Onomastic micro-portrait: Apollo Argyrotoxos

In these times of pandemic, how can we not bring to mind the beginning of the Iliad? As a matter of fact, the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles is directly linked to the affront that Agamemnon imposed on Chryses, the Trojan priest of Apollo, who came to reclaim his daughter. Offended by the Achaean refusal, Chryses turns to the son of Zeus and Leto to seek revenge (I, 37-44): “Hear me, Silver Bow, protector of Chryse and holy Cilla, high lord of Tenedos: If ever I built a shrine that pleased you, if ever I burned the fat thighs of a bull or goat for you, grant my wish: Smintheus, with your arrows make the Greeks pay for my tears!”

The choice of qualifications is extremely strategic: Chryses rallies a regional Apollo, the one established in Troad and the brilliant archer with deadly darts. Here, Argurotoxos is used as an alternative to the name Apollo, a heteronym. Just as Pallas evokes Athena, Silver Bow refers to Apollo who, overcome with rage, bursts into action and shoots his stinging arrows “like the night”, that is, death. Mules, hounds and men fall: “so the dense pyres for the dead burned endlessly”.

Four hundred verses later, with Chryseis in her father’s arms, Apollo’s priest turns to the god once again and, using the same invocation, he pleads, and is granted the interruption of the scourge (I, 451-455): “Hear me, God of the Silver Bow, protector of Chryse and holy Cilla, lord of Tenedos. Just as once before when I prayed to you, you honoured me and struck the Achaeans a fierce blow, so grant my new plea, and avert this dreadful scourge from the Danaans.” The Greeks, freed from the epidemic, begin a paean to honour the god “who strikes from afar” (hekaergos), who “listened with delight” (I, 474) and “sent them a following wind” to favour their departure from Troy. It’s the only time when Apollo acts in favour of the Greeks.

Image: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Apollo and Diana (ca 1530), Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, from Wikimedia Commons..

Apollo, the god who wears a silver bow with which he somehow merges, also has golden hair: he is chrusokomas. More generally, Apollo is Phoibos, “Brilliant”, “Radiant”, with so many ways of expressing his power, notably oracular, through a word which, like an arrow, hits its target, and expresses the inescapable will of Zeus. Furthermore, as shown by Philippe Monbrun, the relationship between the bow and the lyre, two resounding attributes of Apollo, is strong. Apollo is therefore bow carrier and zither player, Citharoedus. To deal out death and spread music; the powers of the god “who strikes from afar” are profoundly ambivalent. Consequently, in an inscription from Kallipolis, in Chersonesos in Thrace, pertaining to an oracle in favour of establishing worship for Apollo, the Bow Carrier god is the one who both guards the gates of the city and repels the plagues (IGSK 19, 11). Apollo is also described as “Doctor” (Iatros), he who is the father of Asclepius.

To finish on an optimistic note, let us not forget that Dionysus, the quintessential god of the mask, is also that of Liberation: he is Lusios or Luseios, the god “who frees”, the “Liberator”), the one that no constraint can hold (Homeric Hymn to Dionysus I, 12-14). We know who he takes after: his father, Zeus, is Eleutherios, “Provider of Liberty”, a name forged after the victory of the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC) who, with the help of the sovereign of the gods, put an end to the Persian yoke.

Corinne Bonnet