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The Goddess Leto in Greek Mythology

Updated on January 12, 2017
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Leto The Greek Goddess Of Motherhood

The goddess Leto is not amongst the most famous deities of the Greek pantheon, but in Ancient Greece she was one of the most revered.

In Ancient Greece, Leto was the goddess of motherhood and modesty, as well as the protector of the young, but as importantly, Leto was also mother to Apollo and Artemis.

The Greek Goddess Leto

In Greek mythology, Leto was classed as a second-generation Titan, being the daughter of Coeus and Phoebe, and therefore sister to Asteria. This would make her a contemporary of Zeus; Zeus being born to Cronus, the brother of Coeus and Phoebe.

After the Titanomachy, when Zeus had ultimately come to power, Zeus’ eye was taken by the beauty of his cousin Leto. At the time Zeus was married to Hera, but this didn’t stop him from sleeping with Leto, and making her pregnant in the process.

Hera though found out about the relationship before Leto could give birth, and being of a jealous nature, plotted revenge against her husband’s mistress. Hera would decree that nowhere on land or water was allowed to give respite to Leto, to allow the female Titan to give birth.

To further harass Leto, Hera also procured the services of the Python, the serpent offspring of Gaia; with the Python employed to chase after Leto, not allowing her to rest or to give birth to Zeus’ offspring.

Leto was chased across the world, but eventually she came to the floating island of Delos; and the island was willing to give her sanctuary. Delos was seen as neither terra firma nor water, and so was not going against Hera’s decree.

For offering refuge, Leto promised to transform Delos into an island paradise, one which was firmly anchored to the seabed.

Now free to give birth, Leto quickly brought forth Artemis, the goddess of the hunt; but Leto was pregnant with twins, and the second child, Apollo, was not such an easy birth. Leto remained in the pain of childbirth for nine days and nine nights, before Artemis aided her mother to deliver Artemis’ brother. The long period of delivery is normally said to have been caused by Hera, for Hera had forbidden her daughter, Ilithyia, the goddess of childbirth, from assisting.

Leto with Apollo and Artemis

François Lemoyne (1688–1737) PD-art-100
François Lemoyne (1688–1737) PD-art-100 | Source

Vengeance for Leto

Three days after his birth, Apollo would gain revenge against the Python, the beast who had persecuted his mother. Apollo tracked down the serpent to Delphi, and there, with bow and arrows manufactured by Hephaestus, the god would kill the Python.

The Python though, was not the only trouble to stalk Leto. Tityos, the gigantic son of Zeus and Elara, also tried to abduct Leto, as the goddess of motherhood made her way to Delphi. In some ancient sources Tityos was persuaded to act by Hera, but Apollo and Artemis came to their mother’s rescue. Zeus would punish Tityos by imprisoning him in Tartarus, and there two vultures would torture him, as the birds would feed on his liver, before it grew back again; a punishment reminiscent of that given to Prometheus.

Apollo and Artemis and the Children of Niobe

Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier (1743–1824) PD-art-100
Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier (1743–1824) PD-art-100 | Source

Leto in Greek Myths

Subsequently, Leto appeared in relatively few mythological stories, although it is known that during the Trojan War, she was sympathetic to the Trojan forces, and during the war, she helped to heal Aeneas.

Niobe –

There is a famous story of Leto and Niobe, when Niobe was queen of Thebes. Niobe would boast that she was a better mother than Leto, having successful given birth to seven sons and seven daughters.

The slight against their mother, would bring forth Apollo and Artemis, and in retribution the pair would kill Niobe’s children, Apollo killing the boys and Artemis the girls. Artemis might have saved one daughter, Chloris, after the daughter of Niobe prayed to Leto.

Niobe, now childless, would mourn her lost children, and after praying to Zeus, the queen was changed into a pillar of stone.

Lycian Peasants –

Another story of Leto appears in Metamorphoses by Ovid. Leto was wandering through Lycia shortly after giving birth to her children, and coming to a spring, she wished to bathe. Some Lycian peasants though would drive Leto off, as they wished to bring their cattle to the spring to drink.

Leto would subsequently be guided to the River Xanthus by some wolves, but once bathed and refreshed, Leto would return to the spring. There, she transformed the peasants into frog, and commanded them to never leave the water.

Leto and the Lycian Frogs

Francesco Trevisani PD-art-100
Francesco Trevisani PD-art-100 | Source

The Letoon

QuartierLatin1968 CC-BY-SA-2.0
QuartierLatin1968 CC-BY-SA-2.0 | Source

The Worship of Leto

Leto would be strongly linked with Lycia, and it would become one of the main focuses of the goddess’ worship; indeed, Leto was often thought to reside in Lycia.

Near to the River Xanthus was an important sanctuary dedicated to Leto, a temple known as the Letoon, whose remains can be viewed today.

The island of Delos was of course sacred to Leto, and on the island there were festivals held in her honour. The worship of Leto though, was widespread, and sanctuaries to the goddess were found on Rhodes and Crete, as well as in Attica, Argos and Arcadia.

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