Music of Apollon: healing, sight, harmony and destruction

The Orphic hymn has a beautiful line in it to Apollon in which it addresses the god as one who turns the seasons by his song, reminding us of the cyclic nature that is so very much a part of his domain (or exit out of the cycle in myths of deification such as in the cases of Marsyas, Hyakinthos etc) as we see the end always beginning again the new. This concept is perhaps best understood in the passage of time in Hellenic thought wherein the final year of a cycle was also simultaneously the first year, and Apollon Noumenios, begins too the new lunar month in every monthly course. The close dance of death and birth are always present together, even as in both cases certain miasmatic presence is accrued with both the release of death and the hazards of the first days of an infants birth after which Apollon and/or his twin are typically lauded. It is a harmony of nature, which appears to have foremost appreciated by Socrates in Plato’s Cratylus wherein he speaks of the meanings inherent in the names of the gods. Thus this keeping of harmonic movement of the cosmos in balanced score is perhaps most profoundly represented by his attribute as a player of the kithara or lyre. As most may recall, this was not an invention of himself but rather of Hermes. Given that Apollon has a more archaic nature as a pastoral deity he likely had related associations with music that were more organic, such as that of singing which can certainly demonstrate such a fondness in myth for the kithara that gave him an accompaniment to his voice. This point has been reinforced in myth by the contest between Marsyas with his pipes and the superiority of the abilities of the kithara that allowed Apollon to sing in company with the plucking of the strings.

This singing feature is probably also closely related to the prophetic nature of the god, for not only is he a god who oversees cycles making him a god who sees patterns of all things that have been and to come, but the close relationship between poets (who typically sang their work with a lyre of some kind) and seers is one that has been made also by Socrates as noted by Plato as a source of divine inspiration coming through similar channels. Certainly the Pythia’s oracles in metered verse (probably done singing or in a sing-song manner) lends a very thorough connection between the two. Therefore it is quite natural that as a god whose personal power comes through his vocalizations (albeit with the company of his stringed instrument to his liking…enough so that he bargained with Hermes for it). In some ways it is amusing because when we think of the music of Apollon we do not imagine his music being the power of his singing, but rather attached directly and solely to an external instrument whether it is kithara or the flute that he also attained from Hermes in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. Yet it seems that his abilities as song-master and vocalization is perhaps the most important key to understanding Apollon’s music as he sings forth the intricate dance of the cosmos and the delicate weave of moving bodies therein by his lyrics. That by this he is Logos as truth, a golden unbreakable song. And by which too that Lycurgus, when given instruction from Delphi, used a poet to sing of the laws to coax people into following them by delivering in the most perfect form the persuasion of truth to their minds and souls. Or by relation, the belief that Thrakians had that singing to the soul of an individual could aid in curing their illness by restoring the order and harmonic balance to the soul via song.

And then there are the Kleidones, who were attached to his Delphi cult as well as at another location that escapes my memory at the moment. At Delphi, during the time of the bronze temple in that location according to myth, these Kleidones, described as being akin to Sirens) would perch at the pediment of the temple and sing their prophecies there. The close relationship they bear with Sirens can probably draw the relationship of Sires more acutely with Apollon, especially given their relationship to the Muses who are beloved by Apollon and are part of his divine company. The Sirens, prior to the Muses taking the position, were believed to be original divine beings of the celestial spheres. These duties were taken over by the Muses, and yet we see the Sirens in myth trying to take over the duties too of the Muses by challenging them to a contest of singing (which the Muses won and as penalty the Sirens had their feathers plucked to be worn as headdresses by the Muses in their triumph). Sirens are in myth, however, also embody the most dangerous form of music, that which can lure and entice men from their purpose (which is why Plato wanted public music to be ideally only of a certain type and without such threats) as we see in the Odyssey in which their songs lead directly to death. If Muses are one part of Apollon’s company as embodiments the perfections of civilization, I would consider the Sirens to be their shadowy sisters in his company….and a kind of natural harmony occurring between then. I do at times wonder if the adorning of the Muses with feathers could be seen as a direct relationship between the identify of the Muses with the Sirens…. perhaps in a less civilized and more violent type of being that has less to do with the civilized arts that better the soul and more with their place in the natural world in which song not only creates but is part of the cycle of the seasons between birth and death. The would certainly make sense in the context of song in the cult of Apollon.

For Apollon, the most beautiful singing was so attached to his nature that death of that which was most sacred to him was credited as possessing the most beautiful songs moments before their death. Swans (one of his heraldic animals and creatures that were known to pull his chariot to Hyperborea) particularly were spoken of in this manner, that before their death it was only then that they would beautifully sing. This idea to passed to humans who belong to him as well as exhibited by Cassandra in Ascheylus’ play Agamenon in which laments before her death where characterized as such beautiful funerary singing that it is addressed as her “swan song”. It is not hard to imagine why laments, accompanied by the keening of the flutes, would be part of his musical sphere, even if it was banned at Delphic contests for a time because it was considered too depressing of a subject to be fit in honoring the god, even though it had an ancient tradition in place as an offering to him, and he was said himself to play such laments at the funerary libations he gave to the Python. After all the paean is known not only as a song in honor of the god for a victory (as indicated by the myth of the paean in relation to the slaying of Delphyne by the village men), but also as a lamenting song (as per the paean in the myth of Hyakinthos). Obviously someone eventually saw sense because after a number of years it was permitted back into the Delphic contests.I have may times said that if Dionysos was the god of theater and the masks of men acting through the passages of their lives, then Apollon is the leader of the chorus who brings revelations in their laments and praises.

That said, even though I belong to Apollon I sing like a raven, but I take it to heart that ravens for all the cawing are beloved by him too, and hold the song for myself as a more spiritual thing that comes across in a different way…through poetry and art primarily. So while great singers and poets are beloved and especially gifted in this manner by him, possessing enormous singing ability isn’t strictly a requirement of those who are his thankfully! Besides as I have indicated above his song is so much more vast in his domain and nature than simply putting together beautiful narratives in musical form. It is the very mechanism of the functions of his domain.

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