Monday, February 25, 2008

Apollo & Son

In the first book of the Iliad, at line 37, the slighted priest Chryses calls upon Apollo to avenge him:
κλῦθι μευ, ἀργυρότοξ᾽, ὃς Χρύσην ἀμφιβέβηκας
Κίλλαν τε ζαθέην Τενέδοιό τε ἶφι ἀνάσσεις,
Σμινθεῦ, εἴ ποτέ τοι χαρίεντ᾽ ἐπὶ νηὸν ἔρεψα,
ἢ εἰ δή ποτέ τοι κατὰ πίονα μηρί᾽ ἔκηα
ταύρων ἠδ᾽ αἰγῶν, τόδε μοι κρήηνον ἐέλδωρ·
τίσειαν Δαναοὶ ἐμὰ δάκρυα σοῖσι βέλεσσιν.

The vocative Σμινθεῦ is thought to derive from σμίνθος, meaning mouse. Some people have conjectured that, as a healing god who also spreads plague, Apollo is called Σμινθεῦ because rodents spread disease, but this is only speculation. Strabo (13.1.48) describes a temple in Chrysa in the Troad for Apollo Smintheus, where there is an image of Apollo with his foot upon a mouse. This might at first glance suggest that Apollo is crushing a mouse, but there are other instances of gods and heroes resting their feet upon animals without a sense of violence, so it is not certain.

Apollo's son Asklepios is also known as a healer. It has been suggested that his name too derives from the name of a rodent. There is a word ἀσπάλαξ (also σπάλαξ) which means mole, or blind-rat, as the LSJ would have it. There exists another variant on this word by metathesis: σκάλοψ. By comparing the cognate Latin word scalpo, meaning, I scratch (think of a mole scratching in the earth), we can see that the variant σκάλοψ is older, and this has led some to suppose an earlier form *ἀσκάλοψ.

An interesting parallel can be found in the Indian tradition. There is a warrior god, Rudra, whose weapon is a bow (Rig Veda 2.33.14) and who is associated with disease and healing (Rig Veda 22.33.2, 4); and he has a son named Ganesha. Although their names do not reveal any relationship with rodents, the characters themselves are so related: Ganesha with the rat, and Rudra with the mole. While it is not clear exactly why a warrior god, who fights with a bow, and who also heals, is associated with rodents, it does seem likely that such a figure, with a son in a similar line of work, was part of Proto-Indo-European mythology.


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