Delos: Sacred Island of Leto, Artemis & Apollo

Queen Leto came to Delos and, addressing winged words, she asked: ‘Delos, might you wish to be the seat of my son, Phoebus Apollo, and house him in a rich temple? Surely you can see that no one else would want you! You’ll never be blessed with rich herds of cattle or flocks of sheep or goats. You’ll never produce lush grapes or harvests of abundant crops. But if you have a temple to Apollo, who shoots from afar, all men will flock here with their offerings, and the heady scent of fatty sacrifice will coil into the air for ever, and you will feed all those who live here from the hands of others, since your own soil is infertile.’

So Leto spoke, and Delos rejoiced and said in reply: ‘Leto, most honoured daughter of great Coeus, I shall gladly welcome your son, the lord who shoots from afar. For now my name brings no pleasure to mankind, but then I would be honoured beyond measure.’

Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo, 49-65

At first sight, Delos is a scraggy island. Low in the sea, it crouches, the surf slapping hard against the crumbling jetty of its once Sacred Harbour, its thin soil dun and dull, the salt breeze rattling its scrawny shrubs, stones skittering unexpectedly as clacking quails take fright and scurry off, affronted, up the hillside. Follow them up the low (if strenuous) rise of Mount Cynthus, and the view from the top is unforgettable – an arc of islands: Tinos to the north; then sweeping clockwise, Mykonos; Paros; Naxos to the south; and to the west beyond low-lying Rhenea, Syros, with its narrow streets and bustling port. All are members of the Cyclades, that great wheel of more than two hundred isles and islets, which from the fourth millennium bc developed a distinctive art and civilization, and at whose hub is Delos. For Greeks of the Classical age, it was one of the most sacred sites on earth, for it was here that the goddess Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis.

The Delivery of Leto

Leto was a Titan, whose sister Asteria, a goddess of oracles and dreams, had once borne Hecate (goddess of ghosts and necromancy, to whom dogs were sacrificed at crossroads). Asteria attracted Zeus’ roving eye, but rather than succumb to him she turned herself into a quail and leapt into the sea at which she was transformed once more, this time into the floating island of Ortygia (Quail Island). Thwarted, Zeus transferred his attentions to Leto, according to Hesiod ‘the gentlest of all goddesses on Olympus’. He found her more compliant than her sister, and soon she was expecting twins. But Hera, angry at her husband’s philandering, made Leto’s pregnancy as painful and protracted as possible.

Delos: Sacred Island of Leto, Artemis & Apollo Photo Gallery

Issuing a stern command to Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, not to go to Leto’s aid, Hera ordered Ares and Iris to ensure that nowhere on earth would offer Leto refuge. So, driven from mainland Greece, pursued by a savage Python, and in increasing discomfort, Leto fled to the Asiatic coast. In Lycia, as she slaked her thirst at a bubbling spring, shepherds tried to drive her off. In anger, she turned them into frogs – today the now partially flooded sanctuary of Letoon (near Xanthus in modern Turkey) pulsates with their descendants’ croaking. At last, despairing, Leto turned to Ortygia, the floating island which had once been her sister Asteria. Being unattached to the earth, it was not subject to Hera’s injunction. Besides, Hera respected Asteria for having rebuffed Zeus.

So by a circular lake on Ortygia Leto crouched, clutching a palm tree, in agonizing childbirth. After almost endless torment she was delivered of a daughter, Artemis, soon to be worshipped as the goddess not only of wild beasts and the hunt, but also of midwifery. For, being divine, no sooner was she born than Artemis was helping to deliver her twin brother, Apollo, god of light. As she did so, a flock of swans rose high from the Asiatic River Pactolus to ‘circle [the island] seven times, singing as the god was born, the Muses’ birds, most musical of any bird that flies while the island’s nymphs reverberating far and wide intoned the hymn of childbirth. At once the blazing sky echoed the resounding chant, and Hera felt no rancour, for Zeus had assuaged her anger. And at that moment the [island’s] bedrock turned to gold, the round lake flowed with gold, the palm tree’s leaves were gold, and the swirling Inopus gushed a golden flood.’

From then, too, the island changed its name. Now firmly anchored to the ocean’s floor, it became known as Delos (‘Clearly Seen’).

At least two other places claimed to be the site of Leto’s birthing: the Paximadia islands (known in antiquity as the Letoai), off southern Crete; and the city of Buto on Egypt’s Nile Delta. According to Herodotus a floating island still existed there in the fifth century bc. It was not Egypt’s only connection to Delos. The ‘swirling Inopus’ (in fact a desultory stream, which no longer flows) on the island was believed to derive from a subterranean branch of the Nile, its waters increasing at the same time as its Egyptian cousin was in flood. Perhaps more convincing is the evidence for Leto’s own cross-cultural connections – in the Near East, Lat (or Allat) was a great mother goddess, while in Lycian ‘Leto’ means simply ‘Lady’.

But it was on Delos, by the shore of the sacred lake, that Leto was most devoutly worshipped. Here she shared a temple with her twins, Artemis and Apollo. In mythology, too, the family was tight-knit.

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