Delos in Ancient Greek poetry

Delos, located in the very centre of the Aegean Sea, was – according to mythology – the birth-place of Apollo and Artemis and therefore was since around 900 B.C. the most significant Pan-Hellenic holy place. There are archaeological proofs that the island was inhabited before the Bronze Age and several ruins of Mycenaean civilisation have been found. A famous Sanctuary for over 1000 years and even a tax haven under the jurisdiction of Athens by will of the Roman Empire during the II century B.C., Delos has progressively decayed and is now practically uninhabited. It actually strikes the present days’ visitor surely wondering how could this little (less than 3,5 square miles) stony island be called Asteria (the Star) and be such a holy and rich place 2500 years ago. Nevertheless this flat round rock, midway between Athens and Crete, as well as equidistant from continental Greece and the past Ionian Colonies, in spite of its bare, rocky and poor landscape has inspired some of the most famous verses of the ancient Greek poetry. Moreover, many cities and lands are devoted and supposed to belong to Apollo, but he mainly delights in Delos, where the Ionians are gathered together with song and dance in his honour.


In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (probably one of the two earliest hymns, possibly composed around the eighth century B.C.) the birth of Apollo takes place in Delos as Lato (pregnant of Zeus) has been rejected by every other place: for no land wants to guests this tremendous event. Thus She begs the island of Delos to allow he to deliver the baby Apollo on its land.

Delos, if you would be willing to be the abode of my son Phoebus Apollo and make him a rich temple; for no other will touch you, as you will find: and I think you will never be rich in oxen and sheep, nor bear vintage nor yet produce plants abundantly. But if you have the temple of far-shooting Apollo, all men will bring you hecatombs and gather here, and incessant savour of rich sacrifice will always arise, and you will feed those who dwell in you from the hand of strangers; for truly your own soil is not rich.

And the island responds:

Leto, daughter most renowned of mighty Coeus, right gladly would I welcome the birth of the Archer Prince, for verily of me there goes an evil report among men, and thus would I wax mightiest of renown. But at this Word, Leto, I tremble, nor will I hide it from thee, for the saying is that Apollo will be mighty of mood, and mightily will lord it over mortals and immortals far and wide over the earth, the grain-giver.

Therefore, I deeply dread in heart and soul lest, when first he looks upon the sunlight, he disdain my island, for rocky of soil am I, and spurn me with his feet and drive me down in the gulfs of the salt sea. Then should a great sea-wave wash mightily above my head for ever, but he will fare to another land, which so pleases him, to fashion him a temple and groves of trees. But in me would many-footed sea-beasts and black seals make their chambers securely, no men dwelling by me. Nay, still, if thou hast the heart, Goddess, to swear a great oath that here first he will build a beautiful temple, to be the shrine oracular of men–thereafter among all men let him raise him shrines, since his renown shall be the widest.

Leto’s delivery was somehow delayed by the jealousy of Hera; however eventually Eilithyia came and the goddess was able to bring forth her son. He immediately breaks open his swaddling-bands and alleges his characteristics: the bow, the lyre and naturally the endowment of divination.

The island’s fascination is magisterially chanted by Pindar, in a superb homage to Delos in his Hymn to Zeus – of which we unfortunately have only fragments – this was its overture:

Shall we sing of Ismenus or of Melia of the golden distaff,
Or of Cadmus, or the strong spirit of the Spartoi,
Or Thebe with the dark blue headband,
Or of the daring strength of Heracles,
Or the joyful majesty of Dionysus
Or the wedding of white armed Harmonia?

Pindar names the island Asteria, star, as the island shines surrounded by the blue ocean. Somehow the poet tries to invert the perspective: as we humans behold the stars from the earth, the Gods from heavens perceive the islands in the blue ocean as shining stars – and Delos is the shiniest of them all. Pindar – as almost every V century B.C. Greek poet – seldom lingers on scenarios and natural descriptions, and yet this unusual parallelism is widely recognised as one of the finest pages of ancient literature. Pindar uses this poem also as a philosophical interpretation of complementarities between human and heavenly environments and lives. In a sort of Heraclites approach focused on vital tensions, interrelations that unite, divide and eventually compose every living being and thing. Additionally Pindar underlines these concepts as Zeus decides to change chaos into kosmos i.e. progressively, uncertainty and irregularity are transformed into harmony and beauty, thus the earth and the world achieve their perfection. Well almost: men are all insensitive, ungrateful and easily forget the greatness of Gods, therefore the Muses (daughters of Mnemosyne) were given by the gods to men as reminder companions.

In the Alexandrine period Delos is also protagonist of Callimachus’ Hymn to Delos, a long and Homeric style hymn composed together with the Hymn to Artemis. The Island is praised as birthplace of the two Gods (Apollo and Artemis). Callimachus encomiastically compares Delos to Kos, which is Philadelpho’s birthplace. Again Leto’s wanderings are the commencement for the accomplishment of Apollo’s birth prophecy focuses on the great interest of the audience in sacred rites, sexual purity and locations and celebrates the island’s holiness:

Golden then, Delos, were all your foundations, with gold the circular lake flowed all day, golden the leaves of your birthday olive, and with gold flowed the twisting Inopos in full flood.

The Hymn to Delos strictly parallels the first part of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, and can be considered a sort of revival of this classic poem, although enriched by ironical tone and erudite allusions and refined annotations, perfectly typical of the Hellenistic poetry. As for instance when Apollo explains to his mother why Kos is not suitable to become his birthplace, as someone else (who is supposed to patronise Callimachus…) is meant to be born there:

But for her the fates have due another god,
Most high lineage of the Saviours, beneath the crown
Shall come, quite willing to be subject to Macedonian,
Both continents and lands in the sea
So far as the end of the West and whence swift horses
Carry the sun. And shall know his father ways

Thus, surprisingly, for several centuries the rather hostile and unattractive island of Delos has inspired sublime poetry and religious commitment and hopes. In my opinion the truth is that the ancient Greeks – very resourceful brilliant minds – were able to build point of reference out of anything, they were capable to envisage a “vanishing point” that would allow them to regain their firmness and then rule their own life and spirituality – even in spite of the whimsical Gods’ overwhelming power; and to set one of these vanishing points in Delos was not probably casual: where men can feel more at loss than on a little rock in the middle of nowhere surrounded by the wine dark sea?

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3 comments on “Delos in Ancient Greek poetry

  1. Lisa says:

    Your blog is absolutely fantastic! I love both ancient Greece and Rome, please write more about ancient Rome.

  2. stoa says:

    Thank you very much for your sincere compliment, Lisa.
    I promise will write more often about ancient Rome history and literature.


  3. Anthonios says:

    I feel as if Delos haunts me. I first learned about it in 2004 when I was planning a trip to Europe. Then, just when I was to visit the island, the trip was cancelled due to high winds. And, now I seem obsessed with the myths and what I may find there. I am rather mad, though at the ways of the Greeks and the following Romans. The Romans stole and copied and destroyed everything Greek. And, the Greeks destroyed themselves with such horrible example by their own gods raping nymphs and siblings and other gods/deities. But, as mad as I get…I still find myself mezmerized by the legends and particularly Athena. I continue to learn as much about the land and people as I can. Any help is appreciated.

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