Greek God

Apollo

Apollo was a powerful Greek god and one of the Twelve Olympians. Often depicted holding a lyre, he was the patron of music, poetry, medicine, and prophecy, as well as the ideal of masculine beauty.

Apollo, Greek God of Music (3:2)

Top Questions

  • What was Apollo known for?

    Apollo was a famous healer, a patron of all things civilized, and the epitome of youth and masculine beauty. In later religion and literature he became associated with the sun as well.

  • Was Apollo married?

    Apollo never married, but he had many lovers, both female and male. He also sired the famous physician Asclepius and the musician Orpheus.

  • Whom did Apollo accidentally kill?

    Apollo accidentally killed his lover Hyacinthus after the jealous wind god Zephyrus blew Apollo’s discus into Hyacinthus’s head.

Overview

A son of Zeus and the Titaness Leto, Apollo was part of the second generation of Olympians. His twin sister was Artemis, goddess of the wild and hunting. One of the chief gods of the Greek pantheon—and possibly the most beloved—Apollo was the patron of music, poetry, and artistic inspiration. He was also celebrated as the patron of oracles, the giver of prophetic gifts, the bringer of order and reason, and a source of healing and the medical arts. But Apollo had darker characteristics as well. He was known to spread plague through his arrows. He would also mete out harsh punishments to anyone who crossed him.

Apollo was the archetypal Greek male youth. He was commonly represented by a kouros, a statue of a young, beardless male often carrying a lyre or a bow and arrow. Worshipped in the Greek world and beyond, Apollo had dozens of temples and shrines built in his honor—including the famous oracular shrine at Delphi. It was at Delphi, according to myth, that Apollo had fought and slain the monstrous snake Python. Apollo was memorialized not only in a rich mythology, but also in statues and songs known as paeans; while some have survived, others live on only in reputation.

Etymology

As with most Greek deities, the etymology of the name “Apollo” has mysterious origins. It does not appear in the Linear B tablets, the earliest surviving texts of Greek civilization, written in a syllabic script during the Greek Bronze Age (ca. 1600–1100 BCE). However, this does not necessarily mean that Apollo was a late addition to the Greek pantheon: the name Paean, one of Apollo’s most common alternate names, does show up in Linear B.

Some scholars have posited that the name “Apollo” is a derivation from apella, a word in the Doric dialect of ancient Greek that means “public assembly.” Indeed, the Doric form of the god’s name is “Apellon.” In this interpretation, "Apollo” translates to “he who assembles” or “he of the assembly,” possibly referring to his reputation as the bringer of civilized order and the source of civil constitutions.[1]

Gregory Nagy, on the other hand, has argued that “Apollo” was derived from the words apeilē, a noun meaning “promise, boast, or threat,” and apeilein, a verb meaning “to make a promise, boast, or threat.” Such an etymology would render Apollo “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]

Other popular etymologies for the name connect it to the verb apollynai (“to destroy”), but also to words such as apolysis (“redemption”), apolousis (“purification”), haploun (“simple,” “straightforward”), and aei ballōn (“ever-shooting”).[3]

Several Indo-European etymologies have also been proposed. Some scholars, for example, have noted the similarity between the Greek Apollo and the Hittite Apaliunas, another name for Aplu (the god of plague). In the Luwian language, spoken in ancient Anatolia (modern Turkey), the name Apaliunas seems to have meant “the one of entrapment” or “hunter.” If the Greek Apollo originated as the Hittite Apaliunas, then Apollo’s name may have derived from his role as a hunter.[4]

Robert S. P. Beekes, however, has rejected all of these etymologies, instead insisting upon a pre-Greek origin for the name.[5]

  • English
    Greek
    ApolloἈπόλλων
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [uh-POL-oh]/əˈpɒl oʊ/

Other Names

Apollo was often called “Paean,” a name that emphasized his ritual function as a god of healing and protection. This was a very ancient name—perhaps even more ancient than the name Apollo.

Another alternative name for Apollo was Phoebus, one of the god’s most popular epithets. Many ancient sources call the god “Phoebus Apollo” or even just “Phoebus.” The Romans, for example, referred to the god as “Phoebus” at least as often as they referred to him as “Apollo.”

Other names commonly used to identify Apollo include “Loxias” (referring to the god’s ambiguous oracles, called loxia) and “Lyceus” (a word that simultaneously evokes light, wolves, and the region of Lycia). 

Epithets

Apollo’s diverse functions were reflected in his many epithets. In addition to titles such as Paean, Phoebus, Loxias, and Lyceus, which sometimes served as alternative names for the god (see above), Apollo was also called hekēbolos (“far-shooter”), hekaergos (“far-worker”), epikourios (“assisting”), oulious (“healer”), loimios (“pestilential”), and alexikakos (“ill-deterring”). 

Other epithets, such as Dēlios (“Delian”), Pythios (“Pythian”), and Smintheus (“Sminthian”) refer to sites and places of worship considered sacred to Apollo.[6]

Attributes

Domains

As a god, Apollo was associated primarily with prophecy, music, and all things beautiful. But he was also regarded as the god of medicine and plague, livestock, colonization, and virtue. 

Apollo was viewed as the symbol of universal and aesthetic order, civilization, and reason. In this capacity, he would punish the wicked and overbearing. 

In the arts, Apollo stood for harmony and order, while Dionysus, the other divine patron of the arts, reveled in ecstasy and chaos. This led to the pairing of the “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” as the two opposing poles of artistic creation (an opposition made especially famous by the nineteenth-century German philosopher and philologist Friedrich Nietzsche).[7]

Iconography and Symbols

From earliest antiquity, Apollo was represented in both art and literature as eternally youthful and handsome, with locks of radiant hair, a clean-shaven face, and an athletic but not overly muscular physique. The god was most commonly identified by either a bow or a musical instrument (usually a lyre, but sometimes a more specialized stringed instrument called a cithara).

Apollo’s symbols were many. In addition to the bow, lyre, and cithara, Apollo was also represented by the tripod, a tall, three-footed structure (sometimes elaborately decorated) used for sacrifices and religious rituals. This object represented Apollo in his function as god of prophecy. The “Delphic tripod” was the famous tripod on which Apollo’s priestesses at Delphi sat and delivered the god’s prophecies.

Apollo’s symbols also included sacred plants, such as the palm tree (the tree under which he was usually said to have been born), the laurel (whose leaves crowned those honored by Apollo), and the cypress.

Finally, Apollo’s symbols included an array of sacred animals. Among the most important of these were swans and cicadas (symbolizing music and song); ravens, hawks, and crows (his messengers); snakes (connected with prophecy); and wolves, dolphins, deer, mice, and griffins.

Family

Apollo was the child of Zeus and the Titan Leto,[8] who delivered him and his twin sister Artemis under trying circumstances. Apollo also had countless half-siblings (the products of Zeus’ marriages and affairs with various mortals and immortals). These included the gods Athena, Ares, Artemis, Hermes, and Dionysus, as well as the mortal heroes Heracles, Minos, and Perseus.

Apollo took many lovers, both female and male, but he never married. Among Apollo’s female lovers were a host of mortal princesses, nymphs, and even all nine of the Muses. The most famous of Apollo’s male lovers was Hyacinthus, who died tragically. Not all of Apollo’s loves were requited, however: the nymph Daphne and the Trojan princess Cassandra, for example, resisted Apollo’s advances and ended up suffering for it.

(FIGURE 2)

With so many lovers, it is only natural that Apollo had many children. Among them were Asclepius, who grew to be a physician with skills surpassing Apollo’s own; Ion, the ancestor and namesake of the Ionian Greeks; and Aristaeus, a god of husbandry.[9] Apollo also fathered various figures who gave their names to cities throughout the Greek world (Delphus, Miletus, Tenes, Epidaurus, etc.), as well as several oracles (Apis, Idmon, Tenerus, etc.).

In less mainstream traditions, Apollo was sometimes also called the father of Amphiaraus, one of the Seven against Thebes;[10] Troilus, a Trojan prince;[11] the great musician Orpheus;[12] and the monster Scylla.[13]

Family Tree

Mythology

Origins

The mythology of Apollo began with his remarkable birth from the union of Zeus and Leto (the daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe). Leto became pregnant by Zeus with twins while he was married to Hera. When Hera discovered this, she did everything in her power to try to prevent Leto from giving birth. According to the third-century BCE poet Callimachus, Hera even sent her son Ares to threaten any person or city that received Leto with utter destruction.[14]

In the end, Leto arrived on Delos, a tiny, barren island in the Aegean Sea. According to some sources, it was Apollo himself, whispering to his mother from inside the womb, who told Leto to seek shelter on this island.[15] Desperate to find relief from her labor pains, Leto addressed the island, begging it to let her give birth there and promising that if she were granted this kindness, Apollo would someday build a great temple on the seemingly unimpressive island:

for no other will touch you, as you will find: and I think you will never be rich in oxen and sheep, nor bear vintage nor yet produce plants abundantly. But if you have the temple of far-shooting Apollo, all men will bring you hecatombs and gather here, and incessant savour of rich sacrifice will always arise, and you will feed those who dwell in you from the hand of strangers; for truly your own soil is not rich.[16]

Delos, knowing that it had no natural gifts to offer, joyfully agreed to Leto’s terms. Thus, Leto gave birth to the twins Apollo and Artemis on the island, and in return Delos became one of Apollo’s sacred sites.

latona-and-her-children-apollo-diana-by-william-henry-rinehart-met-museum

Latona and Her Children by William Henry Rinehart (1874).

Metropolitan Museum of ArtPublic Domain

After a long and painful labor (which Hera extended by preventing her daughter Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, from attending Leto), Apollo and Artemis were finally born. The young Apollo was then wrapped in resplendent robes and fed nectar and ambrosia by Themis, the goddess of law and order. Apollo grew quickly; according to the third Homeric Hymn, he was no sooner born and fed than he announced for all to hear: “The lyre and the curved bow shall ever be dear to me, and I will declare to men the unfailing will of Zeus.”[17]

According to many sources, Delos was a wandering island before Apollo and Artemis were born on it; like Leto, it roamed the world without a place to call its own. But after the twin gods were born, Delos became rooted to its spot. It would forever remain fixed in place as Apollo’s sacred island.[18]

Apollo the Monster-Slayer

Seeking to make a name for himself, the young Apollo decided to hunt the beast known as Python. A son of the primordial earth goddess Gaia, Python was a giant, terrifying dragon. According to the most common tradition, Apollo tracked the beast to Delphi and killed it with his bow and arrows. He then took over the oracle of Delphi and used it as a center from which to dispense his prophecies.

According to the Roman mythographer Hyginus, however, Apollo’s killing of Python was an act of revenge because Python had pursued his mother, Leto, while she was looking for a place to give birth.[19]

apollo-victorious-over-the-python-by-pietro-francavilla-walters-art-museum

Apollo Victorious over the Python by Pietro Francavilla (1591).

Walters Art MuseumPublic Domain

In another story, Apollo, this time together with his sister Artemis, killed the monster Tityus when he attempted to rape their mother, Leto. In some versions of this story, however, Tityus was killed by Zeus,[20] while in others it was Leto herself who killed him.[21]

Apollo, the Killer Musician

Apollo was introduced to music shortly after his birth and soon became known as the greatest musician in the cosmos, a title he took seriously. In one story, told in detail in the Homeric Hymns, Hermes stole a number of cows that belonged to Apollo and hid them inside a cave. While there, Hermes killed a tortoise and fashioned the first lyre from its entrails and shell. Meanwhile, Apollo fumed about the theft and reported it to Zeus, who 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 object that he agreed to accept it in lieu of the cattle.[22]

Occasionally, the unwise and hubristic would challenge Apollo to musical contests. One challenge occurred when Pan compared his own music to Apollo’s, sparking the god’s outrage. They selected Tmolus, 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.[23]

Apollo Playing Lyre Cupid Lounging Below The Met

Cupid and Apollo with a Lyre by Paolo Farinati (ca. 1568).

Metropolitan Museum of ArtPublic Domain

The punishment for challenging Apollo could also be much more severe. This was the case for the satyr Marsyas, 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 himself a better player than Apollo. 

Once again, Apollo readied to duel a challenger. Marsyas played well, but the combination of Apollo’s lyre and voice won the day. In some versions of the story, Apollo managed to conclusively prove his superiority by turning his lyre upside down and playing it no less beautifully than before; when Marsyas tried to play the pipes upside down, he was met with less success.[24] In all versions, however, the punishment for his hubris was death. Apollo hung Marsyas from a tree and flayed the skin from his body.

Niobe

Niobe, the wife of King Amphion of Thebes, offers another famous cautionary tale about the consequences of hubris. As the story goes, she had fourteen children: seven boys and seven girls (though the numbers vary in some traditions).[25] One day, Niobe loudly boasted that she was more blessed than even the divine Leto, for she had fourteen beautiful children, while Leto had only two.

To punish Niobe, Leto sent Apollo and Artemis to kill Niobe’s children. Apollo shot down the sons with his bow, while Artemis shot down the daughters with hers. Niobe’s husband Amphion was killed too (though the details of how and why vary). Only Niobe was left. Devastated, she wasted away from grief; her tears became a river, and she herself became a stone. Ovid, the Roman poet who wrote the Metamorphoses, vividly describes the heartrending scene:

Childless—she crouched beside her slaughtered sons, her lifeless daughters, and her husband's corpse. The breeze not even moved her fallen hair, a chill of marble spread upon her flesh, beneath her pale, set brows, her eyes moved not, her bitter tongue turned stiff in her hard jaws, her lovely veins congealed, and her stiff neck and rigid hands could neither bend nor move.—her limbs and body, all were changed to stone.[26]

In some versions, however, at least one of Niobe’s children was spared. Apollodorus calls the survivor Meliboea and claims that Amphion also evaded death.[27] In other sources, however, two children survived, a boy and a girl called Amyclas and Chloris.[28] The Roman mythographer Hyginus even writes that Apollo granted Chloris’ son Nestor the years he had taken away from the Niobids. This was the reason for Nestor’s famous longevity.[29]

Admetus

In another story, Apollo’s son Asclepius had discovered and implemented a cure for death, but Zeus killed him for overstepping the bounds of medicine. When Apollo heard the news, he flew into a rage, slaughtering the Cyclopes who had fashioned the lightning bolt that Zeus used to kill Asclepius. To punish Apollo, Zeus sentenced him to a period of hard labor in service to a mortal man, King Admetus of Pherae.

Apollo submitted to his punishment, caring for Admetus’ herds. But Admetus was a kind man and treated Apollo with respect. In return, Apollo ensured that Admetus prospered. In some traditions, Apollo and Admetus were also lovers.[30]

After his period of service was over, Apollo continued to be a devoted friend and patron of Admetus. When he discovered that Admetus’ life was fated to end soon, he managed to reach a compromise with the Moirae, the three sisters who measured out the life of every mortal: if Admetus could find someone to willingly die for him, he could live. 

Apollo took this deal to Admetus, and Admetus’ wife, the lovely Alcestis, chose to die in his place. In the end, however, tragedy was averted and the couple reunited thanks to the brawn of Heracles, another of Admetus’ friends. Heracles happened to stop at Pherae during his travels, and upon learning the circumstances under which Alcestis had died, he conquered death itself to bring her back to her husband.

The Walls of Troy

In one myth, Apollo (together with Poseidon) helped Laomedon, king of Troy, erect the fortifications of his great city.[31] According to some traditions, this task was ordered by Zeus as a punishment for Apollo and Poseidon’s attempt to overthrow him as ruler of the Olympians.[32] In other traditions, however, the two gods went willingly, wishing to test the hubris of Laomedon.[#33]

Apollo and Poseidon performed the work as instructed, though ancient sources disagree on the division of labor. According to some, it was Poseidon who built the fortifications, while Apollo tended Laomedon’s livestock.[34] Pindar even suggests that the two gods were assisted by a mortal named Aeacus. Because Troy was destined to eventually fall, it could not be built by gods alone (such a city would be truly impregnable); consequently, the segment of the wall built by the mortal Aeacus would always be the weak point.[35]

At any rate, Laomedon refused to pay Apollo and Poseidon after they finished building his walls, and even tried to sell them into slavery. This particularly irked the temperamental Poseidon, who sent a sea monster to lay waste to the Trojan countryside. Ultimately, Troy would fall two times: once when Laomedon offended Heracles (in a manner very similar to how he had offended Apollo and Poseidon), and again after the decade-long Trojan War (fought for the love of the beautiful Helen).

Apollo and the Trojan War

During the Trojan War, Apollo vigorously defended the city of Troy. In some traditions, he even had an affair with Hecuba, the queen of Troy. He was also closely associated with the Trojan princess Cassandra, whom he had loved and to whom he had given the art of prophecy.

Throughout 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 when Agamemnon carried off Chryseis, the daughter of Apollo’s priest Chryses, as a war captive. Chryses first tried to ransom his daughter. Failing this, he prayed for Apollo’s intercession:

Hear me, god of the silver bow, who stand over Chryse and holy Cilla, and rule mightily over Tenedos, Sminthian god, if ever I roofed over a temple to your pleasing, or if ever I burned to you fat thigh-pieces of bulls and goats, fulfill this prayer for me: let the Danaans pay for my tears by your arrows.[36]

Apollo immediately came down from heaven, bringing plague and death in his wake—a terrible sight to behold:

Down from the peaks of Olympus he strode, angered at heart, bearing on his shoulders his bow and covered quiver. The arrows rattled on the shoulders of the angry god as he moved, and his coming was like the night. Then he sat down apart from the ships and let fly an arrow: terrible was the twang of the silver bow. The mules he assailed first and the swift dogs, but then on the men themselves he let fly his stinging shafts, and struck; and constantly the pyres of the dead burned thick.[37]

After numerous deaths, the Greeks realized why they were suffering, and Achilles demanded that Agamemnon return Chryseis to the offended priest. Agamemnon relented, but the goodwill between the two would remain forever broken: Agamemnon took Achilles’ captive, Briseis, to replace Chryseis, and in response, Achilles refused to fight any more for the Greeks.

Apollo and Hector Trojan War John Flaxman

Apollo Preceding Hector with His Aegis and Dispersing the Greeks by John Flaxman (ca. 1787).

Yale Center for British ArtPublic Domain

At other points in the conflict, Apollo fought on the side of the Trojans or 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 protected Aeneas.[38] 

Apollo also helped Hector kill Achilles’ dearest friend, Patroclus, when Patroclus entered the battle in Achilles’ invincible armor.[39] Later, Apollo would use his 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 had wanted to mutilate in his triumph and rage.[40]

In the end, Apollo brought about the death of the nearly invincible Achilles. Apollo had long nursed a grudge against Achilles for slaying his son Tenes before the Trojan War began. In most traditions, Apollo guided an arrow shot by the Trojan prince Paris to kill Achilles.[41]

Unhappy in Love: Four Romances of Apollo

Apollo, like most of the Greek gods, had many love affairs. Not all of these ended happily, and indeed, many of Apollo’s most famous affairs are tales of disappointment, betrayal, or unrequited love.

In one myth, Apollo fell in love with a beautiful woman named Coronis (though in some traditions, her name was Arsinoe). But Coronis loved the mortal Ischys and slept with him while she was pregnant with Apollo’s child. When Apollo found out about Coronis’ infidelity, he killed her in a jealous rage.

While Coronis’ body was being burned on the funeral pyre, Apollo remembered that the girl was pregnant with his child and removed the baby from the burning body (the first caesarean section). The boy, named Asclepius, became a great physician, though he ended up also dying a tragic death.

Another famous myth is that of Apollo’s homesexual relationship with the handsome youth Hyacinthus. One day, while Apollo and Hyacinthus were training in the fields, Apollo accidentally struck Hyacinthus on the head with a discus, killing the mortal boy. The heartbroken god transformed his deceased lover into a flower, the hyacinth, whose petals formed the Greek word aiai, meaning “alas.”

Other individuals loved by Apollo did not return the god’s love. Daphne, for example, a beautiful nymph, ran from Apollo when he tried to rape her. Just as the god was about to grab her in his arms, Daphne was transformed into a laurel tree. In Ovid’s beautiful rendition,

torpor seized on all her body, and a thin bark closed around her gentle bosom, and her hair became as moving leaves; her arms were changed to waving branches, and her active feet as clinging roots were fastened to the ground—her face was hidden with encircling leaves.[42]

Even in her new form, Daphne would forever hold a special place in Apollo’s heart: Apollo decreed that the laurel wreath would be worn by his priests and priestesses and by the winners of the Pythian Games held at Delphi in his honor.

Apollo also loved the beautiful Cassandra, a Trojan princess who was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba. Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy, hoping she would sleep with him in return; when Cassandra refused, Apollo cursed her so that nobody would believe her prophecies. Thus, even though Cassandra repeatedly warned her people that the city of Troy would fall, nobody listened.

Other Myths

Apollo is virtually ubiquitous in Greek mythology. The myths outlined above represent only a small fraction of the countless stories in which Apollo played a part. 

Other noteworthy myths describe Apollo’s role in the Gigantomachy, the terrible war between the Olympians and the Giants. In most sources, Apollo was one of the gods who battled a Giant named Ephialtes, and according to Pindar, it was he who killed the Giant Porphyrion with his arrows.[43] 

Apollo was also usually depicted as the god who killed the Aloadae, Otus and Ephialtes. These two cocky brothers wanted to carry off Hera and Artemis to be their wives. Thus, they piled two mountains on top of each other and attacked the gods on Olympus. In some versions, Apollo killed the Aloadae with his arrows.[44] In other versions, Apollo used a trick to kill them: he sent a deer between the brothers, and when they threw their javelins at the animal, they each struck the other instead.[45]

In another popular myth—one that was a common theme in Greek art—Apollo fought with Heracles. As the story goes, Heracles consulted Apollo’s oracle at Delphi on a matter but was unhappy with the response; consequently, he tried to steal the Delphic tripod in order to start his own oracle. Apollo immediately came down from Olympus and tried to wrestle the tripod away from Heracles. The battle only ended when Zeus separated the half-brothers.

Hydria Delphic tripod Apollo and Heracles

Hydria depicting Apollo and Heracles fighting for the Delphic tripod by the Madrid Painter (ca. 520 BCE).

Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Apollo and the Greeks

Apollo was the ultimate expression of Greek culture as the Greeks envisioned it: youthful and vital, powerful and wise, peaceful (with the occasional outburst of righteous fury), full of light, poetry, music, and civilization. It was this positive cultural representation that made Apollo so widely loved and admired throughout the Greek world. Even his fluid sexuality suggests a culture that embraced the erotic pleasures of both sexes. With so many temples, statues, and other monuments built in Apollo’s honor, admiration for the deity cannot be overstated.

Worship

Festivals

The most important of Apollo’s festivals were the Pythian Games, held every four years at Delphi. Events included both athletic contests (wrestling, running, horse and chariot racing, etc.) and artistic contests (music, poetry, and even painting). Uniquely for the ancient Greek world, women were allowed to compete in most events. Winners were crowned with a wreath of laurel leaves.

According to legend, the Pythian Games were instituted by Apollo himself after he vanquished the monster Python and made Delphi his oracle. Historians, however, generally agree that the Pythian Games began around 582 BCE.

Another important festival of Apollo was the Delia, celebrated on the sacred island of Delos every four years. During the Delia, visitors and pilgrims from all over Greece would gather on Delos for musical performances, sacrifices, and feasting.

There were countless other festivals of Apollo that were celebrated throughout the cities of ancient Greece. In Athens, annual festivals of Apollo included the Boedromia, Metageitnia, Pyanepsia, and Thargelia. In Sparta, annual festivals included the Carneia and Hyacinthia (the latter named for Apollo’s lover Hyacinthus, said to have been a Spartan prince). In Thebes, the Daphnephoria, a great festival in honor of Apollo, was celebrated every nine years.

Temples

Apollo had numerous temples, sanctuaries, and shrines throughout Greece. Temple worship of Apollo is attested from an early date: some of the god’s temples can be traced back as far as the ninth century BCE. Many of these ancient temples, moreover, were actually built over cult sites in use since the Mycenaean Period (ca. 1600–1100 BCE).

In the Greek world, Apollo was first and foremost a god of prophecy and divination. Indeed, almost all of Apollo’s major temples in ancient Greece highlighted his prophetic function, with the exception of the temple on Delos. But Apollo was also widely worshipped as the god of music and the arts, colonization, and healing and medicine.

Perhaps the most important of Apollo’s temples was his temple and oracle at Delphi. Here, a priestess called a pythia delivered Apollo’s prophecies and advice. It was said that the pythia became inspired by breathing vapors arising from a spring that flowed underneath the temple. Scholars have long been divided over the veracity of this claim, and archaeological and geological investigation into possible fumes arising from faultlines beneath Delphi continues to this day.[46]

Temple of Apollo at Delphi Greece Bernard Gagnon

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece (fourth century BCE).

Bernard Gagnon / Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 4.0

Apollo had other major oracles scattered throughout the Greek world: at Thebes and Mount Ptoos in Boeotia; at Abae in Phocis; and at Didyma, Claros, and Pergamum in Asia Minor. Apollo also had important temples at Gortyn and Dreros in Crete and at Syracuse and Selinus in Sicily.

Apollo was worshipped widely in Italy, especially at Magna Graecia and Etruria. However, he was virtually unheard of in Rome until relatively late, and his first temples there only appear around the fifth century BCE. In the Roman world, Apollo was worshipped primarily in his capacity as a healer. His oracular priestesses in Italy were called sibyls.

Pop Culture

Apollo has been regularly featured in popular culture, though these depictions are often brief and superficial, failing to capture the complexity of his ancient personae. In both Percy Jackson and the Olympians, a book series by Rick Riordan, and the God of War video game series, Apollo plays only a small role.

Apollo has a unique connection to modern culture through space travel. Drawing on his association with the sun (an association that, contrary to popular belief, did not enter Apollo’s theology until relatively late), NASA named their famous moon-bound space program after Apollo. They hoped to emulate the exceptionally accurate archer in their journey to the moon.

References

Notes

  1. This etymology seems to have existed in antiquity but has been most fully developed in modern scholarship. See Walter Burkert, “Apellai und Apollon,” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 118 (1975): 1–21.

  2. Gregory Nagy, “The Name of Apollo: Etymology and Essence,” in Apollo: Origins and Influences, ed. Jon Solomon (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994), 3–7.

  3. Plato, Cratylus 404e–405c.

  4. Edwin L. Brown, “In Search of Anatolian Apollo,” in Charis: Essays in Honor of Sara A. Immerwahr, ed. Anne P. Chapin (Athens: American School of Classical Studies, 2004), 243–58.

  5. Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 115, 118–19.

  6. More extensive lists of Apollo’s epithets can be found online. See, for example, “Apollon Titles,” Theoi Project, accessed May 5, 2021, https://www.theoi.com/Cult/ApollonTitles.html.

  7. To this day, the best-known meditation on the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy is Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (Leipzig: Fritzsch, 1872).

  8. As always, there were some alternative versions regarding Apollo’s parentage (see, for example, Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.23); however, these alternatives were all very minor and insignificant in the case of Apollo, who was called the son of Zeus and Leto in nearly all ancient sources.

  9. Hesiod, Catalogue of Women frag. 93; Bacchylides, frag. 45 Campbell; Pindar, Pythian Ode 9.59–65; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.81.1; Virgil, Georgics 4.320; Ovid, Fasti 1.363; Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.17.3; Hyginus, Astronomica 2.4, Fabulae 161; Nonnus, Dionysiaca 5.212, 13.253. Though this represents the standard account, there appear to have been other, lesser-known versions regarding Aristaeus’ parentage (see, for example, the scholia on Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica 2.498–527).

  10. Hyginus, Fabulae 70.

  11. Apollodorus, Library 3.12.5.

  12. Apollodorus, Library 1.3.2. In most accounts (including that of Apollodorus), Orpheus was the son of the Thracian Oeagrus, not Apollo.

  13. Hesiod, Catalogue of Women frag. 13.

  14. Callimachus, Hymn 4.57ff.

  15. Callimachus, Hymn 4.86ff.

  16. Homeric Hymn 3.53–61.

  17. Homeric Hymn 3.131–32.

  18. Pindar, frag. 88 Sandys; Callimachus, Hymn 4.51ff; Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.190–91, 333–34.

  19. Hyginus, Fabulae 140.

  20. Hyginus, Fabulae 55.

  21. Nonnus, Dionysiaca 20.35ff.

  22. Homeric Hymn 4.

  23. The main source for this story is Ovid, Metamorphoses 11.146ff. There are allusions to this myth in earlier literature, however (e.g., Aristophanes, Wealth 287).

  24. Apollodorus, Library 1.4.2; Hyginus, Fabulae 165.

  25. In Homer, Iliad 24.602ff, Niobe has twelve children (six boys, six girls), while Aelian cites a lost poem by Hesiod in which Niobe has eighteen children (nine boys, nine girls) (Aelian, Varia Historia 12.36).

  26. Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.303–9.

  27. Apollodorus, Library 3.5.2.

  28. Hyginus, Fabulae 9. See also Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.21.9 and 5.16.4, where Pausanias claims that, after escaping the fates of her brothers and sisters, Meliboea’s skin changed color to pale white. Thus, she was renamed Chloris (which means “the white one”).

  29. Hyginus, Fabulae 10.

  30. Callimachus, Hymn 3.47ff.

  31. Homer, Iliad 7.452ff, 21.441–57; Ovid, Metamorphoses 11.194ff; Apollodorus, Library 2.5.9; Hyginus, Fabulae 89.

  32. John Tzetzes on Lycophron’s Alexandra 34; scholia on Homer’s Iliad 21.444.

  33. Apollodorus, Library 2.5.9.

  34. Homer, Iliad 7.452ff.

  35. Pindar, Olympian Ode 8.30ff.

  36. Homer, Iliad 1.37–42.

  37. Homer, Iliad 1.43–52.

  38. Homer, Iliad 5.344ff.

  39. Homer, Iliad 16.788ff.

  40. Homer, Iliad 23.184ff.

  41. Homer, Iliad 19.416–17, 21.277–78, 23.80–81; Aethiopis (fragments); Pindar, Paean 6.78–86; Apollodorus, Epitome 5.3; Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 3.30–185. In some versions, Apollo was said to have killed Achilles by himself. See Aeschylus, frag. 350; Sophocles, Philoctetes 334–36; Horace, Odes 4.6.1–12; Hyginus, Fabulae 107.

  42. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.547–52, trans. Brookes More.

  43. Pindar, Pythian Ode 8.12–18.

  44. Homer, Odyssey 11.305.

  45. Hyginus, Fabulae 28. In some versions, the deer was actually Artemis in disguise (Apollodorus, Library 1.7.4).

  46. For a recent overview of the problem, see J. Z. De Boer, J. R. Hale, and J. Chanton, “New Evidence for the Geological Origins of the Ancient Delphic Oracle (Greece),” Geology 28 (2001): 707–10; and Haralampos V. Harissis, “A Bittersweet Story: The True Nature of the Laurel of the Oracle of Delphi,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 57 (2014): 351–60.

Primary Sources

Greek

  • Homer: Apollo appears in the Iliad and the Odyssey (eighth century BCE) as an ally of the Trojans and an enemy of the Greeks.

  • Hesiod: Some of Apollo’s myths and genealogies feature in the seventh-century BCE epics of Hesiod, including the Theogony and the fragmentary Catalogue of Women.

  • Homeric Hymns: One of the Homeric Hymns—religious poems about the gods composed around the seventh and sixth centuries BCE—is dedicated to Apollo and describes in detail the myths of his birth, battle with Python, and arrival on Olympus (Homeric Hymn 3). The shorter Homeric Hymn 21 is also dedicated to Apollo, and Apollo plays an important role in Homeric Hymn 4 (dedicated to Hermes).

  • Pindar: Apollo is routinely invoked in Pindar’s poetry (fifth century BCE) as a god of music and the arts. In addition, Pythian Ode 9 (474 BCE) describes Apollo’s relationship with the nymph Cyrene.

  • Aeschylus: In the trilogy of plays known as the Oresteia (458 BCE), Apollo plays an important role as the god who instructs Orestes to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, in revenge for her having killed Orestes’ father, Agamemnon. In the final play of the trilogy, the Eumenides, Apollo appears as a character and defends Orestes at his murder trial.

  • Sophocles: Apollo is featured “behind the scenes” in many of Sophocles’ plays, with the god’s oracles deciding the course of the plays’ events. In Oedipus Tyrannus (ca. 430 BCE), for example, it is Apollo’s oracle who initiates the action of the tragedy. And in Electra (probably 410s BCE), it is Apollo who reportedly tells Orestes to kill his mother (as in Aeschylus’ Oresteia).

  • Euripides: In several of Euripides’ tragedies, Apollo plays an important role in the myth of Orestes. In the tragedy Orestes (408 BCE), Apollo appears as a character in the final scene. In other tragedies about the myth of Orestes, such as Electra and Iphigenia among the Taurians (both probably 410s BCE), Apollo operates in the background. Apollo is also important in Ion (late 410s BCE), where he is the absentee father of the young Ion, the namesake of the Ionian Greeks.

  • Aristophanes: Apollo does not generally appear in the comedies of Aristophanes (Dionysus and Heracles are more common in his plays), but it is Apollo’s oracle that inspires the action of Wealth (408 BCE).

  • Plato: The philosopher Plato discussed the nature of the gods as well as the truth of many oracles (including Apollo’s) in several of his dialogues, including the Republic (ca. 375 BCE) and Timaeus (ca. 360 BC).

  • Callimachus: His second Hymn (third century BCE) details the origins and birth of Apollo.

  • Orphic Hymns: The Orphics were a Greek cult that believed a blissful afterlife could be attained by living an ascetic life. The thirty-third Orphic Hymn (ca. third century BCE to second century CE) is dedicated to Apollo.

  • Strabo, Geography: A late first-century BCE geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.

  • Lucian: Apollo features in a number of Lucian’s satirical writings (late first to early second century CE), including the Dialogues of the Gods.

  • Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue; like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.

  • Quintus of Smyrna: In the fourth-century CE epic Posthomerica, Apollo is occasionally shown interfering in the Trojan War, as he does in the Homeric poems; he is the one who helps Paris kill Achilles.

  • Nonnus: The epic poem Dionysiaca (fifth century CE) relates the travels of the young god Dionysus and his conquest of India; Apollo is among the gods who help him.

Roman

  • Virgil: Apollo is the father of Aristaeus, whose story is told in detail in Book 4 of the Georgics (29 BCE).

  • Ovid: The myths of Apollo and his many love affairs feature prominently in Ovid’s poetry, especially the Metamorphoses and Fasti (both ca. 8 CE). 

  • Lucan: Apollo’s prophecies feature throughout the epic Civil War (65 CE), which describes Julius Caesar’s rise to power. In Book 5, for example, Pompey’s ally Appius Claudius reopens Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, only to misunderstand the prophecy he receives.

  • Statius: Apollo is an ally of the Seven against Thebes (especially the Argive prophet Amphiaraus) in the epic Thebaid (first century CE).

Mythological Handbooks (Greek and Roman)

  • Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History: A work of universal history, covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BCE). Contains references to the myths of Apollo.

  • Apollodorus, Library: A mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE with references to the myths of Apollo.

  • Hyginus, Fabulae: A Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE) that includes sections on the myths of Apollo.

  • Fulgentius, Mythologies: A Latin mythological handbook (fifth or sixth century CE) with sections on the myths of Apollo.

Secondary Sources

  • Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

  • Cartwright, Mark. “Apollo.” World History Encyclopedia. Published online 2019. https://www.worldhistory.org/apollo/

  • Fontenrose, Joseph. The Delphic Oracle: Its Responses and Operations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

  • Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

  • Graf, Fritz. Apollo. London: Routledge, 2008. 

  • Graf, Fritz, and Anne Ley. “Apollo.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e128090

  • Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.

  • Guthrie, W. K. G. The Greeks and Their Gods. London: Methuen, 1962.

  • Kerényi, Károly. The Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1951.

  • Long, C. R. The Twelve Gods of Greece and Rome. Leiden: Brill, 1987.

  • Parke, Herbert W. The Oracles of Apollo in Asia Minor. London: Croom Helm, 1985.

  • Parke, Herbert W., and Donald E. W. Wormell. The Delphic Oracle. 2 vols. Oxford: Blackwell, 1956.

  • Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.

  • Smith, William. “Apollo.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed May 11, 2021. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DA%3Aentry+group%3D31%3Aentry%3Dapollo-bio-1.

  • Solomon, Jon, ed. Apollo: Origins and Influences. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1994.

  • Theoi Project. “Apollo.”  Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Apollon.html.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Apollo.” Mythopedia, December 02, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/apollo.

Kapach, Avi. “Apollo.” Mythopedia, 2 Dec. 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/apollo. Accessed on 3 Dec. 2022.

Kapach, A. (2022, December 2). Apollo. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/apollo

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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