Apollo, the God of Light
Apollo was the son of Zeus, and was one of the greatest of the gods of Mount Olympus. He was often called the sung-god, because the Greeks thought that he brought the sun’s light and warmth to men. As these are so necessary to every living thing, they thought that Apollo was also the god of health and manly beauty. So he was always represented by the Greeks in their pictures and statues as a strong and beautiful young man.
Apollo was very fond of music, and was in the habit of playing upon the lyre at the feasts of the gods, to the great delight of all who heard him. He was very proud of his skill, and would often have contests with the other gods, and sometimes even with men.
At one of these contests, a king named Midas was present. But instead of deciding , as was usual, that Apollo was much the more skillful player, he was better pleased with another. Apollo became very angry at this, and to show his opinion of Midas he changed his ears into those of a donkey.
It was then the turn of Midas to be vexed. He wore a cap which hid his large, ugly ears; and he allowed no one to learn what had happened to him except the man who cut his hair. Midas made this man promise that he would tell no one of his misfortune But the man longed so to tell that at last he could stand it no longer. He went to the edge of a stream, dug a hole in the earth, and whispered into it the secret Then he filled up the hole, and went away satisfied. But up from that spot sprang a bunch of reeds, which immediately began to whisper on every breeze, "King Midas has donkey’s ears; King Midas has donkey’s ears." And so the story was soon known to the whole world.
The Greeks thought that Apollo caused sudden death among men by shooting swift arrows which never failed of their aim. In this way he punished the wicked, and gave welcome death to the good who were suffering and wished to die.
There was once a great queen named Niobe, who had six sons and six daughters. She was proud of her beauty, and proud of her wealth and power, but proudest of all of her twelve beautiful children. She thought that they were so beautiful, and she loved them so much, that she even dared to boast that she was greater than the mother of Apollo, who had but two children.
This made the goddess very angry, and she begged her son to punish the queen for her wicked pride. Apollo, with his bow and arrows at his side, floated down to the earth hid in a cloud. There he saw the sons of Niobe playing games among the other boys of the city. Quickly he pierced one after another of them with his arrows, and soon the six lay dead upon the ground. The frightened people took up the dead boys gently, and carried them home to their mother. She was broken-hearted, but cried,—
"The gods have indeed punished me, but they have left me my beautiful daughters"
She had scarcely spoken when one after another her daughters fell dead at her feet. Niobe clasped the youngest in her arms to save her from the deadly arrows. When this one, too, was killed, the queen could bear no more. Her great grief turned her to stone, and the people thought that for many years her stone figure stood there with tears flowing constantly from its sad eyes.
One of the most famous temples in Greece was built to Apollo at a place called Delphi. Here there was always a priestess, whose duty it was to tell the people who came there the answers which the god gave to their questions. She would place herself on a seat over a crack in the earth out of which arose a thin stream of gases. By breathing this she was made light-headed for the moment, and then she was supposed to be able to tell the answer which Apollo gave.
These answers were almost always in poetry; and though they were very wise sayings, it was sometimes hard to tell just what the god meant by them. Once a great king wished to begin a war, and asked the advice of Apollo about it at Delphi. The priestess answered, that if he went to war he would destroy a great nation. The king thought that this must mean that he would conquer his enemies, and so he began the war. But, alas, he was conquered himself, and found that it was his own nation which was to be destroyed.
Although these oracles, as they were called, were so hard to understand, the Greeks thought a great deal of them; and they would never begin anything important without first asking the advice of Apollo.