The Mystery of the Midnight Sun

One of the major symbols of our tradition (along with the Labyrinth, Maiandros and Triskelion) is the Sonnenrad or Schwarze Sonne, which we refer to as the Midnight Sun.

The evocative phrase Midnight Sun comes from Apuleius’ fictional account of initiation into the Isiac mysteries:

I approached the confines of death, and having trod on the threshold of Proserpine, I returned therefrom, being borne through all the elements. At midnight I saw the Sun shining with its brilliant light; and I approached the presence of the Gods beneath, and the Gods of heaven, and stood near, and worshipped them. (Metamorphoses 11.23)

Though these mysteries were heavily syncretic and Romanized, this appears to have been one of the more authentic elements carried over from Egypt, as Jan Bergman has observed:

The most decisive divine confrontation encountered in Egyptian religious thought is without doubt that between Ra and Osiris. As the principal representations of sky and earth, life and death, light and darkness, day and night, they constitute one another’s necessary compliment. Without some form of union between them, the Egyptian world view would have been hopelessly divided and the rhythm of life broken.

Osiris was considered the ba or soul of Re, as we see from an inscription in the tomb of Nefertari, “Osiris who rests in Ra and Ra that rests in Osiris” and he was also connected with the Sun through its nightly journey in the Duat or underworld. This was often depicted quite beautifully on coffins as images of Nut, Goddess of the heavens and mother of Osiris, encircled the entire coffin, and the coffin was thought to represent the womb of the Goddess and being buried in the womb of the Goddess implied being reborn in the underworld as Osiris, just as Re was.

The solar associations of Osiris were quite prominent in Plutarch’s time:

They everywhere show an anthropomorphic statue of Osiris with erect phallos because of his procreative and nourishing nature. They adorn his statues with flame-colored clothes, regarding the Sun as the body of the power of good and as the visible light of a substance which can only be spiritually felt.” (On Isis and Osiris, 201)

Very similar notions equating Haides, Helios and Dionysos are found in Macrobius (Saturnalia 1.18) attached to the name of Orpheus:

In the line, “The Sun, which men also call by name Dionysos,” Orpheus manifestly declares that Liber is the Sun. And in riddling verse he also says, “One Zeus, one Haides, one Helios, one Dionysos.” And concerning the ornaments and vestments worn by Liber at the ceremonies performed in his honor Orpheus says:

Let the worshiper first throw around him a crimson robe,

like flowing rays resembling fire.

Moreover from above the broad all-variegated skin of a wild fawn

thickly spotted should hang down from the right shoulder,

a representation of the wondrously-wrought stars and of the vault of heaven.

And then over the fawn-skin a golden belt should be thrown,

all-gleaming to wear around the breast a mighty sign

that immediately from the end of the earth the Beaming-one springing up

darts his golden rays on the flowing of ocean.

According to Diodoros, Orpheus picked up this doctrine during his travels in Egypt:

The Egyptians insist that Orpheus, having visited their land in ancient times and witnessed their burial customs, merely invented his account of Haides, in part reproducing their practice and in part inventing his own account. The punishments in Haides of the unrighteous, the Fields of the Righteous, and the fantastic conceptions, current among the many, which are figments of the imagination — all these were introduced by Orpheus in imitation of the Egyptian funeral customs. Hermes, for instance, the Conductor of Souls, according to the ancient Egyptian custom, brings up the body of the Apis to a certain point and then gives it over to one who wears the mask of Kerberos. And after Orpheus had introduced this notion among the Greeks, Homer imitated him by writing:

They passed Oceanus’ streams, the Gleaming Rock,

The Portals of the Sun, the Land of Dreams;

and now they reached the Meadow of Asphodel,

where dwell the souls, the shades of men outworn.

Now he calls the river “Okeanos” because in their language the Egyptians speak of the Nile as Okeanos; the “Portals of the Sun” (heliopulai) is his name for the city of Heliopolis; and “Meadows,” the mythical dwelling of the dead, is his term for the place near the lake which is called Acherousia, which is near Memphis, and around it are fairest meadows, of a marsh-land and lotus and reeds. The same explanation also serves for the statement that the dwelling of the dead is in these regions, since the most and the largest tombs of the Egyptians are situated there, the dead being ferried across both the river and Lake Acherousia and their bodies laid in the vaults situated there. (1.91.8-96.7)

This puts an interesting spin on a legend recounted by the Hellenistic astronomer Eratosthenes. Originally Orpheus had been a devoted follower of Dionysos, singing his praises far and wide. But then he had a change of heart:

When he descended to the underworld to recover his wife, Orpheus saw things there and ceased to honor Dionysos, through whom he had gained glory. Instead, he considered Helios the greatest of the Gods, calling him Apollon. (Vat. Fragm. 24)

So, what did he see down there?

I believe that the answer is Dionysos. For as Herakleitos says:

… they roam together – the night-walkers, the magicians, the Bakchai, the Lenai, the participants in mysteries full of unholy rites. Their processions and phallic hymns would be disgraceful exhibitions if it wasn’t for the fact that they are done in honor of Dionysos – that Dionysos who is the same as Haides; it is in his honor that they rave madly and hold their revels. (Fragments 76-77)

Of course, Eratosthenes never explains what caused it but this could certainly account for the radical conversion: Orpheus, the poet of beauty and life is plunged into darkness and despair at the loss of his beloved. He harrows hell to retrieve her … only to discover that the God he has dedicated his life to serving is also the God of death and so he renounces him and focuses on his seeming polar opposite instead.

Mind you, Apollon isn’t all smiles and sunshine, as Marcel Detienne powerfully evokes in Apollo’s Slaughterhouse:

There is Apollo the impudent murderer, the audacious cut-throat, stronger with each act of violence. But next the Lord of Delphi, the wolf-faced God, there is the fugitive Apollo, the God who exiles himself, the God who is livid and terrorized. This Apollo can be found in Corinth, more specifically at Sicyon. Here the mythic rituals are celebrated, the rituals which were required for the purification of the daughters of Proitos, who had been thrown into a devastating madness after the victory over Python, the monstrous serpent. The death of Python was looked upon as a murder; and Apollo came for purification to a country where neither diviners nor purifiers were lacking. Suddenly, the murderous God is overcome by an immense fear, an anguish, phobos-deima, sometimes represented by the image of a woman with a terrifying face – the mask of an Erynie, we would say. And Apollo precipitously flees: terror makes him mad, frenetic, beside himself, like Orestes, or like the possessed corybant. His flight takes him to Crete, to the land in which he himself may have originated and which gave him his first officiators, his priests, his butcher-boys, but also the lofty purifiers who press around him, lead him, calm him, and deliver him from his frightful pollution [Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.7.7-9; 2.30.3]. The Gods know the bitterness of a nine-year-long exile, but alone with Dionysus, only Apollo journeys to the end of the night; it is the same journey that Orestes, the matricide, once took. Apollo discovers in himself the madness that invades the murderer: the frightening visions and exhausting hallucination, the same illness that devours his protégé and double, Orestes, murderer, martyr, and witness to a homicide [M. Delcourt,Oreste et Alcmeon 92-113]. As a result, it is necessary to limit oneself to the observation that both the pure and the impure are at work in a God whose power is double, who is purifier and killer, a God who cures the plague and the sickness he himself brings to mortals. Perhaps one of his best-known names will reveal the significance of this profound ambivalence. This name is the word Phoibos, the Greek form of Phoebus: Phoibos Apollon in Homer, an epithet transformed into a proper name. In archaic Greek, phoibos signifies pure and holy, like Ocean’s water or the Sun’s brightness. In the religious vocabulary, according to Plutarch who was well versed in it, phoibos in composite form designated a state of segregated purity, since during ill-fated days the priests lived in isolation, withdrawn and distant from all impurities and pollution. Such priests living in purity were said to “phebonomize” [Plutarch, De E apud Delphos, 20.393c.] To be phoibos is to be so rigorously separate that one becomes consecrated, as are, in effect, the priests with whom Apollo loves to surround himself. It means to be consecrated like the Hosioi, the perpetually Pure of Delphi; but also like the suppliants of Cyrenus who are round about his temple and are personally tied to the God, and who have indeed become his own property. Among the latter are found the “decimated ones,” the dekatoi, homicides whose abominable pollution places them entirely on the side of the Gods, on the side of phoibos. It is precisely here that the totally impure tends to merge itself with the perfectly pure. Apollo is fully phoibos. He is the untouchable in his two poles: murderer to the point of madness, he is a God who is like the night, the archer encamped on the threshold of the Iliad. And when, in the sixth century, in the Orphic and Pythagorean sects, the requirement for renunciation arises and grows, Apollo, the Hyperborean purifier, becomes the emblem for a way of life so pure it excludes both the blood of death and the blood of birth. Thus, the Orphic Apollo becomes a name for the Sun and its light at dawn.

In fact, Apollon had some pretty pronounced chthonic characteristics. His involvement in the Hyakinthia, for instance:

The festival was called after the youthful hero Hyacinthus, who evidently derived his name from the flower hyacinth (the emblem of death among the ancient Greeks), and whom Apollo accidentally struck dead with a quoit. The Hyacinthia lasted for three days, and began on the longest day of the Spartan month Hecatombeus, at the time when the tender flowers oppressed by the heat of the Sun, drooped their languid heads. On the first and last day of the Hyacinthia sacrifices were offered to the dead, and the death of Hyacinthus was lamented. During these two days nobody wore any garlands at the repasts, nor took bread, but only cakes and similar things, and no paeans were Sung in praise of Apollo; and when the solemn repasts were over, every body went home in the greatest quiet and order. This serious and melancholy character was foreign to all the other festivals of Apollo. (William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities)

Which was an important festival for the Spartan colonists of Magna Graecia, many of whom had a month named after it on their calendars. It was especially important to the Tarentines, as Phalanthos had begun his rebellion during the Hyakinthia, which was later reflected in their coinage where Apollon is syncretized with Iakchos and Taras:

Through the same chthonic influence we see the dolphin rider adorned with locks like Apollo and bearing the flower of Hyacinthus in his hand, in reference to the games at Amyclas, or the bow and arrow of that deity. (A. W. Hands, Coins of Magna Graecia pg 12)

One of the things that facilitated that identification was Apollon’s involvement in what Strabo termed Bakchica or orgiastic rites:

Now most of the Greeks assigned to Dionysos, Apollon, Hekate, the Mousai, and above all to Demeter, everything of an orgiastic or Bacchic or choral nature, as well as the mystic element in initiations; and they give the name Iakchos to Dionysos as the leader-in-chief of the mysteries and the daimon attendant of Demeter. And branch-bearing, choral dancing, and initiations are common elements in the worship of these Gods. (Geography 10.3.10)

We see this side of Apollon most clearly, perhaps, in the sixth book of Vergil’s Aeneid:

But the prophetess, not yet able to endure Apollo, raves in the cavern,

swollen in stature, striving to throw off the God from her breast;

he all the more exercises her frenzied mouth, quelling her wild heart,

and fashions her by pressure.

As well as Thespesius’ account of an oracle shared by Apollon and Nyx in the underworld, as related by Plutarch:

Thus at length he came to a certain gaping chasm, that was fathomless downward, where he found himself deserted by that extraordinary force which brought him thither, and perceived other souls also to be there in the same condition. For hovering upon the wing in flocks together like birds, they kept flying round and round the yawning rift, but durst not enter into it. Now this same cleft within had the appearance of a Bacchic grotto with fragrant scents, arousing wondrous pleasures and such a mood as wine induces in those who are becoming tipsy; for as the souls regale themselves on the sweet odours they grew expansive and friendly with one another; and the place all about was full of Bacchic revelry and laughter and the various strains of festivity and merry-making. This was the route, the spirit said, that Dionysos had taken in his ascent and later when he brought up Semele; and the region was called the place of Lethe. On this account, although Thespesius wished to linger, the guide would not allow it, but pulled him away by main force, informing him as he did so that the intelligent part of the soul is dissolves away and liquefied by pleasure, while the irrational and carnal part is fed by its flow and puts on flesh and thus induces memory of the body; and that from such memory arises a yearning and desire that draws the soul toward birth. At length, after he had been carried as far another way as when he was transported to the yawning overture, he thought he beheld a prodigious standing goblet, into which several rivers discharged themselves; among which there was one whiter than snow or the foam of the sea, another resembled the purple color of the rainbow. The tinctures of the rest were various; besides that, they had their several lustres at a distance. But when he drew nearer, the ambient air became more subtile and rarefied, and the colors vanished, so the goblet retained no more of its flourishing beauty except the white. At the same time he saw three Daemons sitting together in a triangular aspect, and blending and mixing the rivers together with certain measures. Thus far, said the guide of Thespesius’s soul, did Orpheus come, when he sought after the soul of his wife; and not well remembering what he had seen, upon his return he raised a false report in the world, that the oracle at Delphi was in common to Night and Apollo, whereas Apollo never had any thing in common with Night. But, said the spirit, this oracle is in common to Night and to the Moon, no way included within earthly bounds, nor having any fixed or certain seat, but always wandering among men in dreams and visions. For from hence it is that all dreams are dispersed, compounded as they are of truth jumbled with falsehood, and sincerity with the various mixtures of craft and delusion. (De sera numinis vindicta 22)

In fact the deeper you dig the more you discover points of contact between Dionysos and Apollon. Plutarch discusses at length their relationship and equal shares at Delphi in On the E at Delphi, while Aischylos speaks of “Ivy-Apollo, Bakchios, the sooth-sayer” (Fragment 86) and Euripides in his Lykymnios speaks of “Lord, laurel-loving Bakchios, Paean Apollo, player on the lyre” (Fragment 480) and Philodamos’ Paian to Dionysos is a jubilant celebration of their identification.

However Nietzsche would not have been able to write the following if their differences were not equally as important as their similarities:

I have borrowed my adjectives from the Greeks, who developed their mystical doctrines of art through plausible embodiments, not through purely conceptual means. It is by those two art sponsoring deities, Apollo and Dionysus, that we are made to recognize the tremendous split, as regards both origins and objectives, between the plastic, Apollonian arts and the nonvisual art of music inspired by Dionysus. The two creative tendencies developed alongside one another, usually in fierce opposition, each by its taunts forcing the other to more energetic production, both perpetuating in a discordant concord that agon which the term art but feebly denominates: until at last, by the thaumaturgy of an Hellenic act of will, the pair accepted the yoke of marriage and, in this condition, begot Attic tragedy, which exhibits the salient features of both parents. (The Birth of Tragedy)

The torque and tension in their relationship is eloquently expressed in this passage from Plutarch’s On the E at Delphi:

As for his passage and distribution into waves and water, and earth, and stars, and nascent plants and animals, they hint at the actual change undergone as a rending and dismemberment, but name the God himself Dionysos or Zagreus or Nyktelios or Isodaites. Deaths too and vanishings do they construct, passages out of life and new births, all riddles and tales to match the changes mentioned. So they sing to Dionysos dithyrambic strains, charged with sufferings and a change wherein are wanderings and dismemberment. For Aischylos says, “In mingled cries the dithyramb should ring, with Dionysos revelling, its King.”

In constrast Apollon has the Paean, a set and sober music. Apollon is ever ageless and young; Dionysos has many forms and many shapes as represented in paintings and sculpture, which attribute to Apollon smoothness and order and a gravity with no admixture, but to Dionysos a blend of sport and sauciness with seriousness and frenzy:

God that sett’st maiden’s blood

Dancing in frenzied mood,

Blooming with pageantry!

Evoe! we cry

So do they summon him, rightly catching his changeable character.

Ironically one of the biggest differences of opinion they had was with regard to Orpheus after his death.

Apollon had little tolerance for his posthumously chatty head:

He also visited in passing the shrine of Orpheus when he had put in at Lesbos. And they tell that it was here that Orpheus once on a time loved to prophesy, before Apollon had turned his attention to him. For when the latter found that men no longer flocked to Gryneium for the sake of oracles nor to Klaros nor to Delphi where is the tripod of Apollon, and that Orpheus was the only oracle, his head having come from Thrace, he presented himself before the giver of oracles and said: “Cease to meddle with my affairs, for I have already put up long enough with your vaticinations.” (Philostratos, Life of Apollonios of Tyana 4.14)

Whereas Dionysos offered the head of the slain singer shelter in Lesbos:

When the Thracian women dismembered Orpheus, they say that his head, together with his lyre, having fallen into the Hebrus, was cast into the Black Gulf and that the head sailed on the lyre, singing a lament for Orpheus, as the story goes, whilst the lyre echoed in answer as the winds fell on the chords. Thus they approached Lesbos to the sound of music, and the Lesbians, taking them up, buried the head where their Baccheion now is. (Lucian, Against the Unlettered Bibliomaniac 11-12)

And punished those who disturbed his bones in Libethra:

In Larisa I heard another story, how that on Olympus is a city Libethra, where the mountain faces, Macedonia, not far from which city is the tomb of Orpheus. The Libethrians, it is said, received out of Thrace an oracle from Dionysos, stating that when the Sun should see the bones of Orpheus, then the city of Libethra would be destroyed by a boar. The citizens paid little regard to the oracle, thinking that no other beast was big or mighty enough to take their city, while a boar was bold rather than powerful. But when it seemed good to the God the following events befell the citizens. About midday a shepherd was asleep leaning against the grave of Orpheus, and even as he slept he began to sing poetry of Orpheus in a loud and sweet voice. Those who were pasturing or tilling nearest to him left their several tasks and gathered together to hear the shepherd sing in his sleep. And jostling one another and striving who could get nearest the shepherd they overturned the pillar, the urn fell from it and broke, and the Sun saw whatever was left of the bones of Orpheus. Immediately when night came the God sent heavy rain, and the river Sys (Boar), one of the torrents about Olympus, on this occasion threw down the walls of Libethra, overturning sanctuaries of Gods and houses of men, and drowning the inhabitants and all the animals in the city. When Libethra was now a city of ruin, the Macedonians in Dium, according to my friend of Larisa, carried the bones of Orpheus to their own country. (Pausanias, Description of Greece9.30.9-11)

In fact Orpheus’ Apollonian antipathy was so strong that he murdered the bees of the God’s shepherd son Aristaios according to Vergil’s 4th Georgic. This is an interesting anecdote because in it the prophetic Egyptian God Proteus advises Aristaios to:

Pick out four choice bulls, of surpassing form, that now graze among your herds on the heights of green Lycaeus, and as many heifers of unyoked neck. For these set up four altars by the stately shrines of the nymph-Goddesses, and drain the sacrificial blood from their throats, but leave the bodies of the steers within the leafy grove. Later, when the ninth Dawn displays her rising beams, you must offer to Orpheus funeral dues of Lethe’s poppies, slay a black ewe, and revisit the grove.

He duly travels to mount Lykaios, otherwise known as Wolf Mountain, butchers the oxen and leaves them to rot and when Aristaios comes back he discovers:

A portent, sudden and wondrous to tell – throughout the paunch, amid the molten flesh of the oxen, bees buzzing and swarming forth from the ruptured sides, then trailing in vast clouds, till at last on a treetop they stream together, and hang in clusters from the bending boughs.

What we have here are the rudiments of a theme that creeps up subtly but consistently in Greek and Italian myth – ritual combat between the Wolf and the Bull, with the Bull temporarily defeated or killed (though sometimes it goes the other way) resulting in the renewal of the land. This is something I’ve alluded to quite a bit in previous writings so I wasn’t exactly surprised, shall we say, when Apollon was finally admitted into our tradition’s pantheon.

After all, we had our Starry Bull but no lupine adversary. Arachne, Ariadne and Hermes all have their wolf associations, but they had other roles to play than adversary. Plus, it takes a certain quality to kill the one you love for the greater good (isn’t that right Pentheus?) which is why Kronos was out, though he was looking like a pretty good contender for a while. And there is definitely a fondness there between Apollon and Dionysos. After all, when Dionysos is torn apart by the Titans Apollon either restores him:

Dionysos, when he saw his image reflected in the mirror, began to pursue it and so was torn to pieces. But Apollon put Dionysos back together and brought him back to life because he was a purifying God and the true savior. (Olympiodoros, Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo 67c)

Or inters his remains in the Delphic sanctuary, his most important and sacred in Greece:

The Titans tore apart the limbs of Dionysos, cast them into a lebes and gave them to Apollon. This was set upon the tripod by the brother. (Etymologicum Magnum s.v. Delphoi)

When Apollon was admitted into the pantheon – and under his specific Soranos form, no less – I suspected it would be as part of this ritual complex but I didn’t want to assume anything so just made coy allusions to being uncomfortable with him. All suspicion vanished when the oracle came through about the Karneia festival:

On the full moon closest to autumn’s equinox, make harvest-offerings and honeyed libations to the ram-horned Apollon and sing songs in memory of the blind prophets. Perform the rite of appeasement of the grove of Troy – perform it now and every year that follows. Drape the Old Man in strips of wool and clusters of ripe grapes, then set the wolves on him. The wolves are young men; unmarried if possible. If they catch him it will go well for all; if not there will be a harsh winter ahead.

Turns out the answer was staring me right there in the face. But in order to see it clearly I had to dispense with the idea (perfectly appropriate in other contexts) of Dionysos as death and abductor, something that was incompatible with his role as son of either Persephone or Semele. (Dionysos intercedes with the one on behalf of the other, which makes no sense if he is performing this other role.) With eyes open I was able to see something fresh in a couple of quotes I’d read several dozen times.

First, this passage from Nonnos:

Zeus ravished the maidenhood of unwedded Persephoneia; though she was hidden, when all that dwelt in Olympos were bewitched by this one girl, rivals in love for the marriageable maid, and offered their dowers for an unsmirched bridal. Hermes offered his rod as gift to adorn her chamber. Apollon produced his melodious harp as a marriage-gift. Ares brought spear and cuirass for the wedding, and shield as bride-gift. Lemnian Hephaistos held out a curious necklace of many colours. (Dionysiaka 5. 562)

And secondly these fragments from the Orphic Rhapsodies, preserved by Proklos:

Plying the loom, an unfinished toil, flowery … (Demeter speaks to Kore) But going up to the fruitful bed of Apollon, thou shalt bear splendid children, with countenances of flaming fire … Kore bore nine daughters, grey-eyed, makers of flowers.

In other words, what if the wolf-cloaked solar lord of the underworld in Etruscan and Samnite tradition (who was equated with Apollon Lykeios) had been the one responsible for the abduction of Kore-Persephone and was thus the one that Dionysos had to fight in order to gain the release of his mother Semele? The Story just sort of wrote itself at that point.

Ironically, though, this was old territory for me – I’d written the poem Fufluns exploring that very theme back in 2011.

Circles, man. Fucking circles.

Oh, and the reason that Apollon is given an axe as opposed to his usual sword or bow in The Story is so that I could draw a parallel between these two passages:

Dionysos set out eagerly through Thrace. Now Lykourgos (Wolf-worker), son of Dryas and king of the Edonians, who lived beside the Strymon River, was the first to show his hubris to Dionysos by expelling him. Dionysos fled to the sea and took shelter with Nereus’ daughter Thetis, but his Bakchai were taken captive along with the congregation of Satyroi that accompanied him. Later on, the Bakchai were suddenly set free, and Dionysos caused Lykourgos to go mad. In this state, thinking he was cutting a vine-branch, Lykourgos killed his son Dryas by cutting off his arms and legs with an axe. Then he regained his senses. When his land remained barren, the God Apollon made an oracular pronouncement to the effect that if Lykourgos were to die, there would again be fertile crops. When the Edonians heard this, they took Lykourgos to Mount Pangaion and bound him, and there in accordance with the will of Dionysos, he was destroyed by his horses and died. (Apollodoros, Bibliotheca 3. 34-35)

The people of Tenedos keep a pregnant cow for Dionysos Anthroporraistos (Man-Slayer), and as soon as it has calved they tend to it as though it were a woman in child-bed. They put buskins on the newly born calf and then sacrifice it. But the man who dealt it the blow with the axe is pelted with stones by the populace and flees until he reaches the sea. (Aelian, On Animals 12. 34)