Apollo & Python, Athenian black-figure
C6th B.C., Musée du Louvre
PYTHON was a monstrous serpent which Gaia (Mother Earth) appointed to guard the oracle at Delphoi. The beast was sometimes said to have been born from the rotting slime left behind after the great Deluge. When Apollon laid claim to the shrine, he slew the dragon with his arrows. The oracle and festival of the god were then named Pytho and Pythian from the rotting (pythô) corpse of the beast. According to some, Apollon slew the monster to avenge his mother Leto, who had been pursued relentlessly by the dragon during her long pregnancy.
Python was variously described as a male or female drakon. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo (and some Greek art) equates her with Ekhidna, a woman-headed serpent or drakaina, which nursed and consorted with the monstrous giant Typhoeus.
In the image right, Apollon, seated upon the omphalos stone at Delphoi, slays Python with his arrows. Here she appears as Ekhidna, a she-serpent with woman's head and breast.
| GAIA (Hyginus Preface & Fabulae 140, Ovid Metamorphoses 1.438)
 (See Ekhidna)
PYTHON (Puthôn), the famous dragon who guarded the oracle of Delphi, is described as a son of Gaea. He lived in the caves of mount Parnassus, but was killed by Apollo, who then took possession of the oracle. (Apollod. i. § 1 ; Strab. ix. p. 422.)
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
Homeric Hymn 3 to Apollo 356 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C7th - 4th B.C.) :
"Straightway large-eyed queenly Hera took him [Typhaon] and bringing one evil thing to another such, gave him to the Drakaina [Python]; and she received him. And this Typhaon used to work great mischief among the famous tribes of men. Whosoever met the Drakaina, the day of doom would sweep him away, until the lord Apollon, who deals death from afar, shot a strong arrow at her. Then she, rent with bitter pangs, lay drawing great gasps for breath and rolling about that place. An awful noise swelled up unspeakable as she writhed continually this way and that amid the wood : and so she left her life, breathing it forth in blood. Then Phoibos Apollon boasted over her : `Now rot here upon the soil that feeds man! You at least shall live no more to be a fell bane to men who eat the fruit of the all-nourishing earth, and who will bring hither perfect hecatombs. Against cruel death neither Typhoios [her consort] shall avail you nor ill-famed Khimaira [her spawn], but here, shall the Earth and shining Hyperion make you rot.' Thus said Phoibos, exulting over her : and darkness covered her eyes. And the holy strength of Helios made her rot away there; wherefore the place is now called Pytho, and men call the lord Apollon by another name, Pythian; because on that spot the power of piercing Helios made the monster rot away."
Homeric Hymns 3 to Apollo 300 ff :
"But near by [Delphoi] was a sweet flowing spring, and there with his strong bow the lord, the son of Zeus, killed the bloated, great drakaina, a fierce monster wont to do great mischief to men upon earth, to men themselves and to their thin-shanked sheep: for she was a very bloody plague. She it was who once received from gold-throned Hera and brought up fell, cruel Typhaon to be a plague to men."
Simonides, Fragment 573 (from Julian, Letters) (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric III) (Greek lyric C6th to 5th B.C.) :
"[Apollon] killed the snake Python with a hundred arrows. [N.B. This is probably Simonides' etymology for Apollo's title hekateros, "hundred missiles."] "
Melanippides, Fragment 5 (from Plutarch, On Music) (from Julian, Letters) (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric V) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.) :
"[The mythical musician] Olympos was the first to use the Lydian mode, when he played on his pipes a lament for the Python."
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 22 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"[Apollon] made his way to Delphoi, where Themis gave the oracles at that time. When the serpent Python, which guarded the oracle, moved to prevent Apollon from approaching the oracular opening, he slew it and thus took command of the oracle."
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 2. 703 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.) :
"[Orpheus] told them [the Argonauts] in song how Apollon long ago, when he was still a beardless youth rejoicing in his locks, slew the monster Delphyne with his bow beneath the rocky brow of Parnassos."
Callimachus, Hymn 4 to Delos 91 (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.) :
"[Apollon prophesies from the womb of his mother Leto :] `Not yet is the tripod seat at Pytho my care; not yet is the great serpent dead, but still that beast of awful jaws, creeping down from Pleistos, wreathes snowy Parnassos with his nine coils.'"
Strabo, Geography 9. 3. 10 (trans. Jones) (Greek geographer C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"[In the musical contest of the Pythian Games held at Delphoi were] citharoedes, fluteplayers and citharists who played without singing, who rendered a certain melody which is called the Pythian Nome. Now the melody was composed by Timosthenes, the admiral of the second Ptolemy . . . and through this melody he means to celebrate the contest between Apollon and the Drakon, setting forth the prelude as anakrousis, the first onset of the contest as ampeira, the contest itself as katakeleusmos, the triumph following the victory as iambos and daktylus, the rhythms being in two measures, one of which, the dactyl, is appropriate to hymns of praise, whereas the other, the iamb, is suited to reproaches (compare the word 'iambize'), and the expiration of the Drakon as syringes, since with syringes players imitated the dragon as breathing its last in hissings."
Strabo, Geography 9. 3. 12 :
"[According to Ephoros, a Greek historian C5th B.C., who rationalised the Python myth] Apollon, visiting the land [of Phokis], civilized the people by introducing cultivated fruits and cultured modes of life . . . when he arrived at the land of the Panopaians he destroyed Tityos, a violent and lawless man who ruled there; and the Parnassians joined him and informed him of another cruel man named Python and known as the Drakon, and that when Apollon shot at him with his arrows the Parnassians shouted 'Hie Paian' to encourage him (the origin, Ephoros adds, of the singing of the Paian which has been handed down as a custom for armies just before the clash of battle); and that the tent of Python was burnt by the Delphians at that time, just as they still burn it to this day in remembrance of what took place at that time. But what could be more mythical than Apollon shooting with arrows and punishing Tityoses and Pythons, and travelling from Athens to Delphoi and visiting the whole earth?"
Pausanias, Description of Greece 10. 6. 5 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"The most widespread tradition [for the naming of Pytho, Phokis] has it that the victim of Apollon’s arrows rotted here, and that this was the reason why the city received the name Pytho. For the men of those days used pythesthai for the verb 'to rot’ . . . The poets say that the victim of Apollon was a Drakon posted by Ge to be a guard for the oracle. It is also said that he was a violent son of Krios, a man with authority around Euboia. He pillaged the sanctuary of the god, and he also pillaged the houses of rich men. But when he was making a second expedition, the Delphians besought Apollon to keep from them the danger that threatened them. Phemonoe, the prophetess of that day, gave them an oracle verse:--`At close quarters a grievous arrow shall Apollon shoot at the spoiler of Parnassos; and of his blood-guilt the Kretans shall cleanse his hands’ but the renown shall never die.’
It seems that from the beginning the sanctuary at Delphoi has been plotted against by a vast number of men. Attacks were made against it by this Euboian pirate."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 7. 7 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"When Apollon and Artemis had killed Pytho they came to Aigialeia [Sikyon] to obtain purification."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 30. 3 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"The Kretans say . . . that Karmanor [of Krete] purified Apollon after he killed Pytho."
Pausanias, Guide to Greece 2. 7. 7 :
"When Apollon and Artemis had murdered Python they came to Aigialeia [Sikyonia] for purification."
Aelian, On Animals 11. 2 (trans. Scholfield) (Greek natural history C2nd A.D.) :
"The people of Epeiros maintain that the [sacred] Drakones [of their temple of Apollon] are sprung from the Python at Delphoi."
Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 7 (summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 190) (trans. Pearse) (Greek mythographer C1st to C2nd A.D.) :
"Apollon organised funeral games in honour of Python [the Pythian Games of Delphoi]."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Preface (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"From Terra [Gaia] [was born] : Python a divine snake."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 53 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Latona [Leto] was borne there [Ortygia] at Jove’s [Zeus'] command by the wind Aquilo [Boreas], at the time when the Python was pursuing her, and there, clinging to an olive, she gave birth to Apollo and Diana [Artemis]. This island later was called Delos."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 140 :
"Python, offspring of Terra [Gaia], was a huge Draco who, before the time of Apollo, used to give oracular responses on Mount Parnassus. Death was fated to come to him from the offspring of Latona [Leto]. At that time Jove [Zeus] lay with Latona, daughter of Polus [Koios]. When Juno [Hera] found this out, she decreed that Latona should give birth at a place where the sun did not shine. When Python knew that Latona was pregnant by Jove, he followed her to kill her. But by order of Jove the wind Aquilo [Boreas] carried Latona away, and bore her to Neptunus [Poseidon]. He protected her, but in order not to make voice Juno’s decree, he took her to the island Ortygia, and covered the island with waves. When Python did not find her, he returned to Parnassus. But Neptunus brought the island of Ortygia up to a higher position; it was later called the island of Delos. There Latona, clinging to an olive tree, bore Apollo and Diana [Artemis], to whom Vulcanus [Hephaistos] gave arrows as gifts. Four days after they were born, Apollo exacted vengeance for his mother. For he went to Parnassus and slew Python with his arrows. Because of this deed he is called Pythian. He put Python’s bones in a cauldron, deposited them in his temple, and instituted funeral games for him which are called Pythian."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. 434 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"When Tellus [Gaia the Earth] deep-coated with the slime of the late deluge, glowed again beneath the warm caresses of the shining sun, she brought forth countless species, some restored in ancient forms, some fashioned weird and new. Indeed Tellus (the Earth), against her will, produced a Serpens (Serpent) never known before, the huge Python, a terror to men's new-made tribes, so far it sprawled across the mountainside. The Deus Arctitenens (Archer god) [Apollon], whose shafts till then were used only against wild goats and fleeing deer, destroyed the monster with a thousand arrows, his quiver almost emptied, and the wounds, black wounds, poured forth their poison. Then to ensure the centuries should have no power to dull the lustre of that deed, Phoebus [Apollon] founded the sacred games, the crowded contests, known as Pythian from that Serpens overthrown."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. 459 :
"My [Apollon's] countless arrows slew but now the bloated Python, whose vast coils across so many acres spread their blight."
Propertius, Elegies 4. 6 (trans. Goold) (Roman elegy C1st B.C.) :
"He [Apollon] put to rest throughout its winding coils the serpent Python, the terror of the peaceful Musae."
Seneca, Hercules Furens 453 ff (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
"Did Phoebus [Apollon] encounter savage monsters or wild beasts?
A draco (dragon) was the first to stain Phoebus’ shafts."
Seneca, Medea 700 ff :
"[The witch Medea summons deadly serpents with a spell by calling out the names of the great Drakones :] `In answer to my incantations let Python come, who dared to attack the twin divinities [Apollon and Artemis] . . . Let Hydra return . . . Thou, too, ever-watchful dragon [of the Golden Fleece].'"
Statius, Thebaid 1. 561 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
"The god [Apollon] had smitten the dark and sinuous-coiling monster, the earth-born Python, who cast about Delphos his sevenfold grisly circles and with his scales ground the ancient oaks to powder, even while sprawling by Castalia’s fountain he gapes with three-tongued mouth athirst to feed his deadly venom: when having spent his shafts on numberless wounds he left him, scarce fully stretched in death over a hundred acres of Cirrhaean soil, then ,seeking fresh expiation of the dead, he came to the humble dwelling of our [Argos’] king Crotopus."
Statius, Thebaid 5. 531 ff :
"He that shook the horns of sacred Parnassus [Python], twining his coils among them, until pierced by a hundred wounds he bore, O Delian [Apollon], a forest of thy arrows."
Statius, Thebaid 6. 8 ff :
"Next [the Delphian Games] is celebrated the freeing of Phocis from the Serpent’s coils, the battle of the boy Apollo’s quiver."
Statius, Thebaid 7. 350 ff :
"Lilaea that sends forth the ice-cold springs of Cephisus, whither Python was wont to take his panting thirst and turn aside the river from the sea . . . quivers the god [Apollon] emptied here in countless slaughter."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 4. 314 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"A sacred place conspicuous; the place where the Pythian [Apollon] had noticed on a hill the ninecircling coil of the Drakon’s back, and put to sleep the deadly poison of the Kirrhaian serpent."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 13. 22 ff :
"Zeus will not receive you without hard work, and the Horai will not open the gates of Olympos to you unless you have struggled for the prize . . . Apollon mastered Delphyne [Python], and then he came to live in the sky."
Suidas s.v. Delphoi (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek Lexicon C10th A.D.) :
"Delphoi : The sanctuary of Apollo. It was thus named because the serpent Delphyne was found there, the one which Apollon killed."
- The Homeric Hymns - Greek Epic C8th-4th B.C.
- Greek Lyric III Simonides, Fragments - Greek Lyric C6th-5th B.C.
- Greek Lyric V Melanippides, Fragments - Greek Lyric C5th B.C.
- Apollodorus, The Library - Greek Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Apollonius Rhodius, The Argonautica - Greek Epic C3rd B.C.
- Callimachus, Hymns - Greek Poetry C3rd B.C.
- Strabo, Geography - Greek Geography C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece - Greek Geography C2nd A.D.
- Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History - Greek Scholar C1st-2nd A.D.
- Hyginus, Fabulae - Latin Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses - Latin Epic C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Propertius, Elegies - Latin Elegy C1st B.C.
- Seneca, Hercules Furens - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
- Seneca, Medea - Latin Tragedy C1st A.D.
- Statius, Thebaid - Latin Epic C1st A.D.
- Nonnos, Dionysiaca - Greek Epic C5th A.D.
- Photius, Myriobiblon - Byzantine Greek Scholar C9th A.D.
- Suidas - Byzantine Greek Lexicon C10th A.D.