This painting, produced by an unidentified artist around 1625, depicts one of the early heroic accomplishments carried out by the ancient Greek god, Apollo. Chronological timelines of such myths can vary from storyteller to storyteller, but the event was usually placed after ancient Greece’s great flood myth, and before Apollo’s claiming of Delphi as his territory. Following the flood, humans began to rebuild their communities, but their progress was hindered by an entity named Python, which was usually described as a serpent or a dragon. Python’s lair was in the Delphi region, and as Apollo also had his eye on the famous oracle site, the god and the monster were inevitably set to clash. The myth of Apollo’s slaying of Python was mentioned by many ancient sources, including the so-called Homeric Hymns, Apollonius of Rhodes, Callimachus, Strabo and Ovid to name a few. As Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE) was often the favorite literary source for painters, we will quote him here:
“Amongst these forms was an unknown serpent, the monstrous Python,
also brought forth by the Earth at the time, though she cannot have wished for it.
Sprawling over Parnassus, it horribly frightened the new-born
peoples, until it was killed by the deadly shafts of Apollo,
whose only targets before were the timid gazelles and the roe deer.
The snake was transfixed by a thousand arrows (the quiver was almost
emptied) and out of its wounds there spewed black gushes of venom.
In order that time should never destroy the fame of this exploit,
Apollo established the sacred games, attended by huge crowds,
the Pythian Games, called after the serpent he vanquished, Python.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.438-447)
It was from this myth that the unidentified artist of the painting drew his inspiration. For the depiction of Python, the artist opted to turn the monster into a winged dragon, rather than going with the more traditional giant venomous serpent approach. In the painting, Python is either dead or dying, and Apollo seems to have finished the job with far fewer arrows than the thousand mentioned by Ovid.
Written by C. Keith Hansley