The Homeric Hymns are 34 anonymous poems in the epic meter, the earliest of which may have been written roughly contemporaneously with Homer and Hesiod. The Hymn to Delian Apollo describes how Leto, in travail with Apollo, bore her son at Delos.
Among those who are in Crete, and in the township of Athens, and in the isles of Aegina and Euboea, famous for ships, in Aegae and Eiresiae and Peparethus near the sea, in Thracian Athos and Pelion's towering heights and Thracian Samos and the shady hills of Ida, in Scyros and Phocaea and the high hill of Autocane and far-lying Imbros and smouldering Lemnos and rich Lesbos, home of Macar, the son of Aeolus, and Chios, brightest of all the isles that lie in the sea, and craggy Mimas and the heights of Corycus and gleaming Claros and the sheer hill of Aesagea and watered Samos and the steep heights of Mycale, in Miletus and Cos, the city of Meropian men, and steep Cnidos and windy Carpathos, in Naxos and Paros and rocky Rhenaea -- so far roamed Leto in travail with the god who shoots afar, to see if any land would be willing to make a dwelling for her son. But they greatly trembled and feared, and none, not even the richest of them, dared receive Phoebus, until queenly Leto set foot on Delos and uttered winged words and asked her.
(vv 30-50 - Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White)
Views of Delos (in descending order): from the boat from Mykonos (eastern view); from the strait between Delos and the nearby island of Rheneia (Rinia) (western view); from the theatre on the slope of Mt. Cynthus; from the sacred harbour showing the remaining parts of a gigantic statue of Apollo
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. (ditto - vv 51-61)
So spake Leto. And Delos rejoiced and answered and said: "Leto, most glorious daughter of great Coeus, joyfully would I receive your child the far-shooting lord." (ditto - vv 62-65)
So said Delos. And Leto sware the great oath of the gods: "Now hear this, Earth and wide Heaven above, and dropping water of Styx (this is the strongest and most awful oath for the blessed gods), surely Phoebus shall have here his fragrant altar and precinct, and you he shall honour above all." Now when Leto had sworn and ended her oath, Delos was very glad at the birth of the far-shooting lord. But Leto was racked nine days and nine nights with pangs beyond wont. (ditto - vv 83-93)
The promise of Leto was not in vain; the first temple to Apollo has been identified by archaeologists very near one of the two adjoining harbours of Delos; it was built by the inhabitants of Naxos in the VIth century BC; at the same time the Naxians built (but never completed) a great temple to Apollo on their own island which was oriented towards Delos.
(above) Portico near the sacred harbour (inset) Delos and nearby islands; (below) details of its decoration
(August 1675) Our Ships being to stay here some days (..) we resolved not to let so good an opportunity slip, without seeing the anciently so renowned Island of Delos, which we had in view, not above eight, or ten miles from Tine. We hired a Bark with four Oars, and had the company of two other Gentlemen, whose curiosity was the same with ours. The one was Monsieur Angrand, Nephew to the French Embassador at Constantinople. The other Monsieur Salli, a Flemmish Gentleman; and for our Guide one Signior Nicolo Crescentio of Tine, who had studied at Rome, and understood the History of this Country well, and had often been at Delos, when the antiquities thereof were not so much defaced as now they are. This Gentleman with great civility offered us his company, to shew us the Island. The Wind being fair, and a brisk gale, we soon passed over to the Isle Rheneia, now called Great Delos; being the nearest, opposite to Port Saint Nicolo, where our Fleet lay: and thence passing Eastward, we crossed a little Bay, which, they say, is a good Road, large and deep enough for Ships of the greatest burthen. From the further Cape of it we passed a Channel of about half a mile over, (according as Strabo affirmeth it to be) to Delos. This Island is but small, not exceeding five or six miles about, twice as long as broad, lieth low, but rocky, and consequently barren. It hath the Island Rheneia Westward; the Southern parts of Micone East, and the Channel between Micone and Tine to the North.
(..) Now the great reason, why it was so celebrated among the Ancients was, because it was the reputed Birth-place of Apollo, as Pindar, Homer, and Callimachus tell us.
A journey into Greece by George Wheler, Esq., in company of Dr. Spon of Lyons - 1682
October 17, 1809. Sail at 10 a.m. from Naxia for the Dhiles, with a fresh breeze from the south-west, which carries us over in three hours. On entering the strait between the two islands, the first object which presents itself is a heap of squared stones on the height in Great Dhili, or Rheneia. (..) There is no appearance of sculpture. We proceed (..) to anchor at Delus, the shore of which is strewed with broken columns and epistylia of marble, showing that notwithstanding the spoliation of Greek masons and makers of Turkish tombstones, this rich mine of antiquities is far from being exhausted, and probably still contains many rare productions of art, as well as inscriptions valuable to history and philology.
William Martin Leake - Travels in northern Greece - 1835
We hired a boat with three men, intending to make a trial trip to Delos, Rheneia, and Tenos, and started from the mole of Syra shortly after midday. (..) We gradually saw the Cyclades open out before us. Rheneia lay due east of us, concealing Delos entirely, while Myconos rose above and beyond its northern end. (..) Then, as we proceeded, there appeared on the left hand, first Andros, which seems a continuation of Tenos, the narrow strait that separates them being indistinguishable; (..) on the right hand, lying along the southern horizon, were seen Naxos, Paros, Antiparos, Siphnos and Seriphos.
Henry Fanshawe Tozer - The islands of the Aegean Sea. Publ. 1890, but Tozer began his travels in 1874.
Delos had considerable influence on the development of architecture and monumental arts during the Greco-Roman period. (..) This influence was matched later by the important role it has played since the 15th century in furthering our knowledge of ancient Greek art from a widely renowned site, which is among the first sites in Greece that captured the attention of archaeologists and travellers.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of Delos which in 1990 was added to the World Heritage List.
The choice of Delos as a site for a great sanctuary was probably due to its central position: it was surrounded by five large islands (in clockwise order starting from the north): Tinos, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros and Syros. The islands were called Cyclades because they formed a circle around Delos.
(left) Remaining parts of the statue of Apollo; (right) statue portraying a "kouroi" found at Sounion and now at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens
We came to a vast heap of admirable white Marble, which we knew to have been the Temple of Apollo, by the Trunk of his Statue we found among them. This goodly structure is so entirely ruin'd, that it is impossible to judge of its form, and the God himself so ill handled, that he hath neither hands, feet, nor head left him. (..) It stood upon his Pedestal upright, until about three years ago (as Signior Georgio, our Landlord at Micone, informed me) an English-man who was there, call'd, as he said, Signior Simon, Captain of the Saint Barbara, endeavoured to carry it away, but finding it impossible, he brake off its head, arms, and feet, and carried them with him. But here I must observe, that my Note differs from Monsieur Spon's, who saith it was a Venetian. (..) On the South corner, at the West end of these ruins (where perhaps was the entrance of the Temple) is a great piece of Marble hollow in the middle, and almost buried in the ground; which perhaps was part of the pedestal of the Gigantique Statue of Apollo, because on the one side are Letters
which denote, that it had been dedicated by those of the Island Naxos to Apollo. Wheler
The Naxians erected a gigantic statue of Apollo, the so-called Colossus of the Naxians; the marble was probably quarried on Paros; it portrayed a standing naked young man with an advanced leg; this type of statue is called kouros (young man); because the earliest examples of kouroi were found at Delos; initially these statues were all thought to represent Apollo, but eventually kouroi representing other gods or athletes were found at various Greek locations.
Statue of Apollo: (left) the torso with hair on the shoulders; (right) the waist with holes indicating that the statue was decorated with a bronze belt
What is remaining appeareth still most beautiful; his locks hanging round his shoulders are yet to be seen, having marks in each curl (as we judged) where Jewels had been set, with a sign about his waste of a Girdle, which had in like manner been richly adorned, and on his left shoulder a light Mantle. The Statue was above four or five times bigger than Nature, and no less than a Colossus; for the shoulders are six foot broad, and the remaining parts of the body proportionable. The beauty of it is such, that I am apt to believe, if Michael Angelo had seen it, he would have admired it as much as he did that Trunk in the Vatican at Rome. Wheler
Of the thighs of the statue, some fragments only remain; but a part of the shoulders, with the hair hanging over them, as Apollo is usually represented, is still conspicuous. The statue appears to have stood in front of the temple, facing the sea. Leake
Naxos was the largest and most prosperous of these islands and it was the hegemonic power in this part of the Aegean Sea until 490 BC when the Persians attacked the island and destroyed its main towns. In 1420 Bondelmonte, an Italian traveller, reported having seen a gigantic statue on the ground at Delos; in 1675 the statue was already broken into two major pieces: the head with the torso and the waist with the thighs. The remaining pieces do not stand on the original pedestal of the statue, but a few yards away nearer to the sea; it is thought that the statue was sawn and an attempt was made to carry it away.
The Sacred Pond and in the background the Terrace of the Lions
This oval Foundation we judged to have been a Naumachia, or place to exercise Naval Recreations in; and the rather, that our Doctor Crescentio told us, that he remembred to have seen a Hole in the middle of it, which probably might have been to let in the Sea-water, seeing it lieth low enough, and not far distant from the Sea. It is about three hundred paces in length, and two hundred in breadth; and the Wall about four or five foot from the bottom, but even with the Ground above. Some Pillars yet remain standing on the brink of it, which made us conclude, that there had been a Portique about it, either for Use, or Ornament, or for both. This seemeth to be that which the Poet Callimachus calleth the Round Lake. Wheler
The oval basin, which is about 100 yards in length, and which Spon, Wheler, Tournefort, and Choiseul all took for a naumachia, appears to me to be the Limne Trochoeides of Herodotus, (..) which contained the water required for the service of the sacred inclosure of Apollo, such tanks having been customary and necessary for the sacred offices in places distant from rivers or springs. Leake
Leto delivered Apollo on Mount Cynthus, the hill at the southern end of Delos; she did so between an olive-tree and a date-palm; in the Vth century BC a (lost) bronze palm was erected behind the Colossus of the Naxians and in its memory archaeologists have planted a palm at the centre of a pond which housed swans and geese sacred to Apollo.
Terrace of the Lions
Here are seen also four other pieces; which we guessed to have been of the Lyons, that the Neighbouring Islanders remember to have seen formerly here. Wheler
The Naxians built a terrace on the western side of the Sacred Pond; a series of marble lions guarded the entrance to a sanctuary; it is thought that they were at least nine; the remaining five have been replaced by copies (originals in the small museum of Delos); they recall the animals guarding the alleys of Egyptian Karnak, while their stylized design and in particular their open mouth is unusual in Greek art and indicates an Asian influence (you may wish to see the lions guarding a gate of Hittite Hattusa).
The lion guarding the entrance to the Venice Arsenal
Tinos and Mykonos were Venetian possessions until 1715 and a few years before the Venetians were forced to surrender the islands to the Ottomans one of the lions was removed from Delos and shipped to Venice to guard the entrance to the Arsenal of the city. The Venetians however were unhappy about the rough design of the head and they replaced it with a modern one which, unlike the original, is more composed and keeps its mouth shut. It was placed next to a larger lion which the Venetians removed from Porto Leone (Piraeus).
The number of these Superstitious Cyclades, at first were but twelve; but afterwards encreasing, comprehended the greatest part of the Islands of the Aegean-Sea, now called the Archipelago. That Superstition rested not there, but diffused it self through Greece, and the most Northern Countries beyond, who sent presents thither; which by the Athenians, who claimed it as their right, were conveyed from the Continent to this place. Wheler
On the shore of Rheneia, on a small beach (..) the ground is covered on either side, for several hundred yards, with stelae, sepulchres, lids of sori (sarcophagi), and fragments of columns. Leake
Three temples to Apollo in a row were built behind that of the Naxians; the oldest one housed the treasury of the Delian League, an alliance of Greek cities against the Persian threat; profiting from the decline of Naxos, the Athenians gained control of the sanctuary and in 426 BC they decreed that to preserve its purity births and deaths were not allowed to occur on Delos, a decision which explains why archaeologists have not found funerary monuments on the island, but in nearby Rheneia; the Athenians eventually transferred the treasury from Delos to their own city.
We came to the Ruins of a wonderful Portico of Marble; whose vast Architraves, Pillars, and other the beautiful parts Bury each other in as great confusion as time and bad Fortune could reduce them to. (..) There are few Chapitels of Pillars to be seen here, or any where in the Island; because their Beauty made them esteemed worth carrying away. Wheler
The construction of the main temple to Apollo was started in the Vth century, but it was completed only two centuries later; the Athenians revived old ceremonies (Delian Festivals) which took place every four years and which initially were only meant to worship Apollo; minor celebrations occurred on a yearly basis and the Athenians sent their representatives on a ship, which was that used by Theseus on his voyage to Crete to slay the Minotaur.
A little further, among these Ruins, we found the half body of a Woman, the Drapery about which was carved so well, that it seemed to be the work of no less a Master than the former. Wheler
Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo, her nature and deeds of Artemis were very similar to those of Apollo.
Delos was placed at the centre of the Greek world, the boundaries of which included the Asian shores of the Aegean Sea; while the European part of this world saw the prevalence of male deities, the Asian one was more linked to the ancestral cult of Mother Earth, so Apollo was honoured at Delphi in continental Greece and Artemis and Leto were honoured respectively at Ephesus and Letoon in today's Turkey.
The Minoan Fountain was a public well built by the Cretans and one of the oldest places on Delos. It indicates that the worship of Delian Apollo reached that island at the southern border of the Greek world at a very early stage; similar to other very old monuments of Delos, the fountain was redesigned at a later time and it was eventually incorporated into a private house
(left) Temple to Dionysus; (right) relief showing Dionysus and a Maenad, a female follower of the god, with a small Silenus, the faithful companion of Dionysus
The myth of Apollo goes back to the earliest development of the Greek religion, while that of Dionysus, which is associated with the spread of the growing of grapes, acquired importance only at a later time; for many aspects Dionysus was identified with Apollo and the owners of two houses
in the Theatre's Quarter chose to have mosaics portraying him rather than Apollo.
In ca 300 BC a small temple was dedicated to Dionysus at a remarkable distance from the sanctuaries to Apollo and Artemis; the temple was built by a private citizen to celebrate his success in a theatrical performance. Dionysus had a rather effeminate appearance, nonetheless he was associated with uncontrolled excitement (also of a sexual nature) and this explains why two gigantic phalli were placed at the sides of the god's statue. Thiasos, a Dionysiac procession/scene, was often depicted on the box of sarcophagi, e.g. at Perge or floor mosaics e.g. at Thysdrus.
Views of the Street of the Processions
From the Temple of Apollo directing our steps Southward, and near the Western shore of the Island, upon one of the Architraves broken in two pieces, we found these Letters of a span deep
Signior Crescentio remembers, he saw on a Fragment of the same Architrave
which sheweth, that Philip of Macedon was its Founder. Wheler
Having landed, I visit in succession the several objects described by Spon, Wheler, and Tournefort: the stoa of Philip, the temple of Apollo, the oval basin, and the gymnasium. (..) The stoa of Philip, and the colossus, seem to be of Naxian marble. (..) Behind the northern end of the portico of Philip are Ionic columns 2 feet 1 inch in diameter. Leake
In the IVth century BC King Philip II of Macedonia established the hegemony of his nation over most of the Greek city-states of the mainland including Athens; Delos profited by the situation to free itself from the Athenian patronage and it became the centre of a confederation of islands; the Macedonian kings respected the sanctuary which they supported by making contributions including the construction by King Philip V of a portico along the street which linked the commercial harbour to the area of the sanctuaries.
The Destruction of Corinth by the Romans was the last great cause of its Riches and Wealth. For because of the convenience of its situation, the goodness of its Ports, but especially its freedom from all Impositions, Merchants flocked thither from all parts. Wheler
In 215 King Philip V of Macedonia sided with the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War; it was a very unwise decision because the Romans landed in Albania and from there moved southwards and defeated the Macedonians. The war marked the beginning of the Roman hegemony over Greece which was helped by the alliance the Romans established with the Kings of Pergamum and with the city of Rhodes. Relations with the latter turned sour when Rhodes became weary of the growing power of the Romans in the region.
As a reaction the Romans favoured the development of Delos as a trade centre, in particular of slaves, thus undermining the economy of Rhodes; Delian Festivals lost their religious connotation to become a sort of international fair which attracted merchants from all corners of the Mediterranean Sea. Eventually the Cyclades were incorporated into the Province of Asia which was established in 129 BC.
(left) Altar of the Lares Compitales (the bumps at the base of the altar maybe had an apotropaic purpose i.e. they averted bad luck, see those at Porta S. Sebastiano in Rome); (right) bilingual inscription on the nearby base of a statue dedicated by several Roman merchants to Mercury and his mother Maia
The presence of many Roman merchants at Delos led to the construction of temples which reflected their religious background; the Altar of the Lares Compitales was erected in a large square adjoining the commercial harbour; Lares Compitales were the protectors of crossroads and by extension of travellers and merchants; after a religious reform promoted by Emperor Augustus they were also called Lares Augusti. Mercury was the patron of trade, a characteristic which was not so evident in Hermes, his Greek counterpart.
(left) Temple of the Poseidoniasts of Berytus, today's Beirut (also in the image used as background for this page); (centre/right) statue of Venus and Pan found at the site and now at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens
From Mt. Cynthus below in the Valley, Eastward, I discovered many Ruins, Foundations, and Pillars, which we had not yet seen: (..) by the Sea-side, on a rising ground is a Foundation, with some Pillars standing, and others down; perhaps it hath been a Portico to some other great Building. (..) Two stones-cast from this, Westward and South of the Isle, are the Foundations of two Temples. (..) This place I believe to have been the New Athens at Delos. (..) This Town was Built at the charge of the Emperour Adrian, by the Athenians, and called New Athens; which in all probability was the place before called Olympoeum in Delos. One of the Temples there might be that of Hercules; and the other that of Neptune. Wheler
Delos had two residential quarters: one was located in the southern part of the island around the theatre and archaeologists unearthed several fine mosaics there; a second residential quarter was positioned to the north of the Sacred Pond and here archaeologists found some masterpieces of Hellenistic sculpture.
Phoenician merchants from today's Syria and Lebanon met in a building dedicated to Ba'al, their main deity, which usually corresponded to Zeus (see a page on a shrine to Ba'al/Zeus in Syria), but which in Delos was associated with Poseidon/Neptune.
The statue of Venus and Pan which was unearthed at this site however has nothing to do with the worship of Ba'al; it is dated ca 100 BC and it was designed in order to be seen from different angles; the execution was the work of a very talented artist and the detail of Pan's hand recalls Pluto's hand in The Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Ruins of private houses surround Mount Cynthus
on every side. On the heights which form the north-western promontory
of the island, are many other similar ruins of ancient houses, neatly constructed with mortar, and
for the most part having niches in the walls. On the
summit of the same hill, near the remains of a large
house, are some shafts of white marble, a foot and
a half in diameter, half polygonal and half plain. Leake
One of the finest copies of a lost statue by Polykleitos, a sculptor of the Vth century BC, was found in a house near the Temple of the Poseidoniasts; this statue is dated ca 100 BC; the Diadumenos is a nude young man portrayed in the act of binding a ribbon in his hair, a feature which identifies him as an athlete.
In this copy a tree trunk with a cloth and a quiver, a portable case for arrows, was added; the quiver indicates that the statue was meant to be a portrait of Apollo as a Diadumenos; the broken arms add to the beauty of the statue rather than detracting from it.
(left) House near the lake; (right) bronze head found in a nearby palaestra (a wrestling school) and now at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens
The years merge: my memory forms but a single fresco whereon are crowded the events and travels of several seasons. (..) Delos, blinding white, was visited on an April morning, and later on under full moon of the summer solstice.
Marguerite Yourcenar - Memoirs of Hadrian - 1954
The presence of mosaics and of coloured columns in some buildings of this quarter are evidence that they were most likely modified/embellished in the IInd century AD, perhaps at the time of Emperor Hadrian, a patron of Greece.
A characteristic of Hellenistic sculpture was the move from idealized canons of beauty towards portrayals of actual people. The bronze head of an athlete found in a palaestra and that of the Diadumenos show two different visions of art: pulsating realism versus divine aloofness.
Delos, in addition to a small permanent population was visited by a large number of unattached men, such as sailors and merchants; some experts believe that the quarter to the north of the Sacred Pond housed a few brothels, because of the presence
of palaestrae and of meeting points such as the Temple of the Poseidoniasts which attracted a male audience.
These experts regard the reliefs showing phalli or Hercules' clubs found in this quarter as evidence supporting their conclusions; it has to be said however that phalli were a very common apotropaic symbol in the Greco-Roman world (similar to the bumps mentioned before); in other words a phallus over the door of an ordinary house had more or less the same purpose as an inscription saying "Lord protect this house". See some apotropaic phalli at Pompeii and Alatri.
Decorative reliefs near the sanctuaries of Apollo and Artemis
|Other ancient oracles/shrines in this web site:|
The Oracle of Delphi
The Shrine of Mysteries at Eleusis
The Asklepion of Kos
The Shrine of Dodoni
The sanctuary of Venus at Afrodisia
The Oracle of Didyma
The Artemision at Ephesus
The sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
The sanctuary of Apollo at Hierapolis
The Asklepion of Pergamum
The sanctuary of Leto at Letoon
The sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace
The Shrine of Ba'al at Baetocece
The Oracle of Jupiter Heliopolitanus at Baalbek
The Asklepion of Epidaurus
The sanctuaries of Dion
The sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Palestrina
Move to page two: the Theatre's Quarter