THE BIRTH OF APOLLO
Zeus mated with LETO [lee'toh] (LATONA), who conceived the twin gods ARTEMIS [ar'te-mis] (DIANA) and APOLLO [a-pol'loh]. The lengthy Hymn to Apollo tells in its first part (“To Delian Apollo”) of Apollo’s birth; no mention is made of Artemis.
Leto roamed far and wide in her search for a refuge where she might give birth, but the many places she approached were afraid to receive her. Finally the island of Delos accepted her, but only after she assured the island (which is personified in the Hymn) with a great oath that a sacred precinct of Apollo would be built there and that it would become a place of prosperity, wealth, and prestige.
When Leto had endured nine days and nights of labor, Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, was summoned by Iris from Olympus to help in the delivery. Goddesses present at the birth attended to the newborn child, and as soon as Apollo had been nursed on nectar and ambrosia, he miraculously became a mighty god who declared that the curved bow and the lyre were his and that he would prophesy to mortals the unerring will of Zeus. Leto was delighted with her son, and all of Delos blossomed with joy.
In the conclusion of this part of the hymn, the poet (sometimes erroneously believed to be Homer) describes the great festival of Apollo at Delos with its famous chorus of maidens who can sing in all dialects and identifies himself as a blind man from Chios, “whose songs are the best forevermore.” Bards, who are archetypally blind, see the Muses’ truth.
THE SANCTUARY OF APOLLO AT DELPHI
The second part of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (“To Pythian Apollo”) tells how Apollo travelled in Greece until he found the proper place for the foundation of his oracle, Crisa, under Mt. PARNASSUS [par-nas'sus], or PARNASSOS, where he laid out his temple. Then he slew a dragon named PYTHO [peye'thoh], or PYTHON, and thus the site was called Pytho, Apollo was given the epithet PYTHIAN [pith'ee-an], and a prophetess of Apollo received the name of PYTHIA [pith'ee-a]. Originally at this site there had probably been an oracle of the great mother-goddess Gaia, and the slaying of the dragon may symbolize conquest by the Hellenes and their god Apollo, who thus becomes yet another to add to our list of dragon slayers.
The OMPHALOS [om'fa-los], “navel,” an archaic stone shaped like an egg with two birds perched on either side, was thought to designate the location of the sanctuary at the center of the world. According to legend, Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the earth and they met exactly at the spot of Apollo's sanctuary, which came to be known universally by the name of DELPHI [del'feye], or DELPHOI, for the following reason.
After Apollo had established his sanctuary, he needed to recruit attendants. He spotted a ship sailing from Crete and he sprang aboard in the form of a dolphin. The crew was awed into submission and followed a course that led the ship to Crisa. Here Apollo revealed himself as a god and initiated them to his service, with directions to pray to him as Apollo DELPHINIUS [del-fin'ee-us], or DELPHINOS, a word meaning “dolphin,” from which Crisa or Pytho received its new name of Delphi.
Apollo Belvedere. Roman marble copy of earlier Greek bronze.
THE PANHELLENIC SANCTUARY AT DELPHI
The Panhellenic sanctuary of Apollo is in many ways representative of Panhellenic sites elsewhere, for example, the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia (see MLS, Chapter 5). Yet the sacred area and the temple built on the lower slopes of Mt. Parnassus are particulary awe-inspiring, and the many dedications made to the god remind us of how Greek religion was responsible for the development of great and universal literature, poetry, drama, sculpture, and architecture. The Pythian games, celebrated every four years, included both physical and intellectual competitions and the worship of the god.
The Oracle and Pythia at Delphi. The Panhellenic sanctuary at Delphi was the most important oracle in the Greek world. People in general and representatives of states in particular came from all over the Greek world and beyond to ask Apollo questions of every sort. The Pythia, the prophetess of Apollo, uttered the responses of the god as she sat on a tripod. Her answers came in incoherent ravings, which were transcribed by a nearby priest into intelligible prose or verse. In Plato’s Apology we are told that Socrates learned from the Delphic oracle that he was the wisest of men, a response that this great philosopher took very seriously.
FOUR OF APOLLO’S LOVES
The Cumaean Sibyl. The general designation for a prophetess was SIBYL [sib'il], or SIBYLLA [si-bil'la]; a Sibyl at Delphi, however, was called specifically the Pythia, as we have noted.
The sibyls at Cumae in Italy were famous. Most famous among them was the CUMAEAN [kou-mee'an] Sibyl, who was Aeneas’ guide in the Underworld (see MLS, Chapter 15). We learn about this Sibyl from Ovid. Apollo offered her anything that she wished, if only she would yield to him. She picked up a heap of sand and asked for as many birthdays as the individual grains but forgot to ask for continuous youth along with the years. Nevertheless, Apollo would have given her long life and eternal youth, if she agreed to succumb to him. When she refused him, the god granted her original wish, and she withered away eventually to become only a voice. This story of the Cumaean Sibyl once again illustrates how our ignorant wishes may be granted to our woe (cf. Eos and Tithonus, MLS, Chapter 3).
Cassandra. CASSANDRA [kas-san'dra], daughter of the Trojan King Priam (see MLS, Chapter 19) agreed to give herself to Apollo, who rewarded her with the gift of prophecy. When Cassandra changed her mind and rejected his advances, Apollo asked for one kiss and spit in her mouth, thus ensuring not only that Cassandra would keep her gift, but also that her true prophecies would never be believed.
Marpessa. The daughter of Ares’ son Evenus, called MARPESSA [mar-pes'sa], was wooed by IDAS [eye'das], one of the Argonauts, who carried her off in his chariot to the anger and dismay of her father, who commited suicide. Apollo stole Marpessa away from Idas in a similar fashion and the two rivals met face to face. Zeus ordered that Marpessa chose between her lovers. She chose the mortal Idas because she feared the immortal Apollo would leave her when she grew old.
Cyrene. Most of Apollo’s love affairs end tragically. A notable exception is his success with CYRENE [seye-ree'nee], or KYRENE, an athletic nymph with whom he fell in love when he saw her wrestling with a lion. He whisked her away in his golden chariot to the city in Libya that would bear her name. They had a son Aristaeus, who became a keeper of bees (see MLS, Chapters 7 and 16).
APOLLO AND DAPHNE
The story of Apollo’s love for DAPHNE [daf'nee] (“laurel”), explaining why the laurel was sacred to him, is one of the most famous and inspiring of all myths because of Ovid’s version.
After Apollo had just slain the Python, he boasted to Cupid that the god of love with his bow and arrows could not compete with his glorious slaying of a dragon. Cupid got even for this slight by shooting at Daphne, the daughter of the river-god Peneus, a dull, leaden arrow that repels love and piercing Apollo’s heart with a bright, short one that arouses passion.
Daphne was extraordinarily beautiful but refused her many suitors. She vowed to remain a virgin devoted to Diana, the forests, and the hunt; both her father and Jupiter respected her wishes. As soon as Apollo saw her he was inflamed by passion and he desired to marry her, but because of Cupid his hopes were doomed. Daphne fled in fear as Apollo made his appeals and pursued her. Exhausted, she reached the waters of Peneus, and her prayer that the power of the river would destroy her too-enticing beauty was granted. She was transformed into a lovely laurel tree, and the heartbroken Apollo, as he embraced its trunk and branches, promised that since she could not be his wife, she would be his tree, and from it would come the laurel wreath, a symbol of love, honor, and glory forever.
APOLLO AND HYACINTHUS
Apollo, as the archetypal Greek god, was also susceptible to the love of young men. He was devoted to CYPARISSUS [si-pa-ris'sus], or KYPARISSOS, who was turned into a cypress tree, the meaning of his name (see MLS, Chapter 23). Apollo’s devotion to HYACINTHUS [heye-a-sin'thus], or HYAKINTHOS, a handsome Spartan youth, also told by Ovid, is more famous.
The god and the youth enjoyed competing with the discus. Apollo’s first throw showed magnificent skill and great strength, for he sent the discus high up into the clouds. When it eventually came back to earth, an enthusiastic Hyacinthus dashed to pick it up, but as it hit the earth it bounced back and struck him full in the face. All of Apollo’s medical arts were of no avail, and his beloved companion died. Overcome by grief and guilt, the god vowed everlasting devotion by singing of Hyacinthus to the tune of his lyre and by causing a new flower, the hyacinth, to arise from his blood. Apollo himself marked his laments on his petals, the mournful letters AI AI, and predicted the suicide of the valiant Ajax (see MLS, Chapter 19), whose initals (these same letters) would appear on this same flower, which would arise from his heroic blood. An annual festival, the Hyacinthia, was celebrated at Sparta in honor of Hyacinthus.
APOLLO, CORONIS, AND ASCLEPIUS
In the story of Hyacinthus, we see Apollo acting as a god of medicine, ineffective though he proved to be. His son Asclepius took over the role of god of medicine and most of the time was more successful than his father.
Apollo loved a maiden from Thessaly, CORONIS [co-roh'nis], and she was pregnant with his child. Unfortunately, Apollo’s bird, the raven, saw Coronis in the arms of another lover and told the god, who in a quick and violent rage shot her with one of his arrows. As she was dying she told him that their unborn child would die with her. Apollo too late regretted his anger, but to no avail. He was unable through his medical arts to revive his beloved. He embraced her in anguish and performed the proper burial rites over her corpse. As the flames of the funeral pyre were about to engulf her, he saved their baby by snatching it from her womb and giving it to the wise centaur Chiron to raise. The color of the raven, which had been white, he now changed to black.
The child grew up to become ASCLEPIUS [as-klee'pee-us], or ASKLEPIOS (AESCULAPIUS for the Romans), a famous practitioner of medicine, worshiped as both a hero and a god. He had several children, among them the doctor Machaon [ma-kay'on] (in the Iliad) and more shadowy figures such as HYGEIA [heye-jee'a] or HYGIEIA (“health.”)
When Hippolytus died (see MLS, Chapter 10), Artemis appealed to Asclepius to bring her devoted follower back to life. He succeeded and enraged Zeus, who hurled the physician into the Underworld for such a disruption of the natural order.
THE ALCESTIS OF EURIPIDES
Apollo was enraged at the death of his son Asclepius and killed the Cyclopes who had forged the thunderbolt. For his crime, he was sentenced to live in exile for a year under the rule of ADMETUS [ad-mee'tus], or ADMETOS, king of Pherae in Thessaly. When Apollo found out that his master had only a short time to live, he induced the Fates (Moirai) to allow the king a longer life. They, however, demanded that someone else die in his place. No one (not even his aged parents) was willing to do so except for his wife, ALCESTIS [al-ses'tis], or ALKESTIS. In the end, Heracles arrived to save Alcestis from death and return her to her husband (see MLS, Chapter 22).
Euripides’ entertaining play Alcestis, however controversial, presents a touching portrait of a loving and devoted wife. Although Admetus must face the just attacks of critics for allowing Alcestis to die in his place, a case may be made that he recognized his selfishness too late, after he realized that life was not worth living without his Alcestis.
APOLLO’S MUSICAL CONTEST WITH MARSYAS
As we know, Apollo was an expert in the playing of the lyre, but two musicians, because of hubris, foolishly dared to challenge him.
Athena invented the flute (see MLS, Chapter 8) but threw it away because her beautiful features became distorted when she played. MARSYAS [mar'si-as] the satyr picked it up. Although Athena gave him a thrashing for taking up her instrument, he became so proficient that he dared to challenge the great Apollo to a contest. The god imposed the condition that the victor could do what he liked with the vanquished. Inevitably Apollo won and he decided to flay Marsyas alive. Ovid in his Metamorphoses describes the agony of the satyr, during which the earth drank up all the tears of the woodland spirits and of the gods who wept for him. From these tears a stream was formed in Phrygia bearing the name of Marsyas.
APOLLO’S MUSICAL CONTEST WITH PAN
The second musical contest is also related by Ovid. While Pan was playing a dainty tune on his pipes (see MLS, Chapter 13) on Mt. Tmolus in Phrygia, he dared to belittle the music of Apollo and engaged in a contest with the god. TMOLUS [tmo'lus], or TMOLOS, the god of the mountain, was the judge. Pan played first on his rustic pipes, and then Apollo, in the stance of an artist, crowned with laurel, followed, plucking his exquisite ivory lyre, inlaid with gems, with a plectrum.
Tmolus declared Apollo the victor, but MIDAS [meye'das], the king of Phrygia (who now had a loathing for riches, see MLS, Chapter 13) witnessed the contest. He still had not learned wisdom. He had become a worshiper of Pan and prefered his music and declared the verdict unjust. Apollo could not endure that such stupid ears retain their shape, and so he changed them into the ears of an ass.
Midas hid his shame by wearing a turban. His barber, however, could not help but find out. He wanted desperately to tell but did not dare reveal Midas’ secret. Since he could not keep quiet, he stole away and dug a hole into the ground and whispered into it that his master had ass’s ears. He filled up the hole again but in a year’s time a thick cluster of trembling reeds had grown up, and when the wind whistled in the reeds, you could hear the murmur of a whisper, revealing the truth: “King Midas has ass’s ears.”
Two archetypal motifs are dominant in this story about Midas: the garrulousness of barbers and the stupidity of some critics.
THE NATURE OF APOLLO
Apollo is a very complex deity. As a god of shepherds, he was associated with music and was a protector of flocks. He was also god of medicine, and he replaced Hyperion and Helius as a god of the sun. He is often called PHOEBUS [fee'bus], or PHOIBOS, Apollo, an epithet that means “bright.” There is a moving, tragic humanity to many of his stories. Yet he is subject to many moods and passions, not least of all his terrifying anger, however just.
Yet this same god was worshiped as the epitome of classical restraint—handsome, strong, and intelligent, preaching the Greek maxims of “Know thyself” and “Nothing too much.” He can bring enlightenment, atonement, truth, and a new civic order of justice. It is because of the disciplined and controlled side to his character that Apollo can be pitted against Dionysus to encompass the basic duality of human nature: the rational (Apollonian) and irrational (Dionysian). See MLS, Chapter 13.