The god Apollo commanded the highest respect in Greek culture. The Greeks considered him a symbol of light and often called him Phoebus, which means shining. They also saw him as a source of reason and truth. Greek city-states consulted Apollo’s oracles* on questions of policy, and individuals sought advice from the god on personal matters. Apollo’s replies, delivered through the oracles, carried great authority.
The son of Zeus and the goddess Leto, Apollo was usually described as a figure of youth and beauty. He and his twin sister, Artemis, were born on the island of Delos, a place revered by the Greeks. The Romans also worshiped Apollo, the son of Jupiter and Latona and brother of Diana.
* oracle a priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made
Apollo was one of the most popular of the great Greek gods. People throughout the Greek world consulted Apollo’s oracles, particularly at his shrine at Delphi. This sculpture, known as the Apollo Belvedere, is a Roman copy of a Greek statue from the 300s B.C. It is currently in the Vatican Museum.
The town of Delphi was particularly important to Apollo. According to legend, a dragon named Python once guarded Delphi. Apollo killed the dragon and established an oracle on the spot. Although Apollo had oracles in various other places, his temple at Delphi became the most important religious center in ancient Greece.
Apollo was protective of his priests and priestesses. The plot of Homer’s epic poem the Iliad is set in motion when a Greek warrior, Agamemnon, seizes the daughter of Chryses, one of Apollo’s priests. When Chryses prays to Apollo for help, the god comes storming down from Olympus. With his arrows, Apollo sends a plague into the Greek camp to punish Agamemnon. Apollo stops the plague only when the girl is returned home safely.
Various myths tell of Apollo’s loves and adventures. He loved a nymph* named Daphne who fled from his attentions and, to avoid him, changed herself into a laurel tree. In sorrow, Apollo wore a crown made from the laurel. When Apollo loved the maiden Cassandra, he gave her the gift of prophecy— the ability to tell the future. Cassandra would not accept Apollo’s love, but he could not force her to return his gift. In his anger, Apollo declared that no one would ever believe her prophecies. So Cassandra kept her special gift, but it was useless.
Coronis was another young woman who became the object of Apollo’s attentions. When Coronis lost interest in Apollo and fell in love with someone else, Apollo punished her with death. But Coronis was expecting Apollo’s child, so he rescued the child from her body. The child, named Asclepius, became a legendary physician.
Apollo was fond of a youth named Hyacinthus. Once when the two were playing a game of discus*, Apollo accidentally hit Hyacinthus in the forehead, wounding him badly. Full of grief, Apollo tried without success to save his friend. Blood streamed from the boy’s head and, where it landed, a purple flower—the hyacinth—bloomed. Its reappearance every spring served as a reminder of the dead Hyacinthus.
In addition to prophecy, Apollo had a number of other functions. Both he and his son Asclepius were associated with medicine and healing. Apollo also loved music and poetry, and he was often portrayed holding a lyre*. In other places, Apollo appeared carrying a bow, showing his connection to archery. Although Apollo, like other gods, could show anger when offended, he generally represented a sense of order in Greek society. (See also Oracles; Religion, Greek.)
* nymph in classical mythology, one of the lesser goddesses of nature
* discus a heavy, circular plate hurled for distance as a sport
* lyre stringed instrument similar to a small harp