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.

Commentary on Hymn XVI: To Antinous Apollon, Navigator

With you is the light of day, O Antinous Apollon,
the light of music and poetry, the light of true prophecy,
the light of healing, all the light we need. In your light
we can walk a straight path, we can see our way clear,
we can reach our destination. Guide us, Antinous Apollon,
Navigator, guide us when the day is cloudy, when the rains
are falling, when the sun is setting; guide us, glorious Phoebus,
and do not forget us when the sun sets, when the night
has come, when the lyre is silent, when the lips are closed.
Be our light when there is no light, slayer of Python,
god of Delphi; be the light that shines from within.

One of Apollon’s most frequent titles is “Phoibos”, or “Phoebus” in the Latinised spelling. It simply means bright, or radiant. Apollon is not, strictly speaking, a god of the sun, though he came to be seen as such, displacing Helios and Sol in the popular imagination, but he is undoubtedly a god of light. He is the light of day, the light of knowledge, the light of insight and inspiration, the light of prophecy, and his light is the source of guidance, as Antinous Apollon.

To make a good decision, to choose with discernment, requires internalizing that divine light, being guided by our own principles and by our communion with the god. Over and over again I come back to the understanding that divine guidance, embodied in Antinous the Navigator, means knowing what your values truly are and abiding by them. The problem for most people, I think, is not seeing that our values may not be what we think they are. To use the most obvious possible example, in our work-driven American culture, many people say they value family above everything, but the number of hours spent at the office versus the number of hours spent with their family proves that work is in fact their highest value.

It also is not necessarily easy to make your actions line up with your values. You may genuinely love your family yet be trapped in a work culture that demands frequent overtime and weekend availability. You may love your family yet be constrained to work two jobs in order to provide for them materially. You may want to do more creative work, yet be stuck with health issues and thus (in the United States) be stuck working a full-time job in order to have healthcare.

I believe the gods can and do help us to do the right thing, the ethical thing, the action which aligns with our values, if we ask for their help. And, of course, if we have an ongoing relationship with them, a basis on which to ask. That’s why there’s 31 hymns to a set, one for every day of the month, to begin establishing that relationship with Antinous and to build it and keep it up.

Commentary on Hymn XV: To Antinous-Apollon, Liberator

Brightest of gods and fairest, purest of gods
and noblest, Antinous Apollon, far-shooter,
lyre-player, Muse-leader, health-giver,
you are the liberator because you are
the purifier, your rays shining through us
like lasers, searching and burning out
ill health, impurity, falsehood–temper
your light with warmth, your power with
compassion, python-killer, sybil-speaker,
lest you wound those who worship you
lest the cure exceed the disease.

The next trio of hymns is dedicated to Antinous Apollon. I have, to be honest, a lot of mixed feelings about Apollon. If you only read his myths, he can sometimes seem like the sort of male who insists he is perfectly rational at all times, especially when he is demanding you do his emotional labor or throwing a tantrum over your desire to act like an independent being. At best, he embodies the kind of high standards that torment perfectionists like myself–we want to live up to those standards or die trying.

But myth is not cult, and Apollon was worshipped as a healer, oracle, and inspirer, all roles which Antinous has played in my life. I know of many polytheists who are deeply, passionately devoted to the Lord of Light, so I don’t think my feelings about him are anything but my feelings. Many pagans and witches talk a lot about the shadow and the underworld and exploring the darkness and their devotion to all the spooky deities. I’ll tell you what scares me far more than the darkness: exposure to the light. Being seen, being known can be a terrifying prospect. Confronting a deity who is prepared to burn all the dross out of one’s soul makes me want to scuttle down to the Underworld and hide under Hades’ desk.

That’s why I pray in this hymn for Antinous Apollon to moderate his light, to make it more bearable for fragile mortal creatures. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is said that buddhas and bodhisattvas assume wrathful forms because these seemingly terrifying appearances are easier for humans to relate to in our unenlightened state. The pure and ruthless wisdom and compassion of the liberated ones, if we could experience it directly, would be more terrifying than any wrath they might show. That is the nature of Antinous Apollon as liberator.