Apollon Karneios, Dionysos and the Karneia

Apollon Karneios, Dionysos and the Karneia
By Lykeia
Karneia 2014

I am writing this as an overview on the inherent meaning of the Karneia, the role of Apollon Karneios among the gods, and the overall relationship between Apollon and Dionysos that we find manifesting in the Karneia festival.

Before we examine Apollon Karneios and the Karneia festival, it is best to begin with the relationship between Apollon and Dionysos as this has what I feel to be significant bearing on the Karneia festival. Over the years there have been a lot of theories of the seemingly odd relationship of Apollon and Dionysos, that these gods who on the surface appear so different are inexpiably linked in ways that may be confounding to the casual observer. No truer is this than at Delphi, where Plutarch drew forth his hypothesis on the oneness of Apollon and Dionysos as essentially opposing sides of the same coin, and from which Nietzsche seemed to be particularly inspired. In fact, Nietzsche’s writing on the duality of Apollon and Dionysian nature is often considered superior source work on the nature of Apollon and Dionysos. The problem with this is that all historical information we have on the cult of Apollon indicates anything but a god of oppositional nature to Dionysos.

Instead, what we find is that Apollon, rather than being an opposing god, plays an entirely different function in his relationship with Dionysos, one as a nurturer, supporter, guide and guardian. To best see this we need to view the nature of Apollon specifically through the Doric-Peloponnesian lens. We get a hint of it already from Homer in the Iliad. Although much attention in the study of this text tends to be given to Apollon Smintheus as a plague god, it is another very brief passage that requires attention in which Poseidon, in his confrontation with Apollon on the battlefield for Troy reminds the younger god of how he tended his service in the pastures as Poseidon built the walls of Troy. Apollon as a pastoral god may seem of little value in the bigger picture of things, but this is the starting place of exploring the intertwining of Apollon’s relationship with Dionysos. In several parts of the Peloponnese, as Pausanias tells us that he learns in his travels, we find Apollon firmly linked with the pastures through which herders passed their beasts. Likely related to the concept of his divine precedence over pastures, we find him likewise associated to vineyards, orchards and gardens as that which provides sustenance supportive to life. This is likely due to a primary characteristic of Apollon as divine light that brings forth. It is no mistake that most of Apollon’s major festivals take place during the warm drier half of the year that is necessary for the maturation of crops, plant life and the rearing of animals. In Arkadia we find testament to this in which Apollon and Pan are called the original two seasons, which seems to have been an opinion shared throughout much of Hellas as we find at Delos that Apollon was present for the half of the year dominated by light from the spring equinox to the autumn equinox, being absent the other half of the year. There are scholars who believe that this was the same too at Delphi. Among the Doric race, meanwhile, the year began at one or the other equinox, which may have something to do with Apollon being a patron god of the people.

In Doric Argos we find mention by Pausanias of what appears to be the most prominent temple of Apollon Karneios that seems to specifically address this seasonal function. Here there was a statue, a gift from Epidaurus, in which Apollon Karneios was described bearing his herders staff and a pinecone. The pinecone, being a natural barometer, opens to announce the beginning of the rainy season and the end of the warm dry season. That the thyrsos of Dionysos bears this symbol at its point suggests a prolific link with the fertile seasonal rains of winter during which many of his prominent festivals take place and his own relationship with Pan who rules this seasonal time. That, in this same city, in the temple of Hera, we find Apollon and Artemis directly linked to Demeter and Persephone indicates this connection as well in terms of the grain growth.

With this taken into consideration we can see the link between this season and two major “cycles,” one that is grain focused and the other that is linked to herds and vineyards, involved in Apollon’s cult and mythos that focuses him as a herder and crop cultivator that both depend on this vital season for maturation and harvest. At this time it is perhaps a good idea to discuss what is meant here that Apollon has two “cycles.” These cycles refer to two separate primary agricultural productions. On one hand we have him attached to the grain harvest. This is at the heart of his more commonly popularly known birth at Thargelia on the Ionian island Delos. Here he is born at the first grain harvest, that of green immature grains. It is unlikely that grains were harvested at this time to fit a festival, rather than his birth coincided in this mythic cycle with an already occurring harvest period, for whatever these grains were used for that they were harvested so early. In the Doric colony of Rhodes we find Apollon hailed and prayed to for keeping the rust from the crops, a growth on the grains that occur during an unseasonably wet season. Around the time of the summer grain harvest we find in Sparta and their colonies the celebration of Hyakinthia in honor of the death of Hyakinthios, who, unlike Persephone who is the personification of the grain itself, was representative of the death of tender spring growth and likely also connected with the harvest of grain that occurred at this same time as in Spartan custom bread was forbidden to be consumed during the observation of the funerary rites of Hyakinthios. In this cycle Apollon is intimately more connected to Demeter than what Athenian custom and common myth suggests. Here Apollon is the divine mystagog, along with his twin Artemis, guide and purifier of the mystes at Eleusis. Diodoros Siculus in his relating what he considers the root of Hellenic mystery traditions, that Apollon and Artemis were the children of Isis (Demeter) and that Orpheus brought the mysteries he learned from Egypt to Greece. Of course bearing in mind the numerous cultic similarities between Leto and Demeter, it is probable that it is all a part of a tangled mythic-cultic web.

Of course one should not make the mistake that this primarily an Athenian cycle. As pointed out above the Dorics honored Apollon during important times of the grain growth cycle. In fact they invested more mythically and cultically in the relationship between Apollon and Artemis with Demeter than we find in Athens. It is in Messenia that Demeter hides in the horse pastures of Apollon in the form of a mare in her grief, and there that Poseidon mates with her to bare Despoina (Artemis as Pausanias tells us). It is in Argos that the temple of Hera portrays the distinct pairing of Apollon and Artemis with Demeter and Kore. It is all about the Demeterian cycle in which we have Apollon, not only as the guide of the mystes, but also hailed at the Eleusinia around the time of the fall equinox before his departure to Hyperborea with two sacrifices, one of a goat and the other of a swine. Then again in Athenian custom we have him hailed after his departure at the Pyanepsia with a kind of stew of the previous season’s bounty. The conclusion, or beginning depend on how you see it, of this cycle is his return from Hyperborea at the spring equinox bearing the wheat ears from Hyperborea, likely during a critical time in the development of the grain crops. He brings the promise of the ripened ears.

Karneia is connected to his other cycle. This cycle is connected with that of Dionysos and Zeus than it is with Demeter, although again with the tangled web we see Dionysos is a significant part of the Demeterian cycle too. In this cycle we have the recognition of the birth of Apollon as one who is born during the Delphic month Bysios, a month called Anthesterion by Athenians, an occasion of which the oracle was open only one day per year at Delphi on this occasion at the Polythusia on the birthday of the god as Plutarch tells us. The Delphinians, like the Dorics, agreed with the Theban birth of Apollon. There a natural made island between two rivers called Olive and Palm was the birthing sight of Apollon during the lambing season. Therefore, chronologically in his relationship with Dionysos during this sacred month we find Apollon born on the seventh of the month, perhaps among lamb flocks, not unlike his uncle Poseidon with whom he shares a particularly close relationship with who was also hidden among the lambs, followed by the festival of Dionysios on the Anthesterion. This festival, as most are aware, celebrates the first opening of the casks from the previous year’s wine harvest among other meaningful things herein during this festival. In this Dionysian cycle we find Apollon as the god who is caretaker of the vine as well as nurturer and protector of the fruits similar to his role in the Demeterian cycle. It is likely in connection with this cycle that we find Apollon and Artemis as the only two gods in the Orphic hymns that are called Bacchic. Apollon’s protective role over the vineyards is illustrated best perhaps at Rhodes where Apollon Smintheus, along with Dionysos Smintheus, slayed the mice devastating the vineyards. Here is an important point to notice, Apollon as the destroyer, as his name calls him, is a god who destroys prominently as a force of nature. It is unlikely that ancient peoples recognized mice as a source of disease, but rather as another plague, as crop destroyers. Famine was viewed with great fear in the ancient world and was a very real threat. Mice and locusts, both of which were connected with Apollon, devastated crops, and in the case of mice, also stores of harvested food. It is likely from this basis that we find Apollon connected with bringing plagues in other ways as we see in the Iliad. A god who can bring one plague can bring many other kinds. Primarily however we are dealing here with Apollon Smintheus, as a god protecting the crops as we see at Rhodes. As the fruit of Dionysos is not only a wet substance consumed by men but also very much seen as a spiritual substance too, Apollon as protector of the vine is working on several levels. It is likely to this end that Apollon is a symbolic presence in the myth of Dionysos in which he is kidnapped by pirates, a myth used in art to represent the soul, as a god who grips the bow of the ship and guide of the ship through the transformation of the pirates into dolphins. This would not be the first time that Apollon has such associations since Apollon is not only widely recognized as a god of harbors, but was honored at Delphi with imagery of Apollon griping the bow of a ship and there took the form of a dolphin himself.

Karneia represents the coming culmination of the Dionysian cycle, the harvest of the grape, even as the Thargelia serves similar purpose in the Demeterian cycle with the beginning of the grain harvest. Karneia is not at the primary grape harvest, but likely the Thargelia, is the first harvest of the immature fruit. This harvest seems popular among the Dorics and one that was carried over to Thera, where the modern city is still famous for the produce made from this harvest. The harvest of immature grapes was used, and is still used to today, for the production of a heady dessert wine. As Dionysos is also intimately connected with sheep, it is perhaps unsurprising that the vineyard cycle is tied to the herding one; therefore I label them as both part of the Dionysian cycle. This association is perhaps something part of his inheritance from Zeus. The relationship of Dionysos to Zeus is a bit more apparent in the Peloponesse. In Arkadia for instance, where Zeus was reared, Pausanias remarked on a statue of a young Zeus that bore almost identical appearance to those of Dionysos if one replaced the thyrsos with lightning bolts. The seasonal roles of Pan and Apollon in Arkadia is more apparently linked to Zeus in Arkadia where they enjoyed temples on either side of the temple of Zeus Lykaeus. That the oracle of the ram-horned Zeus Ammon at Dodona in the northern Peloponesse was so highly popular is perhaps deeply connected to this highly popular view of Zeus as related to the flocks and herds, a god who is reared as they are in the spring months just as Dionysos is. This is probably why the mysteries at Samothrace seem to belong both to Dionysos and Samothrakian Demeter as they do to Rhea and Zeus, and there Apollon is hailed as Apollon Corybantes, the father of the Corybantes, and likely the son of the dragonish Corybas as he is at Crete. It is a parallel mystery, and the preservation of initiates from storms at sea cannot but be related to the protection Apollon provides from the potential of unseasonable storms and rains, especially considering that the stormy time of the year is not one during which sailors are out on the seas. It is likely that the schooling of the Argonauts in the Samothrakian mysteries by Orpheus in the Argonautika and the falling of two stars, ie two heavenly lights which probably represent Apollon and Artemis as leaders of the mystic choruses, upon the Dioskouri and there own subsequent connections to protection of travelers from storms at seas is linked to this. That Apollon is so connected to them we know from the play Elektra in which the Dioskouri call Apollon their king.

Apollon as guide, protector and nurturer is strongly linked to his role as a herder, which is demonstrated in the Iliad, in the myth of Admetus where Apollon appears incarnated on earth as the son of Silenus, and the myth of the birth of Hermes just as in the conception of Despoina. That Apollon Karneios is goat horned speaks as much for his herding as his staff does. Among Dorics the goat is a herding animal, that is to say the goat was used to lead the herds of sheep. It is for this reason that Apollon Karneios, who is common to all of the Doric race, is goat horned, and why statues of Apollon in general in Sparta were commonly depicted with goats beside him. The very myth of Apollon Karneios speaks plainly and solely of his nurturing and protecting nature. Unlike myths which seem to evidence of usurping another god, this is not the case of Apollon Karneios as Karneios is not the name of a local divinity in Sparta as Amyclaeus is, but wide spread and worshiped among all Doric peoples as we know from Pausanias. This myth therefore illustrates the meaning of his name and why he is called this. It is an official title that explains the inherent function of Apollon among the Doric peoples that they find to be the most important, similar to how many called Apollon Phoebus. In this myth Apollon takes it upon himself, with the assistance of his mother Leto, to raise the abandoned infant son of Zeus, Karneios. Of this child there is nothing further. Rather this name, which refers to the heart, demonstrates that Apollon is a god that nurtures, and that is carried everywhere with the people within the heart. And quite likely, just as the myth of Dionysos enclosed in the thigh of Zeus connects him to the fertile genitals of Zeus, the rearing of the “heart” of Zeus connects him with the heart of the god and may be further linked to the rearing of Zeus in Arkadia. The god who nurtures, rears and protects is the god who also reaps and butchers. Thus he presides over the first cutting of the vine of the immature fruits just as the best of the spring lambs who was reared throughout his season is sacrificed to him as the god of herds by what was called in other parts of Hellas as the shepherd’s feast.

It is from all of this together that we find the Karneia present, as Apollon protects from unseasonably early autumn rains that would ruin the vineyard harvests, and to celebrate the season of butchering in direct relationship to Dionysos who dies in the autumn to give his essence to the wine made from the harvested grapes and who is the bull that is torn apart and ate. A Spartan vase depicts the scene of the festival with adoration given to the god before his image, and then on the reverse of the vase Dionysos is reclined. He is part of the festival but not the primary god of it. As such it is likely that offerings were made to Dionysos but the ritual itself was not directed to him, he is but present as a symbol of being part of what is being sacrificed. In many ways he is being as the ram sacrificed and the vine that is cut. This bears some relationship of Dionysos later as god that is buried and grave erected at Delphi, and that of Zeus at Crete, and Apollon as a god who is protector of the tomb and anointer of the dead as we find him from the Iliad to cultic inscriptions in Ionia, to sacrifices to Apollon at the cemetery in Argos as told by Pausanias. As Apollon’s presence in Crete is largely attributed to the Doric colonies that brought him there, it is probable that the Dorics recognized an earlier pre-Zeus paternity in Corybas, though some think that this is a pre-Olympic form of Zeus. As such Apollon is of dragonish descent, of likely bears such features himself. This seems to be echoed too by myths which have him as a descendant for Koios/Poios, the axis of the heavens, the polar star of which was the eye of a great heavenly dragon. That Apollon Karneios was said to accompanied his statue to Argos in the form of a serpent and a myth from near Olympia where he was said to have mated with a local woman in the form of a snake to form the first oracle of the area, is all suggestive of his dragon-like nature for which the Orphic Argonautika may have been referring to him as the dragon which guarded over the tomb of the god who delights in the crawling vines. This is the progression to see from the Karneia in which Apollon is also as Lykeios, the wolfish god, render of the flesh of sheep, and great dragon, great serpent guardian of the tombs in what follows harvest.

Naturally it is easy to see why the Karneia was considered the most holy festival to the Spartans, so holy that troops would return home from whatever campaign they happened to be engaged in to celebrate it. It was in fact forbidden to engage in warring on this festival. The festival itself occurred for nine days. The number nine can be seen as one of the most holy numbers of Apollon. Kallimakhos, the poet from the Doric colony Kyrene, tells us that when Leto labored she did so for nine days and that upon the birth of the god nine swans circled him singing. That the singing of the swan is directly relating the birth of the god with death is quite telling. So it is easy to see why this number would be used for establishing the length of the festival, though commonly most people who celebrate it currently only do so for one day at the final day of the festival, at its culmination on the fullmoon. It was celebrated at an encampment at which nine tents were upraised to represent the nine Doric clans, and a competition would be made between these clans during the festival in chorus and games. One such game was a foot race in which competitors ran carrying harvested grapes, likely symbolizing a mystical component in competition for an immortal place, and more practically to possibly indicate the need to outrun the autumnal rains. That the harvest comes swiftly and in plenty, for which purpose the competitors could not drop nor likely in any fashion damage, the fruit. The cultural component of the Karneia was celebrated here by the hitching of the tents, in which Apollon is honored as the god who brought the Doric race back to the shores of Hellas. It is in this fashion that he was also honored with his statue placed within a boat that was loaded with flowers. For Apollon, as said above, travels with men, and for this he is honored from ever going with us within our hearts, leading us forth, at the Karneia.

A modern celebration of the Karneia can include several things. One of which can be nine markers places around the ritual area to represent this holy number that is engrained in the festival as a symbol of the unity of life, death and the arise to immortality as in Orphism the number nine represents the natural law of freedom that frees the soul from mortality when it is released from life. A small boat can be fashioned from clay to represent the ship of Apollon Karneios to place at the center of the altar. Representations of Dionysos and Zeus are appropriate to include here, and also Hera, the mother of rains. If practicing in a group, the race can be a significant part of the festival at its conclusion. For a solo worshiper an offering of grapes can be appropriate to acknowledge the significance of the festival in terms of the vineyard and harvest, which as much as a spiritual matter and ought to be relevant to anyone regardless of whether they literally practice in such harvests themselves or whether grapes even grow in their locality. Even as far north as Alaska where only special arctic-worthy hybrids of grapes can be grown, the Karneia has important harvest meanings, and the grapes represent all of it during the festival. Here the fruit, grain and livestock harvest all occur more or less simultaneously. And that may also be the case in other far northern areas. A feast is also an appropriate, and in my opinion essential, part of the festival. A celebration of the harvest season in general with all the fruits of the earth and, unless one is a vegetation, some kind of beef or mutton which are common herd animals that people consume. Celebrating the glory of the fruitful season is clearly a part of the mindset of the festival even as one prays that the autumnal rains and storms do not come early. But more importantly it is to honor Apollon who dwells with us, who cares for us, and to acknowledge and praise the role he will have, as our shepherd, to slay us at the seasonal end of our days even as he protects us against unseasonable death as he strived to do for Admetus and Aclestis.

Lykeia serves Apollon and is devoted to Artemis. She fell in love with the gods at the age of twelve and started actively worshiping them when she was fourteen years old. The highlight of her spiritual life was a trip to Hellas in 2008 where she had the oppertunity to visit Delphi and Olympia among many other wonderful sites. Lykeia has a BA in history with a minor in Literature and directs most of her devotional activity to writing (particularly of sacred poetry) and painting. She blogs at http://lykeiaofapollon.wordpress.com where you can also find copies of her books.



  1. oh, thank you so much for this! i’ve been wrestling with the Karneia for years now, and this not only validates a UPG i had last year, it gives me SO much great info to prepare for next year.
    what a marvelous resource for the community you are!

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