The Esoteric Basis of the Apollo Myth

By Edouard Shuré
From Pythagoras and the Delphic Mysteries [1906]

In Orphic thought, Dionysos and Apollo were two different revelations of the same divinity. Dionysos represented esoteric truth, the foundation and interior of things, open to initiates alone. He held the mysteries of life, past and future existences, the relations between soul and body, heaven and earth. Apollo personified the same truth applied to life on earth and social order. The inspirer of poetry, medicine, and laws, he was science by divination, beauty by art, peace among nations by justice, and harmony between soul and body by purification. In a word, to the initiate Dionysos signified nothing less than the divine spirit in evolution in the universe; and Apollo, the manifestation thereof to mankind on earth. The people had been made to understand this by a legend. The priests had told them that, in the time of Orpheus, Bacchus and Apollo had vied with one another for the tripod of Delphi. Bacchus had willingly given it up to his brother, and withdrawn to one of the peaks of Parnassus, where the Theban women were wont to celebrate his mysteries. In reality the two sons of Jupiter divided between themselves the empire of the world. The one reigned over the mysterious Beyond, the other over the World of the Living.

So that we find in Apollo the solar Logos, the universal Word, the mighty Mediator, the Vishnu of the Hindus, the Mithras of the Persians, and the Horus of the Egyptians. The old ideas of Asiatic esoterism, however, took on, in the legend of Apollo, a plastic beauty, and an incisive splendour which made them penetrate the more deeply into human consciousness, like the shafts of the God.

“White-winged serpents springing forth from his golden bow,” says Eschylus.

Apollo springs forth from the mighty night at Delos; all the goddesses greet his birth; he walks and takes up his bow and lyre, his locks stream in the air and his quiver rattles on his shoulder; the sea quivers, and the whole island shines with his glory scattered abroad in floods of golden flame. This is the epiphany of divine light, which by its august presence creates order, splendour, and harmony, of which poetry is the marvellous echo. The god goes to Delphi and pierces with his arrows a monstrous serpent which was ravaging and laying waste the land, he purifies the country and establishes the temple; the image of the victory of this divine light over darkness and evil. In ancient religions, the serpent symbolized at once the fatal circle of life and the evil resulting therefrom. And yet, from this life once understood and overcome, springs forth knowledge. Apollo, slayer of the serpent, is the symbol of the initiate who pierces nature by science, tames it by his will, and breaking the Karmic circle of the flesh mounts aloft in spiritual splendour, whilst the broken fragments of human animality lie writhing in the sand. For this reason Apollo is the master of expiation, of the purification of soul and body. Bespattered with the monster’s blood, he performed expiation, purified himself during an eight years’ exile beneath the bitter, health-giving laurels of the vale of Tempe.—Apollo, trainer of men, likes to take up his abode in their midst, he is pleased to be in towns with the youths and young men, at contests of poetry and the palaestra, though he remains only for a time. In autumn he returns to his own land, the home of the Hyperboreans. This is the mysterious people of luminous and transparent souls who dwell in the eternal dawn of perfect felicity. Here are his true priests, his beloved priestesses. He lives with them in strong, intimate communion, and when he wishes to make mankind a royal gift, he brings back from the country of the Hyperboreans one of those mighty, radiant souls who is born on earth to teach and delight mortals. He himself returns to Delphi every spring, when poems and hymns are sung in his honour. Visible to none but initiates he comes in dazzling Hyperborean glory, in a chariot drawn by sweetly-singing swans. Again he takes up his abode in the sanctuary, where the Pythoness speaks forth his oracles, and sages and poets listen. Then is heard the song of nightingales, the fountain of Castalia scatters silver spray on every hand, dazzling light and celestial music penetrate the heart of man and reach the very veins of nature.

In this legend of the Hyperboreans may be found much light thrown on the esoteric basis of the Apollo myth. The land of the Hyperboreans is the Beyond, the empyrean of victorious souls, whose astral dawns light up its many-coloured zones. Apollo himself personifies the immaterial and intelligible light of which the sun is merely the physical image, and from which flows down all truth. The wonderful swans which bring him are poets and divine geniuses, messengers of his mighty solar soul, leaving behind them flashes of light and strains of glorious music. Hyperborean Apollo, accordingly, personifies the descent of heaven on to earth, the incarnation of spiritual beauty in flesh and blood, the inflow of transcendent truth by inspiration and divination.

It is now the moment to raise the golden veil of legend and enter the temple itself. How was divination practised therein? Here we touch upon the secrets of Apollonian science and of the mysteries of Delphi.

In antiquity, a strong tie united divination to the solar cults, and here we have the golden key to all the so-called magic mysteries.

The worship of Aryan humanity from the beginning of civilization was directed towards the sun as the source of light, heat, and life. When, however, the thought of the sages rose from the phenomenon to the cause, behind this sensible fire, this visible light, they formed the concept of an immaterial fire, an intelligible light. They identified the form with the male principle, the creative spirit or intellectual essence of the universe, and the latter with its female principle, its formative soul, its plastic substance. This intuition dates back to time immemorial. The conception I speak of is connected with the most ancient mythologies. It circulates in the Vedic hymns under the form of Agni, the universal fire which penetrates all things. It blossoms forth in the religion of Zoroaster, the esoteric part of which is represented by the cult of Mithras. Mithras is the male fire and Mitra the female light. Zoroaster formally states that the Eternal, by means of the living Word, created the heavenly light, the seed of Ormuzd, the principle of material light and material fire. For the initiate of Mithras the sun is only a rude reflection of this light. In his obscure grotto, whose vault is painted with stars, he invokes the sun of grace, the fire of love, conqueror of evil, reconciler of Ormuzd and Ahriman, purifier and mediator, who dwells in the soul of the holy prophets. In the crypts of Egypt, the initiates seek this same sun under the name of Osiris. When Hermes asks to be allowed to contemplate the origin of things, at first he feels himself plunged into the ethereal waves of a delicious light, in which move all living forms. Then, plunging into the darkness of dense matter, he hears a voice which he recognizes as the voice of light. At the same time fire darts forth from the depths, immediately all is light and chaos becomes order. In the Book of the Dead of the Egyptians the souls journey painfully towards that light in the barque of Isis. Moses fully adopted this doctrine in Genesis: “Elohim said: Let there be light; and there was light.” Now the creation of this light precedes that of the sun and stars. This means that, in the order of principles and cosmogony, intelligible precedes material light. The Greeks, who moulded into human form and dramatized the most abstract ideas, expressed the same doctrine in the myth of Hyperborean Apollo.

Consequently the human mind, by inner contemplation of the universe, from the point of view of the soul and the intelligence, came to conceive of an intelligible light, an imponderable element serving as an intermediary between matter and spirit. It would be easy to show that natural philosophers of modern times insensibly draw somewhere near the same conclusion along an opposite path, i.e. by searching for the constitution of matter and seeing the impossibility of explaining it by itself. Even in the sixteenth century, Paracelsus, whilst studying the chemical combinations and metamorphoses of bodies, went so far as to admit of a universal occult agent by means of which they are brought about. The natural philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who conceived of the universe as being a dead machine, believed in the absolute void of celestial space. Yet when it was discovered that light is not the emission of a radiant matter, but rather the vibration of an imponderable element, one was obliged to admit that the whole of space is filled by an infinitely subtile fluid penetrating all bodies and through which waves of heat and light are transmitted. Thus a return was made to the Greek ideas of natural philosophy and theosophy. Newton, who had spent his whole life in studying the movements of the heavenly bodies, went even farther than this. He called this ether sensorium Dei, or the brain of God, i.e. the organ by which divine thought acts in the infinitely great as well as in the infinitely small. In emitting this idea, which he regarded as necessary to explain the simple rotation of the heavenly bodies, the great natural philosopher had embarked on the open sea of esoteric philosophy. The very ether Newton’s thought found in space Paracelsus had discovered at the bottom of his alembics, and had named it astral light. Now this imponderable fluid, which is everywhere present, penetrating all things, this subtile but indispensable agent, this light, invisible to our eyes, but which is at the bottom of all phosphorescence and scintillation, has been proved to exist by a German natural philosopher in a series of well-appointed experiments. Reichenbach had noticed that subjects of very sensitive nerve fibre, when placed in a perfectly dark room in front of a magnet, saw at its two ends strong rays of red, yellow, and blue light. Sometimes these rays vibrated with an undulatory movement. He continued his experiments with all kinds of bodies, especially with crystals. Luminous emanations were seen, by sensitive subjects, round all these bodies. Around the heads of men placed in the dark room they saw white rays; from their fingers issued small flames. In the first portion of their sleep somnambulists sometimes see their magnetizer with these same signs. Pure astral light appears only in a condition of lofty ecstasy, but it is polarized in all bodies, combines with all terrestrial fluids and plays diverse rôles in electricity, in terrestrial and animal magnetism. The interest of Reichenbach’s experiments is that they make precise the limits and transition from physical to astral vision capable of leading on to spiritual vision. They also enable us to obtain a faint glimpse of the infinite subtilties of imponderable matter. Along this path there is nothing to prevent our conceiving it as so fluid, so subtile and penetrating, that it becomes in some way homogeneous with spirit, serving the latter as a perfect garment.

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