In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of music, poetry, the arts, prophecy, and archery. A god of light, he was also known as Phoebus, which means “radiant” or “beaming,” and was sometimes identified with He-lios, the sun god. As the god of religious healing, Apollo bestowed ritual purification on the guilty.

Like many of the Greek gods, including his sister, Artemis, Apollo had a dark side. He was the god of plague and in that aspect was worshipped as Smintheus, a name that comes from the Greek word sminthos (rat). According to the Iliad, Apollo shot arrows of plague into the Greek camp during the Trojan War.

Apollo’s Origins

Apollo was the son of Zeus and the Titan woman Leto. Zeus’s wife, Hera, found out about her husband’s infidelity and was furious. So jealous was Hera that she hounded the pregnant Leto from place to place across the earth, finally banning her from staying anywhere on solid ground. The only site where Leto could stop was Delos, which was a floating island and therefore not under Hera’s ban. It was on Delos that Leto gave birth to Apollo and his twin sister, the goddess Artemis.

When he was grown, Apollo went to Delphi, where he slew the monstrous serpent Python with his arrows. Python had guarded the sanctuary of Pytho, where a psychic recited prophesies. Apollo, now in charge of the oracle, gained the name Pythian Apollo.
He bestowed divine powers on one of the priestesses of the sanctuary, and she became known as the Pythia. The Pythia inhaled the hallucinating vapors issuing from a fissure in the temple floor and then recited her prophesies. A priest translated her murmurings and ravings for those who came in search of help.

Apollo’s Trysts

Apollo, just like his father, Zeus, had many love affairs with both goddesses and mortals. One of his early loves was the nymph Cyrene, who bore Apollo a son. This son, Aristaeus, became a demigod protector of cattle who taught humankind the skill of dairy farming.

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Another union, this time with a mortal woman, Coronis, daughter of King Phlegyas of the Lapiths, had a more violent outcome. While pregnant by Apollo, Coronis made the mistake of falling in love with a mortal man. When Apollo learned of this, his dark anger was roused. He asked his sister, the huntress Artemis, to kill Coronis. Artemis, just as darkly angry as her brother, did her brother’s bidding. Apollo rescued the child from its mother’s dead body and brought the boy, called Asclepius, to the good Centaur Cheiron. Asclepius became the god of healing.

Not all of those whom Apollo pursued wished to be caught. Apollo became infatuated with the nymph Daphne and harried her until she finally could bear it no longer. She asked Peneus, a river god, for help, and he turned Daphne into a laurel tree. Apollo, distraught by what had happened, made the laurel his sacred tree.
Apollo also fell in love with Hyacinthus, a handsome Spartan prince. Zephyrus, the west wind, was jealous, and when Apollo and Hyacinthus were throwing the discus, Zephyrus blew it off course, smashing Hyacinthus’s skull. Apollo, grieving, created a flower in his love’s honor: the hyacinth.

Yet another love of Apollo’s was the boy Cyparissus. As a love gift, Apollo gave him a deer, which the boy adored. When the deer was accidentally slain, Cyparissus wanted to weep forever. Apollo transformed Cyparissus into a tree, the cypress, which became the symbol of sorrow, as the sap on its trunk forms tear-shaped droplets.

Apollo’s dark side made him utterly without pity when he was angry. The mortal Niobe made the fatal mistake of boasting to Leto, Apollo’s mother, that she had borne fourteen children, which made her superior to Leto, who had only two. This insult to their mother was too much for Apollo and Artemis to ignore. They worked as a merciless hunting team—Apollo killed Niobe’s sons and Artemis killed her daughters. Niobe wept so much in her grief that she turned to stone.

Apollo and Troy

Apollo also has a part in the story of Troy, the city that was doomed to fall to the Greeks. He had a love affair with Queen Hecuba, wife of King Priam of Troy, and she bore Apollo a boy, Troilus. It was foretold that Troy could not be defeated if Troilus was allowed to reach the age of twenty. Unfortunately for Troy, the Greek hero Achilles lay in wait for the boy and killed Troilus before he reached that age.

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Apollo was not yet finished interfering with the affairs of Troy. He fell in love with Cassandra, Troilus’s half sister, and daughter of Hecuba and Priam. Cassandra made a bargain with the god. He could have her as a lover if he taught her the art of prophecy. Apollo agreed. Once she had learned prophecy, however, Cassandra refused him. The angry Apollo could not withdraw his gift but added to it the curse that none of her prophecies would ever be believed. This spelled Troy’s doom, since when Cassandra warned of the danger from the Trojan horse, no one believed her part in the story of Troy, the city that was doomed to fall to the Greeks. He had a love affair with Queen Hecuba, wife of King Priam of Troy, and she bore Apollo a boy, Troilus. It was foretold that Troy could not be defeated if Troilus was allowed to reach the age of twenty. Unfortunately for Troy, the Greek hero Achilles lay in wait for the boy and killed Troilus before he reached that age.

Apollo was not yet finished interfering with the affairs of Troy. He fell in love with Cassandra, Troilus’s half sister, and daughter of Hecuba and Priam. Cassandra made a bargain with the god. He could have her as a lover if he taught her the art of prophecy. Apollo agreed. Once she had learned prophecy, however, Cassandra refused him. The angry Apollo could not withdraw his gift but added to it the curse that none of her prophecies would ever be believed. This spelled Troy’s doom, since when Cassandra warned of the danger from the Trojan horse, no one believed her.