"[Apollo] made his way to Delphi, where Themis gave the oracles at that time. When the serpent Python, which guarded the oracle, moved to prevent Apollo from approaching the oracular opening, he slew it and thus took command of the oracle." Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 22
So in order to gain control of his grandmother Phoebe’s oracle at Delphi[i] Apollo had to slay the monstrous guard-dog of the place, the Python. A serpent born of the antedivullean slime. No big deal right? Heroes do it all time.
But if it is no big deal why did Apollo organise funeral games in honour of Python; the Pythian Games of Delphi? [ii] Why did the mythical musician Olympos play on his pipes a lament for the Python?[iii] Why did Apollo (and Artemis) have to get purified at least three time to wash away the sin of manslaughter? In Aigialeia, formerly know as Sicyon,[iv] Carmanor of Krete[v] and finally the river-god Peneus purified Apollo in his waters.[vi] The sons of the Thessalians say, Apollo the Pythian-Slayer was purified here according to the command of Zeus.[vii]
"(Cadmus) sent some of his men to fetch water from the spring of Ares, but a Serpent, said by many to be a child of Ares, guarded the spring and destroyed most of those who had been sent. In outrage Kadmos killed the Serpent, (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 22 )
Robert Graves says “Cadmus killed the serpent in the same sense as Apollo killed the Python at Delphi.” Cadmus is often consider a doublet of Apollo. So for Kadmos, to atone for the death
- ”He served Ares as a laborer for an 'everlasting' year, for a year then was equal to eight years now." Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 22
- "Cadmus, (and Harmonia), were turned into snakes in the region of Illyria by the wrath of Mars, because Cadmus had slain the Dragon, guardian of the fountain of Castalia." (Hyginus, Fabulae 6)
It was just another snake, why did Apollo and Cadmus suffer for their slaying of a serpent?
Echidna, “a Nymphe who never dies, and all her days she is ageless." (295) “bore the grisly-minded Lernaian Hydra, whom the goddess white-armed Hera nourished because of her quenchless grudge against the strong Heracles. Yet he, Herakles …killed this beast with the pitiless bronze sword." (Hesiod, Theogony 313) And no need for atonement, purification, games or laments.
Jason slew the Hydra’s sibling the Colchian Dragon[viii] and didn’t have to atone. Phorbas of Thessaly became a Rhodian hero for slaying their serpents, according to Hyginus in Astronomica 2.14. In this same source Heracles kills a rampaging snake for Omphale and no harm befalls the pair. Apparently, (to my surprise) Heracles also killed the serpent that guarded the golden fruit of the Hesperies. I have killed a few snake myself with no divine penalty,
So what’s with the Python? Why was slaying it such a big no-no?
PS It seems ironic to me and maybe pertinent that Apollo is purified, re-born, born-again at the exact spot where he was supposed to be born in the first place.
Leto stretched forth both her arms and spoke in vain: `You nymphs of Thessaly, offspring of a river [Peneus], tell your sire to hush his great stream. Entwine your hands about his beard and entreat him that the children of Zeus be born in his waters.” [i] And the river-god consents.
[i] Aeschylus Eumenides
[ii] Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 7 (summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 190)
[iii] Melanippides, Fragment 5 (from Plutarch, On Music) (from Julian, Letters) (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric V).
[iv] Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 7. 7);
[v] Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 30. 3)
[vi] The Encyclopedia Britannica says of “the Vale of Tempe”
[vii] Theopompus, The Historian by Gordon S Shrimpton.
[viii] Pindar, Pythian Ode 4. 241