Zeus and His Dysfunctional Family

12 Apollo

motherApollo, white-ground kylix, ca. 480 BCE (Archaeological Museum, Delphi)


The god Apollo (whose epithet is Phoebus, which literally means ‘bright’) was born on the island of Delos. He was the twin brother of Artemis, and the son of Zeus and the mortal woman Leto. In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the pregnant Leto, having been driven from land to land by the jealous Hera, eventually comes to Delos to give birth. Leto had to swear an oath that Delos would serve as a sacred precinct for Apollo. After nine days of labor on the island, she gives birth to the god, under either a palm or an olive tree. After his birth, Apollo is given nectar and ambrosia by Themis, and in some accounts, having tasted it, immediately demands a lyre and a bow. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes, however, gives a different etiology for Apollo’s lyre: the god receives it in exchange l for a cattle whip as a gift of reconciliation from Hermes (see chapter 16).

Apollo in Action

God of Oracles

Apollo presided over many areas of life, such as light, medicine and the arts. Perhaps most importantly, he was the god of oracles and prophecy, with his oracular center located at Delphi. Apollo acquired possession of Delphi and the oracle (perhaps originally from Themis) after slaying the giant serpent Python, which guarded the site. The presiding priestess prophetess at Delphi is called the Pythia.

For further discussion of the Oracle of Delphi, see chapter 42.

Apollo was also associated with prophecy in the Roman tradition, most notably with the Cumaean Sibyl. The Cumaean Sibyl was the priestess and prophet of the Apollonian temple of Cumae (located near modern-day Naples, Italy). She is most famous for appearing in Virgil’s Aeneid, wherein she guides the hero Aeneas to visit his father in the Underworld.

For the myth of Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl, see chapter 41.


“Homeric Hymn 3 To Apollo” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek hymn, 7th century BCE

This Homeric Hymn to Apollo starts with the difficulties that his mother, Leto, faces surrounding his and his twin sister Artemis’ birth. It then details some of his myths and stories, including his defeat of Python.


I will remember and not forget Apollo, the Far-shooter. As he goes through the house of Zeus, the gods tremble before him and all spring up from their seats when he draws near, as he bends his bright bow. But Leto alone stays by the side of Zeus who delights in thunder; and she unstrings his bow, and closes his quiver, and takes his archery from his strong shoulders in her hands and hangs them on a golden peg against a pillar of his father’s house. Then she leads him to a seat and makes him sit: and the Father [ Zeus ] gives him nectar in a golden cup, welcoming his dear son, while the other gods make him sit down there, and queenly Leto rejoices because she bore a mighty son and an archer. Rejoice, blessed Leto, for you bore glorious children, the lord Apollo and Artemis who delights in arrows; her in Ortygia, and him in rocky Delos, as you rested against the great mass of the Cynthian hill, next to a palm-tree by the streams of Inopus.

[19] How, then, will I sing of you, who is in all ways a worthy theme for a song? For everywhere, O Phoebus, songs fall to you, both over the mainland that rears heifers and over the isles. All mountain-peaks and high headlands of lofty hills and rivers flowing out to the deep sea and beaches sloping seawards and havens of the sea are your delight. Should I sing how in the beginning Leto gave birth to you as a joy for men, as she rested against Mount Cynthus in that rocky isle, in sea-bordered Delos – while on either side dark waves rolled landwards driven by shrill winds – from where you rose to rule over all mortal men?

[30] Among those who are in Crete, and in the township of Athens, and in the isle of Aegina and Euboea, famous for ships, in Aegae and Eiresiae and Peparethus near the sea, in Thracian Athos and Pelion‘s towering heights and Thracian Samos and the shady hills of Ida, in Scyros and Phocaea and the high hill of Autocane and fair-lying Imbros and smouldering Lemnos and rich Lesbos, home of Macar, the son of Aeolus, and Chios, brightest of all the isles that lie in the sea, and craggy Mimas and the heights of Corycus and gleaming Claros and the sheer hill of Aesagea and watered Samos and the steep heights of Mycale, in Miletus and Cos, the city of Meropian men, and steep Cnidos and windy Carpathos, in Naxos and Paros and rocky Rhenaea – so far Leto roamed  in painful labour with the the Far-shooter [Apollo], to see if any land would be willing to be a home for her son. But they  trembled greatly and were afraid, and none, not even the richest of them, dared receive Phoebus, until queenly Leto set foot on Delos and uttered winged words and asked her:

[51] “Delos, if only you would be willing to be the home of my son Phoebus Apollo and make him a rich temple. For no one else will ever will touch you, nor honour you: and I do not think you will ever be rich in cattle or sheep, nor will you bear a harvest nor produce plants abundantly. But if you have the temple of far-shooting Apollo, all men will bring you hecatombs and gather here, and you will have the unceasing savour of rich sacrifices, and you will feed your inhabitants from the hands of strangers; for your own soil is not rich.”

[62] So spoke Leto. And Delos rejoiced and answered, saying, “Leto, most glorious daughter of great Coeus, I would joyfully receive your child, the far-shooting lord; for it is true that I am ill-spoken of among men, and in this way I would become very greatly honoured. But, that said, I am afraid, and I will not hide it from you, Leto. They say that Apollo will be very haughty and will greatly lord it among gods and men all over the fruitful earth. Therefore, I am very afraid in heart and spirit that as soon as he sees the light of the sun, he will scorn this island – because I truly have hard, rocky soil – and overturn me and thrust me down with his feet in the depths of the sea; then the great ocean will wash deep over my head forever, and he will go to another land that pleases him, and there make his temple and wooded groves. Then, many-footed creatures of the sea will make their lairs in me and the black seals will make their undisturbed homes, because I lack people. But if you will swear a great oath, goddess, that he will build a glorious temple here first, as an oracle for men, then let him afterwards make temples and wooded groves all over the world; for he will surely be greatly renowned.”

[83] So said Delos. And Leto swore the great oath of the gods, “Now hear this, Earth and wide Heaven above, and dropping water of Styx (this is the strongest and most mighty oath for the blessed gods), I swear that Phoebus will have his fragrant altar and precinct here, and he shall honour you above all.”

[89] Now when Leto had sworn this oath, Delos was very glad at the birth of the far-shooting lord. But Leto was racked nine days and nine nights with unusual contractions. And all the most important goddesses were there with her, Dione and Rhea and Ichnaean Themis and loud-moaning Amphitrite and the other deathless goddesses, except white-armed Hera, who sat in the halls of cloud-gathering Zeus. Only Eilithyia, goddess of childbirth, had not heard about Leto‘s trouble, for she sat on the top of Olympus beneath golden clouds due to the contriving of white-armed Hera, who kept her close because of envy, because Leto with the lovely tresses was about to bear a faultless and strong son.

[102] But the goddesses sent Iris out from the well-set island to bring Eilithyia, promising her a great necklace strung with golden threads, nine cubits [about 4 meters] long. And they asked Iris to call her aside from white-armed Hera, in case she might dissuade her from coming with her words. When swift Iris, fast as the wind on foot, had heard all this, she ran; and quickly covering the whole distance she came to the home of the gods, steep Olympus, and immediately called Eilithyia out to the door from the hall and spoke winged words to her, telling her everything, as the goddesses who dwell on Olympus had asked her to. So she moved the heart of Eilithyia in her dear breast; and they went their way, like shy wild doves in their going.

[115] And as soon as Eilithyia the goddess of childbirth set foot on Delos, the pains of birth seized Leto, and she longed to push; so she threw her arms around a palm tree and kneeled on the soft meadow while the earth laughed for joy beneath her. Then the child leaped forth to the light, and all the goddesses washed you purely and cleanly with sweet water, and swathed you in a white garment of fine texture, new-woven, and fastened a golden band around you.

[123]Leto did not breastfeed Apollo, bearer of the golden blade;Themis served him nectar and ambrosia with her divine hands: and Leto was glad because she had borne a strong son and an archer. But as soon as you had tasted that divine heavenly food, O Phoebus, you could no longer then be held by golden cords nor confined with bands, but all the ties came undone. Then Phoebus Apollo spoke out among the deathless goddesses, “The lyre and the curved bow shall always be dear to me, and I will speak to men the infallible will of Zeus.”

[133] So said Phoebus, the long-haired god, Far-shooter, and he began to walk upon the wide-pathed earth; and all the goddesses were amazed at him. Then all Delos was covered with golden fauna as it saw the child of Zeus and Leto, in joy because the god had chosen her for his dwelling out of all the islands and the mainlaind: and she loved him yet more in her heart, and blossomed as does a mountain-top with woodland flowers.

[140] And you, lord Apollo, god of the silver bow, Far-shooter, sometimes walked on craggy Cynthus, and sometimes wandered around the islands and world of men. You have many temples and wooded groves , and all the peaks and towering bluffs of lofty mountains and rivers flowing to the sea are special to you, Phoebus, but Delos most delights you; the long robed Ionians gather with their children and wives there, in your honour: when they come together, thinking of you, they delight you with boxing and dancing and singing. A man might think that they immortal, if he were to see the Ionians when they are gathered together in this way. He would see their grace be pleased, gazing at the men and well-girded women with their swift ships and great wealth. And besides, there is this marvelous thing, whose fame will never die: the girls of Delos, hand-maidens of the Far-shooter; after they have praised Apollo, and also Leto and Artemis who delights in arrows, they sing a song about men and women of the past, and charm the tribes of men. They can imitate the tongues of all men and their clattering speech: each man would swear that he himself were singing, so accurate is their sweet song.

[165] And now may Apollo be favourable and also Artemis; and farewell all you maidens. Remember me later, whenever anyone on earth, a stranger who has seen and suffered much, comes here and asks you, “Who do you think, girls, is the sweetest singer, and who most delights you?” Then answer, all of you, in one voice, “He is a blind man, and dwells on rocky Chios: his poems are the great for all time.” As for me, I will carry your fame as far as I wander over the earth, to the well-placed cities of man, and they will also believe; for indeed this thing is true. And I will never cease to praise far-shooting Apollo, god of the silver bow, whom rich-haired Leto bore.

[179 TO PYTHIAN APOLLO] O Lord, Lycia is yours and lovely Maeonia and Miletus, charming city by the sea, but you reign especially over wave-bordered Delos.

[182] Leto‘s all-glorious son goes to rocky Pytho, playing his hollow lyre, dressed in divine, perfumed garments; at the touch of the golden key his lyre sings sweetly. From there, quick as a thought, he speeds from earth to Olympus, to the house of Zeus, to join the gathering of the other gods: then immediately the undying gods think only of the lyre and song, and all the Muses together, voice sweetly answering voice, sing about the unending gifts the gods enjoy and the sufferings of men, all that they endure at the hands of the deathless gods, and how they live senseless and helpless and cannot find a remedy for death or defence against old age. Meanwhile the rich-haired Graces and cheerful Seasons dance with Harmonia and Hebe and Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, holding each other by the wrists. And among them there is one who sings, who is not small or weak, but tall and enviable in appearance: Artemis who delights in arrows, sister of Apollo. Among them, Ares and the sharp-eyed Slayer of Argus , while Apollo strums his lyre, leaping gracefully and a radiance shines around him, the gleaming of his feet and close-woven vest. And even gold-tressed Leto and wise Zeus rejoice as they watch their dear son playing among the undying gods.

[207] How then will I sing of you – though you are in every way a worthy subject for song? Should I sing of you as a suitor, in the fields of love, how you pursued the daughter of Azan along with god-like Ischys the son of well-horsed Elatius, or with Phorbas sprung from Triops, or with Ereutheus, or with Leucippus and the wife of Leucippus ((lacuna))[1] . . . you on foot, he with his chariot, measuring up to Triops. Or should I sing how at first you went around the earth, looking for a place to make an oracle for men, O far-shooting Apollo? You first went down from Olympus to Pieria, and passed by sandy Lectus and Enienae and through the land of the Perrhaebi. Soon you came to Iolcus and set foot on Cenaeum in Euboea, famed for ships: you stood on the Lelantine plain, but you did not want to make a temple and wooded groves there. From there you crossed the Euripus, far-shooting Apollo, and went up the green, holy hills, going on to Mycalessus and grassy-bedded Teumessus, and came to the wood-covered home of Thebe; nobody lived in holy Thebe yet, nor were there tracks or roads around Thebe’s wheat-bearing plain as yet.

[229] And you went further, far-shooting Apollo, and you came to Onchestus, Poseidon‘s bright grove. There the newly-broken colt, tired from drawing the sleek chariot, perks up, and the skilled driver jumps from his car and goes on his way. Then the horses draw the empty, rattling chariot for a while, free of guidance. If they crash the chariot in the woody grove, men look after the horses, but turn the chariot over and leave it there; for this was the ritual from the beginning. The drivers pray to the lord of the shrine, but the chariot becomes the god’s.

[239] You went even further, far-shooting Apollo, and reached the stream of Cephissus, which pours out sweet- flowing water from Lilaea, and crossing over it, One Who Works from Afar, you passed many-towered Ocalea and reached grassy Haliartus.[244] Then you went towards Telphusa. The place seemed like a good spot for building a temple and wooded grove. You came very close and spoke to her, “Telphusa, I am thinking that I will make a glorious temple here, an oracle for men. They will bring  perfect hecatombs here, both those who live in rich Peloponnesus and those in Europe and all the wave-washed islands, coming to seek oracles. I will give them infallible prophecies, delivering answers in my rich temple.”

[254] So said Phoebus Apollo, and laid out the wide, and very long foundations. But when Telphusa saw this, she was angry and said, “Lord Phoebus, worker from afar, I will give you a piece of advice, since you want to set up a glorious temple here as an oracle for men who will always bring perfect hecatombs for you; yet I will speak out, and you should consider my words carefully. The trampling of swift horses and the sound of mules watering at my sacred springs will always bother you, and men will prefer to gaze at the well-made chariots and stamping, swift-footed horses than at your great temple and the many treasures in it. But if I can persuade you – for you, lord, are stronger and mightier than I, and your strength is very great –build at Crisa below the glades of Parnassus: there, bright chariots will not clash, and there will be no noise from swift-footed horses near your well-built altar. But  the glorious tribes of men will bring gifts to you as they sing you hymns (calling to you, ‘Greetings, Healer!’), and with delight you will receive rich sacrifices from the people dwelling all around.” So said Telphusa, so that she alone, and not the Far-Shooter, would be famous there; and she persuaded the Far-Shooter.

[277] Further still you went, far-shooting Apollo, until you came to the town of the presumptuous Phlegyae who live in a lovely glade near the Cephisian lake, not caring for Zeus. And from there you went speeding swiftly to the mountain ridge, and came to Crisa, beneath snowy Parnassus, a foothill that faces the west. A cliff hangs over if from above, and a hollow, rugged glade runs under. There the lord Phoebus Apollo resolved to make his lovely temple, and so he said, “In this place I wish to build a glorious temple to be an oracle for men, and here they will always bring perfect hecatombs, both they who dwell in rich Peloponnesus and the men of Europe and from all the wave-washed isles, coming to seek oracles. I will give them infallible prophecies, delivering answers in my rich temple.”

[294] When he had said this, Phoebus Apollo laid out all the foundations, wide and very long. The sons of Erginus, Trophonius and Agamedes, men dear to the deathless gods, laid a stone threshold on it. And the countless tribes of men built the whole temple out of cut stones, to be sung of forever.

[300] Nearby there was a sweet flowing spring, and at the spring, with his strong bow, the lord, the son of Zeus, killed a large, well-fed dragon, a fierce monster, who often did great evil to men on the earth, both to men themselves and to their long-legged sheep; she was a blood-stinking calamity. She was the one who once received evil, cruel Typhon from gold-throned Hera and brought him up  to be a plague to men. At one time Hera gave birth to him because she was angry with father Zeus, when the Son of Cronus bore all-glorious Athena in his head. For that reason queenly Hera was angry and spoke to the assembled gods:

[311] “Listen to me, all gods and goddesses, as I tell you how cloud-gathering Zeus wantonly dishonours me, after making me his dear wife. See how, without me he has given birth to bright-eyed Athena who is outstanding among the blessed gods. But my son Hephaestus, whom I myself bore, was weak among all the blessed gods and had a shriveled foot. I took him in my hands and I threw him into the great sea. But silver-footed Thetis the daughter of Nereus accepted and cared for him along with her sisters. I wish that she would have done another service for the blessed gods! You wicked and crafty one! What else will you plot? How did you dare to give birth to bright-eyed Athena? Wouldn’t I have given you a child – I, who was your wife, at least in name, among the undying gods who hold wide heaven. Beware now, or I may devise something evil for you. Yes, now I will contrive to bear a son, who will be foremost among the undying gods. I will do it without tarnishing our marriage bed. Indeed, I will not come to your bed, but will associate with the blessed gods far away from you.”

[331] When she had said this, she went away from the gods, being very angry. Then immediately large-eyed queenly Hera prayed, striking the ground with the palm of her hand, and saying, “Listen, I beg you Earth and wide Heaven above, and you Titan gods who dwell beneath the earth around great Tartarus, and from whom gods and men sprang! Listen to me now, one and all, and grant that I may bear a child apart from Zeus, not lesser than him in strength – no, let him be as much stronger than Zeus, an all-seeing Zeus is than Cronus.”

[340] So she cried and lashed the earth with her strong hand. Then the life-giving earth was moved: and when Hera saw it she was glad in heart, for she thought her prayer would be fulfilled. After that she did not go to the bed of wise Zeus for a full year, and she did not sit in her carved chair making wise plans for him, as she used to, but stayed in her temples,  where many people pray, and delighted in her offerings, large-eyed queenly Hera. But when the months and days were fulfilled and the seasons changed as the earth moved round, she bore a child that was not like the gods nor like mortal men:  cruel Typhon, a troublesome plague to men. Promptly large-eyed queenly Hera took him and, joining one evil thing to another,  she gave him to the dragoness; and the dragoness received him in turn. And Typhon used to do great evil to the renowned tribes of men. Whoever met the dragoness would meet his doom until the lord Apollo, who deals death from afar, shot a strong arrow at her. Then she, split with bitter pangs, lay drawing great gasps of breath and rolling around that place. An awful, unspeakable noise swelled up as she writhed continually this way and that amid the woods, and so she left her life, breathing it forth in blood.

[362] Then Phoebus Apollo boasted over her, “Now rot here upon the soil that feeds men! You will no longer live as an evil bane to men who eat the fruit of the all-nourishing earth, and who will bring perfect hecatombs here. Neither [ Typhon ]nor ill-famed Chimera will defend you against cruel death, but here the Earth and shining Hyperion will make you rot.”

[370] So said Phoebus, rejoicing over her: and darkness covered her eyes. And the holy strength of Helius made her rot away; therefore the place is now called Pytho, and men call the lord Apollo by another name, Pythian, because on that spot the power of piercing Helius made the monster rot away.

[375] Then Phoebus Apollo saw that the sweet-flowing spring had tricked him, and he rushed against Telphusa in anger. And soon coming to her, he stood close by and spoke to her, “Telphusa, were you trying to keep this lovely place for yourself and pour forth your clear flowing water by deceiving my mind? Here I will also be famous, not only you.”

[382] So spoke the lord, far-working Apollo, and pushed a crag down onto her with a shower of rocks, hiding her streams, and he made himself an altar in a wooded grove very near the clear-flowing stream. In that place all men pray to the great one by the name Telphusian, because he humbled the stream of holy Telphusa.

[388] Then Phoebus Apollo pondered what men he should bring in to be his agents of sacrifice and to serve him in rocky Pytho. And while he considered this, he became aware of a swift ship upon the wine-dark sea, in which there were many good men, Cretans from Cnossos, the city of Minos. They were men who make sacrifices to the lord and announce his decrees, whatever Phoebus Apollo of the golden sword speaks in prophesy from his laurel tree below the dells of Parnassus. These men were sailing in their black ship to sandy Pylos and to the men of Pylos for the purposes of business and for profit . But Phoebus Apollo met them. He sprang upon their swift ship in the open sea, in the form of a dolphin, and lay there, a great and awesome monster. None of them tried to understand, instead they sought to cast the dolphin overboard. But he kept shaking the black ship every way and made the timbers quiver. So they sat silent in their ship in fear, and did not loosen the ropes throughout the black, hollow ship, nor lower the sail of their dark-prowed vessel, but they kept it as they had first set it with the oxhide ropes and continued sailing.  For a rushing south wind pressed the swift ship from behind. First they passed by Malea, and then along the Laconian coast they came to Taenarum, sea-surrounded town and country of Helius who makes men happy, where the thick-fleeced sheep of the lord Helius feed continually and occupy a joyful country. There they wished to put their ship to shore and look at the great marvel and see with their eyes whether the monster would remain on the deck of their hollow ship, or spring back into the briny deep where fishes form shoals. But the well-built ship would not obey the helm. It went on its way all along Peloponnesus. And the lord, far-working Apollo, guided it easily with the breath of the breeze. So the ship ran on its course and came to Arena and lovely Argyphea and Thryon, the ford of Alpheus, and well-placed Aepy and sandy Pylos and the men of Pylos; it went past Cruni and Chalcis and past Dyme and fair Elis, where the Epei rule. And at the time when the ship was making for Pherae, delighting in the breeze from Zeus, the steep mountain of Ithaca appeared to them below the clouds and Dulichium and Same and wooded Zacynthus. But when they had passed by the whole Peloponnesian coast, then, towards Crisa, that vast gulf, which in its length cuts off the rich isle of Pelops, began to heave in sight. A strong, clear west-wind came on them there by command of Zeus and blew vehemently from heaven, so that with all speed the ship would finish coursing over the briny water of the sea. So they began again to voyage back towards the dawn and the sun, and the lord Apollo, son of Zeus, led them on until they reached far-seen Crisa, land of vines, and into shelter. There the sea-coursing ship ran aground on the sands.

[440] Then, like a star at midday, the lord, far-working Apollo, leaped from the ship. Flashes of fire flew thickly from him and their brightness reached to heaven. He entered into his shrine between priceless tripods, and there caused a flame to flare up brightly, showing off the splendour of his shafts, so that their radiance filled all Crisa, and the wives and well-girded daughters of the Crisaeans raised a cry at that outburst of Phoebus, for he cast great fear upon them all. From his shrine he sprang forth again, swift as a thought, to speed again to the ship, in the form of a man, brisk and sturdy, in the prime of his youth, his broad shoulders covered with his hair. And he spoke to the Cretans, uttering winged words:

[452] “Strangers, who are you? From where have you come, sailing along the paths of the sea? Are you here for trade, or do you wander at random over the sea as pirates do who put their own lives at risk and bring mischief to foreign men as they roam? Why do you rest, afraid, and not go ashore nor stow the gear from your black ship? For that is the custom of men who live by bread, whenever they come from the sea to land in their dark ships, spent with toil. Right away,  a desire for sweet food seizes them.”

[462] So speaking, he put courage in their hearts, and the master of the Cretans answered him and said, “Stranger– though you look nothing like a mortal man, but are similar to the deathless gods– greetings and all happiness to you, and may the gods be good to you. Now tell me truly, what country is this, and what land, and what men live here? As for us, aiming elsewhere, we were sailing over the great sea to Pylos from Crete (for that is where we are from), but have now arrived here unwillingly on our ship and we would gladly return home. But one of the deathless gods brought us here against our will.”

[474] Then far-working Apollo answered and said, “Strangers who once lived around wooded Cnossos but who now will never return to their beloved cities and fair houses and dear wives, here you will tend to my rich temple that is honoured by many men. I am the son of Zeus. Apollo is my name: I brought you here over the wide gulf of the sea, meaning you no harm. Here you will keep my rich temple that is greatly honoured among men, and you will know the plans of the deathless gods, and by their will you will be honoured continually for all time. And now come, make haste and do as I say. First loose the sheets and lower the sail, and then draw the swift ship up upon the land. Take out your goods and the gear of the straight ship, and make an altar upon the beach. Light a fire upon it and make an offering of white meal. Next, stand side by side around the altar and pray. And since, out on the hazy sea I first sprang upon the swift ship in the form of a dolphin, pray to me as Apollo Delphinius. The altar itself will also be called Delphinius and will be overlooking forever. Afterwards, dine beside your dark ship and pour an offering to the blessed gods who live on Olympus. But when you have put away your craving for sweet food, come with me, singing the hymn Ie Paean (Greetings, Healer!), until you come to the place where you will keep my rich temple.”

[502] So said Apollo. And they readily listened to him and obeyed him. First they unfastened the sheets and let down the sail and lowered the mast by the forestays upon the mast-rest. Then, landing upon the beach, they hauled up the ship from the water to dry land and fixed long stays under it. They made an altar upon the beach, and when they had lit a fire, made an offering of white meal, and prayed standing around the altar as Apollo had instructed them. Then they took their meal by the swift, black ship, and poured an offering to the blessed gods who dwell on Olympus. And when they had put away their craving for drink and food, they started out with the lord Apollo, the son of Zeus, leading them, holding a lyre in his hands, and playing sweetly as he stepped high and gracefully. So the Cretans followed him to Pytho, marching in time as they chanted the Ie Paean in the manner of the Cretan paean–singers and those in whose hearts the heavenly Muse has put sweet-voiced song. With tireless feet they approached the ridge and straightway came to Parnassus and the lovely place where they were to live honoured by many men. Apollo brought them there and showed them his most holy sanctuary and rich temple.

[524] But their spirits were stirred in their breasts, and the master of the Cretans asked him, saying, “Lord, since you have brought us here, far from our dear ones and our fatherland, – for so it seemed good to you, – tell us now how we will live. We want to know. This land is not good for vineyards or for pastures, which would allow us to live well here and also minister to men.”

[531] Then Apollo, the son of Zeus, smiled upon them and said, “Foolish mortals and poor labourers you are, that you seek worries and hard toils and problems! Take this to heart: if each one of you, with knife in hand, were to slaughter sheep continually, you would always have more, all the sheep that the glorious tribes of men will bring here for me. But guard my temple and receive the tribes of men that gather to this place, and especially show mortal men my will, and keep righteousness in your heart. But if any of you are disobedient and ignore my warning, of if there is any idle word or deed and outrage as is common among mortal men, then other men will be your masters and will make you their subjects forever. I have told you everyhing. Keep it in your heart.”

[545] And so, farewell, son of Zeus and Leto. I will remember you and also another hymn.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/HomericHymns1.html

God of Music

“Homeric Hymn 21 To Apollo” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek hymn, 7th-4th century BCE

[1] Phoebus, of you even the swan sings with clear voice to the beating of his wings, as he lands upon the bank by the swirling river Peneus; and the sweet-tongued bard, holding his high-pitched lyre, always sings of you both first and last. And so hail to you, lord! I seek your favour with my song.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/HomericHymns3.html#21

Challenging the God

Like the other Olympian gods, Apollo punished mortals and demigods who challenged him– particularly in the realms of music and archery.


Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, Book 1 (trans. J. G. Frazer, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek mythography, 2nd century CE

[content warning for the following source: suicide (1.4.1), sexual assault (1.4.1), graphic description of death and hanging (1.4.2)]
This section of Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, starts, like the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, with the god’s birth. It describes his musical contest with the satyr Marsyas, including the penalty that the satyr had to pay for challenging the god to a musical contest.


[1.4.1] One of the daughters of Coeus, Asteria flung herself into the sea in the form of a quail in order to escape the amorous advances of Zeus, and a city was formerly called after her Asteria, but afterwards it was named Delos. But because of her affair with Zeus, Leto was hunted by Hera over the whole earth, until she came to Delos and gave birth first to Artemis, by the help of whose midwifery she afterwards gave birth to Apollo.

Now Artemis devoted herself to the chase and remained a virgin; but Apollo learned the art of prophecy from Pan, the son of Zeus and Hybris, and came to Delphi, where Themis at that time used to deliver oracles; and when the snake Python, which guarded the oracle, tried to prevent him from approaching the chasm, he killed it and took over the oracle. Not long afterwards he also killed Tityus, who was a son of Zeus and Elare, daughter of Orchomenus; for, after he had seduced her, Zeus hid her under the earth for fear of Hera, and brought forth to the light the son Tityus, of monstrous size, whom she had borne in her womb. When [ Leto ] came to Pytho, Tityus saw her, and overpowered by lust, he drew her to him. But she called her children to her aid, and they shot him down with their arrows. And he is punished even after death; for vultures eat his heart in Hades.

[1.4.2] Apollo also slew Marsyas, the son of Olympus. For Marsyas, having found the pipes which Athena had thrown away because they disfigured her face, engaged in a musical contest with Apollo. They agreed that the victor should have his way with vanquished, and when the trial took place Apollo turned his lyre upside down in the competition and asked Marsyas to do the same. But Marsyas could not, so Apollo was judged the victor and killed Marsyas by hanging him on a tall pine tree and stripping off his skin.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/Apollodorus1.html#4

God of Plagues

Despite being the god of medicine and healing,  Apollo was also associated with illness and plagues. He could inflict deadly sickness on a population by shooting his silver arrows. This aspect of his timé  is important at the start of the Iliad, where, because the Greek hero Agamemnon insults one of his priests, he sends a plague down on the Achaean camp during the Trojan War.


Homer, Iliad, Book 1 (trans. A.S. Kline, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek epic poem, 8th century BCE

[content warning for the following source: slavery, implied sexual violence]
This passage from Homer’s Iliad comes at the start of the epic poem. The Greeks (called Achaeans in the poem) have been besieging Troy for ten years. Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaeans dishonoured a priest of Apollo, Chryses, by enslaving his daughter, Chryseis. In retaliation for this mistreatment of his priest, Apollo sends a plague to the Achaean camps, which first infects the animals, and then the men. As the passage opens, the Achaeans are trying to decide how to rid themselves of the plague.


[22-52] Then the rest of the Achaeans shouted in agreement that the priest [ Chryses ]should be respected, and the fine ransom taken; but this troubled the heart of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, and he dismissed the priest harshly, and dealt with him sternly, “Old man, don’t let me catch you loitering by the hollow ships today, and don’t be back later, in case your staff and the god’s ribbons fail to protect you. Her [ Chryseis ], I will not free; old age will claim her first, far from her own country, in Argos, my home, where she can tend the loom, and share my bed. Away now! Don’t provoke me, if you want to leave safely.”

So he spoke, and the old man, seized by fear, obeyed. Silently, he walked the shore of the echoing sea, and when he was quite alone, the old man prayed deeply to Lord Apollo, the son of bright-haired Leto, “Hear me, Silver Bow, protector of Chryse and holy Cilla, high lord of Tenedos. If I ever built a shrine that pleased you, if ever I burned the fat thighs of a bull or goat for you, grant my wish. Smintheus, make the Greeks pay for my tears with your arrows.”

So he prayed, and Phoebus Apollo heard him. He came down in fury from the heights of Olympus, with his bow and inlaid quiver at his back. The arrows rattled at his shoulder as the god descended like the night, in anger. He landed by the ships and fired a shaft with a fearful twang of his silver bow. First, he attacked the mules and the swift hounds, then loosed his vicious darts at the men; so the dense pyres for the dead burned endlessly.


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Greek/Iliad1.php#anchor_Toc328052744


Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 1 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE

[content warning for the following source: sexual assault]
Like most of the gods, Apollo had many relationships with people both mortal and divine (some consensual, and other not). One such nonconsensual relationship involved the nymph Daphne, one of the daughters of the river god Peneus and the nymph Creusa in Aeolia (modern-dayThessaly). In the following passage from the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Apollo and Daphne. Cupid, in anger, causes Apollo to be attracted to the nymph Daphne. Apollo pursues Daphne, but, as he is about to catch her, she calls out to her father for salvation, and her father transforms her into a laurel tree. Ovid also uses this as an etiological myth for the laurel tree–  a symbol of Apollo and of victory.


[438-472] Indeed, though she [ Gaia ] would not have desired to, she then gave birth to you, great Python, covering a great area of the mountain slopes, a snake not known before, a terror to the new race of men. The archer god, with lethal shafts that he had only used before on fleeing red deer and roe, with a thousand arrows, almost emptying his quiver, destroyed the creature, the venom running out from its black wounds. Then he founded the sacred Pythian games,[2] celebrated by contests, named from the serpent he had conquered. There the young winners in boxing, in foot, and  in chariot racing were honoured with oak wreaths. There was no laurel yet, so Phoebus crowned his own temples, his handsome curling hair, with leaves of any tree.

Phoebus’ first love was Daphne, daughter of Peneus, and not by chance but because of Cupid’s fierce anger. Recently, the Delian god, celebrating his victory over the serpent, had seen him bending his tightly strung bow and said, “Impudent boy, what are you doing with a man’s weapons? That one is suited to my shoulders, since I can hit wild beasts without fail, and wound my enemies, and not long ago, with countless arrows, destroyed the swollen Python that covered many acres with its plague-ridden belly. You should be intent on stirring the concealed fires of love with your burning brand, not laying claim to my glories!” Venus’ son replied, “You may hit every other thing, Phoebus, but my bow will strike you. To the degree that all living creatures are less than gods, by that degree is your glory less than mine.” He spoke, and striking the air fiercely with beating wings, he landed on the shady peak of Parnassus, and took two arrows with opposite effects from his full quiver: one kindles love, the other dispels it. The one that kindles is golden with a sharp glistening point, the one that dispels is blunt with lead beneath its shaft. With the second he transfixed Peneus’ daughter [ Daphne ], but with the first he wounded Apollo piercing him to the marrow of his bones.

[473-503] Now the one loved, and the other fled from love’s name, taking delight in the depths of the woods and the skins of the wild beasts she caught, emulating virgin Phoebe [ Diana ], a careless ribbon holding back her hair. Many courted her, but she, opposed to being wooed, free from men and unable to endure them, roamed the pathless woods, careless of Hymen or Amor, or whatever marriage might be. Her father often said, “Girl you owe me a son-in-law,” and again often, “Daughter, you owe me grandsons.” But, hating the wedding torch as if it smacked of crime, she would blush red with shame all over her beautiful face, and clinging to her father’s neck with coaxing arms, she would say, “Dearest father, let me be a virgin for ever! Diana’s father granted it to her.” He yields to that plea, but your beauty itself, Daphne, prevents your wish, and your loveliness opposes your prayer.

Phoebus loves her at first sight and wishes to marry her, and hopes for what he desires, but his own oracular powers fail him. Just like the light stubble of an empty cornfield blazes, or like sparks light up a hedge when a traveller, by bad luck, lets them get too close, or forgets them in the morning, so the god was altered by the flames, and all his heart burned, feeding his useless desire with hope. He sees her disordered hair hanging about her neck and sighs, “What if it were properly dressed?” He gazes at her eyes sparkling with the brightness of starlight. He gazes on her lips, where mere gazing does not satisfy. He praises her wrists and hands and fingers, and her arms bare to the shoulder. Whatever is hidden, he imagines is more beautiful. But she flees swifter than the lightest breath of air and resists his words calling her back again.

[504-524] “Wait, nymph, daughter of Peneus, I beg you! I who am chasing you am not your enemy. Nymph, wait! This is the way a sheep runs from the wolf, a deer from the mountain lion, and a dove with fluttering wings flies from the eagle. Everything flies from its foes, but it is love that is driving me to follow you! Pity me! I am afraid you might fall headlong or thorns might undeservedly scar your legs and I may be a cause of grief to you! These are rough places you run through. Slow down, I ask you, check your flight, and I too will slow. At least ask whom it is you have charmed. I am no mountain man, no shepherd, no rough guardian of the herds and flocks. Rash girl, you do not know, you cannot realise, who you run from, and so you run. Delphi’s lands are mine, Claros and Tenedos, and Patara acknowledge me as king. Jupiter is my father. Through me what was, what is, and what will be, are revealed. Through me, strings sound in harmony and song. My aim is certain, but an arrow truer than mine has wounded my free heart! The whole world calls me the bringer of aid! Medicine is my invention. My power is in herbs. But love cannot be healed by any herb, nor can the arts that cure others cure their lord!”

[525-552] He would have said more as timid Peneis [ daughter of Peneus ] ran, still lovely to see, leaving him with his words unfinished. The winds bared her body, the opposing breezes in her way fluttered her clothes, and the light airs threw her streaming hair behind her, her beauty enhanced by flight. But the young god could no longer waste time on further flattery, urged on by Amor, he ran at full speed. Like a hound of Gaul startling a hare in an empty field, that heads for its prey, she headed for safety. He, seeming about to clutch her, thinks now, or now, he has her caught, grazing her heels with his outstretched jaws, while she, uncertain whether she is already caught, escaping his bite, runs from the muzzle touching her. So the virgin and the god, he driven by desire, she by fear. He ran faster, Amor giving him wings, and allowed her no rest, hung on her fleeing shoulders, breathed on the hair flying round her neck. Her strength was gone, she grew pale, overcome by the effort of her rapid flight, and seeing Peneus’ waters near cried out, “Help me father! If your streams have divine powers change me, destroy this beauty that pleases too well!” Her prayer was scarcely done when a heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breast, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy. Only her shining beauty was left.

[553-567] Even like this Phoebus loved her and, placing his hand against the trunk, he felt her heart still quivering under the new bark. He clasped the branches as if they were parts of human arms, and kissed the wood. But even the wood shrank from his kisses, and the god said, “Since you cannot be my bride, you must be my tree! Laurel, with you my hair will be wreathed, with you my lyre, with you my quiver. You will go with the Roman generals when joyful voices acclaim their triumph, and the Capitol witnesses their long processions. You will stand outside Augustus’ doorposts, a faithful guardian, and keep watch over the crown of oak between them. And just as my head with its un-cropped hair is always young, so you also will wear the beauty of undying leaves.” Paean had done: the laurel bowed her newly made branches and seemed to shake her leafy crown like a head giving consent.


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph.php#anchor_Toc64105469

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved

Art and Symbolism


Left to right: Poseidon, Apollo, and Aphrodite seated in procession. Apollo is a beardless youth draped in a himation.
Poseidon, Apollo, and Aphrodite, Parthenon Frieze, ca. 437 BCE (Acropolis Museum, Athens)

In Greek art, Apollo was always represented as a young, athletic man. He did not have a beard, and his hair could be either long or short. He would also often be seen wearing a laurel crown, since he is associated with laurel, myrtle, and bay trees, or a narrow strip of fabric on his head.


Apollo, a long-haired youth, holding a kithara and a quiver of arrows. He is nude, except for some cloth draped around his legs.
Apollo, 2nd century CE marble replica of Hellenistic statue (British Museum, London)
The head and torso of Apollo, a young man. He is nude except for drapings over one shoulder, and his hair is short and curly. Beside him on a stand are arm and head fragments of a statue of Peirithos, a bearded man.
Apollo, with a fragment of Peirithos, Olympia statue, ca. 5th century BCE (Archaeological Museum, Olympia)












Apart from the laurel branch, his most recognizable attributes are the tripod, the kithara (a seven-stringed musical instrument), and the bow and arrows.


Apollo sits on a winged tripod. He is holding a lyre, and has a bow and quiver strung over his back. Below him, dolphins leap from the sea.
Apollo flying over the sea on a winged tripod, tracing from a red-figure hydria from the 5th century BCE (accessed via Theoi.com/the Gregorian Etruscan Museum)

Apollo’s sacred animals were swans, crows, ravens, dolphins, and the mythical griffins, said to live in the extreme northern regions of the Hyperboreans where Apollo resided for three months a year during the winter. Wolves were also sacred to him, but they were seldom represented in art.


On the right Apollo, wearing laurels, rides a winged griffin. In front of him stands Artemis, richly dressed, holding a phiale out to Apollo.
Apollo riding a griffin, with Artemis, red-figure oinochoe, ca. 420 BCE (British Museum, London)
Apollo, wearing a crown of laurels, rides a winged griffin.
Apollo riding a griffin, red-figure kylix (Getty Villa Collections, Los Angeles)


Apollo rides a flying swan. On either side of him are women, one dancing and one playing music under a tree. A satyr stands to the side holding a staff.
Apollo riding a swan, with women and a satyr, red-figure krater, ca. 400 BCE (British Museum, London)


The god was often represented in the company of his mother Leto and his twin sister Artemis; this family group is referred to as the ‘Delphic triad’ from the name of Apollo’s most important sanctuary, Delphi.


Apollo is seated in the centre on a tripod. To his left stands Artemis, holding a bow. To his right stands Leto with a hand on his shoulder.
Artemis (left), Apollo, and Leto (right), votive relief, 5th century BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)


To the left stands Leto holding a flower, dressed in chiton and himation. At her feet is a deer. In the centre stands Apollo, playing a cithara and similarly dressed. On the right stands Artemis with a panther at her feet. She is wearing animal skins and much jewelry.
Leto (left), Apollo, and Artemis (right), red-figure amphora, ca. 520 BCE (British Museum, London)

In his role as god of music, Apollo could also be portrayed along with the Muses, while playing the kithara. Some of the most common myths concerning the god represented in art were his fight against Heracles for the Delphic tripod, and the musical contest against the satyr Marsyas. The slaying of the giant snake Python, although not portrayed often, was sometimes alluded to through the inclusion of a snake in the iconography of the god.


Herakles, dressed in a lion skin and wielding a club, plays tug-of-war with Apollo over the tripod. Apollo is nude and youthful with long hair. Behind Heracles stands Athena, with helm, shield, and spear, and behind Apollo stands Artemis with a bow.
Heracles and Apollo fight over the Delphic tripod, with Athena (left) and Artemis (right), black-figure Amphora, ca. 520 BCE (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)


A bearded satyr stands nude leaning against a pillar, holding a large knife. In front of him stands Artemis, with Leto just visible behind her.
Leto (far left), Artemis and the satyr Marsyas, red-figure skyphos, ca. 420 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)


Apollo was also often depicted fighting alongside his sister Artemis. In scenes representing the Gigantomachy, they can usually be seen slaying enemies side by side. Other scenes included the massacre of the children of Niobe, and the killing of the giant Tityus.


Apollo and Artemis lunge forward, side by side, to grab a fleeing giant. A dead giant lies on the ground, and three more armoured giants with shields approach from the right.
Apollo and Artemis fighting in the Gigantomachy, Siphnian treasury frieze (Archaeological Museum, Delphi)

Apollo in Rome

Apollo reclines on a throne in front of a sky-blue background. He holds a lyre and wears a jeweled headdress. He is nude, with a pink cloth draped around his waist.
Apollo with a kithara, Roman fresco, ca. 1st century CE (Palatine Museum, Rome)

There seems to have been no Latin or Etruscan counterpart to Apollo. As a result, his Greek name, iconography, and myths were adopted as they were. The god continued to be represented as a muscular youth with flowing hair yielding either a bow or a kithara.


Apollo, youthful with curly hair, stands with one arm raised. He has just shot an arrow, but the bow itself has not been preserved. He is nude, but wears sandals, as well as a chlamys cloak draped over his shoulders.
Apollo Belvedere, Roman marble statue, ca. 120 CE (Vatican Museums, Vatican City)

Media Attributions and Footnotes

Media Attributions

  1. Indicates a gap or missing segment in the text
  2. See chapter 42.


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