One of the great divinities of the Greeks, was, according to Homer,1 the son of Zeus and Leto. Hesiod2 states the same, and adds, that Apollo's sister was Artemis. Neither of the two poets suggests anything in regard to the birth-place of the god, unless we take Lukegenes (Λυκηγενὴς)3 in the sense of "born in Lycia," which, however, according to others, would only mean "born of or in light." Several towns and places claimed the honor of his birth, as we see from various local traditions mentioned by late writers. Thus the Ephesians said that Apollo and Artemis were born in the grove of Ortygia near Ephesus;4 the inhabitants of Tegyra in Boeotia and of Zoster in Attica claimed the same honor for themselves.5 In some of these local traditions Apollo is mentioned alone, and in others together with his sister Artemis.
The account of Apollo's parentage, too, was not the same in all traditions,6 and the Egyptians made out that he was a son of Dionysus and Isis.7 But the opinion most universally received was, that Apollo, the son of Zeus and Leto, was born in the island of Delos, together with his sister Artemis; and the circumstances of his birth there are detailed in the Homeric hymn on Apollo, and in that of Callimachus on Delos.8
Hera in her jealousy pursued Leto from land to land and from isle to isle, and endeavored to prevent her finding a resting-place where to give birth. At last, however, she arrived in Delos, where she was kindly received, and after nine days' labor she gave birth to Apollo under a palm or an olive tree at the foot of Mount Cynthus. She was assisted by all the goddesses, except Hera and Eileithyia, but the latter too hastened to lend her aid, as soon as she heard what was taking place.
The island of Delos, which previous to this event had been unsteady and floating on or buried under the waves of the sea, now became stationary, and was fastened to the roots of the earth.9
The day of Apollo's birth was believed to have been the seventh of the month, whence he is called έβδομαγενής (ebdomagenēs).10 According to some traditions, he was a seven months' child έπταμηναῖος (eptamēnaios). The number seven was sacred to the god; on the seventh of every month sacrifices were offered to him,11 and his festivals usually fell on the seventh of a month. Immediately after his birth, Apollo was fed with ambrosia and nectar by Themis, and no sooner had he tasted the divine food, than he sprang up and demanded a lyre and a bow, and declared, that henceforth he would declare to men the will of Zeus. Delos exulted with joy, and covered herself with golden flowers.12
Apollo, though one of the great gods of Olympus, is yet represented in some sort of dependence on Zeus, who is regarded as the source of the powers exercised by his son. The powers ascribed to Apollo are apparently of different kinds, but all are connected with one another, and may be said to be only ramifications of one and the same, as will be seen from the following classification.
1. The god who punishes and destroys (οὔλιος, oulios) the wicked and overbearing, as such he is described as the god with bow and arrows, the gift of Hephaestus.13 Various epithets given to him in the Homeric poems, such as ἑκατος (hekatos), ἑκάεργος (hekaergos), ἑκηβόλος (hekēbolos), ἑκατηβόλος (hekatēbolos), κλυτότοξος (klytotoxos), and ἀργυρότοξος (argyrotoxos), refer to him as the god who with his darts hits his object at a distance and never misses it. All sudden deaths of men, whether they were regarded as a punishment or a reward, were believed to be the effect of the arrows of Apollo; and with the same arrows he sent the plague into the camp of the Greeks.
Hyginus relates, that four days after his birth, Apollo went to Mount Parnassus, and there killed the dragon Python, who had pursued his mother during her wanderings, before she reached Delos. He is also said to have assisted Zeus in his contest with the Gigantes.14 The circumstance of Apollo being the destroyer of the wicked was believed by some of the ancients to have given rise to his name Apollo, which they connected with ἀπόλλυμι (apollymi, "to destroy").15 Some modern writers, on the other hand, who consider the power of averting evil to have been the original and principal feature in his character, say that Apollon (Ἀπόλλων, i.e. Ἀπέλλων, Apellon, from the root pello), signifies the god who drives away evil, and is synonymous with ἀλεξίκκας (alexikkas), Acesius, Acestor, σώτηρ (sōtēr), and other names and epithets applied to Apollo.
2. The god who affords help and wards off evil. As he had the power of visiting men with plagues and epidemics, so he was also able to deliver men from them, if duly propitiated, or at least by his oracles to suggest the means by which such calamities could be averted. Various names and epithets which are given to Apollo, especially by later writers, such as ἀκέσιος (akesios), ἀκέστωρ (akestōr), ἀλεξίκακος (alexikakos), σώτης (sōtēs), ἀποτρόπαιος (apotropaios), ἐπικούριος (epikourios), ἰατρομάντις (iatromantis), and others, are descriptive of this power.16 It seems to be the idea of his being the god who afforded help, that made him the father of Asclepius the god of the healing art, and that, at least in later times, identified him with Paeëon, the god of the healing art in Homer.
3. The god of prophecy. Apollo exercised this power in his numerous oracles, and especially in that of Delphi.17 The source of all his prophetic powers was Zeus himself (Apollodorus states, that Apollo received the μανικὴ (manikē) from Pan), and Apollo is accordingly called "the prophet of his father Zeus.";18 but he had nevertheless the power of communicating the gift of prophecy both to gods and men, and all the ancient seers and prophets are placed in some relationship to him.19 The manner in which Apollo came into the possession of the oracle of Delphi (Pytho) is related differently. According to Apollodorus, the oracle had previously been in the possession of Themis, and the dragon Python guarded the mysterious chasm, and Apollo, after having slain the monster, took possession of the oracle. According to Hyginus, Python himself possessed the oracle; while Pausanias20 states, that it belonged to Gaea and Poseidon in common.21
4. The god of song and music. We find him in the Iliad22 delighting the immortal gods with his play on the phorminx during their repast; and the Homeric bards derived their art of song either from Apollo or the Muses.23 Later traditions ascribed to Apollo even the invention of the flute and lyre,24 while the more common tradition was, that he received the lyre from Hermes. Ovid25 makes Apollo build the walls of Troy by playing on the lyre, as Amphion did the walls of Thebes. Respecting his musical contests, see Marsyas, Midas.
5. The god who protects the flocks and cattle (νόμιος θεός, nomios theos); from νομὸς (nomos), or νομὴ (nomē), a meadow or pasture land). Homer26 says, that Apollo reared the swift steeds of Eumelus Pheretiades in Pieria, and according to the Homeric hymn to Hermes27 the herds of the gods fed in Pieria under the care of Apollo. At the command of Zeus, Apollo guarded the cattle of Laomedon in the valleys of Mount Ida.28 There are in Homer only a few allusions to this feature in the character of Apollo, but in later writers it assumes a very prominent form;29 and in the story of Apollo tending the flocks of Admetus at Pherae in Thessaly, on the banks of the river Amphrysus, the idea reaches its height.30
6. The god who delights in the foundation of towns and the establishment of civil constitutions. His assistance in the building of Troy was mentioned above; respecting his aid in raising the walls of Megara, see Alcathous. Pindar31 calls Apollo the ἀρχηγέτης (archēgetēs), or the leader of the Dorians in their migration to the Peloponnese; and this idea, as well as the one that he delighted in the foundation of cities, seems to be intimately connected with the circumstance, that a town or a colony was never founded by the Greeks without consulting an oracle of Apollo, so that in every case he became, as it were, their spiritual leader. The epithets κτιοτὴς (ktiotēs) and οἰκιστὴς (oikistēs)32 refer to this part in the character of Apollo.
These characteristics of Apollo necessarily appear in a peculiar light, if we adopt the view which was almost universal among the later poets, mythographers, and philosophers, and according to which Apollo was identical with Helios, or the Sun. In Homer and for some centuries after his time Apollo and Helios are perfectly distinct. The question which here presents itself, is, whether the idea of the identity of the two divinities was the original and primitive one, and was only revival in later times, or whether it was the result of later speculations and of foreign, chiefly Egyptian, influence. Each of these two opinions has had its able advocates. The former, which has been maintained by Buttmann and Hermann, is supported by strong arguments.
In the time of Callimachus, some persons distinguished between Apollo and Helios, for which they were censured by the poet.33 Pausanias34 states, that he met a Sidonian who declared the two gods to be identical, and Pausanias adds that this was quite in accordance with the belief of the Greeks.35 It has further been said, that if Apollo be regarded as the Sun, the powers and attributes which we have enumerated above are easily explained and accounted for; that the surname of Phoibis (Φοῖβος), (the shining or brilliant), which is frequently applied to Apollo in the Homeric poems, points to the sun; and lastly, that the traditions concerning the Hyperboreans and their worship of Apollo bear the strongest marks of their regarding the god in the same light.36
Still greater stress is laid on the fact that the Egyptian Horus was regarded as identical with Apollo,37 as Horus is usually considered as the god of the burning sun. Those who adopt this view derive Apollo from the East or from Egypt, and regard the Athenian Apollon patroios (Ἀπόλλων πατρῷος) as the god who was brought to Attica by the Egyptian colony under Cecrops. Another set of accounts derives the worship of Apollo from the very opposite quarter of the world — from the country of the Hyperboreans, that is, a nation living beyond the point where the north wind rises, and whose country is in consequence most happy and fruitful.
According to a fragment of an ancient Doric hymn in Pausanias,38 the oracle of Delphi was founded by Hyperboreans and Olenus; Leto, too, is said to have come from the Hyperboreans to Delos, and Eileithyia likewise.39 The Hyperboreans, says Diodorus, worship Apollo more zealously than any other people; they are all priests of Apollo; one town in their country is sacred to Apollo, and its inhabitants are for the most part players on the lyre.40
These opposite accounts respecting the original seat of the worship of Apollo might lead us to suppose, that they refer to two distinct divinities, which were in the course of time united into one, as indeed Cicero41 distinguishes four different Apollos. Müller has rejected most decidedly and justly the hypothesis, that Apollo was derived from Egypt; but he rejects at the same time, without very satisfactory reasons, the opinion that Apollo was connected with the worship of nature or any part of it; for, according to him, Apollo is a purely spiritual divinity, and far above all the other gods of Olympus. As regards the identity of Apollo and Helios, he justly remarks, that it would be a strange phenomenon if this identity should have fallen into oblivion for several centuries, and then have been revived.
This objection is indeed strong, but not insurmountable if we recollect the tendency of the Greeks to change a peculiar attribute of a god into a separate divinity; and this process, in regard to Helios and Apollo, seems to have taken place previous to the time of Homer. Müller's view of Apollo, which is at least very ingenious, is briefly this. The original and essential feature in the character of Apollo is that of "the averter of evil," Ἀπέλλων; he is originally a divinity peculiar to the Doric race; and the most ancient seats of his worship are the Thessalian Tempe and Delphi. From thence it was transplanted to Crete, the inhabitants of which spread it over the coasts of Asia Minor and parts of the continent of Greece, such as Boeotia and Attica. In the latter country it was introduced during the immigration of the Ionians, whence the god became the Ἀπόλλων πατρῷος of the Athenians.
The conquest of the Peloponnese by the Dorians raised Apollo to the rank of the principal divinity in the peninsula. The Apollon nomios (Ἀπόλλων νόμιος) was originally a local divinity of the shepherds of Arcadia, who was transformed into and identified with the Dorian Apollo during the process in which the latter became the national divinity of the Peloponnesians. In the same manner as in this instance the god assumed the character of a god of herds and flocks, his character was changed and modified in other parts of Greece also: with the Hyperboreans he was the god of prophecy, and with the Cretans the god with bow and darts. In Egypt he was made to form a part of their astronomical system, which was afterwards introduced into Greece, where it became the prevalent opinion of the learned.
But whatever we may think of this and other modes of explaining the origin and nature of Apollo, one point is certain and attested by thousands of facts, that Apollo and his worship, his festivals and oracles, had more influence upon the Greeks than any other god. It may safely be asserted, that the Greeks would never have become what they were, without the worship of Apollo: in him the brightest side of the Grecian mind is reflected.
For the Roman equivalent, see Apollo.
Apollo, the national divinity of the Greeks, was of course represented in all the ways which the plastic arts were capable of. As the ideas of the god became gradually and more and more fully developed, so his representations in works of art rose from a rude wooden image to the perfect ideal of youthful manliness, so that he appeared to the ancients in the light of a twin brother of Aphrodite.42 The most beautiful and celebrated among the extant representations of Apollo are the Apollo of Belvedère at Rome, which was discovered in 1503 at Rettuno,43 and the Apollino at Florence.44 In the Apollo of Belvedère, the god is represented with commanding but serene majesty; sublime intellect and physical beauty are combined in it in the most wonderful manner. The forehead is higher than in other ancient figures, and on it there is a pair of locks, while the rest of his hair flows freely down on his neck. The limbs are well proportioned and harmonious, the muscles are not worked out too strongly, and at the hips the figure is rather thin in proportion to the breast.45
The god is depicted on Greek vases from all periods. On ancient Greek ceramics from the seventh century BCE he is depicted playing the lyre. He inspires the Muses (Attic bowl, ca. 450 BCE; Boston), is armed with bow and arrows and in the company of his sister (Attic vase, ca. 490 BCE; Munich), protects Hector before Troy (bowl by Duris, ca. 490 BCE; London), and is found in numerous other situations.
Mysterious and somewhat demonic is an Etruscan terra cotta statue, the Apollo of Veii at Rome (sixth or fifth century BCE). Apollo as a noble judge and protector can be found on the western facade of the temple of Zeus at Olympia (early fifth century BCE). A well-known archaic statue of Apollo is that of Tenea (ca. 525 BCE). As Alexikakas ("averter of evil") he is portrayed on various statues from around 500 BCE in the style of Phidias.
In the fourth century, the style of portrayal changes, such as with the statue of Apollo Sauroktonos ("lizard-slayer") by Praxiteles and the above-mentioned Apollo Belvedère at Rome, for early generations the ideal of Greek sculpting. In the Middle Ages he is mainly portrayed as archer, and in the Renaissance he is portrayed as the leader of the Muses (Mantegna, Perugino). Dürer depicts him as a sun-god and Rafael as the ideal of male beauty. From the seventh century onward statues of Apollo are frequently placed in gardens (De Vries, Duquesnoy).
- Iliad i, 21, 36.
- Theogony, 918.
- Iliad iv, 101.
- Tacitus. Annals iii, 61.
- Stephanus of Byzantium, s.v. Tegura.
- Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods iii, 23.
- Herodotus. Histories ii, 156.
- Comp. Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 4.1; Hyginus. Fabulae, 140.
- Comp. Virgil. Aeneid iii, 75.
- Plutarch. Symposiacs, 8.
- hebdomagetes, Aeschylus. Seven Against Thebes, 802; comp. Callimachus. Hymn to Delos, 250 ff.
- Comp. Theognis, 5 ff.; Euripides. Hecuba, 457 ff.
- Homer. Iliad i, 42; xxiv, 605; Odyssey xi, 318; xv, 410 ff.; comp. Pindar. Pythian Odes iii, 15 ff.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 6.2.
- Aeschylus. Agamemnon, 1081.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 3.3; vi, 24.5; viii, 41.5; Plutarch. De Ei apud Delphos, 21; De Defectu Oraculorum, 7; Aeschylus. Eumenides, 62; comp. Müller. Die Dorier ii, 6.3.
- Dictionary of Antiquities, s.v. Oraculum.
- Aeschylus. Eumenides, 19.
- Homer. Iliad i, 72; Hymn to Mercury, 3, 471.
- ibid. x, 3.5.
- Comp. Euripides. Iphigenia in Tauris, 1246 ff.; Atheneus, xv, 701; Ovid. Metamorphoses i, 439; Apollonius Rhodius. The Library ii, 706.
- i, 603.
- Odyssey viii, 488 (with Eustathius).
- Callimachus. Hymn to Delos, 253; Plutarch. De Musica.
- Ovid. Heroides xvi, 180.
- Iliad ii, 766.
- 22, 70 ff.
- Iliad xi, 488.
- Pindar. Pythian Odes ix, 114; Callimus. Hymn to Apollo, 50 ff.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 9.15; Euripides. Alcestis, 8; Tibullus, ii, 3.11; Virgil. Georgics iii, 2.
- Pindar. Pythian Odes v, 80.
- See Böckh, on Pindar, l.c.
- Fragments, 48, ed. Bentley.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece vii, 23.6.
- Comp. Strabo. Geography xiv, 635; Plutarch. De Ei apud Delphos, 4; De Defectu Oraculorum, 7.
- Alcaeus ap. Homer, xiv, 10; Diodorus Siculus, ii, 47.
- Herodotus. Histories ii, 144, 156; Diodorus Siculus, i, 25; Plutarch. Isis and Osiris, 12, 61; Aelian. History of Animals x, 14.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece x, 5.4.
- Herodotus. Histories iv, 33 ff.; Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 18.4; Diodorus Siculus, ii, 47.
- Comp. Pythian Odes x, 55 ff.
- On the Nature of the Gods iii, 23.
- Pliny the Elder. Naturalis Historia xxxvi, 4.10.
- Museo Pio-Clementino, i, 14, 15.
- A. Hirt. Bilderbuch für Mythologie (1805-1816).
- Buttmann, P.K. Mythologus i, p. 1-22; G. Hermann. Dissertatio de Apolline et Diana, 2 parts (1836 and 1837); K.O. Müller. Die Dorier (1824).
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.