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Even gods can’t have it all – the case of Apollo

After posting yesterday’s photo of Apollo, and in connection for a mythology tour I’m preparing, I couldn’t help thinking about his myth.

In essence, Apollo is a sun-god. He is a personification of the sun and as such he’s always depicted young and stunningly good-looking, with the perfectly sculpted body of a young athlete and flowing golden hair. As the sun sheds light in the darkest places, he was the only one who could uncover hidden truths, see through lies and deception and foresee the future – in essence an oracle. The gift of prophesy was not his only one – he was also the god of music, who could play the lyre and the guitar as no one else could and sang, well, divinely.

A wide wine-drinking cup with a picture of Apollo offering a libation (ritual pouring of wine) before he begins to play his lyre. The black bird is a crow, possibly the one that told him of the wedding of Koronis.

A wide wine-drinking cup with a picture of Apollo offering a libation (ritual pouring of wine) before playing his lyre. The black bird is a crow, associated with him in many legends.

But though young, beautiful and talented, not to mention immortal  and all-powerful, in his love life, Apollo was persecuted by a streak of bad luck unlike any other god. While his father Zeus spent his days gallivanting around the globe in search of beautiful maidens to woo and succeeding in every turn, Apollo was experiencing rejections and disappointments, not to mention a few outright tragedies. Of course he had his flames and conquests and he sired a prolific number of heroes and demigods, but his streak of failures is stunning – for a god.

Take Daphne for example. For Apollo it was love at first sight. The handsome god fell for her like a ton of bricks, but the feeling was far from mutual. Daphne gave him such a cold “no” that any mortal would have frozen solid on the spot. Not Apollo. Unable to fathom how a young maiden would fail to like him and determined to show her that he was indeed great, the young god kept pursuing her, giving her a full description of his many virtues and accomplishments. Young Daphne would have none of it. As the god became more and more pressing, Daphne bolted like a deer, with Apollo in hot pursuit. “Please don’t run, it’s all a misunderstanding,” he cried after her, adding something along the lines of “I’m a really cool guy.” But the more he ran after her, the more Daphne became convinced that he was after no good and ran even faster. In the end, he started winning on her and she cried out for help. Her father, a river god, heard her cries and transformed her into a tree, a laurel, where she stood. Apollo was crestfallen. “You wouldn’t be mine as a woman, but you’ll be with me forever as a tree,” he declared and crowned himself with a wreath of her leaves, his holy plant from then onwards.

When out in Troy, Apollo fell for Kassandra, a beautiful young princess, who repeatedly rejected all his efforts to woo her. Apollo fell so low as to offer to give her the gift of prophecy if she slept with him. Kassandra agreed but broke her promise as soon as the gift was imparted. Furious, Apollo cursed her prophesies to be never believed by those who heard them and left in a huff. Kassandra would spend the rest of her days warning the Trojans about the Greeks, to no avail.

The god’s next human love, Marpessa, eloped with a young man called Idas. Apollo caught up with them and began to fight with the youngster over the girl. Zeus intervened and called the girl to choose whom she’d rather have. Certain that gods abandon their mortal flames as soon as they lose their charms, the girl sensibly chose a man she could grow old with.

Next, Apollo cast his eye on beautiful Koronis. This time there was to be no wooing, no foreplay. He simply saw her at a lakeshore and decided to have her on the spot. Too embarrassed by what had happened, young Koronis said nothing to her parents or fiancé, doing her best to hide her advancing pregnancy. When Apollo heard of his conquest’s imminent wedding he was so angry that a mortal would have her that he shot the groom. The god couldn’t bring himself to shoot the girl though, so asked his sister to finish the job for him. When she obliged, Apollo saved the foetus, his son, from the funeral pyre and had him raised by nymphs. He would become the god of medicine, Asclepius.

Another flame of Apollo was, Hyacinthus, a boy was so handsome, nice and likeable, that it would be difficult for anyone not to love him.  Yet this relationship too was doomed. One day when out exercising, the god threw his discus so far that it fell on the boy’s head killing him instantly. The god was inconsolable.

Experts explain these myths this way and that, and you will have no trouble finding some of these interpretations on the web. Some myths derive from the god’s nature as a solar god (cleaning, purifying but also burning, desiccating and unforgiving), others from people’s desire to present themselves as descendants of this or that god, while yet others are attempts to interpret some of the features of his cult.

Yet, despite it all, I can’t help being struck by the fact that the most handsome god of all, the very ideal of male beauty, would meet with so many rejections and disappointments in his life.

head of Apollo, Olympia

Apollo, displaying superhuman composure despite being in the middle of a battle; from the pediment of the temple of Zeus in Olympia.

 

The only explanation I can think of is the Greeks’ passion for symmetry and moderation. To the Greek way of thinking no one can have it all – some aspect of one’s life needs to be less than perfect, otherwise balance is disrupted: Zeus had an impossible wife, Hephaestus was lame, Hades lived in the netherworld, Poseidon lost contest after contest, and so on. It is only natural that the most perfect of them all would have one aspect of his life that was less than perfect. The idea also made sense because, if all women fell for Apollo’s perfection, what would have been left for the other gods? It also fitted with Greek notions about the unpredictable nature of women whose mentality men can never fathom. Why do they do the things they do? The answer remains unanswered to this day…

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4 comments on “Even gods can’t have it all – the case of Apollo

  1. Μεγάλε κλέβεις. Γιατί δεν το έβαλες αυτό στο ελληνικό μπλογκ; Πρέπει να το μεταφράσεις.

    • Φίλε Πάνο, έχεις δίκιο, αλλά η αλήθεια είναι πως δεν προλαβαίνω. Άλλωστε, το ελληνικό κοινό δε χρειάζεται εμένα να μάθει για τις περιπέτειες του Απόλλωνα, του Δία και των άλλων, σωστά;

  2. There is controversy whether Apollo was really handsome. Niobe claimed he was too feminine.
    More important: Imagine you are a female, it doesn’t matter of which tribe. Would you wish to have sex with a guy whose hobby is skinning people?

    • Truly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there’s no account for taste. However the consensus seems to be that Apollo really was handsome. As for Niobe, she really wanted to slight him and his godly sister, Artemis, so her opinion cannot be considered truly objective.
      As for the skinning part (I suppose you mean poor Marsyas) thankfully Apollo didn’t make a hobby of it.
      You’re right of course, Apollo, as all the other gods, did have a mean streak.
      How could they not? Death, disease and natural disasters were part and parcel of our ancestors’ lives who knew neither why they befell them or how to avert them. It was only natural to think they were caused by the gods. And if the gods caused them, ergo, they were capable of immense cruelty. Man’s only hope was to try to appease them somehow, buy their sympathy, win their favor – hence sacrifices.

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