God of Harmony
Photo: Naples National Archaeological Museum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MANNapoli_6281_Sitting_Apollo_Farnese.jpg
Apollo, God of Music, Poetry, Art, Medicine, Light and Truth
Roman Name: Apollo
God of: Many things, which can’t easily be described in one word, but included music, poetry, art, medicine, light and seeing the truth though oracles – but also archery and plague! Sometimes the word 'harmony' is used to try bring all these ideas together.
Children: Apollo was said to have many children with many different lovers. One son was the god of medicine, Asclepius, whose mother was a mortal princess. He is also said to be the divine father of Orpheus and Hector of Troy, though they also had more regular parents.
Symbols: Music of all kinds, especially the lyre (a harp), but also the laurel wreath or crown, dolphins, crows and pythons.
Location of Story: A shrine by the river and the Panathenaic Stadium.
Delphi picked up the wooden flute and tried to get her fingers over the holes. If there was ever a place where she would be able to play it, it was here in Apollo’s shrine.
She raised it to her lips and blew. A rather wet squeal escaped from the flute, like someone was strangling a small woodland creature. Delphi gripped it tighter, scrunched up her face and tried again. This time it sounded like that time she had eaten too much bean salad.
Delphi ground her teeth together in frustration. She closed her eyes, concentrated, and blew.
The sound was wondrous. The dancing and playful melody sounded as if nature itself was singing to her, all the plants and creatures of the world united in song with the wind, the sky and the stars. It was music that connected deep, to your soul, that gave you hope, and joy, and meaning. Delphi was lost in it and time stood still.
She wasn’t sure how long it was before she realised that the music was not being played by her.
She looked over at the golden-haired man sitting next to her. He was playing a lyre, a hand harp. It was as golden as he was. He seemed to be glowing.
“Do you mind?” Delphi asked. “I’m trying to play here.”
Apollo let a couple more delicate notes fall out of his harp.
“Did you not like my song?” he asked, a little confused.
Delphi shrugged. “It was nice, I suppose,” she admitted, wiping her nose and trying not to show that it had almost made her burst into joyful tears.
“Nice?!” Apollo snapped, looking irritated. “It’s not supposed to be nice; it’s supposed to be perfect! A song to awaken the primal forces of the world! To stir the hearts of men…”
“And women…” Delphi cut in.
“And women, yes…”
“And children. And everyone else.”
“Yes, yes…” Apollo paused and looked at his lyre in irritation. “Was it not… perfect?”
Delphi squirmed a bit under the gaze of his shining eyes. Yes, the part of her that was still enchanted declared. Yes, it was!
“No, I don’t think so. Not perfect,” she said, refusing to look at him. “Almost. I don’t think anything can be perfect. I mean, it was really nice and everything…”
Apollo stared at her for a few seconds, his expression unreadable. Then he burst out laughing.
“Well, I should have expected the truth from you, my little oracle!”
He pointed at her flute, that now rested in her lap. “Maybe you should practice some more, and then we can talk about whose music is perfect.”
Delphi stood up. “Nah, don’t worry. I’ll never be able to play like you can. So maybe I won’t bother. I’m better at… um…”
Apollo raised an eyebrow at her and let out another couple of singing notes. They hovered in the air. Like a spell.
“Oh, shut up,” Delphi snapped.
The shining twin
Apollo was born with his twin-sister Artemis on the island of Delos, under or possibly even in, a palm tree. Hera had decreed that Leto, their mother, could not give birth on land as revenge for Zeus being unfaithful to her. However, the twin children were clearly special. While his sister and mother were dark haired, Apollo was pure gold – blonde, fair and as shining as the Sun.
Hera was so enraged by the birth of Apollo and Artemis that she sent Python, a giant snake (and the first python!) to kill them. However, Apollo asked for help from his half-brother Hephaestus, who sent him a golden bow and arrows. Apollo slew the beast in the mountains, at a place first called Pytho, named after Python. There he established the greatest shrine in the world, at the place said to be the centre of the world – it would become known as Delphi. There, the Pythia, a priestess, would sit on a tripod in Apollo’s temple, breathe in the fumes from a crack in the ground, and deliver Apollo’s answers to any questions asked of him. As the god of truth, he could not lie, and could therefore tell the future. The Oracle at Delphi became a central place of importance for the Greeks and features in many stories, both in myth and recorded history. You can still go there today. It’s also where our Delphi gets her name – though that is a much longer story!
God of ‘harmony’
It is difficult to put into a single word what Apollo meant to the Greeks and Romans, and there are many stories about him. He was essentially the god of all things that were true and good, that fitted together well and were more than the sum of their parts. Mathematics, education and truth all belonged to him – and music and poetry too. He was the god who could send terrifying plagues, but also was the god of healing and medicine – especially through his son Asclepius, who was a very important god for the Greeks. He was sometimes known as ‘Phoebus’ Apollo, or ‘Shining’ Apollo, as the god of light (though not quite the god of the Sun, who was Helios). He was said to be beautiful, young, and unusually beardless by the standards of the Greeks, but also fierce and skilled with a bow, capable of bringing down giants.
Apollo played the lyre, a type of harp, and it was said he could play more beautifully than any other being. Not that Apollo actually invented the lyre – he stole it from his half-brother Hermes, but when he heard Apollo play it so beautifully, he knew he should keep it. His music was so wondrous that he could even conjure up powerful objects to help humankind – even the mighty walls of Troy.
Apollo’s claim to be the greatest musician did not go unchallenged, however. A satyr (a half man, half goat or horse) named Marsyas challenged him to a contest, when he found a magical flute which had been discarded by Athena. Apollo only won when, depending on which story you read, he challenged the satyr to play his instrument upside down, or he sang along at the same time, which is hard to do when you’re playing the flute! Like most gods, Apollo could be cruel when he wanted to be – and Marsyas was brutally killed for daring to challenge him. Then, there was what happened to King Midas, who ended up with donkey ears as he dared to disagree with Apollo!
Apollo and Troy
Apollo fought with the Trojans during the Trojan War, firing plague arrows into the Greeks’ camp and was even said to be father to their mighty hero, Hector. However, Apollo wasn’t always so kind to the Trojans. When he fell in love with Cassandra, the King of Troy’s daughter, and she refused him, he cursed her to always tell the truth but to never, ever be believed. Cassandra’s story is a sad one – she predicted the destruction of her city but was always dismissed as being mad – even as the city was destroyed by the conquering Greeks and she was enslaved.