Saturday, May 26, 2007

Apollo Sauroktonos, Praxiteles

Apollo Sauroktonos, Lizard-slayer, Praxiteles, c. 350 - 275

In the myth, of course, Apollo, has many attributes, including several combinations of opposites and contrasts: sickness and healing, life and death, masculinity and femininity. I think this piece - another iteration of the myth - draws on contrasts of that sort.

Apollo is the god of plagues, that Sminthian "mouse god" the priest Chryses prays to at the opening of the Iliad, here in Christopher Logue's bracing rendition from War Music:

Fearful as the toad in a python's mouth,
The priest, as if the world was empty, walked away
Beside the sea, then hung his head and prayed
Wet-cassocked in the foam:

Whose reach makes distance myth,
In whose abundant warmth
The vocal headlands of Cape Tollomon bask,
As all my life I dressed your leafy shrine
And have, with daily holocausts,
Honoured your timeless might,
Vouchsafe me this:
For every hair upon my daughter's head
Let three Greeks die (War Music, Christopher Logue, 9-10).

It seems that Apollo's association with the plague, and with the mice that bring the plague, led to his later association with healing. He is also the god of music - because of the hymns sung to him as prayers for healing. Only in later centuries will Apollo become a sun god, who is known to the Greeks as Helios.

Apollo, of course, is a major figural subject in art. He is the patron god of the arts for the Greeks - the chorus leader, as it were, of the Muses - the goddesses who preside over the creative and poetic arts of music, dance, writing, and the like.

Apollo is the god one associates with the kouroi figures - they have traditionally been called "Apollos." He the god by which Pheidias himself seems to have established his style in the West pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, with an austere, commanding, otherwordly presence. The Pheidian Apollo is described by Lord Clark:

One great image of Apollo from the beginning of the classic period has survived in the original: he who rises above the struggle, in the west pediment of the temple of Olympia, and, with a gesture of sovereign authority, reproves the bestial fury of the centaurs. Nowhere else, perhaps, is the early Greek ideal so perfectly embodied: calm, pitiless, and supremely confident in the power of physical beauty. (The Nude, 74).

Clearly, the Praxitelean Apollo is quite different. We are reminded here that Apollo is also the god of really good looking young men in a culture in which women are virtually absent from the public sphere, and in which there appears to have been no sanction on certain forms of homosexual behavior. Apollo has been identified with several boy lovers - Hyacinth, Zephyr, Cyparissus - each of whom faces an early death. He seems to play the part of the teacher - erastes - in the pederastic pedagogy and philosophy of the Classical world, the older male who seduces, or at least tries to seduce, a young boy, thereby making himself responsible for the boy's education. At the same time, it seems to me, because Apollo is always beardless, he may also represent the eromenos, the beloved in this relationship, who is always depicted beardless in the iconography.

Apollo is also the god most associated with athletes, a common theme in Greek sculpture, and one which associates with the concept of arete, of excellence - excellence in anything or of anything, of doing and looking your best, and of winning competitions. Apollo acquires this attribute - winning competitions - when he defeats the cthonic beast, the Python, after which he becomes god of prophecy.

Apollo then, is a monster-slayer, and if he were a mortal he would have heroic characteristics, but of course he's a god, so he can't. Praxitiles here, as Ovid later, is having a little fun with the god, who is an awfully young adolescent, is delicate, graceful, curvy, feminine, or maybe girlish - and the python is just a lizard the boy is having some fun with. The original was bronze and is, of course, lost, so we have to imagine the play of light on the surfaces, and the languid tension of the pose.

If we consider how consciousness is being explored - not a bad topic for Greek art - I think we find a sort of absent-minded youth idly observing and poking his stick at a lizard poised on the trunk of a tree. The youth is entirely unaware of being observed, yet the pose does suggest, I think, the opposite.

Centuiries later, Ovid mocks Apollo by having him defeat the terrible Python only to be bested by Cupid, hence falling hopelessly in love with the scornful Daphne. This myth plays with the lover/beloved modality

...[G]reat Python, covering so great an area of the mountain slopes, a snake not known before, a terror to the new race of men. The archer god, with lethal shafts that he had only used before on fleeing red deer and roe deer, with a thousand arrows, almost emptying his quiver, destroyed the creature, the venom running out from its black wounds. Then he founded the sacred Pythian games, celebrated by contests, named from the serpent he had conquered. There the young winners in boxing, in foot and chariot racing, were honoured with oak wreaths. There was no laurel as yet, so Phoebus crowned his temples, his handsome curling hair, with leaves of any tree.

Phoebus’s first love was Daphne, daughter of Peneus, and not through chance but because of Cupid’s fierce anger. Recently the Delian god, exulting at his victory over the serpent, had seen him bending his tightly strung bow and said ‘Impudent boy, what are you doing with a man’s weapons? That one is suited to my shoulders, since I can hit wild beasts of a certainty, and wound my enemies, and not long ago destroyed with countless arrows the swollen Python that covered many acres with its plague-ridden belly. You should be intent on stirring the concealed fires of love with your burning brand, not laying claim to my glories!’ Venus’s son replied ‘You may hit every other thing Phoebus, but my bow will strike you: to the degree that all living creatures are less than gods, by that degree is your glory less than mine.’ He spoke, and striking the air fiercely with beating wings, he landed on the shady peak of Parnassus, and took two arrows with opposite effects from his full quiver: one kindles love, the other dispels it. The one that kindles is golden with a sharp glistening point, the one that dispels is blunt with lead beneath its shaft. With the second he transfixed Peneus’s daughter, but with the first he wounded Apollo piercing him to the marrow of his bones.
Now the one loved, and the other fled from love’s name, taking delight in the depths of the woods, and the skins of the wild beasts she caught, emulating virgin Phoebe, a careless ribbon holding back her hair. Many courted her, but she, averse to being wooed, free from men and unable to endure them, roamed the pathless woods, careless of Hymen or Amor, or whatever marriage might be. Her father often said ‘Girl you owe me a son-in-law’, and again often ‘Daughter, you owe me grandsons.’ But, hating the wedding torch as if it smacked of crime she would blush red with shame all over her beautiful face, and clinging to her father’s neck with coaxing arms, she would say ‘ Dearest father, let me be a virgin for ever! Diana’s father granted it to her.’ He yields to that plea, but your beauty itself, Daphne, prevents your wish, and your loveliness opposes your prayer. (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk. 1, trans. A. S. Kline)

The god of competing loses the competition. In the end (read the whole thing!) Apollo loses the girl but acquires the laurel leaves from which to construct the wreath to bestow on winners. Also, a goodly number of great works of art depict the startling ending.