Apollo: Background,

Mythology and Images

Angie M. Kenna

Apollo is the twin brother of Artemis and the child of Zeus and the Titan, Leto. he is the god of music, prophesy, medicine, archery (though not hunting), poetry, dance, intellectual inquiry, and the carer of flocks and herds. he is also considered the god of light, plagues and the god of religious healing.

Apollo functions as an important archetype of masculinity in Greek myth. he is depicted as an ephebe--handsome, clean-shaven, athletic and young.  His demeanor is usually portrayed as calm, collected, aloof, intelligent, controlled, and sane. he is the "ideal" man.

In this way, Apollo represents the Greek and later the Roman self-perception as a people.  The rational and controlled dominate their identity as a people.  In the Birth of tragedy, Friedrich Nietzche examines the idea of the Apollonian in connection with the Dionysian.  The rational and intelligible Apollo vs. the passionate, Id-like nature of Dionysus becomes a metaphor for the battle between culture vs. nature. It is also the internal struggle of man.  Balance between these two aspects of being are needed.  We will be better able to see these two aspects when we compare and contrast Apollo in the Oresteia and Dionysus in the Bacchae. Apollo always seems to be on the verge of losing control, or outright losing control, despite his identity.  Nonetheless, we can see the god grappling with these two aspects in the myths surrounding him.

Apollo has a number of functions. As the god of Music, he is the leader of the Choir of Muses, the nine daughters of Zeus and Mneuosyne,  are the patrons of the arts and literature.

He is frequently depicted with his lyre. One of the myths about Apollo and his music involves Marsyas, a satyr, who challenges Apollo to a music contest.  Apollo won and had the satyr flayed alive for his arrogance. The myth shows Apollo punishing Marsyas for hubris, but also represents the dilemma between the controlled and the uncontrolled.  Satyrs have represented an unbridled male sexuality, while Apollo is seen as the controlled.  Interesting, on the Temple at Delphi, there are ten inscriptions: "Hate Hubris" is one of them. Others are "Know thyself", "Nothing too much", Keep a woman under rule", "Observe the Limit", and "Bow before Authority".

Apollo's birth story is quite interesting.  Zeus impregnated Leto. hera, incensed, forbade Leto to give birth of terra firma (solid ground) or on an island.  The Hymn to Apollo tells of Hera luring Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to Olympus to divert her attention from the pregnant Leto by giving her a 15 foot necklace.  She is persuaded back by Iris.  Leto's only refuge was Delos, which is said to be a floating island; therefore, she would not be breaking Leto's command.

Thus, on Delos, an important sanctuary was dedicated to Apollo. Arguably, Apollo's most important power was that of prophesy.  Apollo gets Delphi in his first deed. He is to kill the dragon of Pytho (Delphi). The dragon, Python, protected the sanctuary of Pytho beside the Castilian spring.  It guarded Sibyl as she prophesized by inhaling its "hallucinating" vapors.  The Python was also terrorizing the neighboring villages and pastures.  Apollo slew the Python with his bow and arrow. By killing the Python, Apollo gained control of the oracle and the surrounding country.

Apollo also functions as the god of religious healing and ritual purification. Because Python was the son of Gaia, the earth goddess, Apollo had to make amends for killing him.  Thus, Apollo was forced to serve king Admetus for 9 years as a cowherd.  Because he accomplished this and made amends, he is involved in ritually purifying those guilty of murder and other immoral deeds, which we can see in his appearance in the Oresteia.

Apollo ritually purifies Orestes after the murder of his mother Clytemnestra.  The ritual cleanses Orestes of guilt for having committed matricide.  The pig's blood symbolically absolves him from his crime. Delphi became associated with ritualistically cleansing moral pollution; thus, it became a place of exile for those who committed murder or other morally questionable deeds.

Apollo returned to Delphi in the form of a dolphin (hence, the name Delphi). The Delphic oracle, known also as "Pythia", would be seated on a tripod (Apollo's symbol of prophesy) in a trance. Scholars believe that the tripod might have been situated above a fissure in the floor of the temple from which arose the vapors.  The oracle would also chew laurel leaves.

The laurel is an important symbol for Apollo. Eros made Apollo fall in love with the nymph, Daphne, because Apollo mocked his archery skills.  Daphne rejected Apollo and fled him.  When he caught her and just as he was embracing her, she turned into a laurel tree. Thus, to commemorate his love for Daphne, Apollo made the laurel his sacred tree. 

The Pythia, in a trance state, would only mumble her answer, which a high priest would translate into Apollo's prophesy.  Everyone involved in the ritual had to be ritually washed in the springs.  An animal would be sacrificed and, if conditions were favorable, the petitioner could then enter the sanctuary. The question, which had been previously written, was handed to the priest, who in turn asked the Pythia for Apollo's answer. The priest would translate into hexameter verse.

The Omphalos, literally the navel, sits in the middle of the sanctuary at Delphi.  Pausanias 10.16.3 refers to it as the center of the Earth.  According to myth, Zeus, trying to determine the middle of the Earth, sent two eagles, one flying east and another flying west.  They met at Delphi.  It became an important symbol of the prophetic arts.

Cassandra, a figure in the Oresteia, also is associated with Apollo. Apollo made overtures to Cassandra. She agreed to be with him if he gave her the gift of prophesy.  After he taught her prophesy, Cassandra refused Apollo. There is some disagreement as to whether she outright refused him or she did not bear him any children. Nonetheless, to exact revenge, and since he could not take back his gift of prophesy, Apollo cursed Cassandra. All her prophesies, though true, would not be believed or understood.  Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War with Cassandra as his concubine. She foretells his death and the Orestes' revenge on Clytemnestra to a confused chorus.

Apollo also serves an apotropaic role; that is, as an averter of evil.  His mother, Leto, is involved in a number of myths. Tityos, a giant, grabbed Leto to rape her. Apollo and Artemis work together to kill Tityos.  One version of how Apollo slew the monster, Python, it is said that while Leto was still pregnant with the twins, Python tried to molest her.  As punishment, Apollo killed him and then took control of the oracle.

Leto is also involved in the myth of Niobe.  The wife of Tantalus*, Niobe, had been bragging about bearing fourteen children.  Leto had only bore two, Apollo and Artemis; thus, she concluded, she was more important than Leto.  When Apollo and Artemis heard of Niobe's hubris and the insult, they killed all of Niobe's children, except two, with their bow and arrows.  After which Niobe wept for her dead children so much that she turned into a pillar of stone. 

Another connection to Apollo is his son Asklepios, the god of healing and medicine, which is connected to Apollo's religious healing. Asklepios' mother was Coronis. After being impregnated by Apollo, she had an affair with a human.  Apollo had Artemis burn her in a pyre, but feeling connected to his unborn son, rescued Asklepios and gave him to the centaur Chirion.  Askelpios inherits his power of healing. The later stories of Asklepios is that he became so skilled that he could bring the dead back to life. Zeus killed Asklepios with a lightning bolt for violating the laws of nature. Zeus then made him a god and cults worshipped Asklepios.  As the god of plagues, Apollo can punish mankind with plague, as in the Illiad, but he also gives healing back to humans through his son.

*Tantalus, from which we get our word tantalize, is punished by the gods for trying to deceive them.. He cooked and fed his son Pelops to the god to see if they could distinguish human flesh. Only Demeter is said to eat Pelops' shoulder, which she promptly expelled. Pelop is restored back to life, complete with a golden shoulder.  Tantalus is punished for eternity by constant hunger and thirst. Food and drink are  just out of his reach. Tantalus begins the line of the House of Atreus, Agamemnon is Tantalus' grandchild. Knowledge of the curse on the House of Atreus becomes essential for the Oresteia.

  Images of Apollo

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