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Zeus and Leto

Leto is known as the mother of Apollo and Artemis, but what does her relationship with Zeus tell us about how Greek mythology spread?

Leto was the mother of two of Zeus’s most famous children, Apollo and Artemis. While the Titaness did not hold a major position in the traditional Olympic pantheon, her association with Zeus and his children still made her an important figure.

Interestingly, there are no surviving stories of how Zeus seduced Leto. In fact, the most elaborate tale involving her from before the birth of her twins was how her sister avoided the god’s amorous advances?

But where did Leto originate from and how did she come to be associated with Zeus? The question of Leto’s origins sheds light on how the many religions of the ancient Mediterranean blended and influenced one another.

Leto and the Birth of the Twins

Leto and Zeus were cousins in Greek mythology. Both were the children of Titans.

While Zeus was born to Cronus and Rhea, Leto was the daughter of Coeus and Phoebe. While Coeus was presumably imprisoned with the other Titans in Tartarus, Phoebe was sometimes believed to have been a Titan goddess of oracles and prophecies.

According to some writers, Zeus had originally fallen in love with Leto’s sister, Asteria. When she threw herself into the sea to escape him, he turned his attentions to her sister.

Little is said of how Zeus seduced Leto. The story usually picks up with his wife, Hera, finding out about the affair and Leto’s pregnancy.

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The queen of the gods forbade the Titaness from giving birth on terra firma. No solid land would support Leto when she went into labor.

Legends were expanded over time that told of how Leto wandered the world searching for a place where she could give birth to her twin children. The solution she finally found came from her lost sister, Asteria.

When Asteria had thrown herself into the sea, she had been transformed into the island of Delos. The island was not affixed to the seabed, however, but instead floated on top of the water.

Because of this, it was not solid ground. The island of Delos was exempt from Hera’s ban and provided a safe place for Leto to give birth to her children.

Artemis was the first child born. The next day she served as her mother’s midwife and helped to bring forth her twin brother, Apollo.

The birth of Apollo was an occasion of much fanfare among the gods, to Hera’s dismay. Many great goddesses attended the birth to act as witnesses.

Shortly after Apollo was born, Zeus visited Delos to crown him with a golden circlet. The island was fixed to the ocean floor and became a sacred spot as the birthplace of two great Olympians.

Leto was generally associated with her children. Both the giant Tityos and the Python tried to assault Leto, the former on Hera’s orders, but were killed by the arrows of her children.

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While she did not play a major role in the later stories of the Olympians, Leto was often pictured among them. She even sometimes appeared at Zeus’s side, a position of honor she earned as the mother of two of his greatest children.

My Modern Interpretation

Ancient philosophers invented many possible origins for Leto’s name, but several modern etymologists believe its origin was in Asia Minor. They claim Leto comes from the Lydian word lada, “wife.”

From this etymology it’s clear that Leto was always considered a mother goddess, but it’s less clear where exactly she originated.

Leto’s earliest known cult was in Lydia, and it’s possible that she was once a native goddess who was incorporated into the Greek pantheon in a more minor role. It may also be, however, that Greek colonists brought the Titaness to Asia Minor and simply adopted a local name for her.

The uncertainty over where Leto originated shows the extent to which the religions of the ancient Mediterranean influenced each other.

When the first Greek-speaking people moved into the Peloponnesian region, they brought a few recognizable gods with them. Zeus is the most notable of these.

Many more Olympians were adopted from other cultures, though. The religions of Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Crete, Egypt, and Mycenae were all incorporated into Greek beliefs.

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As Greek religion developed, it also spread. Perhaps the most famous example of this was in Rome, where the Greek pantheon was adopted almost in its entirety.

Lydia was a region in which both exchanges were made. Greek colonists incorporated the region’s gods and legends into their own beliefs while the native Lydians adopted many aspects of Greek religion into their own lives.

Leto may have begun as a Lydian mother goddess who became one of Zeus’s most prominent mistresses when adopted by the Greeks. Or she could have been an original Greek character who was renamed when Greek colonists moved to Asia Minor.

Of course, the answer could lie somewhere in between. Both the Lydian goddess and the Greek Titaness could have existed in other forms and combined to create a new character that was in some ways descended from both.

Some historians believe that the stories of Leto’s attacks by chthonic monsters, the giant who was born from the earth and the serpentine Python, are remnants of the legends of a pre-Greek goddess. In killing the underworld beasts, Apollo and Artemis symbolically ushered in the era of new gods that destroyed the older cults of the past.

This cultural exchange meant that Leto held an important position in both Greek and Near Eastern beliefs. The Lydians maintained a connection to her as a local goddess, including stories of her pregnancy that took place in their own country, while the Greeks remembered her as the mother of their national god, Apollo.

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The character of Leto continued to be seen as a goddess with uniquely local ties as she continued to spread through Mediterannean cultures.

When the Greeks associated their own gods with those of Egypt, Leto was paired with the snake-headed goddess Wadjet. The people of Crete rewrote the story of Apollo and Artemis’s birth to take place closer to their own island, worshipping a version of Leto that was probably influenced by a native Minoan goddess of the past.

In Rome, she was known as Latona. While the name came from an Etruscan approximation of the Greek Leto, folk etymology linked it more closely to the city of Rome.

The Romans spoke Latin and called the region around their city Latium. While the Romans did not believe their ancestral lands were named for Leto, the coincidental resemblance between her name and that of their country helped to create a symbolic connection between the Latins and the Greek culture embodied by Apollo.

In Summary

Leto was a Titaness who is most well-known as the mother of Apollo and Artemis. While there is no story that elaborates on how she came to be Zeus’s mistress, the legend of her children’s birth is a famous one.

Prevented by Hera from giving birth on solid ground, the Titaness found refuge on the floating island of Delos. According to some, the island had been formed when her own sister, Asteria, threw herself into the sea to avoid Zeus’s overtures.

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The birth of Apollo and Artemis was a major event for the gods of Olympus, and Zeus made it clear that he held Leto’s children in high esteem from the moment they were born. Delos became a holy site in honor of the event.

Leto was usually associated closely with her children, who also protected her from attacks by cthonic monsters. As the mother of the twins, she was also sometimes seen in close company with Zeus.

It is uncertain whether Leto was a Lydian goddess who was adopted by the early Greeks or a Greek goddess who was given a Lydian name. The name’s translation, “wife,” points to the character as an important mother goddess who was probably more closely associated with the king of the gods in the pre-Olympian belief system.

Over time, the character continued to spread throughout the Mediterranean. As the mother of two of Zeus’s most important children, Leto remained a mother goddess long after the importance of the other Titanesses had largely diminished.

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Mike Greenberg, PhD

My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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