The most widely worshiped of the Greek gods, Apollo was the son of Zeus* and the Titan Leto and the twin brother of Artemis (Diana), the goddess of the hunt. Apollo had many roles in Greek mythology, including god of the sun, god of the arts (especially music, poetry, and dance), god of medicine, protector of herdsmen and their flocks, and god of prophecy. His oracle at Delphi was the most famous in the world, and his cult spread far beyond the Greek world.
Origins. The worship of Apollo began outside of Greece. Early cults associated with the god developed in Asia Minorf and in the lands north of Greece. Several tales link him to the city of Troy*. One credits him with helping the sea god Poseidon build the walls of Troy.
Scholars think that Apollo's original role may have been as protector of herdsmen and shepherds. He is often pictured holding a lyre (a type of harp), and shepherds were known for playing music to pass their idle hours. Apollo's identification as god of music, archery, and medicine came after his oracle was established at Delphi. Only much later did he become the sun god.
According to legend, Apollo was born on the Greek island of Delos and grew to adulthood in just four days. To escape the island, he changed himself into a dolphin and caused a great storm on the sea. Apollo then threw himself on the deck of a ship in distress and led it safely to shore. Having reached the mainland, Apollo set off for Pytho, the site of an important oracle of Gaia, the earth goddess. A monstrous serpent named Python not only guarded the place but also spoke the oracle's prophecies. Apollo killed Python and took the oracle for himself. The name of the site was changed to Delphi because Apollo had become a dolphin ( delphis in Greek) in order to reach it.
The Cult of Apollo. Delphi became the most famous and frequently visited oracle in the ancient world. Its location was considered to be the geographic center of the earth.
The oracle's words were inspired by Apollo and delivered by a local woman, over the age of 50, who was called the Pythia in honor of Python. As she spoke, priests interpreted the prophecies and wrote them down. The priests of Apollo claimed to be descended from the sailors aboard the ship that Apollo had led to safety in the storm.
The Sacred Laurel
One of Apollo's tragic loves was Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus. Apollo fell in love with Daphne, but she did not return his affection. When Apollo chased her through the woods, she became so frightened that she cried out for her father to save her. Peneus turned Daphne into a laurel tree so that she could avoid Apollo's advances. The disappointed Apollo broke off a branch of laurel. He twisted it into a wreath to wear on his head in memory of Daphne. Thereafter, the laurel tree became sacred to the cult of Apollo, and a laurel wreath became a mark of honor to be given to poets, victors, and winners in athletic contests
Titan one of a family of giants who ruled the earth until overthrown by the Greek gods of Olympus
prophecy foretelling of what is to come; also something that is predicted
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
The worship of Apollo was widespread not only in Greece but also throughout the ancient world. Shrines could be found in places from Egypt to Anatolia (now northwestern Turkey). The Romans built their first temple to Apollo (Phoebus) in 432 B . C ., and he became a favorite Roman god. The Roman emperor Augustus was a devoted worshiper because the battle of Actium, in which he gained political supremacy, was fought near a temple of Apollo.
The Loves of Apollo. Apollo was considered the ideal of male beauty, and he had many love affairs and fathered many children. Yet there are numerous stories of his failure to win a woman he desired or of his lovers being unfaithful to him.
One of the most famous concerns Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy. Apollo fell in love with her and gave her the gift of prophecy to win her favor. When she rejected him anyway, Apollo punished her by declaring that her prophecies would be accurate but that no one would believe her. In another story, he courted the nymph Sinope, who asked him to grant her a favor before she accepted his proposal. When Apollo agreed, she asked to remain a virgin until her death. Perhaps the most famous tale of Apollo's unfulfilled love involved his pursuit of Daphne, who turned into a laurel tree to escape his advances.
Some of Apollo's romantic misfortunes involved animals that became associated with him. One myth explains how the crow's feathers turned from white to black. Apollo asked the crow to watch over the princess Coronis, who was pregnant with his son. Nevertheless the crow failed to prevent Coronis from having an affair with another man. Angry at the crow, Apollo turned its feathers from white to black. He then asked his sister Diana to kill Coronis. When Coronis lay burning on the funeral pyre, Apollo pulled his unborn son Asclepius from her body. The boy later became the god of healing. Apollo was also associated with the wolf, the dolphin, the raven, the serpent, and other animals.
nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful
pyre pile of wood on which a dead body is burned in a funeral ceremony
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
Literature and Art. Like many important figures in myth and legend, Apollo is a favorite subject of art and literature. He first appears in Greek literature in the Iliad, Homer's* epic about the Trojan Warf. In the poem, Apollo is Troy's most consistent and enthusiastic champion against the Greeks. The Iliad opens with Apollo's anger against Agamemnon*, who had taken the daughter of a Trojan priest of Apollo captive. Despite the priest's pleas and offers of ransom, Agamemnon refuses to return the girl. As punishment, Apollo sends a plague on the Greek army After the events described in the Iliad, Apollo kills the great Greek hero Achilles* by guiding the flight of an arrow shot by the Trojan warrior Paris.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Ancient sculptures show Apollo as a handsome youth. One of the most famous is the Apollo Belvedere, a marble version of an ancient bronze statue found in Rome. The great German artist Albrecht Dürer used the proportions of the statue for his "ideal male" figure. Apollo is typically portrayed holding a bow and arrow, symbols of his role as the god of death and disease, or a harp, representing his role as god of music and the arts or of shepherds. Apollo is featured in poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Algernon Charles Swinburne, and he was the inspiration for a ballet by Igor Stravinsky. More than 20 operas have had Apollo as a central figure.