Mythical Breaks | Python: The Serpent of Delphi and Apollo’s Triumph

Python held a position of great significance as the guardian of the Delphic oracle, a revered cult center dedicated to its mother, Gaia, the Earth. The name “Pytho” replaced the earlier Krisa, and the Greeks regarded this sacred site as the very center of the Earth. It was marked by a stone, the omphalos or navel, fiercely protected by Python.

However, Python’s reign over Delphi was challenged by the Olympian deity Apollo. In an epic battle, Apollo confronted and ultimately defeated the serpent, taking over Python’s domain and assuming control of the oracle. Delphi and the triumph of Apollo became renowned throughout the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, earning reverence and awe.

The accounts of Python’s birth and demise at the hands of Apollo vary across different versions. In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, believed to have been composed during the transition from the archaic to the Classical period, a glimpse of Apollo’s encounter with the serpent is provided. The serpent is sometimes referred to as the deadly drakaina or as its parent.

According to Hyginus, Zeus’s union with the goddess Leto resulted in her pregnancy with Artemis and Apollo. Envious Hera dispatched Python to relentlessly pursue Leto and prevent her from giving birth to the twin gods. As Apollo grew, he sought vengeance for his mother’s plight. He pursued Python, making his way to Mount Parnassus, where the serpent resided, and eventually reached the sacred oracle of Gaia at Delphi.

There, with his arrows, Apollo fearlessly slew Python, near the rock cleft where the priestess sat on her tripod. Some interpretations see this myth as the Hellenes seizing a pre-Hellenic sanctuary. To appease local sentiment, funeral games in honor of Python were established, and the priestess continued her role, as noted by Robert Graves in his analysis of primitive myths.

An epigram from 159 BC suggests that Python had specific intentions to violate Leto. Clearchus of Soli recounts a moment when Python was in pursuit, and Leto, in her desperation, stood on a stone, clutching Apollo and urgently exclaimed, “Shoot, child!” while Apollo, equipped with bow and arrows, heeded his mother’s plea.

Though the politics surrounding these events are speculative, the myth tells of Zeus commanding Apollo to purify himself for the sacrilege committed and instituting the Pythian Games as an act of penance. Apollo would preside over these games.

Erwin Rohde proposed that Python represented an earth spirit, vanquished by Apollo, and buried beneath the omphalos. This notion suggests one god establishing his temple atop the grave of another.

As a result of these captivating events, the priestess of the oracle at Delphi came to be known as the Pythia, named after the place known as Pytho. The Greeks explained this name as an homage to the rotting of Python’s slain serpent corpse, under the influence of Hyperion or Helios, the sun.

Karl Kerenyi highlights the conflation of two dragons in the older tales, Delphyne and Typhon, a male serpent who opposed Zeus in the Titanomachy. These figures were mistakenly interchanged with Python. While Python was regarded as a benevolent daemon in Minoan religion, she was often depicted as a dragon, a recurring motif in both Northern European folklore and Eastern traditions.

Interpreted metaphorically, this myth can be seen as an allegory for the dispersal of fog and vapor arising from ponds and marshes, symbolized by Python, by the radiant beams of the sun, embodied in the arrows of Apollo.

In the tapestry of Greek mythology, the tale of Python and Apollo stands as a testament to the clash of deities, the triumph of light over darkness, and the establishment of a new era at the sacred grounds of Delphi. It captivates the imagination with its rich symbolism and timeless themes, forever etched in the annals of ancient lore.

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