The image of Apollo has always interested artists and critics since it can be used both as a religious object or additional metaphor. European and American writers consider Apollo to be the god able to predict the future or give signs. Therefore, in the text, he is often depicted as an observer who warns about something and predicts future events. It is especially interesting to analyze the narrative purpose of Apollo in literary works written by people who lived more than a thousand years ago. Sophocles and Mary Renault depict Apollo in different ways – he can be an oracle or a relic of the past embodied in the mask. In Oedipus the King and The Mask of Apollo, the authors use Apollo to show the role of gods in human lives since he predicts the future that in reality can be changed or controlled by people.
First of all, Mary Renault’s literary work should be analyzed from a modernist perspective, and it is known that one of the features of modernism is the use of ancient motifs. According to Hunsu, “Literary modernism seeks for new aesthetics as against the traditional and old ways of writing” (12). The revival of old motifs reminds readers of the ancient world where people did not decide anything. As a writer, Renault revived the mythology of Ancient Greece and made a great contribution to modern literature.
In The Mask of Apollo, the narrator is actor Nikeratos who gets involved in machinations of Syracuse politicians who struggle for power and privileges. Syracuse has a very rich history, and Renault succeeds in combining familiar and obscure (or rather created by the author) historical episodes. The mask of Apollo as a narrative symbol absorbs Nikeratos. Symbolically, he uses the mask for the first time in Delphi because according to Kathleen Sears, “Apollo was famously associated with Delphi, one of the best-known and most influential shrines of Ancient Greece” (123). It is necessary to analyze the image of Apollo to understand why it was of great interest to Renault and Sophocles.
In Ancient Greek mythology, Apollo is the patron of the arts, leader and protector of Muses, and oracle. He is a healer as well as protector of immigrants and settlers. Apollo also cleanses souls of people who committed murder. Renault explores the theme of paganism in her novel, especially through Nikeratos’s obsession with his mask. In addition, almost all historical characters, whom the hero meets, have some relation to the cult or predictions of Apollo. However, their lives are influenced not by gods but by their own actions. This collision between people’s imagination, beliefs, and reality is the main narrative purpose of Apollo. Once Nikeratos uses the mask during the performance, it becomes an integral part of his life, a symbol embodying the prediction and art. It should be noted that Sophocles also uses the ability of Apollo to affect people’s health. For example, in the tragedy, the priest says,
“The King has pledged us all our pleas and we have heard Apollo’s voice. Oh, may he bring salvation in his hands and deal a death to all disease” (Sophocles 7). It is obvious that Apollo has the gift of healing; he is a doctor and protector who stopped the plague during the Peloponnesian War.
Nikeratos is a man of art; therefore, the support of the patron of Muses, one of which is Melpomene, is very important to him. His devotion to gods and desire to receive their blessing can be observed in his obsession with the mask. It becomes a part of Nikeratos’s daily life, an idol that greatly influences his relationships with others. The main character believes in Apollo and worships him. In one of the conversations, Nikeratos says, I’ve never done it, except that once in Delphi as an offering to the god. I fell silent, thinking of the war there, the very sanctuary plundered of its gold. Nothing is sacred to our age. Renault depicts religion as an integral part of human life, which is quite a challenging task for her time when people separated their religious beliefs from daily life.
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The spreading belief of the 20th century that God does not interfere much in people’s lives makes the distance between God and His creations larger. Bob Johnson states that “[d]eism has the real potential to lead us out of our ancient and destructive thinking” (13). Renault fuses different religious and social aspects into a cohesive portion of observations and opinions about the events happening in Syracuse. Nikeratos is a traveler and, like Apollo, he is able to predict motions happening in different places. He meets Dion, Dionysius, and Aristotle as well as learns about the political outlook of Plato. Unlike modern times where God does not interfere in human lives, Renault depicts the world where gods do not leave their people freedom of choice. Individuals believe so much in their patrons that even a simple object embodying a deity could dictate their actions and behavior.
Sophocles’ depiction of gods is also important in the cultural context. In comparison to other works of Sophocles, in Oedipus the King, the issue of knowledge receives much more attention. Basically, through the portrayal of Apollo, Sophocles tries to contrast the limitations of human knowledge with divine omniscience. All people obey gods as their power is enormous. However, Oedipus decides to struggle with these gods, one of whom is Apollo who predicted the tragedy.
The protagonist of the tragedy, Oedipus, escapes from his native city, dooming himself death. Apollo predicted that the man would kill his father and marry his own mother. It seems that Oedipus is right when he decides to leave home. However, he misunderstands the most important point – gods predict only one of the possible future versions of reality. Everything else depends on the man and his ability to control his life. Despite predictions of Apollo, Oedipus tries to avoid them, but Sophocles does not depict the hero as a powerless human.
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Apollo’s prophecy greatly influences Oedipus’s life. The author emphasizes that the protagonist makes a big mistake by taking everything literally without seeing the truth. For example, Oedipus says, “As Apollo’s word from Pythia has just revealed to me. Yes, such an ally, nothing less, am I of both religion and the murdered man” (Sophocles 15). At the last moment, the moment of spiritual enlightenment, the hero realizes his blindness. By doing this, he expresses the main idea of the tragedy – gods do not create human destiny, people do it themselves.
To summarize, the image of Apollo is widely used in the ancient and modern literature due to its rich metaphorical and religious meanings. In contrast to the Christian world where God does not interfere much in people’s lives, in the ancient world every profession, every human action, and every name had their own patron. Both
Sophocles and Mary Renault emphasize that gods’ predictions do not determine human destiny unless people start to really believe that predicted events will happen. This statement is the main narrative purpose of Apollo in both
Oedipus the King and The Mask of Apollo. The writers want to show that people should not believe in predictions as they have the ability to control their own lives.