Apollo: god of music. Athena: goddess of military victory. He was a healer. She wore a helmet and carried a shield. On the surface, these Greek deities couldn’t be more different. When you start investigating their myths, however, the two have much more in common than you’d think. The families of this god and goddess, and their roles in Greek mythology, have some striking similarities.
Apollo and Athena shared a father: Zeus, king of the Greek gods. Both have tragic birth stories. Apollo’s mother, Leto, was one of Zeus’ lovers. When Leto became pregnant, she was banished from Olympus, home of the gods. Leto could find no one to help her, because all were afraid of Hera, Zeus' wife. Apollo and his twin sister, Artemis, were born on the nearly deserted island of Delos.
Athena’s mother was the nymph Metis. A prophesy warned Zeus that Metis’ child would take his place, so he swallowed the pregnant Metis whole. Athena appeared, fully grown, when Hephaestus, god of blacksmiths, struck Zeus’ forehead with an ax.
Very soon after birth, both Apollo and Athena were ready for action. At four days old, Apollo killed Python, a giant snake who had raped the pregnant Leto. Apollo also slew a giant who tried to kidnap Leto.
Athena’s abilities were evident right from the start: She emerged from birth as an adult woman wearing armor, in full warrior mode. Her mother, Metis, had constructed a robe and helmet for Athena while inside Zeus, waiting for the birth.
Neither Apollo nor Athena looked kindly upon anyone who crossed them. Niobe, queen of Thebes, bragged that, having born 14 children, she deserved more honor than Leto. Apollo and his sister Artemis punished the disrespectful Niobe by killing her children. Apollo also executed an arrogant satyr, Marsyas, who recklessly challenged the god of music to a flute contest. Predictably, Marsyas lost, and Apollo had him flayed alive.
Athena was also quick to take offense. Arakhne, a talented weaver, boasted that she could best Athena in a contest, though Athena was the goddess of crafts. The young mortal's tapestry was so flawless that Athena, incensed, turned the woman into a spider. Athena was evidently modest, as well. When Tiresias happened to see Athena bathing, she blinded him.
When they weren’t disciplining misbehaving mortals, Apollo and Athena were very generous. Apollo created the oracle of Delphi, consulted by many Greeks seeking to know their fates. As the god of plague, he wiped out rats and locusts that were troubling humans. Murderers could seek the religious healing skills of Apollo to cleanse themselves of their sins.
Athena was drawn to assisting heroes. The goddess helped Perseus slay the snake-haired gorgon Medusa, whose glance turned mortals to stone. Athena told Perseus the secret of killing Medusa: Look into a mirror, rather than directly at her, during the decapitation. When Hercules was driven mad, murdering much of his family, Athena saved the hero’s father. Hercules had to perform 12 labors as punishment for the deaths, and Athena assisted him with two: killing the Nemean lion and vanquishing the Stymphalian Birds.
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