On the day that Apollon went to Hyperborea for the Winter, all the gods gathered around to say goodbye.
He hadn’t always been a god of the sun. A long time earlier, Helios had driven his own chariot, drawn by immortal winged horses. But Helios was an unpredictable fellow, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief when, finally, Zeus had bound him up inside that chariot, largely for the crime of ratting to Demeter about where Persephone had gone, and for assisting in the scorching of the Earth during the Summer months in retaliation for Zeus’s “betrayal,” as he called it.
He couldn’t be put away like Prometheus, or the world would be dark. So his betraying mouth was sewn shut and his arms were bound, just moments after he swore that he’d swallow the heavens and the earth if they did it. Apollon was chosen to set the horses on their course each day, and to lay them down to rest each night.
Apollon had been young, then, a mere slip of a god, practically indistinguishable from his twin sister. He hadn’t yet slain Pytho, nor had he yet taken to oracles, nor even lost his cows to Hermes.
Now Apollon was a full grown fellow, broad across the arms and chest from stringing his immortal bow, and full-bearded, like Zeus. Even Aphrodite, who was largely of the opinion that people she didn’t like couldn’t even brush their teeth correctly, and who didn’t terribly like Apollon, had to admit that he was an extremely handsome god.
Handsome, but quiet. He was quieter, today, even than his usual taciturn self, as he made off for Hyperborea, the sun bound up in back.
Evening came, and Selene rose high over Olympos. In the morning, a strange silvery box with a huge shining bow had been deposited on Zeus’s doorstep.
Now, Apollon would have been the voice of reason. He would have cautioned that, since the gift was of unknown providence, that tests should be run, and he would have held a galloping Dionysos and ravenously curious Hermes in check while he ran said tests.
Alas, Apollon was in Hyperborea.
“A thing!” Shouted Dionysos.
Hermes was next to the object in the blink of an eye. “Shiny!”
Dionysos caught up a moment later, and Hermes held out a hand to stay him. “Now, hold up, brother. I consider that two things might be true here. Now first of all, this gift could be rigged with explosives. Secondly, it might be meant for Zeus. In fact, both of these things could be true at the same time. Just to be on the safe side, I ought to take it far away from here to open it.”
“Nice try, Argeiphontes,” Artemis called out, having heard Hermes make his excuse for carrying the thing away for himself.
Soon, Athena was there, too. Silently, she leaned down and examined the box. Nestled beneath the bow was a small tag. It read, “To the most famous of gods.”
“I’m still going with it’s a trap,” said Hermes, after Athena had read it aloud for all to hear. “And I am still going with open it way far away from Olympos… or jettison into a volcano. I volunteer.”
“Or into your pocket?” quipped Athena wryly. “No, I propose a contest.”
“A contest!” Ares shouted joyfully.
Said Hera, “I shall win. After all, who is more famous than Zeus and his wife?”
“Wait now,” said Dionysos, “Hestia is mentioned twice at every rite.”
“I need no prize with which to vainly crown myself,” said Hestia. “I will not compete.”
Now, if Apollon had been there, he would have reminded the gods who dwell on Olympos of a very similar gift left by Eris, and would have recounted, in song, how a similar contest over said gift had caused the Trojan War. Alas, Apollon was in Hyperborea.
Athena decreed the terms: “Let each of us go to our private cults and our own respective temples. When all the mortals in Hellas have chosen, let there be a head count. Since there will be no judge, only a tally, no one will be able to win through bribery.”
Everyone flashed a meaningful glance toward Aphrodite, who shrugged and smiled before examining her manicure.
“Really?” Hermes asked incredulously, “Am I the only one here who sees a problem with this?”
“It is the only solution,” Athena explained, “Or else we’ll all just stand here bickering about who gets to put it in whose treasury…. and not another word, Prince of Thieves, lest you, through your silver-tongued ways, win this prize through means less fair.”
“Fine,” said Hermes. “But if the thing explodes when you open it, I have eternal told-you-so rights. And also, prepare to have you ass handed to you, goddess of Athens, because it’s on.”
“Save the shit talk for after the victory,” Artemis said irritably.
Then, all of the gods who were on Olympos went off to their own temples and cults.
Athena gathered up the politicians in every city within the boundaries of Hellas. Aphrodite gathered up the sex-workers. Hephaestos immediately claimed the toy-makers. Hermes, for his part, claimed the rabble-rousers, the dissidents, the revolutionaries and anyone else who wasn’t particularly welcome within city limits. Artemis gathered up all of the female children who could walk, every woman who shunned the institution of marriage, and even went to a few who simply did not want to be married.
Cunningly, Artemis said to then, “Come and follow me, and I will restore your virginity to you. Your husbands will forget you.”
Zeus grabbed the kings and princes. Hera took to herself the queens and princesses. Ares tagged the soldiers. Demeter grabbed the farmers, Poseidon took the sea-farers, and Dionysos went to the theaters and the mask-makers.
And so it went. Yet, as months passed, something strange began to happen to the various cults. The gods grew jealous any time a mortal would go and render honor to a different Olympian, and so the mortals stopped doing that. As their worship of their particular deity became more focused, they lost the blessings of the other gods.
When Apollon returned from Hyperborea, he found Olympos deserted except for Hestia, and all of the usual cities were empty. Instead, the people had made settlements with their deities in various deity-themed villages.
In the theaters were gathered the followers of Dionysos, who had been engaging in a non-stop revel for several months. They put on plays for one another, and were having a rather good time, but the white-armed women had been out in the sun, and the bronzed men hadn’t worked in the fields in quite some time. All of them were uniformly tan, and flabby, and looked a spec dehydrated. The rich had spent their money on the wine, and they were also, all, uniformly poor. It was impossible to tell any of them apart from the others, and all were very slightly sick with some unnamable illness. Apollon, seeing it, named it, “Con Crud.” The disease is called that until this very day.
In Athena’s fiefdom, it was impossible to use an outhouse without filling out a form in triplicate and sending it off to the appropriate office. A very strict routine had been adopted whereby a person would wake at the appointed time (the waking time was staggered by 15 minutes, so that each province would wake and begin its routine without causing a traffic jam), and proceed through the washing, eating, sacrifice, and so on in a way that did not deviate from one day to the next. It was all very orderly. No one had freedom to deviate. The people were all very healthy, and crime was non-existent. When Apollon walked into town and asked where he might find Athena, the followers of Athena became momentarily distracted, and the clockwork-like order devolved into chaos as ox-carts crashed into hay-bales and people standing in line for the bathhouse knocked over the people in front of them.
The followers of Artemis had holed up deep in the woods, and alternated between eating rare meat which they had hunted down and sitting in a sweat lodge they’d built. They hardly spoke. The sun had dappled on them and fallen unevenly on their bare skin, so that they had more the appearance of tigers and leopards than of women and children. When Apollon came upon them to see what they were doing, one of the women had become so unaccustomed to seeing men that she fired an arrow at Apollon, and struck him in the arm.
“Brother!” Artemis shrieked.
Apollon sat on a rock and carefully extracted the arrow from his arm, and spoke with his sister as he stitched up the wound.
“What madness,” Apollon began, “Has possessed the gods to desert their community on Olympos, and to divide the people of Hellas in this way?”
“There was a contest to see who could become the most famous deity,” Artemis explained.
“What the– WHY?!”
“Well, you see, there was this box.”
“And it was very lovely, and it had a tag on it that said that the gift belonged to the most famous of the gods.”
“Alright, I understand,” said Apollon, “except for one baffling detail. If the cities are empty, why isn’t the contest over?”
“The cities are empty?” Artemis asked.
“Don’t you know? Shouldn’t Hestia, at least, have said something?” So asking, Apollon had finished the stitches on his arm.
Artemis and Apollon went up to Olympos and spoke to Hestia.
“Ah, but you see,” Hestia began to explain, “The contest isn’t over. No one has really won any fame at all.”
“Explain,” Apollo said.
“All of the Olympians were equally famous to start. By my reckoning, not one soul has been convinced of anything, other than to abandon the worship of the other gods. No one has increased their fame, and each of the gods remains equally famous. The contest hasn’t even started. In order to win the contest, all any of them would need to do would be to win but one, singular, solitary soul from outside the cities of Hellas — to get but one person interested in our religion and way of belief… but just look at the camps the deities have set up. The Dionysians are ill, the Athenians are miserable, and everyone is terrified even to speak to the followers of Artemis.”
Artemis bristled at the comment. Apollon rubbed his arm and nodded. Then, he looked at the silvery box that was still on Zeus’s step.
“To the most famous of gods.” Apollon read aloud. Then, he rubbed his face with his palm. “I hate to ask, but did anyone bother to see what was inside?”
“Hermes said it might be rigged with explosives.” Artemis explained.
“…of course he did,” Apollon muttered to himself. More loudly, he said, “So, just so that I am clear of the facts. You read the tag, and all, simultaneously, except for Hestia, decided that it was a good idea to divide our followers into camps based on favored god or goddess, in the name of a competition over what is a possibly empty, possibly explosive box. Because the box said a superlative on it.”
“Yes.” Artemis said. She was already feeling the sting of conscience, and was sorry because of her own foolishness.
“And this seemed logical to all of you?” Apollon asked.
“The god of logic was in Hyperborea,” Hestia reminded him.
“Still,” Apollon continued, undeterred. “Someone must have remembered their history books, or perhaps had a recollection about what happened the last time deities competed over a superlative?”
“We had no god of history to sing the story of the Trojan War,” Hestia reminded him, “The god of history and singing stories was in Hyperborea.”
“Athena remembered,” Artemis interjected, “Which is why we set up the rules so that Aphrodite couldn’t cheat again.”
“Hermes may have mentioned that he thought it was a terrible idea,” said Hestia, “But I’m fairly certain everyone thought he was saying that so he could steal the box for himself… and of course, there was no god of Truth to speak up for him”
“I know, I know,” said Apollon, “The god of Truth was in Hyperborea.”
“You abstained,” said Artemis to Hestia. “You must have known.”
Hestia nodded. “Long ago, I gave up my seat for your brother. It is high time that you all learn the reason for that decision. Go, both of you, and gather up the gods. Tell them that the contest has been decided.”
So Artemis and Apollon gathered up the Olympians, and they stood before Hestia, waiting to hear the judgment.
When the gods had all gathered back together, it was a long while before anyone spoke. They looked on each other and their surroundings as people who have been sitting in darkness for a long time look at their environs when someone turns on a light. Dionysos stood there, looking wild, hair uncombed with dead leaf or two stuck somewhere other than his crown of vines, but as he surveyed his family, he unconsciously smoothed down his long curls. Hermes spit out the long piece of grass he was chewing on, and discretely put down a haunch of mutton before smoothing his chiton. Aphrodite produced a pin from mid air, and adjusted the neckline of her dress.
“So, who won?” Demeter asked.
Hestia looked each of them dead in the eye. “Look at each other. Look at our cities. You tell me who won.”
Everyone was silent. Some of them shuffled their feet.
“A pantheon is like a keystone arch.” Hestia said finally, “We all lean on one another. Together, we are immensely strong. But when one god or goddess is absent, the pantheon can crumble at the slightest provocation. It was because we could not afford to lose… or perhaps loose… the god of madness and civility, that I gave up my seat.”
“At the risk of sounding pedantic…” Apollon began. Then he paused and sighed. “Oh, who am I kidding? I have only two modes: pedantic and off– So, despite sounding pedantic– I will say: The shrine to the unknown god exists so that humans will never fail to honor any of us. Humans are only healthy when balanced. Now, look at what you lot have done. Those humans aren’t just unhealthy, they’re non-functional…”
Apollon’s voice trailed off, and his face flushed and he tamped down his wrath.
“We forgot,” said Artemis, “Because the god of temperance and balance was in Hyperborea.”
“Let Apollon no longer leave us to go to Hyperborea,” said Zeus. “Instead, let Helios be freed to drive his own chariot.”
With that decree, Helios was unbound, and though furious, he agreed to stay the whole “swallowing the Earth” plan, provided that the calendars, forever after, should follow his wanderings, in payment for his mistreatment. Zeus decreed it so.
Then, at the suggestion of Hermes, they opened the box.
Inside, they saw fabric woven from night clouds and moon beams, but as they pulled out the object, it unfolded into a huge, circular banquet table, with a single, round bench surrounding it, that the Olympians, and many gods besides, could sit down to banquet without distinction.
“To the most famous of gods.” Said Apollon. “It wasn’t a gift for the single greatest god or goddess… rather, for the pantheon most famous in all of Hellas.”
And Selene laughed.