Apollo: The Greek God of Music and the Sun

Apollo one of the most influential and revered of all the Olympian gods. Temples were built for him all over the ancient world, and he was worshiped by Greeks in major cities such as Athens and Sparta. Today, he lives on as the god of the the sun, light, and music. What else do we know about the ancient Greek god Apollo?

What is Apollo the God of? 

He was the Greek god of the sun and light, music, art and poetry, crops and herds, prophecy and truth, and more. He was a healer, the epitome of beauty and superiority, the son of Zeus (God of thunder) and Leto (his lover, not wife). 

He was able to make prophecies and purify people of their sins. Apollo has multiple epithets, as he was in control of various things, so many that he often confused not only people but other gods.

Apollo and Music

Apollo is a patron to musicians and poets. He appears as the leader of the Muses and used to lead them in dance. The Muses loved Apollo, and so he became the father of great musicians like Linus and Orpheus. 

Apollo’s music was known to have such harmony and delight that it could ease people’s pain.  His music was not just limited to people and Muses but also reached the gods. He had played at the weddings of gods. Greeks would believe that the human ability to enjoy music — especially the sense of rhythm and harmony, was through Apollo’s powers. String music is thought to be invented by Apollo.

Pythagoreans worshiped Apollo and used to believe that mathematics and music were connected. Their belief revolved around the theory “music of spheres,” which meant that music had the same laws of harmony as space, the cosmos, and physics, and that it purifies the soul.

Apollo and Education

Apollo is known famously for education and knowledge. He protected young children and boys. He took care of their upbringing, education, and led them through their youth. This is another reason why people liked him. Along with the Muses, Apollo oversaw education. It is said that young boys used to cut their long hair and devote themselves to the god as a token of honor and love for him taking care of their education.

Titles for Apollo

Being the god of the sun, Apollo was also known to the Romans as Phoebus, named after his grandmother. And because he was also a prophet, he was often known as Loxias. But he gets the title of “Leader of Muses” from music. He shares the same name in both Greek and Roman mythology. 

Everything about him seems perfect and impressive but just like other gods of Greek mythology, he too caused drama and mistakes, got punished by his own father, and was also guilty of killing people. He had multiple love affairs, mostly left with no good end and also had children with goddesses, nymphs, and princesses.

Apollo’s Appearance

Apollo was loved by all Greeks, as he was known for his beauty, grace, and athletic body with no beard and prominent build. He wore a laurel crown on his head, held silver bows, and carried a golden sword. His bow arrow depicted his bravery, and his kithara — a lyre of sorts — portrayed his musical virtuosity.

Myths About Apollo

As the god of the sun and other important aspects of Greek life, Apollo features in a number of important myths, some of which tell us about Apollo himself and others which help explain features of ancient Greek life.

The Birth of Apollo

Apollo’s mother Leto had to face the jealousy of Zeus’s wife, Hera. Hera is known for taking vengeance upon all her husband’s lovers, but she was loved among people as a savior of marriages, as she was goddess of women, family, childbirth and marriages. 

Leta ran away to save herself and her child in the land of Delos, because Hera cursed her to never give birth. But Leta was able to give birth to twins in the secret land of Delos — the boy Apollo, the girl Artemis (goddess of hunt). It is said that Artemis was born first and helped her mother in giving birth to Apollo on the mountain Cynthus. 

According to legend, Apollo was born on the seventh day of Thargelia, an ancient Greek month that corresponds roughly with the modern month of May. 

Apollo and the Killing of Python

Hera had already sent the dragon serpent python – the son of Gaia – to kill them mercilessly.  

After being born, Apollo was fed the nectar of ambrosia, and within some days he grew strong and brave, ready to take revenge. 

At the age of four, he was able to kill the monstrous python with special arrows given to him by god of blacksmiths Hephaestus. He was worshiped by the people of Delos for his bravery.

After these events, Delos and Delphi became sacred sites for the worship of Zeus, Leto, Artemis, and, especially, Apollo. The high priestess Pythia presided over the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, serving as its enigmatic oracle.

The Pythian games were begun to honor and celebrate Apollo. Wrestling, racing, and other competitive games were played and prizes like laurel wreaths, tripods, and more were given as prizes to the winners. The Romans introduced poetry, music, dance events, and competitions to honor and remember Apollo by his art too. 

Spartans had a different way to honor and celebrate their god. They would adorn the statue of Apollo with clothes and a meal was served to where masters and slaves ate equally, while they danced and sang along. 

Apollo’s Weapons, Animals, Temples

Apollo had a lyre, which was made from tortoise shell, and depicted his love for music. He was the leader of the chorus of all nine Muses. He had a silver bow, which showed his skill of archery and a palm tree, which is said to have been gripped by his mother Leto, while giving birth to him. 

A laurel branch is also associated with Apollo. He had massive respect and love for the laurel tree, as this tree was once someone he loved — the nymph, Daphne. To display his prophetic powers, a sacrificial tripod is linked with him.

Multiple sacred sites were built for Apollo in Delos, Rhodes, and Claros.  A temple at Actium was dedicated to Apollo by the warrior Octavius. Almost thirty treasuries were built by multiple cities at Delphi, all to the love of Apollo. 

Some of the animals that were linked with him are raven, dolphin, wolf, python, deer, mouse, and swan. Apollo is seen as riding with swans in a chariot in multiple paintings and depictions. 

Zeus Punishing Apollo

Apollo had to face his own father’s Zeus’s wrath when he killed Apollo’s son, Asclepius, the god of medicine. Asclepius was his son from Coronis, a Thessalian princess, who was later killed by Apollo’s sister Artemis as a result of infidelity. 

Asclepius brought Hippolytus, the Greek hero, back from the dead using his medicinal powers and skills. But because this was against the rules, he was killed by Zeus. Apollo was deeply upset and angered and killed Cyclopes (a one-eyed giant) who was responsible for forming weapons like thunderbolts for Zeus. Zeus was not happy with this and so he turned Apollo into a mortal and sent him to Earth to serve King Admetus of Therae.

The second time he was punished by Zeus was when he tried to take over his own father along with Poseidon, the god of sea

Zeus was insulted by that and sentenced them both to work for years in labor as mortals. During this time, they were able to build the walls of Troy, protecting the city from its foes..

Apollo and the Nymph Daphne 

Their interesting yet sad love story started when Apollo was struck by a love arrow from Eros, the God of love he once made fun of. He fell helplessly in love with the nymph Daphne and started approaching her. But Daphne was struck with a leaden arrow and started to detest Apollo. To help Daphne, his father, the river god Peneus, converted her into a laurel tree. Since then, Apollo loved that tree. He wore a laurel wreath to remember his unattained love.

What is Apollo known for?

As one of the more worshipped and revered gods of the Greek pantheon, Apollo is well-known for a number of different aspects of ancient Greek religion, such as: 

Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi

Apollo’s presence as a god of prophecies was actually displayed at Delphi and Delos in his oracle. These two sites had widespread influence. A Pythian Apollo, where he killed the serpent Python, and Delian Apollo have shrines in the same locality. His oracle had written sources, fully functional, where people would come to consult him about matters and seek for his knowledge and prophetic powers.

To foretell things was considered essential in the Greek world. People from Greece would travel from far areas to Delphi to try and gain some knowledge about the future. But Apollo’s revelations were spoken into real life with poems and hard-to-understand speech. To understand their prophecy, people had to travel further to reach other experts to deduce results from Apollo’s interpretations. 

Apollo’s Role in Trojan War 

Apollo entered the battlefield of Troy after his father Zeus ordered him to. 

He had a significant role to play during the Trojan war in the Iliad, the epic poem by Homer that tells the story of the Trojan War. His decision to side with the Trojans impacted the fate of war. 

He brought his help to Aeneas, Glaukos, Hector, and all Trojan Heroes, where he saved them with his divine powers. He killed many soldiers and assisted the Trojan armies when they were being defeated.

Zeus allowed other gods to get involved in the war as well. Poseidon, the god of sea, and a brother to Zeus got against Apollo, but Apollo refused to fight him for the sake of his relation to him.

Diomedes, the Greek hero, attacked Aeneas, a Trojan Hero. Apollo came into the scene and took Aeneas to a cloud to conceal him. Diomedes made an attack on Apollo and it was repelled by the god and a warning was sent to him to take a look at the consequences. Aeneas was taken to a safe spot in Troy to get healed.

Apollo is a healer, but he is also responsible for bringing the plague. During the Trojan war, when Chryseis was captured by Greek king Agamemnon , Apollo shot hundreds of plague arrows upon Greek encampments. That destroyed the defensive walls of their camps. 

Another son of Zeus, Sarpedon, was killed during the war. To fulfill his father’s wish, Apollo took him to the gods of death and sleep after rescuing him from the battlefield. 

Apollo also influenced one of the most important events of the war, the death of Achilles. It is said that Apollo guided Paris’ arrow to hit Achilles’ heel, killing the brave Greek hero who was thought to be undefeatable. Apollo was motivated by a grudge against Achilles, who was responsible for brutally killing Apollo’s son Tenes before the war even began.

Apollo also defended the Trojan hero Hector. He healed him and took him in his arms after he was badly injured. When Hector was about to lose to Achilles, Apollo intervened and took him to the clouds to save him. Apollo also broke the weapons and armor of the Greek hero Patroclus when he tried to invade the fort of Troy, keeping Hector alive.

Apollo and Hermes

Hermes, the trickster god and god of thieves, also tried to trick Apollo. Hermes is said to have been born on Mount Cyllene to Maia, who also feared Hera and hid inside the cave and wrapped her child in a blanket to protect him. But being an infant, Hermes managed to escape the cave. 

When Hermes reached Thessaly, where Apollo was sent down as punishment from his father Zeus for killing Cyclopes, Hermes saw him grazing his cattle. At the time, Hermes was an infant and managed to steal his cattle and hide them in a cave near Pylos. Hermes was skilled and brutal too. He killed a tortoise and removed his shell, then using his cow’s intestines and the shell from the tortoise to make a lyre. It was his first invention. 

Apollo was sent down as a mortal so when he found out about this, he went to Maia and told her about the situation.  But Hermes was smart and had already replaced himself from the blankets he left. So Maia could not believe whatever Apollo had to say. But Zeus was seeing all this, and sided with his son Apollo. 

Apollo was about to claim his cattle back when he heard the music being played from the lyre Hermes made. Apollo immediately fell in love with it and his anger diminished. He offered his cattle in exchange for that lyre, ignoring what Hermes had done. So, from then on, Apollo possessed the lyre that is so famously connected to him.

Heracles and Apollo

Apollo is known to purify people of their sins with his divinity. Once a man named Alcides killed his whole family and decided to purify himself. So he went to Apollo’s oracle for guidance. Apollo told him to serve King Eurystheus for 10 to 12 years and also do the tasks the king commanded of him. After doing this, only then he would be purified of his sins. This man was renamed Heracles by Apollo.

Heracles went on completing his tasks. His third task included capturing a Ceryneian Hind, which was very important and holy to Apollo’s sister Artemis. Heracles wanted to complete his tasks so he went on for a year, chasing after that hind. 

After struggling for 1 year, he was able to capture that hind near river Ladon. But Artemis found out. He was immediately confronted by an angered Apollo. Heracles took both, sister and brother, in trust and explained to them his situation. Artemis was eventually convinced after and allowed him to take the Hind to the King.

After completing his service under the king, Heracles killed Iphytus, a prince, after getting into a conflict with him. Heracles got terribly ill and went to the oracle again to be recovered, but Apollo refused to help him in any way. Heracles got furious, captured the tripod, and ran away. Apollo, angered at this, was able to stop him. Artemis was there to support her brother, but Heracles had Athena’s support. Zeus was seeing all this, and threw the thunderbolt between the fighting Apollo and Heracles. Apollo was forced to give a solution, so he decided to purify him again. He further commanded him to serve under Queen of Lydia to once gain clean himself of his sins.

Periphas

Apollo showed his kindness towards a king named Periphas, who was known for his  just behavior among his people in Attica. In fact, his people loved him and had started worshiping him. They made temples and shrines for him, and made celebrations to honor him. All of this made Zeus angry, and he decided to kill all his people. But Apollo intervened and pleaded Zeus to forgive them, as Periphas was a kind and just ruler loved by his people. Zeus considered Apollo’s request and he made Periphas the king of birds by converting him into an eagle.

Apollo’s Role in Nurturing his Children

There are many examples when Apollo was attentive and generous towards his children and different beings. And this shows his popularity among his followers. 

One example is when his son, Asclepius, attained skills in medical knowledge under his father’s guidance. He was then put under the supervision of Chiron (a centaur). Chiron was also brought up by Apollo and was taught medicine, prophetic knowledge, war skills, and more. Chiron proved to be a great teacher to Asclepius.

Another son of Apollo, Anius, was abandoned by his mother but soon brought to Apollo, where he took care of him, educated him. Later, his son became a priest and the future king of Delos.

Apollo took care of another abandoned kid, Carnus, who was a son of Zeus and Europa. He was fostered and educated to be a seer in future.

Apollo’s son from Evadne, Iamus, was very loved by him. Apollo sent some snakes with honey to feed him. He took him to Olympia and took responsibility for his education. He was taught multiple things, like the language of birds and other subjects of art.

Apollo is known to take care and stand up for his family. Once, when Hera persuaded the Titans, the pre-Olympian Gods, to overthrow Zeus, they tried to climb Mount Olympus. However, they did not find Zeus alone. He had his son and daughter beside him. Both Apollo and Artemis along with their mother fought with Zeus and were able to defeat the Titans.

Not just for his family, Apollo was also known for standing up for his people. Like this one time, when a monstrous giant Phorbas captured the roads to Delphi. He would assault any pilgrim that dared to go inside. He caught them and sold them further for ransom, and he cut the heads of young people who dared to fight him. But Apollo came to rescue his people. He and Phorbas came against each other and Apollo easily managed to kill him with just his one bow.

Apollo also stood up for the god Prometheus, who had stolen fire and was punished by Zeus. The punishment was severe. He was tied to a rock and everyday an eagle would come and eat his liver. But the next day, his liver would grow again, only to be fed by that eagle. Apollo, upon seeing this, got upset and pleaded in front of his father. But Zeus did not listen to him. Apollo took his sister, Artemis, and mother with him and pleaded again with tears in their eyes. Zeus was moved, and finally set Prometheus free.

Tityus vs Apollo

Once Apollo’s mother was being assaulted by the Tityus (Phokian giant) while she was traveling to Delphi. Maybe Tityus did not know whose mother he was messing with. Apollo slew him fearlessly with silver arrows and a golden sword. He was not satisfied by this, and to further torture him, he sent two vultures to feed on him.

Apollo’s Darker Side

Although Apollo is often cast as a hero and a defender, all Greek gods had both good and bad inside of them. This was meant to reflect their human nature and make the lessons they taught more relevant to the average person. Some of Apollo’s darker stories include:

Killing of Niobe’s Children

Despite being the God of healing and medicine, Apollo had done rough stuff. For example, along with Artemis, he killed Niobe’s 12 or 13 children out of 14. One was spared by Artemis after she pleaded with Apollo. What had Niobe done? Well, she’d boasted about having 14 children, mocking the Titan, Leto, of having only two. So, Leto’s children, Apollo and Artemis, killed her children as revenge. 

Marsyas the Satyr

Apollo, being the god of music, was admired by all the Muses and anyone who listened to him. But Apollo was challenged by the satyr, Marsyas. As the god of music, Apollo decided to prove him wrong. So, a competition was set and the Muses were invited to be the judges. Muses declared Apollo to be the winner. But Apollo was still upset at the audacity of the satyr and flayed the poor being and nailed his skin.

Poor Midas

Another similar thing happened when there was yet another music competition among Pan and Apollo. Apollo defeated him clearly. Everyone present there declared Apollo to be unbeatable, except for King Midas, who thought Pan was better than Apollo. Midas had no idea who he was voting against and as a consequence his ears were changed into those of a donkey by Apollo. 

The Last Competition

The king of Cyprus also dared to be a better flute player than Apollo, and clearly he seemed unaware of two previous competitions and their results. Ultimately, he lost to Apollo. It is said that he committed suicide or maybe he was killed by the God.

After these music competitions, Apollo must have become undefeatable and also someone no one wanted to mess up with.

Cassandra’s Fate

Apollo did another vengeful thing when he fell in love with Cassandra, a Trojan princess, and gifted her the power of prophecy in order to sleep with her. 

Instantly, she said yes to being with him. But after receiving the power, she rejected him and moved away. 

As you can guess, Apollo was not forgiving at all. So, he decided to punish her for breaking the promise. Since he was not able to steal her gift because it was against His divinity, he taught her a lesson by taking away her power of persuasion. This way no one ever believed her prophecies. She even foretold that Troy would fall after the Greeks came inside with some clever trick and a machine, but no one believed her, not even her own family.

So much for that…

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