Pythian Apollo

Shortly after his birth on Delos, Apollo set out to destroy the Python that had pursued his pregnant mother Leto. He found the three-headed serpent in the foothills of Parnassus, coiled around the chasm of the oracle of Gaia. It had already ravaged the surrounding countryside, and now for any to come near it, whether man or animal, meant death. But Apollo was the archer god, ‘who shoots from afar’, and the Python was powerless to approach him As the serpent reared its heads, snapping its jaws and flickering its tongues, Apollo launched a fusillade of arrows.

Each of the hundred arrowheads sank home until, exhausted, and with black slime oozing from its wounds, the Python crashed dead to the earth. As the sun rose high, the carcass rotted, and the Python dissolved back into the slime from which it had been born, dripping down into the chasm, until all that remained were bones and the stench of its decay. It was from this decay (pythesthai means ‘to rot’) that the Pythian priestess, through whom Apollo spoke, took her title, and Delphi its alternative name ‘Pytho’.

Pythian Apollo Photo Gallery

Apollo’s contest with the Python for the prophetic tripod at Delphi is commemorated on a silver coin (stater) from Croton (south Italy), c. 420 BC.

For the Greeks killing must be atoned – even the killing of the Python. So Apollo collected its bones, placed them in a cauldron and consecrated them in the temple which he built above the noxious chasm. Not only that: he inaugurated funeral games, which, in the historical period, were celebrated every four years with contests for music and dance as well as athletics, and were called Pythian in the serpent’s honour. The prize was a crown of Apollo’s sacred bay leaves.

Yet even this was not enough. Zeus ordained that Apollo must be ritually cleansed from bloodguilt. Local legends told that Zeus chose the Vale of Tempe for the purification; but Apollo preferred either Sicyon or Crete, where the king presided over the rites. Then Apollo returned to Delphi and claimed it as his own. Here, he persuaded Pan, the goaty god of the untamed countryside who sowed sudden panic in both flocks and men, to teach him the arts of prophecy so vital if he were to preside over the oracle. Then, having civilized the local inhabitants, teaching them to plant fruit trees and lead cultured lives, Apollo invited his mother Leto and his sister Artemis to Delphi to celebrate his triumph. But even now the foothills of Parnassus were not entirely safe. As Leto wound her way towards the sanctuary, she was attacked (perhaps at the still jealous Hera’s instigation) by the giant Tityos, a son of Gaia. Ripping her veil, he would have raped her, but Apollo and Artemis heard Leto’s screams and unleashed a volley of their deadly arrows. As punishment in Hades, the deathless giant lay stretched out, his arms and legs pegged to the ground, two vultures crouching over him, tearing at his liver and delving deep into his bowels.

For the priests of his new temple, Apollo chose Cretan sailors. The Homeric Hymn describes how he spied them far out at sea tacking towards Pylos and, impressed by their nobility, he: met them mid-ocean and, taking a dolphin’s form, leapt on to the deck of their fast ship, where he lay, huge and terrifying. No one knew who he was, and they tried to heave the dolphin overboard. But he thrashed about on the black ship, shaking its timbers, while they sat dumbstruck and terrified.

Despite their efforts, the sailors found that they could not control their ship, which glided miraculously into the bay at Crisa below Delphi, where it grounded on the beach. ‘And there the lord Apollo, who shoots from afar, leapt up from the ship like a star seen at midday, and lightning flashed around him, and its brightness shot up to the sky; and through an avenue of precious tripods, he strode into his sanctuary.’

At last the sailors recognized Apollo as a god and accepted his will that they should be the guardians of his temple – in this version calling the sanctuary Delphi in remembrance of his appearance as a dolphin (delphinos). For many Greeks, who consulted the Delphic oracle for over a millennium, ever alive to the machinations of its priests, ever alert to the ambiguity of its prophecies, it seemed no coincidence that Cretans had an unenviable reputation as liars.

Yet lying (or presumed lying) could provoke Apollo’s anger. When he heard from his messenger, a crow, that his pregnant lover Coronis was unfaithful, in disbelief he punished the bird, turning it black (until then all crows had been pure white). Later Apollo discovered the truth, killed Coronis, and made the crow the harbinger of death. Yet even this was not the end. At Delphi, Coronis’ father burned down Apollo’s temple – for which the god destroyed him

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