Apollo: The God of Music, Poetry, and Light
In a pantheon as large as that of the Greeks, you might expect every being to personify only one or two parts of the culture. With hundreds of gods, goddesses, nymphs, Titans, and daemons there would only be so many jobs to go around.
It’s true that much of the Greek pantheon was highly specialized, representing just a single place or profession.
Among these gods, however, Apollo stands out.
While most people think of him as the god of music and poetry, Apollo represented much more than that.
In some ways, Apollo represented every aspect of the Greek world.
From his iconic instrument to his ideal body type, read on to find out why Apollo symbolized the perfect Greek man!
Zeus had originally gone after Leto’s sister, Asteria, but she had rejected him and thrown herself into the sea to escape his advances. Some sources say that she became the floating island of Delos.
With Asteria gone, Zeus turned his attention to Leto.
When Hera learned that Leto had become pregnant, she banned her husband’s mistress from giving birth on terra firma. Neither the mainland nor any island would welcome her.
Hera sent Ares to watch over the land and Iris to guard the islands, believing that Leto would never find a refuge.
Leto wandered from place to place, accompanied and protected by a pack of wolves, searching for a place where she could safely give birth.
Leto finally found safety on the floating island of Delos. Because it was not fixed to the ocean floor, it was not firm ground and therefore was outside of Hera’s command.
Thwarted, Hera went so far as to kidnap Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth. Leto was forced to labor without her help.
The other goddesses, with the exception of Hera, were on hand to witness the birth.
Leto gave birth to twins. Her daughter Artemis was born first, and the girl helped her safely deliver Apollo.
When her son was born, Leto promised that he would someday be a great god and the island of Delos would become rich as a site of pilgrimage.
Great pillars were placed beneath the island to affix it to the ocean floor. The floating patch of land had become a proper part of the earth.
Apollo was born with a golden sword in his hand, and everything on Delos turned to gold as well. Zeus arrived shortly after the birth to place a golden band on his son’s head.
Apollo and his sister, avoiding the continued anger of Hera, grew up largely removed from Olympus.
Both learned to hunt, although Artemis demonstrated exceptional skill with her bow. Apollo built an altar on Delos from the horns and bones of the animals his sister hunted.
His grandmother Phoebe gave him the sacred site of Delphi as a birthday gift. Themis, the goddess of divine law, taught him how to pass prophecy on to humans through oracles.
The otherwise idyllic youth of the twins was, however, sometimes marked with violence.
When Apollo and his mother traveled to claim Delphi, they were attacked by Python, a great serpent. The vicious giant snake had been tasked with hunting down Leto by the jealous Hera.
Apollo shot the beast with a hundred of his golden arrows. Python would forever be associated with Apollo’s holy site at Delphi, and his great festival was called the Pythian Games in memory of it.
Hera also sent the giant Tityos to abduct Leto. Apollo and Artemis killed him, as well, and Zeus sentenced him to an eternity of torture in Tartarus.
Throughout their early years, Apollo and his twin sister were the companions and protectors of their mother. Sometimes, what they protected was her pride.
When queen Niobe of Thebes bragged that she was better than Leto because she had seven sons and seven daughters, while Leto only had one of each, the twins taught her a gruesome lesson. They killed twelve of her children, leaving one boy and one girl, as punishment for the queen’s arrogance.
Niobe fled to a mountainside, her grief causing her to turn to stone. The streams that flowed from the top of the mountain were said to be her endless tears.
Leto was typically depicted as a kind, matronly goddess for her strong connection to her children. But when angered, she proved to be without mercy.
While these scenes from his youth were certainly violent, most of Apollo’s early years are described with a sort of pastoral idealism. While his sister hunted, he spent his time tending to his flocks of sheep and herds of cattle.
Apollo’s cattle would eventually lead him to become Greece’s patron of music.
When his half-brother Hermes was born, the baby was an immediate trickster. On the first night of his life, he slipped out of his crib and into the world beyond.
The infant god killed a turtle and, seeing a clever use for its shell, used the remains as the basis for a new instrument. Hermes crafted the first lyre, an instrument that would become almost synonymous with Greek culture.
Afterward, he decided to help himself to some cattle. He found Apollo’s herd and stole fifty animals, all cows.
The cunning child hid his tracks well. He drove the cows backward and covered his own feet to confuse anyone who might come looking for them.
The only person who saw him was an elderly farmer who Hermes swore to silence.
Of course, he wasn’t planning on the one who looked for the missing cows to be another son of Zeus.
When Apollo saw that his cattle were gone, he went searching for the thief.
He found the farmer, who told the god that he’d seen a small child with a herd of cows who had been walking backward before him. With this knowledge, Apollo eventually managed to follow the tracks that Hermes had attempted to disguise.
Along the way, he saw a giant eagle soaring above him. With his gift of prophecy, Apollo recognized that the symbol of Zeus meant that the thief was another of the king’s children.
Apollo found Hermes, who by the light of day was pretending to be an innocent newborn. Unconvinced, he took the child to be judged by Zeus.
Apollo told the story of the stolen cattle with his characteristic truth. Hermes wove elaborate and fantastic lies.
Their father was enchanted by the mischievous newborn and declared that all would be forgiven and Hermes would have a place in his court on Mount Olympus, provided he return all of Apollo’s stolen cows.
The problem was that Hermes had already killed two of the animals. He offered his new invention, the lyre, instead.
Apollo accepted, captivated by the lyre and the beautiful sounds it made. From that moment on, he and Hermes were close friends.
The trade completed, Apollo became the god of music.
Apollo is almost always pictured with his lyre, which became his most recognizable attribute. Many poems describe him delighting the gods with his playing and musicians competed at his Pythian Games to great acclaim.
One memorable myth showed Apollo’s unsurpassed mastery of music.
Athena had invented the flute but cursed the instrument because puffing her cheeks out while she played made her look silly. It was found by the satyr Marsyas.
The boastful satyr challenged Apollo to a contest. Marsyas played well but was defeated when Apollo challenged him to play his instrument upside down.
Apollo flayed Marsyas for his arrogance, but soon regretted the cruelty of his punishment. The gods of the countryside transformed the satyr into a stream and Apollo set aside his music for several years.
A similar story is told of the god Pan, who challenged Apollo with his reed pipes. As always, Apollo emerged as the victor.
The only listener who judged Pan’s rustic music superior was King Midas. Annoyed, Apollo gave him the ears of a donkey.
Unlike many of the Olympian gods, Apollo’s love affairs were rarely a defining feature of his myths. While he had many children, the details of their mothers were mostly added at a later date.
The most famous of these stories is that of Daphne.
Apollo loved the nymph, but she fled from him because she had taken a vow of chastity. She begged Gaia to help her escape the god’s advances, so the mother earth turned her into a laurel tree.
Ovid described the moment of her transformation in beautifully poetic words:
And still Phoebus [Apollo] loved her; on the trunk he placed his hand and felt beneath the bark her heart still beating, held in his embrace her branches, pressed his kisses on the wood; yet from his kisses the wood recoiled. ‘My bride,’ he said, ‘since you can never be, at least, sweet laurel, you shall be my tree. My lure, my locks, my quiver you shall wreathe.’
– Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. 452 ff (trans. Melville)
The laurel became a symbol of Apollo, used by his oracles and given to victors at the Pythian Games. The wreath of leaves was later adopted to crown emperors and victorious generals.
This story became one of his most well-known because the image of the handsome, lovestruck god sadly embracing the graceful tree was a favorite of artists.
The story of Coronis is also a sad one. Apollo loved the human princess, but when she was pregnant she cheated on him with another man.
Apollo learned of her infidelity from a raven and, furious, asked his sister to kill the unfaithful woman. He turned the raven’s white feathers black to mark it as the bearer of bad news.
The god later regretted his hasty anger and recovered the child that Coronis was carrying at the time of her death by cutting it out of her stomach.
Apollo educated the child himself for a time, then sent him to be fostered by the wise centaur Chiron. Coronis’s son, Asclepius, grew up to be the greatest physician in history, proving himself worthy of being saved.
Eventually, Athena gave Asclepius the gift of Gorgon blood to enable him to resurrect the dead. Zeus struck him with a thunderbolt for this defiance of the natural order, but by Apollo’s request the physician was reborn as an immortal god.
Once, Apollo and Hermes fell in love with the same girl and slept with her on the same day. Chione gave birth to twins. Autolycus was fond of tricks, while Philammon was a skilled musician.
It was obvious which god had fathered each of the twins.
As a god associated with the arts, Apollo was said to have loved all nine Muses but found himself unable to choose between them. Rather than forsake the other eight, he chose to remain unmarried so he might enjoy all their gifts.
Many of his most famous children were born to one of the nine sisters, including Orpheus and Hymen.
He and Hecuba, the wife of King Priam of Troy, had an affair. An oracle said that the city would never fall as long as their son Troilus reached age twenty, but the young man was killed shortly before that time.
Troilus was not the only one of Apollo’s sons to fight for Troy.
Cassandra of Troy persuaded him to share his gift of prophecy but refused to consummate the relationship afterward. Apollo cursed her so that no one would ever believe the things she foretold.
Cassandra became one of the most tragic figures in the Trojan War, constantly unable to save her city and her loved ones.
While it was not uncommon for the Greek gods to take male lovers as well as female, Apollo’s affairs with men were more numerous and celebrated than those of Zeus or Poseidon.
Apollo’s male lovers included Cyparissus, for whom the cypress tree was named, Branchus, whose descendants became a celebrated family of prophets, and Helenus, one of King Priam’s sons.
He even vied with Aphrodite for the love of Adonis, the most handsome of all human men.
At one point, Apollo was exiled from Olympus and entered the service of a human king, Admetus of Pherae, as a herdsman. Writers claimed that he extended his servitude out of love for the king and even performed domestic tasks like cooking for him.
Apollo’s sister was horrified that he had entered into a low form of servitude for the sake of a mortal, but Apollo was undeterred. He saved the king from his sister’s anger and convinced the Fates to postpone the mortal man’s death.
When Admetus wished to marry a human princess, Apollo even provided his chariot and trained boars to pull it for the king to impress his future father-in-law.
The most famous male lover of Apollo, however, was Hyacinthus. His tragic death may have been a simple accident, or it could have been the result of a feud between Apollo and Zephyrus, the West Wind, for the prince’s attention.
During a friendly game of discus, a stray wind blew Apollo’s throw off course so that it struck and killed the handsome young prince.
Overcome with grief, Apollo turned the boy’s spilled blood into the dark red flower that bears his name. Apollo’s tears are what give the hyacinth’s petals their water-stained appearance.
His cries of “Ai! Ai!” (alas in Greek) were imprinted on the flower forever.
Like many of the other gods, the exact names and numbers of his lovers and children vary from source to source. But the ancient writers almost universally agree that all of Apollo’s lovers and children were remarkable for their exceptional beauty.
Apollo was, in many ways, the most Greek of all the gods. He was considered the national god, an embodiment of Greek identity, and a unifying deity for all the Greek states.
Being symbolic of the Greek people and their culture, Apollo was given power over many of the most important aspects of life in the region.
As a result, the list of things he is the patron deity of is long:
- Music – Apollo is often best remembered as the god of music and his lyre became the quintessential instrument of Greek culture.
- Poetry – In ancient times, most poetry was set to music.
- Prophesy – Born with this gift, Apollo won a promise from Zeus that no god would ever surpass his skill in foresight.
- Truth and Law – Apollo’s oracles were always honest in their prophecies. It was customary to consult them before writing new laws.
- The Sun – While Helios drove the sun, Apollo was associated with daylight. His epithet Phoebus meant “bright.”
- Archery – Apollo and Artemis together were said to have invented the bow and arrow.
- Healing and Disease – The twins’ arrows could bring plagues, but they could also grant healing. Apollo’s son Asclepius was promoted to godhood as a healer.
- Herds and Flocks – Apollo gave his cattle to Hermes but was still closely associated with animal husbandry. He was still occasionally shown tending to livestock.
- Protection of the Young – Apollo was concerned with the well-being and education of young men. In some coming-of-age rituals, the long hair of boys was cut at adulthood and offered to Apollo in thanks.
- Colonies – Apollo encouraged the building of new towns and the spread of Greek influence.
- Banquets – Apollo accompanied the feasts of the gods with music and poetry.
- Harmony – Through his music, Apollo could make all living things move in rhythm together.
- Mathematics – The Pythagoreans viewed math and music followed the same laws of harmony and balance, so the study was a form of worship to Apollo.
- Sailors – Apollo was prayed to for protection from the dangers of the sea.
In regional traditions, Apollo held dominion over even more parts of life!
As one half of a set of twins, Apollo was also connected to the opposite portion of many of his attributes. While he and Artemis were alike in many ways, they also represented a duality and natural balance.
For example, while Apollo was associated with the sun, Artemis was the lady of the moon.
His domains included such cultured activities as poetry, while Artemis represented more wild pursuits like hunting.
Even when they shared tasks, they divided them equally. While Apollo protected young men, Artemis did the same for girls.
Together, the two encompassed almost everything one could imagine.
Apollo was so much a part of Greek life that there wasn’t a Roman equivalent to him. Although they occasionally called him Pheobus, a name that came from Greek as well, the Romans recognized that Apollo would always be a Greek deity.
As Rome grew in power, they adopted the worship of Apollo as part of their claim to Greek heritage. It was not unusual for Roman leaders to travel to temples in Greece to consult the god’s oracles.
Other Greek gods entered the Roman pantheon with different names. They were combined with native Italian deities that most closely resembled their roles in Greek religion.
There was no god in Italy that could be conveniently combined with Apollo. They kept him as he was and his Greek origin was unaltered.
Apollo was never considered Roman himself, but he became one of the most important gods of the Latin world as well as the Greek.
Despite his association with peaceful pursuits like poetry and harmony, Apollo was very active in the many wars the gods participated in.
During the Olympians’ war with the Giants, Apollo himself killed the king of the monsters by shooting him with dozens of arrows.
He was said to have slain other Giants as well. In one case, he challenged the threatening Giant to a boxing match and knocked out the opponent with a single blow.
He was particularly active in the Trojan war. As the lover of Hecuba and the father of Troilus, Apollo sided with the Trojans in the conflict.
He was also angered with the Greek king Agamemnon for the kidnapping of an ocean nymph. Her father was one of Apollo’s priests, so the god took it as a personal insult.
Using his powerful arrows, he sent a terrible plague through the Greek encampment.
Apollo held a particular hatred for the hero Achilles. The Greek general had personally killed two of Apollo’s sons, Troilus and Tenes.
Some writers said that, rather than just Troilus, all of Hecuba’s sons were by Apollo instead of Priam. If that was the case, Achilles was responsible for the deaths of all of them.
The murder of Troilus was particularly hard for the god to accept, as Achilles had ambushed the young man in one of Apollo’s own temples. No one could blame the god for seeking revenge.
He first struck at Achilles, and the Greek cause, by causing the death of the hero’s closest companion, Patroclus.
Some versions of the epic tale give the credit to Achilles’ death to the god. Paris shot an arrow at the hero, but Apollo guided it to ensure a deadly shot.
The Greeks still loved Apollo even though he had taken a side against some of their greatest national heroes. His loyalty to his sons was admirable.
When Zeus sent Dionysus to fight in India and win control over the people there, Apollo was initially content to send a proxy to the fight. He personally armed his son Aristaeus for battle.
Eventually, though, Zeus asked the god to join the war effort himself. In this conflict, Apollo made use of his healing powers to save his son and several nymphs from drowning.
When the sons of Oedipus fought for control of Thebes, Apollo sided with Amphiaraus. The renowned seer was often said to have received his gift from Zeus, but others believed he was a son of Apollo.
When a spear came flying toward Amphiaraus, Apollo redirected it to hit his chariot driver instead. The god took the reins himself, deflecting more projectiles as he tried to steer them toward safety.
Amphiarus was swallowed by the earth. Apollo, with his gift of prophecy, had known the man was doomed but decided to let him live his final moments in glory.
Apollo was a formidable foe in war, but be also proved his might in more friendly competitions, too.
In the first Olympic Games he outran Hermes and beat Ares in boxing. Winning victory over the other gods in their own specialties earned him a special place in the lore surrounding contests and athletics.
He also held his own in hand-to-hand combat against Heracles.
When the hero was disappointed with the answers he received from the Oracle at Delphi, he stole the tripod from Apollo’s temple. The two fought, to the great entertainment of the other gods, until Zeus intervened.
While Apollo was most often associated with gentler and more civilized pursuits, he was a force to be reckoned with when it came to fighting as well.
In addition to personifying the most important aspects of Greek culture, Apollo also embodied the ideals of male beauty.
Apollo was almost always represented as a handsome man, young enough that he still had the long, curly hair of a teenager and a hairless face and body.
Unlike more typically masculine figures like Zeus or Heracles, there was nothing rugged or weathered about Apollo’s features. He had a soft face and a lean body.
The ideal represented by Apollo wasn’t that of strength and wisdom, but of the delights of youth.
The perfect man to the Greek way of thinking was young and beautiful.
In fact, Apollo’s form went so far against the conventions of masculinity that at least one story recounts Leto’s fury at hearing a joke about her masculine daughter and effeminate son.
The earliest Greek word for sculpture came from a term for delight, and the Greeks and Romans believed the best art was that which was a pleasure to look upon. The beauties of youth were more delightful to the eye than the ruggedness of age.
The Greeks also treated health and exercise as religious activities. The slender waists and perfectly-proportioned muscles shown on statues of Apollo fit the ideal of a healthy, active young man.
Such a man would, like the god, be capable of great heroism and strength as well as great intelligence and art. He would fit all aspects of like in the Greek world.
Mathematicians, who took Apollo as a patron, came to believe that natural beauty followed the principles of their field. They established the precise proportions that denoted Apollo’s perfect form.
Greek artists designed every aspect of Apollo’s representation, from the curvature of his hips to his facial symmetry, to be a perfect representation of the ideals of their culture.
This depiction of Apollo was so dominant in Greco-Roman art that it became the standard for the societies that followed. When artists of the Renaissance looked to emulate the culture of antiquity, they looked to images of Apollo.
More than perhaps any other god in the Greek pantheon, Apollo personified what it meant to be Greek.
In his patronage, he supported the greatest accomplishments of Greek culture – music, poetry, law, and education.
In his actions, he exemplified the ideal virtues of the culture – martial strength, education, truthfulness, and loyalty.
He and his sister together represented the balance essential to life. They were male and female, wild hunter and cultured artist, the sun and the moon.
The god was often kind and generous but was also prone to arrogance and cruelty. He often regretting the things he did in anger because he acted without thinking.
Apollo both looked to the future and honored the past. He was so exceptionally Greek that no other culture could adapt him to fit another need.
Apollo was arguably the most popular and widely venerated of the Olympians because, despite the differing politics and lifestyles of the various city-states, everyone could recognize a common culture in him.