Young, hansome and dazzling, seer, poet and musician, Apollo had all the qualities of a great god.
The Romans often call him Phoebus, the bright one, and he was often identified with the Sun. Apollo's sparkling and brilliant nature also had a terrific side. He was said to be 'the most powerful of all the gods'.
Zeus had an affair with Leto (daughter of Coeus, the Titan) and she became pregnant. Hera, who was jealous, pursued Leto the length and breadth of the earth to prevent her from bringing her children into the world. Asteria, a small, floating, barren island, was the only place that would welcome her. There Leto was finally able to give birth, first to Artemis and then to Apollo. Because the god of light first saw day on its soil, the island was immediately covered in gold and became prosperous. It was set in the middle of the sea of Greece and became known as Delos, the shining one. The sacred swans flew round the island seven times because it was the seventh day of the month, and finally they borre the child away beyond the home of the North Wind, to the Hyperboreans.
After he had stayed with the Hyperboreans for a year, Apollo went to Delphi.
There he found a dragon, Python, who guarded the oracle of Themis (goddess of the law,. daughter of Gaea and Uranus) and also raided the country, killing men and animals, polluting springs and ravaging the earth. Apollo destroyed him with his arrows and thus delivered the country. He then founded the Pythian Games, consecrated the shrine and made the tripod one of his symbols. Henceforth, Pythia, priestess of Apollo, pronounced her oracles sitting on a tripod.
Handsome, young, tall, outstanding in word and deed, he had 'the appearance of a robust, strong man'. God of ever-renewed youth, but not immature he was full of energy and sometimes even violence. He was the model for, and protector of, the kouroi (young people). His long curls were black with silver tints, hair which had never been cut. Young men made him an offering of the hair they had cut for the first time, in a traditional rite which marked their entrance into manhood.
He loved the nympy Daphne, a love inspired by Eros who was annoyed by his jests (Eros made Apollo fall in love with Daphne because he had made fun of the way Eros used his bow, his favourite weapon). She, however did not reciprocate his desires and fled to the mountains, where she was transformed into a laurel tree, the tree dedicated to Apollo.
Apollo never mixed with humans other than out of capriciousness or when he was obliged to. He was very proud before Diomedes (Ulysses's faithful companion during the Trojan War): 'Go back, do not seek to pit yourself against the gods, for they are not of the same race; immortal gods and men merely passing through on the earth.' He was 'insanely arrogant' says the Homeric Hymn, and would not lower himself to look at 'that pathetic race which grows and wither like the leaves on the trees'.
Twice, Zeus reacted by testing him and ordering him to be a slave, for a time, to certain mortals.
Music was one of Apollo's talents. One day, his flock was stolen from him by Hermes; but when he found the sheep on Mount Cyllene, he let the thief keep them in return for the lyre he had invented. On another occasion he was challenged by the satyr, Marsyas, who claimed he could play more melodious music on his flute than Apollo on his lyre. Marsyas was defeated and Apollo had him flayed alive and nailed to a pine, which is why the bark of this tree is said to be red like the blook of the victim. Marsyas obviously did not know that the music of Apollo charmed 'the gods, the wild beasts, and even the stones'. He was the leader of the choir of Muses and inspired soothsayers and poets alike. Indeed, his oracles were expressed in verse.
Apollo's weapons were just as fearsome as those of his sister, Artemis. He took part in the massacre of the children of Niobe; decimated the Greek army before Troy; and killed the Cyclops, the serpent Python who came from his dark lair, and Tityus, the giant who came out of the earth. The death of Achilles is attributed to him and, because of the hate he bore towards Achilles, he pursued his son, Neoptolemus, killing him at Delphi where he was consulting the oracle.
Just as he was good at killing, Apollo also knew how to cure and get rid of evil and illness, and to fight the monsters who spread unhappiness. He was a doctor, rather like his son, Asclepius. He knew the purification rites (katharsios) and was invoked against plague. His effigy was set in dangerous places and it was to him that people turned when they were in serious situations.
Apollo spoke at Delphi. Pythia said 'I' and spoke Apollo's own words. She was the only one who knew what the master of the world thought and the judgements he made in his mind. 'Know thyself' was the inscription on the pediment of the temple. The oracle could read the answers written in the hearts of those who questioned it, but 'never pronounced an oracle ona man, woman or city that was not an order from Zeus'.
The festivals in his honour, the Thargelia, had two phases. Firstly, two poor wretches, physically and morally destitute, were chosen. One represented women and the other men. They were paraded though the town, beaten with sticks, stoned and sent to be burned or chased into the mountains. They took with them the sins of all, and this formed the rite of purification. Next they sang the paean, the song of Apollo, and offered the god the first fruits of the earth in the form of bread, fruit and cakes.
Certain animals have a particular connection with Apollo: the wolf offered to him in sacrifice, the deer, the swan, the kite, the vulture and the crow, whose flight signifies omens.
Apollo was a very important person in antiquity. It was he who promised salvation and eternal life in the Orphic religion and stared Pythagorism. He also reigned on the island of the Blessed, a paradise.