This colorful and psychedelic painting, by the French artist Odilon Redon (c. 1840-1916), depicts the ancient god, Apollo, dominating a grotesque green serpentine monster. The scene purportedly was inspired by a specific myth about Apollo, in which the god slew a fearsome beast named Python. 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 is this battle between Apollo and Python that the artwork allegedly re-creates. Redon’s rendition is quite abstract, devoid of features other artists would have likely included (such as a bow and arrows for Apollo, or clearer serpent or dragon features for venom-spewing Python). Instead, Odilon Redon was happy displaying a shining golden figure of a god posing triumphantly above a fin-footed amorphous green monstrosity.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.