"Apollo rejects whatever is too near - entanglement in things, the melting gaze, and equally, soulful merging, mystical inebriation and its ecstatic vision. He desires not soul but spirit. And this means freedom from the heaviness, coarseness, and constriction of what is near, stately objectivity, a ranging glance. Apollo's ideal of distance not only puts him in opposition to Dionysiac exuberance: for us it is even more significant that it involves a flat contradiction of values which Christianity later rated high.
"The image of Apollo 'who shoots from afar' is the manifestation of a single idea. ... It is a spiritual force which raises its voice, and it is sufficiently important to give form to a whole humanity. It proclaims the presence of a divine not in the miracles of the supernatural power, not in the rigor of an absolute justice, not in the providence of an infinite love, but in the victorious splendor of clarity, in the intelligent sway of order and moderation. Clarity and form are the objective aspect, to which distance and freedom are the subjective pendant."
-- Walter Otto. The Homeric Gods
Whether we take Apollo as a literal deity or a mere symbol of cultural ideals, the Far Shooter promotes a spiritual and intellectual ideal that runs contrary to many religions, past or present. While many religions seek a sublime union and reconciliation with some deity or enlightening force, Apollo keeps his followers at a distance.
The Greek god is said to hold sway over the fine arts, healing and purification, law and order and tradition, athleticism and beauty of the young, and the higher intellectual and artistic functions of society as the Greeks understood them. What unites all these diverse provinces is a concern for the timeless and universal forms that underscore the essence of existence. Walter Otto understood Apollo as music incarnate, if by "music" we understood the orderly mathematical rhythms that moderate individual notes and unite them into a manifold tapestry.
Apollo seeks a different humility from his followers than many religious prophets or divine incarnations. He illuminates the chasm between humanity and divinity. This chasm is not meant to degrade humanity into servile abasement. Rather it simply exists to illuminate man in all his limitations, and therefore demands a certain restraint and prudence on those who dwell beneath divinity's province. Apollo offers humanity no way to bridge the chasm between man and god. That is precisely the point: the chasm can not (aside from certain mythological exceptions) be bridged. Apollo demands not the annihilation of ego, or the rebirth of a spiritual conscious. He promotes clarity, cognition, moderation, sobriety, discernment, intellectual and athletic realization. Apollo does not promise his followers a glorious afterlife or a sweeping new spiritual enlightenment. He merely suggests how men may best become men and make the most of their limited potential.
The ideals of Apollo would not mesh well with the ideals of many modern religion. Nor did they mesh well with many religions already contemporary to Apollo's cult. The antithesis of the Apollonian ideal has always been the orgiastic cults of the Orient, the latter perhaps best exemplified by Dionysus. When Antony, steeped in Oriental debasement and debauchery, raised Dionysus as his standard, Octavian very deliberately raised Apollo as the countervailing standard.
Whether we understand this as a clash of divine wills or merely metaphors for different cultural realities, the lesson is drawn. Not all religions are the same. Not all gods are the same. To which religious and cultural reality a people pay homage is a matter of some importance in the grand sweep of history.
True, the ideals of Apollo took a heavy blow with the collapse of Greco-Roman society. In troubled times, increasingly more people turned to Oriental cults with all their orgiastic rites and promises of salvation. The world at large seems run by several competing faiths who, despite their differences, would still have more in common with each other than they would with the cult of Apollo. Nonetheless there are still people in the world, scattered though they may be, who see in Apollo, whether as an Olympian god or sublime cultural metaphor, a different reality worth enshrining.
And make no mistake, it is different reality. Whether supportive, critical or indifferent of those differences, it is nonetheless different. Not all religions are the same. Not all gods are cut from the same cloth.
Did you know...?
In art, Apollo is usually depicted as a handsome young man, always beardless, and often with a lyre or bow in hand.