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Ch. 2: The Hymn to Apollo

The Hymn to Apollo presents innumerable difficulties, both of text, which is very corrupt, and as to the whole nature and aim of the composition. In this version it is divided into two portions, the first dealing with the birth of Apollo, and the foundation of his shrine in the isle of Delos; the second concerned with the establishment of his Oracle and fane at Delphi. The division is made merely to lighten the considerable strain on the attention of the English reader. I have no pretensions to decide whether the second portion was by the author of the first, or is an imitation by another hand, or is contemporary, or a later addition, or a mere compilation from several sources. The first part seems to find a natural conclusion, about lines 176-181. The blind singer (who is quoted here by Thucydides) appears at that point to say farewell to his cherished Ionian audience. What follows, in our second part, appeals to hearers interested in the Apollo of Crisa, and of the Delphian temple: the Pythian Apollo.

According to a highly ingenious, but scarcely persuasive theory of Mr. Verrall's, this interest is unfriendly. {13} Our second part is no hymn at all, but a sequel tacked on for political purposes only: and valuable for these purposes because so tacked on.

From line 207 to the end we have this sequel, the story of Apollo's dealings as Delphinian, and as Pythian; all this following on detached fragments of enigmatic character, and containing also (305-355) the intercalated myth about the birth of Typhaon from Hera's anger. In the politically inspired sequel there is, according to Mr. Verrall, no living zeal for the honour of Pytho (Delphi). The threat of the God to his Cretan ministers,--"Beware of arrogance, or . . . "--must be a prophecy after the event. Now such an event occurred, early in the sixth century, when the Crisaeans were supplanted by the people of the town that had grown up round the Oracle at Delphi. In them, and in the Oracle under their management, the poet shows no interest (Mr. Verrall thinks), none in the many mystic peculiarities of the shrine. It is quite in contradiction with Delphian tradition to represent, as the Hymn does, Trophonius and Agamedes as the original builders.

Many other points are noted--such as the derivation of "Pytho" from a word meaning rot,--to show that the hymnist was rather disparaging than celebrating the Delphian sanctuary. Taking the Hymn as a whole, more is done for Delos in three lines, says Mr. Verrall, than for Pytho or Delphi in three hundred. As a whole, the spirit of the piece is much more Delian (Ionian) than Delphic. So Mr. Verrall regards the Cento as "a religious pasquinade against the sanctuary on Parnassus," a pasquinade emanating from Athens, under the Pisistratidae, who, being Ionian leaders, had a grudge against "the Dorian Delphi," "a comparatively modern, unlucky, and from the first unsatisfactory" institution. Athenians are interested in the "far-seen" altar of the seaman's Dolphin God on the shore, rather than in his inland Pythian habitation.

All this, with much more, is decidedly ingenious. If accepted it might lead the way to a general attack on the epics, as tendenz pieces, works with a political purpose, or doctored for a political purpose. But how are we to understand the uses of the pasquinade Hymn? Was it published, so to speak, to amuse and aid the Pisistratidae? Does such remote antiquity show us any examples of such handling of sacred things in poetry? Might we not argue that Apollo's threat to the Crisaeans was meant by the poet as a friendly warning, and is prior to the fall of Crisa? One is reminded of the futile ingenuity with which German critics, following their favourite method, have analysed the fatal Casket Letters of Mary Stuart into letters to her husband, Darnley; or to Murray; or by Darnley to Mary, with scraps of her diary, and false interpolations. The enemies of the Queen, coming into possession of her papers after the affair of Carberry Hill, falsified the Casket Letters into their present appearance of unity. Of course historical facts make this ingenuity unavailing. We regret the circumstance in the interest of the Queen's reputation, but welcome these illustrative examples of what can be done in Germany. {16a}

Fortunately all Teutons are not so ingenious. Baumeister has fallen on those who, in place of two hymns, Delian and Pythian, to Apollo, offer us half-a-dozen fragments. By presenting an array of discordant conjectures as to the number and nature of these scraps, he demonstrates the purely wilful and arbitrary nature of the critical method employed. {16b} Thus one learned person believes in (1) two perfect little poems; (2) two larger hymns; (3) three lacerated fragments of hymns, one lacking its beginning, the other wofully deprived of its end. Another savant detects no less than eight fragments, with interpolations; though perhaps no biblical critic ejusdem farinae has yet detected eight Isaiahs. There are about ten other theories of similar plausibility and value. Meanwhile Baumeister argues that the Pythian Hymn (our second part) is an imitation of the Delian; by a follower, not of Homer, but of Hesiod. Thus, the Hesiodic school was closely connected with Delphi; the Homeric with Ionia, so that Delphi rarely occurs in the Epics; in fact only thrice (I. 405, [Greek text]. 80, [Greek text]. 581). The local knowledge is accurate (Pythian Hymn, 103 sqq.). These are local legends, and knowledge of the curious chariot ritual of Onchestus. The Muses are united with the Graces as in a work of art in the Delphian temple. The poet chooses the Hesiodic and un-Homeric myth of Heaven and Earth, and their progeny: a myth current also in Polynesia, Australia, and New Zealand. The poet is full of inquiry as to origins, even etymological, as is Hesiod. Like Hesiod (and Mr. Max Muller), origines rerum ex nominibus explicat. Finally, the second poet (and here every one must agree) is a much worse poet than the first. As for the prophetic word of warning to the Crisaeans and its fulfilment, Baumeister urges that the people of Cirrha, the seaport, not of Crisa, were punished, in Olympiad 47 (Grote, ii. 374).

Turning to Gemoll, we find him maintaining that the two parts were in ancient times regarded as one hymn in the age of Aristophanes. {18} If so, we can only reply, if we agree with Baumeister, that in the age of Aristophanes, or earlier, there was a plentiful lack of critical discrimination. As to Baumeister's theory that the second part is Hesiodic, Gemoll finds a Hesiodic reminiscence in the first part (line 121), while there are Homeric reminiscences in the second part.

Thus do the learned differ among themselves, and an ordinary reader feels tempted to rely on his own literary taste.

According to that criterion, I think we probably have in the Hymn the work of a good poet, in the early part; and in the latter part, or second Hymn, the work of a bad poet, selecting unmanageable passages of myth, and handling them pedantically and ill. At all events we have here work visibly third rate, which cannot be said, in my poor opinion, about the immense mass of the Iliad and Odyssey. The great Alexandrian critics did not use the Hymns as illustrative material in their discussion of Homer. Their instinct was correct, and we must not start the consideration of the Homeric question from these much neglected pieces. We must not study obscurum per obscurius. The genius of the Epic soars high above such myths as those about Pytho, Typhaon, and the Apollo who is alternately a dolphin and a meteor: soars high above pedantry and bad etymology. In the Epics we breathe a purer air.

Descending, as it did, from the mythology of savages, the mythic store of Greece was rich in legends such as we find among the lowest races. Homer usually ignores them: Hesiod and the authors of the Hymns are less noble in their selections.

For this reason and for many others, we regard the Hymns, on the whole, as post-Homeric, while their collector, by inserting the Hymn to Ares, shows little proof of discrimination. Only the methods of modern German scholars, such as Wilamowitz Mollendorf, and of Englishmen like Mr. Walter Leaf, can find in the Epics marks of such confusion, dislocation, and interpolations as confront us in the Hymn to Apollo. (I may refer to my work, "Homer and the Epic," for a defence of the unity of Iliad and Odyssey.) For example, Mr. Verrall certainly makes it highly probable that the Pythian Hymn, at least in its concluding words of the God, is not earlier than the sixth century. But no proof of anything like this force is brought against the antiquity of the Iliad or Odyssey.

As to the myths in the Hymns, I would naturally study them from the standpoint of anthropology, and in the light of comparison of the legends of much more backward peoples than the Greeks. But that light at present is for me broken and confused.

I have been led to conclusions varying from those of such students as Mr. Tylor and Mr. Spencer, and these conclusions should be stated, before they are applied to the Myth of Apollo. I am not inclined, like them, to accept "Animism," or "The Ghost Theory," as the master-key to the origin of religion, though Animism is a great tributary stream. To myself it now appears that among the lowest known races we find present a fluid mass of beliefs both high and low, from the belief in a moral creative being, a judge of men, to the pettiest fable which envisages him as a medicine-man, or even as a beast or bird. In my opinion the higher belief may very well be the earlier. While I can discern the processes by which the lower myths were evolved, and were attached to a worthier pre-existing creed, I cannot see how, if the lower faiths came first, the higher faith was ever evolved out of them by very backward savages.

On the other side, in the case of Australia, Mr. Tylor writes: "For a long time after Captain Cook's visit, the information as to native religious ideas is of the scantiest." This was inevitable, for our information has only been obtained with the utmost difficulty, and under promises of secrecy, by later inquirers who had entirely won the confidence of the natives, and had been initiated into their Mysteries. Mr. Tylor goes on in the same sentence: "But, since the period of European colonists and missionaries, a crowd of alleged native names for the Supreme Deity and a great Evil Deity have been recorded, which, if really of native origin, would show the despised black fellow as in possession of theological generalisations as to the formation and conservation of the universe, and the nature of good and evil, comparable with those of his white supplanter in the land." {23a} Mr. Tylor then proceeds to argue that these ideas have been borrowed from missionaries. I have tried to reply to this argument by proving, for example, that the name of Baiame, one of these deities, could not have been borrowed (as Mr. Tylor seems inclined to hold) from a missionary tract published sixteen years after we first hear of Baiame, who, again, was certainly dominant before the arrival of missionaries. I have adduced other arguments of the same tendency, and I will add that the earliest English explorers and missionaries in Virginia and New England (1586-1622) report from America beliefs absolutely parallel in many ways to the creeds now reported from Australia. Among these notions are "ideas of moral judgment and retribution after death," which in Australia Mr. Tylor marks as "imported." {23b} In my opinion the certainty that the beliefs in America were not imported, is another strong argument for their native character, when they are found with such striking resemblances among the very undeveloped savages of Australia.

Savages, Mr. Hartland says in a censure of my theory, are "guiltless" of Christian teaching. {24} If Mr. Hartland is right, Mr. Tylor is wrong; the ideas, whatever else they are, are unimported, yet, teste Mr. Tylor, the ideas are comparable with those of the black man's white supplanters. I would scarcely go so far. If we take, however, the best ideas attributed to the blacks, and hold them disengaged from the accretion of puerile fables with which they are overrun, then there are discovered notions of high religious value, undeniably analogous to some Christian dogmas. But the sanction of the Australian gods is as powerfully lent to silly, or cruel, or needless ritual, as to some moral ideas of weight and merit. In brief, as far as I am able to see, all sorts of ideas, the lowest and the highest, are held at once confusedly by savages, and the same confusion survives in ancient Greek belief. As far back as we can trace him, man had a wealth of religious and mythical conceptions to choose from, and different peoples, as they advanced in civilisation, gave special prominence to different elements in the primal stock of beliefs. The choice of Israel was unique: Greece retained far more of the lower ancient ideas, but gave to them a beauty of grace and form which is found among no other race.

If this view be admitted for the moment, and for the argument's sake, we may ask how it applies to the myths of Apollo. Among the ideas which even now prevail among the backward peoples still in the neolithic stage of culture, we may select a few conceptions. There is the conception of a great primal anthropomorphic Being, who was in the beginning, or, at least, about whose beginning legend is silent. He made all things, he existed on earth (in some cases), teaching men the arts of life and rules of conduct, social and moral. In those instances he retired from earth, and now dwells on high, still concerned with the behaviour of the tribes.

This is a lofty conception, but it is entangled with a different set of legends. This primal Being is mixed up with strange persons of a race earlier than man, half human, half bestial. Many things, in some cases almost all things, are mythically regarded, not as created, but as the results of adventures and metamorphoses among the members of this original race. Now in New Zealand, Polynesia, Greece, and elsewhere, but not, to my knowledge, in the very most backward peoples, the place of this original race, "Old, old Ones," is filled by great natural objects, Earth, Sky, Sea, Forests, regarded as beings of human parts and passions.

The present universe is mythically arranged in regard to their early adventures: the separation of sky and earth, and so forth. Where this belief prevails we find little or no trace of the primal maker and master, though we do find strange early metaphysics of curiously abstract quality (Maoris, Zunis, Polynesians). As far as our knowledge goes, Greek mythology springs partly from this stratum of barbaric as opposed to strictly savage thought. Ouranos and Gaea, Cronos, and the Titans represent the primal beings who have their counterpart in Maori and Wintu legend. But these, in the Greece of the Epics and Hesiod, have long been subordinated to Zeus and the Olympians, who are envisaged as triumphant gods of a younger generation. There is no Creator; but Zeus--how, we do not know--has come to be regarded as a Being relatively Supreme, and as, on occasion, the guardian of morality. Of course his conduct, in myth, is represented as a constant violation of the very rules of life which he expects mankind to observe. I am disposed to look on this essential contradiction as the result of a series of mythical accretions on an original conception of Zeus in his higher capacity. We can see how the accretions arose. Man never lived consistently on the level of his best original ideas: savages also have endless myths of Baiame or Daramulun, or Bunjil, in which these personages, though interested in human behaviour, are puerile, cruel, absurd, lustful, and so on. Man will sport thus with his noblest intuitions.

In the same way, in Christian Europe, we may contrast Dunbar's pious "Ballat of Our Lady" with his "Kynd Kittok," in which God has his eye on the soul of an intemperate ale-wife who has crept into Paradise. "God lukit, and saw her lattin in, and leugh His heart sair." Examples of this kind of sportive irreverence are common enough; their root is in human nature: and they could not be absent in the mythology of savage or of ancient peoples. To Zeus the myths of this kind would come to be attached in several ways.

As a nature-god of the Heaven he marries the Earth. The tendency of men being to claim descent from a God, for each family with this claim a myth of a separate divine amour was needed. Where there had existed Totemism, or belief in kinship with beasts, the myth of the amour of a wolf, bull, serpent, swan, and so forth, was attached to the legend of Zeus. Zeus had been that swan, serpent, wolf, or bull. Once more, ritual arose, in great part, from the rites of sympathetic magic.

This or that mummery was enacted by men for a magical purpose, to secure success in the chase, agriculture, or war. When the performers asked, "Why do we do thus and thus?" the answer was, "Zeus first did so," or Demeter, or Apollo did so, on a certain occasion. About that occasion a myth was framed, and finally there was no profligacy, cruelty, or absurdity of which the God was not guilty. Yet, all the time, he punished adultery, inhospitality, perjury, incest, cannibalism, and other excesses, of which, in legend, he was always setting the example. We know from Xenophanes, Plato, and St. Augustine how men's consciences were tormented by this unceasing contradiction: this overgrowth of myth on the stock of an idea originally noble. It is thus that I would attempt to account for the contradictory conceptions of Zeus, for example.

As to Apollo, I do not think that mythologists determined to find, in Apollo, some deified aspect of Nature, have laid stress enough on his counterparts in savage myth. We constantly find, in America, in the Andaman Isles, and in Australia, that, subordinate to the primal Being, there exists another who enters into much closer relations with mankind. He is often concerned with healing and with prophecy, or with the inspiration of conjurers or shamans. Sometimes he is merely an underling, as in the case of the Massachusetts Kiehtan, and his more familiar subordinate, Hobamoc. {30} But frequently this go-between of God and Man is (like Apollo) the Son of the primal Being (often an unbegotten Son) or his Messenger (Andaman, Noongaburrah, Kurnai, Kamilaroi, and other Australian tribes). He reports to the somewhat otiose primal Being about men's conduct, and he sometimes superintends the Mysteries. I am disposed to regard the prophetic and oracular Apollo (who, as the Hymn to Hermes tells us, alone knows the will of Father Zeus) as the Greek modification of this personage in savage theology. Where this Son is found in Australia, I by no means regard him as a savage refraction from Christian teaching about a mediator, for Christian teaching, in fact, has not been accepted, least of all by the highly conservative sorcerers, or shamans, or wirreenuns of the tribes. European observers, of course, have been struck by (and have probably exaggerated in some instances) the Christian analogy. But if they had been as well acquainted with ancient Greek as with Christian theology they would have remarked that the Andaman, American, and Australian "mediators" are infinitely more akin to Apollo, in his relations with Zeus and with men, than to any Person about whom missionaries can preach. But the most devoted believer in borrowing will not say that, when the Australian mediator, Tundun, son of Mungun-gnaur, turns into a porpoise, the Kurnai have borrowed from our Hymn of the Dolphin Apollo. It is absurd to maintain that the Son of the God, the go-between of God and men, in savage theology, is borrowed from missionaries, while this being has so much more in common with Apollo (from whom he cannot conceivably be borrowed) than with Christ. The Tundun-porpoise story seems to have arisen in gratitude to the porpoise, which drives fishes inshore, for the natives to catch. Neither Tharamulun nor Hobamoc (Australian and American Gods of healing and soothsaying), who appear to men as serpents, are borrowed from Asclepius, or from the Python of Apollo. The processes have been quite different, and in Apollo, the oracular son of Zeus, who declares his counsel to men, I am apt to see a beautiful Greek modification of the type of the mediating Son of the primal Being of savage belief, adorned with many of the attributes of the Sun God, from whom, however, he is fundamentally distinct. Apollo, I think, is an adorned survival of the Son of the God of savage theology. He was not, at first, a Nature God, solar or not. This opinion, if it seems valid, helps to account, in part, for the animal metamorphoses of Apollo, a survival from the mental confusion of savagery. Such a confusion, in Greece, makes it necessary for the wise son of Zeus to seek information, as in the Hymn to Hermes, from an old clown. This medley of ideas, in the mind of a civilised poet, who believes that Apollo is all-knowing in the counsels of eternity, is as truly mythological as Dunbar's God who laughs his heart sore at an ale-house jest. Dunbar, and the author of the Hymn, and the savage with his tale of Tundun or Daramulun, have all quite contradictory sets of ideas alternately present to their minds; the mediaeval poet, of course, being conscious of the contradiction, which makes the essence of his humour, such as it is. To Greece, in its loftier moods, Apollo was, despite his myth, a noble source of inspiration, of art, and of conduct. But the contradiction in the low myth and high doctrine of Apollo, could never be eradicated under any influence less potent than that of Christianity. {34} If this theory of Apollo's origin be correct, many pages of learned works on Mythology need to be rewritten.


Andrew Lang