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Monday, 5 September 2011

Sungod Dragonslaying: Apollo and Python

[Apollo slaying Python, by Goltzius]

Since we had just mentioned the dragon 'Boas' of the western Mediterranean, I thought we should also mention the dragon 'Python' of Ancient Greece. The name 'Python' (POOT'un) means 'Putrescence' or 'Rotting' and it was said to refer to the putrid body after the creature had been killed. Other interpretations of the myth suggest that the name is merely the same as 'Typhon' but rearranged. The dragon guarded the sanctuary and oracle of Delphi and was associated with another dragon, a female named Delphyne. Some commentators have made of this that there was a tradtion of a guardian male and female set of dragons in the pre-Indo-European goddess-worshipping religion, and that the dragons were Typhon and Echidna but with regional variations. Apollo took over the sanctuary by force and made the oracle his, by any reading of the myth.

The matter came up recently because of a discussion Tyler and I had been having on the 'Ketos' dragons in an earlier post (The pair of 'Phorcys and Ketos' is another analogous set of male and female sea monsters and also equated to Typhon and Echidna by the same theorists) I produced the scene of Apollo slaying Python in the above engraving, except that the rear flippers are misinterpreted as feet with distinct digits (something that is fairly common) but they are still splayed out at 180 degrees from each other. I interpreted the back as having two humps and the representation meant to be a fairly standard long-necked lake monster (on land). The section of the painting from the 1800s below is even more obviously so, only with three humps on the back this time. There are ancient portrayals of the Python of the myth that could be viewed as prototypes of this, but changed in orientation vertically to horizontally.
[Apollo Vanquishing the Python - detail - 1850-1851 by Delacroix]

[ Apollo and Python, Apollo and Daphne, Regius Illustration for Ovid's Metamorphoses]

I did start to wonder if there was some sort of a written description of the slain Python because many of the illustrators tended to draw a plesiosaurian sort of creature with a jumble of mismatched limbs wherein the flippers or 'wings' were more oviously part of the body but the smaller and more conventional 'legs' were much less clearly proper feet drawn where they actually belonged. The depiction at the bottom definitely opts for the limbs being webbed feet or flippers (fins).

[Apollo killing Python. A 1581 engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book I. From the Wikipedia article on Python (Mythology)]

[Apollo und Python' von Jan Boeckhorst, 1600s]

When all is said and done what probably happened was that the priest or representative of Apollo killed the then-resident Pythia (oracular-priestesss) at Delphi and then took control of the shrine in Apollo's name. However, the depictions of the dragon show some consistencies that are evidently traditional and a little peculiar. Artists were obviously borrowing from 'monster' descriptions they were familiar with in their own day and age - Delacroix's Python could even be mostly derived from 1800s reports of sea serpents. Basking sharks are not to be found around Greece so presumably we are not talking about 'pseudoplesiosaurs.' All the same, if there is a written description of the body somewhere, I should like very much to see it. Best Wishes, Dale D.

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