, “Divine Law,” and Mnemosyne, “Memory”: one should have a good and rightful dream, not a dream that deceived the dreamer; and one should not forget it when waking up. The next morning, the dream was explained by the priests who often translated the nightly vision into therapy. And since parts of this therapy could take place in the temple, the main sanctuaries of Asclepius turned into large complexes that were both sacred sanatoriums and community centers. They not only contained a temple and a room for the dreams, but also fountains, guest houses, meeting rooms, and even a theater for entertaining the patients and any other guest who chose to dwell close to the god for a while.

In this way, the son of Apollo emancipated himself from his father to become the main healing god of the ancient world in the Hellenistic and Imperial epochs. Divine healers in other religious cultures, such as the Phoenician Eshmun or the Egyptian Imouthes/Imhotep, were hellenized as Asclepius, not as Apollo; only Italy and Gaul remained devoted to Apollo the Physician. In a world where specialization had set in and where individuals were more and more looking for a very personal helper in their anxieties, the divine medical specialist Asclepius seemed to be much more attractive than his father, the all-rounder Apollo.


This difference between Apollo and Asclepius rests on two different conceptions of what illness is. These concepts are determined by different cosmologies. In one cosmology, disease is part of the larger world of evil that confronts and limits human freedom and happiness, and there is no essential difference between disease and other troubles that affect humanity and have the potential to destroy individuals or to wipe out entire cities; in the other cosmology, disease is entirely different from other evils and can be often treated as a bodily defect.

The first cosmology is Apollo’s, and it is best articulated in a well-known myth in Hesiod’s Works and Days. Before Epimetheus opened Pandora’s box, the treacherous gift from Zeus, “the tribes of humans were living on earth without evil, without difficult labor, and without painful diseases that bring death to the men” (v. 90–92). This contrasts with the present state of human existence: “Full of evil is the earth, full is the sea; silently and on their own, diseases stalk humans by day and by night and bring evil to mortals” (v. 101–103). In this world, Apollo’s role is twofold. On the one side, he is a powerful Averter of Evil, as is Heracles, the hero who fought in order to purify the earth from many monsters but was also regarded as a healer. Heracles was more successful with the Lernaean Hydra and the Nemean Lion than he was with Geras “Old Age,” Thanatos “Death,” and Hades, the King of the Dead whom he also attacked: not even the most powerful hero could remove the limits imposed upon human existence. All these evils are beyond human control, it needs superhuman power to ward them off; humans turn to the powerful gods and heroes with prayers, vows, and sacrifices. But the origin of evil and especially of disease is not always clear. Very often, divination must be used to find the source before any healing can begin, and healing might be contingent on human atonement for angering a god: the plague in the first book of the Iliad is a case in point. Divination is very much Apollo’s province.

But not only divination calls for Apollo the healer. In this world, disease is understood as pollution, a disturbance in the cosmic order. Pollution calls for purification, and this too belongs to Apollo. While Odysseus was sailing down the coast on his embassy of atonement to Chryses and his Apollo Smintheus, Agamemnon gave order to purify the Greek army: “They performed the cleansing and threw the refuse into the sea” (Il. 1.314). The purification priests that the enlightened author of On Sacred Disease attacks continue this tradition, as do the priests whom, almost a century later, a bigot Athenian would consult and whom Menander’s comedy mocks: “Get the women to wipe you round in a circle and fumigate you!” (Menander, The Ghost 54). In Archaic Greece, however, these things were much more serious and beyond any questioning. Its practioners were seers and as such under Apollo’s tutelage, and Apollo himself combines these gifts of prophecy and purification. When the Delphic prophetess in Aeschylus’ Eumenides sees the terrible goddesses besieging Orestes in Apollo’s temple, she gains her confidence by reminding herself of Apollo’s power: “He is a seer-healer (iatromantis), an expounder of ominous signs and a purifier of houses” (v. 62f.). The mythical seer or, in an early characterization, iatromantis Melampus cured the daughters of Proetus or the women of Argos whom Hera had driven mad and blighted with a skin disease; he had received his art from Apollo himself. His grand-son was Amphiaraus, another seer “whom Apollo loved dearly” (Od. 15.245); Amphiaraus’ sanctuary at Oropus specialized in healing. When the women of Sparta collectively became mad, Apollo sent the seer Bacis to cure them. The wandering Abaris, a shadowy figure of Archaic Greece, was a priest of Hyperborean Apollo who was said to able to fly on Apollo’s arrow; he taught both Athenians and Spartans sacrifices to avert a plague, and charms and oracles were attributed to him. Thaletas the Spartan was a musician and composer of paeans, but he also cured an epidemic that ravaged Sparta, presumably with his paeans. Branchus, the founder of the oracle of Didyma, healed the Milesians from an epidemic by sprinkling them with laurel twigs and singing a hymn with strange, non-Greek words. The nexus between Apollo, divination, and ritual healing is constant, and serious.

Scholars disagree whether Apollo himself could act as a specialized purifier. The Greeks at Troy did not only ritually cleanse their army but also “sacrificed perfect hecatombs to Apollo, of bulls and goats at the shore of the sea” (Il. 1.316); and Apollo cured Orestes’ madness by purifying him of the murder of his mother with the blood of a piglet (figure 8). But in Greek myth, gods routinely purify humans of murder: it is thus no prerogative of Apollo; and the Greeks in Troy may simply have wanted to placate Apollo because, after all, they had provoked his anger. The best we can say is that purification forms part of the entire nexus of

Figure 8 Apollo purifies Orestes in Delphi. Apulian red-figure bell-krater by the Eumenides Painter, 380–370 BC. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Reproduced after A. Furtwängler and K. Reichhold, Gríechísche Vasenmalereí (Munich, 1904).

divination, illness, and cure around Apollo, without turning the god into a specialist for ritual purification. The colonial city of Cyrene in North Africa received a very long and detailed law on purification from Apollo, not because he was specially concerned with purifications, but because the Cyrenaeans had asked him what institutions would mostly benefit their colony. The god answered as he did because ritual purity guaranteed good relations between humans and their gods.

In the second cosmology, disease is different from other evils. It is a problem of the body that can be healed by special knowledge and experience. This is the cosmology that underlies the claims of the author of On Sacred Disease. The learned doctor based his thinking on a radical and enlightened theology that drew on contemporary philosophy rather than religious traditions: gods are by their very nature essentially good, and thus they are unable to harm mankind. Temple-medicine in the sanctuaries of Asclepius basically shared this cosmology, with the one difference that it was less optimistic about human capabilities of healing: it is Asclepius who has this knowledge and who is the supreme physician and surgeon. This was more modern, if compared to the other cosmology. Over time, the different spheres that belonged to this older cosmology were not unaffected by this modernization. The healing priests of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, objects of polemic and ridicule by the more modern-minded, represent a narrowing down of older forms. Whereas formerly sacrifices and hymns were the main ritual means of healing and purifying, these specialist focussed on ritual acts that used the gestural language of washing and cleaning, and they broke the connection with Apollo.


Apollo the healer continues the tradition of a Bronze Age god of healing, Paiawon, who survived in Apollo’s epithet and song, Paiean and the paean. We cannot tell whether Homer still kept the two gods apart, but if he did so, this need not reflect religious reality of his own age. Apollo’s cult as a healer spread to the Black Sea colonies and to Rome far away in the West, and despite the ascent of his son Asclepius, Apollo remained a healer especially in Rome’s Western provinces where he was identified with local healing divinities. Apolline healing is narrowly connected with the god’s ability to remove disorder and to keep evil away, whereas his son is much more of an active healer: the intriguing miracle stories from Epidaurus and other Asclepian sanctuaries portray him as an actual physician who intervenes with drugs and surgery in a hands-on approach utterly alien to his more aloof and speculative father. Two millennia later, Apollo the Healer surfaces again, this time in a work of fiction: he is the kindly and competent, but also somewhat sinister Doc Appleton in John Updike’s novel The Centaur (1961) whose wife Corinne (Coronis) disappeared after she was suspected of adultery.