Apollo Delphinios in the Ionian city of Miletos

The Delphinia is just around the corner, and while we really do lack sources on this festival in the Athenian context, we can still take a cheeky look at the cult of Apollo Delphinios elsewhere. This epithet is especially important in the Ionian city of Miletos, where it was the main state cult from the 7th century BC until Late Antiquity. Note that this post is mostly a abridged summary of “How to run a state cult: The organization of the cult of Apollo Delphinios in Miletos” by Alexander Herda, published in: Current approaches to religion in ancient Greece (2011)

In Miletos, the New Year coincided with the biggest celebration to Apollo, between the 7th and 10th day of the month Taureon of the Ionian calendar, which fell between April and May (which would also coincide with the timing of the Attic Delphinia).

The festival

Miletos integrated the cult of Herakles to the one of Apollo Delphinios. This is shown by one of the groups of participants of the festivals, the Onitadai. The Onitadai were charged of taking care of the food aspect of things: they provided the equipment for slaughtering and cooking the sacrificial victims, prepared the meat, cooked the meat and baked sacrificial cakes. In return, they were compensated by taking home any leftover food (meat, wine, sacrificial cakes etc.) as well as the skins of the animals killed. The link with Herakles draws itself from the name of the group, with links back to Onites, the mythical son of Theban Herakles. Local tradition puts forward that Herakles has built the ash altar of Apollo Didymeus, which implies he was believed to be the first sacrificer in Didyma, which happened to be the arrival point of the procession of the Milesian New Tear. Additionally, a sacred law discovered for Herakles in the Delphinion itself indicates that Herakles was venerated in the sanctuary of Apollo Delphinios.

Another group of paricipants was called Molpoi, which is roughly translated as “singers and dancers”, indicating the importance of music in the festival. We can assume that the performance of hymnic paians were an important part of the celebaration.

The festival included ceremonies of political importance. The second day of the festival seems to have been the day where certain members of the government would take oaths. Worth noting that the Hestia Prytaneia, the communal hearth and center of the polis, was situated in the assembly hall, both of which were integrated in the Delphinion as well. The cult of Apollo Delphinios being an integral part of the city’s political life also explains the third of the festival, where leaving members of the government would make a farewell sacrifice to Hestia at the communal hearth. On the fourth and final day, the new, young citizens of the polis would be formally initiated with a competition between paian-choruses during a night-feast. It is very likely that the priest of Apollo Delphinios served as one the leaders of the choruses.

It is only after this last ceremony that the festival moved in a procession to Didyma, where the final feasting to Apollo Didymeus was held. Inscriptions and coins have also shown that torch-races were part of Didymeia. This would not be surprising, as fire rituals are commonly seen as ending rituals (especially since they happen at night).

Apollo as a political god

From this festival alone, it is quite hard to see the link between the Milesian Apollo and the “standard” Apollo Delphinios, protector of seafaring. As we have seen, Apollo Delphinios is for Miletus a political god, at the very heart of its local politics. For Miletos, Apollo Delphinios mostly served as the protector of their colonial activity. According to Irad Malkin, the Homeric Hymn to Apollo Delphinios highlights two main functions:

First, he is the protector of seafarers, ships. By extension, he is the god of shores, beaches and of the happy landing. Second, he is the god of colonization, as he leads the foundation of his sanctuary at the beach of Crisa. Because the altar of the sanctuary is the first fire made by the colonists there, it marks the future sacred hearth in the Delphinion, which makes Apollo himself the founder of the colony, later polis, of Crisa.

The latter remark is what leads Friz Graf to identify a third function of Apollo Delphinios as a political god, from his title of founder of cities. This function is also what explains how widespread the cult of Apollo Delphinios was. Miletos would export their religious framework to the their colonies, making Apollo Delphinios a central figure in those new cities as well.


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