Python (mythology)

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Apollo killing Python. A 1581 engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book I

In Greek mythology, Python (Greek: Πύθων, gen.: Πύθωνος) was the earth-dragon of Delphi, always represented in Greek sculpture and vase-paintings as a serpent. He presided at the Delphic oracle, which existed in the cult center for his mother, Gaia, "Earth," Pytho being the place name that was substituted for the earlier Krisa.[1] Hellenes considered the site to be the center of the earth, represented by a stone, the omphalos or navel, which Python guarded.

Python became the chthonic enemy of the later Olympian deity Apollo, who slew him and remade Python's former home and the oracle, the most famous[2] in Classical Greece, as his own. Changes such as these in ancient myths may reflect a profound change in the religious concepts of Hellenic culture. Some were gradual over time and others occurred abruptly following invasion.

Versions and interpretations[edit]

Sculpture by Pietro Francavilla of Apollo's first triumph, when he slew with his bow and arrows the serpent Python, which lies dead at his feet.[3] The Walters Art Museum.

There are various versions of Python's birth and death at the hands of Apollo. In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, now thought to have been composed in 522 BCE during Classical times,[4] a small detail is provided regarding Apollo's combat with the serpent, in some sections identified as the deadly Drakaina, or her parent.

The version related by Hyginus[5] holds that when Zeus lay with the goddess Leto, and she was to deliver Artemis and Apollo, Hera was jealous and sent Python to pursue Leto throughout the lands, so that she could not deliver wherever the sun shone. Thus when Apollo was grown he wanted to avenge his mother's plight and pursued Python, making his way straight for Mount Parnassus where the serpent dwelled, and chased it to the oracle of Gaia at Delphi; there he dared to penetrate the sacred precinct and kill it with his arrows beside the rock cleft where the priestess sat on her tripod. Robert Graves, who habitually read into primitive myths a retelling of archaic political and social turmoil, saw in this the capturing by Hellenes of a pre-Hellenic shrine. "To placate local opinion at Delphi," he wrote in The Greek Myths, "regular funeral games were instituted in honour of the dead hero Python, and her priestess was retained in office."

The politics are conjectural, but the myth reports that Zeus ordered Apollo to purify himself for the sacrilege and instituted the Pythian Games, over which Apollo was to preside, as penance for his act.

Erwin Rohde wrote that the Python was an earth spirit, who was conquered by Apollo, and buried under the Omphalos, and that it is a case of one god setting up his temple on the grave of another.[6]

The priestess of the oracle at Delphi became known as the Pythia, after the place-name Pytho, which Greeks explained as named after the rotting (πύθειν) of the slain serpent's corpse in the strength of Hyperion (day) or Helios (the sun).[7]

Karl Kerenyi points out[8] that the older tales mentioned two dragons, who were perhaps intentionally conflated; the other was a female dragon (drakaina) named Delphyne in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, with whom dwelt a male serpent named Typhon: "The narrators seem to have confused the dragon of Delphi, Python, with Typhon or Typhoeus, the adversary of Zeus". The enemy dragoness "... actually became an Apollonian serpent, and Pythia, the priestess who gave oracles at Delphi, was named after him. Many pictures show the serpent Python living in amity with Apollo and guarding the Omphalos, the sacred navel-stone and mid-point of the earth, which stood in Apollo's temple" (Kerenyi 1951:136).

This myth has been described as an allegory for the dispersal of the fogs and clouds of vapor which arise from ponds and marshes (Python) by the rays of the sun (the arrows of Apollo).[9]


See also[edit]


Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Hymn to Pythian Apollo, l. 254-74: Telphousa recommends to Apollo to build his oracle temple at the site of "Krisa below the glades of Parnassus".
  2. ^ But also see Dodona, famous in the earliest traditions.
  3. ^ "Apollo Victorious over the Python". The Walters Art Museum. 
  4. ^ Walter Burkert, "Kynaithos, Polycrates and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo" in Arktouros: Hellenic studies presented to B. M. W. Knox ed. G. W. Bowersock, W. Burkert, M. C. J. Putnam (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1979) pp. 53-62.
  5. ^ Fabulae 140.
  6. ^ cf. Rohde, Psyche, p.97.
  7. ^ Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo, 363-369.
  8. ^ Kerenyi The Gods of the Greeks 1951:136.
  9. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Python, in Greek mythology". Encyclopedia Americana. 

References[edit]