The Greek God Apollo and His Mystical Powers
Apollo was a Greek god, and one of the Twelve Olympians. He was one of the most important gods in the Greek pantheon, and was believed to have jurisdiction over a range of different aspects, including prophecy, music and healing. As a major Greek god, there are many myths relating to Apollo. In art, the god is commonly depicted as a handsome, beardless young man with long hair. Common attributes of Apollo include the lyre, bow and arrows, and the laurel wreath, which also helps with the identification of the god in art. Interestingly, Apollo is the only Olympian who retains his Greek name in the Roman pantheon.
According to Greek mythology, Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto. Zeus, as most would already know, was the king of the Olympians, whereas Leto was the daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe. According to the poet Hesiod, Leto was the wife of Zeus before he married Hera. However, later writers depicted the Titanide as merely a concubine of Zeus, rather than his lawful wife. This depiction ties in nicely with the story that Leto was persecuted by the jealous Hera during the pregnancy. Leto was forced to wander over all the earth because she could not find a place to give birth to her children. Fearing Hera’s wrath, the lands refused to receive the Titanide. Eventually, the pregnant Leto arrives in Delos, a tiny island of the Cyclades archipelago, in the Aegean Sea. As Delos was a floating island, it was not considered to be land, and therefore Leto could give birth to her children.
It was on the island of Delos that Leto gave birth to Apollo and his twin, Artemis. Curiously, the island has been strongly associated with Apollo but not with his sister, Artemis. The archaeological evidence suggests that human beings settled on Delos as early as the 3 rd millennium BC, and the sanctuary to Apollo was established at least since the 9 th century BC. The cult of Apollo at Delos reached its peak during the Archaic and Classical periods, when it achieved its Pan-Hellenic status. This is most clearly seen in the 5 th century BC, during the period of Athenian dominance. An alliance of Greek city states led by Athens was established in 478 BC with the purpose of continuing the fight against the Persians. This coalition is known today as the Delian League, so named due to the fact that the sacred island was the official meeting place of its members.
The Serpent Slayer
One of the best-known myths about Apollo concerns his slaying of Python, a giant serpent / dragon. According to one version of the myth, the serpent was sent by Hera to pursue Leto across the earth during her pregnancy. Therefore, Apollo was thirsty for vengeance, and went to slay Python. According to the myth, Apollo was only four days old when he set out on this quest. In any case, at that time, Python was residing on Mount Parnassus, which towers over Delphi, and when Apollo found the serpent, he fired his arrows at it. Although the serpent was wounded, it was not dead, and managed to flee to Gaia’s ancient sanctuary in Delphi. However, Apollo was so consumed by rage that he slayed Python anyway, thereby staining the sanctity of the shrine with the shedding of Python’s blood. As a result of this sacrilege, Zeus ordered Apollo to cleanse himself. After cleansing himself, the story ends with Apollo returning to Delphi and making the shrine his own.
In another version of the myth, Python was the guardian of the oracle in Delphi (formerly known as Pytho), which belonged to the Titanide Themis. Therefore, Apollo slew Python, so that he could take possession of the oracle for himself. The myth also states that in order to establish his oracle, Apollo took the form of a dolphin, leapt onto a Cretan ship and forced its crew to serve him. As a result, Pytho was renamed as Delphi. Incidentally, it was also after this episode that the cult of Apollo Delphinius became dominant on the island of Crete, replacing that of Gaia’s.
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Ruins of temple of Athena Pronaia at Delphi, Greece (dudlajzov / Adobe Stock)
It is clear that both versions of the myth reveal how Apollo became associated with prophecy. Apollo was also worshipped as the god of archery, and, as mentioned previously, one of his symbols was the bow and arrow. For instance, this was the weapon used by the god against Python.
Apollo the Archer
There are other myths as well that demonstrate Apollo’s abilities as an archer. One of these myths is about the destruction of the Niobids, i.e. the children of Niobe. In Greek mythology, Niobe was the daughter of Tantalus, the king of Sipylus (in Lydia), and the wife of Amphion, the ruler of Thebes. Niobe had six sons and six daughters (some sources say that she had seven sons and seven daughters), which was her source of pride, so much so that she boasted to have been more blessed with children than Leto, who only had two. The Titanide was annoyed by this, and ordered her children to punish the queen. Therefore, Apollo killed Niobe’s sons with his arrows, whilst Artemis did the same to her daughters. In some versions of the myth, all the Niobids were killed. However, in another one, Chloris survived due to her fervent prayers to Leto. Chloris is said to have later married Neleus, and was the mother of Nestor, one of the Greek leaders during the Trojan War. In any case, Niobe was devastated by the death of her children and therefore, returned to her homeland, where she was turned into a rock on Mount Sipylus.
Apollo and Artemis kill the children of Niobe (Jan Boeckhorst / Public domain)
Apollo’s bow and arrows were also put to use in the Trojan War. During this legendary war, the god fought on the side of the Trojans, and aided them on various occasions. For instance, Apollo guided the arrow fired by Paris into Achilles’ heel, thereby killing the unstoppable Greek hero. In some versions, it was the god himself, taking the form of Paris, who killed Achilles.
Mystical Powers of Disease and Healing
Apollo, in his role as a god of diseases, also used his bow and arrows to send plagues into the camp of the Greeks. Apollo is also considered to be a god of healing as well, which is not entirely surprising, if one were to consider the belief that the god who has the power to send diseases also has the power to heal them. During the Trojan War, Apollo uses his healing abilities to treat the injuries of Hector, whom he favored very much. One of Apollo’s sons who inherited his father’s healing abilities was Asclepius, the famed physician who was later worshipped as the god of medicine. Asclepius first learned medicine under his father, and then from the centaur Chiron. His skills as a physician developed to such a level that he was even able to bring the dead back to life. Zeus was not too pleased by this, as he was afraid that Asclepius would teach others how to resurrect the dead, thereby making humans immortal. Therefore, Zeus killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt.
Apollo was furious at the slaying of his son. Since the god could not do anything to Zeus, he decided to take his anger out on the Cyclopes who forged Zeus’ thunderbolts. For his killing of the Cyclopes, Apollo was forced to do penance by becoming a servant of Admetus, the king of Pherae (in Thessaly). During his time of servitude, Apollo worked as the king’s herdsman, and tended the king’s flocks, which is the origin of ‘Nomios’ (meaning ‘herdsman’), one of the god’s many epithets. It is assumed that another of Apollo’s epithet, ‘Lyceius’ is also derived from this period of servitude, as he protected the sheep from wolves ( lykoi in Greek).
Portrait of a plaster statue of the god Apollo (Ruslan Gilmanshin / Adobe Stock)
The God of Music and Love
It is clear that Apollo was a powerful god capable of great destruction. Nevertheless, as already seen, he was the god of healing. In addition to that, he was also worshipped as the god of music. According to one myth, it was the god Hermes who invented the lyre on the day he was born. On the same day, the god stole Apollo’s cattle. Eventually, Apollo discovered the thief, and, in order to appease his older (half-)brother, Hermes gave the lyre to him. Apollo was so pleased with this musical instrument that he gave Hermes his cattle in exchange. The lyre became one of Apollo’s most recognizable symbols, and the god became a master of the lyre. Apollo’s skill as a musician did not go unchallenged, and there were those who dared to compete with him. The god outwitted his competitors, naturally perhaps, who were then punished for their pride. One of these challengers was the satyr Marsyas, who, after his defeat, was hung inside a cave and then flayed alive.
Just as Apollo had a son, Asclepius, who was a legendary healer, the god also had an offspring who was equally renowned as a musician, Orpheus. It may be mentioned that in some myths, Orpheus’ father is said to have been Oeagrus, the king of Thrace. In any case, Orpheus was such a skilled musician that even the animals, trees and rocks danced when he made music. There are several myths demonstrating Orpheus’ ability as a musician, the best-known of which being his journey to the Underworld in an attempt to bring back the soul of his dead wife, Eurydice. Orpheus’ music was so touching that even Cerberus and Charon were moved by it, and therefore allowed Orpheus to continue on his journey. Eventually, Orpheus arrives before Hades himself, who was also taken by Orpheus’ music, and allowed him to bring Eurydice’s soul back to the land of the living. Unfortunately, the myth ends in tragedy, as Orpheus breaks the condition set upon him by Hades at the very last minute, and Eurydice’s soul returns to the Underworld for good.
Apollo, God of Light, Eloquence, Poetry and the Fine Arts with Urania (Charles Meynier - Public domain)
In art, Apollo is normally depicted as a handsome youth, and unsurprisingly, was loved by both gods and mortals. In turn, Apollo had various love affairs, though most of them did not end well. For instance, the mother of Asclepius was Coronis, who had an affair with another man, Ischys, when she was pregnant with Asclepius. A white crow informed Apollo of her unfaithfulness, and the god, enraged by the news, ordered his sister to kill her. Not content with that, Apollo had the crow’s feathers burned, which is supposed to be the reason why crows are black till this day.
Another unfortunate lover of Apollo was Cassandra, the daughter of Priam, the king of Troy. Apollo was attracted to Cassandra, who promised to return his love if she was given the gift of prophecy. The god obliged, but Cassandra reneged on her promise, which caused Apollo to put a curse on her. Thus, although Cassandra could see the future, no one would believe her prophecies. In another instance, Apollo was unable to have his way. This is seen in the story of Marpessa, whose lover, Idas, was prepared to fight the god for Marpessa’s hand. Zeus intervened, and allowed Marpessa to choose who she wanted to be with. Marpessa chose Idas, as she knew that she would grow old, after which Apollo would stop loving her. Finally, there was the nymph Daphne, who vowed to Artemis to remain chaste eternally. However, Apollo relentlessly pursued her. Having had enough, the nymph prayed to her father, the river god Peneus, to transform her into something else. As Apollo was about to embrace her, Daphne was turned into a laurel tree. Apollo swore to love Daphne forever, and therefore became associated with this plant. The laurel wreath that he wears is supposed to be a symbol of his undying love for her.
Apollo and two muses (Pompeo Batoni / Public domain)
Lastly, it may be said that Apollo was a hugely popular god in ancient Greece. As mentioned already, he was the god of healing and music, two aspects that benefit mankind greatly. The popularity of Apollo continued into the Roman period, especially during the reign of Augustus, who chose him as his patron god prior to his ascension as emperor. This was meant to show the Romans that he was represented by justice, law and order, values associated with Apollo, as opposed to his rival, Mark Antony, who had chosen Dionysus as his patron god.
Top image: The Greek god Apollo slaying the giant serpent, ‘Python’ Source: Choo Yut Shing / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
By: Wu Mingren
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