Apollo, Favorite Son of Zeus,
Known by Many Names,
God of Light, Helios
The Archer, Phythia
And The Lawgiver and the God of Prophecy.
the Far-Shooter, the Greek god also
called Phoebus ("bright, shining") by the Romans.
Apollo, Greek god of the Sun, was the original overachiever. No wonder he became his father's favorite son! At the tender age of 4 days, showing an incredible talent for archery, Apollo killed the gigantic serpent named Python (in some myths she was a dragon) who had been harassing his mother.
The Greek god Apollo and his twin sister Artemis were born to Leto (a Titan goddess who was impregnated by Zeus during one of his numerous affairs. The birth of the twins was not an easy one, for their poor mother Leto had been pursued throughout her pregnancy by a gigantic serpent named Python and had never been allowed a moment’s rest. Going into labor, she finally found a safe, secluded spot where she could deliver. But after the birth of the first twin, Artemis, was born, Leto was too exhausted to continue. Artemis, born just minutes earlier, had to take control of the situation and become Leto’s midwife, helping her mother safely deliver the infant Apollo.
Zeus welcomed the twins by giving them both silver bows and arrows, promising Artemis she would never have to marry unless she wanted to, and giving Apollo a magnificent golden chariot that was pulled by swans.
Apollo was destined to make his father proud of him. Following his dramatic debut with the Python, he went on to become, not only an unerring archer, but the best musician (playing a lyre given to him by his half-brother Hermes), poet, philosopher, law maker and creator of legal institutions, a masterful physician, the god of prophecy, and a great scholar who always spoke the truth.
Apollo’s skill and determination were evident at a very early age. When he was only 4 days old, he took his bow and arrow and went out in search of the snake that had tormented his mother during her pregnancy. Finding the snake named Python, who was said to measure several acres in length, he wounded her with his first shot.
The serpent crawled back to her cave in the city of Delphi, but the infant Apollo followed her and this time succeeded in killing the snake with his second shot. The citizens of Delphi were glad to be rid of her and were grateful to Apollo - later Delphi was established as the center of Apollo’s worship.
As it happened this was not just a regular snake that Apollo had killed - it turns out that it happened to be the famed Oracle of Delphi, the greatest prophet of all time. The Python lived in the cave and could answer any question since she could see anything in the present or the future. When she answered a question, her hiss would be interpreted by the Pythian priestess and the answer relayed to the questioner.
The killing of the Python was no small matter. Though very proud of his son’s courage and prowess, Zeus was not pleased that Apollo had killed the serpent. Where could he go now when he needed advice based on her remarkable foresight?
“Not a problem”, Apollo assured him, and returned to Delphi where he took over the Temple and persuaded the priestess to teach him the art of prophecy.
Zeus, even though he favored this child, felt Apollo should still be punished for killing the Python, just to teach him a lesson. So he exiled him to live and work on earth as a mortal for one year. His assignment was to assist King Admetus, a kind and pious man who treated Apollo well. At the end of his year of servitude, to repay the king’s kindness, he looked into the future and told the king his fate, warning him that he could reverse it if he could find someone willing to die in his place. Only his wife was willing, and the king regretted allowing her to sacrifice her life for him. Later the hero Heracles (Hercules) was able, however, to restore her life.
It was said that Apollo could only speak the truth, telling the future with an accuracy that was as unerring as his marksmanship with his arrows.
Arrows featured largely in the story of Apollo’s first love. He caught the somewhat bratty young Eros (Cupid) playing with his silver bow and arrows. He chastised Eros, telling him to put them down that they were not toys. Offended, Eros cheerfully responded “OK, you can have some of mine then - they’re not toys either!” and shot Apollo with one of his golden arrows that had been dipped in an aphrodisiac that made the victim fall madly in love with the first person they saw.
At that very moment, Daphne, the lovely daughter of a river god, came walking by. Apollo was instantly smitten. With a wicked smile on his lips, the mischievous Eros drew a second arrow from his quiver. This one was made of lead and tipped with a potion that would make love seem repulsive. He took aim and shot Daphne with it.
Daphne ran home and begged her father to swear an oath that she would never have to marry, so repugnant was the very idea of love. Apollo, his heart inflamed with love, pursued Daphne, calling out his pledges of undying love - but she continued to run from him. Horrified when he finally caught up with her, Daphne cried for Mother Earth to strike her dead or change her form so that she would not be appealing and would not have to endure his love. Instantly she turned into laurel tree.
Apollo, heartbroken, tore off a branch of leaves and wove them in his hair, promising Daphne that she would be forever remembered, living on in the wreaths of laurel leaves that would be used to crown kings and victors from that day forward. And so it would be.
Like several of the Greek gods of his generation, Apollo never married, but seduced many young goddesses and mortal women. In the hopes of winning her love, Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy. She proved an able student and, like him, learned to see the future and always told the truth. Shocked when he suddenly turned amorous, ready to be repaid for his favor, Cassandra rejected him. Angered by this, Apollo gave her another “gift” - this one a curse that even though she always told the truth no one would ever believe her.
Among his many lovers, several were males; the most famous, perhaps, being Hyacinthus, whom he accidentally killed in a game of discus. To express his sorrow, Apollo immortalized the dying youth by turning him in the beautiful flower, the hyacinth that greets us each spring.
For all his bright and shining qualities, Apollo could also be quite vindictive. Always close to his twin sister, both were known for their skill as archers, their energetic pursuit of their goals, and their swift and merciless punishment of those whose behavior they found insulting or offensive.
When Niobe boasted that she was a better mother than Leto since she had produced six sons and six daughters instead of just a measly set of twins, Apollo and Artemis took offense. Taking their bows and arrows with them, they found Niobe’s children and Apollo killed the sons while Artemis dispatched the daughters. Niobe’s grief was so great that her tears caused the rivers to overflow their banks.
Apollo also had a jealous streak. When Artemis fell in love with the hunter Orion, Apollo missed her company and affection. Aware that Orion was swimming in the ocean, Apollo ran to find Artemis and gathering up their bows and arrows, rushed down to the beach with her. Pointing to Orion’s head, barely visible on the horizon, Apollo said, “See that shiny thing bobbing in the waves? Bet you can’t hit that!” Artemis, a fierce competitor and exceptional archer accepted the wager. With her unerring aim, she unknowingly killed the man she loved. She never loved again.
For the most part Apollo was rather calm and dispassionate, but there seemed to be three things that could “set him off”. One, as we have seen already, was any offense or insult to his beloved mother. Another was any violation of the boundaries between the gods and mortal men. Alone among the Olympian deities, Apollo never “sponsored” or helped any of the Greek heroes because he felt that they should know their “place” and stay out of the god’s affairs.
And Apollo did not take kindly to any challenges to his position as “the very best” at everything he did. He was, by the way, the champion in many fields - music, science, and prophecy. According to mythology, he was even able to defeat Ares and boxing and Hermes in racing to win those events at the first Olympic games!
It is a good thing that Apollo usually won, for he was far from being a “good loser”. His opponents were often punished for winning. He literally took the skin off a satyr named Marsyus who had the audacity to beat him in a music competition.
But usually his punishments were moderate, and sometimes they even revealed a sense of humor. When King Midas voted for his competitor in a musical competition, Apollo gave him the ears of a jackass. The embarrassed king had to wear a cap over his ears for the rest of his life!
Apollo is usually depicted as a handsome, beardless youth wearing a wreath of laurel leaves and holding his bow, or a lyre, his favorite musical instrument. You can read the intriguing story of how Apollo came to play the lyre in the stories of Hermes.
Although most of the myths of Apollo feature him “in action”, he was actually known more for his achievements than his acts and was seldom embroiled in the continuous quarrels and unfolding dramas that constituted life on Mount Olympus. Somewhat detached from the others, Apollo was often “away” when things were happening, of simply uninvolved.
Perhaps he did “learn his lesson” as Zeus had hoped, although it took a second exile before he got the message. After he returned from his first exile, Apollo took part in a plot by the Olympians, led by Poseidon, to overthrow Zeus’ reign as their ruler. All the gods and goddesses agreed that something had to change, that Zeus was proving to be too arrogant and heavy-handed. The attempted coup failed, but Zeus did try to do better from then on and was quite lenient in punishing all of them.
Poseidon and Apollo were both sentenced to one year of manual labor, to be served on earth helping build the walls around Troy while disguised as ordinary mortals. They served their sentences without complaint, but when the King of Troy refused to honor his contract and pay them for their work, the angry Poseidon sent a horrible sea monster and Apollo caused a plague to rain down on the city of Troy. Soon the bodies of the dead and dying were stacked as high as the great wall around the city. The king relented and paid his debt.
Just as he could summon a plague, Apollo was also called upon to prevent and cure all manner of illness for he was a healer of great knowledge and skill.
The favorite son of Zeus, Apollo had a favorite son himself. He was once in love with Coronis. She was pregnant with his child, but Apollo was fearful that she might take another lover during one of his frequent absences. So Apollo dispatched a white raven to spy on her for him. When the raven reported that she had betrayed his trust, he was displeased and turned the raven’s feathers black. Then he killed Coronis, but suddenly regretting it, he saved the unborn child. Naming him Asclepius, he reared the child himself and trained him in the healing arts.
Asclepius became a famous physician and is generally considered to be the “Father of Modern Medicine”. Indeed, his skill was so great that, after he restored life to one of his patients who had died, Zeus had to kill him since only the Fates were allowed to determine whether someone lived or died.
Apollo was a god who had a clear idea of what was right and what was wrong. He believed strongly in law and order. He interpreted the law for mortals and gave the cities their legal institutions, including civic courts so that disputes could be settled without bloodshed. Uncomfortable as Apollo was with chaos and tumult, or even passionate intensity, he was an idealist with a vision of a society that could live peacefully under the rule of fairness and of law.
It is from the Greek god Apollo that we get the sayings "Know thyself" and the call to moderation in all things, the Golden Mean, reminding us to do "nothing in excess".
Driving his golden chariot to pull the sun across the sky each day, Apollo’s most important role was that of Helios, Greek god of the sun, his golden light brightening the lives of all it touched.
Apollo was a favorite of the people of Rhodes. The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is an immense statue of the Greek god Apollo (as Helios Apollo). In ancient times, the citizens of Rhodes would cast a chariot and four horses into the sea each year as a tribute or gift to him, presumably to allow him to replace last year's model and continue to make his grand journey across the sky each day in style.
The Symbols of the Greek God Apollo
* Silver bow and arrow