There were many gods of Greece who personified one or two aspects of the culture. Apollo, however, came to represent the civilization itself.
He and his twin sister were destined from birth to be among the great Olympians. Apollo did not disappoint, as he established himself as both a master of archery and a prophetic truth-teller when he was still quite young.
Apollo’s duties within the pantheon expanded throughout his mythology. Most famously, a trade with Hermes resulting in Apollo becoming the god of music and poetry.
The connection with the poets was only the first way in which Apollo came to represent Greek culture, however. By the time the Romans adopted him into their pantheon, he was so intrinsically Greek that they didn’t change a single thing about him.
When Hera learned that Leto had become pregnant after an affair with Zeus, she banned her husband’s mistress from giving birth on terra firma. Neither the mainland nor any island would welcome her when she went into labor.
Leto finally found safety on the floating island of Delos. Because it was not fixed to the ocean floor, it was not firm ground so Hera’s ban to the lands of the earth did not apply there.
As her first attempt had failed, Hera went so far as to kidnap Eileithyia, her daughter and the goddess of childbirth. The other ancient mother goddesses of the pantheon were there to help Leto, however.
They also acted as witnesses, established the moment as one of great importance.
Leto gave birth to twins. Her daughter Artemis was born first, and the girl helped her mother to safely deliver her own brother, 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. The island was affixed to the seabed and, as Leto predicted, it was considered a holy site.
Apollo was born with a golden sword in his hand, and everything on Delos turned to gold as soon as he lifted it. Zeus arrived shortly after the birth to place a golden circlet on his son’s head, marking him as a prince among the Olympians.
While Apollo and his sister were given a royal welcome into the world, they grew up largely removed from Olympus. Leto raised them mostly in the wilder parts of the world to avoid Hera’s continued anger.
Leto’s mother, Phoebe, gave Apollo the sacred site of Delphi to honor his birth. Themis, the goddess of divine law, taught him how to use oracles to give humans a glimpse into the truth of fate.
With these gifts, Apollo became a god of prophecy and truth. His oracles at Delphi were the most famous seers in the ancient world.
Living in the wilderness, Apollo also became a god of herdsmen. He kept a herd of cattle and watched over the flocks and herds of men.
Apollo’s cattle would eventually lead him to become Greece’s patron of music. When his younger brother Hermes stole the herd, Apollo traded his role as herdsman and shepherd for the younger god’s newly-invented lyre.
He used this instrument to compose music. As Greek poems were often set to such songs, he became the god of both poets and 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.
While he was as skilled as his sister in archery and usually seen with his bow, Apollo was considered to be a more cultured god than his wild huntress twin. Eventually, he came to represent the entire culture of the Greek world.
Apollo was such a uniquely Greek god that the Romans, when they adopted Greek religion, could find no parallel for him. They considered him to still be a god that represented the height of the Greek culture they admired.
Apollo earned his place as a god that represented what it meant to be Greek through his many attributes and spheres of influence. As Greek culture evolved and expanded, their national god’s character took on even more duties.
The lyre was not just a symbol of Apollo, but of all of Greece. The poems it accompanied spread their shared culture and religion and were so identifiable with the region that the instrument is still featured on coins to this day.
Apollo’s oracles gained such a reputation for honesty that it became customary to consult them before writing new laws. The god of true prophecies came to be associated with some of his father’s duties as a giver of laws.
While Apollo and Artemis could use their bows to bring disease, Apollo in particular was associated with healing and medicine. His son Asclepius became the god of physicians and Apollo was invoked by both trained doctors and practitioners of folk medicine.
As Greek thinkers developed new theories of mathematics, they prayed to Apollo for guidance. As the god of music he ruled over harmony, which was believed to be the foundational principle of math.
Because he was called Phoebus, or “bright,” Apollo was sometimes conflated with the sun god, Helios. Eventually, the idea emerged that Apollo himself was the god of light and the driver of the sun’s chariot was either subservient to him or a lesser aspect of his power.
While Apollo was still sometimes seen as a protector of livestock, despite having given the job to Hermes, he was even more closely associated with the protection of humans. In particular, he looked after young men.
As a young-looking man himself, Apollo also represented the epitome of male beauty in the Greek world. Images of Apollo were based on a rigid set of criteria, including principles of mathematics in proportion and symmetry, that established them as ideal figures of male beauty.
In virtually every part of Greek culture, Apollo had a hand. Rural Greeks saw him as a shepherd while urban Greeks associated with poetry and law.
His seemingly divergent fields worked together to create the cornerstones of classical society. While modern thought looks at math and art as opposites, however, sculptors in Greece looked to the mathematical principles inspired by Apollo to formulate the perfect proportions with which to portray his beauty.
More than any other god, Apollo encapsulated everything the Greeks thought was unique and exceptional about their own culture. The god of poetry became so synonymous with everything the Greek people valued that he came to represent the light of the sun itself.
Apollo is most often described as the Greek god of music and poetry. He and his twin sister Artemis were the children of Zeus and the Titaness Leto.
From birth, it was said that Apollo would grow to be a powerful god. Beginning with his gift for prophecy, the invention of the bow, and his adoption of music, the bright young god seemed on his way to fulfilling this destiny.
He would go on, though, to be associated with more and more parts of Greek life. From herding cattle to devising the mathematical proof of beauty, Apollo’s name was invoked by Greeks from all walks of life.
Apollo came to, more than any other god, represent how the Greeks saw their own culture. The beautiful god of poetry, truth, light, and law embodied everything that set the Greeks apart from their neighbors