In summary: Apollo is the God of light and the sun, healing (and disease), music (especially stringed instruments), poetry, archery and prophecy. Suitable offerings to Apollo include laurel, traditional Roman cakes / pastries (especially in nines), incense and wine. Scroll down for more.
Apollo’s cult in Rome
In both the Roman and Hellenic pantheons Apollo is the God of healing (and illness), light, music, poetry and prophecy. The ancients often identified Apollo with the sun itself and thereby twinned with the moon, thus Diana. In this guise he may be known as Sol, Phoebus or Helios. Popular mythology designates him as the son of Jupiter and Latona, though Cicero records that in ancient times there were multiple myths in relation to the Gods – some with which we are no longer familiar. For example, by one tradition Minerva is the mother of Apollo and by another his father is Vulcan. Despite conflicting mythologies, ancient authors agree on his fundamental attributes. Foremost, at least in the Roman pantheon, he is a God associated with healing, good health and protection from disease (Beard et al; Turcan; Warrior). The earliest evidence we have of his worship in Rome dates to the 5th century BCE, when an appeal to heal a pestilence and a vow to honour him with a temple was made – though we know he was worshipped in Pompeii since at least the 6th century BCE. By the 3rd century BCE Ennius listed Apollo as one of the Dii Consentes, ie, one the major Gods of Rome, and coinage bearing his image was minted. His cult became even more celebrated during the reign of Augustus, who especially promoted Apollo, inter alia, by dedicating a magnificent new temple to him on the Palatine Hill where the Sibylline books came to be kept. More than this, Augustus specifically identified himself with Apollo in various ways. When he was a young man he famously dressed as Apollo at a lavish party. In his war with Mark Antony he credited Apollo’s favour as the reason for his victory. A myth even arose that he was the son of the God, as recorded by Suetonius:
“Atia [Augustus’ mother], with certain married women friends, once attended a solemn midnight service at the temple of Apollo, where she had her litter set down and presently fell asleep, as the others also did. Suddenly a serpent crept in to her and after a while glided away again. On awakening, she purified herself as if after sleeping with her husband. An irremovable coloured mark in the shape of a serpent, which then appeared on her body, made her ashamed to visit public baths any more, and the fact that Augustus was born nine months later suggested he was the son of Apollo. Before she gave birth … Augustus’ father [ie, Atia’s husband] Octavius dreamed that the sun rose from her womb [Suetonius, Divus Augustus].”
Half a century later, the much less inspiring emperor Nero also attempted to identify himself with Helios-Apollo and in his honour had a colossal statue of Sol built. One of Nero’s flatterers went so far as to write:
“When one faces you, there is a profusion of light … You are a rising sun [Seneca cited by Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome].”
Subsequently, the imperial cult fell into a state of continuing decline while the cult of Sol became ever more popular across the empire, particularly after 274 CE when emperor Aurelian dedicated a great temple to Sol Invictus – the invincible/unconquered sun. By the 4th century Sol was one of the most popular deities in Rome. He was even regarded by some Pagans with a Neoplatonic bent as “the supreme God, of whom all the others are aspects” (Macrobius cited by Rüpke, A Companion to Roman Religion), while for others there was an overlap between Sol and the monotheistic God of early Christianity.
“Constantine [the first Roman emperor to grant Christianity imperial favour, in the early 4th century] was not aware of any mutual exclusiveness between Christianity and his faith in the Unconquered Sun … A tomb mosaic … found at Rome, probably made early in the fourth century, depicts Christ as the Sun-God mounting the heavens with his chariot. Tertullian says that many Pagans imagined the Christians worshipped the sun because they met on Sundays and prayed towards the east. Moreover, early in the fourth century there begins in the west (where first and by whom is not known) the celebration of 25 December, the birthday of the Sun-God at the winter solstice, as the date for the nativity of Christ … A law of Constantine of 321 closed law courts ‘on the venerable day of the sun’ … Sunday became not merely the day on which Christians met for worship but also a day of rest … in both law and inscription Constantine’s stated motive for introducing this custom is respect for the sun [Chadwick, The Early Church].”
However in the context of history this overlap was momentary. The last Pagan emperor of Rome, Julian the Philosopher (361-363), was known to have been particularly devoted to Sol, while being conspicuously hostile to Christianity. When Paganism was suppressed and persecuted from the 390s onwards Apollo’s temples were among those forcibly closed, and by the mid 5th century Pope Leo I had put an end to the overlap between sun worship and Christianity by:
“rebuking his over-cautious flock for paying reverence to the sun on the steps of St Peter’s before turning their back on it to worship inside the westward-facing basilica [Chadwick, The Early Church].”
Apollo’s primary attributes
As noted above, Apollo was worshipped in Rome foremost as a God of healing,. This fact is particularly well demonstrated by a sign that hung under a Roman age inn called The Mercury and Apollo in Lyon.
“over the door was the hexameter Mercurius lucrum hic promittit Apollo salutem, ‘Apollo for health; from Mercury wealth’ [Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire].”
Likewise, Ovid refers to “health-giving Apollo” and “Phoebus’ art” as being that which banishes sickness, while Caesar tells us “Apollo dispels sickness”. In keeping with this association, myth designates Apollo as the father of Aesculapius, God of medicine, and grandfather to Salus, Goddess of good health and well-being, among other health giving deities.
Prophecy and divination are strongly associated with Apollo. We have noted that by the imperial era the Sibylline books were appropriately stored in Apollo’s temple on the Palatine. In an earlier age the importance of both these books and Apollo’s oracle at Delphi was demonstrated when they became the cause of Magna Mater, who thenceforward became an important Goddess within the Roman pantheon, coming to Rome:
“when mighty Rome had seen five centuries … a priest inspects the Euboean’s song’s fateful words [ie, the Sibylline books]. They say the inspection yielded this: ‘your mother is missing. Find your mother, Roman. Chaste hands must receive her when she comes.’ The dark oracle’s riddles baffle the Fathers: what mother was missing? What place to search? Paean [ie, Apollo’s oracle at Delphi] is consulted. ‘Fetch the Mother of the Gods’ he says. ‘She can be found on Ida’s ridge [Ovid, Fasti].”
Delphi was the most important centre of Apollonian worship in the Greco-Roman era, however Apollo’s oracles were not confined to Delphi. For example, Apollo was also known as the Claros God after his oracle and sacred grove at Claros, in what is now Turkey. Germanicus was just one of many Romans who consulted this oracle. Another famous oracle of Apollo was in nearby Miletus and we know that emperor Diocletian consulted this oracle:
“At a solemn sacrifice attended by Diocletian … the augurs found that they could not discern the usual signs on the livers of the sacrificial animals – some Christians present had crossed themselves. Diocletian consulted the oracle … the God replied that false oracles were being caused by the Christians [Chadwick, The Early Church].”
Consulting oracles was so widespread in the Greco-Roman era (and note that Mercury/Hermes, keeper of knowledge and patron God of communication, and Trivia/Hecate, Goddess of witchcraft, are also traditionally associated with divination) that apparently even some early Christians consulted them, some even claimed that Apollonian oracles had testified to “the majesty of Christ” (Chadwick).
Music and poetry
Stringed instruments, first the bow (thus archery) and then the lyre (thus music) are also very specifically associated with Apollo. Ovid says “take up the lyre, and archery – you’ll surely become Apollo” and “am I, the pure priest of Apollo and the Muses [Goddesses of poetry, music and dance, sometimes designated by myth as Apollo’s daughters], to sing idle songs at unyielding doors?” Propertius tells us “you make such music as Apollo mingles, fingers plucking his cunning lyre”, while Tibullus tells us Apollo “inspires my song”. In keeping with the association of Apollo with music, in republican times certain State rituals included choirs of girls connected with Apollo’s sanctuary. Thus we see that Apollo is the primary God of music, and so also poetry, which is rhythmic (prose eloquence is Mercury’s domain). To the extent that it is poetic or musical he is also associated with theatre (though theatre is more usually associated with Bacchus), for we know that theatrical representations such as pantomimes, which are musical, were held as offerings to Apollo in ancient Italy.
Apollo’s appearance and iconography
As a God of health and the sun Apollo is traditionally imagined as being youthful, and so unmarried, beardless and having long, golden hair (Cicero; Virgil; Ovid). Horace states that his disposition is “gentle and calm”, which is as we would expect, for as a God of health Apollo naturally embodies mental and emotional well-being.
The stringed bow and lyre are associated with Apollo, as is laurel – Ovid tells us that is so because of a very famous story wherein the nymph Daphne transformed into a laurel tree after being frightened by Apollo’s loving advances. Upon this happening, Ovid has Apollo saying:
“Although you cannot be my bride … you will assuredly be my own tree, O Laurel, and will always find yourself girding my locks, my lyre, and my quiver too – you will adorn great Roman generals when every voice cries out in joyful triumph along the route up to the Capitol; you will protect the portals of Augustus, guarding, on either side, his crown of oak; and as I am – perpetually youthful, my flowing locks unknown to the barber’s shears – so you will be an evergreen forever bearing your brilliant foliage with glory [Ovid, Metamorphoses]!”
In reply Ovid says “Laurel shook her branches and seemed to nod her summit in assent”. Daphne is the most famous of Apollo’s loves, but ancient myths link Apollo to a very large number of other love affairs, including more homosexual unions than are associated with any other major God (but note that the vast majority of his loves in myth are with women, mortal or otherwise). The most famous of these is with Hyacinthus, a beautiful young man, beloved by Apollo, who was killed during a game of discus. As he lay dying Apollo transformed Hyacinthus into a flower, which grew from his blood – the Greeks called this flower hyakinthos, however this is possibly not the flower that we call hyacinthus today, but was perhaps a type of consolida, scilla or fritillaria.
Offerings to Apollo
As laurel is sacred to Apollo so too is laurel a traditional offering to Apollo. In one of Plautus’ plays a woman places a laurel branch on an altar, praying to Apollo for the well-being of her son:
“Apollo I pray that in your benevolence you bestow favour (pax), good health, and good sense on our household (familia). In your benevolence may you also spare my son [Plautus cited by Warrior, Roman Religion].”
“you, kind Apollo, submerge monstrous things in the savage depths [this is probably a reference to Tityus]: let the kindling laurel crackle loud in the sacred flames, omen that it will be a happy and fruitful year. When the laurel has given its auspicious sign, farmers be joyful [Tibullus, Nemesis].”
As noted above, poetic or musical theatrical presentations are known to have been offered to Apollo in the Roman era, thus music and poetry composed or performed in the God’s honour may be pleasing oblations. Likewise, dance parties bearing his name may be considered as offerings, if not an entire rite in themselves.
In what is perhaps a recognition of Apollo’s fiery aspect – for the sun is fiery – Apollo may be propitiated by “running over a bed of hot coals” (Turcan), as was apparently a yearly offering in ancient Italy. Likewise, just as the sun is golden, so too may golden items please golden-haired Apollo. We know, for example, that a gold wine bowl was offered to Apollo by Romans at Delphi.
Regarding food offerings it seems that those made in threes and nines may be pleasing. During Augustus’ rule the following prayer and offering was made:
“Apollo … may every good fortune attend the Roman people … let sacrifice be made to you with nine popona [pastry balls made of soft cheese and flour] and nine cakes and nine phthoes [cakes that shrivel when cooked; perhaps like pastils]. I beg you and pray … Just as I have offered nine popana and prayed to you with a proper prayer, for this same reason be honoured with these sacrificial cakes. Become favourable and propitious [cited in Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Vol 2: A Sourcebook].”
Making an animal sacrifice by proxy by baking items that look like (nine) lambs and (nine) goats and then burning them whole in sacrificial fire may also please the God, while more straightforward offerings include incense and wine. See Pagan Offerings to the Gods for more.
Sunshine, music and poetry can be sacred – many of us feel that, and when we do we enjoy Apollo’s blessings, but more sacred and blessed than that is a healthy mind and body, which Apollo bestows. Horace says it well when he writes:
“I pray, Apollo, let me be content with what I have, enjoy good health and clarity of mind, and in a dignified old age retain the power of verse [cited in Kamm, The Romans].”
The healthy mind is free of delusions and perceives the truth more easily, this is perhaps why we also call Apollo the God of prophecy. We can say, as the ancients did, that Apollo lights up the truth, as in Plato’s allegory of the cave – when the philosopher steps from the cave, where he has lived all his life, into the sunlight:
“When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities … He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day … Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is. … He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold … the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world … the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and … lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life, must have his eye fixed [Plato, The Republic].”
May it be so.
- Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)
- Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History (Cambridge University Press)
- Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook (Cambridge University Press)
- Chadwick, The Early Church (Penguin Books)
- Cicero, The Nature of the Gods (Oxford University Press)
- Ferguson, The Religions of the Roman Empire (Cornell University Press)
- Horace, The Works of Horace (gutenberg.org)
- Kamm, The Romans: An Introduction (Routledge)
- Ovid, Cures for Love (poetryintranslation.com)
- Ovid, Fasti (Oxford University Press)
- Ovid, Fasti (Penguin Books)
- Ovid, Fasti (theoi.com)
- Ovid, The Heroides (poetryintranslation.com
- Ovid, Metamorphoses (classics.mit.edu)
- Ovid, Metamorphoses (Norton)
- Propertius, The Love Elegies (yorku.ca)
- Rüpke (Ed), A Companion to Roman Religion (Wiley-Blackwell)
- Scheid, Roman Religion (Indiana University Press)
- Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Books)
- Tibullus, The Elegies of Tibullus (gutenberg.org)
- Tibullus, Nemesis (poetryintranslation.com)
- Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome (Routledge)
- Virgil, The Aeneid (oil.libertyfund.org)
- Warrior, Roman Religion (Cambridge University Press)