When Niobe, queen of Thebes, was heard boasting of her superiority to Leto – because she had borne twelve (in some versions fourteen) children, the goddess only two – Apollo and Artemis were quick to act. Nocking poisoned arrows, they let fly a fusillade of death, Apollo mowing down the sons, Artemis the daughters. Homer tells how, leaving her children ‘lying nine days in their own blood’, Niobe fled east to Lydia. There on Mount Sipylus she sat and wept so long she melded with the mountainside, ‘brooding on the pain gods gave her’. As the ‘Weeping Rock’ near Manisa in Turkey she can still be seen today.
Like Artemis (sometimes called Cynthia after Delos’ Mount Cynthus), Apollo, ever young, athletic, golden haired, was highly strung. Both were masters of the bow; Apollo, in addition, was virtuosic on the lyre, which had seven strings because at his birth the swans had circled Delos seven times. But like the taut-stretched bow- or lyre-string, the twin divinities could suddenly snap, and when they did they brought destruction – especially when honour was at stake.
The Vengeance of Apollo & Artemis Photo Gallery
In Phrygia on the mainland east of Delos, when the satyr Marsyas boasted of his prowess on the aulos (an oboe-like wind instrument) Apollo challenged him to a competition. As both were consummate musicians, the lyrist Apollo could win only by suggesting that each should sing while playing. For Marsyas this was impossible, and, triumphant, Apollo had the satyr flayed alive. Marginally more fortunate was Midas, the king who famously changed all that he touched to gold: when he expressed his preference for Pan’s piping, Apollo gave Midas ass’ ears as punishment.
Artemis and Apollo unleash a deadly volley of arrows against the children of Niobe. (Athenian red figure vase painting, fifth century BC.)
Apollo’s rage could also be unleashed against mankind through plague. At Troy, at the opening of the Iliad, Apollo, angered because his priest has been insulted by the Greeks ‘descended from Olympus, his bow and quiver at his back, and, as the god swooped down in fury like the night, his arrows clattered at his shoulder. There by the ships he stood and fired, and his silver bow sang chillingly. He first shot mules, then dogs, then men. And well-packed pyres burned constantly.’
Like many gods, Apollo embodied a unity of opposites. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, when
Thebes is ravaged by a mysterious plague (provoked in part by a misunderstanding of the god’s oracle at Delphi), the citizens call on the ‘Healer from Delos’, Apollo, to cure it. Indeed, one of the most common hymn-forms sung to Apollo (whose name the Greeks linked to the word apollumi, ‘I destroy’) was the paean, literally the ‘cure song’.