ANCIENT GREEK CULTURE
Being the god of prophecy, he had many oracular shrines besides Delphi, such as at Acraephis in Thebes, in Argos, in Miletus, and Claros of Asia Minor, and in Patara of Lycia. The most celebrated festivals in his honor were those of the Pythia which were held at Delphi, formerly every nine years, but subsequently every five. Symbols of Apollo were the lyre, the tripod, bow, and the arrows. In art, Apollo was a very popular subject for incomparable works of art and his figure often appeared on the coinage. [pp. 33-34]
[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]
For Shelley, Apollo was 'the eye with which the Universe beholds itself'. For William Rose Benét, 'all creation's growth and flowering swelled Apollo's theme. Myriad-toned of pandemonium, scaled from lion to bee, all of brute creation's psalmody found its consonant key.' For Hölderlin, through the young, enchanting sun god, 'life and the spirit catch fire in us'. For Byron, Apollo was 'the God of life , and poesy, and light--the Sun in human limbs array'd'. For Swinburne, he was 'the word, the light, the life, the breath, the glory'.
Apollo is Western man's ideal of man. When Hamlet extols his vision of man, he is extolling Apollo: 'What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world!' Reason, nobility, form, action, apprehension, beauty, are all Appolo's essential attributes.
He embodies the Western ideal of beauty and form in its classical perfection. In Giraudoux's play, The Apollo of Bellac, the 'Man from Bellac' conjures up the god of beauty: 'I am taller than mortal man. My head is small and fringed with golden ringlets. From the line of my shoulders, the geometricians derived the idea of the square. From my eyebrows the bowman drew the concept of the arc. I am [p. 53] nude and this nudity inspired in the musicians the idea of harmony . . . . As for the eyes, it's well you don't see them. The eyes of beauty are implacable. My eyeballs are silver. My pupils are graphite. From the eyes of beauty poets derived the idea of death. But the feet of beauty are enchanting. They are not feet that touch the ground. They are never soiled and never captive. The toes are slender, and from them artists derived the idea of symmetry.' Our longing for beauty is one of our strongest bonds to Apollo. 'Every man,' says the Apollo of Belac, 'even the ugliest, feels in his heart a secret alliance with beauty. When you tell him he's handsome, he will simply hear outwardly the voice he has been listening to inwardly all his life. And those who believe it the least will be the most grateful. No matter how ugly they may have thought themselves, the moment they find a woman who thinks them handsome, they grapple her to their hearts with hooks of steel. For them, she is the princess of an enchanted world, the magic glass of truth.'
Our equally strong longing for order and harmony is another powerful bond to Apollo. The bringing of harmony into the boundless confusion, the discovery of order in the chaos, are both Apollo's gifts. 'Know thyself' and 'Nothing in excess' are the great precepts he has bequeathed humanity and by which the Western world has, with varying degrees of success, tried to live. Moderation has been enshrined as a principle both in our personal and in our collective morality. As for the Apollonian plea for self-knowledge, it has been interpreted both on the surface and in depth. In depth, it gives man a glimpse of the ultimately divine nature of the self; on the surface it becomes the perfect opening for commencement addresses and solemn editorials. 'This above all: to thine own self be true.' It is a principle to which we feel obliged to pay lip-service even when our behaviour denies it and our actions contradict it.
The spiritual force that Apollo embodies is at the foundation of our civilization: 'It proclaims the presence of the divine, not in the miracles of a supernatural power, not in the rigour of an absolute justice, not in the providence of an infinite love, but in the victorious splendour of clarity, in the intelligent sway of order and moderation.' As if to dramatize the contrast between Apollo's clarity and balance and the irrational and awesome power of raw nature, the abstract mathematical order of his temples was always set against the primordial wildness of the earth--it shone forth from it, yet was touched and complemented by it.
In their highest Apollonian expression, clarity, discipline and reason were steeped in spirit. He was, after all, the god of music and prophecy as well as the god of archery and heroic excellence. His arrows hit and killed; his lyre revealed the harmony of the spiritual order underlying reality: 'The tones of music act as the rays of the sun which throw everything into the harmonious [p. 54] light of the higher order.' And prophecy springs from a much deeper source than reason. The Pytia, Apollo's priestess at Delphi, had to fall into a trance before she could commune with the god and answer the questions put to the Delphic Oracle. She descended into the innermost vault of the temple, filled with the fumes of burned barley, hemp and laurel leaves, and her answers were so obscure and even incoherent that the god of clarity and light, the god the Greeks called Phoebus [bright, shining], was also known as Locias, 'the ambiguous one'.
The priestess took her name from Python, the snake-dragon killed by Apollo. In one version of the myth, the stench from the dragon's decaying body rose from the depths and filled Pythia, inspiring her to prophecy, in the same way that the blood of the snake-dragon that Siegfried kills in Wagner's Ring teaches him the speech of the birds. The symbolism is unmistakable. The earthly powers cannot be suppressed, nor can their mystery be denied recognition. Clarity and reason may hold sway in Apollo's world but, for their full expression, they remain dependent on the secret knowledge and insight of the elemental depths in which all being is grounded.
The union of Apollo and Dionysos at Delphi was a divine acknowledgment of this. Despite the sharp opposition between their two realms, the two brothers were joined together by an eternal bond. 'In Apollo all of the splendour of the Olympic converges and confronts the realms of eternal becoming and eternal passing. Apollo with Dionysos, the intoxicated leader of the choral dance of the terrestrial sphere--that would give the total world dimension. In this union the Dionysiac earthly duality would be elevated into a new and higher duality, the eternal contrast between a restless, whirling life and a still, far-seeing spirit.' And the Apollonian spirit would reach its noblest heights. Not only did Apollo cede Delphi to Dionysos during the winter months but, as Plutarch tells us, they both received high honours throughout the year. Indeed the pediments of Apollo's temple portray on one side Apollo with Leto, his mother, Artemis and the Muses, and on the other side Dionysos with his raving Maenads.
Even Apollo's handmaidens, the Muses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, are personifications of man's highest intellectual and artistic aspirations and bear testimony to the essential interconnectedness of reason and intuition, clarity and vision. 'Our earliest education', says Plato in the Laws, 'comes through the Muses and Apollo.' And the nine Muses--or simply 'the Nine' as poets through the ages have called them--were the source of inspiration for scientists and historians, no less than for poets and artists. Urania was the Muse of astronomy and astrology; Cio, the Muse of history; Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy; Thalia, the Muse of comedy; Terpsichore, the Muse of choral song; Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry; [p. 55] Erato, the Muse of love poetry; Euterpe, the Muse of Lyric poetry; and Polyhymnia, the Muse of sacred poetry. 'Did the stars and tides and your own heart Dance with the heavenly Nine?'
Apollo may have been a distant god, but there was nothing distant about the Muses: men's hearts danced with them, men's minds were inspired by them, men's souls melted and their spirits soared through them. Apollo's handmaidens wrought their effect on men in a way which was clearly Dionysian.
Despite the mythological union of the two gods, the contrast between Apollonian objective clarity and Dionysian mystic exuberance remains a psychological reality that has dominated Western history. Apollo may have been the god of the arts as well as science, of music and poetry as well as mathematics and medicine, but in our culture the split between the scientific and the nonscientific, the objective and the subjective, has become absolute. Yet as all the great scientists would attest, there is nothing exclusively rational and objective about science. Imagination, intuition, inspiration, enthusiasm--all the Dionysian elements of our being--are at least as important in scientific discovery as Apollonian logic, discipline and clarity.
When Descartes announced 'I think, therefore I am', and modern man rejected the Dionysian element in the Apollonian order, our culture became fatally fragmented. What was not 'objective' was automatically assumed to be true, reason's march of conquest became a rout, and man, the self-reliant victor, was transformed into our century's uprooted, haunted fugitive. The god of light and reason, disconnected from Dionysos and the depths, became exhausted, and the exhaustion has spread over our Apollonian world.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving....
The languid strings do scarcely move!
The sound is forc'd, the notes are few!
Plato called Apollo a scholar in the school of love, but love was the area in which the god of reason was least at home. The myths of his adventures with women are dominated by unsuccessful chases and fleeing maidens. In contrast with Apollo's failures, Dionysos magnetizes the feminine, 'drawing it forth like the sap in plants, the wine, and the milk that flows at his birth'.
Appolo's first love was Daphne, the daughter of the river god Peneus: [p. 57] Apollo loved her, and longed to obtain her; and he who gives oracles to all the world was not wise enough to look into his own fortunes. He saw her hair flung loose over her shoulders and said. 'If so charming in disorder, what would it be if arranged?' He saw her eyes bright as stars; he saw her lips, and was not satisfied with only seeing them. He admired her hands and arms, naked to the shoulder, and whatever was hidden from view he imagined more beautiful still. He followed her; she fled, swifter than the wind, and delayed not a moment at his entreaties. 'Stay,' said he, 'daughter of Peneus; I am not a foe. Do not fly me as a lamb flies the wolf, or a dove the hawk. It is for love I pursue you. You make me miserable, for fear you should fall and hurt yourself on these stones, and I should be the cause. Pray run slower, and I will follow slower. I am no clown, no rude peasant. Jupiter is my father, and I am lord of Delphos and Tenedos, and know all things, present and future. I am the god of song and the lyre. My arrows fly true to the mark; but, alas! an arrow more fatal than mine has pierced my heart! I am the god of medicine, and know the virtues of all healing plants. Alas! I suffer a malady that no balm can cure!:
The nymph continued her flight, and left his plea half uttered. And even as she fled she charmed him. The wind blew her garments, and her unbound hair streamed loose behind her. The god grew impatient to find his wooing thrown away, and, sped by Cupid, gained upon her in the race. It was like a hound pursuing a hare, with open jaws ready to seize, while the feebler animal darts forward, slipping from the very grasp. So flew the god and the virgin--he on the wings of love, and she on those of fear. The pursuer is the more rapid, however, and gains upon her, and his panting breath blows upon her hair. Her strength begins to fail, and ready to sink, she calls upon her father, the river god: 'Help me, Peneus! open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger!'
Scarcely had she spoken, when a stiffness seized all her limbs; her bosom began to be enclosed in a tender bark; her hair became leaves; her arms became branches; her foot stuck fast in the ground, as a root; her face became a tree-top, retaining no thing of its former self but its beauty. Apollo stood amazed. He touched the stem, and felt the flesh tremble under the new bark. He embraced the branches, and lavished kisses on the wood. The branches shrank from his lips. 'Since you cannot be my wife,' said he, 'you shall assuredly be my tree. I will wear you for my crown; I will decorate with you my harp and my quiver; and when the great Roman conquerors lead up the triumphal pomp to the Capitol, you shall be woven into wreaths for their brows. And, as eternal youth is mine, you also shall be always green, and your leaf know no decay.' The nymph, now changed into a Laurel tree, bowed its head in grateful acknowledgment.
'He caught at love and filled his arms with bays.' The next time Apollo 'caught at love', he sought to get love back by promising to teach Cassandra the art of prophecy. He kept his promise, but Cassandra still refused to be his [p. 58] lover. Divine gifts, once given, cannot be withdrawn, so Apollo's revenge was that she could keep her gift of prophecy but that no one would believe her. Cassandra, one of the daughters of the king of Troy, had to suffer the terrible fate of always knowing when disaster threatened and never being able to persuade her people of what she knew. Even when she cried out that Greeks were hidden in the wooden horse, no one gave her words a thought. In the end her own father, convinced that she had gone mad, had her shut away and guarded. When Troy fell, she was given to Agamemnon and met a brutal end at Clytemnestra's hands when they reached Mycenae.
Sibyl was another young woman Apollo loved. Once again it was a love that was not returned, and once again Apollo took his revenge. In Ovid's Metamophoses, Sibyl, with a deep sigh, tells her story to Aeneas, whom she had guided in his passage through the Underworld: 'When I was still an innocent young girl, I was offered endless, eternal life, if I would yield myself to Phoebus, who was in love with me. While the god hoped for my consent, he was eager to bribe me with gifts and said: 'Maiden of Cumae, choose what you wish, and you will have your desire!' I pointed to a heap of dust which had been swept together, and foolishly asked that I might have as many birthdays as there were grains of dust; but I forgot to ask for perpetual youth as well. Yet Phoebus offered me all those years, and eternal youth too, if I would suffer his love. I scorned his gift, and remained unwed. Now the happier time of life is fled, and with shaky steps comes sick old age, which I must long endure. For, as you see me now, I have lived through seven generations; in order to equal the number of grains of dust, it remains for me to see three hundred harvests, three hundred vintages. A time will come when I shall shrink from my present fine stature into a tiny creature, thanks to my length of days, and my limbs, shriveled with age, will be reduced to a mere handful. No one will think that I was ever loved, or that I pleased a god, and perhaps even Phoebus himself will fail to recognize me, or else deny that he ever had any affection for me. So changed shall I be, and invisible to anyone. But still, the fates will leave me my voice, and by my voice I shall be known.
Sibyl shrivels up into a disembodied voice. Daphne turns into a tree, Cassandra prophesies but fails to touch those who hear her. The god who embodies light and truth and beauty wreaks destruction in the world of love and the feminine. The dominance of an exclusive masculinity, detached and dispassionate, is Apollo's dark side. 'The man is the source of life', the god proclaims in the Eumenides. Dionysos encompasses the feminine in himself; Apollo is disconnected from it. He embodies the will to power that, cut off from the feminine, from love and intuition, has brought about our shriveled-up rationalist order, with its naive belief in the absolute manageability of life and of human beings. This will to power was the [p. 59] dominant theme of Apollo's adolescence. He had to suffer for it by being forced to serve a mortal man. King Admetus, as a herdsman. This was the penalty imposed by Zeus on the young god for killing the Cyclopes who had forged Zeus' thunderbolts. Apollo's punishment lasted a year. Our culture's willful phase of adolescence is still going on and so are the punishments that go with it.
But life is revolting against the will to control and dominate, against rationalist smugness and cold abstractions. 'Knowledge is not wisdom,' cries the chorus in the Bacchae. 'Thoughts too long make life short.' If there is one lesson our century has taught us, it is that it is irrational not to recognize the irrational, and dangerous and destructive as well. When the Apollonian know thyself is united with the Dionysian be thyself, when reason is reintegrated with our stubbornly neglected spirit and intuition, then we will have achieved the wholeness in which lies healing and renewal. It was a wholeness achieved at Delphi through the intimate union of the two gods--a powerful symbol of our culture's most urgent need. [p. 60]
The theatre and beyond, Apollo's temple at Delphi. Despite the sharp opposition between their two realms, Apollo, the god of reason and moderation and Dionysos the god of ecstasy and the theatre, were joined together at Delphi.
'Not one touch of our low lives'
Not one stain of our sordid
Mars the peace of thy cloudless
Blurs the calm of they conquering
[John Cowper Powys] [p. 60]
Apollo's temple at Didyma near Miletos in Turkey. There was an ancient oracle-shrine to Apollo going back to the Archaic period on this site, and the Archaic lion in the foreground was originally part of a group of statues of lions and priests which lined the sacred way leading to the temple from Miletos. [p. 64]
['Let me compare the soul to a pair of winged horses and a charioteer . . . . Our human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them is hard and difficult . . . . ' [Plato, Phaedrus] [p. 60]
'Or view the Lord of the unerring bow,
The God of life, and poesy, and light -
The Sun in human limbs arry'd, and brow
All radiant from his triumph in the fight.'
[Bryon] [p. 64]
[Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]
The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].