Among the Deathless Ones, Apollon is probably the one whose reputation has been more tarnished by modern rereadings of the myths. Today He is often remembered with adjectives like petty, temperamental, indifferent to mortals’ plights, fickle… when He is not equaled to Nietzche’s ideal of strict and frigid rationality, He’s frequently defined as an adolescently immature and delicate god, going from one extreme to its polar opposite.
While each one of those stereotypical representations is distant from Apollon’s true nature, He is indeed a god of sharp-edged extremes, as it is beautifully demonstrated by his two main attributes – the lyre and the bow – showing that compassionate generosity and ruthless violence find both expression in His character.
This is more evident than in Apollon’ s mythic stories of tragic love.
We have three themes that recur in Apollon’s loves – the first is the ‘escape’, where the god pursues – and most specifically, He chases, like a predator, like the wolf that is His animal counterpart– the object of His love until He catches up to Them, eventually. The most famous example is the nymph Daphne, his very first love, who to escape Him is turned into a laurel tree and still is chosen to be His crown, but Kastalia’s story has just the same meaning. Like Daphne, Kastalia is a nymph who spurned Apollon’s love transformed herself, turning her body into a pool of water to escape his restless pursuit. Yet, her waters were the ones who inspired Delphi’s priestesses and there they were used to cleanse the temple. Therefore she too became a powerful tool of the god, regardless her initial resistance.
Kyrene’s case is a little different – the Thessalian princess is seized and spirited away to Libya, where she gives into Apollon and conceives with Him a son, yet the basic construct of Apollon’s pursuit remains – there’s a sense of the lover being ‘hunted’ from the god that I found to be common enough among Apollon’s chosen servants. And indeed how can one to not run from Apollon, when first faced with the unrelenting focus of the god’ interest? There’s an intensity to it that burns and consumes and while you are inevitably drawn to it, like a moth to the flame, the instinctual response is still ‘run or you will get scorched’.
The second pattern is maybe the most evident – death and transformation. If you look to Apollon’ s involvement with Ciparissus and Hyacinth in particular, the god’s presence and love somehow triggers their death and following transfiguration into plants that reflect their deeper nature. Hyacinth and Ciparisuss are immortalized through and in Apollon’ s love- He leads them to the death of the old self and into enlightenment, making them an example of what happens when one’s calling to Apollon is embraced completely and to the god’s satisfaction.
The third pattern has the god offering gifts to His prospective lovers and turning them into curses when they don’t maintain their promise of offering themselves to Him in return. Cassandra receives the gift of prophecy and The Sybil an incredibly long life, yet they both refuse to give themselves to Him.
Faithful to His role of preserver of lawful order, Apollon stands by his side of the contract and instead of withdrawing those gifts, He makes impossible for Cassandra and the Sybil to enjoy them. In those instances, I see Apollon acting more like a judge, punishing those who dare to break a contract with a god, than a jilted admirer, especially looking at how for Olympians, hubris was the very worst sin one could commit toward deity.
On a more figurative interpretation, we might say that as a deity responsible for the Mastery Of Self, Apollon acts opening His followers to the development of their best qualities in service to their community –both Cumae’s Sybil and Cassandra were seers and His priestesses, after all- so to shut the Self out of His favor has those qualities He has bestowed on it grow wild and out control, so they are no longer a tool of improvement for the community but a reason to be isolated from it.
This is not a denial of His harsher tempers, naturally. The flaying of Marsyas is not the only mythical proof of Apollon’ s capacity for ruthless punishments – Koronis ‘s betrayal with the mortal Ischys is soon rewarded with death, upon His request if not by His hand. That episode contrasts somewhat with Marpessa’s and Chione’s examples. As Apollon is shown to share Chione freely with His brother Hermes and to accept Marpessa’s choice of the mortal Idas over Him, the purpose of Koronis’ story is not merely portraying Apollon as a possessive god (although He’s quite able to claim the major part of His devotees time or attention). As it suits to someone who is directly concerned with law-giving, the worst of Apollon’ s rage is reserved to those behave falsely and /or with hubris.