Born out of wedlock, Apollo is the son of Zeus and Leto, and the younger twin brother of Artemis. His ceremonial name is Phoebus Apollo, from the Greek phoibos, usually translated as “shining” or “golden.” “Phoebus” directly connects Apollo to the sun, which is why he is often conflated with Helios, who is the sun personified. (Phaëton, the tragic young man who died after convincing his father to let him drive the chariot of the sun, is sometimes said to be Apollo’s child, sometimes Helios’. If he “actually” is Apollo’s, that would be at least the second one of Apollo’s sons that Zeus has offed. Ouch.)
Apollo is the god of music and medicine, of archery and art, of spiritual healing, of Light, and of Truth. Greek philosophers like to hold him up as a being who has never knowingly told a lie. He has been called in poetry the “most Greek of all gods.” Apollo rarely appears as truly malevolent within myths, though he is not above a little old fashioned wrath and arrogance that results in a tragic moment of recognition.
Apollo gave King Midas donkey ears for saying Pan played the pipes better than him. (And frankly, Midas might have had a point. They are called Pan pipes.) And he killed the Cyclopes for making the thunderbolts that Zeus used to kill Apollo’s son. (Okay that one’s a tiny bit more justified and kind of epic. But then you have to remember that Apollo killed them because he couldn’t actually directly challenge his father. So it’s kind of a contractors on the Death Star problem.)
Leto, Apollo’s mother, had a bit of a rough go of it while she was pregnant with the immortal twins. Hera had basically intimidated everyone into casting Leto out of every city she sought refuge in. (Picture this really, really pregnant lady walking down a rocky road barefoot with soldiers looking on.) Hera also decreed that Leto couldn’t give birth on either land or sea, so Leto was looking at the prospect of being nine months pregnant for the rest of her life. But then she found Delos, which was a “floating island,” and because it was at once both and neither land nor sea she was able to have her children there. (Artemis was born first.)
Once the twins were born, they went about killing everyone and everything that had hurt their mother. They rained down plagues on the cities that had cast her out, and they literally tore people apart. (They did this, some of the legends say, at the ripe old age of four days old.)
So everyone knew not to mess with Leto because her kids were powerful archer-gods. Except, somehow, Niobe missed the memo. She was a queen who had either seven or fourteen children, and when Leto came to visit her city, Thebes, Niobe said, “Wow. You only have two children. I have fourteen children. Why do you get worshipped as a great mother when I’m seven times the mother you are?” And Leto got kind of sad and she told Apollo and Artemis and they killed all of Niobe’s kids.
Daphne: Apollo learns about consent
The most famous story of Apollo’s love is that of Daphne, the nymph devotee of Apollo’s virginal twin sister Artemis. Daphne’s father was a nature god, and she made her father swear to her that he would protect her from the romantic attentions of the gods (which is a pretty practical thing to do, considering you’re lucky if you don’t end up being set on fire by either your ex-boyfriend or his wife.) So Daphne’s father says, “I gotcha. You just go about your worshipping Artemis naked business honey.” And she does. And Apollo sees her, and he immediate falls hopelessly in love with her. (Did I mention Apollo had told Eros that he was a terrible archer? Never tease a four-year-old with lust arrows.)
So Apollo rushes down to Earth and runs toward her, and Daphne is like “uh, no.” And she calls out to Artemis first. “Artemis, please protect my virginity.” And Artemis looks down and weighs her options: betray her twin brother, her other half, or ignore a random nymph. She chooses the latter and soon Daphne is running through the forest pursued by Apollo who’s basically just saying “Wait! I just want to talk to you! I like your hair!” As Apollo gains on her (because he’s a god), Daphne calls out to her father, “Save me, Father! I can’t escape!” And her father turns her into a laurel tree. Ever since, the laurel has been the sacred tree of Apollo, protected and revered.
[It should also be noted that there are almost no stories of Apollo forcing himself on women (or men) like his father Zeus. In my weird little mind, I attribute that to this story.]
Coronis was a princess that Apollo conceived a son with, but while she was pregnant she fell in love and married a prince named Ischys. A crow witnessed the wedding and told Apollo. Apollo was so livid at the idea of being cuckolded that he turned the feathers of the crow black, when they had been white before.
Apollo asked his sister Artemis to smite Coronis. So she did. But then, as he felt Coronis die (he’s clairvoyant, remember), Apollo remembered she was pregnant, and he plucked his infant son from her funeral pyre and gave him to Chiron the centaur to raise. The boy was Asklepius, who would become the god of healing after being smited by Zeus.
Hecuba/Cassandra: The Trojan Women
Apollo had a son with Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, when she was an older lady. The son’s name was Troilus. (Yes, he has his own play.) It was prophesied that if Troilus made it to age twenty, the city of Troy would never fall. So Achilles snuck up on him and killed him. Because Achilles doesn’t fight fair.
Cassandra was Hecuba’s oldest daughter. She began as a priestess of Apollo and allowed Apollo to court her if he promised to give her the gift of prophecy. But once she had it, she rejected him. Apollo cursed her with the ability to foresee the greatest tragedies, but she is unable to avert them, because no one believes her prophecies.
Hyacinthus and Cyparissus: The Flower Boys
Apollo carried on a relationship with Hyacinthus, a Spartan prince, until Zephyrus, a wind god, became jealous of Apollo’s happiness with the prince. So Zephyrus changed the path and speed of a discus Apollo threw so it hit Hyacinthus in the head and killed him. Unable to save him, Apollo transformed his corpse into a beautiful flower, a hyacinth.
Cyparissus was another prince that got turned into foliage, but at least he asked for it. Apollo gave him a deer that Cyparissus grew very attached to, and then one day while hunting Cyparissus accidentally killed it. He was heartbroken, and told Apollo he would never stop crying. Apollo turned him into the first cypress tree, the tree of sorrow that never stops crying sap.
Cyrene: The Exception that Proves the Rule
Not all of Apollo’s affairs ended badly. Cyrene was another nymph. Apollo saw her wrestling a lion and was like “Wow. That is hot.” and they lived together for a while and had two children, one became the god of cattle and husbandry and the other became a famous seer. And no, she didn’t get set on fire or turned into a tree. Phew!
His Sacred Places
Delos, the island of his and Artemis’ birth, is said to have grown up from the sea just when Leto needed it most (while she was being chased by Hera). The island now houses a few temples but the grandest is the sanctuary of Apollo. Delos was also the site of the Delia, a festival dedicated to Apollo (sometimes Artemis too, depending on the strength of her cult.)
Apollo had many homes and many temples but none was as beloved as Delphi, the site of his oracle. This cave was often called the “navel of the earth,” and was the dwelling of a gigantic Python, which Apollo killed with his archery in order to set up the oracle.
The oracle was always a priestess, called Pythia after the Python Apollo had killed. She sat at the back of the cave, where fissures in the rock allowed vapors to escape. (Some of which, geologists believe, had hallucinogenic properties.)
When the oracle “fell,” over three hundred years after the birth of Christ, Pythia is said to have said “fallen is [the] splendid hall, Phoebus no longer has [his] house. Neither the prophesying laurel nor the well will talk anymore, silent also the babbling water.” It’s kind of sad to think that if that really was Apollo speaking through her, he was predicting his own destruction, his own death.