Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Servant of Delphian Apollo!
Go to the Castalian spring;
Wash in its silvery eddies,
And return cleansed to the temple.
Guard your lips from offence.
To those who ask for oracles
Let the god's answer come
Pure from all private fault.


 From his holy seat on the slopes of Parnassus, radiant Apollo gazed far out over the wine-dark sea. His long golden locks rippled round his noble head like tongues of a fiery corona, illuminating the mountain crags nearby, casting a glow that streamed down to Corinthian waters below. Far-reaching was the light that shone from that godly form and more far-reaching still the penetrating gaze that followed the distant progress of a small Cretan ship that set sail from Knossos on the Mediterranean Sea. To the ends of the earth those eyes could see and into the secret hearts of men. Looking thus on the small ship's crew, Apollo saw in them the priests he would need for his Delphic shrine. He suddenly transformed himself into the shape of a dolphin and, leaping aboard the vessel, he marshalled the south wind to blow them off course. Seized by forces they could not combat, the startled sailors found themselves swept along past the yawning cliffs of Taenaron where the entrance to Hades gaped. Past Messenia and up along the western Peloponnese they were driven until, at the bidding of the god, the west wind scuttled them into the Corinthian gulf and onto the bay near grape-laden Krissa. At this gentle shore Apollo leapt out of the ship as a shining god and bid the crew to mount up to Pytho and become his priests. Dazzled by his power and beauty, they willingly agreed and marched to the melody of his lyre as he took them up the rocky slopes to Delphi.

 Six hundred years before the Christian era, the temple of Apollo at Delphi stood in pristine solitude on those rocky slopes. The stadium, theatre, club and round chamber and all the treasuries dedicated by city-states did not yet exist. Even earlier, before the coming of the great god to that place, there were Pythian rituals presided over by seeresses called Pythia who derived their power from the chthonic forces within the earth. There was said to have been a remoteness and dignity possessed by these early Pythia which was enriched during the early centuries that witnessed the flowering of Apollonian religion but was lost by Plutarch's time. After the coming of Christianity the oracle became silent, and Julian the Apostate, in a last effort to restore the finest pagan beliefs, sent a famous doctor, Oribasius, to see if he could revive the spirit of Delphi. For the last time the Pythia spoke, in poignant words to the world outside:

Tell the King the fair-wrought house has fallen.
No shelter has Apollo, nor sacred laurel leaves;
The fountains now are silent; the voice is stilled.

 The last temple of Apollo was plundered and torn down about thirty-six years later, in A.D. 398, by the Christian emperor Arcadius, not to come to light again for over fifteen hundred years. It was fitting that Apollo should have come to Delphi, whose ancient name, Pytho, referred to the sacred function of the seeresses there. The Greeks and others before them considered him to be the personification of seership, appearing to his seers without being visible to other persons present. Cassandra of Troy was one on whom the spirit of Apollo descended, not without violence to her nature. Cursed with a gift of prophecy which none would believe, the poor girl saw the details of her own imminent murder and cried out as her last request to those who could credit her dire vision of death: "Remember me, and say I told the truth!" With this last effort to convey an essential statement about the meaning of her life, Cassandra asserted the primacy of true perception to a priestess of Apollo. Coming from Ilium, she was an example of those who had dedicated themselves to the god's worship along the eastern shores of the Aegean and in inner Anatolia as well. Temples dedicated to Apollo are older and more numerous in these regions, prompting many to assume that he came to the Greeks from Asia Minor. For this reason, they argue, Homer made him the champion of the Trojans, whose persecution of the Greeks is dramatically pictured in the Iliad.

 Some scholars claim an Asian, some a northern (Hyperborean), origin for Apollo. Gilbert Murray suggested a compromise which might include both locales through an Asian mother and a Hyperborean father. Of course, in later Hellenic mythology, Apollo is depicted as a son of Zeus, though this may seem to be a somewhat contrived grafting of a foreign god onto an essentially Greek cosmogonical tree. All sources agree that he was a son of Leto, who seems to have had her origin in Lycia, where inscriptions concerning the Titaness are to be found. There is, however, an occult tradition that links up Leto (or Latona) with Hyperborea and with a period of gods much earlier than even the Titanic precursors of Zeus. But in the popular belief of classical times, Leto was associated with Apollo's birth on Delos, whose island inhabitants she promised would host the building of her newborn son's first temple. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo describes how, when his birth was nigh, "she gripped with both hands the palm trees that grew there, and with both feet she kneaded the soft meadowland. The soil laughed beneath her, the god sprang forth and the goddess cried aloud." Forthwith Apollo announced: "Dear to me shall be lyre and bow, and in my oracles I shall reveal to men the inexorable will of Zeus." It is said that swans circled seven times singing around the island at his birth, a mythical detail which marks the importance of the number 7 to the god but also suggests an origin further to the north. Singing swans and the amber associated with Apollo are elements of the northern climes, of that sacred Isle of the Blessed called not Delos, but Hyperborea.

 Of this mysterious place the ancients said, "No ship and no traveller can reach that land." In spite of the importance of Delos as a centre of traditional Apollonian ritual, it was commonly asserted by many drawn to the Mysteries that only those whom Apollo chose could see that fabulous Hyperborea. There, it was said, "Phoebus' ancient garden" was located and thither he vanished with his swans every year. Occult tradition reveals an intimate relationship between the name Latona (Leto) and the long (six-month) night of the Hyperborean region which, it is suggested, is the place of her origin wherein all the inhabitants were priests of her son. This polar Hyperborea is said to be the Second Continent, associated with the Second Race, which enjoyed an ethereal state of development long before newer land masses arose to become the seats of more materially evolved Races. Some say Hyperborea was a garden-island that became lost beneath the ice-cap of a changing earth. Others assert that it never physically existed but floated, nay, still floats, in a more ethereal realm where the gods dwell.

 There are many mysterious and seemingly scattered elements surrounding the birth of Apollo. The swans connected with it are symbolic of both fire and water, before the separation of the elements. Artemis, Apollo's twin sister, is always present at the time of his birth, as though she were simply a female aspect of himself. It has been asserted that the name Apollo means 'from the depths of the lion' and expresses the relationship of the sun with the fifth sign of the zodiac, Leo. Though this meaning is by no means universally endorsed, it is extremely provocative and reminds one of the passage of Leo 'into the pit', which takes place every sidereal cycle. This suggestively links up with the periodic renovation of the earth, involving the polar shifts associated with the rise and obscuration of land masses on this globe. It explains the tilt of the earth in relation to the zodiacal belt, at which point first Leo and then Astraea (Virgo) disappear below the earth's equator and descend, seemingly, towards its South Pole. It requires little imagination to envision Leto in the place of Virgo and to see her providing the birth channel through which the god of light (the Sun in Leo) can manifest into the grosser, more material world. This is made more intriguing when one recalls that in classical myth Tartarus was said to be a distance below the earth equal to nine days' fall of an anvil from its edge. Pondering the nine days of intense labour Leto underwent in order to bear forth her son, several intriguing connections present themselves and also intimate the difficulty of channelling the pure light of a high solar being into the world.

 Equally suggestive is the fact that Leto was the daughter of Koios (Sphairos or 'Ball of Heaven') and would seem to have provided a link between an egg-shaped substance-ancestor and an androgynous deity. This line of generation is tangentially reminiscent of the description by Aristophanes of an earlier race of men whose "bodies were round, and the manner of their running was circular. They were terrible in force and strength and had prodigious ambition. Hence Zeus divided each of them into two, making them weaker; Apollo, under his direction, closed up the skin." H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine invites the reader to compare this with Ezekiel's vision of the four divine beings who "had the likeness of a man" and yet the appearance of a wheel, "for the support of the living creature was in the wheel". All this points to an immense evolution from etheric spheres of evolving intelligence to more fragmented and specialized forms involving the work of the lunar Pitris. The article on "Aquarian Civilization" (Hermes, December 1983) sketches in a few glowing lines a lofty overview of this process. It states that many of the gods of old belonged to the First Race of humanity, the demigods to the Second, until, in the Third Race, humanity emerged and passed through several stages from the androgynous to the dual-sexed condition of historic times.

 Apollo expresses in his ancestry and nature many of the characteristics found at different levels of this evolution. He is, first and foremost, a high god who is 'Ever-Distant' and who stuns the other Olympian gods with his aloof and stern ways. In the Iliad he is called "the Greater God", said to have appeared in his own form four times in connection with the divine dynasties of the earlier unseparated Lemurians. In his role of solar deity he had thus spawned, as it were, races and lineages within races which themselves were known in the ancient world as solar dynasties. Just prior to Apollo's birth, Leto was pursued by jealous Hera, who sent Python to devour the babe. This 'dragon' represents the Naga of the North Pole who drives out the early Lemurians from a land which is withdrawing from the gradually concretizing world. Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden who precipitates Eve's fall, Python forces the birth of serf-conscious godhood into the world. For the humans-to-be this will remain in potentia, whilst in the god it is full blown. In him is the Creative Fire of Life, acting through seven aspects (as with the Kabiri) upon matter. In myth, Apollo is made to seek revenge for his mother's abuse by going directly to Delphi, where the dragon Python has his lair.

  This 'dragon' was sometimes called Delphyne and said to have been female and converted into an Apollonian serpent or Pythia, which was the name of the priestesses who acted as oracles for the god at Delphi. There is, in fact, much confusion about the various dragons and it seems apparent that an older and more profound teaching passed down through the ancient Mysteries had become diminished and popularized to suit a local set of circumstances. The egg of primordial substance – being identified with heaven – had become the omphalos guarded by the Delphian Python, and the wise dragon of the Sacred Isle had become identified with the chthonic powers of the earth and the delivery of her psychic prophecy. In the myths Apollo slew this Python with his arrows, which symbolize the rays of the sun, thus asserting the superiority of solar intelligence over the limited sensibilities of elemental powers. By this assertion Apollo proclaimed himself the archetypal god of the Mysteries. With the full sunlight of mind available through him, human beings could come to see clearly the inner nature of things. In this role Apollo appeared as a mason before Laomedon, Priam's father, and instructed him in the building of Ilium (which, in reality, involved the establishment of the Mysteries at that place and time).

 As an archer, Apollo is called 'the Far-Darter'. He (like his sister, Artemis) shoots unerringly and unseen from afar. As he regularly withdraws to Hyperborean darkness, so Apollo ever withdraws from men and remains aloof. In this quality he has been called the most Greek of all gods. Though given to spasms of passionate intemperance, the Hellenes were inclined to subdue this tendency and embraced a measured mode more than the enthusiasm of Dionysiac expression. The Dionysiac temper connotes intoxication, suggesting proximity, whilst the Apollonian advocates clarity and form resultant from distance, an objectivity of cognition. Everything about Apollo rejects entangling things: the melting gaze, soulful mergings, mystical inebriation or ecstatic vision are all disdained. The Apollonian desires spirit rather than soul, purity rather than ardent worship. The upholding of purity is a manifest element in the cool aloofness of Apollo. Ever mindful of the proper order and balance of things, he is quick to punish those who break the sacred codes. Vivid passages in the Iliad portray his wrath as he strides into the path of Patroclus, shattering him in the midst of his charge. It is Apollo by whom Achilles will be vanquished, along with numberless other Greeks at Troy. Because Atrides of the Achaeans refused to return the captive Chryseis to her father Chryses, the god strode down in a fury from Olympus: "And the arrows clanged upon his shoulders in his wrath, as the god moved; and he descended like to night (quickly). Then he sate him aloof from the ships, and let the arrows fly; and there was heard a dread clanging of the silver bow."

  So radiant and penetrating is the purity and sharp clarity of Apollo that his fire is too intense for the impure natures of this world. Any amalgamation of partial truths and delusions was doomed before the laser beam of his penetrating glance. Mortals, nymphs and demigods with whom he felt enamoured were in danger of losing their lives in the face of its too concentrated attention. The problem of how a high solar force might manifest in the world was resolved only in stages. Leto had to leave the ethereal purity of Hyperborea to bear him into the world, and,in giving him his lordly vesture, she had to struggle through the realm of Tartarus and back again to a worldly place. The darkness into which he was born was not that of the Blessed Isle but of the world, and yet, even clothed in these limiting vestures in which he manifested from time to time, he remained utterly pure and superior to all conditioned existence. Something of this is captured in the sculptured Apollo at the temple of Zeus at Olympia. One who sees it can never forget it. Outstretched arms enjoin calm. Loftiness shines out of his countenance, whose serenity combines the most delicate curve of jaw and chin with a powerfully regal brow and nose. About the strong and noble mouth there is a delicate, almost melancholy expression of superior knowledge. Virile strength and clarity are combined with the splendour of the sublime. He displays youth in its freshest bloom and purity. He embodies the compelling manifestation of the divine. Amidst the desolation, confusion and impurity of the world, he startles the earth-bound imagination and sends it soaring heavenward.

 Such fiery brilliance and purity require a mediator through which it may flow in more moderated ways into the world. And so in the myths Apollo is given a seven-stringed lyre from Hermes, who accepts from the god in return his caduceus. Before this exchange, Apollo possessed but a three-stringed lyre capable of being heard in heaven alone. With the seven-stringed instrument he symbolically acquired the means of playing upon a scale which extended from the realm of the gods all the way to earth. In addition, Hermes became his envoy to the world, the rod upon which the fiery spirit wound downwards and upwards. The intense spiritual light of the solar god presiding atop the serpent-transmitters of its electric power shone from afar, sending its darts here and there but remaining in measured aloofness.

 Apollo loves music but suffers no passion from its hearing. It is in the measure of the refrain that he delights, for he is the god of measured things. During the Battle of the Gods described in the Iliad, Apollo replies to Poseidon's polemical challenge: "You would have me be without measure and without prudence, if I am to fight for insignificant mortals, who now flourish like leaves of the trees and then fade away and are dead." This is the god depicted by Pindar, who calls him the promulgator of insight, self-knowledge, measure and intelligent order. "What are we?" he asks. "The shadow of a dream is man, no more. But when brightness comes, and God gives it, there is a shining light on men, and their life is sweet." This brightness which Pindar extols is that of clarity and moderation: the solar fire channelled perfectly and in proper proportion into the changing circumstances of conditioned existence. In music as in the establishment of cities and the sacred Mysteries themselves, Apollo demonstrates an unerring knowledge of the inner and essential order of things. At the god's approach the voices of the forests and grottoes were awakened and, as with singers and dancers, he caused them all to obey his measure. The moderation and sheer beauty of his music restrain all that is wild . . . even beasts are charmed . . . "even stones follow the sound of the lyre and take their place in the masonry walls". Playing his seven-stringed harp, Apollo sits like the solar orb surrounded by the music of the seven planetary spheres. Little wonder all Nature inclines to his rhythm.

Do not give out the great Truths that are the inheritance of future Races, to our present generation. Do not attempt to unveil the secret of being and non-being to those unable to see the hidden meaning of Apollo's heptachord – the lyre of the radiant god, in each of the seven strings of which dwelleth the Spirit, Soul and Astral body of the Kosmos, whose shell only has now fallen into the hands of Modern Science.

The Secret Doctrine, i 167

 Spanning the whole nature of Kosmos with his adopted instrument, Apollo embodies the audible key, the tonic note running through all the Pythagorean melodies of manifestation. Emblematic of this are both his lyre and his bow, for are not the two strung with the same sinew? It may be argued that only the lyre is strung with silver strings, but in spanning the Kosmos both must be strung with silver and with animal parts, for their vibrating chords are heard on earth as well as in heaven. The verb ψαλλο (psallo) is used to convey both striking the lyre and snapping the bow-string. Both give off a sound. When Pandarus, under Apollo's guidance, discharged his arrow at Menelaus, "the bow twanged and the string sang aloud". Greeks as well as other peoples have been familiar with the musical bow and some, like Pindar, saw the true singer as a marksman, his song an arrow that never missed. In addition to this, the Greeks habitually pictured the recognition of what is right with the image of an accurate bow shot. Thus, the arrows of Apollo striking the Achaeans sang each their melodic note as they sprang from his bow, but they also signified a precisely accurate measure which, because of the disharmonious action of the Greeks, sang forth in notes of karmic retribution. "The song of the most alert of all gods does not arise dreamlike out of an intoxicated soul but flies directly towards a clearly seen goal" – the Truth. Disharmony and chaotic disturbance are ordered with measure. The wrong is put right. It was, after all, on the day of Apollo's festival that Odysseus returned home and slew the suitors who had desecrated his hospitality.

 Measure is best. It is the highest manifest Truth, corresponding with the 'Spiritual Cast' of the Delphian god. Emanating light, order and reason, the arrows he carries are like the midday sun. Like shafts of clear, omnidirectional thinking, they shatter illusion and destroy the self-satisfied complacency of men and women. In his care for purification and retribution, Apollo stands as champion of the rules of occultism, which, as William Q. Judge wrote, "are of the most stringent character, the breaking of which is never wiped out save by expiation". As he did in the case of Orestes, Apollo advises those in distress of what is to be done and what left undone, where atonement and submission might be necessary, always involving an inward clarification of being. He is the exemplar of what the Greeks called σοφροσυνε (sophrosyne), self-control and self-knowledge. His injunction to visitors at his Delphic temple was "Know thyself, and through his oracle he pointed to Socrates as the wisest of all men (who rightly interpreted this to mean that he must devote his life to the pursuit of wisdom through examination of himself and his fellow men). Owing to the primacy of this measured sense of proportionality and self-control, Apollo acts to block the sacrilege of other gods or demigods. In the last book of the Iliad he rises with the pathos of restraining reason and magnanimity in order to put to an end the horrible twelve-day abuse of Hector's corpse. He charges Achilles with ruthlessness and hardness of heart, saying he lacks respect for the eternal laws of Nature and the self-restraint which is seemly for the noble in their bereavement. He admonishes the other gods who have tolerated this abuse:

Yet now you will not even go so far as to save his corpse for his wife and mother and his child to see, and for his father, Priam, and his people, who would burn it instantly and give him funeral honours. Know, it is the brutal Achilles whom you choose to support, Achilles, who has no decent feeling in him and never listens to the voice of mercy, but goes through life in his own savage way, like a lion who, when he wants his supper, lets his own strength and daring run away with him and pounces on the shepherd's flocks. Achilles like the lion has killed pity. And he cares not a jot for public opinion, to which most people bend the knee for better or for worse. He had better beware of our wrath, great man though he is. What is he doing in his fury but insulting senseless clay?


 Apollo rejects such passion and fury. They distort the measure of Truth. His view is from afar, a broad and extended perspective which causes him to seem oblivious to the worth of an individual as a separate soul. He constantly directs attention away from the state of the individual soul to a contemplation of eternal forms. The Christian may humble himself before God in order to become worthy of nearness, but Apollo, almost harshly, reminds man of his limitations and his finiteness. Only man's truly spiritual virtues (the essence of his perfections and creations) can prevail after death and persist from life to life, "for only the form belongs to the realm of the imperishable". This notion of form is Platonic. It refers to essential archetypal forms which are based on the highest and most abstract mathematics, embodying the noumenal levels of the manifesting Kosmos. Apollo, in accepting the seven-stringed lyre of Hermes, did not abandon his three-stringed instrument. Together they form the Pythagorean decad, but the original three expresses the unchanging, periodically manifest Eternal. The highest element of the classical Greek spirit was associated with Apollo and required a clear-eyed cognition, capable of looking upon all existence as form, "with a glance free alike of greed and of yearning for redemption". The elemental, momentary and individual aspects of the world are thus negated, whilst the essence is acknowledged and affirmed.

  A serious consideration of the nature of Apollo should include an examination of the story of Orestes. Written by Aeschylus, who was an Initiate of the Mysteries at Eleusis and who was celebrated by Cicero as a Pythagorean and poet, the saga presents in dramatic form difficult questions concerning levels of right action. For killing his mother, Clytemnestra (to avenge her murder of his father, Agamemnon), Orestes is hounded by the Erinyes (the Eumenides, Furies and Moirai), the guardians of the holy ordinances of Nature. The shedding of his mother's blood is regarded as a violent crime against Nature. The spirits of the spilt blood cry out to heaven and pursue the perpetrator as though he were a wild beast. Madness comes over him. At every step they are near and stare at him with gruesome eyes. Apollo, who has ordered Orestes to avenge his father's murder, stands by him at his trial, where he is to be condemned or acquitted under the presidency of Athene, The prosecutors are the Erinyes, who represent the old feminine gods of the earth confronting the new order of the Olympian spirit. Apollo is repelled by the ghastly earth-spirits, whom he sees as brute and blind in their purpose and procedure. They are knowers of deeds only (not motives) and respond with mechanical inflexibility. They ask: "Have you slain your mother?" Orestes' admission decides the issue for them.

  Apollo, as defender, asserts that the issue is not that blood has been shed. The worth of the victim and the indignity visited upon him determine the gravity of the deed. When one remembers the sacrifice of Iphigenia and his obtuse resumption of his kingly estate in Mycenae, it is difficult to see the worthiness in Agamemnon. But he was a noble warrior. His name means 'resolute', referring to his years of hard-fought battle. Apollo recognizes a deeper worth than the deeds that appear on the surface. He condemns the motives behind the seeming piety of Clytemnestra and recoils from the low cunning that guided her in the murder of her husband. He is equally unimpressed by the arguments of the Furies, who reflect the same maniacal passion as Clytemnestra herself. To the jury Apollo proclaims, "The mother is not progenitor of what is called her progeny, but nurse of the new-sown seed. He procreates it who impregnates her." Athene, retaining a vote for herself, also sides with the claims of the father over the mother. She gives her motherless birth as an explanation for defending the masculine spirit of reason against the earth's appeal for revenge.

  In one sense, the Aeschylean tragedy celebrates the institution of reasonable authority supplanting the bloody expiation of the old order. The old magic of the seeresses, whose patron is Gaia herself, is put in its place very much like the Pythia of Delphi were incorporated as servants of the new god. But it would be an oversimplification to see Apollo as merely masculine. In his representation of order and clarity he defends his mother and finds his feminine counterpart in his twin. In his pursuit of Daphne he is driven by his love of feminine beauty and purity. When she is taken in by her mother (Earth) and becomes a laurel tree, the tree flourishes at the heart of Delphian religion and remains ever sacred to the god. The love Apollo showers on young boys who have not yet crossed the threshold leading to manhood is of the same essence. He rejoices in the delicate balance of their purity, when their hearts and minds are still clear and unsullied by gross desires. As a great solar deity, Apollo loves such purity not as something outside himself but as reflections of the truth he himself personifies. As it flickers and shines in others, he is quick to recognize it and become its ally. It is not a question of the masculine over the feminine but rather an unswerving embrace of a higher unconditional truth in whatever form it takes. The rights and wrongs of the world produce an endless tangle of accusation and retribution. The deeper measure of morality lies hidden within the mathematics of cosmic form. Always cleaving to this hidden measure, Apollo remains the ever-distant god, but his voice can yet be heard by one who listens intently with inner perception. Did he not promise Orestes, "I shall not fail thee. I shall be thy guide and guardian to the end"?

 Apollo's voice speaks in the melodious twang of his unerring arrow, in the penetrating clarity of vision which he represents. His is the cool unsullied beam of Spirit which streams from the earliest Races, wherein the highest intelligence shrouded itself in the most ethereal levels of substance and became gods. From the 'Ball of Heaven', the ancestral substance of his mother, Apollo gained a further footing in the world. Appearing with each increasingly materialized Race, he would then withdraw into solitude where he watched from afar. If his mother is of Asia in origin, it is the East of Sacrifice which provides the means of his periodic manifestation, and he embraces his Hyperborean ancestry with each withdrawal into his Father-Spirit. Thus, as champion of solar intelligence, Apollo ever asserts its penetrating illumination over the limiting sensibilities of elemental powers. The victorious splendour of his clarity conquers all and startles the imagination, which, freed from its subjectivity, soars up to those Parnassian heights where the great god dwells. There, from the ruins of his worldly shrine, will it conquer Python and meet the Mysteries face to face.

Apollo, thy golden-framed beauty
Floats along that rocky hill
Floats along that rocky hill
No Corinthian curve of soil
Or hopeful wall of Ilium
Could enclose thy brilliant symmetry.
For thine is the pure Light of Truth
Born at the cosmic dawn
And sent like arrows, radiantly.