Sminthean Apollo

1 Temple of Apollo SmintheusIn the Iliad Homer called the “God with the silver bow/ protector of Chryse” Sminthean Apollo, which has been translated as Mouse Apollo and as Apollo, the Lord of the Mice. Afterward, give or take a hundred or a few hundred years, images of the god with a small rodent began floating about; the twosome showed up sometimes on money and sometimes in stone. One coin showed Apollo with the mouse under his chin; another showed the mouse sitting on the palm of his outstretched hand. A certain Scopas of Paros was said to have carved a statue of Apollo with the mouse lying under his foot (no longer extant). And in the Troad (the Biga peninsula of Turkey today) the Temple of Apollo Smintheus had been rumored to have white mice living under its altar; tales circulated that the people had given the creatures food and water “at the public expense.” The mice were sacred. The ancients of Greece scratched their heads. They looked for a suitable explanation for this bewildering god-mouse connection and overheard this ‘origin’ narrative:

An Oracle advised the newly dispossessed Teucri of Crete “to settle wherever they were attacked by the children of the soil.” Wandering about Asia Minor, they were assailed one night near Hamaxitus by a throng of field mice who chewed their leather armor as well as nibbled their bowstrings to bits. (Shades of Herodotus’ tale of the Egyptian ruler Sethôs—and like all good lore the Oracle’s guidance traveled well.) The Teucri decided at once that these mice were the said ‘children of the soil,’ the ‘earth-born inhabitants.’ The refugees dropped their bags and set up house; they built a great edifice to the lord who protected them, christening it Temple of Apollo Smintheus, venerating both god and mouse.

But myth for fact in the meantime seems to have made scholars and translators rather uneasy; they’ve since banished the mouse from the Iliad’s line, rendering Homer’s epithet into the colorless “Apollo of Sminthe”—in step with early speculations that Apollo acquired the mouse appellation not in honor of the small creature but because he had driven the mice from the town of Sminthe. Yet the ancient Greek geographer Strabo noted that the city-name Sminthe, in Troad or in the whole of Asia Minor, didn’t belong to just one location; many places carried the name and held Smintheia festivals—evidence surely mice were worshipped, and worshipped in more places than one.

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All quotes: Andrew Lang, Custom and Myth, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1884.

[Image: Temple of Apollo Smintheus, Gülpinar of Ayvacik, Turkey, reproduced for non commercial use only.]


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