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Classical Mythology: The god Apollo

The god Apollo with his seven-stringed lyre.

Apollo is represented as a beardless youth, with long hair, comely and graceful, who wears a laurel crown, and shines in garments embroidered with gold, with a bow and arrows in one hand, and a harp in the other. He is at other times described holding a shield in one hand and the Graces in the other. And because he has a threefold power in heaven, where he is called Sol; in earth, where he is named Liber Pater; and in hell, where he is styled Apollo; he is usually painted with these three things: a harp, a shield, and arrows. The harp shows that he bears rule in heaven, where all things are full of harmony; the shield describes his office in earth, where he gives health and safety to terrestrial creatures; his arrows show his authority in hell, for who ever he strikes with them, he sends them into hell.

Sometimes he is painted with a crow and a hawk flying over his head, a wolf and a laurel tree on one side, and a swan and a cock on the other; and un der his feet grasshoppers creeping. The crow is sacred to him, because he foretells the weather, and shows the different changes of it by the clearness or hoarseness of his voice. The swan is likewise endued with a divination, because foreseeing his happiness in death, he dies with singing and pleasure. The wolf is not unacceptable to him, not only be cause he spared his flock when he was a shepherd, but the sharpness of his eyes represents the foresight of prophecy. The laurel tree is of a very hot nature, always flourishing, and conducing to divination and poetic raptures; and the leaves of it put under the pillow, was said to produce true dreams. The hawk has eyes as bright as the sun; the cock foretells his rising; and the grasshoppers so entirely depend on him, that they owe their rise and subsistence to his heat and influence.

There were four Apollos: the first and most ancient of them was born of Vulcan, and was the tutelary god of the Athenians; the second was a Cretan, a son of one of the Corybantes; the third was born of Jupiter and Latona; the fourth was born in Arcadia, called by the Arcadians, Nomius. But though, as Cicero says, there were so many Apollos, yet the rest of them are seldom mentioned, and all that they did is ascribed to one only, namely, to him that was born of Jupiter and Latona, which is thus represented: Latona, the daughter of Coeus the Titan, conceived twins by Jupiter: Juno, incensed at it, sent the serpent Python against her; and Latona, to escape the serpent, fled into the island of Delos; where she brought forth Apollo and Diana at the same birth.

Apollo was advanced to the highest degree of honour and worship by these four means, viz.: by the invention of physic, music, poetry, and rhetoric, which is ascribed to him ; and, therefore, he is sup posed to preside over the Muses. It is said that he taught the arts of foretelling events, and shooting with arrows; when, therefore, he had benefited man kind infinitely by these favours, they worshipped him as a god. Hear how gloriously he himself repeats his own accomplishments of mind and nature, where he magnifies himself to the flying nymph whom he passionately loved.

“Stay, nymph, he cried, I follow not a foe;
Thus from the lion darts the trembling doe:
Thou shunn’st a god, and shunn’st a god that loves.
But think from whom thou dost so rashly fly,
Nor basely born, nor shepherd’s swain am I
—What shall be,
Or is, or ever was in fate I see.
Mine is the invention of the charming lyre;
Sweet notes and heavenly numbers I inspire.
Sure is my bow, unerring is my dart,
But ah! more deadly his, who pierc’d my heart.
Med’cine is mine; what herbs and simples grow
In fields, in forests, all their powers I know,
And am the great physician call’d below.”


The Acts of Apollo

1. He destroyed all the Cyclops, the forgers of Jupiter’s thunderbolts, with his arrows, to revenge the death of Aesculapius, his son, whom Jupiter had killed with thunder, because by the help of his physic he revived the dead. For this act Apollo was cast down from heaven and deprived of his divinity, exposed to the calamities of the world, and commanded to live in banishment upon the earth. In
this distress he was compelled by want to look after Admetus’ cattle; where, it is said, he first invented and formed a harp. After this, Mercury got an opportunity so drive away a few of the cattle of his herd by stealth; and while Apollo complained and threatened to punish him, unless he brought the same cattle back again, his harp was also stolen by the same god; so that his anger was changed to laughter.

Apollo and Daphne

2. He raised the walls of the city of Troy, by the music of his harp alone; if we may believe the poet:

“Troy you shall see, and walls divine admire;
Built by the music of Apollo’s lyre.”


Some say that there was a stone, upon which Apollo only laid down his harp, and the stone by the touch became so melodious, that whenever it was struck with another stone, it sounded like a harp.

3. By misfortune he killed Hyacinthus, a boy that he loved. For, while Hyacinthus and he were playing together at quoits, Zephyrus was enraged, because Apollo was better beloved by Hyacinthus than himself; and, having an opportunity of revenge, he blew the quoit that Apollo cast, against the head of Hyacinthus, by which blow he fell down dead. Apollo caused the blood of the youth, that was spilt upon the earth, to produce flowers called violets, as Ovid finely expresses:

“Behold the blood, which late the grass had dy’d,
Was now no blood; from which a flower full blown,
Far brighter than the Tyrian scarlet shone,
Which seem’d the same, or did resemble right
A lily, changing but the red to white.”


Besides, he was passionately fond of Cyparissus, another boy, who, when he had unfortunately killed a fine deer, which he exceedingly loved and had brought up from its birth, was so melancholy for his misfortune, that he constantly bewailed the loss of his deer, and refused all comfort. Apollo, because he begged of the god that his mourning might he made perpetual, in pity changed him into a cypress tree, the branches of which were always used at funerals.

“Implores that he might never cease to mourn,
When Phoebus sighing, I for thee will mourn,
Mourn thou for others, hearses still adorn.”


4. He fell violently in love with the virgin Daphne, so famous for her modesty. He pursued her, but while she fled from the violence of his passion, she was changed into a laurel, which remains always flourishing, and always pure.

5. He courted also a long time the nymph Bolina, but never could gain her; for she chose rather to throw herself into the river and be drowned, than yield to his wishes.

6. Leucothoe, the daughter of Orchamus, king of Babylon, was not so tenacious. Her father could not bear the disgrace brought on his family, and buried her alive. Apollo was greatly grieved at this, and though he could not bring her again to life, he poured nectar upon the dead body, and thereby turned it into a tree that drops frankincense.

“He mourned her loss, and sprinkled all her hearse
With balmy nectar, and more precious tears.
Then said since fate does here our joys defer,
Thou shalt ascend to heav’n and bless me there’
Her body straight embalm’d with heav’nly art,
Did a sweet odour to the ground impart,
And from the grave a beauteous tree arise,
That cheers the gods with pleasing sacrifice.”


The attachment of Leucothoe and Apollo had been discovered to her father by her sister Clytie, whom Apollo formerly loved, but now deserted: which she seeing, pined away, with her eyes continually looking up to the sun, and at last was changed into a flower called a sun-flower, or heliotrope.

7. Apollo was challenged in music by Marsyas, a proud musician; and when he had overcome him, Apollo slayed him for his temerity, and converted him into the river of that name in Phrygia.

8. Midas, king of Phrygia, having foolishly determined the victory to Pan, when Apollo and he sang together, Apollo stretched his ears to the length and shape of asses’ ears. Midas endeavoured to hide his disgrace by his hair: but since it was impossible to conceal it from his barber, he prevailed with him by great promises, not to divulge what he saw. But the barber went and dug a hole, and put ting his mouth to it, whispered these words, “King Midas has asses’ ears:” and the reeds that grew out of that hole, if they were moved by the least blast of wind, uttered the same words, viz. “King Midas has the ears of an ass.”

“He dug a hole, and in it whispering said,
What monstrous ears sprout from king Midas’ head!”


The Names of Apollo

As the Latins call him Sol, because there is but one sum; so some think the Greeks gave him the name of Apollo for the same reason. Though others think that he is called Apollo, either because he drives away diseases, or because he darts vigorously his rays.

He was called Cynthius, from the mountain Cynthus, in the island of Delos; whence Diana also was called Cynthia.

And Delius, from the same island, because he was born there: or, as some say, because Apollo (who is the sun,) by his light, makes all things manifest; for which reason he is called Phanaeus.

He was named Delphinius, because he killed the serpent Python, called Delphis : or else, because when Castilius, a Cretan, carried men to the plantations, Apollo guided him in the shape of a dolphin

His title Delphicus comes from the city Delphi, in Boeotia. Here Apollo had the most famous temple in the world, in which he uttered the oracles to those who consulted him; which he first received from Jupiter. They say that this famous oracle became dumb at the birth of our Saviour, and when
Augustus, who was a great votary of Apollo, de sired to know the reason of its silence, the oracle
answered him, that in Judea a child was born, who was the son and image of the supreme God, and had commanded him to depart, and return no more anwers.

Me puer Hebræus, divos Deus ipse gubernans,
Cedere sede jubet, tristemque redire sub orcum;
Aris ergo dehinc nostris abscedito, Caesar.

Apollo was likewise called Didymaeus, which word in Greek, signifies twins, by which are meant the two great luminaries of heaven, the sun and the moon, which alternately enlighten the world by day and by night.

He was also called Nomius, which signifies either a shepherd, because he fed the cattle of Admetus; or because the sun, as it were, feeds all things that the earth generates, by his heat and influence. Or perhaps this title may signify lawgiver; and was given him, because he made very severe laws, when he was king of Arcadia.

He was styled Paean, either from allaying sorrows, or from his exact skill in striking; wherefore he is armed with arrows. And we know that the sun strikes us, and often hurts us with his rays, as with so many darts.

He is accordingly referred to in this character by Homer:

“Bent was his bow, the Grecian hearts to wound,
Fierce as he mov’d his silver shafts resound.
Breathing revenge, a sudden night he spread,
And gloomy darkness roll’d around his head.
The fleet in view, he twang’d his deadly bow,
And hissing fly the feather’d fates below.
On mules and dogs th’ infection first began;
And last the vengeful arrows fix’d on man.”


By this name Paean, his mother Latona, and the spectators of the combat, encouraged Apollo, when he fought with the serpent Python, crying frequently, “Strike him, Paean, with thy darts.” By the same name the diseased invoke his aid, crying, “Heal us, Paean.” And hence the custom came, that not only all hymns in the praise of Apollo were called “Paeanes”, but also, in all songs of triumph in the celebration of all victories, men cried out, “Io Paean.” After this manner the airy and wanton lover in Ovid acts his triumph too;

“Sing Io Paean twice, twice Io say;
My toils are pitch’d, and I have caught my prey.”


He was called Phoebus, from the great swiftness of his motion.

He was named Pythius, not only from the serpent Python, which he killed, but likewise from asking and consulting; for none among the gods was more consulted, or delivered more responses, or spake more oracles than he; especially in the temple which he had at Delphi, to which all sorts of nations resort ed, so that it was called “the oracle of all the earth.” The oracles were first given out by a young virgin; afterwards it was determined that an old woman should give the answers, in the dress of a young maid, who was therefore called Pythia, from Pythius, one of Apollo’s names, and sometimes Phoebas, from Phoebus, another of them. But as to the manner by which the woman understood the god’s mind, men differ.

There are also different opinions respecting the tripod on which the oracle sat. Some say that it was a table with three feet; on which she placed herself when she designed to give forth oracles. But others say, that it was a vessel, in which she was plunged before she prophesied; or rather, that it was a golden vessel, furnished with ears, and sup ported by three feet, whence it was called tripos; and on this the lady sat down. It happened that this tripos was lost in the sea, and afterwards taken up in the nets of fishermen, who contended among themselves which should have it: the Pythian priestess being asked, gave answer that it ought to be sent to the wisest man of all Greece. Where upon it was carried to Thales of Miletus; who sent it to Bias, as to a wiser person; Bias referred it to another, and that other referred it to a fourth, till, after it had been sent backward and forward to all the wise men, it retured again to Thales, who dedicated it to Apollo, at Delphi.

The temple of Apollo at Delphi

God of the Sun

Every one agrees, that by Apollo the Sun is to be understood; for the four chief properties ascribed to Apollo, were the arts of prophesying, of healing, of darting, and of music; of all which we may find, in the sun, a lively representation and image. It may be observed that Apollo’s skill’ in music seems to agree with the nature of the sun, which, being placed in the midst of the planets, makes with them a kind of harmony, and as it were, a concert: and because the sun is thus placed the middlemost of the seven planets, the poets assert, that the instrument which Apollo plays on, is a harp with seven strings.

Besides, from the things sacrificed to Apollo, it appears that he was the Sun: the first of these was the olive, the fruit of which cannot be nourished in places distant from it.

2. The laurel is always flourishing, never old, and conducing to divination; and therefore the poets are crowned with laurel.

3. Among animals, swans were offered to him; because, as was observed before, they have from Apollo, a faculty of divination; for they, foreseeing the happiness in death, die singing and pleased.

4. Griffins also, and crows, were sacred to him for the same reason; and the hawk, which has eyes as bright and piercing as the sun; the cock, which foretells his rising, and the grasshopper, a singing creature: hence it was a custom among the Athenians, to fasten golden grasshoppers to their hair, in honour of Apollo.

And especially, if we derive the name of Latona, the mother of Apollo and Diana, from the Greek lanthano (to lie hid), it will signify that before the birth of Apollo and Diana, that is, before the production of the sun and moon, all things lay involved in darkness; from which these two glorious luminaries afterward proceeded, as out of the womb of a mother.

But notwithstanding all this, several poetical fables have relation only to the sun, and not to Apollo. And of those therefore it is necessary to treat separately.

Source: Tooke’s Pantheon.

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