Apollo was in the second generation of the Olympians, son of Zeus and Leto, and one of the greatest gods in the Hellenic pantheon. In Greek Mythology he was the god of music and medicine. Its roman name was also Apollo.
Myths concerning Apollo originated in all parts of Greece. Both Grecian political and spiritual life was dominated by this god’s vigorous personality. He represented characteristics of several deities from all of Hellenism. There was the Dorian Apollo, brought across by the Indo-European invaders, and there is good reason to believe that another Apollo came into Greece via the Hittite culture and appeared as an Oriental before emerging as the Dorian god.
The double image of the god was reflected in the fact that there were two sanctuaries of Apollo, at Delphi and Delos. This undoubtedly accounts for the great admiration that this god enjoyed among the Greeks in Asia Minor as well as those on the continent. Gradually all the myths significantly merged to form one godly image of Apollo, as known today.
The goddess Leto, a Titaness, called by the Greeks Phoebus “shining,” whom Zeus ravished when knowing she would give birth to his children, which infuriated the jealous Hera. She forbade Leto to take shelter anywhere on earth. The goddess searched everywhere until she was welcomed on the floating island of Ortygia (Quail Island) or Asteria, which was barren and rocky, and so dilapidated that it had nothing to fear from Hera.
There the children of Zeus were born, first Artemis, the virgin huntress, then her twin brother Apollo. In gratitude the god marked the island as the center of the Greek world and named it Delos, “the Brilliant.”
When Apollo entered the world, sacred swans circled the island seven times for it was the seventh day of the month. At once Zeus lavished many gifts upon his son including a golden miter, a chariot drawn by swans, and a lyre since legend has it at birth Apollo said, “Dear to me shall be the lyre and bow, and in oracles I shall reveal to men the inexorable will of Zeus.” The god commanded his so to find sanctuary at Delphi.
But before taking Apollo to Delphi, the swans flew him north to their own country on the edge of the ocean, which was home to the Hyperborean people, who was a supremely happy race for whom life was sweet.
When the elderly became weary of existence, they accepted voluntary death by throwing themselves into the sea. Apollo was their high god; and went there at certain times to receive their homage. So, following his birth, he remained there an entire year before returning to Greece and reaching Delphi in midsummer. Nature made herself the most beautiful for him. Annually, the arrival of the god was celebrated with solemn ceremony and great slaughter.
When Apollo first arrived he found the site of Delphi occupied by a monstrous dragon named Python, the guardian of an ancient oracle Themis .The dragon was raiding the countryside until Apollo killed it with his arrows.
And, to appease its divine shades after death, the god founded games in its honor; these became the Pythic games, or the great games of Delphi. Also, the god decided to perpetuate the oracle by adopting it himself. In token of this decision one of his personal emblems, a stool, was consecrated in the sanctuary at Delphi.
Afterwards he instituted a priesthood, deciding a priestess called Pythia would tell his prophecies while seated on the holy stool. Then Apollo went to Thessaly in the valley of Tempe where he purified himself after murdering the dragon. From that time onwards a festival has been celebrated at Delphi annually to commemorate the death of Python and the purification of Apollo.
In reference to Python, according to one legend, Apollo went to Delphi four days after his birth to kill it because it had molested his mother during her pregnancy. The python, a son of Gaia, sent up revelations through a fissure in the rock, thus inspiring the oracle, inhaling the potent fumes, to utter cryptic messages. Another legend has the monster a she serpent named Delphyne, “the womb-like”: hence Delphi.
However, Apollo’s reign at Delphi did meet with some resistance. He had to defend his privilege against Hercules, according to one legend, who came to consult the oracle. When the priestess refused to answer him, Hercules grabbed the stool so as to found an oracle of his own elsewhere. Apollo came to the aid of Pythia and fought Hercules for the possession of the stool. Zeus intervened, making peace between his two sons by hurling a thunderbolt between then; and keeping the oracle at Delphi.
Apollo was depicted as a beautiful youth, with blue-tinged curls, and his name is connected with many amorous affairs that he had. He fell in love with the nymph Daphme, daughter of the river Peneius in Thessaly. She shunned his affections be fleeing into the forest; when Apollo about overtook her she pleaded with her father to save her, and he obligingly changed her into a laurel tree, which became Apollo’s tree and emblem.
Apollo also loved the nymph Cyrene with whom he fathered the demi-god Aristaeus. As musican and god of the lyre, he directed the choir of the Muses, and, inevitably, adventures with them were imputed to him. On Thalia he fathered the Corybantes, turbulent demons like the Curetes. On Urania he fathered Limus and Orpheus, two famous musicians.
Apollo’s favorite son was Asklepios who was taught medicine by Chiron, the centaur. Asclepius achieved the ability to resurrect the dead, which made Zeus fearful because of the complaints that he received from Hades. Zeus killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt, which angered Apollo who in turn killed the Cyclops who had forged Zeus’ thunderbolt.
As punishment for this crime Zeus was going to send Apollo to Tartarus, but, on Lero’s request, he resented and lessen the punishment, ordering his son to serve as a slave to a mortal for one year. Apollo went to Thessaly where he served King Admetus.
While Apollo had other amorous affairs with women he also loved young boys. Two of these affairs ended unhappily. Hyacinthus, a young Lacedaemonian prince of great beauty, Apollo fell in love with. One day when the two of them were in the gymnasium throwing the discus, either the wind caught the projectile or else it hit a rock and rebounded to strike Hyacinthus in the head to kill him. Apollo was distraught, to immortalize his friend he made his body into a flower, the hyacinth, with its petals marked with Hyacinthus’ initials.
Apollo also loved Cyparissus, the son of Telephus who was the son of Hercules, whose favorite companion was a magnificent stag that followed him everywhere. But one summer day when the stag was sleeping in the shade Cyparissus unintentionally struck and killed it with his javelin. Cyparissus was so overcome with despair that he longed for death himself, and Apollo transformed him into a cypress, which became a symbol of sadness.
Among Apollo’s principle functions was that of the god of music. Also, he was linked to poetry since he liked to prophesy in verse and was invoked by poets. But, he also was a terrifying god of war as a pitiless archer he could inflict instant death; he inflicted epidemics as was as indicated at the beginning of the Iliad when he put an epidemic on the Achaean army; and along with his twin sister Artemis partook in murdering the children of Niobe.
Certain animals, such as the wolf, squirrel, and doe, were specially dedicated to Apollo; also certain birds, such as the swan, kite, and crow, as well as the dolphin, whose name in Greek, delphis, recalls the sanctuary of Delphi. A.G.H.
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 121-125 Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1980, p. 132