The Pythian serpent

Since I was asked about Delphinia, I thought I would do a brief blog post on the Pythian serpent, known as Delphinia, and alternately as Python.
The Homeric Hymn to Apollon speaks of a great serpent, the dragonness of Parnassos, into whose care Hera gave Typhon, and who Typhon later gave guardian of the tendons of Zeus in his war with the gods (though these same tendons were stolen back by Hermes and Pan in some versions, and in others by Pan and Cadmus (dressed as a shepherd). She, like many serpents in Hellenic myth, has a guardian character that is in place to be overcome. We see the same idea expressed with the dragon who guarded the apples of the Hesperides as well as the dragon who guarded the the golden fleece. Delphinia, in the hymn is treated typically as a source of ills. How so? Well as nursemaid to Typhon this is one reasonable answer, but as a guardian which prevents access to the oraclular waters of the Castilla spring is another. Though it is common to place much credit in some kind of vapors at Delphi, the oracular power of Delphi is generally attributed to the waters which were imbibed by the Pythia. There are some scholars of myth who have suggested that the spring-time death of Pythia has some symbolism in breaking of ice in the mountain waters and the free copious flow. I am not sure how much I agree with that, though certainly snow and snowstorms on Parnassos are not historically unheard of. In any case, Delphinia is associated with a kind of barrier to the Castilla spring that Apollon must confront and destroy.

It is necessity, Anakhe, that moves Apollon. Though the site is sacred to Gaia, it is remote, unpopulated by any more than shepherds wandering the hills, and was largely unknown. It was only by Apollon’s presence and the establishment of his oracle there that Delphi rises to height as a source for the will of the gods. Apollon comes to Delphi, he sets the foundations of his temple, and he kills Delphinia.

Now, Kerenyi mentions that there may have been two serpents of Delphi that are being confused in the myth. I rather agree with this. He uses the similarity between the names of Python and Typhon to show this, but I don’t put alot of weight behind that particular idea, mostly because aside from Delphinia’s guardianship responsibilities, there is not alot of further association of of Typhon with Delphi. Instead, I think that Python and Delphinia were two seperate serpents whose myths were bound with that of Apollon. Myths that became entangled together in the myths of Delphi. On one hand we have Delphinia a fixed guardian serpent, quite probably an offspring of Gaia at her oracle. On the other we have a moving serpent, a male Python that is sent by Hera to pursue Leto, and went to ground when Leto arrived at Delos to birth her twins. It is this serpent which in Delphinian myth is represented at times as a man with whom a swordfight is carried out in which the boy protraying Apollon is the victor. The story of Python, rather than being a guardian story in the vein of that of Delphinia, is instead falling in line with common myths of attackers upon his mother Leto. As such it is quite probable that the story of the two serpents became confused together, quite possibly purposely for the purpose of the Stepteria which altogether celebrates Apollon’s victory over the serpent, regardless of which serpent is being refered to, and both of which contribute to the sacred area. That said I do think that there is a fundamental distinction between the serpent Python destroyed for his mother’s part, and the guardian serpent Delphinia, for whose death he willingly went into exile. The former representing victory over a sense of “evil”, and the latter victory over the guardian. Naturally with Apollon becoming a god of the oracle and boundaries himself.

I would then suggest that the serpent images that we see in artwork of Apollon with a serpent is not so much Python, but rather the sacred Delphinia. It is further curious that Artemis has an epithet of the same name. Perhaps a connection between Artemis and the sacred serpent herself. I say this recalling that Daphne, the first priestess, that of Gaia’s oracle, is in her nature much like Artemis, and Kerenyi discribes Delphinia as being of human form to her torso (though I do find that somewhat dubious since I haven’t found any description for that, and all art show a serpent of dragon porportions). Apollon’s epithet Delphinios, which is inarguably tied to delphin, as the god who takes the form of the dolphin, is likely just as attached to the name of the great serpent. Perhaps the serpent is imagined not too unlike the dolphin because the serpent goes beneath the surface and disappears for periods of time just as the dolphin sinks beneath the waves, and the movement of the dolphin constellation which, according to an ancient poetic work about the stars, signified the change of the seasons at his rising above the horizon.

However, it can not be dismissed that the name of Python is perserved in the name of the holy ground of the temple itself (Pythos), nor the title of Apollon the Pythian, nor the title of his priestess Pythia. This may be due to the confusion between Python and Delphinia, or may have something to do with a heavenly serpent, one that parallels that of the earth. The serpent of Hera. I draw on this further because the great heavenly serpent, one that is said to parallel the serpent of Delphi, his great eye, often considered being of ill-will, is the axis of the heavens. Ie Koios. There are alternate myths which associate the oracle with Phoebe and there is some parallels drawn between the female oracular serpent of Delphi of Pheobe’s place, and the great male serpent of the heavens, of Koios’ place (and which is quite possibly had a strong navigation relation as being part of the north star). Thus giving us two great serpents, associated with different forms of foresight…stellar and the earthly oracle) that are represented in myth in a confused manner as two great serpents. As Apollon is associated with the axis of the heaven, and therefore as a kind of heir of Koios. As such the title of Pythios has some relationship, or so it seems to me, as those titles such as Phoebus, and his epithet Delphinios, all connected together.


4 thoughts on “The Pythian serpent

  1. There was a night visitation to a zoo here, in a full moon, some years ago. A guy there let us touch an albinic python. I prayed to the Gods and touched it. In the same night, I dreamt about Apollo – strong, blond, and wearing a fur coat. My oracle-reading got better since then.

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