Sacred Texts  Classics  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Myths of Greece and Rome, by Jane Harrison, [1928], at


Apollo has in Olympus a position, a precedence, all his own. He is second only to Zeus. This is very clearly seen in the opening lines of the Homeric hymn:


"Mindful, ever mindful, will I be of Apollo the Far-Darter. Before him, as he fares through the hall of Zeus, the gods tremble, yea, rise up all from their thrones as he draws near with his shining bended bow. But Leto alone abides by Zeus, the Lord of Lightning, till Apollo hath slackened his bow and closed his quiver. Then,

p. 33

taking with her hands from his mighty shoulders the bow and quiver, she hangs them against the pillar beside his father's seat from a pin of gold, and leads him to his place and seats him there, while the father welcomes his dear son, giving him nectar in a golden cup; then do the other gods welcome him; then they make him sit, and Lady Leto rejoices in that she bore the Lord of the Bow, her mighty son."


Apollo here is altogether the dread bowman, and so, too, in the Iliad. In the opening scene, in answer to the prayer of Chryses his priest, the god of the silver bow rains the arrows of his pestilence against the Greek host encamped before Troy.


"So spake he in prayer, and Phœbus Apollo heard him, and came down from the peaks of Olympus wroth at heart, bearing on his shoulders his bow and covered quiver. And the arrows clanged upon his shoulders in his wroth, as the god moved; and he descended like to night. Then, he sate him aloof from the ships, and let an arrow fly; and there was heard a dread clanging of the silver bow. First did he assail the mules and fleet dogs, but afterward, aiming at the men his piercing dart, he smote; and the pyres of the dead burnt continually in multitude. Now for nine days ranged the god's shafts through the host."


But the god of the silver bow has many other functions and attributes, and into these we must inquire before we proceed to determine his primary nature. ’Spite of his magnificent Olympian precedence, he has much the same simple beginning as his sister, the herbalist Artemis. If he can hurt, he can also heal. His healing aspects appears very clearly in one of his names--Pæan. Apollo Pæan is Apollo the Healer. The word, detached, came to mean a song of delivery from battle or pestilence or famine, a pæan, in our sense. When Apollo the Far-Darter, after raining pestilence upon the Greeks, is at

p. 34

last appeased by countless hecatombs, the people make ready a banquet and crown the bowls with wine. "So all day long," says Homer, "they worship the god with music, singing the beautiful Pæan, the sons of the Achaians making music to the Far-Darter, and his heart was glad to hear." Probably these pæans were at first magical charms chanted over wounds, but the meaning spread to include chants of delivery from all manner of evil.

The primary meaning, however, of the term "pæan" was simpler. Pæan was He-of-Pæonia, and Pæonia took its name from the peony flower. "Peony," says Nicholas Culpepper, "is an herb of the sun," and, as we shall presently see, it is well in place as a healing herb of Apollo. On the mountain-tops of Greece, especially in the Balkans, it still grows lavishly. The plant came to Greece from China and Japan by way of Persia, and in Japan it is still credited with portentous powers. The Greek form is the single red peony, not the double variety familiar in our gardens. The old English herbalists have much to say of its virtues, for it had found its way to England some three hundred years ago, and brought with it its store of folklore and Oriental magic. It was realized that the plant was a foreigner, and the herbalist called it "the outlandish single peony." The brilliant red calyx of the flower was no mean emblem of the sun. Though Culpepper says it is a "herb of the sun," it was largely prescribed for diseases supposed to be caused by the moon. It was good for nightmares and melancholy, and was used as a prophylactic against insanity and convulsions. The peony was under the special guardianship of the woodpecker, and he piously pecked out the eyes of those who dug it up by daylight.

Apollo, then, as Pæan, was, we may take it, a herbalist-doctor like Artemis, and, like Artemis, he came from Northern Pæonia. Like Artemis also, he had an astral

p. 35

aspect. If Artemis was the moon, Apollo assuredly was the sun.

The Pæonian image of Helios is a small disc carried on a long pole. It was carried in procession; just so the children in Russia not long ago were wont to carry round the Star of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. The ancients were themselves well aware that Apollo was the sun and Artemis the moon. When the "barbarians" were invading Greece they refrained from ravaging both Delos and Ephesos, "for the sun is held to be Apollo, and Artemis to be the moon."

It happens that we know in some detail the ritual in which Apollo figures as the sun. At Thebes, at the festival of the Daphnephoria, or festival of the Laurel Carrying, the order of the ritual was as follows. It was a ceremonial strangely like the Maypole ceremonies that still survive to-day. The ritual object carried is, in fact, half maypole, half orrery.


They wreathe a pole of olive-wood with laurel and various flowers. On the top is fitted a bronze globe, from which they suspend smaller ones. Midway round the pole they place a lesser globe, binding it with purple fillets; but the end of the pole is decked with saffron. By the topmost globe they mean the sun, to which they actually compare Apollo. The globe beneath this is the moon; the smaller globes hung on are the stars and constellations, and the fillets are the course of the year--for they make them 365 in number. The Daphnephoria is headed by a boy, both whose parents are alive, and his nearest male relation carries the filleted pole, to which they give the name Kōpō. The Daphnephoros himself, who follows next, holds on to the laurel; he has his hair hanging loose, he wears a golden wreath, and he is dressed out in a splendid robe to his feet, and he wears light shoes. There follows him a choros of maidens, holding out boughs before them to enforce the supplication

p. 36

of the hymns. The procession of the Daphnephoria is to the sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios and Him-of-the-Hail.


The association of Apollo with the laurel is familiar to us. We still speak of wearing "Apollo's bays." Ælian tells us that Apollo made himself a wreath of the laurel of Tempe, and, taking in his right hand a branch of this same laurel, he came to Delphi and "took over the oracle." We think of Apollo in connection with the bay as the oracular god. So Milton sings:

          "Apollo from his shrine
            Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving."

[paragraph continues] But Ælian is right; the bay was not at first "prophetic," and Apollo was, to begin with, no oracular god. When, in coming south, he reached Delphi, he "took over" the oracle from the ancient earth goddess already in possession.


Apollo is a northerner; we have traced him to the Valley of Tempe, which lies at the base of Olympus. We have seen him worshipped in Pæonia. Can we go farther north? By the help of another title of Apollo we can. Apollo is Hyperboreios. Boreas, we know, is the North Wind, and the Hyperboreans, over whom Apollo reigned, used to be explained as the people beyond the North Wind. But the term 'Koreas" still needs elucidation. Boreas means the mountain wind, and the word "Bora" still survives as the name of a mountain in old Serbia, and its correlative in Slavonic is "Gora."

As regards the Hyperboreans, we have a curious legend told us both by Pausanias and Herodotus a legend that intimately concerns us. Herodotus made diligent inquiry about the Hyperboreans in Scythia, but could

p. 37

learn nothing. But at Delos he learned that "the Delian girls and boys cut their hair in honour of certain Hyperborean maidens who died at Delos. The girls, before their marriage, cut off a tress and lay it on the tomb, which is at the foot of an olive-tree, on the left hand of the entrance to the Temple of Artemis. And the Delian boys twine some of their hair round a green stalk and likewise lay it on the tomb."

From immemorial times, the legend went, the Hyperboreans had sent year by year, to Delos certain secret sacred offerings wrapped in wheat-straw from their northern home. The first time they sent two maidens, but, as the messengers never returned, the Hyperboreans were "very ill-content," and from then on they sent the offerings only to their own borders, and charged their neighbours to send them from their country to the next, and so the offerings came at last to Delos. Herodotus and Pausanias give two different routes difficult to reconcile. Into this intricate question we cannot enter. One thing is clear and is of cardinal interest. The story enshrines memories of ancient trade-routes from the northern land behind the mountain to the southern isle of Delos. Nothing is more tenacious than the memory of these ancient trade-routes.

And what about the secret sacred offerings? Pausanias says that no one knew what lay under the straw that enwrapped them. If anyone could have found out, the prying Pausanias was the man. The trade-route, however, yields up the secret. One of the treasures hidden beneath the wheatsheaves was--amber.

Amber the Celts regarded as the tears of Apollo, and it is probable that they believe it to be an exudation from the apple-tree. Euripides makes amber to be the tears shed by Phaëthon's sisters over his grave. And who is Phaëthon but Apollo? In the Hippolytus the chorus sings:

p. 38

"Could I wing me to my rest amid the roar
 Of the deep Adriatic on the shore,
 Where the water of Eridanus is clear,
   And Phaëthon's sad sisters by his grave
 Weep into the river, and each tear
   Gleams, a drop of amber, in the wave."

The Baltic, with its pine-trees, is a great amber-producing country, and very early this fossil resin was prized as an ornament. It is found in Mycenæan tombs and in the lake dwellings of Switzerland. The amber districts of the Baltic were known far and wide in prehistoric times, and led to trade with Southern Europe. Amber was carried in caravans to Marseilles, to Olbia in the Black Sea, and to the Eridanus at the head of the Adriatic. From these three centres it spread over the whole of the Hellenic world.

But besides amber, a thing in itself beautiful and magical, the holy sheaves contained another, unlooked-for treasure--the apple, the sacred fruit of Apollo himself.

The discovery of the connection of Apollo with the apple-tree, and the derivation of the name Apollo from "apple"--a discovery due to Dr. Rendel Harris--is one of the triumphs of modern research. He has traced Apollo from the apple island Abalus, on the coast of Frisia, over the Carpathians, through the Bora district in old Servia, down through Greece to Delos, finding all along the route apple-names as halting stations for the god. Apollo himself in Thessaly is called Aploun.

We do not associate Apollo with the apple, and there is no doubt that, as he came south, he tended to drop his northern tree and assume instead the poplar and the bay. But there is evidence enough. There is, first, his title Mâleates (He-of-the-Apple). In the Temple of Asclepios at Athens sacrifice was made, first to Mâleates, and then to Apollo. More striking still is the evidence from Delphi. Lucian makes Solon tell of the prizes in the

p. 39

athletic contests: "At Olympia a wreath of wild olive, at the Isthmus one of pine, at Nemea of parsley, at Pytho some of the god's sacred apples." On a coin of Delphi we have the sacred table of the god represented; on it is a sprig of bay, a wine-vessel, and a pile of apples; over the apples watches Apollo's raven, and piously abstains from pecking at them.

It may well be that Apollo's apple-tree had another claim to sanctity. The white variety of mistletoe grows chiefly, not on oaks, but on apple-trees, and this notably in England, while in Brittany it attaches itself chiefly to another Apollo-tree--the poplar. It may be that Apollo gained some of his healing power from the mistletoe that hangs on his apple boughs. The Ainu of Japan even today hold the mistletoe as specially sacred; sometimes they eat it as a food, and sometimes drink it as a medical decoction. They regard it as "good in almost every disease." Pliny says that the Druids called it, in their language, Omnia Sanantem--that is, All Heal. Culpepper writes in detail on the mistletoe, "its government and virtues," and adds "that the mistletoe is under the dominion of the sun, I do not question."

Again, we do not naturally, nowadays, connect Apollo with the mistletoe. But mistletoe in Greek is ixos, and, in one of the towns of Rhodes, Apollo was worshipped under the title of Ixios-Apollo--Mistletoe-Apollo. Is it not possible that, in Apollo, fairest and goodliest of the Olympians, Apollo the northerner, Apollo of the mistletoe, we have but the counterpart of the young Baltic divinity, Balder the Beautiful?

Next: Ares (Mars)