Delia/Thargelia and the myth of the birth of Apollon

So with Delia (also known as Thargelia in Athens) swiftly approaching I decided to take a moment to discuss this festival celebrating the birth of Apollon. Some of this is cribbed directly from my book Crowned with Nine Rays (please do not order a copy, I feel I should say this, because I am redoing it in a series booklets where I will have more room to expound on things.)

Every year we celebrate the birth of Apollon and Artemis on what is the seventh of the Attica month Thargelion. This festival was something of a big to-do among the Ionians and the Ionian League came together to celebrate on Delos for this auspicious occasion. The city states would send their finest chorus of youths and maidens in great ships to perform in celebration of the birth of the god called Patroos by Athens (who also considered themselves via their descent from Ion, the son of Apollon and the Athenian princess Cruesa, to be the head of the league by default of this myth). Before embarking to Delos Athenians looked to their Delian prophet to watch for the signs, a particular lightning display, that would signify the beginning of the procession to Delos. Upon arriving the choruses would adorn themselves in robes and wreaths and approach the temple singing from the harbor. For twelve days, in honor of the twelve days that Leto wandered the earth, accompanied by Athena in some variations. In the procession large cymbals, called krembala, were played,

The number seven, represented as the birthday of Apollon, is of an interesting nature. It is one of three numbers that are specifically ascribed to his worship, the other two being five in regard to his relationship with Helios, and nine. Whereas five is connected to the principle of solar light, and nine to that of renewal, seven may be connected more to the idea of sustenance. This is suggested because there was a belief that premature deaths of infants occurred within the first seven days after their birth. Therefore, the seventh day was likely regarded as the day in which the infant’s life was seen as having been sustained, and the naming of the child thus carried out on that or the tenth day, just as Apollon’s birth came after the seventh song of the swans according to Kallimachus. Likewise, Apollon fitted his lyre with seven strings to represent those seven songs, and these are the strings of life which summons about the seasons according to the Orphic hymn. A case can then be made that Apollon, as a god born on the seventh day, is that he is a protector god of the young from this point in their infancy as is natural for him and his twin as a kind of warden of the earth and therefore all the helpless young born by her work. Perhaps a thanksgiving to him, that a destroying god that the children survived the precarious days during which nature could easily bring about their deaths in those tender first few days. Thus successful the survivals of children was celebrated by the hanging of fillets of wool before the doorway; but this was typically done for girls as boys were greeted with olive boughs, the symbol of Athena as a protective goddess and sustainer of heroes. This decoration was likely also carried out on the birthday of the god, upon the doors of his temple since there is no waiting days of potential mortality, and it appears to be born out as there was dancing before the doors of the temple by Delian women in accompaniment to their paians to Apollon.

The birth of Apollon and Artemis, while being a major occasion for Ionians (and for the Boeotians in their earlier celebration of their own local birth of Apollon, which seems to have been supported by Delphi and the Spartans, and the Cretans give their birth as being at Paximadia) seems to get little literary note. Hesiod in his Theogony just barely glosses over the birth of the twins in a brief sentence, and yet we can’t say that there isn’t a certain significance as we know that the cult of Leto, given the myth of Niobe which associates the worship of Leto as being carried out by mothers largely, had a certain importance, and there is evidence that she enjoyed a large and quite prestigious temple on Delos. Of course I can’t help but to observe that the twins are called collectively after her (Letoides), which is not something we see very common among the gods outside of the children of Kronos and Ouranos who are called by a variation of their father’s name as a kind of title. This seems to be true of the children of heroes too, now I may be wrong but the only other instance where I can think of children being titled after their mother are the Niobids, the children of Niobe, but this may be particular to her offset of Leto and the conflict between them that carries down through the actions of Leto’s children upon those of Niobe. That Leto is depicted crowned in a queenly fashion is suggestive that she may have been at one time a very important deity, and in the Ionian cults in Asia Minor she seemed to have been liked to Cybele in some respects as well as being called a goddess of the underworld.

In the myth however she takes the part of an obscure goddess, a love, perhaps wife in a sense similar to that of Thetis and Mnemosyne prior to Hera, of Zeus. We are given the impression that upon the marriage of Zeus and Hera that Leto was already pregnant rather than being a later liason. In some myths Hera sends the serpent Python to chase Leto, who at some point gives and holes up somewhere, and in others she has Helios cast his great eye so that nowhere that Leto rests is untouched by the sun to give her refuge as per the curse of Hera. Of course no city is going to openly defy Hera, and Leto is turned away from everywhere. The river Peneus is the only one who even tempts her wrath by offering refuge to Hera, but out of her compassion for the river god, (who becomes a very important deity in the cult of Apollon at Delpi as it is to the river that the boy acting as Apollon descends to collect from the sacred laurel of his daughter Daphne, the pre-birth interaction is perhaps very significant that Peneus later acts as such a purifier) and Apollon’s urging for her to continue from within her womb that she declines his generous offer.

So Leto arrives at the island of Delos, who we know from myth is in fact her sister Asteria (her name meaning “starry”), which seems to be of great coincidence, and likewise a fairly big coincidence is the close relationship following of Artemis with Hekate, the two torches of Hekate, and the poetic description of the twins like two lights shining upon their birth. I haven’t really established any firm interpretation in my mind in regards to this but it seems to weigh on me with some significance I can’t ignore. There is a certain interconnection between the sisters Leto and Asteria as well as we find that in the myth of Asteria that she took the form of a quail to evade Zeus and in this form plunged into the sea, and we have Leto as the mother of quails and herself in some versions of her own taking the form of a quail to fly to the unrooted island. Of course as mother of quails, this can also apply that her young are also seen as quails, a solarish bird that was believed to sing to the moon, the speckled breast of quail could be viewed as likened to the starry skies if we take into consideration the significance of Asteria as the quail. There are some who say that Leto was led to Delos by wolves, but I believe that they are confusing this with the wolves leading her to the river Xanthus in Lycia…and it would be kind of hard for wolves to lead her to an island floating in the middle of the sea anyway. Taking the form of a winged creature seems by far more reasonable and creates a unified relationship between Leto and Asteria, one has the mother and the other as a nurse of Apollon, although Kallimachus has Themis serve as his nurse, but as Themis is connected to Ge she probably shares a similar kind of relationship with Asteria in Kallimachus’ telling of the myth as the goddess feeds the infant god ambrosia. That Themis, in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, is related as the first goddess of the oracle of Delphi, it seems that his nursing by the goddess given here is meant to be precursor of his inheritance of the oracle.

According to myth, the foremost of the goddesses, excepting Hera, attended the birthing labors of Leto which again indicates some level of great importance as she is attended not only by Themis, but also by Rhea (who is also identified with Cybele in Ionia), Dione (whose prominance is best known as the mother of Aphrodite by Zeus at Dodona in the Peloponnese), and Poseidon’s wife Amphitrite. Historically women tend to be attended in childbirth by the closest women of their family, essentially their peers. Here we have Leto among her peers, establishing her position among the goddesses as one near equal standing with them, and their attendance to the birth of Apollon making a remark on the importance of Artemis and the babe who would also be called King. The nine days and nights of his labor (whereas 12 is a number associated with the completion of a heroic journey such as the in the 12 labors of Herakles, 9 is a transitional number that is linked particularly to the concepts of the divine year and thus renewal upon its culmination for which the original Delphic Pythian games were held every nine years before they were reorganized into 4 year periods like the Olympic) were greeted at their conclusion with the singing of seven swans in the tradition given to us by Kallimachus. According to myth this birth only came about because Eileithyia was tempted away from Hera’s side (where she was restrained by her mother Hera from offering aid to Leto) with the promise of necklace. Thus beguiled she hastened and at her presence labor seized Leto, who grabbed upon the palm which thus afterward became sacred to the Letoides, and is mentioned poetically by Kallimachus as shaking at the approach of Apollon probably echoing the tremors of the palm at the first appearance of Apollon at his birth that resounds at his return.

Thus far we can see the importance of honoring, and may well have been honored, of the goddesses attending the birth of Apollon, including the late arriving Eilethyia especially who had her own prominent altar at Delos where maidens offered locks of their hair in memory of the Hyperborean maidens who accompanied Apollon on his first return, quite probably during the Delia if we consider that there may have been a strong paralleling relationship with the festival of the return of Apollon from Hyperborea during the spring equinox, and the shortly following festival at Delia. However, another important goddess of the festival is Aphrodite. This may appear a bit more elusive unless you consider that the work of Aphrodite comes before the step of birth. Therefore Aphrodite represents the power which brings successful conclusion to your struggles. It is for this reason that Theseus was advised by Apollon to make Aphrodite his guide when he began his journey to Krete, and why her statue, a gift from Ariadne, was dedicated to the god upon his arrival to Delos from his success in the labyrinth. It follows that Aphrodite and Apollon worked cooperatively, as love and the procreative process that leads to fertilization are that which is necessary before birth. This combined element was represented by the twining of myrtle, which had a sacred relationship to the worship of Apollon Agyieus and at Delphi, with laurel about the altar of Apollon. Theseus wouldn’t have succeeded in his heroic journey without Ariadne, and the birth of Apollon would not have come without the divine love between Zeus and Leto. And the symbol of the labyrinth was preserved in the Crane Dance of Delos which Theseus introduced to the island; a dance which simulated the windings and turnings of the labyrinth. By torchlight the Delian youths would perform this dance around the goat-horn altar, or, as according to the Francois Vase, around the central image of Aphrodite on the island. This vase depicted a long line of seven youths and seven maidens, probably directed by a rope laid out in the pattern, advancing to the right led by Theseus who danced as he played the lyre. It is of great probability that this dance was performed for Apollon at the Delia, and later in July for the Aphrodisia in honor of Aphrodite.

The labyrinth is significant symbolism because it reflects the inward and outward journey. Though we don’t know exactly how the crane dance was performed it is possible that the dancers would, while holding hands, spiral in an inward dance, and then dancing out again. This is dancing to the source, or epicenter, of transformation as well as having distinctive wandering connotations as the dancers fail to remain in a given space. There you are transformed and can be reborn into a higher state of being. Apollon is a god who continually transforms and rejuvenates himself, a god who is born of the light, and this transformation is accessible to those who come to him. The easiest way to adapt this Crane Dance for a modern ritual is to lay a rope marking out the dance path in a spiral. If there is someone in the group with a musical instrument they should be at the fore like Theseus, or more so like Apollon leading with his lyre in his high step dance that is attributed to him in the Homeric Hymn as he led the Cretan sailors. This musician then would take his place leading inward, both symbolically to the “Minotaur” as Theseus and to Delos as Leto. There through triumphing over your obstacle by love’s ability to balance forces, you are given the tools of transformation to be transformed by Apollon and the dance unwinds again to the left. This is just as possible if you are dancing alone, tracing the steps to music as you make your inward and outward journeys.

Just as the sacred dance was delivered by Theseus, so too did he institute the Delian games and was the first to award the Delian palm to victors in celebration of the god’s birth. The same palm was also given all victors in the prominent Hellenic games. So it is in a general sense Pausanias relates that crowns of palm were given in most games throughout Hellas and that everywhere victors held a palm in their right hands. Thus is a sacred symbol not only of the games since the palm was the tree to which Leto was said to have clung, but also the conqueror of the greatest game. This palm has retained its springtime connection to birth in its reincarnation in the Christian mythos of Easter and the resurrection, but is relevance to Thargelia should be reclaimed. However, we are blessed in a fashion because this also tends to make palm fronds easy to acquire in the spring season with which we can adorn the ritual space and present to participants within this prominent festival. Certainly in ancient times this festival was one of great importance which drew envoys of youths and maidens from Athens every year to participate. Of such importance was the occasion that a state of purity was remained within Athens during which no deaths could occur until after the envoy returned. The island even boasted an early Doric connection through the symbolic presence of Thera by their style of cloak as this city was said to have been the second that Apollon founded after building his temple at Delos.

The day preceding the Thargelia many modern worshippers hold to a tradition in which they create a pharmakos to represent those paupers which were ejected from the city of Athens to their death. As Artemis is said to be born on the sixth day there are those who also ascribe this day to her worship, and these practices as part of her function as a goddess of purification. This seems unlikely though since the seventh day is celebrated on behalf of both the twins and there is no mention of Artemis in any specific religious or mythic connection with the ritualistic purification and purging going on during the sixth day of Thargelion. In fact, given the taboo on blood-letting during the absence of the envoy to Delos, if this ritual was in fact ever done it may have actually been a part of the purification rituals of the previous month on the sixth of Mounykion in preparation for Thargelia rather than occurring as part of the actual Thargelia ritual. It is possible that there was some confusion between the preThargelia celebrations on the sixth which may have had more to do with fertility than purification that has become confused with the purification processes of Delphinia. The flogging of the pharmakoi as represented of Pharmakos, who was said to have been beaten for stealing the bowls of Apollon bears a great resemblance to the Orthia of Sparta in which boys stole cheese from the goddess. Therein the “stealing” from the god is something related to the individual going within the domain of the deity and returning bearing the essence of that deity with them. For this reason the pharmakoi, representative of the males and females of the community, were hung with figs and carried emblems of prosperity in the form of cheese, figs and cakes. Like the Epheboi of Sparta these were beaten, in this case with rods of fig-wood. In any case the basic nature of Thargelia, rather than being of purification, is a celebration of the richness of the earth that accompanies the arrival of Apollon and the spiritual fruits that he offers the world, signified by the first green fruits of spring.

However, there is a historic festival which occurred on the sixth day of Thargelion in Athens which is less at odds with the nature of Thargelia. This is the flower festival of Demeter Chloë called Chloia, or Chloeia at her temple on the Acropolis. This is the aspect of Demeter who is called “Green” and was honored in a common sanctuary with Ge the Nurse of Youth in Troezen. All that is really known of this festival is that it celebrated the blooming of spring flowers and involved the sacrifice of a ram amid much celebration. This does keep with some mythic resemblance of Artemis appropriate for the season. For in some versions of the myth of Persephone, the youthful maiden appears in play in the flower-filled meadows among the virgin goddesses Athena and Artemis weaving a robe of flowers for their father. As such this festival likely corresponded to other celebrations of Artemis such as the Artemisia among other Ionian states.  As Artemis was also interpreted as a daughter of Demeter by the Athenian it is quite natural that the sixth day which is attributed to Artemis is directly tied into the festival. Therefore the first day as Chloia could appropriately be considered the festival of youth and spring which fits with the nature of the following Thargelia. Whereas the first inklings of spring were celebrated with Persephone’s arrival to the world at the Eleusinia, with this festival it is truly the beautiful blooming season in which plant life flourishes and the young growth slowly begins to ripen.

These first fruits of spring is a significant part of Thargelia, as well as for Delphi as the offering of first fruits were given to Apollon by the maidens of Parnassus as a gift that celebrated the death of Python. The making of a first fruits sacrifice is a little awkward by today’s standards because through our commercial market, and the use of greenhouses, we are more likely to get any kind of food we can desire any time of the year. The association between seasons and foodstuff has become almost nonexistent today and only touches most of us by an adjustment in consumer prices. Still we can honor the concept of the sacrifice through making the traditional thargelos, or thargos as it is also called. Just about everyone who celebrates this festival makes this food as a first fruits offering to Apollon. The first fruits of the traditional thargelos consisted of young grain as the first fruits of the crops, but it can be tweaked to your locality and tastes. There are those who do not eat the Thargelos, but instead offer it entirely to Apollon. This seems to be contrary though when compared to most feasts in Hellenic literature that involved sacrifices to the god. In fact it seems it would be more insulting to not partake of it, rather like a host refusing to eat with his guest, and contrary to the spirit of xeneia.

The sharing of the thargelos should be at the heart of your ritual after inviting the select gods who are attending. As usual you should invite Hestia, Zeus and Hera. As the guests of honor you would invite Apollon, Artemis, Leto, Themis, Eileithyia, and Aphrodite. And the body of the ritual can contain poems you find or make to the holy twins and their mother. There is actually a fair amount out there both ancient and contemporary for this trio so you shouldn’t have any difficult with that. Music, like most of Apollon’s festivals, is an important contribution. A charming addition to the ritual for those with families or friends to participate would be to put on a small scale “torch race” in the evening where participants can race with harmless, but merry colored, sparklers in the yard. While this is not an exact copy of the torch races of Delos, I think it is a fun alternative, particularly when children are involved in the games. This is as a fun way to celebrate the festival all leading to the culmination with the labyrinth-inspired Crane Dance around the altar, and the closing of the ritual.


4 thoughts on “Delia/Thargelia and the myth of the birth of Apollon

  1. Thanks for the interesting essay. Is it possible for a visitor to actually participate or observe the Thargelia festival? If so, where would I go to get the information?

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