Classical Mythology: Night of the Hunters: Artemis and Apollo

Night of the Hunters: Artemis and Apollo

Two other children of Zeus rose to take their place among the greatest of Olympians. These were the children of Leto, the beautiful daughter of the original Titans Coeus and Phoebe. Hera was tormented with jealousy of Leto. So the Queen of the Gods sent a serpent after Leto to vex her and to prevent her from finding a place to deliver her babies.


Ortygia means “quail island.” Asteria, Leto's sister and the mother of the goddess Hecate, had escaped the lecherous pursuit of Zeus by turning herself into a quail and diving into the sea. The island of Ortygia appeared on the spot. After the births of Artemis and Apollo, the island's name changed to Delos, which can mean “famous.” It was renowned as one of the holiest places in ancient Greece.

Leto frantically went from place to place, but found no welcome anywhere, since everyone feared incurring the wrath of Hera. She finally found refuge on Ortygia, the island of her sister Asteria, where she gave birth to Artemis.

Immediately after her own birth, the newborn Artemis precociously helped her mother through nine days of labor and delivery until her brother Apollo emerged. Themis, Leto's aunt, took care of the young gods and nourished them on ambrosia and nectar—the food and drink of the gods.

Artemis and Apollo cherished their mother, who had gone through such an ordeal to bring them into the world. Not long after their birth, the giant Tityus attempted to rape Leto in a sacred grove near Delphi. Leto called out the names of her children, who quickly rescued her by showering arrows upon the giant, killing him instantly. For Tityus's offense, Zeus consigned the giant (who was his own son) to eternal torment in the Underworld (see What the Hell? Adventures in the Underworld).

Artemis and Apollo also defended their mother's honor (or perhaps their own pride) when Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus, boasted of having more and better children than Leto. The two killed most (or all) of Niobe's children, leaving Niobe to weep eternally.

Artemis and Apollo remained close to each other forever. Both siblings would become associated with the skill of archery, and they enjoyed hunting together. In addition, both had the power to send plagues upon mortals.

Wild Queendom: Artemis

Artemis grew to become the virgin goddess of the hunt, of wild animals, and of childbirth (due to her participation in the birth of her brother). She and her brother also became the protectors of young children.

When she was just three, Artemis was asked by her father, Zeus, to name any gifts she wanted. Among many others, she named:

  • A bow and arrows (just like her brother's)
  • All the world's mountains (as her home and playground)
  • Just one city (for she preferred to live in the mountains)
  • Eternal virginity

Zeus gladly provided her with everything she wanted and more. He ordered the Cyclopes to forge a silver bow and fill a quiver with arrows for her. He promised her eternal virginity. Zeus gave her all the mountains as her domain. And he presented her with 30 cities—and named her as guardian of the world's roads and harbors.

Artemis, constantly attended by nymphs, could almost always be found in the mountains she loved. Though she was the guardian of wild animals, Artemis enjoyed nothing more than hunting. Orion, a giant hunter, joined both Artemis and her mother on many of their hunts.

Like most of the Olympians, Artemis reacted strongly whenever she did not receive the honors due her as a goddess. After Apollo had helped Admetus win Alcestis as his bride, for instance, the groom neglected to sacrifice to Artemis at his wedding. Imagine his horror that night when he found his bridal bedchamber teeming with snakes! Admetus quickly followed Apollo's advice and made the necessary sacrifices to the god's sister.

What a Life!

The hunter Orion greatly offended Gaia by boasting that his hunting skill was so great he could kill all of the animals on Earth. Gaia decided to protect her domain by sending a giant scorpion after the hunter. After the scorpion stung and killed Orion, Artemis and Leto prevailed upon Zeus to immortalize him as a constellation—but with the scorpion similarly honored.

King Oeneus of Calydon similarly offended Artemis by forgetting to dedicate the first fruits of the harvest to her one season. Artemis sent a monstrous boar to ravage and terrorize his kingdom. To rid the kingdom of this vicious beast, Oeneus was forced to call on some of the greatest heroes of the age to participate in the hunt. (For more on the Calydon boar hunt, see Achilles: The Angry Young Hero.)

Actaeon, the son of Autonoe and grandson of Cadmus, offended the goddess by stumbling across her once while she was bathing in the woods. Furious that a mortal had seen her naked, Artemis transformed the hunter into a stag. His own hounds then ripped Actaeon to pieces.

The biggest penalty paid for offending the goddess was that of King Agamemnon of Mycenae, who foolishly boasted that his hunting prowess outstripped even hers. On the eve of the Trojan War, Artemis stranded the Greek fleet with ill winds. To appease her, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia—though, according to some accounts, the goddess showed mercy at the last minute and substituted a deer on the altar.

Having won the right to eternal virginity from her father, Artemis sometimes found it necessary to fiercely defend it. Buphagus, son of the Titan Iapetus, once tried to rape her, but she shot and killed him. The twin sons of Poseidon, Otus and Ephialtes, also met their doom trying to violate the goddess—and Hera as well. Otus chased after Artemis while Ephialtes pursued Hera. But suddenly a deer—either Artemis herself after a transformation or a real deer sent by her brother Apollo—darted between the two brothers. Distracted, the brothers quickly hurled their spears at it, but it sped away. Otus's spear pierced Ephialtes and Ephialtes' hit Otus—and both giants died instantly.

Artemis required the nymphs who attended her to remain virgins, just as she did. But her father once raped Callisto, a favorite of Artemis's. Hoping to help her escape Hera's notice, Zeus then transformed her into a bear. But Hera—not fooled at all—tricked Artemis into shooting and killing the bear.

The Temperamental Musician: Apollo

Artemis's brother, Apollo, was just as sure a shot. The god of archery—as well as of music, prophecy, healing, and youth—got an early start on his art. Apollo was just four days old when he demanded a bow and arrows, which Hephaestus created for him. He immediately set out in pursuit of the serpent that Hera had sent to torment his mother, Leto. The serpent, Python, sought refuge at Delphi. But Apollo heedlessly followed Python into the shrine of the Oracle of Mother Earth and killed him there.

Gaia was outraged at this defilement of her shrine. Yet after Apollo was purified for his crime in Crete, he learned the art of prophecy—perhaps from Pan, the goat-legged god of the flock and herds. In any case, he soon took over the Oracle at Delphi. Through the Oracle of Apollo (as it was renamed), the god became so closely associated with the art of prophecy that almost all seers soon claimed to have been either taught or fathered by him.

Originally a herdsman, Apollo was the first god charged with protecting flocks and herds. (Pan was associated primarily with goats and sheep that grazed in rural and wild areas; Apollo more with cattle that grazed in fields on the outskirts of the city.) But he later turned this duty over to Hermes in exchange for some musical instruments the younger god had devised. Apollo demonstrated such talent as a musician that he soon became a god of that art, too. Some even credit the god with having invented the cithara.


The cithara was a musical instrument that resembled a large lyre.

What a Life!

Pan also lost a musical contest to Apollo. Though Tmolus, the judge, awarded the prize to Apollo, King Midas of Phrygia remarked that he himself liked Pan's playing best. Apollo punished Midas by giving him the ears of an ass.

Some dared to challenge Apollo's musical talents—but never more than once. A satyr named Marsyas once found a flute made from the bones of a stag. (Athena had made this flute, but had angrily thrown it away when the laughter of the other immortals made her realize how ridiculous she looked when she puffed out her cheeks to play it.) Still inspired by Athena, the flute played rapturous music. Listeners even compared the satyr's playing favorably to Apollo's playing of the lyre.

This comparison enraged Apollo, who immediately challenged Marsyas to a contest. The contestants agreed that the winner could choose any punishment for the loser. The jury of Muses found both players magnificent. So Apollo dared the satyr to try to do what he himself could do: turn his instrument upside-down and play it—and sing while playing. Marsyas, of course, could do neither with a flute.

Impressed by his versatility, the Muses judged Apollo the best musician. Not content with merely winning, Apollo then chose a brutal punishment for Marsyas: He skinned the satyr alive and nailed his skin to a pine tree.

Apollo never married, but he was by no means a celibate. He fathered more than a dozen children by at least nine different partners.

What a Life!

Apollo also wooed a beautiful young man, Hyacinthus. Sadly, while Apollo was teaching the boy how to throw the discus, the West Wind—who also desired Hyacinthus—redirected the missile straight into the boy's head, killing him instantly. The drops of blood that fell from his head yielded the flower hyacinth.

Yet his most persistent courtship—that of Daphne, a mountain nymph—was never rewarded. Apollo first eliminated the competition. Leucippus, the son of King Oenomaus of Pisa, also loved Daphne—so much that he once disguised himself as a girl just to be with her while she engaged in her mountain revels with other nymphs. But Apollo knew of this charade—and so the god quietly advised the nymphs to bathe naked. When Leucippus was exposed—literally and figuratively—the nymphs tore him to shreds.

Though Apollo alone now wooed her, Daphne still refused him. Ultimately, she changed into a laurel tree rather than submit to his desires. Thereafter, Apollo made the laurel his sacred plant.

Others refused Apollo, too. When Zeus ruled that Marpessa, daughter of the river god Evenus, could choose between her two suitors, she chose the mortal Idas. (She suspected that Apollo's amorous interest would wane as she grew older.)

The nymph Sinope used cleverness to escape Apollo's advances. Sinope agreed to surrender herself to the god, but only if he first granted her a wish. When Apollo swore to give her anything she wanted, Sinope revealed her wish: to remain a virgin for all of her days. (Some storytellers say that Sinope had used this same trick to avoid Zeus's embrace.)

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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