The gods in antiquity often came under fire for their human-like behaviour. Jealousy, lust, revenge—these are just a few of the traits that were criticized as being less than divine. Xenophanes famously said that if horses could depict their gods, they would look like horses. Of course, this speaks to the question of which came first: the human or the god. The argument here is that when gods do human things, it’s because humans are projecting themselves upon the divine.
Case in point: Apollo.
Despite the obviousness of Xenophanes’ observation, once in a while, I am struck by how the gods do very human things. You know, how they act all normal when they’re not turning into mythical animals or smiting their enemies with lightning bolts. Recently, I found a discussion of the relationship of Dionysus and Apollo which seemed particularly indicative of this humanizing of the gods. In a commentary to the Orphic “Hymn to Dionysos Liknites,” Apostolos N. Athanassakis observes how the epithet Liknites was particular to the worship of Dionysus at Delphi (153-154).
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t Delphi the home of Apollo? And, yes. Yes, it is. But sometimes Apollo goes on vacation, and when that happens, Dionysos watches the house. Gods—they’re just like us!
Like the Canadian snowbirds who head to Florida when the weather turns cold, or those who skedaddle to the Bahamas during Spring Break, Apollo similarly takes a winter vacay. Giving his keys to Dionysus, the god of divination puts his mail on hold and absconds for three months of R&R, presumably to do whatever it is gods do. I assume it involves a sandy beach, a frosty margarita, and being fanned by palm fronds—but perhaps I am reading a bit much into it here.
Actually, I am. Apollo just went north to Thrace to hang out with the Hyperboreans. Which I’m sure is fun in its own way.
Why was Dionysus looking after Delphi in Apollo’s absence? Athanassakis observes that there is a pre-Apollonian link between Dionysus and Delphi, and perhaps a link between Dionysus and the snake, or Python, which Apollo slayed when he took up residence there. Furthermore, it is said by Plutarch that Dionysus was buried at Delphi:
The people of Delphi believe that the remains of Dionysus rest with them close beside the oracle; and the Holy Ones offer a secret sacrifice in the shrine of Apollo whenever the devotees of Dionysus wake the God of the Mystic Basket. (Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 201-202)
Perhaps this is a reference to the belief that Dionysus was ripped apart by the Titans. Or perhaps it refers to the half-god, half-human status of Dionysus (Born to Zeus and the mortal Semele). Either way, there was a belief that Apollo shared his space with Dionysus, either while he was alive or after his death. But most definitely while he was on vacation.
In much of the ancient literature, we often find associations between gods that deviate from the standard stories we know from “mythology.” New genealogies are created and strange alliances formed based on regional peculiarities or how the god is interpreted by his worshipers. The Orphic Hymns certainly fall into this category, and the “Hymn to Dionysos Liknites” underscores the atypical relationships the gods may have with each other. In this case, we meet Dionysus, not as the god of wine, but as the god of house-sitting.
- Athanassakis, Apostolos, and Benjamin M. Wolkow. 2013. The Orphic Hymns. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Plutarch. Isis and Osiris. Full text can be found online here.
Photo by xymox.