Apollon and the Serpent

The myth of the dragonness Delphyne is perhaps one of the best known myths of Apollon out there, and in ancient Delphi was accorded an ancient festival, Stepteria, the crowning festival in which the reenactment of the slaying took place, and after the return of Apollon libations poured out upon the tomb of Delphyne. But as modern worshipers we come across issues of how we interpret myths such as this. There are views, that run excessively contrary to the myth perserved in the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollon, that Delphyne was a goddess of Delphi that Apollon killed in order to usurp the oracle. This becomes one in a series of myths involving the gods of Hellas which indicate a usurping of goddess cults by these younger gods according to many Goddess spiritualists and in their literature. So much so that there are women out there who have an aggressive dislike of Apollon as a female-hating deity primarily based on this interpretation of the myth of Delphyne. However, not only is there no mythical support for this interpretation, but there is also no evidence that Delphyne herself was ever a goddess. Rather she played an important function as a kind of guardian daimon of the sacred oracular spring of Delphi.

The more common interpretation, based largely from a strict interpretation from the hymn, is that Delphyne is wholely a monster that serves as an oppositional force to Apollon. The problem I have with this is that she doesn’t represent anything that Apollon doesn’t do himself, and therefore does not really represent much of an opposition to his nature. Like Delphyne’s description, Apollon too is a plague bringer and functions in the destructive capacities of nature. The only thing that seems to set Delphyne in truly poor light is that she is set to serve as nurse to Typhon, the enemy of the gods and goddesses, and that she guarded the sinews and ligaments of Zeus when Typhon ripped them from his body and hid them in her cavern (which were recovered by the ingenuity of Hermes and the hero Cadmus). However, despite these more unpleasant associations, much iconic art regarding Delphi displays the Pythian serpent wrapped around the Omphalos at the temple, which strongly indicates to me that Delphyne, through her death at the hands of Apollon was transformed. She retained her guardian role but as a beneficial daimon of the oracle, which may have translated to serpent handling in various cult centers of Apollon. This may also have to do with Apollon himself being a serpentine god, and may also play into his relationship with Delphyne at Delphi, but I will get to that in a moment. What is clear is that Apollon is often depicted in the company of serpents in often in a non-aggressive arrangement.

Leto1 (1)

My own opinion runs further with this in noting that in ancient astronomical poem the seat of Koios (the polar star, axis of the heavens) is considered the great eye of a celestial dragon, often malevolent in character according to this poem. Scholars have used this observation to draw correlations between the celestial dragon at the axis of the heavens and the terrestrial dragoness at the navel of the world, making a reflective joined pair in so much that the myth of Apollon’s acquisition of the oracular site runs simultaneously with another local myth at Delphi that his grandmother Phoibe gifted him with her part of the oracle as part of his inheritance (the other half he received from Poseidon via a trade for one of his own sacred islands). As such you have Phoibe firmly established at Delphi in this mythic reference just as Koios is established at the axis pinning Ouranos in place from above. It is then reasonable to suggest that these dragons are intimately connected on some level with Koios and Phoibe. Perhaps Koios and Phoibe took the form of these great serpents? Perhaps they are daimons associated with each of their domains? But there does appear to be a rather firm link between them that underlines the actions in the conflict with Delphyne. That the destruction of her form was necessary to join her to Apollon in his inheritance of the oracle…perhaps as some kind of consort spirit. It is certainly suggestive that Delphyne carries a name very similar Apollon’s and Artemis’ epithets Delphinios and Delphinia, which are associated with the Dolphin (the astronomical sign that rises in Delphi in the spring during which these rites occur, which like the serpent sinks hidden into the unknown to rise again to the surface world) but are also suggested to play from the name of Delphyne.

Delphyne dragonness

This image of Delphyne is particular interesting, from a vase painting house in the Louvre, in which we see Delphyne portrayed in a form like the eastern Naga. She possesses the upper body of a woman, and we see that she has one hand grapes the omphalos upon which Apollon is seated (the tripod is portrayed within the omphalos which may be an identification of his holy seat with the omphalos itself) and the other hand is extended towards the god. She also appears to be winged and has a kind of serpent crown which makes her look quite similar to this:

naga kanaya_statue

It would be remiss of me to not mention that Delphne is not the only naga-like daimon that we have. In fact this form is usually named for the common Ekhidna, two of these daimons bearing this name. And so the serpentine daimons are often just classified as Ekhidnas. But I think that naga is perhaps a best description of what they are as a host of daimons that dwell within the earth, or that at minimum Delphyne should be considered as such based on this description:

“Nagas can have a beneficial, neutral or hostile influence on human beings. Like their Chinese dragon counterparts, the Nagas are responsible for controlling the weather, causing droughts by withholding rain when they are offended and releasing rain when they are propitiated. Pollution of their environment or disrespectful acts such as urinating or washing soiled clothes in a Naga inhabited stream, can result in illnesses or Naga afflictions. Leprosy, cancer, kidney problems and skin ailments are all viewed as possibly being Naga related diseases.”

If Delphyne was a Naga type of daimon who inhabited Castalian spring. She would thus have been part of a feminine triad in Delphi for the oracle of Ge…the spring nymph Castalia, the first priestess of Ge–the nymph Daphne, and then Delphyne the guardian of the spring. The Homeric hymn states that she worked evil against men who came past the spring…although usually their flocks of sheep. Here is the thing, if a Naga type daimon dislikes soiling of the waters that she lives in, do you think she is going to be crazy about shepherds with their dirty wooly sheep traipsing around her home? My guess is that she would react poorly to them…specifically the sheep, and less towards men (but probably turning towards men when they try to protect their sheep). Delphyne is a sense made the oracle a bit inaccessible in these early stages, for which men lamented to the gods. We must recall that in one version of the Delphic myth that the Phocian villagers of the area entreated Apollon to strike her with their cries paie paie. By his destruction she was purified and became one with the land as her flesh became the soil of the sacred precinct, and therefore merging with the sacred waters as well as the land itself which would effectively in her “death” have her acting as a spirit of Delphi in general now rather than a guardian daimon of just the spring. Or at least this makes sense to me.

In this picture you see a scene of what appears to be sacrifice to Apollon. There is the priest at one side of the Omphalos with the cow at the other side being led forward. Apollon is at the far side. Coiled around the Omphalos is Delphyne.

python delphi

In the next picture it is a scene of Delphi in which Apollon is warding off the Erinyes to spare Orestes. The winged Erinye is to the right of Apollon who holds his laurel (a symbol of purity against the taint of their presence) between himself and the daimon. Behind Orestes is Athena, with likely Ge in the furthest corner. However the image that I am focused on here is the female daimon hovering above, somewhat disembodied, the tripod. She appears to be in a sense a part of the tripod in this depiction and crowned with serpents just as Delphyne in the first image. I would suggest that this is not an Erinye, since she is set apart from them, but is rather the benovolent spirit of Delphyne as the daimon of Delphi. This concept is not a new one either as we are looking here at a scene from the Oresteia. For the Erinyes too gain a beneficial presence in Athens as the Eumenides who bring prosperity even as they can strike down against the city if they fail to pay them due honors. Delphyne is acting for Delphi what I imagine the Erinyes as the Eumenides are acting for Athens.

Orestes Delphi

Of course this is not the only Python myth, but I think perhaps one of the most important ones. I would like to take this moment to state that it is based on my observation that I regard Python as a title of being that were disposed of by Apollon in similar ways, as we know from the Homeric Hymn that it is merely a title because he causes them to rot. But this does not always preserve the identity of who the other figures are. What is certain is that they are distinct from each other. The second Python is the male serpent that often gets confused with Delphyne. He is not a gaurdian serpent of the spring or connected with Delphi in any manner, but rather is a son of Ge whom Hera sends out to pester Leto. He looses track of her, presumably when she arrives on Delos, and goes to ground. It is Python whom Apollon and Artemis together (and sometimes Apollon alone) slay in vengeance for their mother’s torment. In this version we have the twins going to Crete for the purification of their murder, unlike Apollon’s departure for Hyperborea in self imposed exile for a divine year (9 mortal years..for which the original games were patterning off of his original exile and return).

It is quite possible that this Python accounts for two very different activities going on that are accounted for in regard to the Stepteria. One is the burning of a serpent (it is unclear if it is a real serpent or not) to represent the fires of Apollon consuming her. The boy acting as Apollon throws her into a burning tent and is said to depart afterward. The second deals with the male element in which we have a sword fight between a man acting as Python and boy acting as the god, the boy wins. The representation of Python as a man fighting with a sword brings to mind Pausanias’ descriptions dealing with Phocis and the Delphic myth of Tityus, who like Python, was considered the son of Ge and an aggressor against Leto, and who Pausanias makes some connection between the burial of Tityus and the burning of an effigy of a man for which foreigners were not permitted to be present for. It is reasonable that perhaps the second Python was not literally a serpent or dragon but a son of Ge who was pursuing Leto and tormenting her. And who was depicted as slain by both Apollon independently, and by Apollon and Artemis together. The fires consuming Tityus, causing him advance decay would run parallel to that Delphyne. Of course the Phocians seemed to have regarded the giant Tityus as a heroic being and paid homage to his grave from what I recall Pausanias saying.


Lastly I wanted to deal with Apollon himself as a serpentine god. Unlike gods who are given the company of serpents, there are few gods who take the form of serpents. Zeus is one that well known, but less known is Apollon, who not only consumated a relationship in the form of a serpent, but most notably arrived with his statue of himself as Apollon Karneios to Corinth from Epidaurus in the form of a serpent according to Pausanias account of it. If Apollon is arriving as a serpent it may be because a serpent was placed within the cart to travel with the statue, and that it was from Epidaurus suggests the Epidaurians may have viewed Apollon particularly as manifesting in the form of a serpent. Philosophers have said that Asklepios is contained within Apollon, Asklepios who is portrayed with a great serpent wrapped around his staff, the son of Apollon who gifted him with the healing arts. But given the context of Apollon’s arrival from Epidaurus is it possible that Epidaurians perceived the great serpent on the staff of Asklepios as a manifestation of Apollon aiding the work of his son? In which case the serpent that consumed of the offerings and moved among the sleeping ailers would have represented the benevolent presence of Apollon brought forth by Asklepios to aid mortals. Other imagery which has Apollon riding a dragon-drawn chariot may also reflect Apollon’s movement in relation to serpents on another level.

Incidentally Apollon is involved in the myth of another Naga-like daimon by name of Poena. This serpent daimon came up from the earth when bidden by Apollon to act as his vengeance for the death of his infant son Linus who was torn apart by dogs. She visited all manner of plague and illness to the people and destroyed their children. When she was killed by the people, the ill fortune did not end and they had to seek Delphi in order to propitiate Apollon to set aside his further wrath for the murder of Poena. In this instance we have a serpentine daimon acting on his behalf for a grievous wrong committed.

In this manner we can appreciate the serpent as a poignant symbol of Apollon, and gain a new appreciation of his interaction with the dragonness Delphyne.


One thought on “Apollon and the Serpent

  1. Pingback: Conflict in myth | Beloved in Light

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