Shakespeare's Myths

Apollo, also Appollo, Appolin, Appolyn


Related entries
Daphne, Diana, Icarus, Marsyas, Muses, Music of the Spheres, Niobe, Nox, Orpheus, Pan, Phaeton, Phoebus, Python, Titan


Apollo is one of the twelve Olympian gods, born on mount Cynthus, on the island of Delos, the son of Jupiter and Leto, and the twin brother of the goddess Diana. At birth, he was given a bow and arrows by Vulcan, while Jupiter presented him with a lyre strung with seven strings and a chariot drawn by swans. On Mount Parnassus, Apollo slew the serpent Python, after which the Pythian Games were named. Apollo then sought out old Pan, the satyr, and persuaded him to teach him the art of prophecy. He established the oracle at Delphi on the site of his victory over Python, and kept in his service the priestress called the Pythoness.

Apollo also defeated the Titans Tityus, Otus and Ephialtes; he flayed the satyr Marsyas, as a punishment for his musical pretensions. As the god of music, Apollo also sits on Mount Parnassus, with the Muses.

Apollo loved many women. Some of them were mortal, like Thalia, the mother of the Corybantes; Coronis, whose son was Esculapius; Aria, the mother of Miletus; Cyrene, who gave the god a son, Aristeus. He also tried to seduce nymphs: Dryope, who gave him a son, Amphissus; Marpessa, who remained faifthful to her husband Idas; Cassandra, whom the god instructed in the art of divination. When Cassandra rejected him after learning this art, Apollo punished her by ensuring that no-one would ever believe her prophecies, even though they were true. Apollo gave another young woman whom he had seduced, the Cumaean Sybil, the prophetic gift, and offered to grant her one of her wishes; scooping up a handful of sand, she asked to live for as many years as there were grains of sand in her hand. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth as well, and was doomed to remain an old woman until the end of her unnaturally long life.

Apollo also endeavoured to seduce Daphne.

Apollo was the first god to fall in love with one of his own sex, young Hyacinthus (hence the jacinth, a flower born of his blood), who was killed by Zephyrus, the West Wind, jealous of Apollo. Another young man beloved of the god, Cyparissus, became a cypress.

Apollo is associated with the fate of his sons Phaeton and Esculapius. Esculapius was a renowned physician, so skilled that he even restored a dead man to life: at which Pluto, the god of the dead, complained, and  Jupiter killed Esculapius. Apollo retaliated by shooting the Cyclops dead with his arrows. Angered by the death of his armourers, Jupiter condemned him to remain a whole year in the service of king Admetus, as a herdsman and helper. According to some poets, he accepted to become a herdsman out of love for Admetus.

Apollo was also forced to work for Laomedon, king of Troy, in punishment for plotting against Jupiter (together with Neptune, Juno and Minerva). Apollo kept the king's herds while Neptune built the walls of Troy. When the king refused to pay them for their work, Apollo sent the Trojans a plague. In the same way, he sent the Greeks a plague during the siege of Troy, in defence of his priest Chryses.

The range of meanings associated with Apollo is wide. He is the patron of fine arts, of physic, music, poetry, eloquence and prophecy, but is also associated with the tending of flocks and herds. In the 5th century B.C., Apollo also became the sun god, with the epithet Phoebus (which means “bright, shining”). He then assumed the power and attributes of Helios, or Sol. Through his functions as musician, healer, herdsman, and his prophetic powers, measure and harmony are associated with Apollo. But the god's powers are double-edged: “the healer”(Euripides, Alcestus), he is also “the archer Apollo” (Iliad), the vindictive god who flayed Marsyas, and a revengeful archer sending deadly shafts and disease to whomever incurs his wrath (as for example Niobe’s children, or the Greek army during the siege of Troy in the Iliad, I): Apollo or Apollyon, he is “the destroyer”, Servius’ commentary on Virgil’s Eclogs and the Geneva Bible agree on that issue.

The attributes of the “divine archer” (Aeneid) include the bow and arrow, and the lyre, symbolizing his skill as a musician and a restorer of harmony. The laurel is Apollo's tree – the Pythia munched laurel leaves during her prophetic trance – and some animals are specifically associated to the god: the dolphin, whose name recalls that of Delphi; the wolf, the hind, the hawk, the vulture, the raven, the swan, and the griffin.


How to cite

Claire Bardelman. “Apollo.”  2010.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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