Because it is something that has been on my mind since yesterday, I just wanted to speak a bit about this, and it makes a perfect topic for the letter P for Pagan Blog Project. This is going to be a general outline combining several chapters of my book (which is, yes, fully referenced, even if this blog post isn’t).
I first want to say upfront that I am not disparaging anyone who celebrates Apollon’s return and departure to Hyperborea in line with Pyanepsia to Polythous (the festival which most people have called Mantica or some such), or even those who celebrate his return later, if you feel that you should practice in those times feel free. Rather this post is to talk about the establishment of his return and departure on the equinoxes from Hyperborea. This tradition is first known from Delos, from whom we have the initial references to Hyperborea that when Apollon returned he brought with him the Hyperborean maidens, and Delos’ calendar was definently equinox to equinox, interchanging with the oracle at Lycia. There are scholars who also state that Delphi had an equinox to equinox format, with Dionysos arriving at the autumn equinox, during which a great golden statue of Dionysos was brought out and the god was greeted in celebration…after which we have the festivals of Delphi which are vaguely refered to in which Dionysos is torn apart and the Thraia (I believe I spelled the name of this ladies correctly..during the winter they acted much like Delphic version of Maenads) consumed the bull and ivy. We also have them going into the mountains with torches searching for Dionysos, for which on one occassion there is record of them getting trapped on the mountain during a snow storm and a rescue party being sent up after them. This is then followed by the birth of Dionysos in the winter in which there was a ceremony in the cave of Pan high on Parnassos, and the festival of Lenaea in January (during the Athenian month Gamilion) during which Dionysos is said to be depicted as a mask in a basket. So this pretty much settles that the 3 months of which Dionysos reigns at Delphi, in which he is actually present, would be 3 months after his winter birth.
With that established I turn now to Polythous. It must first be understood that the Delphic calendar was more alligned with Thebes as the birth place of Apollon than with the Ionian Delos. Thebes does have a Delos at their coast at which the rivers of olive and palm met, which happens to be the month of the Delphic Bysios. I would like to take a moment to say that most of the Peloppenese, particularly Sparta, went by the Theban birth of Apollon rather than the Ionian (the birth of Apollon on the Ionian island of Delos was very much an Ionian thing and was celebrated by Ionians). Plutarch in speaking of the month of Bysios says nothing of Apollon’s return in that month, but he does menton that Apollon’s birthday is celebrated in that month at Delphi on the 7th, and for that reason thereafter the oracle was held on the 7th day. It would be natural then that the festival of oracles would in celebration perhaps of the birth of Apollon, and that his birth is the coming of his oracles. It may also be a day that the temple was officially opened to the public and may have something to do with the foundation of the temple itself because according to myth Apollon was seven days old when he arrived at Delos and began to set the foundations, and then encountered the dragonness Delphinia (also called Python, but I will stay with Delphinia as per the homeric hymn).
The myth of the slaying of Delphinia is of course one of the best known myths of Apollon, that as a babe he slew her with his arrows (or golden sword…and in one version his twin helped him slay her) and Apollon departed into exile, some traditions had him going to Crete, but others had him going to Hyperboreia where he stayed for a year. Now this is a reason why Polythous would really not make sense to me as a return festival, aside from the fact it is more logically his birthday festival/founding festival, because Polythous is followed directly by Stepteria in which a boy, playing the part of Apollon “slays the serpent” and then must leave in exile from Delphi to the Tempe Valley. This is a long long walk in which he beseeches food and shelter from each town he meets on his way (one such town being the city which is that of Admetus where Apollon in another myth served time in slavery incidentally) until he finally arrives at the Tempe. There in a sacred grove he does a purification, of which I haven’t found anything specific, and cuts limbs fromthe sacred laurel (presumably the laurel which was believed to have been Apollon’s first love) and makes the same journey back on foot in celebration. He stops again at every town he visited before, purifying them, and he arrives with procession back to Delphi where he is greeted with great celebration. This is called Herois (which strikes me to perhaps refer to the day of the priest). This is followed then by Theoxenia (in the month Theoxenia), in which Apollon has a great feast and Dionysos is the guest of honor. This aligns quite well too with the Greater Dionysia in the cities where Dionysos returns. Apollon is the host of the feast where all the gods attend. This would be the return of Apollon. So having established that, I return to Polythous.
Polythous, I would imagine, would have been a celebration where the doors of the temple were opened so to speak, and Delphi received throngs of visitors to celebrate the birth of Apollon, and may have also been a kind of foundation day celebration of the oracle. I would recommend that a modern worshiper can celebrate it as such and treat it as a natal festival, which doesn’t necessarily mean that one can’t also celebrate his birth during Thargelia too for one scholar shows that there was regard towards the Athenian calendar too in the Theoxenia by the presence of Leto pregnant, so it possible that at Delphi, being stuck between two great powers, combined things. There is certainly mythic attachments from the Ionian end to Delphi too, as the old man of Lycia when he brought Apollon back to Delos from Lycia, he was then said to have accompanied two Hyperboreans (both with names that are epithets of Apollon…one of which is Agyieus) to the establishment of the temple at Delphi. So there is certainly room there, and it makes me wonder if perhaps at Delphi there wasn’t some concept of a double birth of Apollon, one during Bysios and another later in the spring during Thargelion. It may have some solar connection as we know that there is a noticeable increase in light during this time of the year, though not so profound as the equinox. A difference between the twilight (Apollon’s wolf-light) and the dawn. In any case, as a natal festival it would be a bloodless/meatless occassion naturally, and libations poured with offerings of frankincense and/or laurel. I personally particularly hail Apollon as Lykeios on this day, the god who is born of light, the wolfish god (wolves being creatures of the twilight and thus appropriate for this time of the year to my thinking), and it also pays a bit of a nodd towads the myth of the Old Man of Lycia in the complicated mesh of myths associated with Delphi.
A strange topic for summer, but perhaps not so strange with the autumn equinox non too far away.