One of the chief gods of the Greek pantheon, Apollo was the patron of music, poetry, and artistic inspiration. Possibly the most beloved of all the gods, Apollo was also the patron of oracles and the giver of prophetic gifts; he was celebrated as a bringer of order and reason, and as a healer and source of the medical arts. Apollo had his share of darker characteristics as well, as he was known to spread plague by loosing his arrows. He would also mete out harsh punishments to anyone who crossed him.
Apollo’s many functions were reflected in his many epithets: he was called “far-shooter,” “far-worker,” “rouser of armies,” and “Phoebus Apollo.” He was also described as paion (“helper”), epikourios (“assisting”), oulious (“healer”), loimios (“pestilential”), and alexikakos (“ill-deterring”).1
Apollo embodied the ideal of the Greek male youth. He was commonly depicted as a kouros, a statue of a young, beardless male that often carried a lyre or a bow and arrow. Worshiped in the Greek world and beyond, Apollo had dozens of temples and oracular shrines built in his honor—including the famous oracular shrine at Delphi. He was also memorialized in statues and songs known as paeans; while some have survived, others have lived on only in reputation.
As with most Greek deities, the etymology of “Apollo” had mysterious origins. One theory has said the name derived from the early Greek noun apéllai, meaning “an assembly.” This interpretation would see the name "Apollo” translate to “he who assembles” or “he of the assembly,” possibly referring to his reputation as the bringer of civilized order and source of civil constitutions.
Another theory believed “Apollo” was derived from the words apeilḗ, a noun meaning “promise, boast or threat,” and apeiléō, a verb meaning “to make a promise, boast, or threat.” Such an etymology would render “Apollo,” in the words of one scholar, as “the god of authoritative speech, the one who presides over all manner of speech-acts, including the realms of songmaking in general and poetry in particular.”2
Apollo was the child of Zeus and the Titan Leto, who delivered him and his twin sister under trying circumstances. Apollo took many lovers both female (among them Hecuba, wife of King Priam of Troy, Poseidon’s daughter Ourea, and all nine of the Muses!) and male (including the beautiful Adonis, the Spartan prince Hyacinth, and King Admetus of Pherae).
With so many lovers, it is only natural that Apollo had many children. Among them were Asclepius—whom Apollo delivered with a caesarean, and who himself grew to be a physician with skills surpassing Apollo’s own—and Orpheus, the legendary musician and prophet. Apollo also fathered Delphos, Miletos, Tenes, Epidaurus, Ceos, Lycoras, Syrus, Pisus, Marathus, and Chaeron, all of whom went on to found eponymously named cities. Apollo sired several noted oracles, including Apis, Idmon, and Tenerus, among others.
The mythology of Apollo began with his remarkable birth from the union of Zeus and Leto. This union was Zeus’ sixth marriage and was not to last; shortly after siring the twins Apollo and Artemis, Zeus married Hera, who—in typically jealous fashion—held a lasting grudge against Leto and her children. When Hera discovered that Leto was pregnant with Zeus’ offspring, she sought to disrupt the birth by preventing her from having the twins on the mainland and spawning a terrible sea serpent, called Python, to pursue Leto.
Fearing for her life, Leto wandered from island to island seeking refuge and a community that would support her. It was wise and succoring Apollo who, whispering to his mother from inside the womb, suggested the island of Delos, a small and relatively uninhabited island that would nevertheless become a site of great historical and mythological importance. When Leto went into labor, Hera again pursued her agenda, this time by preventing Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth and midwifery, from attending to her.
When she had finally eluded the last of Hera’s schemes, Leto gave birth in the presence of several goddesses. She first gave birth to Artemis, who would become the goddess of the hunt and, acting as midwife, helped deliver Apollo, who came out clutching a bronze sword. The young Apollo was then wrapped in white cloth tied up with a gold band and fed nectar and ambrosia by Themis, the goddess of law. Within days, Apollo miraculously developed into a full grown man.
As a man and devoted son, Apollo hunted the beast known as Python. Eventually, he tracked the beast to Delphi (though, in some versions, the creature actually tracked Apollo and Leto). Once there, Apollo used a bow and arrow crafted by Hephaestus to slay the creature once and for all.
Apollo, the Killer Musician
Apollo was known as the greatest musician in the cosmos, and it was a title he took seriously. Apollo came to music shortly after his birth. As the story goes, Hermes stole a number of cows that belonged to Apollo and hid them inside a cave. Hermes also killed a tortoise in the cave and from its entrails and shell fashioned the first lyre. Meanwhile, Apollo fumed about the theft and reported it to Zeus, who in turn ordered Hermes to return the stolen cattle. As Hermes was preparing to do so, Apollo noticed him playing the instrument. The young god was so attracted to the device that he agreed to accept it in lieu of the cattle.
Occasionally, the unwise would in their hubris challenge Apollo to musical contests. The first challenge occurred when Pan compared his own music to Apollo’s, sparking the god’s outrage. They selected Timolus, the King of Lydia, to judge a contest—Pan blew a pleasant tune on the pipes, but Apollo played his lyre with such astonishing beauty that he was immediately selected as the victor. When King Midas voiced his disapproval with the outcome, Apollo cursed him with donkey ears.
The punishment for challenging Apollo could also be much more severe. It was for the satyr Maursyas, who one day found the aulos, a kind of flute that had been made and discarded by Athena. He learned the instrument well and eventually came to believe his ability to be greater than Apollo’s. Once again, Apollo readied to duel a challenger. Maursyas played well, but the combination of Apollo’s lyre and voice won the day. In some versions of the story, Maursyas briefly played out of tune. In all versions, however, the punishment for his hubris was death. Apollo hung Maursyas from a tree and flayed the skin from his body. Afterwards, he strung the pelt from a tree and allowed the blood to flow off.
Apollo and the Trojan War
During the Trojan War, Apollo vigorously defended the city of Troy. He was on intimate terms with many of the Trojans, having made lovers of Hecuba, King Priam’s wife, and Helenus, the son of Hecuba and Priam.
From the beginning to the end of the conflict, Apollo was a key mover of events. In the early stages of the war, Apollo’s rage threatened to undo the Achaeans by causing a rift between the mighty heroes Agamemnon and Achilles. This rift began to emerge when Agamemnon kidnapped Chryseis, the daughter of Chryses, Apollo’s priest, who prayed to his god for intercession as rendered in Homer’s Iliad:
“Hear me,” he cried, “O god of the silver bow, that protectest Chryse and holy Cilla and rulest Tenedos with thy might, hear me oh thou of Sminthe. If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned your thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer, and let your arrows avenge these my tears upon the Danaans.”3
And Apollo, infuriated, responded:
The angry god came down from the summits of Olympus with his bow and quiver upon his shoulder, his arrows rattling with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and soon his silver bow rained death as he shot into the midst of the Achean fleet. He first smote their mules and their hounds before aiming his shafts at the people themselves. The following day, the pyres of the dead burned from sunrise to sunset.3
Finally, Achilles gave up and demanded that Agamemnon return Chryseis to the offended priest. Agamemnon relented, but the amity between the two would remain forever broken.
Throughout the conflict, Apollo interceded on behalf of Trojan heroes such as Aeneas and Hector. When the former fell injured on the battlefield at the hands of Diomedes, Apollo enveloped the scene with a fog that disguised the wounded and protected Aeneas until his rescue. He would use this power again with Hector, who had been bested by Achilles in hand-to-hand combat. When Achilles finally vanquished Hector, Apollo used his protective mist to cover the body, which Achilles in his triumph and rage had wanted to mutilate.
In the end, Apollo also murdered the nearly invincible Achilles. In one version of Achilles’ death, Apollo simply guided the arrow fired by Prince Paris into the heel of the hero, the only truly vulnerable spot on his body. In another, it was Apollo himself who assumed the shape of Paris (a common trick of the gods) and used his own trusty aim and silver bow to deliver the mortal wound.
Apollo and the Greeks
Youthful and vital, powerful and wise, peaceful with the occasional outburst of righteous fury, full of light and poetry, music and civilization, Apollo was the ultimate expression of Greek culture as the Greeks envisioned it. Even Apollo’s fluid sexuality suggested a culture that embraced the erotic pleasures of both sexes. It was this cultural representation that made Apollo so widely loved and admired throughout the Greek world. With so many temples, statues, and other monuments built in Apollo’s honor, the sheer amount of admiration for the deity cannot be overstated.
Apollo was regularly featured in popular culture, although his depictions often simplified the complexity of his multifaceted ancient personalities and personae. Even with this simplification, Apollo still appeared to be misunderstood, and his appearances in popular culture were often brief and superficial. In both Percy Jackson & the Olympians, a book series by Rick Riordan, and The God of War video game series, Apollo is only a small player.
Apollo had a unique connection to popular culture in regards to space travel. Drawing on his association with the sun—contrary to common belief, Apollo was never the sun god, though he was briefly called Apollo Helios—NASA named their famous moon-bound space program after Apollo, the exceptionally accurate archer, whom they wanted to emulate in their journey to the moon.
Homer. Iliad. Translated by Samuel Butler. Project Gutenberg. Last modified February 15, 2013. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2199/2199-h/2199-h.htm.
Nagy, Gregory. “The Name of Apollo: Etymology and Essence.” Center for Hellenic Studies. https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/3383.7-the-name-of-apollo-etymology-and-essence.
Wikipedia contributors. “Apollo.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo.