Apollo is one of the most important and diverse of the Olympian deities in Greek and Roman mythology. The ideal of the kouros (a beardless, athletic youth), Apollo has been variously recognized as a god of light and the sun, truth and prophecy, medicine, healing, plague, music, poetry, arts and more. Apollo is the son of Zeus and Leto, and has a twin sister, the chaste huntress Artemis. Apollo is known in Greek-influenced Etruscan mythology as Apulu. Apollo was worshiped in both ancient Greek and Roman religion, and in the modern Greco–Roman Neopaganism.
As the patron of Delphi (Pythian Apollo), Apollo was an oracular god—the prophetic deity of the Delphic Oracle. Medicine and healing were associated with Apollo, whether through the god himself or mediated through his son Asclepius, yet Apollo was also seen as a god who could bring ill-health and deadly plague. Amongst the god's custodial charges, Apollo became associated with dominion over colonists, and as the patron defender of herds and flocks. As the leader of the Muses (Apollon Musegetes) and director of their choir, Apollo functioned as the patron god of music and poetry. Hermes created the lyre for him, and the instrument became a common attribute of Apollo. Hymns sung to Apollo were called paeans.
In Hellenistic times, especially during the 3rd century BCE, as Apollo Helios he became identified among Greeks with Helios, Titan god of the sun, and his sister Artemis similarly equated with Selene, Titan goddess of the moon. In Latin texts, on the other hand, Joseph Fontenrose declared himself unable to find any conflation of Apollo with Sol among the Augustan poets of the 1st century, not even in the conjurations of Aeneas and Latinus in Aeneid XII (161–215). Apollo and Helios/Sol remained separate beings in literary and mythological texts until the 3rd century CE.
When Zeus' wife Hera discovered that Leto was pregnant and that he was the father, she banned Leto from giving birth on "terra firma". In her wanderings, Leto found the newly created floating island of Delos, which was neither mainland nor a real island, so she gave birth there, where she was accepted by the people, offering them her promise that her son will be always favourable toward the city. Afterwards, Zeus secured Delos to the bottom of the ocean. This island later became sacred to Apollo.
It is also stated that Hera kidnapped Ilithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to prevent Leto from going into labor. The other gods tricked Hera into letting her go by offering her a necklace, nine yards (8 m) long, of amber. Mythographers agree that Artemis was born first and then assisted with the birth of Apollo, or that Artemis was born one day before Apollo, on the island of Ortygia and that she helped Leto cross the sea to Delos the next day to give birth to Apollo. Apollo was born on the seventh day of the month Thargelion —according to Delian tradition—or of the month Bysios—according to Delphian tradition. The seventh and twentieth, the days of the new and full moon, were ever afterwards held sacred to him.
Four days after his birth, Apollo killed the chthonic dragon Python, which lived in Delphi beside the Castalian Spring. This was the spring which emitted vapors that caused the oracle at Delphi to give her prophecies. Hera sent the serpent to hunt Leto to her death across the world. To protect his mother, Apollo begged Hephaestus for a bow and arrows. After receiving them, Apollo cornered Python in the sacred cave at Delphi. Apollo killed Python but had to be punished for it, since Python was a child of Gaia.
Hera then sent the giant Tityos to kill Leto. This time Apollo was aided by his sister Artemis in protecting their mother. During the battle Zeus finally relented his aid and hurled Tityos down to Tartarus. There he was pegged to the rock floor, covering an area of 9 acres, where a pair of vultures feasted daily on his liver.
Apollo shot arrows infected with the plague into the Greek encampment during the Trojan War in retribution for Agamemnon's insult to Chryses, a priest of Apollo whose daughter Chryseis had been captured. He demanded her return, and the Achaeans complied, indirectly causing the anger of Achilles, which is the theme of the Iliad.
In the Iliad, when Diomedes injured Aeneas, Apollo rescued him. First, Aphrodite tried to rescue Aeneas but Diomedes injured her as well. Aeneas was then enveloped in a cloud by Apollo, who took him to Pergamos, a sacred spot in Troy.
Apollo aided Paris in the killing of Achilles by guiding the arrow of his bow into Achilles' heel. One interpretation of his motive is that it was in revenge for Achilles' sacrilege in murdering Troilus, the god's own son by Hecuba, on the very altar of the god's own temple.
When Zeus struck down Apollo's son Asclepius with a lightning bolt for resurrecting Hippolytus from the dead (transgressing Themis by stealing Hades's subjects), Apollo in revenge killed the Cyclopes, who had fashioned the bolt for Zeus. Apollo would have been banished to Tartarus forever, but was instead sentenced to one year of hard labor as punishment, due to the intercession of his mother, Leto. During this time he served as shepherd for King Admetus of Pherae in Thessaly. Admetus treated Apollo well, and, in return, the god conferred great benefits on Admetus.
Apollo helped Admetus win Alcestis, the daughter of King Pelias and later convinced the Fates to let Admetus live past his time, if another took his place. But when it came time for Admetus to die, his parents, whom he had assumed would gladly die for him, refused to cooperate. Instead, Alcestis took his place, but Heracles managed to "persuade" Thanatos, the god of death, to return her to the world of the living.
Niobe, the queen of Thebes and wife of Amphion, boasted of her superiority to Leto because she had fourteen children (Niobids), seven male and seven female, while Leto had only two. Apollo killed her sons as they practiced athletics, with the last begging for his life, and Artemis her daughters. Apollo and Artemis used poisoned arrows to kill them, though according to some versions of the myth, a number of the Niobids were spared (Chloris, usually). Amphion, at the sight of his dead sons, either killed himself or was killed by Apollo after swearing revenge. A devastated Niobe fled to Mount Sipylos in Asia Minor and turned into stone as she wept. Her tears formed the river Achelous. Zeus had turned all the people of Thebes to stone and so no one buried the Niobids until the ninth day after their death, when the gods themselves entombed them.
Consorts and children
Love affairs ascribed to Apollo are a late development in Greek mythology. Their vivid anecdotal qualities have made favorites some of them of painters since the Renaissance, so that they stand out more prominently in the modern imagination.
In explanation of the connection of Apollo with (daphnē), the laurel whose leaves his priestess employed at Delphi, it is told that Apollo chased a nymph, Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus, who had scorned him. In Ovid's telling for a Roman audience, Phoebus Apollo chaffs Cupid for toying with a weapon more suited to a man, whereupon Cupid wounds him with a golden dart; simultaneously, however, Cupid shoots a leaden arrow into Daphne, causing her to be repulsed by Apollo. Following a spirited chase by Apollo, Daphne prays to her father, Peneus, for help, and he changes her into the laurel tree, sacred to Apollo.
Apollo had an affair with a human princess named Leucothea, daughter of Orchamus and sister of Clytia. Leucothea loved Apollo who disguised himself as Leucothea's mother to gain entrance to her chambers. Clytia, jealous of her sister because she wanted Apollo for herself, told Orchamus the truth, betraying her sister's trust and confidence in her. Enraged, Orchamus ordered Leucothea to be buried alive. Apollo refused to forgive Clytia for betraying his beloved, and a grieving Clytia wilted and slowly died. Apollo changed her into an incense plant, either heliotrope or sunflower, which follows the sun every day.
Marpessa was kidnapped by Idas but was loved by Apollo as well. Zeus made her choose between them, and she chose Idas on the grounds that Apollo, being immortal, would tire of her when she grew old.
Castalia was a nymph whom Apollo loved. She fled from him and dove into the spring at Delphi, at the base of Mt. Parnassos, which was then named after her. Water from this spring was sacred; it was used to clean the Delphian temples and inspire poets.
By Cyrene, Apollo had a son named Aristaeus, who became the patron god of cattle, fruit trees, hunting, husbandry and bee-keeping. He was also a culture-hero and taught humanity dairy skills, the use of nets and traps in hunting, and how to cultivate olives.
With Hecuba, wife of King Priam of Troy, Apollo had a son named Troilus. An oracle prophesied that Troy would not be defeated as long as Troilus reached the age of twenty alive. He was ambushed and killed by Achilles.
Apollo also fell in love with Cassandra, daughter of Hecuba and Priam, and Troilus' half-sister. He promised Cassandra the gift of prophecy to seduce her, but she rejected him afterwards. Enraged, Apollo indeed gifted her with the ability to know the future, with a curse that she could only see the future tragedies and that no one would ever believe her.
Coronis, daughter of Phlegyas, King of the Lapiths, was another of Apollo's liaisons. Pregnant with Asclepius, Coronis fell in love with Ischys, son of Elatus. A crow informed Apollo of the affair. When first informed he disbelieved the crow and turned all crows black (where they were previously white) as a punishment for spreading untruths. When he found out the truth he sent his sister, Artemis, to kill Coronis (in other stories, Apollo himself had killed Coronis). As a result he also made the crow sacred and gave them the task of announcing important deaths. Apollo rescued the baby and gave it to the centaur Chiron to raise. Phlegyas was irate after the death of his daughter and burned the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Apollo then killed him for what he did.
In Euripides' play Ion, Apollo fathered Ion by Creusa, wife of Xuthus. Creusa left Ion to die in the wild, but Apollo asked Hermes to save the child and bring him to the oracle at Delphi, where he was raised by a priestess.
One of his other liaisons was with Acantha, the spirit of the acanthus tree. Upon her death, Apollo transformed her into a sun-loving herb.
According to the Biblioteca, the "library" of mythology mis-attributed to Apollodorus, he fathered the Corybantes on the Muse Thalia.
Hyacinth or Hyacinthus was one of Apollo's male lovers. He was a Spartan prince, beautiful and athletic. The pair was practicing throwing the discus when a discus thrown by Apollo was blown off course by the jealous Zephyrus and struck Hyacinthus in the head, killing him instantly. Apollo is said to be filled with grief: out of Hyacinthus' blood, Apollo created a flower named after him as a memorial to his death, and his tears stained the flower petals with, meaning alas. The Festival of Hyacinthus was a celebration of Sparta.
Another male lover was Cyparissus, a descendant of Heracles. Apollo gave him a tame deer as a companion but Cyparissus accidentally killed it with a javelin as it lay asleep in the undergrowth. Cyparissus asked Apollo to let his tears fall forever. Apollo granted the request by turning him into the Cypress named after him, which was said to be a sad tree because the sap forms droplets like tears on the trunk.
Hermes was born on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. The story is told in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. His mother, Maia, had been secretly impregnated by Zeus. Maia wrapped the infant in blankets but Hermes escaped while she was asleep. Hermes ran to Thessaly, where Apollo was grazing his cattle. The infant Hermes stole a number of his cows and took them to a cave in the woods near Pylos, covering their tracks. In the cave, he found a tortoise and killed it, then removed the insides. He used one of the cow's intestines and the tortoise shell and made the first lyre. Apollo complained to Maia that her son had stolen his cattle, but Hermes had already replaced himself in the blankets she had wrapped him in, so Maia refused to believe Apollo's claim. Zeus intervened and, claiming to have seen the events, sided with Apollo. Hermes then began to play music on the lyre he had invented. Apollo, a god of music, fell in love with the instrument and offered to allow exchange of the cattle for the lyre. Hence, Apollo then became a master of the lyre.
Apollo in the Oresteia
In Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy, Clytemnestra kills her husband, King Agamemnon because he had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to proceed forward with the Trojan war, and Cassandra, a prophetess of Apollo. Apollo gives an order through the Oracle at Delphi that Agamemnon's son, Orestes, is to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, her lover. Orestes and Pylades carry out the revenge, and consequently Orestes is pursued by the Erinyes (Furies, female personifications of vengeance). Apollo and the Furies argue about whether the matricide was justified; Apollo holds that the bond of marriage is sacred and Orestes was avenging his father, whereas the Erinyes say that the bond of blood between mother and son is more meaningful than the bond of marriage. They invade his temple, and he says that the matter should be brought before Athena. Apollo promises to protect Orestes, as Orestes has become Apollo's supplicant. Apollo advocates Orestes at the trial, and ultimately Athena rules with Apollo.
Apollo killed the Aloadae when they attempted to storm Mt. Olympus.
Callimachus sang that Apollo rode on the back of a swan to the land of the Hyperboreans during the winter months.
Apollo turned Cephissus into a sea monster.
Another contender for the birthplace of Apollo is the Cretan islands of Paximadia.
Once Pan had the audacity to compare his music with that of Apollo, and to challenge Apollo, the god of the kithara, to a trial of skill. Tmolus, the mountain-god, was chosen to umpire. Pan blew on his pipes, and with his rustic melody gave great satisfaction to himself and his faithful follower, Midas, who happened to be present. Then Apollo struck the strings of his lyre. Tmolus at once awarded the victory to Apollo, and all but Midas agreed with the judgment. He dissented, and questioned the justice of the award. Apollo would not suffer such a depraved pair of ears any longer, and caused them to become the ears of a donkey.
Mpollo has ominous aspects aside from his plague-bringing, death-dealing arrows: Marsyas was a satyr who challenged Apollo to a contest of music. He had found an aulos on the ground, tossed away after being invented by Athena because it made her cheeks puffy. The contest was judged by the Muses. After they each performed, both were deemed equal until Apollo decreed they play and sing at the same time. As Apollo played the lyre, this was easy to do. Marsyas could not do this as he only knew how to use the flute and could not sing at the same time. Apollo was declared the winner because of this. Apollo flayed Marsyas alive in a cave near Celaenae in Phrygia for his hubris to challenge a god. He then nailed Marsyas' shaggy skin to a nearby pine-tree. Marsyas' blood turned into the river Marsyas.
Another variation is that Apollo played his instrument (the lyre) upside down. Marsyas could not do this with his instrument (the flute), and so Apollo hung him from a tree and flayed him alive.
From Men, Myths & Minds
Apollo, Greek God of Light
Apollo, Greek god of the Sun, was the original overachiever. No wonder he became his father's favorite son! At the tender age of 4 days, showing an incredible talent for archery, Apollo killed the gigantic serpent named Python (in some myths she was a dragon) who had been harassing his mother.
The Greek god Apollo and his twin sister Artemis were born to Leto (a Titan goddess who was impregnated by Zeus during one of his numerous affairs. The birth of the twins was not an easy one, for their poor mother Leto had been pursued throughout her pregnancy by a gigantic serpent named Python and had never been allowed a moment’s rest. Going into labor, she finally found a safe, secluded spot where she could deliver. But after the birth of the first twin, Artemis, was born, Leto was too exhausted to continue. Artemis, born just minutes earlier, had to take control of the situation and become Leto’s midwife, helping her mother safely deliver the infant Apollo.
Zeus welcomed the twins by giving them both silver bows and arrows, promising Artemis she would never have to marry unless she wanted to, and giving Apollo a magnificent golden chariot that was pulled by swans.
Apollo was destined to make his father proud of him. Following his dramatic debut with the Python, he went on to become, not only an unerring archer, but the best musician (playing a lyre given to him by his half-brother Hermes), poet, philosopher, law maker and creator of legal institutions, a masterful physician, the god of prophecy, and a great scholar who always spoke the truth.
Apollo’s skill and determination were evident at a very early age. When he was only 4 days old, he took his bow and arrow and went out in search of the snake that had tormented his mother during her pregnancy. Finding the snake named Python, who was said to measure several acres in length, he wounded her with his first shot.
The serpent crawled back to her cave in the city of Delphi, but the infant Apollo followed her and this time succeeded in killing the snake with his second shot. The citizens of Delphi were glad to be rid of her and were grateful to Apollo - later Delphi was established as the center of Apollo’s worship.
As it happened this was not just a regular snake that Apollo had killed - it turns out that it happened to be the famed Oracle of Delphi, the greatest prophet of all time. The Python lived in the cave and could answer any question since she could see anything in the present or the future. When she answered a question, her hiss would be interpreted by the Pythian priestess and the answer relayed to the questioner.
The killing of the Python was no small matter. Though very proud of his son’s courage and prowess, Zeus was not pleased that Apollo had killed the serpent. Where could he go now when he needed advice based on her remarkable foresight?
“Not a problem”, Apollo assured him, and returned to Delphi where he took over the Temple and persuaded the priestess to teach him the art of prophecy.
Zeus, even though he favored this child, felt Apollo should still be punished for killing the Python, just to teach him a lesson. So he exiled him to live and work on earth as a mortal for one year. His assignment was to assist King Admetus, a kind and pious man who treated Apollo well. At the end of his year of servitude, to repay the king’s kindness, he looked into the future and told the king his fate, warning him that he could reverse it if he could find someone willing to die in his place. Only his wife was willing, and the king regretted allowing her to sacrifice her life for him. Later the hero Heracles (Hercules) was able, however, to restore her life.
It was said that Apollo could only speak the truth, telling the future with an accuracy that was as unerring as his marksmanship with his arrows.
Arrows featured largely in the story of Apollo’s first love. He caught the somewhat bratty young Eros (Cupid) playing with his silver bow and arrows. He chastised Eros, telling him to put them down that they were not toys. Offended, Eros cheerfully responded “OK, you can have some of mine then - they’re not toys either!” and shot Apollo with one of his golden arrows that had been dipped in an aphrodisiac that made the victim fall madly in love with the first person they saw.
At that very moment, Daphne, the lovely daughter of a river god, came walking by. Apollo was instantly smitten. With a wicked smile on his lips, the mischievous Eros drew a second arrow from his quiver. This one was made of lead and tipped with a potion that would make love seem repulsive. He took aim and shot Daphne with it.
Daphne ran home and begged her father to swear an oath that she would never have to marry, so repugnant was the very idea of love. Apollo, his heart inflamed with love, pursued Daphne, calling out his pledges of undying love - but she continued to run from him. Horrified when he finally caught up with her, Daphne cried for Mother Earth to strike her dead or change her form so that she would not be appealing and would not have to endure his love. Instantly she turned into laurel tree.
Apollo, heartbroken, tore off a branch of leaves and wove them in his hair, promising Daphne that she would be forever remembered, living on in the wreaths of laurel leaves that would be used to crown kings and victors from that day forward. And so it would be.
Like several of the Greek gods of his generation, Apollo never married, but seduced many young goddesses and mortal women. In the hopes of winning her love, Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy. She proved an able student and, like him, learned to see the future and always told the truth. Shocked when he suddenly turned amorous, ready to be repaid for his favor, Cassandra rejected him. Angered by this, Apollo gave her another “gift” - this one a curse that even though she always told the truth no one would ever believe her.
Among his many lovers, several were males; the most famous, perhaps, being Hyacinthus, whom he accidentally killed in a game of discus. To express his sorrow, Apollo immortalized the dying youth by turning him in the beautiful flower, the hyacinth that greets us each spring.
For all his bright and shining qualities, Apollo could also be quite vindictive. Always close to his twin sister, both were known for their skill as archers, their energetic pursuit of their goals, and their swift and merciless punishment of those whose behavior they found insulting or offensive.
When Niobe boasted that she was a better mother than Leto since she had produced six sons and six daughters instead of just a measly set of twins, Apollo and Artemis took offense. Taking their bows and arrows with them, they found Niobe’s children and Apollo killed the sons while Artemis dispatched the daughters. Niobe’s grief was so great that her tears caused the rivers to overflow their banks.
Apollo also had a jealous streak. When Artemis fell in love with the hunter Orion, Apollo missed her company and affection. Aware that Orion was swimming in the ocean, Apollo ran to find Artemis and gathering up their bows and arrows, rushed down to the beach with her. Pointing to Orion’s head, barely visible on the horizon, Apollo said, “See that shiny thing bobbing in the waves? Bet you can’t hit that!” Artemis, a fierce competitor and exceptional archer accepted the wager. With her unerring aim, she unknowingly killed the man she loved. She never loved again.
For the most part Apollo was rather calm and dispassionate, but there seemed to be three things that could “set him off”. One, as we have seen already, was any offense or insult to his beloved mother. Another was any violation of the boundaries between the gods and mortal men. Alone among the Olympian deities, Apollo never “sponsored” or helped any of the Greek heroes because he felt that they should know their “place” and stay out of the god’s affairs. greek god Apollo
And Apollo did not take kindly to any challenges to his position as “the very best” at everything he did. He was, by the way, the champion in many fields - music, science, and prophecy. According to mythology, he was even able to defeat Ares and boxing and Hermes in racing to win those events at the first Olympic games!
It is a good thing that Apollo usually won, for he was far from being a “good loser”. His opponents were often punished for winning. He literally took the skin off a satyr named Marsyus who had the audacity to beat him in a music competition.
But usually his punishments were moderate, and sometimes they even revealed a sense of humor. When King Midas voted for his competitor in a musical competition, Apollo gave him the ears of a jackass. The embarrassed king had to wear a cap over his ears for the rest of his life!
Apollo is usually depicted as a handsome, beardless youth wearing a wreath of laurel leaves and holding his bow, or a lyre, his favorite musical instrument. You can read the intriguing story of how Apollo came to play the lyre in the stories of Hermes.
Although most of the myths of Apollo feature him “in action”, he was actually known more for his achievements than his acts and was seldom embroiled in the continuous quarrels and unfolding dramas that constituted life on Mount Olympus. Somewhat detached from the others, Apollo was often “away” when things were happening, of simply uninvolved.
Perhaps he did “learn his lesson” as Zeus had hoped, although it took a second exile before he got the message. After he returned from his first exile, Apollo took part in a plot by the Olympians, led by Poseidon, to overthrow Zeus’ reign as their ruler. All the gods and goddesses agreed that something had to change, that Zeus was proving to be too arrogant and heavy-handed. The attempted coup failed, but Zeus did try to do better from then on and was quite lenient in punishing all of them.
Poseidon and Apollo were both sentenced to one year of manual labor, to be served on earth helping build the walls around Troy while disguised as ordinary mortals. They served their sentences without complaint, but when the King of Troy refused to honor his contract and pay them for their work, the angry Poseidon sent a horrible sea monster and Apollo caused a plague to rain down on the city of Troy. Soon the bodies of the dead and dying were stacked as high as the great wall around the city. The king relented and paid his debt.
Just as he could summon a plague, Apollo was also called upon to prevent and cure all manner of illness for he was a healer of great knowledge and skill.
The favorite son of Zeus, Apollo had a favorite son himself. He was once in love with Coronis. She was pregnant with his child, but Apollo was fearful that she might take another lover during one of his frequent absences. So Apollo dispatched a white raven to spy on her for him. When the raven reported that she had betrayed his trust, he was displeased and turned the raven’s feathers black. Then he killed Coronis, but suddenly regretting it, he saved the unborn child. Naming him Asclepius, he reared the child himself and trained him in the healing arts.
Asclepius became a famous physician and is generally considered to be the “Father of Modern Medicine”. Indeed, his skill was so great that, after he restored life to one of his patients who had died, Zeus had to kill him since only the Fates were allowed to determine whether someone lived or died.
Apollo was a god who had a clear idea of what was right and what was wrong. He believed strongly in law and order. He interpreted the law for mortals and gave the cities their legal institutions, including civic courts so that disputes could be settled without bloodshed. Uncomfortable as Apollo was with chaos and tumult, or even passionate intensity, he was an idealist with a vision of a society that could live peacefully under the rule of fairness and of law.
It is from the Greek god Apollo that we get the sayings "Know thyself" and the call to moderation in all things, the Golden Mean, reminding us to do "nothing in excess".
Driving his golden chariot to pull the sun across the sky each day, Apollo’s most important role was that of Helios, Greek god of the sun, his golden light brightening the lives of all it touched.
Apollo was a favorite of the people of Rhodes. The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is an immense statue of the Greek god Apollo (as Helios Apollo). In ancient times, the citizens of Rhodes would cast a chariot and four horses into the sea each year as a tribute or gift to him, presumably to allow him to replace last year's model and continue to make his grand journey across the sky each day in style.
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