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Sparta Flash Card #30: religion: Apollo

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Sparta Flash Card #30: religion: Apollo



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Son of Zeus and Leto, Apollo was born on the island of Delos. Leto had fled to the island to escape the jealous Hera and at Apollo's birth it was encircled by a flock of swans which remained forever sacred to him. The twin brother of Artemis. He was the god of music (the lyre) and  directed the choir of the Muses. He was also the god of prophecy, colonisation, medicine, archery , poetry, dance, athletes, intellectual inquiry, a god of light, also known as "Phoebus".   He was also the god of plague and was worshiped as Smintheus ( rat) and as Parnopius ( grasshopper) and was known as the destroyer of rats and locust. As god of religious healing he would give those guilty of murder and other immoral deeds a ritual purification. Sacred to Apollo are the swan, the wolf and the dolphin and he was carer of herds and flocks.   His attributes are the bow and arrows, on his head a laurel crown, and the cithara (or lyre) and plectrum. But his most famous attribute is the tripod, symbolic of his prophetic powers.


" Know Thyself "

The Treasury         The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi.          Pithia on Tripod             


Delphi (dolphin) was founded in 1600 BCE and a thousand years later it became the site of Apollo's descent to earth and the religious centre of the Greek world and where the red marble stone - The Navel of the World - stood, was considered the exact centre of the Universe. He dedicated a bronze tripod to the sanctuary and bestowed divine powers on one of the priestesses ( a local woman). She became known as the "Pythia". She  inhaled  hallucinating vapours from a fissure in the temple floor, while she sat on a tripod chewing laurel leaves. After mumbling her unintelligible answer, a  priest would interpret it. The oracles continued until destroyed by Christianity and the site covered by a landslide until rediscovered during the Renaissance. Delphi is a mist covered, awe inspiring, mystical ruin. The stones of the temple of the oracle, the theatre and the athletics track look high over a valley, through clouds, to the sea. We may no longer believe in the ancient gods but I could feel how the people of those days would place their faith in the Ancient Greek Mythology in such a place. The only similar spot, shrouded with such a feeling of ancient mysticism, was atop Glastonbury Tor in England.


The Theatre at Delphi. This was the site of the first Arts Festival of the Ancient World.




Apollo was unlucky in love, Chasing Daphne  she eventually turned into a tree, Hyacinthus was killed by a jealous rage of the West Wind and although he gave the lyre to his lover Orpheus to enhance his singing, he too moved on and was killed. However to Cyrene he fathered Aristaeus, Troilius to Hecuba, and Aesculapius, the founder of  the first hospital.


Apollo and Hyacinthus


A beautiful Spartan prince, the youth Hyacinthus, was first wooed by the poet Thamyris the first man to fall in love with someone of the same sex. Apollo, the first god to love a youth, got the Muses to strip the arrogant Thamyris of his sight, his voice and his harp playing then he himself  became devoted to Hyacinthus and accompanied him everywhere hunting and playing sport. Next the jealous god Zephyrus, ( the West Wind who was also in love with the youth) struck the boy down with a bronze quoit while, naked and oiled, Apollo and the prince were playing. As Apollo held the dying body of Hyacinthus, blood dripped from his wound washed by the tears of Apollo. 


"Death has taken you in his claws, beloved friend! Woe, for by my own hand you have died. And yet its crime was meeting yours at play. Was that a crime? Or was my love to blame - the guilt that follows love that loves too much? Oh, if only I could pay for my deed by joining you in your journey to the cheerless realms of the dead. Oh, why am I cursed to live forever? Why can't I follow you? In my heart you will live forever, beautiful Hyacinthus. May your memory live always among men as well." And lo, at a word from Apollo, a fragrant red flower rose from Hyacinthus's blood. We call it hyacinth, and on its petals you can still read the letters "Ay," the sigh of pain that rose from Apollo's breast. And the memory of Hyacinthus lived on among the gentlemen of Sparta, who gave honours to the memory of their son, and celebrated him in mid-summer at the Hyacinthea festival.


Apollo Hyacinthus          Zephyrus Hyacinthus



On the island of Chios, there lived a wondrous stag, more beautiful than words can tell. All the inhabitants loved him, but Kyparissos loved him more than all. He was the young son of the King of Chios, and beloved friend of Apollo. Kyparissos was a good hunter, and accidentally killed the sacred stag. He begged the Apollo to let him grieve forever. The youth turned into a cypress tree. His thick hair became dark green foliage, and his slim body became covered with bark. Apollo sighed sadly and whispered: "All eternity I will weep for you, wonderful youth, and you in turn will partake of the sadness of others. Stand then from now until forever besides those stricken by sorrow."



Ovid (43BC - 17 AD) 

Phoebus for thee too, Hyacinth, design'd
A place among the Gods, had Fate been kind:
Yet this he gave; as oft as wintry rains
Are past, and vernal breezes sooth the plains,
From the green turf a purple flow'r you rise,
And with your fragrant breath perfume the skies.

You when alive were Phoebus' darling boy;
In you he plac'd his Heav'n, and fix'd his joy:
Their God the Delphic priests consult in vain;
Eurotas now he loves, and Sparta's plain:
His hands the use of bow and harp forget,
And hold the dogs, or bear the corded net;
O'er hanging cliffs swift he pursues the game;
Each hour his pleasure, each augments his flame.

The mid-day sun now shone with equal light
Between the past, and the succeeding night;
They strip, then, smooth'd with suppling oyl, essay
To pitch the rounded quoit, their wonted play:
A well-pois'd disk first hasty Phoebus threw,
It cleft the air, and whistled as it flew;
It reach'd the mark, a most surprizing length;
Which spoke an equal share of art, and strength.
Scarce was it fall'n, when with too eager hand
Young Hyacinth ran to snatch it from the sand;
But the curst orb, which met a stony soil,
Flew in his face with violent recoil.
Both faint, both pale, and breathless now appear,
The boy with pain, the am'rous God with fear.
He ran, and rais'd him bleeding from the ground,
Chafes his cold limbs, and wipes the fatal wound:
Then herbs of noblest juice in vain applies;
The wound is mortal, and his skill defies.

As in a water'd garden's blooming walk,
When some rude hand has bruis'd its tender stalk,
A fading lilly droops its languid head,
And bends to earth, its life, and beauty fled:
So Hyacinth, with head reclin'd, decays,
And, sickning, now no more his charms displays.

O thou art gone, my boy, Apollo cry'd,
Defrauded of thy youth in all its pride!
Thou, once my joy, art all my sorrow now;
And to my guilty hand my grief I owe.
Yet from my self I might the fault remove,
Unless to sport, and play, a fault should prove,
Unless it too were call'd a fault to love.
Oh cou'd I for thee, or but with thee, dye!
But cruel Fates to me that pow'r deny.
Yet on my tongue thou shalt for ever dwell;
Thy name my lyre shall sound, my verse shall tell;
And to a flow'r transform'd, unheard-of yet,
Stamp'd on thy leaves my cries thou shalt repeat.
The time shall come, prophetick I foreknow,
When, joyn'd to thee, a mighty chief shall grow,
And with my plaints his name thy leaf shall show.

While Phoebus thus the laws of Fate reveal'd,
Behold, the blood which stain'd the verdant field,
Is blood no longer; but a flow'r full blown,
Far brighter than the Tyrian scarlet shone.
A lilly's form it took; its purple hue
Was all that made a diff'rence to the view,
Nor stop'd he here; the God upon its leaves
The sad expression of his sorrow weaves;
And to this hour the mournful purple wears
Ai, Ai, inscrib'd in funeral characters.
Nor are the Spartans, who so much are fam'd
For virtue, of their Hyacinth asham'd;
But still with pompous woe, and solemn state,
The Hyacinthian feasts they yearly celebrate.


    • Son of Zeus

    • Temple of Apollo at Delphi is where Apollo is believed to send messages that influence decisions of the entire Greek world

    • God of light, music and truth and bringer of health

    • Archer-god whose arrows never missed their target

    • The sanctuary of Apollo Amyklaios at Amyklai

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