Apollo’s Festivals on Delos

On Delos, Apollo was the focus of worship especially by Ionian Greeks, who flocked here from Athens and many of the islands and the coastal cities of west Asia to take part in two festivals: the four-yearly Delia and the annual Lesser Delia. For the latter, Athenians garlanded their sacred trireme with Apollo’s laurel leaves and sent it to Delos, where sacrifices were made, while Athens itself was purified. (Meanwhile no executions could take place – in 399 bc, the condemned Socrates had to wait until the ship’s return before drinking the hemlock that would kill him) The quadrennial Delia were spectacular. Addressing the god, the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo proclaims.

Apollo’s Festivals on Delos Photo Gallery



Your greatest joy is Delos. Here, to honour you, Ionians in long flowing robes assemble with their children and their modest wives; in boxing and in dancing and in song they call you to their minds, delighting you in contests. To see the Ionians thronged there, you would think them ageless and immortal, gazing on their beauty, delighting in the men and the deep-bosomed women, in their sleek ships and in all their treasures. And another marvel, too, whose fame will never die – the girls of Delos, handmaids of Apollo, who shoots from afar! When they have first sung praise-songs to Apollo and to Leto and the archer-goddess Artemis, they recall the deeds of men and women long ago in praise-songs to delight the throngs, imitating every voice and accent of all regions so that each man would believe that he himself was singing: so cleverly is their praise-song conceived.

In the music and dances of the Delian festival, Apollo’s role as Mousagetes (leader of the Muses) was supreme. From the sixth century bc onwards (the beginning of Delos’ heyday), artists often showed Apollo holding his lyre in the company of two or more musician Muses, while at the Delia the dancing girls in some way may have represented the Muses themselves, uniting the Greekspeaking world in songs written and performed in a multiplicity of regional accents and dialects.

Apollo & Phaethon

As time went on, Apollo, in his role of Phoebus (‘The Shining’), god of light from ‘clear-seen’ Delos, was increasingly identified with the sun-god Helios until the two became almost indistinguishable. In hi s Metamorphoses, the Roman Ovid conflated the two, making Phoebus the father of doomed Phaethon (‘Fiery’), the young man who begged to drive the chariot of the sun. Taking the reins, Phaethon could not control his horses, which plunged dangerously low to earth, scorching much of Africa so that it became desert, turning the skin of Ethiopians black and threatening to evaporate the seas until Zeus (Jupiter in Ovid’s poem) struck the chariot with a thunderbolt. Phaethon fell into the River Eridanus (identified by Romans with the Po), where his sisters, the Heliades, transformed into black poplars, wept tears of amber in sorrow.

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