Commentary on Hymn XVII: To Antinous Apollon, Lover

How many are your loves, Antinous Apollon,
and how many the stories with unhappy endings.
How often your beloveds shrink away in fear
or fall prey to jealous rivals; how often the light
of your regard turns mortals into plants.
Laurel and cypress and hyacinth bear testimony
to the terror your purity of love can inspire.
Yet to those who yield, you give joy and fruitfulness;
many are your sons by many mothers, and
how poor we would be without their gifts.
If you insist on loving us, father of Aristaios and
Asklepios, then make us worthy of your favor
and sensible of our worthiness in your sight.
O Antinous Apollon, if you approach us mortals,
be gentle; if we flee your light, do not pursue
too swiftly; if we hesitate between mortal and
immortal love, do not judge too harshly, for we
are as moths to your flame, dust motes in your
beams, herbs thrown onto the fire sweetly to burn.

Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne

The myths of Apollon that I remember best from my childhood are his many and often unsuccessful romantic relationships. If romantic one can call them, since consent seems to play little part. What the mythographers deemed important about a god’s romantic escapades was usually the son he fathered on a goddess, nymph, or mortal woman, and Apollon fathered some notable offspring, including Asklepios (Aesculapius to the Romans), a god of healing second only to his father, and Aristaios, the god of cheese-making, bee-keeping, and olive-pressing (and thus patron of a large portion of the average daily diet in ancient times).

A brief perusal of Apollon’s pages at Theoi.com informs me that the god was credited with, literally, dozens of lovers and children unknown to me from my childhood reading, including four relationships with young men that all ended badly (that is, the young man died and became a flower or a tree). It is no wonder that in thinking of Apollon Antinous as lover, I thought again of the god’s light, of that purifying laser brightness, and how it might be too much for a mere mortal to bear.

The story of Daphne is often held against Apollo as proof that he is simply another rapist, albeit a mortal one. However, Ovid’s version of the story in his Metamorphoses is more complex than that. Ovid relates that Apollo, seeing the childlike Cupid practicing with his bow, mocked him and boasted of his own prowess in its use, advising the boy god to stick to lighting torches. Cupid had his revenge by shooting two arrows: a golden one at Apollo, kindling him with desire, and a leaden one at the nymph Daphne, kindling revulsion against love, sex, and marriage. When Apollo met Daphne, his attraction and her repulsion led to a chase that concluded only when she reached the river Peneus, her father, and called on him for help. He transformed his terrified daughter into a tree, the first laurel tree.

I would like to think that, seeing the object of his desire turned into a tree rather than yield to him, Apollo regretted his lapse in rationality and his mockery of the power of sexual desire, and that his claiming the laurel tree as his own, sacred to him, was not a final attempt to override Daphne’s lack of consent, but rather a reminder to himself of the harm he had caused by scorning Cupid. Which, as a mythographer myself, it is my right to think and to write. Affairs between gods and mortals, even gods and lesser spirits, can be dangerous things, yet how rewarding when, as with Apollon and Kyrene, or Dionysus and Ariadne, everything goes right.

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