Leto with Apollo and Artemis

In Greek mythology Lētō' (Greek: Λητώ, Lato in Dorian Greek, the "hidden one") is known to be a daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe, and in the Olympian scheme of things, Zeus is the father of her twins, Apollo and Artemis. Still, Leto is scarcely to be conceived apart from being pregnant and finding a suitable place to be delivered of Apollo, the second of her twins. This is her one active mythic role: once Apollo and Artemis are grown, Leto withdraws, to remain a dim, benevolent matronly figure upon Olympus, dark and mild, her part already played.

In Crete, at Dreros, Marinatos uncovered an 8th-century post-Minoan hearth house temple in which there were unique hammered brass figures of Apollo, Artemis and Leto. Walter Burkert notes (in Greek Religion) that in Phaistos she appears in connection with an initiation cult.

In Roman mythology her equivalent, as mother of Apollo and Diana, is Latona.

Leto was the principal goddess of Anatolian Lycia. Her sanctuary, the Letoon near Xanthos, united the Lycian confederacy of city-states. The people of Cos also claimed Leto as their own.

A measure of what a primal goddess Leto was can be recognized in her Titan father, whose name "Coeus" links him to the sphere of heaven from pole to pole, and her mother "Phoebe," who is precisely the "pure" and "purifying" epithet of the full moon.

When Hera, the most conservative of goddesses — for she had the most to lose in changes to the order of nature — discovered that Leto was pregnant and that Zeus was the father, she realized that the offspring would cement the new order. She was powerless to stop the flow of events, but she banned Leto from giving birth on "terra firma", on the mainland, or any island at sea, or any place under the sun (Hyginus, Fabulae, 140). Some mythographers hinted that Leto came down from the land of the Hyperboreans in the guise of a she-wolf, or that she sought out the "wolf-country" of Lycia for her denning. But most accounts agree that she found the barren floating island of Delos, which was neither mainland nor a real island, and gave birth there, promising the island wealth from the worshippers who would flock to the obscure birthplace of the splendid god who was to come. The island was surrounded by swans. As a gesture of gratitude, Delos was secured with four pillars and later became sacred to Apollo.

It is remarkable that Leto brought forth Artemis, the elder twin, without struggle or pain, as if she were merely revealing another manifestation of her self. For Apollo, Leto labored for nine nights and nine days, according to the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo in the presence of all the first among the deathless goddesses as witnesses: Dione, Rhea, Ichnaea and Themis and the sea-goddess "loud-moaning" Amphitrite. Only Hera kept apart, and perhaps she kidnapped Eileithyia or Ilithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to prevent Leto from going into labor, but Artemis was born first and then assisted with the birth of Apollo. Another version states that Artemis was born one day before Apollo, on the island of Ortygia (who is probably an ancient name of Delos), and that she helped Leto cross the sea to Delos the next day to give birth to Apollo.

Leto was threatened and assailed in her wanderings by chthonic monsters of the ancient earth and old ways, and these became the enemies of Apollo and Artemis. One was the Titan Tityos, a phallic being who grew so vast that he split his mother's womb and had to be carried to term by Gaia herself. He attempted to waylay Leto near Delphi, but was laid low by the arrows or Apollo— or possibly Artemis, as another myth-teller recalled.

Another ancient earth creature that had to be overcome was the dragon Pytho or Python which lived in a cleft of the mother-rock beneath Delphi, beside the Castalian Spring. Apollo slew it but had to do penance and be cleansed afterwards, since Python was a child of Gaia. Sometimes the slaying was said to be because Python had attempted to rape Leto while pregnant with Apollo and Artemis, but one way or another, it was necessary that the ancient oracle pass to the protection of the new god.

A Queen of Thebes and wife of Amphion, Niobe boasted of her superiority to Leto because she had fourteen children (Niobids), seven male and seven female, while Leto had only two. For her hubris, Apollo killed her sons as they practiced athletics, with the last begging for his life, and Artemis her daughters. Apollo and Artemis used poisoned arrows to kill them, though according to some versions a number of the Niobids were spared (Chloris, usually). Amphion, at the sight of his dead sons, either killed himself or was killed by Apollo after swearing revenge. A devastated Niobe fled to Mount Sipylus in Asia Minor and turned to stone as she wept, or committed suicide. Her tears formed the river Achelous. Zeus had turned all the people of Thebes to stone and so no one buried the Niobids until the ninth day after their death, when the gods themselves entombed them.

Leto was intensely worshipped in Lycia, Asia Minor. In Delos and Athens she was worshipped primarily as an adjunct to her children. Herodotus reported hearsay of a temple to her in Egypt attached to a floating island called "Khemmis" in Buto, which also included a temple to Apollo. However, Herodotus apparently didn't believe in the existence of either temple.

Leto wiith her infants, Apollo and Artemis. From a Vase in the British Museum., 6th century BC

Witnesses at the birth of Apollo

The goddesses who assembled to be witnesses at the birth of Apollo, according to the Homeric hymn, were responding to a public occasion in the rites of a dynasty, where the authenticity of the child must be established beyond doubt from the first moment. The dynastic rite of the witnessed birth must have been familiar to the hymn's 8th-century hearers. The dynasty that is so concerned to be authenticated in this myth is the new dynasty of Zeus and the Olympian Pantheon, and the goddesses at Delos who bear witness to the rightness of the birth are the great goddesses of the old order. Demeter is not present; her mother Rhea attends. Aphrodite, a generation older than Zeus, is not present either. The goddess Dione (in her name simply the "Goddess") is sometimes taken by later mythographers as a mere feminine form of Zeus (see entry Dodona): if this were so, she would not have assembled here.

As it is in heaven, so on earth: the very public birth of Frederick Hohenstaufen, the future Holy Roman Emperor, was a requirement to reassure dynastic legitimacy. Thus when the Empress Constance, heavy with child despite her advanced years (she was about forty), was travelling down the Adriatic coast of Italy to join her husband Henry in Sicily, she was forced to stop at the town of Jesi in the march of Ancona. Jesi was one of the key walled borderland communes disputed between the Papacy and Sicily, but it was dependably loyal to imperial interests. There a large tent was erected in the main square of the town, and on December 26, 1194 Constance gave birth 'in the presence of all the married ladies of the territory', so that there could be no future dispute of the legitimacy of the heir.

Leto (Latona) and the Birth of Apollo and Artemis on Delos, Diana Scultori

Latona and her Children, Rinehart

Mythology Images

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