Apollo and the Art of Archery
In book 1 of the Iliad, Apollo makes quite an entrance. Rightly so because, though he may not be the most powerful god, he is the god behind the Iliad, as I will explain.
He is the patron of poetry, healing, prophecy and archery. These four are poetically connected. In Homeric terms, both poetry and prophecy are actually branches of healing. Homer's poetry does not only have an entertaining function, it is also designed to alleviate pain and fear suffered by an individual or a community. Not only the Iliad but to a lesser degree also the Odyssey serve this purpose. If Apollo is the god of poetry, at least certain kinds of poetry, and the Iliad is that kind of poetry, then Apollo must be in some sense the god behind the Iliad. This means that the poet is 'obeying Apollo', because:
the poem voices Apollo's anger
1.43 [...], τοῦ δ' ἔκλυε Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων,
βῆ δὲ κατ' Οὐλύμποιο καρήνων χωόμενος κῆρ,
τόξ' ὤμοισιν ἔχων ἀμφηρεφέα τε φαρέτρην:
ἔκλαγξαν δ' ἄρ' ὀϊστοὶ ἐπ' ὤμων χωομένοιο,
αὐτοῦ κινηθέντος: ὃ δ' ἤϊε νυκτὶ ἐοικώς.
ἕζετ' ἔπειτ' ἀπάνευθε νεῶν, μετὰ δ' ἰὸν ἕηκε:
δεινὴ δὲ κλαγγὴ γένετ' ἀργυρέοιο βιοῖο:
οὐρῆας μὲν πρῶτον ἐπῴχετο καὶ κύνας ἀργούς,
αὐτὰρ ἔπειτ' αὐτοῖσι βέλος ἐχεπευκὲς ἐφιεὶς
1.43 [...] and Phoebus Apollo heard him. He came down furious from the top(1) of Olympus, with his bow and his covered quiver on his shoulder, and the arrows sounded loudly on the shoulders(2) of the angry god as he moved. He came like night.
He sat down away from the ships and sent his arrows. A terrible sound emerged from the silver bow. First he attacked the mules and the swift dogs, but then he aimed his piercing arrows at the men [...]
Why is Apollo angry? Because Agamemnon dishonoured his priest Chryses ("Golden") by abducting his daughter and refusing the priest's pleas to give her back. Is Apollo such a fussy god that he reacts to a relatively small detail in a harsh war that has been going on for many years already? "Why now?" we would like to ask the god who protects Troy.
For the poet it is a major topic: he uses it to start off the Iliad - the poem about the war that is waged because a Trojan abducted an Achaean girl, Menelaos' wife. There is no small irony here. The irony is continued when the "abduction" theme is transferred to Achilles(3), the proxy for the listener himself. How can you do this to me, Achilles, when you are going to war because it was done to you?
Phoebus, the epithet of Apollo, means "pure" or "bright". It is easy to see how the abducting of girls to satisfy the desires of the army (and the king) is a miasma, a pollution of purity. Note that they have to purify themselves after the girl is shipped back and before offering a sacrifice to Apollo (Il 1.313). Hence the wrath.
But in the Iliad, Apollo is not angry because of the abduction of a girl, he is angry because of the dishonour done to his priest Chryses. Why does the poet construct it this way?
We must understand that the Iliad always works on the principle of 'imagine you were in that situation'. It never uses abstract principles like 'it is wrong to do such and such'. So instead of showing an angry god, he gives us a figure we can identify with: a father whose daughter has been taken. Or a father who loses his beloved son in a useless war, like Priam and Peleus. Or a father whose child will be killed and whose wife will be enslaved. Homer always goes for the pathos and the fact that he mentions those things at all is not a sign of his objectivity, it is his attempt to transfer his own anger to the listening public.
It is a prophecy. E.g. Il 1.240:
ἦ ποτ' Ἀχιλλῆος ποθὴ ἵξεται υἷας Ἀχαιῶν
Soon the Achaeans will need Achilles(4)
To Achilles this is an oath, he is saying that he will not come. But in the subtext it is a prophecy, the basic political message that drives the Iliad. See also the past, present & future page. In the Odyssey there is also a prophecy, a "return of the king(5)" kind of message that seems much like a warning against tyranny. More about this here.
The Iliad is also a healing
song: a paean. See Il 22.391 :
νῦν δ᾽ ἄγ᾽ ἀείδοντες παιήονα κοῦροι Ἀχαιῶν
'Allons enfants de la Patrie', let us sing a song of triumph and healing...
A paean is a song to ask for, give thanks for or as here, to boast of a successful cure. This one is sung by Achilles after he killed Hector. His revenge fulfilled, he thinks himself healed now although the actual healing does not occur until book 24.
It need not be a cure of an individual, it can also heal a community. A community under siege or otherwise in trouble may be stressed, fearful, 'feverish' and many more things. To get rid of this unbearable stress they have several options other than just making heroic speeches:
- They might offer votive gifts to mythical heroes who in the past did save their people from similar disasters.
- A wise local leader might order a bard to sing appropriate epic tales to boost their courage and give them hope.
- Another possibility is the banishment or even sacrifice of a pharmakos, a scapegoat. Also connected to Apollo. see Il 1.313-.
These options are not strictly separated: there are tales of pharmakoi managing to get rid of enemy armies. Achilles (Patroclus) is a kind of exile who manages, on his own, to defeat the Trojan army. Achilles is also like Thersites (he voices the same criticism) who is, in his capacity as "worst of the Achaeans", another candidate for scapegoat. More on the scapegoat below.
It pays to take careful stock of everything related to Apollo. A basic
concept is that of the "winged words" (better: "feathered words"). Words
are like arrows which may hit you in the heart if they are aimed well, so
a singer is like an archer just as a lyre is like a bow (for this, see
Odysseus stringing his bow in Od 21.404-). The "Silverbow" epithet of the
god is explained in il 9.186-7: it is actually a lyre with a silver
crossbar; I suspect Homer had one like that.
An archer is a kind of coward who stands apart from the fighting and kills at a distance. A poet who has left his hometown, where the fighters are, to go into exile and aim words at them from afar, must be very aware of this reflection. It is not without significance that Apollo is presented as pro-Trojan.