Reflections on Apollon Karnieos and the Karneia

Often it is explained by historians that myths of gods that speak of their interactions with other beings bearing the epithet of the god for their name that it is a demonstration of that god absorbing the cult of a local god, setting that epithet apart from functioning epithets that lack such mythic interactions. This especially seems to be something particulary common for scholars when speaking of Apollon. Too many of them are quick to assume that this is the case with Apollon Karneios, but I find that highly improbable.

I have stated before in my post on Polythousia and Thargelia that there are two distinct cycles involved in the cult of Apollon in Hellas. One attached to grain production and agricultural activity, and the other, shared primarily by Doric states, attached to herding activity and vineyards. The latter is likely the premise of calling Apollon Bacchic in Orphic literature, as it is part of the close relationship between Apollon and Dionysos that is especially notable at Delphi.

When it comes to Apollon Karneios there is no doubt that Karneios is a cultural epithet of Apollon that places emphasis on this latter mythic cycle. Myth says he was given this name because he, with the aide of Leto, fostered his abandoned infant brother Karneios. Now it is generally agreed that karneios comes from karne, heart. It seems highly probable that Apollon, a patron of the Doric race, was connected as being a deliverer of paternal love and affection, largely from Zeus, the father of the Doric race. It is for this reason that Apollon was looked up to as a perserver and guide. We find this not only in the comemoration of fallen warriors in Apollon’s Spartan festivals, but also within the Karneia itself where Apollon Karneios’ icon is worshipped in s boat ladden with flowers in honor of him bringing the Doric race back to Hellas.

Pausanias tells us that this form of Apollon is one that is common to the whole of the Doric race. He mentions icons temples and altars for the god from Messenia to Sparta to Argos where a great temple stood to Apollon Karneios. In Messenia he is the herding god in whose horse pasture Poseidon mated with Demeter in the form of horses. He is the goat horned shepherd, likely for the reason that the Doric people used gosts for leading sheep herds. In his temple in Argos we find him not only bearing the emblem of shepherding, the herders staff, but also the emblem if the dry months of fruition, for which the Arkadians considered him one if the original two seasons, the pinecone whose opening represents the conclusion of the dry months and necessity of bringing in the vineyard harvest before the onslaught of the winter rains.

The August Karneia was the most sacred month for the Spartans, so much so that they would not participate in any acts of war for the nine day festival, and even brought troops home for it. Culminating on the fullmoon, this festival celebrates Apollon, the leader of the Dorics; as well as the first green harvest of young grapes used for making rich dessert wines even today, and the matured beasts from the spring kids from which the best was reared specifically to be sacrificed to Apollon Karneios among shepherds. The outrunning of the winter rains in autumn is likely best demonstrated by the footrace in which competitors would grasp grapes as they ran, in addition to the implications of spiritual wealth, sustinance and divinity represented by Dionysos who gives vitality to the grapes. A vase from a Spartan colony reminds us of this as we see Apollon Karneios on one side with avtivity of Karneia before his enshrined image, and Dionysos reclined on the reverse side. It is likely that Dionysos is honored prior to the races along with Apollon.

Celebrating Karneia in Alaska means a slight shifting of focus. I can and do honor Apollon as the provider and guide as he was for the Dorics. Although we do have reindeer herders up here I am not one nor do I really eat reindeer as it is pricey. Grapes as special hybrids do grow up here tho. For Alaskans August truly is the last bit of truly fair weather and by the end of the month the cold autumnal winds are blowing in. It is the end of the growing season… and this far north it also, unlike in warmer climates, is the grain harvest along with the opening of hunting season and butchering of the spring calves. Celebrating the Karneia is celebrating the gifts of his season before it concludes on the autumn equinox.


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