Apollo: Greek God of Practically Everything, Except the Sun
Apollo god of light, knowledge, and much more, was one of the most loved gods in Greek mythology. He was considered the essential embodiment of Greek culture, physically and intellectually.
The ancient Greeks so favored Apollo that they continued to give him responsibilities. Eventually, he had so many attributes and epithets that even the Greeks couldn’t keep up with all of them. Like the god Thoth in Egypt, Apollo became the great multitasker in his pantheon.
Who Is Apollo in Greek Mythology? His Origins
Most scholars would agree that Apollo is the “most Greek” of all the gods, but his influence reached farther than that country’s borders. Apollo appeared in many ancient belief systems, notably Roman, Etruscan, Egyptian, Minoan, and others. His worship may have originated in Asia Minor around Anatolia, which covered most of modern-day Turkey.
Originally, Apollo was the god and protector of shepherds and herdsmen. Some scholars link Apollo’s name with the Greek word apella, which means sheepfold. He often carried a lyre, an ancient harp, since shepherds would often play music to pass the time.
Who Is Apollo in Greek Mythology? His Development
Apollo’s beginnings led to his role as the Greek god of music. He invented stringed instruments, including the lyre, the psaltery, and the kithara. Along with the nine Muses, he was the patron of poets, singers, dancers, and musicians, and he gifted humanity with the ability to enjoy music at a deep, innate level. He was called the Divine Singer, and his sacred swans, the most musical of birds, were called the Singers of Apollo.
Music is integrally linked to mathematics, so it is no wonder that Apollo became associated with mathematics as well. The Pythagoreans, the famous cult of mathematicians, considered him the highest of the gods.
With mathematics under Apollo’s sway, other branches of science followed. He became known as the god of healing and the medical arts, and he could inflict plagues and also heal them. Soon, he became known as the god of the intellect and all types of knowledge, including prophecy.
Apollo’s “enlightened nature” inevitably led to his epithets as the god of light. This title was not the light of particular spheres, like the Sun, moon, and stars, but Heavenly light itself. In this aspect, he resembled the Titan Hyperion, who was also quite beautiful.
What Is Apollo Known For?
The Oracular Temple of Apollo at Delphi was the most famous temple of prophecy in the world. The Greeks believed it was the center of the earth, or “the omphalos (navel) of Gaia.” Rulers from Greece, Egypt, Rome, and Asia Minor came to ask the oracle, or Sybil, for guidance on major decisions. At Delphi, the Sybil was always called Pythia, in honor of the serpent that Apollo defeated there when he was only a few days old. See the full story below.
Apollo gave his name to NASA’s moon-bound space program. However, this is not because of his mistaken association with the sun. The officials at NASA chose the god for his fantastic ability at archery. The calculations for a flight to the moon were vital to the astronauts’ survival, so they wanted their projections to be as accurate as hitting a bullseye with an arrow.
The aspects of Apollo’s fame are too numerous to mention. Unfortunately, the thing that is most commonly known about Apollo isn’t true. In modern times, Apollo is often called the god of the sun, and the myth of Phaethon is regularly attributed to him. This title is a mistaken association; Helios was the Greek god of the sun and the actual father figure in the Phaethon myth. It is possible that the misrepresentation began with the poet Ovid.
– What Is Apollo’s Symbol?
Considering the many aspects of life that Apollo governed, he had quite a few symbols. The most recognized are the bow and arrow, the lyre, and the laurel wreath. In Delphi, he was associated with the sacrificial tripod, which was a symbol of prophecy.
Of plants, Apollo was partial to the laurel tree, whose leaves created the laurel wreath, the crown of victory. He was also fond of the palm tree since he was born under one.
Apollo has several sacred animals. The list includes wolves, deer, dolphins, mice, ravens, hawks, crows, and griffins. Snakes were a symbol of Apollo’s prophetic abilities, and cicadas represented music.
Artistic representations show Apollo as a beautiful, muscular, beardless young man with generous, curly hair. The Greek word kouros is used to describe this ideal representation of the male figure. He was depicted carrying a lyre or a bow and arrow. Occasionally, he was portrayed riding a chariot pulled by either lions or swans.
– How Was Apollo Born?
The story of Apollo began like countless Greek myths: with infidelity and jealousy.Apollo was the son of the promiscuous Zeus and one of his numerous mistresses, the Titaness Leto.
When Hera found out that Leto was pregnant, she naturally became quite angry. Instead of punishing Zeus, she decreed that Leto could not give birth anywhere on land. Further, she sent the tremendous serpent-dragon Python to chase Leto until she died from exhaustion.
Leto tried to seek refuge across the globe but was rejected. No one wanted to face Hera’s wrath. Luckily, someone could identify with Leto’s dilemma. Her sister, Asteria, was also pursued by Zeus, and to escape him, she turned into a quail and threw herself into the sea. From there, she became the floating desert island of Ortygia, later identified as Delos. Since she wasn’t part of the mainland and wasn’t connected to land under the water’s surface, she could safely offer her sister a place to give birth.
Hera was not mollified, however. She also kidnapped Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, and kept her from serving as Leto’s midwife. For nine long days, Leto remained in labor. At last, the goddess Artemis was born, and she served as a midwife for her mother. A day later, Apollo was born.
– What Were Apollo’s First Feats?
This new god of light appeared in the world, clutching a golden sword. Suddenly, the island of Ortygia/Delos became lush and fragrant, nymphs sang and danced, swans circled merrily, and the island became fixed to the earth underneath the sea.
Leto wrapped Apollo in white linen and bound the swaddling with gold bands. While Leto recovered, the goddess Themis fed the child with nectar and ambrosia. When Apollo tasted it, he burst his bonds and stood up, full-grown. He announced that he would become a master archer and musician and serve as an intercessor between the gods and humankind. Apollo received a gold circlet from his father Zeus and a bow and arrows from the god Hephaestus as birthday presents.
Three days after his birth, he went to Python’s sacred cave at Delphi and engaged in a battle to avenge his mother’s tribulations. The nymphs of Delphi cheered him on with cries of “Hie, Paean.” This chant was a reference to one of his new epithets; a “paean” is a hymn of praise. Apollo’s bow and arrow proved accurate, and he killed the fearsome beast.
You killed him, o Phoebus, while still a baby,
Still leaping in the arms of your dear mother,
And you entered the holy shrine, and sat
On the golden tripod, on your truthful throne
Distributing prophecies from the gods to mortals.
– Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis
Thus, at only three days old, Apollo was technically a murderer. Python’s mother, Gaea, wanted the infant god to be banished to Tartarus, a bottomless abyss within the earth. Instead, Zeus exiled the young Apollo from Olympus and made him serve as a slave for nine years. Afterward, he purified himself in the waters of Peneus and returned to Delphi to reconcile with Gaea. She gave him the famed Oracular Temple of Delphi, and he honored her by creating the Pythian Games, second only to the Olympic Games in popularity.
The Tragic Love Stories of Apollo
Like the other Greek gods, Apollo had an insatiable lust, and so had many affairs. He didn’t discriminate based on sex, and he would fall in love or lust with beautiful men as easily as beautiful women. Sadly, quite a few of the stories end in tragedy for the object of his affection. Here are a few of the most popular myths of Apollo and his doomed relationships.
– His Female Lovers
Daphne was a nymph and the daughter of the river god, Peneus. Apollo desired her, possibly because he was struck by Cupid’s golden arrow. However, she had sworn her purity to Artemis. Some sources suggest that Cupid shot her with a leaden arrow that caused her to be repulsed by him. Apollo chased her through the woods, and she called out to her father for help. Peneus answered her call and turned her into a laurel tree to save her. Mournfully, Apollo plucked a branch of the laurel and fashioned it into a wreath to wear on his head in Daphne’s memory. This act is how the laurel became sacred to Apollo, and the laurel wreath became a mark of honor.
Another nymph, Sinope, had a clever way to avoid being Apollo’s wife. When he asked to share her bed, she asked him to grant her a favor first, and he readily agreed. With this promise from the god, she asked that she could remain a virgin until her death, thus foiling Apollo’s lusty intentions.
One of Apollo’s most famous doomed lovers was Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy. To win the favor of this princess, he granted her the gift of prophecy. Perhaps she foresaw that the relationship was doomed because she rejected him anyway. In a fit of pique, Apollo declared that her predictions would always be accurate, but no one would believe her.
According to myth, the crow originally had white feathers. When Apollo had an affair with the princess Coronis, he set the crow to watch over her while she was pregnant with his son. Unfortunately, the crow couldn’t stop her from having an affair with another man. Enraged, Apollo asked his sister Artemis to kill Coronis and burn the crow on her funeral pyre. Before the flames consumed her corpse, Apollo delivered his son, Asclepius. Asclepius eventually became the god of healing, and crows have had black feathers ever since.
– His Male Lovers
Like Apollo, Hyacinthus the Spartan prince was another kouros, a perfect specimen of manhood. Unlike many of Apollo’s lovers, Hyacinthus loved him back. Their romance was so successful that it inspired jealousy from Zephyrus, the West Wind. When Apollo was teaching Hyacinthus the art of the discus, Zephyr blew the discus back toward Hyacinthus, and he suffered a fatal wound. In grief, Apollo used some of the spilled blood to create the flower called the hyacinth, which is now associated with constancy.
Cyparissus was yet another lover who became a plant. He and Apollo were deeply in love, and Apollo gave him a beautiful pet deer as a gift. One day when Cyparissus was hunting, he accidentally killed the pet deer, for which he was distraught. He asked Apollo to let him be forever sorrowful for his mistake. Apollo reluctantly agreed, and he changed Cyparissus into a cypress tree, whose sap forms tear-like droplets on the trunk.
Not all of Apollo’s affairs resulted in tragedy. He is also said to have had love affairs with all nine Muses, which seems fitting. However, he was unable to choose between the sisters, so he decided to remain unwed. Still, he fathered children by five of the nine Muses.
Apollo’s Famous Children
A great many of Apollo’s affairs, successful or unsuccessful, resulted in children. Following is an abbreviated list of the many women who bore the children of Apollo:
- Calliope (muse of epic poetry) – Orpheus, the famous musician
- Thalia (muse of comedy) – the Korybantes, ecstatic dancers for Rhea
- Urania (muse of astronomy) – Linus of Thrace, master orator, and leader of lyric song
- Terpsichore (muse of dance) – Hymenaios, god of marriage ceremonies
- Evadne (daughter of Poseidon) – Iamos, oracle, and interpreter of augury
- Area (daughter of Poseidon) – Ileus, named after the city of Troy
- Hecuba (Queen of Troy, wife of Priam) – Troilus, killed by Achilles
- Coronis (princess of Thessaly) – Asclepius, god of healing
- Cyrene (Princess of Thessaly) – Aristeus, god of beekeeping, and Idmon, an Argonaut
- Thero (daughter of Phylas of Ephyra) – Chaeron, the tamer of horses
Apollo was said to be a good father, and he became known as the protector and educator of the young in general. It was a custom for boys reaching adulthood to cut their hair and dedicate the locks to Apollo.
Apollo and the Trojan War
Homer records that Apollo fought on the side of the Trojans. He had a long relationship after Zeus sent him there to be a hired servant for several years. Also, he favored Troy because he had love affairs with Queen Hecuba and Prince Helenus.
When the Greek army kidnapped Chryseis, the daughter of Apollo’s priest, Apollo retaliated by shooting plague-infected arrows into the Greek army. He said he would stop only if Chryseis were returned safely. Eventually, the Greeks had to comply, though it angered Achilles.
Among the many atrocities Achilles committed during the war, he killed Troilus, the son of Apollo and Hecuba, on the altar in Apollo’s temple. In revenge, Apollo aided in the killing of Achilles. When Paris shot at Achilles, Apollo guided the arrow into Achilles’s vulnerable heel.
How Did Apollo Die?
Several modern works of fan fiction, television series, and the Rocky film series lead to a mistaken belief that the Greek god Apollo died at some point. No classical Greek or Roman myth ever recorded the death of Apollo.
Apollo is one of the most important and most complex gods in Greek mythology. His influence was felt by cultures all across Asia Minor and the Mediterranean region. Here are just a few of the things to remember about him.
- Apollo was the god of many things but is known most widely as the god of light, medicine, art, truth, archery, prophecy, and knowledge.
- Contrary to popular opinion, he was not the god of the sun.
- He was considered the image of the ideal male figure and the embodiment of Greek culture.
- He and his twin sister Artemis were the children of Zeus and the Titan Leto.
- His companions were the nine Muses, who inspired art and music.
- He taught the Greeks about medicine and healing.
- His symbols included the lyre, bow and arrow, laurel tree, swans, dolphins, and ravens.
- He commanded oracular prophecy, and he was the patron god of the famous city of Delphi.
- He embraced bisexuality and had many lovers and many children.
- He was one of the few gods that kept his name when the Olympian gods were assumed into the Roman belief system.
Apollo’s association with healing and medicine promoted physical wellness, while music, poetry, and the other arts were thought to heal the mind and spirit. With such positive aspects of the human condition under his sway, it seems natural that Apollo was one of the most loved gods in the ancient world.