Leto and the Python

Of all the Olympian Deities, few are as under-served as the Goddess Leto; however, her place among the divinities shouldn’t be underplayed – her two twin children were none other than Apollo and Artemis, the Solar God of Prophecy, and the Lunar Goddess of the Hunt.

So who, exactly, was Leto?

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Before the Olympians there were the Titans. The subject of their Great War for Cosmic Supremacy is something that we’ve touched on in multiple posts. Called the Titanomachy, it left the majority of the Titans condemned to the lowest realms of Tartarus, essentially a prison world for the disposed Gods.

However, not all of the Titans were banished; a few were allowed to remain in the Upper Worlds.

One of these fortunate beings was Leto. Perhaps it was her gentle nature, or her innate beauty, that stayed Zeus’ judgement against her. Whatever the cause, Zeus did not cast her down into the dismal pit of Tartarus.

We can’t be sure, but it’s safe to imagine that Zeus’ sister-wife Hera already suspected that something illicit was afoot…

leto
Leto with the infants Apollo and Artemis, by Francesco Pozzi, 1824

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It’s hard to know what to make of Hera. On the one hand, She seems to be petty in Her vengeance; consider what She did to Heracles/Hercules, whose only crime was having Zeus as a father…

(She drove him mad, to the point where he killed his own wife and children, before sending him on twelve seemingly unachievable tasks).

Her wrath fell on Io, Callisto and Ganymede, among many, many others.

In short, Hera did not like to share Her man. Still, She never flew away from Mt. Olympus in rage; She retained Her status as the Queen of the Heavens, regardless of Her husband’s philandering ways.

Given the chronology of events, this might be the first example of His infidelity.

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We can’t be sure of the extent or nature of Zeus’ affair with Leto. What we do know is that in short time, Leto was carrying not one, but two of Zeus’ children.

Hera, upon discovering the news, did everything to thwart the birth.

She banned Leto from giving birth on Terra Firma, meaning the mainland, or any island at sea affixed to the land, or any place under the sun.

Then She warned any humans that assisted Leto in her wanderings that they would bear Her full wrath.

And finally, as if this all wasn’t enough, She invoked a mighty serpent/dragon named Python to chase Leto across the Middle Earth (literally, Mediterranean (Medi=middle, Terra=Earth).

So who was the Python?

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The Center of World is in Delphi.

This is where the Omphalos, or naval/belly button, of the World is.

There one could find a sacred stone, one that holds the secrets of all things past and present.

Guarding this stone was the mighty female Serpent Python.

Until Hera summoned her, and ordered her to slay the Titan Hera.

The Python did as she was bidden to…

*

Leto, chased by the Dragon, fled as far as she could.

It is possible She took the form of a she-wolf, though there are many versions of this tale.

However, She finally found Her way to the floating island of Delos.

Not the mainland, not an island affixed to land, but a floating island, in the middle of the night.

To help her cross the waters, Zeus sent a mighty wind. It carried her safely to Delos.

Here the Undying Goddesses gathered, all save Hera.

Hera had hoped to kidnap Eileithyia, the Goddess of childbirth, but did not succeed.

Artemis was the first to be born; it is unclear how much longer it took for the birth of Apollo, be it hours or days, but assisted by Artemis, Apollo entered the world.

The children grew at an alarming rate…

 

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So what happened to Leto?

She decided to live a quiet life, one assumes.

She has no more myths, no more adventures.

In many ways she is a Tragic Mother-Archetype:

A vital being whose narrative ends with the birth of Her children, whose own stories are quickly overshadowed by those of Her offspring.

The end, right?

Perhaps…

Only what about the Python?

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letopython-relief
Relief with Leto, Apollo, and Python
Roman Provincial
Imperial Period
about 2nd century A.D.

Apollo and Artemis quickly went about avenging Their mother; slaying those who had not assisted Her during Hera’s onslaught.

Eventually, Apollo went to Delphi.

Here He slew the Python, whose only real sin was following the decree of Hera.

Virgil_Solis_-_Apollo_Python
Apollo killing Python; 1581 engraving by Virgil Solis

Gaia, mother Earth, was incensed. Therefore, She made Apollo pay for killing Python by taking over the responsibility of Her shrine at Delphi.

This is how Apollo became the presiding deity at Delphi, home to the most famous Oracles in the ancient Mediterranean.

And did anyone remember the Python?

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Throughout antiquity, the Oracles at Delphi were also known by another name:

The Pythia.

pythia
Priestess of Delphi by John Collier, 1891

So, in a sad twist, Leto faded into obscurity…

But the Python lived on in memory.

It’s hard to say who won in the battle between Leto and the Python…

(Not that Eve necessarily fared much better)

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Leto and the Python
Leto and the Python. Illustration from History of Greece by Victor Duruy, 1890

 

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