In Druidry, as in many other religious traditions, we pay attention when seemingly significant coincidences occur. When we notice strange patterns and echoes where we expected only random noise. Meaningful happenstance.
When we were thinking about this year’s Solstice message, we thought about gods of healing. Apollo, for example. For the Greeks, he was the young, powerful, golden god of medicine, music, art, prophecy, and archery. It’s a weird grab-bag of things, to be honest. Dieties don’t usually get a dozen things to be god of. Hephaestus, for example, is the god of metalworking, and that’s kind of it. Apollo is a complex god and he has a long, complex history. In fact there’s evidence that the Apollo the Greeks worshipped was a combination of a Celtic god, maybe named Avallo or Vallo, associated with orchards, prophecy, and swans, and a separate Asian god, Aplu, who was in fact a god of plagues, prophecy, and the phoenix.
And the Greek Apollo is a god of plagues as well as medicine. In the Iliad, for example, he shoots plague arrows at the Greek army because they captured the daughter of one of his priests.
Now the Greeks didn’t think of Apollo as a plague god specifically. But many thought his name came from apollymi, meaning the Destroyer. He was not to be messed around with.
So we thought it would be interesting to look at this connection between plague and divinity. And then when we were researching Apollo we came upon this story, which was filled with so many synchonicities and strange coincidences that we felt we had to share it.
Apollo and Coronis
One day Apollo, who usually spent his time in the cities or at one of his holy temples, was wandering and hunting in the wilderness in the west of Greece, and there he met a young princess named Coronis. She was extremely beautiful; she was in fact the granddaughter of the Muse Erato, if that gives you any idea of her appearance. And Apollo at this time was unattached, and Coronis thought Apollo was one of the most handsome beings in existence (which was a fact), so they got busy with various things together.
Now Apollo is generally a very careful, rational being. As the patron of the arts, science, poetry, medicine, archery, and so on, he puts a lot of time into disciplined practice. And as the god of prophecy, he knows the future, and knows the right actions to take to ensure the best outcome. But Apollo’s lust for Coronis completely overcame him. He literally could think of almost nothing else. And his desire was not a pleasant, comfortable thing, but a jealous longing, and possessive lust. He simply had to have Coronis for his own, always.
So when, after a few months, Apollo had to return to civilization to attend to some urgent matters, he told Coronis to wait for him, and to be faithful to him. But Coronis was a princess of the wilderness; she had her own desires and her own will and Apollo was great and all but there were other young strong fish in the sea. So she made no promises.
Apollo was quite frustrated about this, but there wasn’t much he could do. Still, he commanded one of his servants, a raven (who happened to be white — all ravens were white at this time), to watch over Coronis and make sure she was faithful to Apollo while he was gone.
So Apollo went back to the cities and temples, and Coronis went about her business being a wilderness princess. The white raven watched her carefully. And it didn’t take long for Coronis to spot a fascinating young fisherman named Ischys and to lay down with him and get some business done.
The raven tried to interfere, but what could he do? So he dashed back to Apollo with the news. And Apollo completely lost it. He was utterly enraged. And it was not pretty.
First he turned the raven black. Not just that raven, but all the ravens, forever. Then he ran back into the wilderness and found Coronis and her young man. With a single glance, Apollo burned Ischys with solar fire, consuming him in an instant. Then Apollo strung his golden bow, notched it with a plague arrow, drew back, and shot Coronis through the heart.
Coronis did not die immediately. She fell terribly ill and collapsed. Her family gathered around her, carried her back to their home, and tried to tend to her. But one by one they grew sick as well. Before long all the countryside was sick with Coronis’s plague.
But Apollo’s rage quickly cooled, and he became terribly ashamed of what he had done. He returned to Coronis and knelt by her, trying to heal her. He was able to cure her family and neighbors, but Coronis could not be brought back from such a grievous wound. She lingered a while, and then died.
In sorrow and shame, Apollo took upon himself the task of preparing Coronis’s body for the funeral cremation. He lay her body out on the pyre and poured out sacred myrrh and other libations, and sang the sacred songs of mourning. Then he lit the fire to send Coronis’s spirit on her way. Coronis rose into the sky and became the constellation Corvus (the Crow).
But, as the fire rose higher and higher, to Apollo’s surprise, he heard a strange sound coming from her body. Curious, he investigated and found that Coronis was in fact pregnant with their child. The baby was near death, and Coronis’s body was quickly being consumed by the flames; so Apollo had to use all his skill as a healer to extract his son and save his life.
This child was Asclepius, whose name means “the one who has been cut”. Apollo raised him and educated him, assisted by Chiron, the centaur famous for his wisdom and skill in healing. Asclepius grew up to be the greatest healer in the history of humanity. The symbol of medicine, with the rod and the snakes, is his symbol. He was such a great healer that he could literally bring people back from the dead; and he was so successful, and the Earth became so overpopulated with people that he had cured or revived, that Zeus eventually had to kill him and make him into a constellation as well (Ophiuchus).
So what can we learn from this story? This story with strange echoes and coincidences for our time on earth today, almost three thousand years later. I’m not going to say a whole lot because this isn’t a sermon.
But one way of thinking about it is to remember that Apollo is coming from a place of science, discipline, and civilization. He is drawn to Coronis in part because she is from the wilderness, that part of the world he doesn’t yet control. So he wants to control her, to possess her. But the wilderness isn’t like that; it isn’t under our control; it will always be its own thing. If Apollo had cultivated a healthy relationship with Coronis, if he had taken the time to understand her and let her be herself, they could perhaps have had a wonderful partnership. Instead, Apollo killed her, killed an innocent man, brought on a plague, and nearly killed his own son.
Five Principles of Health
One final thing. When I first began meditating on Apollo, fifteen years ago, he charged me to work on five things in my life. Those things were:
- Strength and health of body and mind.
- Gentleness and kindness.
- Wit, i.e. wisdom and laughter.
- Charity and Healing.
Now, I learned when preparing for this ritual that Apollo’s son Asclepius had five daughters. The names of these five daughters are critical practices that allow one to prevent and cure disease. In English their names can be translated:
There’s a rough correspondence between these two lists of five that I think is interesting to think about. And it’s valuable to have these guidelines in place as we all together work towards the healing of our world today.
We need to remain strong and robust in mind and body, so that we can better resist and fight disease when we encounter it.
We need to keep things clean — not just our bodies but our personal spaces and our personal relationships, aiming for truth and clarity where we can.
When we get sick we need to rest, giving ourselves time and space to recover.
The process of recovery is one that requires patience, wisdom, and good humor.
And we need to seek remedies, such as vaccines and better medical science, that can find the root of the sickness and cure it.
And finally, in this story, Apollo reminds us to seek with humility and compassion, to not let ourselves be driven to anger or to lash out at the things and people that we can never control. Only through patience and understanding can we restore the world to wholeness.