Odysseus and the Cult of Apollo at Delos

The Hellenistic keraton at Delos. Photo by Steven Lowenstam.

For my final post, I would like to explore how the audiences for whom early Greek epics were composed and performed might have responded to representations of the cult of Apollo on Delos in epic poetry. This site, along with Delphi, was one of the god’s major Panhellenic sanctuaries—ones frequented by worshippers from many parts of the Greek world. As a consequence, references to Delos in Panhellenic epics—poems designed to appeal to audiences from many parts of the Greek world—would certainly have reached the ears of people who had visited the island or knew someone who had. Indeed, the epic tradition at some point identified Delos as the site of a competition between the two personifications of Panhellenic poetry, Hesiod and Homer, who were associated with either side of the Aegean, Askre and Ionia respectively (Hesiod fr. 357 MW=Schol. Pindar Nemea 2.1; Contest of Homer and Hesiod p.237.316 Allen; cf. Eumelos Test. 7 Bernabé=Pausanias 4.33.2).

Delos is, to be sure, only mentioned in the early Greek epic tradition once in the Odyssey, as a setting and character in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, and in one fragment of the Kypria. Nevertheless, significant details specific to the cult do emerge. Thus Odysseus tells how

Δήλῳ δή ποτε τοῖον Ἀπόλλωνος παρὰ βωμῷ

φοίνικος νέον ἔρνος ἀνερχόμενον ἐνόησα·

ἦλθον γὰρ καὶ κεῖσε, πολὺς δέ μοι ἕσπετο λαός,

τὴν ὁδὸν ᾗ δὴ μέλλεν ἐμοὶ κακὰ κήδε’ ἔσεσθαι.

Indeed, at Delos once, such a thing, at Apollo’s altar,

the fresh shoot of a palm coming up, did I observe;

For I came even there, and a great crowd accompanied me,

on the path by which there were to be so many evil cares in store for me.

Odyssey 6.162-165

Here the fame of Delos rests entirely on its connection to Apollo, whose altar Odysseus visits apparently en route to Troy (Eustathios 1557 ad 162), in like manner as Aeneas consults Anius at Delus in the Aeneid (3.73-130; cf. Kypria fr. 29 Bernabé). The implication seems to be that Odysseus consulted an oracle at Delos. This consultation might seem to be more appropriate to Delphi, since in the Homeric Hymn, the personified island requests, but is not explicitly granted, an oracle (χρηστήριον, 88); however, a third-century inscription from the island mentions a μαντεῖον (Bruneau and Ducat 1965: 28).

Odysseus’ reference to a palm tree (φοῖνιξ) suggests another, and better-known, aspect of cult at Delos. Thus the Homeric Hymn describes how the god’s mother Leto leans against a φοῖνιξ during childbirth (18, 117). From a literalistic perspective, any tree that was present at the god’s birth would hardly have been a “fresh shoot” at the time of the Trojan War, but this inconsistency is only occasionally noted by ancient commentators on the passage. The specificity of the allusion is suggested by the fact that, in epic, palm trees are mentioned only in connection with Delos. Unsurprisingly, a palm on Delos was pointed to as the site of Apollo’s birth according to Pliny (HN 16.99[240]), and Cicero connects the same or another palm there  with the Odyssey passage (Leg. 1.1.2).

The altar (βωμός) at Delos mentioned by Odysseus is also paralleled in the Homeric Hymn (88). Altars are certainly common features of epic religious sites; historical Delos, however, was the location of a special altar of Apollo, the renowned keraton or “Altar of Horns” (cf. Kallimakhos Hymn 3.61-64). Whether or not the passages in the Odyssey and Homeric Hymn were composed with some version of this altar in mind, once its fame had begun to spread, any reference to an altar at Delos would naturally evoke it. So, for example, a character in a Plutarchan dialogue quotes Odyssey 6.162 in reference to “the altar of horn that I saw, celebrated as one of the seven wonders” (τὸν κεράτινον βωμὸν εἶδον ἐν τοῖς ἑπτὰ καλουμένοις θεάμασιν ὑμνούμενον, Moralia 983e).

The Hymn to Apollo also mentions aspects of the cult of the god at Delos that the brief Odyssey passage does not. A temple of Apollo is promised to Delos by Leto (51-52), which promise would in turn remind audiences of whatever cult building was present at the time. The Hymn also famously describes a regular festival of the Ionians, at which “the blind man from Chios,” i.e., Homer, is said to have performed (146-150, 158-160, 167-173; cf. Thucydides 3.104).

The juxtaposition of texts dating from the Archaic to the Roman periods offers a sense of the dynamic relationships among cult sites, their representation in literature, and responses to them. As early as the Odyssey, Delos is shown attracting a more-than-local clientele and possessed of identifiable monuments. The Hymn, which is usually thought to have been committed to writing after the Odyssey, speaks of Delos as home to a temple and festival. On through the Hellenistic and Roman periods, these traditions remain rooted firmly in the topography of the site.

Based on the material record, it appears that Delos was largely uninhabited during the Early Iron Age, and that cult activity began there in the eighth century. At first, the cult was largely local, with only Athens outside the Cyclades being represented in the votive deposits. By the end of the eighth century, votives from Rhodes, Corinth, Euboia, Crete and even Cyprus began to be deposited (Constantakopoulou 2007: 39-41; Coldstream 215). The first temples on Delos also date around 700, but these were dedicated to Artemis and Here. While it is possible that another contemporary building (“Building Γ”) was dedicated to the god (Mazarakis Ainian 1997:179-183; Coldstream 213-216), there is no evidence that Apollo was the dominant figure in early Delian cult that he is in the literary record. Similar is the case with the Altar of Horns: the one mentioned by Hellenistic and later writers is apparently to be identified with a building of the Classical period (“GD 39”) that was likely designed to upgrade or to replace an earlier altar (Bruneau and Fraisse 2002).

The picture that emerges from the epics, of a time when Delos had become home to a widely-attended festival dedicated mainly to Apollo, was a natural place for a hero from the other side of the Greek world to visit, and featured a temple and other monuments, would be anachronistic before 700 BCE, and is scarcely conceivable before 650. Once the Odyssey and the Hymn had achieved the forms in which we know them, however, responses to their representations will have remained fluid, recreating links between whatever monuments were visible at a given time—those of Kallimakhos, Cicero, Pliny and beyond—and the epic past.

Works Cited

Bernabé, A., ed. 1987. Poetae Epici Graci: Testimonia et Fragmenta Pars 1. Leipzig: Teubner.

Bruneau, P. and J. Ducat. 1965. Guide de Délos. Paris: de Boccard.

Bruneau, P. and P. Fraisse. 2002. Le monument à Abside et la question de l’autel de cornes. Delos 40. Paris.

Constantakopoulou, C. 2007. The Dance of the Islands: Insularity, Networks, the Athenian Empire and the Aegean World. Oxford UP.

Coldstream, J.N. 2003 [1977]. Geometric Greece 900-700BC. Second edition. London and New York: Routledge.

Mazarakis Ainian, A. 1997. From Rulers’ Dwellings to Temples: Architecture, Religion and Society in Early Iron Age Greece. Jonsered.