The other day I had a question about whether or not Apollon had an actual seasonal rulership, aside from his seasonal functions as a shepherding god, and whether there is any evidence of an exchange of rulership of the season with Dionysos. Whereas I cannot say for Dionysos because I am not so versed in his worship and myths as I am with Apollon, for Apollon I can say that I believe so. But not for the reason why many would assume. That is to say, I do not base this on the popular concept of a seasonal exchange of Apollon and Dionysos at Delphi.
First and foremost let me say that overall in Hellas that there seems to be evidence of Apollon’s association with the passage of time via the movement of the seasons. The Orphic hymn to Apollon addresses this specifically in saying that it is his divine melody which turns the seasons around. As the heir of Koios, the axis of the heavens, this can be more clearly demonstrated as we watch the seasonal progression of the stars about its epicenter, most notably the clear turning of ursa major whose position in the sky in the northern hemisphere is always a clear sign all throughout the year of the season. That this constellation was believed to have been Callisto, a devout follower of Artemis ought not to be overlooked as circumstantial, nor that Apollodorus tells us that an alternate telling of the myth was that it was Apollon rather than Zeus who seduced the nymph in the form of the goddess.
In fact, Apollon’s rulership in regards to the seasonal passage of time can be accounted for by the very nature of the original Pythian games and the original system of Apollon’s departure from Delphi which was not yearly but rather once every nine years…at the conclusion of every divine year of the gods. In this original system at Delphi Apollon was absent then for an entire year as he was in his original exile following the slaying of Delphyne, during which time Dionysos was honored on Parnassos. Dionysos did not take up the seat of Apollon, which remained vacant and quiet, but rather roamed the mountains, and for a portion of time was in the underworld searching for his mother Semele. This was later revised under the Amphiktyonia to taking place every four years inbetween the Olympic games (ie the Pythian games would have been as we celebrate the winter Olympics). This revision had a drastic effect on the nature of Apollon’s festivals which were celebrated leading up to the festival. It was likely that there was an in place yearly movement of Apollon though that was subsumed into the Hyperborean system. For which we have later poets speaking of Apollon’s return from Hyperborea, often, as in the case of Kallimachus and Apollonius Rhodios, from Lycia. That is to say that they spoke of Apollon’s passage to Hyperborea as being taken from Lycia and Apollon’s temple at Dodona. This brings up part of why I think that it was originally two different Delphic systems that were compacted, a Hyperborean one and a seasonal one, because it is likely that Delphi had a yearly seasonal seat as he did at Delos where Apollon was said to depart for half of the year to Lycia. This yearly departure would explain why the oracle was silent during the winter. Because Apollon, as a god ruling the dry warm part of the year was absent during the cool, wet time of the year. Did Dionysos rule this part of the year then?
Strictly speaking, I do not believe so. Delphi and Parnassos belonged to Dionysos during Apollon’s absence in Hyperborea, but aside from that I do not see anything that suggests he was a ruler of the winter season in the capacity that Apollon was of the warm dry season. That is not to say that Dionysos did not have many important festivals during the winter and into the beginning of spring, because he did. The seasonal god of winter can be found in another god at Delphi, whose sacred cave the infant Dionysos was said to have been found newborn in by the Thyiades. That god is Pan. In fact in a vase from Delphi we find the three gods together with the rising of either Semele or Persephone in the spring. This would suggest that there was a noted parallel here with the Peloponnese where, in Arkadia Apollon and Pan are addressed as among the eldest of gods, and the two original seasons. As such, in Arkadia it is not with Dionysos that they are presented but rather with Zeus whose childhood and youth closely resembles that of Dionysos. So here we have the mystic god with important local cult ties and the two seasonal gods who are in necessary supportive positions to the mystic god, whether that god is Zeus or Dionysos.
Consider this, if Apollon were exchanging his actual seasonal rule with Dionysos it would be likely have been addressed in the Orphic poem to Apollon, especially since the Orphic hymns seem pretty thorough in cross addressing other deities in their hymns. And given that half of Apollon’s Orphic hymn, that over half of it is given to specific discussion of Apollon’s seasonal rule, yet it is Pan who is addressed. The pairing of Apollon with Pan makes a certain amount of sense given that they are both oraclular bee-loving goat-horned gods of shepherds, pastures, fields and herds. Pan on one hand having a more fertile associations as a lusty progenitor and sowing of new life, whereas Apollon is concerned with birth and progressive nurture and care until death. There is a kind of fluidity between Apollon and Pan that is appropriate to seasonal exchanges of rule that doesn’t really exist between Apollon and Dionysos, despite Plutarch’s best attempts to make it work with his instance that Apollon and Dionysos are the same god in his mind and that he explains it by the seasonal transference that doesn’t really exist.
This does not negate any importance of Dionysos, but instead puts more emphasis on him, or Zeus, as the god of mysteries moving through time and space. The same can be said of Persephone, The relationship, in fact, of Apollon as bringer of the golden grain may infer such a strong seasonal role in the mystic narratives. If it was indeed Apollon who bore the light for Demeter there may be some relationship between Apollon’s exile, his role as the purifier of initiates, and his return bearing the golden grains even as he as the torch bearing youth aided Demeter in finding Persephone for her return. His return relieves the earth of her barrenness as much as the return of Persephone which eases the grief of Demeter. The rule of Apollon as a season god (and that of Pan as well) becomes an important part of the progression of the Mysteries.