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The Python in Greek Mythology

Updated on February 3, 2015
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.

Monsters played a central role in many tales of Greek mythology, and as a result many, like Cerberus and the Sphinx, are famous even today. The monsters of Ancient Greece were important, for as well as offering adversaries for heroes to fight against, they also allowed people to explain the world in which they found themselves.

The Python

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) PD-art-100
Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) PD-art-100 | Source

The Python in Greek Mythology

The Python is probably not the most famous monster from Greek mythology, although it does give its name to a family of snakes, but the Python did play an important role in the story of the Greek god Apollo.

Ancient sources would write of the Python being the gigantic serpent child of Gaia, the goddess of the Earth. The Python was born of Gaia, having been created from the mud that was left behind after one of prehistory’s floods.

Oracle at Delphi

John Collier (1850–1934) PD-art-100
John Collier (1850–1934) PD-art-100 | Source

The Role of the Python in Greek Mythology

The primary role of the Python was as protector of the naval of the earth; for within the naval was an important prophetic stone. Thus it was said, that the Python could be found within a cave upon Mount Parnassus, near to Delphi. This gave rise to the Python also being called Delphyne.

At the same time the earliest temples and priestesses associated with the Oracle of Delphi were created; these earliest priestesses being devoted to Gaia. Themis and then Phoebe would later be given control of the Delphic Oracle.

The Python was not just the guardian of the prophetic stone, and other deities made use of the serpent for their own ends. The most famous use of the Python was undertaken by Hera, who gave the serpent orders to chase the pregnant Leto all over the earth, so that Leto should not give birth. Leto was pregnant with Artemis and Apollo, the children of Zeus; Zeus being Hera’s husband.

Ultimately, the Python failed to carry out Hera’s command, and the twin children of Zeus were born.

Apollo and the Python

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) PD-art-100
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) PD-art-100 | Source

Apollo's Revenge

When Apollo was only four days old he left his mother’s side, and obtained a bow and set of arrows from Hephaestus. Apollo then set out to gain revenge on the serpent that had caused his mother so much distress.

Apollo discovered the Python in its cave on Mount Parnassus, and then an epic fight broke out between god and beast. Eventually, Apollo would slay the Python, although it would take the god 100 arrows to kill the serpent.

The corpse of the Python was left to rot outside the Delphic temple, and so the place would also become known as Pytho. The priestess associated with the Oracle of Delphi would also be given a new name, Pythia, and control of the temples and oracle would pass into the hands of Apollo.

The slaying of Gaia’s child though could not go unpunished, and in some sources Apollo was required to undertake eight years of servitude for the killing; a period of servitude was a reoccurring theme in the life of Apollo.

Either as an act of penance, or celebration of his victory over the serpent, Apollo was also instructed to establish the Pythian Games. The Pythian Games were to be held every four years, two years after the Olympic Games, and Apollo was to act as the god of the games.

Apollo Victorious

Jan Boeckhorst (1604–1668) PD-art-100
Jan Boeckhorst (1604–1668) PD-art-100 | Source

The Python

The Python of Greek mythology would give its name to a family and genus of snake at the start of the nineteenth century.

Monstrous serpents and dragons were common themes in Greek mythology, and so the Python is occasionally confused with other beasts. Some writers in antiquity would write of the Python being mate to Typhon, but the mate of Typhon is normally said to be another offspring of Gaia, Echidna.

The story of the Python was used to explain the emergence of the new gods of Mount Olympus during the Hellenic period; these gods superseding the previous gods of an earlier time.


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