7. The Name of Apollo: Etymology and Essence*

7§1 The etymology of Apollo’s name, Apóllōn, has defied linguistic reconstruction for a long time. [1] A breakthrough came with a 1975 article by Walter Burkert, where he proposes that the Doric form of the name, Apéllōn, be connected with the noun apéllai, designating a seasonally recurring festival—an assembly or thing, in Germanic terms—of Dorian kinship groups. [2] The linguistic principles underlying Burkert’s proposal have been definitively restated in a posthumously published work by Alfred Heubeck, who shows that the earliest recoverable form of the name is *apeli̯ōn, built on a noun shaped *apeli̯a: thus the meaning would be something like ‘he of the assembly’. [3] The point of departure for my presentation is a Cypriote by-form of Apollo’s name, Apeílōn (to-i-a-pe-lo-ni = τῶι Ἀπείλωνι), showing the earlier e-vocalism as opposed to the innovative o-vocalism of Apóllōn. [4] {138|139} Following up on a suggestion that I heard viva voce many years ago from Leonard Muellner, I propose to connect the name of Apollo, with recourse to this Cypriote by-form, to the Homeric noun apeilḗ, meaning ‘promise, boastful promise, threat’, and to the corresponding verb, apeiléō ‘make a promise, boastful promise, threat’. [5] Offering arguments in support of this connection, I hope to show that the meaning of these forms apeilḗ and apeiléō is based on the concept of a speech-act, and that this concept dovetails with the meaning of apéllai, based on an actual context of speech-acts. Such dovetailing helps explain the essence of Apollo, ‘he of the *apeli̯a’, as the god of authoritative speech, the one who presides over all manner of speech-acts, including the realms of songmaking in general and poetry in particular.
7§2 Let us begin by reexamining the concept of a speech-act within the framework of archaic Greek society. In his 1989 book, The Language of Heroes, Richard Martin shows how Homeric narrative actually recovers, albeit in stylized form, the contexts of speech-acts such as formal boasts, threats, prophecies, prayers, laments, invectives. [6] The term “speech-act” derives from the theories of J. L. Austin and J. R. Searle concerning the performative aspects of language. [7] A speech-act, according to Austin and Searle, entails a situation where the antithesis of word and action is neutralized, in that the word is the action. When Diomedes utters a boast concerning his heroic identity in Iliad XIV 126–127, to cite just one example, his self-praise is not just a set of words spoken by a Homeric character and quoted by Homeric narrative: it is a speech-act, brought to life by the narrative. [8] As Martin shows, a prime word used in Homeric diction to designate any such speech-act is mūthos, as in the example at hand concerning the boast of Diomedes (XIV 126). Greek mūthos is the ancestor of our English word “myth.” In Homeric diction, this Greek word mūthos reveals “myth” in its fullest meaning—not narrowly in the sense of made-up stories that are the opposite of empirical truth but broadly in the sense of traditional narratives that convey a given society’s truth-values. [9]
7§3 The semantics of mūthos bring to life, in microcosm, the relationship between myth and ritual, word and action, in ancient Greek society. [10] In order to grasp the full meaning of mūthos, let us consider the distinction between marked and unmarked speech—to use the terminology of Prague {139|140} School linguistics. [11] We find that marked speech occurs as a rule in ritual contexts, as we can observe most clearly in the least complex or smallest-scale societies. [12] It is also in such societies that we can observe most clearly the symbiosis of ritual and myth, and how the language of ritual and myth is marked, while “everyday” language is unmarked. [13] So also with mūthos ‘myth’: this word, it has been argued, had at an earlier stage meant ‘special speech’ as opposed to “everyday” speech. [14]
7§4 From an anthropological point of view, “myth” is indeed “special speech” in that it is a given society’s way of affirming its own reality. Edmund Leach offers a particularly useful synthesis:

The various stories [i.e., the myths of a given society] form a corpus. They lock in together to form a single theological-cosmological-[juridical] whole. Stories from one part of the corpus presuppose a knowledge of stories from all other parts. There is implicit cross-reference from one part to another. It is an unavoidable feature of storytelling that events are made to happen one after another, but in cross-reference, such sequence is ignored. It is as if the whole corpus referred to a single instant of time, namely, the present moment. [15]
7§5 The Homeric sense of mūthos, in Martin’s working definition, is “a speech-act indicating authority, performed at length, usually in public [emphasis mine], with a focus on full attention to every detail.” [16] In fact, Homeric diction regularly associates mūthos with the verb agoreúō ‘speak in public’. [17] There is a parallelism between this sense of mūthos and the sense of apéllai as ‘public assembly’ (Hesychius s.v. ἀπέλλαι· σηκοί, ἐκκλησίαι, ἀρχαιρεσίαι). [18] The *apeli̯a that gives Apollo his name is the context, as it were, of performing a mūthos. This implicit relationship between mūthos and the noun *apeli̯a as reflected in apéllai is made explicit in Homeric usage, if indeed the noun apeilḗ ‘promise, boastful promise, threat’ and the corresponding verb, apeiléō ‘make a promise, boastful promise, threat’ are formally related to apéllai. I cite the following Homeric collocation of mūthos and apeiléō: {140|141}

Ἀτρείωνα δ᾿ ἔπειτα χόλος λάβεν, αἶψα δ᾿ ἀναστὰς
ἠπείλησεν μῦθον, ὃ δὴ τετελεσμένος ἐστί

Iliad I 837–838
Then an anger took hold of the son of Atreus, and straightaway he stood up
and boastfully promised [verb apeiléō] a mūthos, [19] which now has come to fulfillment [=verb teléō, from noun télos ‘fulfillment’].

In such contexts, the word apeiléō designates the actual performance of a speech-act, a mūthos, while the word teléō, derivative of télos ‘fulfillment’ guarantees that the speech-act is really a speech-act, in that the course of events, which amounts to actions emanating from the speech-act, bears out the speech-act. We may compare the Homeric instances where apeiléō can be translated as ‘vow’ in the context of prayers addressed to gods (Iliad XXIII 863, 892). [20] In such cases the course of events in the future is predicated on the value of the words spoken as a speech-act: if a god hears a prayer, then the words spoken as prayer are a speech-act, and then the actions promised by the one who prays can bear out the speech-act. Conversely, it is implicit that if a god does not hear a prayer, then the words spoken as prayer are not really a prayer: they turn out to have been not a speech-act after all, and the actions promised by the one who intended a prayer need not be carried out. I submit that the god who primarily presides over speech-acts, which are then ratified by the actual course of events, is Apollo. It is for this reason that he presides over oracles, including the great Oracle at Delphi. [21]

7§6 Ironically, the god who promises the fulfillment, the télos, of his own speech-acts, is himself the incarnation of promise, not fulfillment. As we see clearly from the Hesiodic Theogony, the lineage of purebred Olympian gods comes to a halt, for all practical purposes, at the third generation, with Zeus staying on as permanent executive of the universe. Once the third generation is reached, the Olympian gods of this generation go on propagating themselves by mating with mortals, not with each other. Mortal genes, as it were, are dominant, while immortal ones are recessive, in that any element of mortality in a lineage produces mortal offspring. [22] Thus all the {141|142} progeny of third-generation Olympian gods is destined to be mortal. One of the few major exceptions to the short-circuiting of Olympian genetic self-perpetuation at the stage of the third generation is the god Apollo, fathered on the immortal Leto by the immortal Zeus. Burkert draws attention to the fact that Apollo is conventionally represented as beardless and unshorn, looking like an éphēbos ‘ephebe’, that is, a pre-adult male. [23] Unlike human pre-adult males, however, the god Apollo is a permanent ephebe. Unlike human males, he will never take over from his father.
7§7 The basic ephebism of Apollo can be connected with the semantics of apéllai. As Burkert points out, the feast of the apéllai at Delphi is technically a “Feast of Ephebes.” [24] Moreover, we may consider the wording of the so-called Great Rhetra of Sparta, attributed to Lycurgus the lawgiver: ὥρας ἐξ ὡρᾶν ἀπελλάζειν ‘to hold assemblies [apéllai], season [hōrā] after season [hōrā]’ (Plutarch Lycurgus 6). [25] In this case the theme of seasonality, as conveyed by hōrā ‘season’, can be connected with the celebration of young boys’ coming of age, that is, of human seasonality, on the occasion of the apéllai of Delphi. [26] Moreover, the same theme can be connected with the very essence of the hero in archaic Greece, if indeed the hōrā ‘season’ is etymologically connected not only with Hḗrā, the name of the goddess of seasonality, but also with hḗrōs ‘hero’. [27] As we see most clearly in the case of Herakles = Hērakléēs ‘he who has the kléos of Hera’, the Greek hero is unseasonal, off-balance, in terms of the myth that tells his or her story, and becomes seasonal, balanced, only with the completion of the myth, with the full telling of the story; the full narrative is realized in the hero’s death, whether or not that aspect of the myth, the hero’s death, is explicit in any individual narration. [28] Just as Apollo’s ephebism embodies the god’s promise, not fulfillment, so also the word hḗrōs conveys the promise of seasonality for the hero. It is no accident, I submit, that the premier hero of Greek epic, Achilles, shares in the ephebic features of Apollo: like the god, he wears his hair long—till the final moment of his realization, through the death of Patroklos, of his own self-fulfillment in death (Iliad XXIII 140–153). [29] Observing such parallelisms between hero and god, Burkert has remarked that Achilles {142|143} is a Doppelgänger, as it were, of Apollo. [30] In this light, it is also no accident that Achilles, like Apollo, is a singer of songs (Iliad IX 186–191).
7§8 With these considerations in mind, I return to my argument that Apollo, ‘he of the *apelia’, is the god of authoritative speech, the one who presides over all manner of speech-acts. For Austin and Searle, as we have seen, a speech-act is a situation where the antithesis of word and action is neutralized, in that the word is the action. Here I invoke Barbara Johnson’s application of Austin’s notion of speech-act to poetry—an application that Austin himself resisted. [31] This application is taken even further in Richard Martin’s book, which applies the notion of speech-act to the oral performance of oral poetry. [32] The mūthos of Homeric poetry is not just any speech-act reported by poetry: it is also the speech-act of poetry itself, as also of song in general. [33] So also Apollo is not only the god of speech-acts: he is also the god of poetry and song. The god of eternal promise, of the eternity of potential performance, he is the word waiting to be translated into action. That is the essence of Apollo. {143|144}


[ back ] * The original version of this essay is N 1994b.
[ back ] 1. DELG 98.
[ back ] 2. Burkert 1975, especially p. 10.
[ back ] 3. Heubeck 1987. Particularly useful is his discussion, at pp. 181, of the Pamphylian byforms of Apollo’s name. Heubeck also surveys other attempts at explaining the etymology since the publication of Burkert’s article.
[ back ] 4. For the attestation of the Cypriote form, see Masson 1983 n. 215b4; for a linguistic analysis, see Heubeck 1987:180–181.
[ back ] 5. Muellner’s original suggestion is recorded en passant in BA 43.
[ back ] 6. Martin 1989, especially pp. 12–42.
[ back ] 7. See Austin 1962 and Searle 1979.
[ back ] 8. Martin 1989:25.
[ back ] 9. PH 31–32.
[ back ] 10. HQ 128.
[ back ] 11. HQ 128. Cf. Waugh 1982.
[ back ] 12. PH 31–32.
[ back ] 13. PH 31–32. Cf. Ben-Amos 1976.
[ back ] 14. N 1982; also PH 31–32.
[ back ] 15. Leach 1982:5. Cf. HQ 130–131.
[ back ] 16. Martin 1989:12.
[ back ] 17. Martin 1989:37.
[ back ] 18. See also Plutarch Lycurgus 6 and the other testimonia assembled at Tyrtaeus F 4 W. See also Burkert 1975:9, 16–17.
[ back ] 19. Cf. the comments of Martin 1989:22.
[ back ] 20. On the subject of prayers as reported by Homeric narrative, see in general Muellner 1976.
[ back ] 21. On the role of Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi as an implicit truth-value of Herodotean narrative, see PH 215–249.
[ back ] 22. The topic of an enforced mortality for heroes is explored in BA 333–347.
[ back ] 23. Burkert 1975:18–19. For a basic work on the Greek concept of the ephebe, see Vidal-Naquet 1981, updated 1986.
[ back ] 24. Burkert 1975:11.
[ back ] 25. On which see Burkert 1975:9.
[ back ] 26. Detailed documentation and comparisons in Burkert 1975:10.
[ back ] 27. See the discussion by Pötscher 1961; further discussion by Householder and Nagy 1972:50–52. Further bibliography in HQ 47–48n79.
[ back ] 28. See Davidson 1980:197–202.
[ back ] 29. BA 142–144.
[ back ] 30. Burkert 1975:19. Cf. BA 143.
[ back ] 31. Johnson 1980:56.
[ back ] 32. Further discussion in HQ 132.
[ back ] 33. HQ 132.