Seems like this is taking off, which is wonderful to see. There are two other Agons running this month:
The first is an Agon to Apollo. You can read about that here. It’s running from March 31 to April 30 and submissions must have been created for this agon specifically. There are prizes.
The second is for Athena. This too runs through April 30 and there are prizes. You can read about this agon here.
Check them out and consider submitting something.
(Bartolomeo Manfredi’s “Apollo and Marsyas.” Source: wiki commons)
I have a fascination with operatic castrati and since I’m currently doing quite a bit of research for an academic project that involves them, their music has been the subject of much conversation in my house lately. Add to that a meme a friend of mine posted on facebook wherein one of the choices was “because a human did something better than a God and that God threw a hissy fit” and I knew I had to write about the conversation my husband and I had the other day.(1) Somehow the subject of the contest between Apollo and Marsyas came up and the lessons this might hold for musicians.
In this story, Marsyas, a satyr and master musician hubristically challenges Apollo to a music contest. The contest is to be judged by the Muses and the winner would then be permitted to treat the loser anyway he wished.(2) Both God and satyr play, Apollo wins, and in punishment for his hubris Marsyas is flayed. Customary interpretations of this story revolve around the flaying specifically as a punishment for hubris, for the satyr daring to challenge a God (and thus to put himself above the right and natural order of things) and this is not an incorrect interpretation but there are other lessons to be had in this tale as well.
Allowing that one of the major lessons of this story is in fact the need for piety and humility before the Gods (amazing how “don’t be an asshole” covers so many situations in which we might find ourselves, devotionally and otherwise), I’d like to discuss here one of the other lessons, and this is where the castrati come in.
In my research I’ve noticed that there is a standard way in which historians seemingly must approach this material. Before they go into whatever it is that they want to discuss about the castrati, they must first state how barbaric or inhumane they find the practice.(3) They must first separate themselves from any hint that they might approve of the process, particularly if they are writing positively about the result (and given that the influence of the castrati pretty much defined opera for two hundred years and shaped contemporary opera too, there’s quite a bit to celebrate there).
The question is endlessly asked (by academics and other researchers): why would someone do that to himself? Why would someone allow that to be done to a child? What was the allure of the castrati (they were the equivalent of sex symbols and rock stars)? I find these questions boggling: for the voice. Are you people deaf? Have you never listened to a top-notch counter tenor? It’s like listening to the voice of God. It’s like having the heavens crashing down around you and these men don’t come close to the vocal quality of a well-trained castrato superstar.(4) I completely understand why someone would have sought to become a castrato and certainly why they were so attractive to their listeners. I mourn the fact that we can’t hear them today.
If the sounds harsh, consider my own background: I was a professional ballet dancer for the first part of my adult life. I started working with a regional company at thirteen and retired in my early twenties. I retired with crippling injuries. I knew at thirteen that I was choosing to commit to a career that would likely leave my body broken irreparably. I knew that I would have to make health and nutritional choices that were ultimately damaging. I didn’t make this choice blind and I did make it over parental objection. The call of that daimon – dance – was too strong. I have crushing pain now and very limited mobility and while I did soloist roles in the regional company for which I worked, I didn’t make it past apprentice in the New York company. I’ll go down in no history books as a competent dancer and…I would make exactly the same choice again.
I suspect that is incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t been infected with that hunger, been taken up by that daimon, felt what it is like to push the body past its limits, past pain, to fly. I know that if at twelve, someone had said to me, if you mutilate your genitals you’ll have a chance to be one of the truly great dancers, I’d have done it without question. I would have considered it a worthy trade. There are things more important than what’s between our legs and far more important than our ability to procreate or the limits of our bodies. Being in service to art, in service to something far bigger and more important than ourselves supersedes all of that. That’s what moderns don’t comprehend.
Of course, that the castrati had to be castrated before puberty complicates things. There are questions of a child’s ability to make such a long-term choice for himself (see my comments above for where I stand on that) and certainly there were children sent under the knife against their will. The consequences of early castration are not just loss of fertility. (5)I also find the way Castrati were treated socially by the same communities that idolized their voices to be repellent (the church, for instance, forbade them to marry and in regular society they were often viewed as freaks, mocked for the very procedure that gave them the angelic voices so celebrated). By the nineteenth century with “enlightenment,” industrialization, more focus on binary gender roles, more focus on ‘nature’ as opposed to constructed brilliance, and certainly the elevation of both childhood and the individual over any common good the castrati were fast becoming a thing of the past. The last operatic superstar was the castrato Giovanni Velluti for whom both Rossini and Meyerbeer composed but operatic tastes were changing along with everything else and by 1913 not even the Vatican choir allowed for them. (6)
So what does all of this have to do with the story of Apollo and Marsyas? One of the many ways that I interpret this story is as a clear indication of what is required for excellence in an art. It doesn’t matter what the art form is (dance, singing, music, painting, etc.), to truly reach the heights of greatness, sacrifice is not just required, it is demanded. Excellence has a price. Art brings us into communion with the Gods like nothing else can. The Platonic philosophers wrote about the ennobling effects of Beauty, how it had the capacity to elevate the soul and I very much believe that is true. To be in service to the arts is to be in service to the Gods when it’s done right. It’s to move in sacred currents. That carries a demanding price and sometimes the consequences are irreparable. Devotion is like that too, if one wants to do it well.
We are owed nothing, yet opportunities are given. Devotion is an art just as much as dance or opera. It’s the art of the soul and it often carries as great a price as that any performer will pay. Excellence requires sacrifice. Mediocrity doesn’t. Make a choice. I read once of one castrato (and I can’t recall which one at the moment. I’ve been reading * a lot* on the topic) who was once asked if he regretted having been cut. He laughed in the interviewer’s face. He was one of perhaps half a dozen men who could do what he did at the level at which he performed in the entire world. He was feted across Europe. His name would go down in music history. He was as close to a god as a mortal has any right to be (barring apotheosis!).
Ironically I have seen some of the same criticisms of ballet children that I’ve seen about the castrati: it’s abuse. How can a child make that decision, etc. etc.(7) One such included a documentary about a leading Russian ballerina. The narrator could not stop talking about the brutality of the training and the sacrifice required. Yes, and she’s one of maybe ten women in the world who can do what she does. She had some of the best training in the world, and it’s training she herself wanted. I find it far more offensive that a second rate film maker is complaining about her sacrifices than that she’s consciously making them. Excellence requires certain choices and sometimes those choices hurt.
I think that’s the second lesson to be found in the story of Marsyas and Apollo. It’s not just a warning against hubris, it’s also telling us what is required to reach the heights of a practice: sacrifice. Perhaps it’s a warning against the hubris of assuming we can find greatness without the work or the cost.
Far from being appalled by the castrati, I rather think that when we as a culture began putting the mediocrity of the individual over the glory of art, over arête, over those things that represent the best of who we are as a people, that was when the real moral and cultural decay began and that’s what horrifies me the most because it’s not just sacrifice for the arts that modernists find problematic, it’s veneration of and sacrifice for devotion too and yet, if we wish to truly find excellence in our devotion, it’s going to require hard work and sacrifice on par with that of the best of the castrati or the best ballet dancers. We should be willing to bleed for our devotion, to bleed for our art, to bleed for our dreams. That’s Marsyas’s lesson: nothing is free, and one doesn’t reach the top of one’s game without painful hard work. We all have those talents and skills that we were given. The gap between that and excellence is what we choose to do with them and how much of ourselves we’re willing to bet in the bargain.(8)
1. The meme in question meant to be humorous, and I found it funny but it edges well into territory that while not impious necessarily bears watching. Humans do not do things better than the Gods and I think to allow that idea to take deep root in our minds is problematic. A joke is one thing but we’re constantly being bombarded by pop culture movies and tv that even when entertaining put forth the idea that humans are superior to the Gods and it’s important to recognize when that’s happening.
2. One source implied that of course the Muses would vote in favor of Apollo but I think that rather They would vote for the better musician. To do otherwise would be to violate the very Arts whose mysteries They govern. It is also to ascribe to Gods our own pathetic lack of integrity.
3. The Castrati were the rock stars of the 17th and 18th centuries. Castrated before puberty (often by their own request), they were men with pure, powerful soprano and alto voices. They commanded great applause and even greater fees and dominated the opera stage for two hundred years. The phenomenon began in the Byzantine church (the earliest recorded castrato singer that I’ve been able to document so far is a Byzantine choir master in 400 C.E.) and ended in the Papal Choir of the Vatican in 1922. We actually have recordings of the last known castrato: A. Moreschi. Unfortunately, they don’t give any sense of what his voice was actually like. Not only was he never an operatic virtuoso, but the recording technology of the time was in its infancy and could not capture the main bulk of his range. You can hear this with contemporary recordings of female stars like Nellie Melba too: the main part of the tessitura, its frequencies couldn’t be recorded so the voice sounds thin and given the limitations of recording, also out of tune. It’s unfortunate but early video recordings of the great dancers of the imperial ballet, like Pavlova and Spessivtseva show similar issues and in no way do justice to their subjects.
4. A couple of my favorite counter tenors include F. Fagioli, P. Jaroussky, A. Scholl, and the winner of this year’s Metropolitan Opera prize, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen. Then there’s natural soporano M. Maniaci, who is in a class by himself. Each of them is singing work originally written for the greatest castrati of the baroque age and a the recent interest in baroque music has allowed for a mini-renaissance of counter tenors. 🙂 The counter tenor voice is a very different voice from that of the castrati, and both are different again from female sopranos. They’re very different instruments.
5. The ends of the bones don’t harden and so most castrati were, for their time, very, very tall. Depending on when the castration was done, they may or may not be able to have sex. If the operation was performed when they were very small, their genitals might not have grown to adult size. The results, according to way too much medical literature that I’ve had to read for my research, varied significantly. If their voices didn’t hold, if they didn’t have what it takes to be truly great, they were resigned to church choirs. Some became priests. I think it’s likewise important to note that ‘childhood’ was not then the cossetted state that it has become now for better or worse. There were different expectations of children and many parents gave their children over to the knife so that the boys would have a better future than the parents could otherwise give them.
6. I often wonder what it must have been like for Velluti…a generation before him, castrati were super stars and while he had an extensive career, he was the last of his kind and knew it and was often greeted as much with horror as acclaim…not to mention Meyerbeer and Rossini don’t hold a candle to Porpora and Handel when it comes to showing off a high voice.
7. Like with castrati, there is a time limit to the training. If a dancer doesn’t make that decision young, they’re not going to have a career and they certainly aren’t going to reach the heights of that career. A childhood is a small sacrifice to pay for such an opportunity, in my opinion (having made that choice). There are rare exceptions. Melissa Hayden for example, one of Balanchine’s stars began dancing at sixteen. She is a rarity and frankly not in the same league as the best Russian or French dancers who began as children. I began my ballet training at ten and that was at least three years too late. There’s a sweet spot with certain elements of the training too. If a girl, for instance is planning to go on pointe, that should happen after two years of near daily training (in the west, I’d say around 12, but in major ballet schools, if they’re training for several hours a day from the time they’re seven or eight, you might see it earlier, around ten. Without that multi hour daily training regimen though, putting a child on pointe before twelve is criminal. The bones just aren’t ready.). Going on pointe too early without proper preparation can severely damage the feet but going on too late, after say 15 can also be problematic. It is much, much more difficult to develop the competence and fluidity on pointe that one needs for professional work if the feet aren’t broken to it young. As the bones harden, it’s that much more difficult to gain that combination of strength and flexibility that makes proper pointe work possible.
8. Here is a BBC documentary on the castrati that is useful for those with no prior knowledge. Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. The whole thing is about an hour.
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The topic this week has been miasma and pollution and how to deal with it. I’ve a longer piece in progress that I was hoping to get done today but that didn’t happen so it’ll probably have to wait until next weekend now. Instead, I find myself thinking a lot about a slightly different aspect of miasma. Most of us within our various traditions (hopefully) have our standard regimens of cleansing before rituals, before approaching our shrines, or after encountering something that carries miasma. What do you do though, when you suddenly and unexpectedly bumble into pollution or realize – oh shit—you’re surrounded by it?
I’ve had this happen a lot because of my work and I started really paying attention to it over the past couple of months. I’ve noticed, both in myself and others, that it can have an immediate (spiritual, emotional, mental, and sometimes physical) effect. What do you do when you read something or see something or engage in some way (either in person or online), or walk into an area that carries or causes unexpected miasma? What do you do when you are, or instance, engaged in a debate and you realize that you’re dealing with a massive amount of pollution? Often it’s not tenable or even possible to withdraw and cleanse. What do you do when you are stuck?
I’m still working this out for myself. I mean, obviously, I have regular cleansing regimens, and then the tradition specific stuff that I do before rituals or tending shrines and for a long time that was enough. I almost think though, that the more we work to be clean, the more this is a priority, the cleaner we become, the more sensitive we get to that which is not clean. Things that perhaps were not a problem a year ago, might become problematic after that intervene time focusing on cleansing. So what do you do?
Right now – and I’m still working on this—I have a two fold approach. First, I have a very specific prayer that I wrote that I use when I find myself stuck or surprised by miasmic things. Secondly, I carry holy water and spritz the fuck out of myself at times. Right now that’s about it, but I hope to develop this type of troubleshooting further. I’d love to hear people’s ideas.
Here’s the prayer that I use. When I asked to which God I should offer the prayer, (I venerate the Norse Gods and the Greco-Roman Ones), I was told Apollo. I wasn’t thrilled with sharing it but I did divination and was told that it would be best to do so, so here it is.
Purification Prayer to Apollo
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.*
Bright Apollo, far shooting God of healers and prophets,
I offer this prayer to You today.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.
Most Holy Apollo,
Klarios, Oulios, Alexikakus,
Who averts all harm,
protect me, oh my God.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.
In Your Presence, oh my God,
nothing impure may stand.
In Your Presence, oh my God,
nothing impious may find purchase.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.
keep my boundaries strong,
that no pollution may affect my mind,
my heart, my soul, my work.
Boedromios, preserve me,
as I wade into this filth.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.
I lay my petition before You, Shining God,
that I may stand in the light of Your protection.
To You, Lord Apollo,
(*this line is every so slightly adaped from the song “Sparrow Falls” by David Eugene Edwards)
I owed Apollo a prayer — He did me a service a couple of months ago and this is part of my promised thank you.
Prayer to Apollo Klarios
You come with blinding light,
a Presence like resounding song
Vibrating, pulsing, BEING,
filling the space around me
driving back all miasma.
In You there is clarity.
In You, I can see sharply
and with wonder.
In You the scars of my soul
The noise in my head
I am lifted up
to the places of the Gods.
You raise me up, Lord Apollo,
and You are mighty.
My tongue longs ever for the sweetness
of Your prophetic touch,
a single blessing,
finger to lips –mantic caress,
kindling a fire that burns all who hear,
fire that purifies
All who carry it.
So easily might I be lost in You.
The ecstasy You bring is surprising
Hail to You, Apollo.
The winner of the Apollo contest is Oliver Lightfoot. I did the div. but simply haven’t had a chance to post. Thank you to every single person who submitted prayers. They were lovely and I hope y’all will consider contributing them to Melia’s Apollo devotional.
In the meantime, may Apollo, the Lord of Light be hailed, ever and always.
It was beautiful and moving to see such beautiful prayers for Him come into being. Thank you all.
The day arrives by chariot
On wings of golden radiance
Warm ripples of hope and longing
Caressing my soul. Burning
The faint sweet sounds
Of the time honored lyre
Fills my heart with
Thy magic. Haunting
As the silver arrow
Is drawn back, taunt
Anticipating it’s release
I stand still in the sunlight, Waiting
Ancient Archer, pierce my being
Fill it with inspiration and song
Rescue me from self doubt
Music from Apollo. Healing
By Autumn Pulstar
I sit in your health, my Lord
and the world awaits your rise
to cast the world in gold
if only for a while.
In human forms you take
the image of bare chests
and smiles unrestrained –
your white teeth bared to test
the world as it runs through your veins
and pumps to your gold heart –
as all look to another day
of which you know the best.
Good king I know not of your tears,
But goodness you’ve seen mine
that fall up carefully to rest
under your soft skies.
Please promise me that I’m unbound
just waiting to shoot forward,
like all your arrows that you keep,
whose targets you hit sound.
I turn to cards that in your name
I seek soft calls of fate
for once I knew your voice indeed;
the Muses it did bait.
I know you are the sun, my lord,
I see you everyday. “But dear
please keep in mind,” you say,
clouds must arrive some day.”
By Graysen Currie
Father Apollo, God of brilliant light,
You illuminate the Cosmos with Truth.
Phoebus, watching over from the heights
As you sit at the right hand of great Zeus
Proclaiming the decrees of Supreme Right.
Apollo, in you I have found Freedom,
You have freed me from the chains of dark night.
Your arrows propel me to the kingdom
Divine, none may escape their fiery might.
Apollo, help me the Hydra to slay.
Lead me forth in my tumultuous fight,
Show me the path until you bring the day.
Apollo, illuminator of minds! Greatly do I adore you, O Archer, you who shine your revealing light into the thoughts of all who contemplate Truth. O Paean! Greatly do I praise you, you who heal the infirmities of soul which cloud the eye of reason. O Alexicacus! Greatly do I worship you, you who avert the evils which befall men who honor you. O Apollo, destroyer of falsehoods! Greatly do I reverence you, you who reveal to those who seek you the delusions they allow themselves to succumb to. O Aegletus! You, who with your Light purify us of our miasmas. O Apollo, I implore you, look favorably upon me!
(both entries are by Oliver Lightfoot)
String of Pearls For Apollôn
The eager cock crowed,
disturbing my contented slumber;
beside the flank of a god
whose shapely legs yawned,
inviting a playful touch.
gilded bronze, spirals of fine gold
playing about nipples like daisies;
never has a garden been so ripe
for the taking.
I gathered up your petals in my
fingers, my lips to taste the fruit
of your loins.
I went to the temple of Apollôn
crowning a hill thick with green branches;
myrtle kissed my locks, twining gold and ebony
in a dance above a noble brow.
I have sentiments for Aphrodite,
while incense lifts me high to the
Sun-God with His mounts.
The temple doors were open;
a god smiled invitingly, awaiting all
I had to give.
I knelled naked in the light of lamps
filled with olive oil and flame;
gold light became my clothing,
my navel filled with precious metal.
O Apollo, kouros, the beautiful youth,
Aegletes the sun’s light, Who is Helius,
the sun itself.
Your fair light slides over my hairless body,
drinking my youth, clad only in myrtle.
Where did my fine cloak go; its purple folds
discarded at your naked feet.
My hands are empty of an offering,
still your hands take all a man can give;
from the grapes my father gave me,
your mouth coaxes the wine of life
from which my father sprang.
I am not a wealthy man,
O Apollôn who has stolen my heart;
my hands are empty of gold,
whereas my body carries pearls safe inside.
At twilight the lamps are set to burn,
the flames to light our way from the
temple into the meadow.
My myrtle crown beams like the sun,
in a moon rising high above
the placid sea below.
You move my body to devotion,
fine sandalwood the scent of my
I am a wreath crowning a victor’s brow,
while the moon laughs to mock my folly.
Before the dawn kissed the meadows
with fine gold, I approached Apollôn’s
Sanctuary with all I had to give.
His lips would gather the harvest of
my prayers, spoken not in words but in
a shudder of muscles; a lover’s offering
dancing across your strong neck.
I offered a string of pearls to my Apollôn,
which he wore before the cock crowed
My robe is nowhere to be found,
his naked feet took up the dust of a lonely road.
I am left discarded in what remains of my bed,
without a sign of those liquid pearls;
offered so freely, and taken by the sun itself.
All text copyright © 2015 Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
To date, three people have submitted entries to the Apollo contest. Here they are below. The contest runs through 9pm August 10 and all contributors receive a prayer card of their choosing. There’s still time to submit, folks. If you don’t want to submit to this contest, consider sending something over to Melia, who is working on a devotional anthology to Apollo. You can read about that here.
Entry #1 by Alexeigynaix
Prayer to Apollon on the occasion of donating blood
Apollon who heals
accept please my offering
of blood from my veins.
Apollon who succors
grant please my prayer
that the one who receives
this unit of blood
be swiftly healed
of their injury
or their illness
and that they take
no further harm.
Apollon who heals
grant please my prayer
that the blood bank nurses
stay safe and healthy
and good at their jobs,
that they stay
gentle with the needle
and attentive to the donors
so that no one
comes to harm
under their care.
Apollon who defends against harm
grant please my prayer
that I recover swiftly
and stay in good health
that in eight weeks
I may safely
offer this again.
I thank you.
Entry #2 by R. Demyx
Behold! Wreathed in laurel and the splendid radiance of the sun, Apollo, the Blessed One, arrives.
He who walks on gilded plains and brings forth joyous harmony with every step.
Divine Lord of the bow, we pray that you guard my journey as long as it travels under the eyes of you and your sister.
Plague and illness part before me as they part before you.
And grant me the foresight to see dangers before me.
Divine Apollo, blessed glory of the sun, I pray that you be with me.
Entry #3 By Amanda Artemisia Forrester
Hymn to the Rustic Apollo
I begin now to sing of Apollo, the brightest God on Olympos
Surely the fair-haired Muses will attend my song, and lend my words power
For Apollo is beloved of those clever Goddesses Nine
Often have They danced at the feasts of the Gods
While Golden Apollo played the lyre
And when He lay in sweet love-making with Kalliope, eldest Muse,
She conceived Orpheus, the musician-prophet.
Great Apollo is known as a God of knowledge, a severe philosophers’ God
But He has a another side long forgotten by scholars.
Sing, Muses, of the rustic Apollo, of Apollo of the fields,
The One Who prizes His herd of cattle,
Stolen by His precocious baby brother Hermes.
This Apollo is trickier, even a Trickster
(as the Fates learned when They came for Admetos)
This is the Apollo Who hunted down Pytho,
And founded His oracle on Her rotting corpse.
This is the Apollo Who flayed Marsyas –
Punishment for His hubris in challenging an Olympian.
He is far more than the brightness of the educated mind,
He is also the burning fire of senseless passion.
This is the wolf-God, the Hunter, the far-shooting
O Muses, sing again of this darker Apollo
This forgotten complement to the bright philosopher’s God.
O rustic Apollo, the shepherd’s God,
I will offer to You red beef, red wine,
And most importantly (to me at least)
The red pumping blood of my heart.