Python (mythology)


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 serpent, sometimes represented as a medieval-style dragon, living at the center of the earth, believed by the ancient Greeks to be at Delphi.


Python, sometimes written Pytho, presided at the Delphic oracle, which existed in the cult center for its mother, Gaia, "Earth", Pytho being the place name that was substituted for the earlier Krisa.[1] Greeks 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 it and took over Python's former home and oracle. These were the most famous and revered in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.[2] Like many monsters, Python was known as Gaia's son and prophesied as Gaia's son. Therefore, Apollo had to eliminate this opponent before establishing his temple in Delphoi.[3]

Versions and interpretations

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.[4] 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 when the archaic period in Greek history was giving way to the Classical period,[5] 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[6] holds that when Zeus lay with the goddess Leto, and she became pregnant with Artemis and Apollo, Hera was jealous and sent Python to pursue Leto throughout the lands, to prevent her from giving birth to the twin gods. 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 capture 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 honor 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.[7]

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).[8]

Karl Kerenyi notes that the older tales mentioned two dragons who were perhaps intentionally conflated.[9] A female dragon named Delphyne (Δελφύνη; cf. δελφύς, "womb"),[10] and a male serpent Typhon (Τυφῶν; from τύφειν, "to smoke"), the adversary of Zeus in the Titanomachy, who the narrators confused with Python.[11][12] Python was the good daemon (ἀγαθὸς δαίμων) of the temple as it appears in Minoan religion,[13] but she was represented as a dragon, as often happens in Northern European folklore as well as in the East.[14]

This myth has been described as an allegory for the dispersal of the fogs and clouds of vapor that arise from ponds and marshes (Python) by the rays of the sun (the arrows of Apollo).[15]

In popular culture

  • Python acts as the overarching main antagonist of Rick Riordan's The Trials of Apollo series, having been resurrected by Gaea during the events of The Blood of Olympus. Throughout the series, Apollo, now mortal, works to wrest his Oracles from the control of Python and the three god-emperors working for him. In The Tower of Nero, Python is destroyed for good by Apollo who drops him into the Sea of Chaos.

See also

The Dragon (symbolizes Python, guardian of subterranean waters) in the Parc Güell, Barcelona, Spain


  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. ^ Pierre Grimal, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, s.v. "Python"
  4. ^ "Apollo Victorious over the Python". The Walters Art Museum.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Fabulae 140.
  7. ^ cf. Rohde, Psyche, p.97.
  8. ^ Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo, 363-369.
  9. ^ Kerenyi The Gods of the Greeks 1951:136.
  10. ^ δελφύς in Liddell and Scott.
  11. ^ "Many pictures show the serpent Python living in amity with Apollo and guarding the Omphalos. Karl Kerenyi (1951). ed. 1980: The gods of the Greeks, pp. 36–37
  12. ^ "In a Pompeian fresco Python is lying peacefully on the ground and the priests with the sacred double axe in their hand bring the bull (bouphronion). Jane. H. Harisson (1912): Themis. A study of the social origins of the Greek religion. Cambridge University Press. pp. 423–424
  13. ^ In Minoan religion the serpent is the protector of the household (underground stored corn). Also in Greek religion, "snake of the house" (οἰκουρὸς ὄφις) in the temple of Athena at Acropolis, etc., and in Greek folklore. Martin Nilsson, Vol.I, pp. 213–214
  14. ^ Nordig sagas. Hittite myth of Illuyankas. Also in the Bible: Leviathan. W. Porzig (1930). Illuyankas and Typhon. Kleinasiatische Forschung, pp. 379–386
  15. ^ Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Python, in Greek mythology" . Encyclopedia Americana.


  • Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion 1985.
  • Deane, John Bathurst, The Worship of the Serpent, 1833. Cf. Chapter V., p. 329. [1] [2]
  • Farnell, Lewis Richard, The Cults of the Greek States, 1896.
  • Fontenrose, Joseph Eddy, Python; a study of Delphic myth and its origins, 1959.
  • Goodrich, Norma Lorre, Priestesses, 1990.
  • Guthrie, William Keith Chambers, The Greeks and their Gods, 1955.
  • Hall, Manly Palmer, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, 1928. Ch. 14 cf. Greek Oracles,www, PRS
  • Harrison, Jane Ellen, Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion, 1912. cf. Chapter IX, p. 329 especially, on the slaying of the Python.
  • Kerenyi, Karl, (1951) 1980. The Gods of the Greeks especially pp 135–6. [3] [4]
  • Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo
  • Rohde, Erwin, Psyche, 1925.
  • Smith, William; Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, London (1873). "Python"