Apollon and Death

Apollon as the god of truth, the god of enlightenment, god of light, divine musician and dancer extraordinaire…this is the Apollon that often first comes to mind, and it is a large part of who he is to be sure, but it only very briefly glosses over the domain and rule of Apollon who is called king Apollon frequently in ancient poetics. It is but a hint towards the larger nature of the god in the cosmos.

Apollon, perhaps adequately revealed through his name which means “destroyer”, is the god of the ultimate truth, the guardian of boundaries (but to who those boundaries are but an illusion of a difinitive zone), all-seeing god through all spaces of time, shedding his light to bring into visibility and awareness. He is a god of passages and transitions, those of life, and the ultimate ones of the soul. Simply speaking Apollon is the god who rules the laws of death and the transformations it brings. One might think of his associations with death to be limited to his bow as the far-shooter, or lord of the golden sword, or even the labrys he holds in Crete under the guise of the god who inflicts justice on adulterers, and then of course there are the plagues. But even this is just a brush upon the surface. Apollon is the god which rules this part of nature. Not the abode of the dead, but the transition from life to death…the dying. Even more intimately than his sister who is the huntress but doesn’t participate much further than the slaying by her arrows, who, in Hippolytus can’t even permit her eyes to gaze upon the death of her favorite. No, Apollon’s association with Death is by far more influential and pervasive in what he does and who he is. Apollon is he who destroys. Slayer of evil, of ignorance, of superstition…of life ultimately. Yet he is also the god of new beginnings and new life at the same time as he is honored with the birth of sons, and with the birth of the new cresent moon hanging in the sky. Yet it is death which this post is concerning.

Pausanias speaks of this deathly domain when he says that Apollon receives offerings in the cemetary at the death of a person, whereafter Apollon looks after the soul for 30 days (though I have also heard 40), after which Hermes collects the soul and Apollon again is sacrificed to. This also is backed up by imagery of Apollon and Hermes weighing the soul of a hero in a woodcutEuripedes in his Aclestis also demonstrates a very interesting clash between Death and Apollon, in which by the dialogue one understands that the former more or less works for the law over which Apollon holds (which Death uses against Apollon for his efforts at perserving both Admetus and Aclestis who has offered herself in his place for death). What is of course interesting about this is that Apollon is clearly angry with Death but really doesn’t do anything personally to stop him, which makes me believe that this agrument with Death is a poetic device in which the goodness of Aclestis and Admetus are highlighted and yet that Apollon and Thanatos ultimately are joined in their functions, which can also be inferred by their joint epithet Paian. So it says much. There is also the scene from the Iliad in which Zeus instructs Apollon to take away the corpse of Sarpedon, to annoint it (basically embalm it) before delivering into the care of Hypnos (sleep ) and Thanatos to be taken to Lycia. This is of course an echo of the myth of Apollon being entrusted with the remains of Zagreus which he choses to carry to his sacred mountain Parnassus for burial. Apollon is placed distinctly the position of burial and caring for the dead and dying. And of course he has been, incidentally, connected with death even from his infancy when he began his godhood slaying the dragon Python (or Delphina..which ever you prefer as both names are used). From there it is a long list of those that he has killed, in some cases accidentally, and in other cases intentionally.

Yet this is the god of purification, the god of truth and light. It certainly seems contrary on the outset unless we consider that there is no distinct line between life and death..it is fluid and our souls continue existing. Hellenic myths say that the soul after death is nothing but a shade, possessing memories but not really who they were. Well of course they wouldn’t be, because their lives would be as a shade and an echo of a memory of the vastness of the soul which is not contained by form and the limitations of the physical mind. Therefore the gate of death is the gate of truth, that all passes between life and death, everything evolves and transitions and transforms. And so even as his light can be peircing and harsh, it also invites us to pass without fear.

I have often wondered about that so called light at the end of the tunnel that so many people with near death experiences speak of. I died for a few minutes when I was younger, and though I didn’t see a tunnel, when I had fought my way past my fears there was only light and I was that light. A spiraling, turning, orb of light (almost like an egg in shape). There was no tunnel, but there was light. It is interesting then to me that coming near death is not something of trepidation and darkness (though it may start that way in the darkness), but that there is the welcoming beauty of light. Light is a big part of life, but it is also a part of death in a different form and fashion. He illuminates the way as there is no division truly and we continue on. Ah he is the god of the roads in so many ways! Perhaps it is appropriate then that Leto, his mother, is associated with the underworld in Asia Minor.

Apollon is the god of the fiery serpents, charioteer of dragons, lord of the python that is so often represented together with him in iconry. He is the god, together with his sister and mother, to whom are sung in the Thesmophoria, the festival of the earth goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, as we see in the Thesmophoriazuia of Aristophanes. His prevading light my at times cast gentle illusions, small games of light, at the bounaries, but they ultimately reveal truth…the truth of the passages and transformations of life and death. And the god of truth is naturally the perfect leaders of the Muses who teach all arts of knowledge to men to elevate our souls. For, divine musician as he is and grandson of the Koios (the north star/heavenly axis), is the axis about which all things orderly turns to his harmonic measure and his is the divine song and dance which sets life to order and motion as it comes to being and passes away.

In this matter than we shall see the surest distinction between Helios (the sun) and Apollon. Because Apollon’s light is all-pervasive, all-illuminating even as he sees all. Helios is limited at the world of the living. He sees all which happens in the mortal world, but his light touches nowhere else. Helios is a close companion of Apollon, but he is limited and his function can not touch on Apollon’s domain. Helios’ rays can burn and rot, even as it happened the corpse of Python in accordance to Apollon’s will. Apollon bears the flaming heat of the sun and the far-flung stars, and delights in the soft spun light of the moon in the night for which he is honored every Noumenia with the first cresent showing of the moon and for there are festivals of his that culminated on the fullmoon. Apollon’s light sheds to all corner of the cosmos…I would consider him as a heir of Phanes whom Zeus swallowed up.

Hail Apollon!


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