Apollo (in ancient Greek Ἀπόλλων

He is frequently represented with his bow and arrows, or with a cithara, or even a lyre: he is then qualified as a “citharède”. He is also called ” musagète ” (” he who leads the muses “). The nickname of ” Loxias “, ” the Oblique “, is attributed to him because of the ambiguity of his oracles.

Apollo became in the Middle Ages and then in modern times a solar god, patron of music and the arts. In the 19th century, and in particular in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, he symbolized reason, clarity and order, considered to be characteristic of the “Greek spirit”, as opposed to Dionysian excess and enthusiasm. Thus, it has been written of him that he is “the most Greek of all the gods” and that “no other god has played a comparable role in the development of the Greek way of life”. He remains one of the gods to whom the most temples have been built and to whom the most cults have been dedicated.

Apollo (Arcadochyprian: Ἀπείλων, Apeilōn; Aeolian: Ἄπλουν, Aploun; Latin: Apollō)

The etymology of the name is uncertain. The spelling Ἀπόλλων had almost replaced all other forms by the beginning of the Common Era, but the Doric form, Apellon (Ἀπέλλων), is more archaic, being derived from a previous *Ἀπέλϳων.

The name Apollo is most plausibly derived from an Indo-European root *apelo-, *aplo- meaning “strength” or “power”. According to Daniel E. Gershenson, the name Apollo is a simple descriptive epithet, the Greeks avoiding pronouncing the real name of the god to avoid evoking him.

An Anatolian deity?

The thesis of an “Asian” (i.e. Anatolian) origin of Apollo and Artemis was developed by great names of Hellenism such as Wilamowitz in 1903 before being questioned more recently. These scholars relied on different elements: the name of Leto could come from Lycian, an Indo-European dialect formerly spoken in Anatolia, and would mean, under the form Lada, “woman” (etymology today disputed). One of the epiclesis of Apollo, Lycian Apollo, supports this hypothesis. This epiclesis is however more often interpreted from the name of “wolf” (Gernet, Jeanmaire…). The weapon of Apollo and his twin Artemis, the bow, is not Greek but barbarian (he wears moreover, like his sister, not sandals, like the other gods, but boots, a type of shoe considered Asian by the Ancients. Moreover, he is, in Homer’s Iliad, on the side of the Trojans, an Asian people, and the rejection that Leto undergoes, that no Greek land accepts, would support the idea of a foreign god. Finally, the first text mentioning Apollo is a Hittite text and not a Mycenaean one. This Anatolian hypothesis is no longer retained by modern research. However, Fritz Graf underlines the similarities between the Greek Apollo and the Hittite god Telipinu. Indeed, they are both young gods, sons of the god of storms and are associated with the maintenance of social order. This suggests an Anatolian influence in the evolution of the Greek god.

A long Greek past

Conversely, as many scholars have pointed out, Apollo is paradoxically perhaps the most Greek of all gods and has a long history in Greece before the classical era.

It is also possible that its origins go back to the Dorian people of the Peloponnese, who honored a god named Ἀπέλλων

When his cult is introduced in Greece, he is already honored by other pre-Hellenic peoples, what the Homeric Hymn which is dedicated to him indicates by pointing out that the Cretans were his first priests. His first place of worship is of course Delos, religious capital of the Ionians; it is under Pericles, in the 5th century B.C., that the island passes to the hands of the Athenians, who reinforce its character of inviolable sanctuary by making prohibit any birth and any death there. The cult of Apollo had meanwhile spread everywhere in the ancient world, from Asia Minor (the sanctuary of Didymes, near Milet, bears the flagrant trace of it: it is one of the largest temples ever built in the Mediterranean area) to Syria, without speaking about the innumerable temples which are dedicated to him in Greece itself. According to Phanias, Gyges, king of Lydia, was the first to dedicate gold offerings to him. Before his reign, Apollo Pythian had neither gold nor silver.

Hypothesis of Greek-Celtic origin

In contrast to the traditional thesis, Bernard Sergent, a specialist in comparative mythology, sets out to show in Le livre des dieux. Celtes et Grecs, II (Payot, 2004) the identity of Apollo and the Celtic god Lug. For him, the god is not Asian but Greco-Celtic, and beyond, Indo-European. He goes back at least to the separation of the ancestors of the Celts and the Greeks, in the 4th millennium BC, and he arrived “all of a block” in Greece: it is not a composite divinity. He has counterparts in the Germanic (Wotan) or Indian (Varuna) domains.

Apollo would be the “divine version of the human king”. The Homeric poems systematically give him the epithet anax, which goes back to the Mycenaean designation of the king, wanax. However, the Indo-European king is linked to the three functions defined by Georges Dumézil, hence the complexity of Apollo: he fulfils all the functions that a god can have. The definition of Lug given by C.-J. Guyonvarc’h and F. Le Roux can be applied to him as well: he is “all the gods summarized in a single theonym”.

B. Sergent compares one by one all the known characteristics of Lug and Apollo and notes many points and many common attributes. It is especially at Delphi that the complex character of the god is revealed, in his role of inspirer of the Pythia and of men, which he reveals to himself.

The comparison proposed by Bernard Sergent between Lug and Apollo has not been taken up by other specialists. Pierre Sauzeau criticizes him for neglecting the proximity of Apollo to Rudra “explicitly recognized” and the links with Artemis. Current specialists in Celtic studies see in Lug an heir to the Indo-European couple of Dioscuri, the divine Twins, one of the oldest figures in the Indo-European pantheon.

Apollo, god of the wilderness and “wolf of the wind

In Apollo the Wolf-god, Daniel E. Gershenson sees in Apollo a god of Indo-European origin, whose principal attributes would be gathered in the expression Apollo the Wolf-god. This author is in line with the work of Louis Gernet (Dolon the wolf) and Henri Jeanmaire (Couroï and Courètes).

The term “wolf” does not refer to the cult of the animal itself, but to its symbolism, which is none other than the wind, considered both for its beneficial and destructive virtues. Winds, like Zephyr the wolf-wind, can be favorable to seeds, but are also considered to come from caves and this underground origin puts them in relation with the Underworld. The wind is thus the passage between the chaos and the cosmos.

This explains the deity’s role as tutor of ephebes, young warriors who complete their adult initiation, his function as protector of the sown grain, and finally his quality as god of prophecy who reveals the mysteries and initiates musicians and poets. The Lyceum (Λύκειον

Gershenson presents numerous testimonies in the European world that could show that this wolf-god and wind-god goes back to a period before the separation of the European peoples who penetrated central and southern Europe. His deductions are in agreement with those of other scholars, who have emphasized Apollo’s connection with wolves and his role in initiations. Apollo is particularly associated with Boreas, the North Wind.

Jean Haudry also agrees with Gershenson’s conclusions. Like the Vedic god Rudra, Apollo is originally a god of the wind and of wild nature: it is by opposing Dionysus that he developed “civilized” characters. Faced with a “wild fire” Dionysus, he became, contrary to his original nature, the god of the Delphic hearth. To the winter fire of Dionysus, he opposed himself as a summer god and as a solar god. He thus asserted himself as god of wisdom facing the Dionysian madness. And if Dionysus, subversive god, could be regarded as undesirable in the aristocratic society, Apollo became the civic and national god par excellence.

A solar god?

The identification of Apollo with the sun does not appear in any source before the fifth century B.C.E. – in the Archaic period, it is Helios or Hyperion who represent solar fire; the first attested mention goes back to Euripides, in a fragment of the lost tragedy Phaeton. The assimilation is explained by the epithet φοῖϐος

Apollo Sun as well as Artemis Moon moved away from their primitive character of wild gods by joining the cosmic sphere of the religion.

Synthesis of several mythologies

In the Iliad, Apollo is described as a lunar god: his bow is silver, a color related to the night and the moon. Then, multiple evolutions will lead him to become a solar god (his epithet Phœbus, the light), his bow and arrows refer to the solar rays. Still in the Homeric poems, he is perceived as a vengeful god, threatening, carrier of plague. In song I of the Iliad, his nicknames are the following: toxophore, Lord archer, argyrotoxos, with the silver bow, etc. This vengeful attitude is accompanied by warlike traits: Homer describes him as a proud god, carried away by his feelings and by violence. Let us recall that the Homeric poems (Iliad) written in the ninth century B.C. narrate an earlier history of nearly four centuries (Troy was destroyed in the years 1280 B.C.). The god Apollo had not yet undergone the influences that would lead him to become the complex god that he is in classical Greece.

Apollo is the son of Zeus and the Titanid Leto. His twin sister is Artemis.

Its birth is told in detail in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo: on the point of giving birth, Leto travels the Aegean Sea, seeking an asylum for her son and to flee from Hera who chases her out of jealousy. Full of terror, “because none of them had enough courage, so fertile as it was, to welcome Phoibos”, islands and peninsulas refuse one after the other to welcome Apollo. Leto gains finally the island of Delos, which refuses initially, for fear that the god does not despise it then because of the hardness of its ground. Léto swears by Styx that her son will build his temple there and the island accepts at once.

All the goddesses, of which Dioné, Rhéa, Thémis and Amphitrite, come to assist Léto during her delivery. By jealousy, Hera does not warn Ilithyie, goddess of the childbirth, which remains on Olympus. After nine days and nine nights, the goddesses order Iris, messenger of the gods, to warn Ilithyie and to give her a golden necklace to make her come. As soon as this one arrives at Delos, Leto embraces a palm tree which will become sacred and gives birth to Apollo, in one day which is the seventh of the month. Immediately, the sacred swans make seven times the turn of the shore while singing. Then Themis offers to Apollo the nectar and the ambrosia. In the Homeric Hymn, Artemis is not born at the same time as her brother, but in Ortygia – a name which perhaps designates the site of the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. As soon as he is born, Apollo manifests his power as an immortal; he claims his attributes, the lyre and the bow, and asserts his powers.

In Pindar, Artemis and Apollo are born, twins, in Delos. Delos is a wandering island before the arrival of Leto, metamorphosis of her sister Asteria; after the delivery of Apollo, four columns emerge from the bottom of the sea and come to anchor it solidly. At Hygin, the serpent Python predicts his own death at the hands of Apollo and pursues Léto pregnant to prevent her from giving birth. At the same time, Hera decrees that no land under the sun will be able to accommodate Leto. Zeus therefore asks Boreas, the north wind, to bring Leto to Poseidon, who installs her on the island of Ortygia, which he covers under water. Python ends up giving up his research and Leto can give birth. At once, Poseidon brings Ortygia out of the waters and gives it the name of Delos, “the visible one”. We find in Apollodorus the idea that Artemis is born first and serves as midwife to Leto for the birth of her brother.

The family tree below is based on the writings of the Greek poet Hesiod and the Library of Apollodorus.

Loves and descendants

Apollo had many descendants:

Known for his great beauty, Apollo is paradoxically rather unhappy in his loves. These have for object nymphs, mortals

He falls in love with the nymph Cyrene when he sees her fighting a lion that threatens her father’s flocks. He tells his feelings to the centaur Chiron, who approves them. Encouraged, Apollo declares himself to the young girl, whom he takes to Libya. There, she receives from the god the sovereignty over the region, Cyrenaica, and gives birth to Aristaeus, who will teach men beekeeping.

The other loves of the god are less happy. He kidnapped Marpessa, daughter of Evenos, while she was engaged to the Argonaut Idas. The latter claims his bride with arms in hand, and Zeus must separate the two adversaries. The king of the gods asks Marpessa to choose between her two suitors; the young girl opts for Idas, for fear of being abandoned by Apollo when she gets older.

He pursues with his ardor the nymph Daphne; during her flight, the young girl invokes her father, a river god, who substitutes a laurel for her. His love with Coronis, daughter of Phlegias, king of the Lapithes, does not end better: pregnant of the god, she deceives him with the mortal Ischys. Apollo, master of divination, perceives the truth, which is also reported to him by a raven. He then sends his sister Artemis to slay the unfaithful woman with her arrows, but out of pity for the unborn child, he tears it from its mother’s womb and burns it at the stake. He carried the young Asclepius to the centaur Chiron, who raised him and taught him the art of medicine. Apollo also fell in love with the Trojan princess Cassandra, daughter of King Priam: she promised to give herself to him in exchange for the gift of prophecy, but, after having obtained satisfaction, she went back on her word. Furious, Apollo condemns her never to be taken seriously.

Many other adventures are attributed to Apollo. Often, the stories focus on the divine offspring rather than on the mother, whose name changes according to the version: these are not real love stories, but a way to link a character to Apollo. Thus the musicians Linos and Orpheus, the diviner Philamnos, Ion, eponym of the Ionians or Delphos, founder of Delphi.

Apollo is also the god who has the most affairs with young boys. He fell in love with Hyacinth, son of a Spartan king. While they were practicing discus throwing, chance – or jealous Zephyr – made the discus hit Hyacinth in the temple. Desperate, Apollo makes a flower, the hyakinthos, spring from the young man’s blood, which is probably not the actual hyacinth. The story of Cyparisse, son of Télèphe, also ends tragically. Loved by Apollo, he has for companion a tamed stag. He kills it one day by mistake; desperate, he asks the god for death, and the grace to be able to cry eternally. Thus he is changed into a cypress, symbol of sadness. Apollo is also in love with Hymenaios, son of Magnes; absorbed by his passion, the god does not see the young Hermes stealing his flocks.

Also among her lovers are Helenos, brother of Cassandra; Carnos, son of Zeus and Europa, who receives from the god the gift of divination; Leucatas who, to escape from the god, throws himself from the top of a cliff and gives his name to the island of Lefkada; Branchos, loved by Apollo while guarding his flocks, then founder of the oracle of the god at Didymes.

Among the Hyperboreans

Shortly after the birth of Apollo, Zeus gives him a chariot drawn by swans and orders him to go to Delphi. The god does not obey immediately, but flies on board his chariot to the country of the Hyperboreans which, according to some versions, is the homeland of Leto. There lives a sacred people who know neither old age nor disease; the sun shines there permanently. Apollo stays there for one year before leaving for Delphi. He returns there every nineteen years, period at the end of which the stars have accomplished a complete revolution (a metonic cycle). From the spring equinox to the rising of the Pleiades, he dances there every night accompanied by the lyre. According to other legends, he spends every year the winter months there, returning to his place of worship – Delphi or Delos – only with the spring.

The arrival in Delphi

The first exploits of the god are described in the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo. In search of a place to found his oracle, Apollo stops first at the Telphouse spring, near Helicon. Not wishing to share the place with anyone, she suggested him to go instead to Crisa, near Delphi. There, Apollo establishes his temple, after having killed the female snake, the Δράκαινα

The arrival at Delphi is the subject of variants. In Pindar, the god takes control of the place by force (it is not specified how), which pushes Gaïa to want to throw him into Tartarus. Other authors also mention the repercussions of Python’s murder: in Plutarch, Apollo must purify himself in the waters of Tempé. In Euripides, Leto brings Apollo to Delphi where he kills the serpent Python. In anger, Gaïa sends prophetic dreams to men. Apollo complains about this unfair competition to Zeus, who puts an end to the dreams. At Hygin, Apollo kills Python to avenge his mother, whom the snake had pursued during her pregnancy.

In other traditions, the taking of Delphi is peaceful. Thus, in Aeschylus, Gaia gives the place to her daughter Themis, who in turn gives it to her sister Phoebe, who then gives it to Apollo. In Aristonoos, Apollo is led to Delphi by Athena and persuades Gaia to give him the sanctuary.

The Trojan War

During the Trojan war, Apollo sided with the Trojans, who dedicated a temple to him on their acropolis. As Poseidon and Athena do for the Achaeans, he intervenes at the side of the troops he defends to encourage them. He takes the features of mortals to advise Hector or Aeneas. He saves Aeneas from the blows of Diomedes, intervenes in person to push back the Greek warrior when he is too pressing and then saves Aeneas by replacing him by a ghost on the battlefield. Similarly, he steals Hector from the rage of Achilles. Conversely, he uses Agenor to keep Achilles away and prevent the capture of Troy. He intervenes directly by hitting and disarming Patroclus, leaving the hero defenseless against the Trojans who will kill him. According to the versions, he helps Pâris to kill Achilles, or takes the form of the Trojan prince to kill him.

Defender of the Trojans, his main opponent is his half-sister Athena. Not content with confronting her on the battlefield by interposed mortals, he wants to prevent Diomedes, Athena’s protégé, from winning the chariot race during the funeral games of Patroclus; the goddess intervenes in turn to make her champion win. Nevertheless, Apollo knows how to restrain himself in front of his uncle Poseidon and proposes to him to let the mortals settle their quarrels themselves.

We do not know why Apollo takes so actively sides with the Trojans, or conversely against the Greeks. His only link with Troy goes back to his servitude to Laomedon, but this history should rather incite him to support the Greeks, as does Poseidon.

A vengeful god

Apollo is a vindictive god, quick to punish those who defy him by committing two fratricides (Tityos and Amphion). He kills the snake Python and, helped by his sister, he eliminates his half-brother Tityos, who tried to attack Leto. Still with Artemis, he massacred with his arrows his nephews and nieces, the sons and daughters of Niobe, who dared to make fun of his mother. He also kills his half-brother Amphion who tries to plunder his temple to avenge the Niobides. He killed the Aloades when they tried to climb Olympus and defy the gods. He flayed alive the satyr Marsyas, a flute-lover, who had challenged him to a musical performance. King Midas, who had preferred the sound of the flute to that of the lyre, is endowed with a pair of donkey ears.

The confrontation does not always turn to the advantage of the god. When Heracles seized the tripod of Delphi to put pressure on the Pythia, Apollo came to the rescue of the priestess. The hero would have fled with the tripod if the god had not called for help his father Zeus, who intervenes by sending a thunderbolt.

A builder god

In his Hymn to Apollo, Callimachus gives him a role of builder, founder and legislator. He advised the representatives of various Greek cities as for the foundation of new cities: ” O Phébus! under your auspices rise the cities; because you are pleased to see them being formed, and you yourself lay the foundations of them “.

Plato also recognizes this role to Apollo and advises any founder of a State to refer to the laws established by the god: it is about the laws “which concern the foundation of the temples, the sacrifices, and in general the worship of the gods, the demons and the heroes, and also the tombs of the dead and the honors which it is necessary to return to them so that they are propitious to us…”

Apollo is a young god for the Greeks. Alone among all the Olympians, his name does not appear on the Mycenaean tablets in linear B. The first cult of Delos concerns Artemis and not her brother. It is possible that the Karneia, the Hyacinthia and the Daphnephoria originally celebrated other deities than Apollo. However, his cult is firmly anchored in the whole of the Greek world from the 8th century BC, at the time when the first Greek literary sources appear.

In Homer

Apollo plays a major role in the Iliad : according to Homer, it is he who is at the origin of the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles and thus of all the events narrated by the poem. Animated by the prophetic breath, Xanthos, Achilles’ horse, names him “the first of the gods”. In fact, none is mentioned more often than him in the poem, except Zeus. Each of his appearances is terrifying. When he wants to avenge his priest Chryses, scorned by Agamemnon :

“From the peaks of Olympus he descended, full of wrath, Carrying his bow and quiver watertight on his shoulder. The lines rang on the shoulder of the wrathful god,

The sound of his bow is terrible and his voice rumbles like thunder when he stops the warrior Diomedes in his tracks. He is also a god jealous of his prerogatives: facing Diomedes, he reminds that “there is nothing common

“Why do you pursue me, Achilles, with your swift feet, Mortal running after a god? Have you not yet Recognized who I am, that you persist in your rage?”

During the funeral games of Patroclus, he takes the victory from the archer Teucros, who failed to promise him a hecatomb.

Homer presents Apollo above all as an archer god. Where his sister uses the bow for hunting, his domain is rather war: he gives their weapon to the two best archers of the Trojan war, the Trojan Pandaros and the Greek Teucros. His arrows bring death: they spread plague in the Greek camp, killing men and beasts. The only remedy then lies in prayer, purification and sacrifice: only he can ward off the disease he brings.


The hymn to Pythian Apollo begins with the appearance of Apollo in Olympus, the phorminx (lyre) in the hand: “at once the Immortals do not think any more but of the zither and the songs.” The Muses sing in chorus the gods and the men; the gods of Olympus, Ares included, join hands to dance and Apollo himself, while playing, joins them. The scene summarizes one of Apollo’s major domains: the μουσική

As such, Apollo is the patron of musicians: “it is through the Muses and the archer Apollo that there are singers and citharists”, says Hesiod. He even inspires nature: when he passes by, “the nightingales, swallows and cicadas sing”. His music soothes the wild animals. For the Greeks, music and dance are not only entertainment: they allow men to bear the misery of their condition.

Jacqueline Duchemin, specialist in Greek poetry and comparative mythology, put forward the hypothesis according to which the prerogatives of Apollo in the field of music and poetry would be linked to his nature of pastoral divinity, one of the original functions of the god being the protection of the herds. According to the author of La Houlette et la lyre, it would be the shepherds and the pastors who would have invented the musical art during their long solitary vigils. She affirms thus: “The poet and the shepherd are indeed the same person. And his gods are in his image. And also: “The deities of the shepherds and the animals were, within a pastoral nature, in the most ancient times, those of the music, the dance and the poetic inspiration.”

God of oracles

After having claimed the bow and the lyre, Apollo, in the Homeric hymn which is devoted to him, names his third field of intervention: “I will also reveal in my oracles the infallible designs of Zeus.” If Zeus and some heroes, like Trophonios, have their oracles, Apollo is the principal oracular divinity of the Greeks. He declares it himself when his brother Hermes tries to obtain also the gift of divination: “I committed my word, and swore by a dreadful oath that no other than me, among the Gods always alive, would know the will of Zeus with the deep designs.”

From the classical period, all the oracular sites of great scale belong to Apollo, with the exception of the oracle of Zeus in Dodone and, later, of that of Zeus Ammon in Siwa. Questioned on the disappearance of the oracles related to the sacred sources or the vapors emanating from the ground, Apollon answers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries:

“The earth itself opened up and took back the ones in its subterranean entrails, while an infinite eternity annihilated the others. But only Helios who shines for mortals still possesses in the divine gorges of Didymes the waters of Mykalè, and that which runs along the edge of Pythô under the mountain of Parnasse, and the rocky Claros, rocky mouth of the prophetic voice of Phoibos.”

The main oracle of Apollo is that of Delphi, which was probably founded between 900 and 700 BC. From the archaic period, Delphian Apollo is omnipresent in the life of the cities: he approves their laws, like the Great Rhêtra of Sparta or the constitution of Clisthenes in Athens, and gives his blessing to colonial expeditions. He appears in heroic myths such as that of Oedipus or Theseus. The Pythian Games, in honor of Apollo, are the most important public competition after the Olympic Games. During the Hellenistic period, he advised the Roman Senate. After a period of decline in the first century BC, the sanctuary was destroyed in the fourth century by the Christians.

In ancient art

Apollo is always represented in the freshness of an eternal youth. This is a typical characteristic of a wind god who never ages.

He is represented with long hair, in accordance with one of his Homeric epithets. The hairstyle is typical of young men or kouroi, a term derived from the root ker-, “to shear, to cut” (implied: hair). The typical pastime of the young man being athletics, practiced naked, the typical offering to Apollo takes the form, in archaic times, of a young man standing naked, with long hair, a statuary type that art historians call the kouros.

List of Apollo statues with an article in Wikipedia

Apollo and Louis XIV

Louis-Nicolas Clérambault composed two cantatas, Apollon, Op. 15 and Apollon et Doris, Op. 21.

External links


  1. Apollon
  2. Apollo
  3. La cithare des Grecs et des Romains est une forme de lyre, et non une cithare moderne ; les deux mots sont employés indifféremment par les poètes pour parler de l’instrument d’Apollon.
  4. ^ Otto 2005, p. 68.
  5. ^ Burkert 2003, p. 289.
  6. 1,0 1,1 Βαγγέλη Πεντάζου – Μαρίας Σαρλά, Δελφοί, Β. Γιαννίκος – Β. Καλδής Ο.Ε., 1984, 18.
  7. Βαγγέλη Πεντάζου – Μαρίας Σαρλά, 1984, 17.
  8. Ιλιάς, 15, 322
  9. (en) R.S.P. Beekes, The Origin of Apollo, in JANER 3 (2003), pp. 1–21.
  10. Heraclitus, fr. 860, Timotheus, fr. 800.
  11. Aeschylus, Eumenides 1.
  12. Voor de iconografie van het zogenaamde “Alexander-Helios”-type, zie H. Hoffmann, Helios, in Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 2 (1963), pp. 117–123.
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