Apollôn’s Birth on Delos

For the past few days, I have been thirsty for reading myths, and on Tuesday, I realized I had enough Kobo points to get the ebook of Kerényi’s The Gods of the Greeks for free. The book, which I own in print, has been part of my collection since I found it used in my early twenties. While I’ve never read it cover-to-cover, there are a few sections I have read a lot, others I’ve barely glanced at.

Maybe I’ve been a bit thirsty because oscillating between Plato and Proclus — the latter in French — is a lot.

One of the things I like about The Gods of the Greeks is the alternative myth layering. It’s as if each myth is a flat plane, with a known story, and the variants stack against one another. Where they deviate, it’s like a chorus that sings in unity before diverging into harmony, making a chord that is more than each of the variants itself. It makes a hum, a multi-dimensional shape, and that shape approaches unutterable truth as if it is the integral to a curve.

In the ebook on Tuesday, I opened up to the page about Apollôn because I am a devotee, so of course that’s going to be my starting point. The more I read and remember reading about him, the better the contemplative meditations I do after prayer are because I can seed a good arborescence.

Kerényi was discussing Apollôn’s birth on Delos, based to a high degree on the Homeric Hymn that describes the wanderings of his mother Lêtô and the island Delos’ discussion with her about being the birthplace of the God. As one knows, the island is reluctant to serve in that capacity because it is a small island — too rocky and unable to support a large amount of life, not splendid like many other places. Lêtô reassures the island that it will be Apollôn’s first temple site once he is born.

At the birth of the God,

When [Apollôn] had tasted the immortal food, no swaddling-bands could any longer restrain him. Phoibos Apollon said to the goddesses: ‘Dear to me shall be lyre and bow, and in my oracles I shall reveal to men the inexorable will of Zeus.’ The goddesses were amazed, Delos shone golden and the island blossomed.
Descriptions are given of how at this time the whole of Delos was fragrant; or of how swans circled singing seven times about the island, while Leto still lay in the birth-pangs. As they circled an eighth time they no longer sang: the god sprang forth and the Delian Nymphs sang the sacred song of Eileithyia. The brazen welkin echoed, and not even Hera was unaffected, for Zeus took anger away from her. The foundations of Delos turned to gold, and all day long the round pool on the island shone golden. The leaves of the olive turned to gold — for this tree also grew on Delos, as well as the palm, and it was told of the olive, too, that Leto had supported herself upon it.

C. Kerényi, The Gods of the Greeks, p. 134-135

It struck me while reading this that Delos, unanchored in the sea and yet present to it, was anxious about its lack of beauty, power, and ability in and of itself, and that only by accepting to be a place of birth for Apollôn and connecting to the God in an unbreakable way did it (a) moor itself properly in the foundation of the sea and (b) blossom forth with beauty. It struck me that Delos only roots down after the God is born upon it and that there is a variant of the story in which it is an olive tree, not a palm, upon which Lêtô supports herself — which could speak, I think, to the connections and overlaps between some of the ways that Athênê and Apollôn encourage truth.

This reminds me of some of the concepts Iamblichus brings up regarding the human experience of the world in De Mysteriis — namely, that we can become our best selves when connected to the Gods because it is the knowledge and embrace of our place in the divine symphony —— which to me seems like our firm grasp of the Gods, especially the one(s) who (a) excite our devotional desire the most and (b) are most important and appropriate for us to worship given who we are, from ancestors to professional Gods to those who preside over the life transitions that move and shape us —— that leads to happiness, our soul’s health, and our correctness of being. All of the anxieties and fears felt by the island before Apollôn’s birth upon it mirror many of our anxieties as we start doing religious cultus for a specific God who moves us, when ultimately the connection that is born within and upon us will connect us to the divine beauty of the God(s) we love.

It was an exciting connection to make, and I wanted to share it here because these thoughts are slightly complicated, and I’m barely sketching them out. This morning, Wednesday, I considered bits and pieces of the above while praying, which ignited more fire and got me thinking about a lot of things all at once.

It’s possible that I need to do a reread of a lot of myths now that I’ve been reading a lot of Platonism because every time I encounter even the basic hymns I repeatedly recite for the Gods, there is a lot of rich layering that’s at once distracting and entraining. For instance, while reciting the Orphic Hymn to Aphroditê recently, I came to the following lines:

Come, O goddess born in Kypros:
you may be on Olympos,
O queen, exulting
in the beauty of your face,
you may be in Syria,
country of fine frankincense,
you may be driving
your golden chariot in the plain,
you may lord it over
Egypt’s fertile river bed.
Come, whether you ride your swan-drawn chariot
over the sea’s billows,
joining the creatures of the deep
as they dance in circles,
or on land in the company of the dark-faced nymphs
as light-footed they frisk
over the sandy beaches.
Come lady, even if you are
in Kypros that cherishes you […]

Hymn 55 to Aphrodite, Orphic Hymns, trans. Athanassakis & Wolkow, ln. ~15-25?

and my mind mapped these to the chain of Aphroditê descending from the highest apex to even be present in generation and matter — the high apex of her at Olympos, the space of connection of the incense, the plain and the mud, the sea of generation itself where the dance of the circles are like our own dances.

It’s not what happened in my head while reading sacred stories or reciting hymns before reading Hermias. It feels like learning the grammar of a new language, when the pattern of words begins to make sense.

I may add a cover-to-cover dive into this (and/or Apollodorus) to my immediate TBR just to see what happens.


One thought on “Apollôn’s Birth on Delos

  1. This picks up so nicely on something I’ve long said, about why it’s so valuable when we have hymns, prayers, and the like handed on from forebears and others in our traditions: There’s always more in them to unpack, always more layers, depths we could not possibly have been aware of on the first (or even the 101st!) repetition. Whether that’s a single epithet or title or phrase, or as with Aphrodite here, an entire cosmogonic chain spanning how many lines, it seems like that flash of insight, of radiant discovery, is made possible by repeatedly coming back to a text that I myself didn’t write. It’s even better when it’s a text I’ve memorized, so that it’s always right there, available.

    That’s not to say that it’s impossible for the Muses to inspire me in such a way as to compose a text layered with hidden meanings I never expected. That just seems less likely than a case where they inspire someone else, with different experiences than mine, to encode some of the experiences and understandings that that human author is actually aware of in what they compose.

    To be sure, I write devotional poetry, which I offer in prayer, and I see great value and worth in doing so. But by and large, it’s a different kind of worth.

    Thank you for sharing these thoughtful reflections!

    Liked by 1 person

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