Apollo - Fritz Graf (2009)



Apollo’s history did not end with his second adoption in Rome, as Augustus’ personal deity after the battle of Actium (31 BCE), or with the myth that he had been born on a British island. During the Imperial Epoch, the god received worship in many sanctuaries throughout the Roman provinces. Many centuries before the city became the capital of Charlemagne’s renewed Roman Empire, Aachen in Germany had a famous healing sanctuary of Apollo Grannus: the emperor Caracalla, always in search of cures for his many ailments, spent some time there. At the other end of the Empire, the god had a splendid sanctuary in Daphne, a suburb of Antioch (Antakya) in Syria; it was famous for its colossal cult image made of gold and ivory (chryselephantine). Julian, the last pagan emperor, had the temple restored for his own visit to the city in the fall of 362 CE; following the lead of Augustus, he stylized himself as a new Apollo. The Antiochean cult had been brought by Greek settlers; the cult in Aachen continued the worship of an indigenous god who had been identified with Apollo. This was very common: all over the ancient world, local gods could be regarded as the native forms of Apollo, such as Phanebal in Ascalon, Reshef in Palmyra, Grannus in Gaul, or Maponos in Britain. The reasons varied: Phanebal “Messenger of Ba’al” was a young and warlike god, Reshef was the local variation of the Ugaritic and Phoenician plague god Reshep, and Grannus and Maponos presided over healing springs.

Julian’s restoration of the sanctuary of Daphne was an act of defiance, aimed at the Christian hostility to pagan cults. It strikes one as highly symbolic that the sanctuary burned down shortly after Julian’s arrival, and presumably it was meant that way; certainly this was how Julian understood the blaze. In the last decade of the fourth century CE, the emperor Theodosius promulgated several edicts in which he declared the performance of pagan ritual as unlawful. Bands of fanaticized monks swarmed out to destroy major and minor sanctuaries that were still operative despite the adverse conditions during much of the century. Books of magic - the label magic had been tagged on all sorts of pagan ritual - went up in flames in many places; and eager bishops kept their congregations from lapsing into forbidden rites. Pagan cult went underground, and slowly died out over the course of the following century. But the gods survived, although somewhat precariously sometimes, not in the prayers of their worshippers, but on the pages of books and in works of art. Crucial for Apollo’s survival in Christian times was his identification with Helios/Sol, parallel to Artemis’ identification with Selene/Luna. Stoic and Neoplatonist philosophers adopted this interpretation of the twin gods: this secured them a prestigious place among the planets. This survived into the Middle Ages and beyond: Renaissance painters regularly depicted Apollo as the sun-god, riding in a chariot, his head surrounded by rays. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, another important aspect of Apollo was his patronage and inspiration of music and poetry; early modern poets stressed his association with Orpheus, the Muses and the Graces. In the mid-eighteenth century, the beauty of youthful Apollo, alluded to occasionally in earlier epochs, became essential for Winckelmann’s classicist reading of Greek art; a marble statue of Apollo in the Vatican, the Belvedere Apollo, was emblematical for this new view of the Greeks that blended aesthetic and sexual attraction (figure 10). Apollo’s “noble simplicity and restrained greatness” (“edle Einfalt und stille Grösse,” in Winckelmann’s often quoted German phrase) became influential again more than a century later when Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized the tension between Apollo and Dionysus that had, in his reading, created Athenian tragedy and Wagnerian opera.

In this final chapter I will sketch the history of the god Apollo through these centuries, from the Roman Empire to modern times. Although the territory is by no means uncharted, there exist no comprehensive accounts of all the works that Apollo has inspired and of all the learned pronouncements about the god during almost two millennia. What follows, then, can only be a preliminary sketch, dictated more by the author’s idiosyncrasies and predilections than by historical evidence.


Greek gods came under scrutiny and attack long before the Christians came to power. Philosophy, late in the Archaic Age of Greece, fostered the expectation that gods would behave ethically. They were, as Plato

Figure 10 Apollo Belvedere, Roman copy of a Greek original, fourth century BCE. Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican Museums. Copyright Alinari/Art Resource, NY.

argued, supremely good, so why should stories make them do evil? Thus, philosophers rejected traditional stories as unethical and inadequate for an age of refined moral standards. At the same time, the singers of the Homeric poems, the rhapsodes, turned more and more into interpreters of the texts they were performing. Their audiences needed explanations, and not only of the many obscure details of life at the time of the poems, but also of the problematical myths narrated or alluded to in them. In response, the singers developed an interpretative instrument that later scholars called allegory. Greek allegorízein means “to say or mean something else”: the myths, their expounders claimed, meant something different from what they seemed to say on their narrative surface. This underlying meaning could be moral, or physical, or historical. Heracles’ twelve labors could symbolize the moral struggle of a virtuous man; Zeus’ hanging Hera on a chain in the sky, with an anvil dangling from the chain, could mean the layering of elements in the cosmos, from weightless fire (sky) to heavier air (Hera whose name was read as an anagram for air, aêr, in a language without a letter for “h”) to heavy earth (the iron anvil); the Minotaur threatening Athens could mean an admiral of king Minos of Crete attacking the Athenian fleet. Over time, the method became more sophisticated and was widely used as a hermeneutical tool; Jewish philosphers used it in order to reconcile Torah and Platonism, and Christian theologians interpreted the Bible in whatever sense time and society needed and even to introduce the prestigious pagan mythology into Christian education, literature, and figurative art.

Apollo did not escape allegorization. In rare cases, he was Christianized, or Christ was seen as the real Apollo, as in a hymn by an anonymous Christian poet of perhaps the fifth century. The text hails Christ as

true Apollo, famous Paean, victor over the infernal snake. Sweet is the quiver of your testimony that comprises four men. Your arrow is steeped in the honey of prophecy, feathered with the oracles of the fathers. Your bow sounds strong with your father’s virtue, its string is powerful with miracles: they have killed the old snake through their own death.

(Pseudo-Paulinus of Nola, Poem 2 [Patrologia Latina 41])

Salve, o Apollo vere, Paean inclite,
Pulsor draconis inferi.
Dulcis tui pharetra testimonii
Quod quatuor constat viris;
Sagitta mellis tinctilis prophetico,
Pinnata patrum oraculis;
Arcus paternae forte virtutis sonans,
Miraculis nervus potens:
Stravere veterem morte serpentem sua.

Apollo the killer of the Pytho dragon is turned into a Christ killing the snake of Hell, detail by detail. Echos of such a reading of Apollo reverberate through the ages, to Michelangelo’s triumphant Christ presiding over the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, or to Catholic mythography of the seventeenth century. After Winckelmann, however, and even more so after Nietzsche’s rejection of Christianity, Apollo could again stand for paganism in opposition to Christianity, as in the small and otherwise unremarkable book on a Christian literary theory with the suggestive title Christ and Apollo by the Jesuit father F. Lynch (1960) where Apollo stands for the rejected “neo-pagan” reading of literary works.

But mostly, allegorization of Apollo was physical, and it was rather uniform, from antiquity to modern times. As Macrobius puts it in his Saturnalia, a treatise written at about 420 CE : “Apollo’s names refer in manifold interpretation to the sun.” This statement introduces chapter 17 of book I of the Saturnalia which is written to confirm this derivation and its antiquity. Besides other ancient authors, Macrobius’ learned speaker, the aristocrat Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, cites the dramatist Euripides, the philosopher Plato, and Chrysippus, the main philosopher of early Stoicism. He proves his case with a wealth of details: the etymology of Apollo’s name and of his epithets, the iconography of his image, single myths, and facts of cult. The etymologies are fanciful, as is to be expected, and again prove my point that etymologies in religion tend to be circular. Apollo’s name means “sending (Greek apopállein) the rays”; Apollo is called Delphios because the sun manifests things Phoibos because “he comes violently” (phoitâi bíai), “He of the Golden Hair” because the golden rays of the sun are his hairs; and “He who is not Shorn … because the rays of the sun can never be cut off from their source.” If even single epithets receive somewhat complex explanations, entire myths do even more so. Macrobius narrates Apollo’s childhood story, albeit in a somewhat different version from the Homeric Hymn: when Leto had given birth to him and his sister against the fierce resistance of the step-mother Hera, the snake Pytho invaded the god’s cradle, but the baby boy killed it with his arrows. This, the learned interpreter contends, is a symbolic representation of how the cosmos with its sun and its moon was born from chaos. Leto is earth, Hera is air: cold and hostile air prevented earth from growing anything, until she gave birth first to the moon, then to the hot sun. The sun heated up the air, and its moisture turned into vapors that threatened the new life, until the rays of the sun could overcome it. The interpreter then adds yet another explanation for the snake: it symbolizes the winding way of the sun through the year, “and when the sun has finished its course, it has finished off the snake.” Multiple explanations are typical for this way of thinking: they do not contradict each other but prove that the same story can contain several levels of meaning. Sometimes, the symbolism is more straightforward than this: images of Apollo, Macrobius explains, carry an image of the three Graces in their right and the bow and arrows in their left hand “because the god is reluctant to harm humans, and much more eager to hand out health”: the right hand is active and stretched out, the left passive and hanging down.

In Macrobius’ long chapter on Apollo, Praetextatus presents a synthesis of the god and his myths as it was developed over almost a millennium of Greek and Roman literature, art, and philosophy. In many ways, the chapter is almost a digest of pagan philosophical theology. It demonstrates how two philosophical schools, Plato’s Academy and the Stoa of Zeno and Chrysippus, shaped this approach to the divine. Both schools cultivated an ethically purified theology, without altogether rejecting the traditional gods and their myths, but reading them instead as allegories. Whereas Academic philosophers read the myths as moralistic tales, the Stoics perfected physical allegory: to them, the gods and all their mythical narratives were symbols for natural processes.

Macrobius was an author widely read in medieval times. His Saturnalia is a rather long-winded and selective commentary on Virgil, a key author of medieval schools; his other preserved work is an allegorical commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, another key text in medieval teaching. Both works preserve ancient learning for the medieval world and transmit its allegorical mode of reading pagan mythology.

Equally important was another work written not very much later, the Mythologies of a certain Fulgentius, presumably the African bishop Fulgentius who died in 532 or 533 and became a saint. The Mythologies are short allegorical explanations of Greek myths, narrated mostly after Virgil and Ovid, the main texts for Greek and Roman mythology in the West for many centuries to come. Fulgentius agrees with Macrobius on Apollo as the sun (book 1, chapters 12-17), and he proves it with the etymologies of his name and of selected epithets, and with mythical details. Both the details and the epithets are entirely different from what Macrobius selected: both authors thus were independently drawing on a much wider pool of knowledge. Like Macrobius, or even more so since it was a handbook, the Mythologies of Fulgentius were widely read and used by Medieval scholars and poets. The Apolline myths that Fulgentius explains are mostly the ones found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, such as the story of the Raven, of Daphne, of Phaeton. He adds explanations of the tripod, the arrows, and the snake Python; the nine Muses together with Apollo symbolize the ten organs of speech: four front teeth, two lips, tongue, palate, throat, and lungs. It seems hopeless to assign a specific organ to a specific divinity; what counts is the number of ten on both sides. We find the same allegorization in Greek writers of later antiquity and Byzantine times, such as the commentaries of Eustathius of Thessalonica on Homer, written in the twelfth century (see Chapter 1). Eustathius has no doubt that Apollo is the sun and applies an almost alchemical key to this interpretation: his priest Chryses has a golden sceptre “because the ancients dedicated this metal to the sun, as they dedicate silver to the moon and other metals to other planets” (on Il. 1.15).


The identification of Apollo with the sun goes back to fifth-century BCE Greece, and it persisted through the centuries. Phoîbos/Phoebus is often a poetical way of denoting the sun, as Artemis/Diana is used for the moon: this is a rhetorical device as old as Homer (who uses Demeter for bread, Dionysus for wine) that later was called metonymy, “noun change.” Learned poets turned this on its head and used physical elements to describe the respective gods. In his Dionysiaca, Nonnus of Panopolis (fifth century CE) narrates a series of duels between the Olympian gods: Athena fights against Ares, Hera against Artemis, Poseidon against Apollo. This last duel is described as a fight between fire and water: Apollo, “the fiery chief,” fights with a “branch of Delphic fir” against an enemy who sends his high waves (36.83-87). More complex descriptions use divine names for riddling accounts of seasonal patterns. In a parody of such poetical conceits, Seneca describes the onset of autumn: “Phoebus had already drawn in the arc of his light in a shorter path; dark Sleep’s time was growing, and triumphantly Cynthia extended her reign.” Or, as he adds: “I think this is better understood if I say: the month was October” (Apocolocyntosis 2): Cynthia is Artemis/Diana the moon goddess, as Cynthius is Apollo, named after the one mountain of Delus; here, she stands for the night. Almost one and a half millennia later, an unknown poet used the same conceit to open a poem in honor of Joanna queen of Naples (1414-1435). He is often more enigmatic: “With his shining chariot Cynthius had left behind the Thessalian quivers, aiming for the Capricorn and the path that leads back” - the sun, that is, is moving from Sagittarius (represented as a Thessalian centaur who is also an archer) to Capricorn; winter is coming (Carmen Bucolicum Gaddianum 1). Compared with this overly learned text, Milton’s evocation of Spring with its returning sunshine is almost straightforward, and in much more elegant Latin:

Delius ipse venit, video Peneïde lauro
implicitos crines: Delius ipse venit! The Delian god himself is coming: I see him, his hair wreathed in laurel from Peneus - the Delian god himself is coming!
(Elegy 5.13, written in 1628)

The only name a contemporary needs to have explained is Peneus, a river that runs through the Tempe valley and who as a river-god is the father of Daphne, Apollo’s victim turned into laurel.

The identification of Apollo and the sun has several consequences. A minor one is that Apollo is now inserted into the myths of Helius/Sol, the Sun God: in Fulgentius, Phaëthon, in Ovid the son of Sol, turns into the son of Apollo. More important is that Apollo took a place - the preeminent place - among the planetary gods, as did his sister Artemis/Diana. This was a bookish development in a Christian world that had conveniently forgotten that Helios/Sol and Selene/Luna were “real” deities who once had their own cult, distinct from Apollo and Artemis. Since all the other planets, from Mercury to Saturn, were named after major pagan gods, sun and moon, or Sol and Luna, did not fit the system, whereas Apollo and Artemis/Diana did. (One has to keep in mind that to ancient and medieval astronomers, Sun and Moon were planets circling around a stable Earth; Earth alone did not need a divine name.) This development took some time. In his Etymologies, Isidore, the learned bishop of Seville (died 636 CE), still called the respective planets Sol and Luna, as do many later texts that are strictly astronomical: they preserve the conventions of their Greek and Roman predecessors. Outside these technical texts, however, the identification of god and celestial body spread fast. It became so popular that Apollo even entered Christian churches in planetary guise: frescoes in many churches in Italy and elsewhere depict the seven planetary gods, among them Apollo and Diana, as sitting or standing persons.

Isidore had good reasons for not turning Apollo into a planet. Following a different school of allegorists, he understood the gods as human rulers of old whom posterity elevated to gods. We call this school Euhemerism, after Euhemerus of Messene who, at about 300 BCE, wrote the most influential book on the topic; its roots, however, are older. The Christian fathers eagerly adopted the theory: it helped to deflate the pagan gods by turning them into humans. Isidore, a bishop and an influential theologian, followed established Christian traditions. In his chapter on the pagan gods (“De diis gentium,” Etymologies 8.11), he gives a long list of “humans of old whom they began to worship, each after his respective merits, such as Isis in Egypt, Jupiter on Crete, … or Apollo on Delus.” In his treatment of Apollo, he mentions the identification with Sol, without commenting on it. To him, Apollo’s functions are divination and medicine alone, in a purely Roman perspective. Greek Apollo, however, is not entirely forgotten: “The same god [he writes] is called Phoebus because he is an ephebe, that is a young man; therefore they sometimes depict the sun as a boy, because he is born every day and shines with new light.” We should not expect too much intellectual cohesion in Isidore’s work: it is essentially an encyclopedic collection of Greek and Roman knowledge, put together at the threshold of the Middle Ages. Although Isidore’s Apollo is not a planetary god, the identification with the sun was so commonplace in his time, and so strong, that he simply could not overlook it.

Outside the world of the learned clergymen, Apollo could survive in a very different guise. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul had demoted the pagan gods to demons, daimonia. This became commonplace in later Christian thinking: the pagan gods had not disappeared, they continued to live as demons. In a sermon, Martin bishop of Praga in Portugal (sixth century) gives a long list of these demons from which only Apollo is curiously absent, as he is in a much later list in Walter Mapes’ entertaining Courtiers’ Trifles (De Nugis Curialium, twelfth century). Martin’s list is very serious: as long as pagan cults were alive, pagan gods were a menace to Christians. Every Christian who entered a “sanctuary of Juppiter, Apollo or Diana” feared that the contact with the cult image polluted him (Patrologia Latina 4, 898D); and Christian nightwatchmen had routinely to undergo an exorcism after their rounds, lest they would become possessed by one of these demons. Once the cults died out, fear became entertaining: now we hear stories about Jupiter the magus, Apollo the devil or Venus the beautiful sorceress.


Pagan traditions survived not only in Isidore. A considerable corpus of medieval mythography was nurtured by them; these books in turn kept the mythological tradition alive in medieval teaching. Three anonymous treatises from manuscripts in the Papal Library, the so-called Vatican Mythographers, summarize mythology as it was taught in medieval schools. Whereas the oldest text simply retells the stories, the two later provide rich allegorical explanations and systematization, such as the following (Mythographus Vaticanus 2.28):

It is well known that Apollo’s powers are threefold: in the sky, he is the Sun, on earth, he is Dionysus, in the underworld, he is Apollo. Hence, we see his image accompanied by three attributes: the lyre which is the image of celestial harmony, the chariot which shows him as a terrestrial divinity, the arrows which indicate his nature as underwordly and pernicious (which is why he is Apollon in Greek which means “destroying”).

The materials found here can all be traced back to antiquity. The derivation of Apollo’s name from Greek apóllymi “to destroy” is as old as Aeschylus; the lyre is a symbol of the harmony of the spheres in the Pythagorean and Platonic traditions. Only systematization and the didactic purpose are new. And it is easy to see how the explanation of his attributes could serve to guide medieval artists in their iconographical choices.

In many respects, the Renaissance followed medieval thinking about Greek and Roman gods, even if its authors were much better acquainted with ancient literature and could draw on Greek texts as well as on Roman ones. The Genealogia Deorum of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) is a mythographical handbook that defined for almost two centuries how poets and artists saw the gods of antiquity. But far from breaking away from medieval traditions, Boccaccio continues them. Like Isidore’s, Boccaccio’s explanations are strictly euhemeristic: like all gods, Apollo was once a powerful king and a benefactor of humanity. For his theological interpretations, Boccaccio relied heavily on Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum). In this lengthy work, the Roman orator and philosopher presented the theological thinking of the three major philosophical schools of his time, skeptical Platonism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism, and exemplified their interpretations with a wealth of mythological details. Boccaccio was somewhat less interested in philosophical theology than Cicero: to a Renaissance Christian, ancient gods had become the topic of erudition, not of belief and worship. Accordingly, he focussed on Cicero’s mythographical facts: often, he repeated them faithfully, although in Apollo’s case he radically cut Cicero’s list of four different Apollos (De Natura Deorum 3.23) down to two. In a good euhemeristic reading, the first Apollo was “a fiery man of inexhaustible fervor…. He invented medicine and acquired knowledge of herbs.” The second was the son of Jupiter and Latona, and on him Boccaccio concentrates: “Although Cicero writes that besides him there were three others, everything has to focus on this one god, since all the poets concentrate their efforts on this Apollo, as if he were the only one.” The use in poetry determines Boccaccio’s choice; after all, he was a celebrated poet himself.

Good handbooks last long. It was not until two centuries later that Boccaccio’s book was replaced by the Mythologiae of Natale Conti (1520-1581, from Milan; he latinized his name as Natales Comes). Its first edition appeared in 1551; the substantially enlarged edition of 1561 remained the standard text on Greek and Roman gods, heroes, and their myths for the next two centuries or so. Conti’s treatment of individual gods, such as the lengthy chapter on Apollo, seems first and foremost a collection of what ancient authors from Homer and Hesiod to Ovid and Plutarch were saying about a specific god, with systematic information about cult places and epithets; in Apollo’s case, the epithets range from Abaeus to Zosterius. All this is not very different from what our contemporary encyclopedias still present to their readers. The final paragraph of the lengthy chapter on Apollo, however, goes far beyond the encyclopedic presentation of data and facts. It begins with an address to his reader: “Let us now investigate what they meant by all this.” The answer, not surprisingly, is simple: he is the Sun, and all the details that were so meticulously presented find their lenghty explanation in this one truth.

Conti’s handbook was destined not only for scholars and other learned users, but also for artists. For this very reason, many editions included lavish images that were taken over from another famous work, Vincenzo Cartari’s Le Imagini degli Dei Antichi (“The Images of the Ancient Gods”). When its first edition appeared in 1609, it quickly became fundamental to the way artists represented ancient gods. But it was much more than a collection of images. Cartari collected even more ancient sources than any of his predecessors; his list of authors stretches from Homer to the Neoplatonist philosophers. He is a resolute physical allegorist: “The poets, who were the first to write about the gods, invented stories about them …: they turned the elements, the stars, the sun, and the moon into divinities.” This programmatic sentence opens his chapter on Apollo. The god is, not surprisingly, the Sun: this is the master key to most things Apolline that Cartari discusses with iconography in mind - iconography understood not simply as image-making, but as visual expression of philosophical, moral, and theological concepts. He gives many descriptions of ancient images, apparently following the motto “the stranger the better”: foreign, Oriental images express more numerous and more complex concepts than the plain images of the Greeks. He also describes all the attributes of a given divinity and explains them allegorically; plates add the necessary visual illustration (figure 11). In Apollo’s case, there is the lyre with its seven strings, symbol of harmony among the seven planets (Sun and Moon included); or the nine Muses who correspond to the nine “celestial bodies,” Earth plus the seven planets and the sphere of the stars. Similarly, he explains Apollo’s sacred animals. The wolf belongs to Apollo because the rays of the sun devour all humidity, or because the wolf sees even in the night and thus overcomes darkness. The swan shines in pure whiteness; the rooster announces the rising sun; the crocodile is holy to Apollo because “the theologians of Egypt put the Sun in a ship carried by a crocodile.” But even Cartari’s learning and ingeniosity cannot explain everything from Apollo’s solar nature. The raven is Apollo’s animal because he foretells the weather and thus participates in his divinatory powers, as does the laurel, his sacred tree. Apollo’s preferred sacrificial animal, the male goat, is explained with

Figure 11 The many aspects of Apollo, from Vincenzo Cartari, Le ímagíní deglí deí antíchí (Venice 1571), p. 60.

reference to Pausanias’ account of Delphi (Description of Greece 10.11.5). The people of Cleonae, Pausanias wrote, dedicated a bronze goat in Apollo’s sanctuary after he had helped them to defeat an epidemic disease by advising them to sacrifice a male goat to himself at sun-rise (another reason for Cartari to equate Apollo and sun). The image of Apollo with the Graces in his right and bow and arrows in his left hand comes directly from Macrobius’ description more than a millennium before: such is the force of the medieval tradition even in the Renaissance. The same solar key that explained images and attributes worked for the myths: Apollo killed Python because the sun dries humidity (again from Macrobius), the Cyclopes because the sun drives away the clouds: the Cyclopes fabricated the thunderbolts, as the clouds produce lightning. Apollo Lykeios is Wolf Apollo, and the wolf again is solar; Apollo Smintheus drives mice away because these and other pests symbolize the bad and humid parts of the air. Cartari adds an illustration that contains as many details as possible, and that derives from earlier illustrated books, such as the Libellus de imaginibus deorum (ca. 1400): this Booklet on the Images of the Gods contains an image of Apollo with all his symbolical attributes that is almost as rich as Cartari’s and combines several literary sources, from Servius’ commentary on the Aeneid and Martianus Capella’s Wedding of Mercury and Philosophy to a medieval commentary on the poet Martial. The Booklet in turn goes back to the Book on the Images of the Gods, the Liber de imaginibus deorum, written by one Albricus Londoniensis (perhaps a pseudonym of the famous scholar Alexander of Neckham, 1157-1217) at the end of the twelfth century; it already combined many of these literary sources.

The importance of these early modern mythological handbooks should not be underrated. They perpetuated the knowledge of Greek and Roman gods and contributed to it by collecting a steadily increasing number of ancient texts; and they offered models for a “modern” interpretation of these gods that had nothing to do with their former role in pagan ritual and cult. The gods and their myths were understood as embodiments of philosophical and theological insights that appealed to a contemporary audience. This is valid not only for texts, but equally for artistic representations. A mythical scene painted or sculpted by an early modern artist - who relied most often on Ovid’s Metamorphoses - could simply evoke aesthetic pleasure; but to a better informed viewer it meant also philosophical and even spiritual insights. Already the Middle Ages justified the reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by turning the poem into a vast store house of edifying tales; the late medieval Ovide Moralisé that makes all these moral teachings explicit was a huge success, as its many surviving manuscripts show. Early modern scholars followed suit, offering a wide array of interpretations that could draw on any handbook such as Cartari’s or Conti’s; but it could also draw on other allegorizations, such as those of the Florentine Neoplatonists (on whom Cartari heavily depended anyway). Whatever an artist such as Paolo Veronese or Gian Lorenzo Bernini meant when they painted or sculpted the transformation of Daphne escaping Apollo’s pursuit, his patron or any other contemporary viewer could feel free to read it in any of the keys provided by the learned literature.


After the Renaissance and its open-minded ways, the pressure of the Counter Reformation added a new urgency to finding ways to make pagan myths acceptable to Catholic thinking. In a remarkable and very successful book, the Proofs from the Gospels (Demonstratio Evangelica) published for the first time in 1672, Pierre-Daniel Huet (1630-1721), bishop, member of the French Academy and educator of the French crown prince, tried a radical reconciliation between Christian faith and the pagan stories cherished in general culture. To Huet, Apollo was none other than Moses; his demonstration used the full register of possible and impossible parallels, from Biblical prophecy to the Muses as images of the Israelite women dancing around Moses in the desert, and even to a Euhemerist identification of Python with the Pharaoh, Moses’ victim. Using a tradition that is attested already in ancient mythography, it also identified Apollo with Dionysus and read the death and dismemberment of baby Dionysus as a distorted account of Moses’ exposure on the Nile. The book was very successful in its time and still read in the eighteenth century. With the rise of the Enlightenment, however, Huet’s book began to be seen as an outmoded way of looking at the pagan gods that was superseded by enlightened skepticism and the beginnings of scholarship in a modern sense, guided by a consciousness of historical distance and the concomitant necessity for encyclopedic data collection.

Fifty years after Huet, Benjamin Hederich (1675-1748: “former headmaster at Grossenhain,” as he introduced himself) published the first edition of his “exhaustive lexicon of mythology,” the Gründliches Mythologisches Lexicon (1724). He wanted to create a dictionary that would offer the facts of ancient mythology to any educated person and prevent artists from “making mistakes.” The work was wildly successful and went into many printings, and in 1770, the librarian and professor of philosophy Johann Joachim Schwabe published a heavily revised second edition. Hederich’s entry “Apollo” presents the god as any of our dictionaries would: the lexicon has created the template for all of us. Hederich leads his reader through etymology, mythology, ancient worship, and iconography, and he sums all this up with the modern interpretations. Additional lists give Apollo’s epithets and his (female) lovers and children: there is no hint of Apollo’s many male lovers, in a rare instance of moral censorship. As an interpreter of myth, Hederich is vaguely euhemerist, but he faithfully reproduces biblical, physical, and ethical interpretations. He insists on the identification of Apollo with the sun, but points out that this is recent: he is among the first to do so, and many of our contemporary popular books have yet to realize this. In his preface to the second edition, Schwabe take his distance to Hederich’s interpretations: “I have undertaken not … to excise the physical and moralistic interpretations of the fables. I do not like them, but they may please others, as they have pleased many.” Eighteenth-century scholarship moved towards a purely historical reading of Greek mythology, even if this meant to acknowledge the growing distance in time and world view. The nineteenth century would continue in this historicization that meant to reject allegorical and symbolical readings. Apollo, however, resisted the scholarly efforts to be turned into a historical exhibit, as we shall see presently.


From its earliest appearance in Greek culture, mousik, “song-dance,” belonged to Apollo, as did the Muses. This did not by itself turn the god into a patron of writers and their art; this happened only in Hellenistic times when the unity of archaic mousik was divided into its two constituent parts, literary writing and musical performance. This was the result of what I would call the privatization and individualization of poetry: poetry was no longer written only for public performance, but for recitation or silent reading in the narrow circle of the cognoscenti who could enjoy its refined details, and for the lonely reader. The introduction to Callimachus’ Aetiafeatures the god who sternly admonishes the budding poet to adhere to new aesthetic ideals (see Chapter 2). Unlike his classical predecessors, the lone Alexandrian poet has to follow his own inspiration; he cannot rely on collective traditions. Callimachus somewhat playfully justified this new poetic program as the choice to which the poet had been compelled by Apollo, against his own wishes. Latin authors, from Virgil in his Ecloguesonwards, adopted the scene to their own ends, and they made Apollo their protector and inspirator, as in Ovid’s short prayer (Amores 1.15.35):

mihi flavus Apollo
pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua.
May blond Apollo offer me a cup, full to the brim with water from Castalia.

It is in his Latin guise that Apollo the patron of poetry began his career in the Western tradition, and he remained a literary creation. In Roman life, not Apollo but Minerva presided over the poets’ organization, the guild of scribae, “public scribes” - Roman Apollo had started his career as a doctor, not a poet.

It is impossible to give here more than the bare outline of Apollo’s later career as the patron of poetry and music. The paintings that depict Apollo with the lyre or the violin, alone or among the Muses, are legion, and poets and composers put him on stage long before Igor Strawinski and George Balanchine staged Apollon Musagète as a modern ballet in 1928. Here, Apollon “leader of the Muses” takes center stage, as he did in some earlier works such as Bach’s secular cantata “The Contest between Phoebus and Pan” (1731) or in Mozart’s delightful singspiel “Apollo and Hyacinthus” (1767). More often, however, the god remained off-stage. European opera began with his son Orpheus: Angelo Poliziano’s Favola d’Orfeo was performed in 1480 at the court of the Gonzaga in Mantua; Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo of 1607 set the standard for the genre to come. The tragic destiny of Orpheus made a much more powerful story for early modern opera, conceived by its promoters as a renewal of the ancient genre of tragedy; gods are unsuitable tragic heroes, since they cannot die. But Apollo remained the patron of the artists. Following ancient custom, poets continued to invoke him as their guide; Academies and Music Schools were adorned with his image; theaters and movie theaters still bear his name as a testimony to their cultural aspirations. And even his divinatory powers occasionally inspired the use of his name: Apollo Anglicanus, Richard Saunder’s almanac that was first published in 1664, remained a beststeller for almost a century. The almanac promised

to assist all persons in the right understanding of this year’s revolution, also of things past, present, and to come: with necessary tables plain and useful … to which is added a short discourse of comets, and what accidents have succeeded them for some years past.

It followed William Lilly’s Merlinus Anglicanus that began to appear in 1644: in the long run, the Greek god of prophecy outlived the Saxon sorcerer, and even spawned off a short-lived American Apollo.

But however entertaining, these are side-tracks. What I want to do here, and what I am able to do, is different and less ambitious: it is to present some passages from European literature in which Apollo, the patron god of poetry, is highly visible, passages that not infrequently set the tone for some time to come.

One of these works is Dante’s Divina Commedia, written after 1307. At the beginning of each of its three parts, Dante (1265-1321) invokes different helpers for his poetical undertaking. In the first book of the Inferno, the helper offers himself - the Roman poet Virgil, who had traveled through the Underworld when he created the sixth book of the Aeneid. At the beginning of Purgatorio, Dante invokes the Muses (o sante Muse 1.8) and especially one of them, Calliope, and he does so in a surprisingly polemical spirit: the poet is prepared to defend himself and his work, as did the Muses when they were challenged by the arrogant Pierides and turned them into magpies (Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.295-678). Things get even more surprising in the prologue to Paradise. For the crowning third part of his vast poem, Dante cannot rely on the Muses alone any more, he needs a more divine helper, the god Apollo himself:

O buono Apollo, all’ultimo lavoro
fammi del tuo valor sì fatto vaso
come dimandi a dar l’amato alloro.
Infino a qui l’un giogo di Parnasso
assai mi fu; ma or con amendue
m’è uopo intrar nell’arringo rimaso.
Entra nel petto mio, e spira tue
sì come quando Marsia traesti
della vagina delle membra sue.
O good Apollo, for this last labor
make me into a vessel worthy
of the gift of your belovèd laurel.
Up to this point, one peak of Mount Parnassus
has been enough, but now I need them both
in order to confront the struggle that awaits.
Enter my breast and breathe in me
as when you drew out Marsyas,
out from the sheathing of his limbs.
(Paradiso 1.13-21)

Inspiration, both prophetic and poetic, is the only way to succeed in this task, and Apollo alone can provide it. Apolline inspiration is able to separate the soul as far from the body as possible, and this separation is needed to describe Paradise, a purely spiritual place radically separated from the material body. If read correctly, the story of Marsyas demonstrates this power of Apollo: it does not talk of Marsyas killed by being flayed alive, but of Marsyas forced by Apollo to leave his body, in an agonizing rite of purification. Dante’s interpretation of the Ovidian story takes Ovid’s playfulness and cleverness seriously. As the Roman poet tells the story, Marsyas’ final outcry to Apollo was “Why do you tear me from myself, qui me mihi detrahis?” (Metamorphoses 6.385) - a grim witticism that invited deeper speculation: Dante’s understanding was followed by the Florentine Neoplatonists whose philosophy aimed at a separation from corporeality. Only when he is separated from his body can the poet be crowned with Apollo’s laurel wreath, taken from Apollo’s first love, Daphne:

O divina virtù, se mi ti presti
tanto che l’ombra del beato regno
segnata nel mio capo io manifesti,
venir vedra’ mi al tuo diletto legno,
e coronarmi allor di quelle foglie
che la matera e tu mi farai degno.
O holy Power, if you but lend me of yourself
enough that I may show the merest shadow
of the blessèd kingdom stamped within my mind,
You shall find me at the foot of your belovèd tree,
crowning myself with the very leaves
of which my theme and you will make me worthy.
(Paradiso 1.22-27)

For Dante, such a coronation has become very rare indeed in his time, compared to what used to be:

Sì rade volte, padre, se ne coglie
per triunfare o Cesare o poeta,
colpa e vergogna dell’umane voglie
Che parturir letizia in su la lieta
delfica deità dovria la fronda
Peneia, quando alcun di sè asseta.
So rarely, father, are they gathered
to mark the triumph of a Caesar or a poet -
fault and shame of human wishes -
anyone’s even longing for them,
those leaves on the Peneian bough, should make
the joyous Delphic god give birth to joy.
(Paradiso 1.26-33)

As many centuries earlier in Callimachus, the invocation of Apollo is a poetical program. Poetry, Apollo’s gift, must return to an excellence worthy of its ancient models. The Renaissance is just around the corner.

A generation later, with Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) (1304-1374) Italian poetry has officially arrived at this stage: on Easter Sunday 1341, on the Capitole of Rome, a Roman senator crowned Petrarch with Apollo’s sacred wreath, conveying upon him the dignity of a Poeta Laureatus, “poet crowned with laurel.” Very few poets had preceded him in past centuries, many more were to come, such Conrad Celtis, the first German laureate (crowned in 1487 by the emperor Maximilian I), or Ben Jonson, the first English Poet Laureate (crowned in 1616 by James I). But it was only with John Dryden (crowned in 1668 by Charles II, to mark the end of the Civil War) that an uninterrupted line of laureate poets begins, leading up to Andrew Motion (crowned in 1999 by Elizabeth II) and attesting to the secret presence of Apollo in the contemporary world.

Petrarch’s coronation did not come by chance. Once he had made the girl Laura into the intimate subject of much of his poetry, his work (and perhaps his life) was connected with Apollo’s sacred tree: Laura, as he knew well, is the feminine form of the Latin word for laurel, laurus. After Dante’s passionate plea for Apollo’s help, this is so neat that already some of Petrarch’s contemporaries doubted the existence of the girl that, as he claimed “first appeared to my eyes in my youth, in the year of our Lord 1327, on the sixth day of April, in the church of St. Clare in Avignon, at matins.” However that might have been (and however futile it might be to separate a life from the texts in which the poet narrated and relived this very life), the god’s love for Daphne (Greek for Laura - in Greek, unlike Latin, a feminine noun) gave a template for the poet’s love. This was not without danger, since Apollo was a jealous lover, and the poet’s constant sighs for Laura could arouse his anger:

se non che forse Apollo si disdegna
ch’ a parlar de’ suoi sempre verdi rami
lingua mortal presuntuosa vegna.
Except perhaps that Apollo is scornful
that mortal tongue should be presumptuous
to speak of his eternally green boughs.
(Rime Sparse 5.12-14)

But overall, the poet is confident, even sometimes cocky, as in Rime Sparse 43 where Apollo is both the lover of Laura and the sun looking down onto earth to find her, but disappointed hides himself in bad weather and thus misses her:

Il figluol di Latona aveva già nove
volte guardato dal balcon sovrano
per quella che alcun tempo mosse in vano
i suoi sospiri et or gli altrui commove.
Poi che cercando stanco non seppe ove
s’albergasse da presso o di lontano,
mostrossi a noi qual uom per doglia insano
che molto amata cosa non ritrove.
Et così tristo standosi in disparte,
tornar non vide il viso che laudato
sarà, si io vivo, in più mille carte, Latona’s son had already looked down nine times from his high balcony, seeking her who once in vain moved his sighs and now moves those of another.
When, tired with searching, he could not discover where she was dwelling, whether near or far, he showed himself to us like one mad with grief at not finding some much-loved thing.
And thus sadly remaining off by himself, he did not see that face return which shall be praised, if I live, on more than a thousand pages.

A century later, in another reign, another poet claimed Apollo as the leader of his entire life:

Le jour que je fus né, Apollon qui préside
aux Muses, me servit en ce monde de guide,
m’anima d’un esprit subtil et vigoureux
et me fit de science et d’honneur amoureux.
The day I was born Apollo, who presides
over the Muses, served as a guide in this world,
animated me with a subtle and vigorous spirit
and made me fall in love with learning and with honor.

Thus begins the Hymn to Autumn by Pierre Ronsard (1523-1585), poet to the court of France. The Hymn, first published in 1563, begins with a long account of Ronsard’s early poetry, starting with an initiation by the Muses modeled on Hesiod’s (“l’Ascréan”), but evoking also the memory of Callimachean poetics that aims for the rare and the exquisite:

Car la gentille Euterpe ayant ma dextre prise
pour m’ôter le mortel par neuf fois me lava
de l’eau d’une fontaine où peu de monde va.
Gentle Euterpe, taking my right hand,
to take away my mortality bathed me nine times
in the water of a fountain to which few people go.

But it was not the Greek poet from Ascra whom Ronsard admired and followed most, it was the poet from Florence. In Ronsard’s understanding of the recent history of poetry, Petrarch had overcome the night of Dante and other medieval poets and brought the beauty of Apollo’s gifts to Italy (“les dons d’Apollon dont se vit embellie, quand Pétrarque vivait, sa native Italie”). And thus, he claimed the laurel wreath as much as the Florentine had done - he too saw himself crowned with Apollo’s laurel, “un laurier sur le front” (Dialogue du Poète et des Muses, 1556).

To invoke Apollo and the Muses when beginning a work of poetry did not remain a custom of Greek and Roman poets and of their Renaissance followers. But already in late antiquity, this invocation had changed its nature. As long as it was written by a pagan poet and read within a polytheistic world, any reader could perceive its religious implications: these invocations usually followed the established form of prayer and hymn. In a world turned Christian, however, Apollo and his Muses became symbols and metaphors for poetry and poetic inspiration. Some religious coloring, however, could persist even in this new guise. When Dante addressed Apollo as “father,” he uses a predominantly Christian form of divine address. No pagan would have done so; pagan Apollo was too young for such an address. In the new religious world, strong emotions for a pagan god who is at the same time Poetic Inspiration capitalized can coexist with a wide-spread disregard for the literal meaning of a myth. This explains why Dante could so easily refer to the allegorical meaning of Marsyas’ flaying, or why Petrarch sometimes almost blended Apollo’s and his own poetic persona.

Over time, the conventionality of such an invocation became more obvious, and poets reacted by discarding these traditional forms; one does not have to wait for the Romantic movement to see this happen. But it is not so easy to get rid of gods, even after the Enlightenment. In the early twentieth century, one of the leading German poets again opened two of his books of poetry with Apollo. The way he does so, however, tells us that the times have changed since Dante, Petrarch, and Ronsard.

In 1907 and 1908 respectively, Rainer Maria Rilke published the two books of his Neue Gedichte, “New Poems.” At the time, Rilke was at the zenith of his fame and one of Germany’s leading poets. Both books are introduced by a sonnet about Apollo - not an invocation anymore, but the description of a work of art.

The earlier poem, the first of the new collection, is entitled “Early Apollo” (“Früher Apollo”).

Sometimes a morning that is sheerest spring
may peer through twigs still bare of foliage:
nothing obscures his head and nothing screens
us from this almost fatal radiance
of all poems ever, of all poetry.
For there is yet no shadow in his gaze,
his brow is still too fresh for laurel wreaths
and time must pass before the long-stemmed rose
can flourish at his eyebrows and put out
and open, one by one, its tender leaves
to touch and to caress the trembling mouth
that is still shining-new, still motionless;
lips smiling, open as if drinking
as if to drink the liquid of his song.
Wie manches Mal durch das unbelaubte
Gezweig ein Morgen durchsieht, der schon ganz
im Frühling ist: so ist in seinem Haupte
nichts was verhindern könnte, dass der Glanz
aller Gedichte uns fast tödlich träfe;
denn noch kein Schatten ist in seinem Schaun,
zu kühl für Lorbeer sind noch seine Schläfe
und später erst wird aus den Augenbraun
hochstämmig sich der Rosengarten heben,
aus welchem Blätter, einzeln, ausgelöst
hintreiben werden auf des Mundes Beben,
der jetzt noch still ist, niegebraucht und blinkend
und nur mit seinem Lächeln etwas trinkend
als würde ihm sein Singen eingeflösst.

The poet explores the concept of being early on several levels. Early first means “early in the history of Greek art”: we are to see an archaic image of Apollo, such as one of the kouroi who had become famous at this very time. But it is also an Apollo “early in his life”: he is not yet wearing his olive wreath, his gaze is still modest, and he is not yet producing poetry that is being poured into him as a liquid into a young child’s mouth. At the same time, the concept of being early is expressed in two images, early in the morning, and early in the year. There is the “not yet” of a spring morning that promises the full splendor of the day and the full splendor of the year: trees do not yet carry leaves that would prevent the morning sun from hitting us, but they certainly will one day, and there will be rose-gardens that bloom and later will shed their petals rich in color and scent. But the main promise, expressed already by the position of the poem, is metapoetical. It is the promise of perfect poetry to come; the opening poem promises an aesthetic experience such as the reader has not yet had so far.

The second poem is markedly different. It again looks at an archaic Apollo, but this time at a torso only. A torso implies distance and reflexivity; accordingly, the poem’s title uses the technical term “archaic” instead of “early.”

We never knew his legendary head
nor saw the eyes set there like apples ripening.
But the bright torso, as a lamp turned low
still shines, still sees. For how else could the hard
contour of his breast so blind you? How could
a smile start in the turning loins and settle
on the parts which made his progeny?
This marble otherwise would stand defaced
beneath the shoulders and their lucid fall;
and would not take the light
like panther-skin; and would not radiate
and would not break from all its surfaces
as does a star. There is no part of him
that does not see you. You must change your life. Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,
sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leiseren Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.
Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;
und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du musst dein Leben ändern.

This is a very different Apollo, and a different poem. Its entire focus is on visuality, starting with the missing head and its imagined eyes that ripen like fruit. But even without eyes, the entire body does not only shine, it looks; its active beauty is so immense that it generates the appeal to change the addressee’s, our, life. At the same time, this body has a powerful sexual attraction. Its loins (“Lenden” in German, with clear sexual connotation) move seductively, and its center that focuses the viewer’s gaze is the active male sex (“Zeugung” in German is the generative act). Metapoetically, it promises the reader sensual pleasures. But unlike the earlier text, this poem does not strongly invite a metapoetical reading. It stands on its own, creating a powerful image of male bodily presence even in the torso of this Apollo.

The poetic voice, writing at the beginning of the early twentieth century, is unable to invoke Apollo as a guide in these two poems as it did in earlier poems. The only access to the god is through a concrete image preserved from Archaic Greece. Between the times of Petrarch and Ronsard and the epoch of Rilke, the pagan gods have receded as an immediate presence; they are firmly anchored in past history and experienced aesthetically only, as part of one’s cultural training. We already saw this process reflected in the development of mythological handbooks, with the second edition of Hederich’s Encyclopedia (1770) initialing this historicization.

This does not mean that the gods could not be evoked any more as persons; but this often sounds ironical. W.H. Auden’s poem “Under Which Lyre” was written in 1946 for Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa. Occasion and audience call for traditional learning, and the poem’s subtitle “A Reactionary Tract for the Times” marks the poet’s ambivalent and ironical stance. The theme is the return of academic normalcy after the war, after “Ares at last has quit the field,” as the first line states. The young warriors have returned to fight other battles, and they have turned to new gods:

Let Ares doze, that other war
is instantly declared once more
’twixt those who follow
precocious Hermes all the way
and those who without qualms obey
pompous Apollo.

The lyres of the title are the improvised lyre of Hermes and the stately lyre of Apollo. The two divine brothers stand for two ways of life: Apollo’s is the middle-class seriousness of the achievers who have returned from the war and are eager to lay the groundwork for a respectable career during their college years, Hermes’ a more ironical and disrespectful joie de vivre. Auden seems to miss this joie in his audience and in a society at large that he sees entirely dedicated to Apollo’s pursuits.

Today his arms, we must confess,
from Right to Left have met success,
his banners wave
from Yale to Princeton, and the news
from Broadway to the Book Reviews
is very grave.

To this, the poet opposes his “Hermetic Decalogue” - a list of forbidden things that sound almost as banal as Apollo’s values and are clearly aimed at undergraduates that to Auden seem in need to relax and wind down.


Auden’s “pompous Apollo,” the symbol of well-mannered adjustment, is not entirely his own creation. His dichotomy of Apollo and Hermes is intimately connected with the opposition between two principles, the Apolline and the Dionysiac that we associate with the work of the German classicist and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). In his Birth of Tragedy (Die Geburt der Tragödie, 1872), Nietzsche analyzed the emotions at the root of art. He insisted on “the deep opposition … between the art of the sculptor, the Apolline, and the non-figurative of the music, being Dionysiac.” He understood both as fundamental forces that he saw at work in any artistic creation. Apollo, the god of light, stood for the rationality of distinct figures, Dionysus, the patron of ecstasy, for the loss of self during the inspirational experience. Only two movements in all art history were able to fuse the two opposite principles into a single work of art, Attic tragedy in Greek antiquity and the operas of Richard Wagner in contemporary Germany.

Nietzsche was far from being the first to see an opposition between the two gods. In antiquity, the sacred year in the sanctuary of Delphi was distributed between Apollo and Dionysus. During the winter months, Apollo was away in the Far North, among the Hyperboreans. During this time, Dionysus reigned in Delphi: his festivals and those of his menads were all held in winter whereas Apollo was celebrated from spring to autumn. Even Apollo’s temple showed this division of divine presence: Apollo and the Muses were figured on the east pediment, over the entrance of the temple, Dionysus with his ecstatic female followers, the Thyiades, on the west pediment, in the “back” of the temple. The opposition was even expressed in terms of mortality and immortality: the Delphians were convinced that there was a grave of Dionysus in Apollo’s temple.

The opposition between the two gods must have expressed a Greek perception of both gods; in many ways, the Greeks saw them as opposed and complementary to each other. Both were sons of Zeus, Apollo from an almost Hera-like mother, Dionysus from a mortal princess who died before she could give birth. Both were eternally young; although Archaic Greece represented Dionysus as bearded, he later was often viewed as an almost girlish young god. Dionysus married Ariadne and was strictly heterosexual (with one obscure exception where he was the passive partner), while Apollo remained decidedly bisexual. Both were connected with altered states of mind, Apollo with prophetic possession, Dionysus with the ecstasy of dance and drugs. Both had their music, Apollo the stately music of the grand lyre (kíthara), Dionysus more often the frenzied sounds of pipes and drums, and of smaller string instruments. The opposition between the two gods became pronounced in Rome and under the pressure of political image spin, when two competing Romans, Marc Antony and Augustus, had recourse to the two gods to express their contrasting political programs as we saw above (Chapter 5). The powerful god of luxury and peaceful exuberance who had conquered the entire Orient, from Anatolia to India, seemed an apt symbol for Marc Antony’s ambitions. Caesar’s heir Octavian - who would become the emperor Augustus - answered by turning Apollo into his very personal god. To the Italians who were still suffering from the pains of a long series of civil wars, Apollo the god of healing and of counsel seemed more appropriate and acceptable than the frivolous luxury of Dionysus.

The modern opposition, however, draws on another source, the difference between Dionysiac and Apolline music; Greeks regarded the kíthara as the serious and grand instrument that was exclusively played by men, whereas flute and drums belonged to an ectstatic kind of music, often connected with women such as the menads, or the hetairai. Ancient theoreticians of music elaborated on this opposition, as we saw, and so did their modern successors. In the 1830s, German classical scholarship insisted on the fundamental contrast between Apolline and Dionysiac music; this theory went far beyond what the ancient authorities had said. Nietzsche, an expert on Greek musical theory, knew this, and he appropriated it for his own construction. But he went much further than the theoreticians of music: he expanded their contrast between two fundamentally opposed types of ancient Greek music into two modes of artistic expression and experience. By applying the same contrast to Wagner’s music, he exported it into his own contemporary culture. In the years to come, Nietzsche’s followers took the final step and projected these two modes of artistic experience onto general culture or even life styles. This watered the principles down to the rather commonplace opposition between rational and irrational or even between traditional and iconoclast. More importantly for twentieth-century Europe, this banalization helped to give irrationalism a legitimacy that proved utterly distructive to German culture and society. It was no coincidence that, when the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini looked for a fitting donation for the recently founded Nietzsche Archive in Dresden, he presented Hitler with a Greek head of Dionysus. Dionysiac frenzy, not Apolline rationality, was dominant in European politics of the age.


The loss of immediacy that we found in Rilke’s two poems reflected changes in cultural outlook that had begun during the Enlightenment. Unlike Renaissance intellectuals and artists, their successors in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe no longer regarded Greeks and Romans as direct ancestors whose values they emulated and hoped to perpetuate. In a time that saw the rise of the university and of scholarship as we know them, it was no longer the poets and artists but the historians who studied Greek texts and artifacts, even when the sheer beauty of these artifacts was able to provoke the personal response of Rilke’s second poem.

The change that lead to this new appreciation of ancient art began in the eighteenth century when Greek art began to be recognized and valued as something of its own. Ancient works of art, almost exclusively statuary, had been known long before. Chance finds and intentional excavations in the expanding city of early modern Rome had produced a large number of ancient statues, most of them marble copies of earlier Greek works; aristocrats, cardinals, and popes vied with each other to create their own collections of ancient sculpture. Many statues were recognized in the descriptions found in Pliny’s Natural History and Pausanias’ Description of Greece. Early modern Europe slowly began to see the real works of the great sculptors of old, or at least copies of them. These sculptures, however, did not stimulate research into the history of Greek art but served as models for contemporary artists. Their presence mattered, not their history.

This changed in the eighteenth century. The change is mainly due to one man, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768). Winckelmann became interested in ancient art when he was a librarian with count Bünau in Saxony; this gave him access to the rich collections of antiquities in the capital, Dresden (1748). Seven years later, he moved to Rome, the center of the study of antiquity. Here, he wrote his seminal Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (History of the Art of Antiquity, 1764) that marked the beginning of scholarly understanding of Greek and Roman art. Apollo played a very personal role in Winckelmann’s view of Greek art. To him, Greek art was the unsurpassed concretization of beauty in human history, Greek sculpture the pinnacle of Greek art, and images of Apollo the apogee of Greek beauty:

With Apollo, the highest conception of ideal male youth has been made into an image; he combines the strength of a perfect age with the tender forms of the most beautiful spring of youth. His forms are youthfully simple and not those of a darling who prefers cool shadows and whom Venus, as Ibycus said, brought up on roses; they are fit for a noble young man, born to great destiny; therefore, Apollo was the most beautiful among the gods.

Beauty is not perceived in aesthetical but in ethical terms. The image of Apollo is beautiful because the god embodies a specific form of human existence. In this respect, Winckelmann saw the Greeks as timeless ideals. But to him, this ideal did not take form in a philosophical or poetical text or in myths that could be read allegorically, but visually in a work of art.

Winckelmann found the perfect image of Apollo in a celebrated marble statue that he saw in Rome, the so-called “Belvedere Apollo.” It was found in the late fifteenth century; in 1511, its owner, Pope Julius II, transferred it from the garden of his former residence to the Vatican’s Belvedere Court. It is a copy of a lost Greek bronze original, created by the Athenian sculptor Leochares in the years around 320 BCE; the copy was made in the reign of the emperor Hadrian. It does not represent a specific moment of Apollo’s mythology but conveys a general impression of the god’s appearance and nature. Extremely lightfooted, he is swiftly walking forward, bow and arrow in his oustretched left hand; a short cloak is draped over his shoulder, otherwise he is naked. Winckelmann imagined that he was setting out on his first exploit, to kill the snake Pytho; this made him see in the statue the “noble young man, born to great destiny.” And although he was aware of the historical development of Greek art, he did not recognize the character of the statue as a copy, but regarded it as a work of pure Greek workmanship. Apollo’s body is perfect, he noted:

There is nothing mortal here, nothing which human necessities require; neither blood-vessels nor sinews heat and stir this body, but a heavenly essence, diffusing itself like a gentle stream, seems to fill the whole contour of the figure…. My breast seems to enlarge and swell with reverence, like the breasts of those who were filled with the spirit of prophecy, and I feel myself transported to Delos and the Lycaean groves.

(History of Ancient Art 11.3.11)

Winckelmann was not the first to admire this Apollo. Ever since the statue had become easily accessible in its Vatican location, it influenced artists, not the least Michelangelo, whose patron was Julius II. But Winckelmann’s praise turned the Belvedere Apollo into the Vatican’s main attraction for travelers to Rome, and casts of the copy became prestigious and treasured north of the Alps. The Royal Academy of the Arts in London owned such a cast in the late eighteenth century (it is lost now), and it commanded high attention. In a group portrait of 1795, painted by Henry Singleton, the Academicians posed in front of two ancient sculptures - a huge cast of the Laocoon, the other famous Vatican sculpture, in the center, the Belvedere Apollo to the right. When the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) saw another cast of Apollo at the princely court of Mannheim in 1771, he was blown over. “My entire being is shaken, as you can imagine,” he wrote to his mentor Johann Gottfried Herder. But unlike Rilke, this earlier German poet felt no impulse to change his life. The statue showed him the unchangeable limits of his own physicality: “Belvedere Apollo, why do you show yourself naked, so that we have to be ashamed of our nakedness?” No young man matches the bodily perfection of the Greek god. Nonetheless, a year later, in his Wanderers Sturmlied (“Wanderer’s Storm Song”), the memory of the statue inspired Goethe to the portrait of a human whom his genius carries through life to new exploits:

Wandeln wird er
wie mit Blumenfüssen
über Deukalions Fluthschlamm,
Python tötend, leicht, gross,
Pythius Apollo.
He will wander/, as with flowery feet/over Deucalion’s muddy flood/, slaying Python, light, splendid/Pythius Apollo.

With Winckelmann, Goethe understood the Belvedere Apollo as an image of the young god attacking Python, immediately after the flood had receded and left its traces on Mount Parnassus near Delphi where Deucalion was thought to have landed in his ark.

This is not the only presence of Apollo in Goethe’s poem. It is entirely about inspiration and refers to the two Greek gods of inspiration, Apollo and Dionysus. True to the spirit of the epoch that prepared the Romantic age, the genius that inspires the poet is Dionysus, the god of unruly ecstasy. Goethe construed an opposition between Dionysus and Apollo, an inspirational god who to him was more measured and accessible for the many, but as haughty as the Belvedere Apollo: “his regal look over thee will swiftly glide” (“kalt wird sonst / sein Fürstenblick / über dich vorübergleiten”).

Goethe was not the first nor the last to be inspired by the Belvedere Apollo. For generations of educated Europeans, the statue - seen through the eyes of Winckelmann - remained the unmatched epitome of Greek art. Disagreement began when general taste moved away from the soft forms of Greek fourth-century art to the harder shapes of fifth century Athens, and from Baroque and Rococo art to European classicism. A commentary by William Hazlitt (1778-1830), in his time a famous journalist and arbiter elegantiae, highlights this change. When traveling in Italy, he visited the Apollo, and complained: “There is great softness, sweetness, symmetry and timid grace - a faultless tameness, a negative perfection.” Compared to the Parthenon sculptures that Lord Elgin had sold to the British Museum in 1806, “the Belvedere Apollo is positively bad, a theatrical coxcomb.” Although one senses, as an underrcurrent, an Anglo-Saxon opposition to the soft Latins, there is more at stake than contemporary political self-definition: we perceive a universal change of taste, articulated in the appreciation of Greek sculpture. The fluid forms of fourth-century sculpture, so beloved to eighteenth-century viewers, yielded to the sterner and more articulated forms of the fifth century, of Phidias and Polyclitus, even of pre-classical art. At the end of the nineteenth century, the German excavators of Olympia found and restored the Apollo from the west pediment of the temple of Zeus: he soon replaced the Belvedere statue as the most admired image of Apollo, despite its fragmentary state.

Who once has seen Apollo from the east pediment of Zeus’ temple in Olympia, will never forget him. The artist represented him in a moment of overwhelming grandiosity: in the midst of a tumultuous action, the god appears suddenly, and his outstretched arm commands quiet. His face radiates magnificence, and his wide eyes command through the sheer power of looking; the melancholy of higher knowledge, however, plays around his strong and noble lips. One can not imagine a more exciting appearance of divinity amidst the chaotic savagery of our world.

Thus the German classicist Walter F. Otto in 1929, elevating this statue into the most convincing representation of divinity he could think of, a commanding god who would fulfill his longing for harmony in the chaotic and savage present times. Little did he know how much more savage and chaotic these times would become less than ten years later.

Still, the fame of the Belvedere Apollo persisted. In 1914, the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico painted Apollo’s head, clearly a cast taken from the Vatican statue, at the center of his enigmatic Canto d’Amore, together with a red glove and a green ball (now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City). Much more recently, the same head figured in the badges of NASA’s Apollo XVII mission of December 1972. And Winckelmann’s feelings are still hiding in the verses that the American Robert William Service (1874-1958) put into the mouth of his “Idaho pumpkin” who late in life and far from education spent a week in Rome (Rhymes of a Roughneck, 1950):

Abut as I sought amid them sights bewildered to steer,
The king-pin was the one they called Appoller Belvydeer.
Say, I ain’t got no culture an’ I don’t know any art,
But that there statoo got me, standin’ in its room apart,
In an alcove draped wi’ velvet, lookin’ everlastin’ bright,
Like the vision o’ a poet, full o’ beauty, grace an’ light;
An’ though I know them kind o’ words sound sissy in the ear,
It’s jest how I was struck by that Appoller Belvydeer.

If Service does not give his game away already in this poetical appreciation that smacks more of William Blake than of an Idaho pumpkin, he certainly does so in the final verses:

So I’ll go back to Pumpkinville an’ to my humble home,
An’ dream o’ all the sights I saw in everlastin’ Rome;
But I will never speak a word o’ that enchanted land
That taks you bang into the Past - folks wouldn’t understand;
An’ midmost in my memories I’ll cherish close an’ dear
That bit o’ frozen music, that Appoller Belvydeer.

If we still are under the impression that, somehow, Apollo is the most Greek of all Greek gods, this derives not the least from the spell of the Belvedere Apollo. We know now that Winckelmann elevated to such symbolic height a statue that was merely a Roman copy of a lost original. This might surprise the scholar who was the first to map out the development of ancient art, from its beginning to the end of antiquity. But it is one of the many ironies of history that, in the end, perception has proved to be more powerful than historical reality.


This has been a trajectory that is as sketchy as it is wide; it does not offer itself to easy summarizing. Gods are as immortal as poets are: they live as long as their stories are told and affect people’s emotions and imagination. Apollo has played many roles even after the rise of Christianity - image of the sun in the Middle Ages and beyond, of poetic inspiration in the Renaissance, symbol of Greekness to Winckelmann and his followers, expression of male erotic desire in more recent times. And he still lives on: in her 2007 book Gods Behaving Badly, Marie Philips has him living in contemporary London, an eternally lusting, bored, and unkempt adolescent who wonders about getting a tattoo, but who is powerful enough to kill a mortal lover or to turn off the sunlight, for the worst possible reasons of course.