Apollo and Artemis: The Divine Twins with Opposing Aims

These divine archers from Greek mythology were twins who often had opposing aims. In some cases, however, their targets aligned.

Jun 3, 2022By Bethany Williams, BA Classics and English, MA Literature
figures of apollo and artemis


Apollo and Artemis, twins born of Leto and Zeus, were the divine archers of Greek mythology. They were similar in many ways — they both had a love for archery and the hunt, they were equally, highly venerated, and they often chose youthful forms to express themselves. However, they were also the opposites of one another: Apollo represented the sun and day, whereas Artemis’ domain was the night and everything touched by moonlight. The divine twins were effectively two sides of the same coin — inseparable yet different. One without the other was inconceivable.


Apollo and Artemis: Birth of the Twins

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Latona (Leto) and Her Children, Apollo and Diana, by William Henry Rinehart, 1870, via the Met Museum


“Leto bore Apollo and Artemis, delighting in arrows,
Both of lovely shape like none of the heavenly gods,
As she joined in love to the Aegis-bearing ruler.”
(Hesiod, Theogony, ll.918-920)


Apollo and Artemis were the children of Leto and Zeus. Leto was a goddess primarily worshipped for her representing matrons, and she was a divine protector of the young. She was often associated with the wilderness and wolves, associations which she passed on to her daughter, Artemis. Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, fell in love with Leto’s beauty. When Hera, Zeus’ wife, discovered the affair between Leto and Zeus, she vowed that Leto would never be allowed to give birth on land.


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Latona (Leto) resting with infants Diana (Artemis) and Apollo standing on each side; Jupiter (Zeus) watches from above, etching by Remy Vuibert after Domenichino, 1615-55, via the British Museum


When Leto was ready to give birth, Hera’s curse caused all lands to reject Leto. She was pursued across Greece, never resting and it was impossible for her to give birth. Finally, in one version, Poseidon the god of the sea pitied Leto. In an effort to help her, he raised an island from the depths of the sea, so that Leto could give birth on land that had not been cursed. This new island was deemed “disconnected” from the ocean floor, and so was completely afloat. In recognition of her association with floating islands, a temple to Leto was built on a floating island near Egypt, according to Herodotus an ancient historian.


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In most versions of the myth, Artemis was born first, but other storytellers variate the myth by having Apollo born first. The goddess was said to have helped her mother birth Apollo, and in the act she was nominated as the Goddess of Childbirth. Artemis was often worshipped by pregnant women in ancient Greece, and she would step into the role of midwife occasionally whenever she was summoned.


Archery Skill: Artemis and the Hunt

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A companion of Diana (Artemis), by René Frémin, 1717, via the Louvre Museum


Apollo and Artemis grew up to have the same avid interest in archery, but this also came with a rivalry. In Artemis’ case, during her childhood, she hunted for all the possessions that would help her to be the best huntress in Greece, for eternity. Artemis often chose the form of a child, an adolescent, or a young woman. At just three years old, the goddess traveled to the forge of the Cyclopes, where Hephaestus the God of the Forge was working with them on creating many wondrous things for the gods. Artemis grasped Hephaestus by the beard and demanded his help as well as the Cyclopes’.


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Portrait of Princess Mary of York as Diana (Artemis), by Sir Peter Lely, c.1618-80, via Halls Fine Art


Callimachus tells the story in the Hymn: “Right boldly didst thou (Artemis) address them then: ‘Cyclopes, for me too, fashion ye a Cydonian bow and arrows and a hollow casket for my shafts; for I also am a child of Leto, even as Apollo.’” Hephaestus agreed to her demands, and so crafted her a magnificent archery set, just like he had done for her brother. A little sibling rivalry began.


After this, Artemis traveled to Arcadia, the rural lands of ancient Greece, and found Pan the God of the Wild there. She asked him for seven Cynosurian hunting dogs, and he happily obliged.


Artemis then sought out the golden-horned herd of deer, thinking that they would be “a first capture worthy of Artemis.” On foot, the goddess managed to catch four golden-horned deer, and they became the deer that pulled her chariot. She became the goddess of the Hunt, the Night, and Chastity.


Apollo and the Arrows

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Apollo, God of Light, Eloquence, Poetry and the Fine Arts with Urania, Muse of Astronomy, by Charles Meynier, 1798, via Cleveland Art Museum


Apollo also desired a bow and arrow; it was an elegant weapon, to match Apollo’s style. As the god of light and music, the string weapon matched his lyre, a string instrument. Apollo also thought that the bow and arrow would be the best weapon against the monstrous Python.


When born, Apollo was immediately fed ambrosia and nectar, the food of the gods. This substance transformed Apollo from a newborn into an adolescent instantly. His sister continued to develop at the normal divine aging rate, which was still much faster than a human.


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Apollo and the Serpent Python, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636-37, via Museo Del Prado


Only four days after his birth, Apollo hunted down the beast named Python, which was a giant mythical snake. This snake had been sent by Hera to terrorize Leto — the twins’ mother. In revenge against the torment that the snake had inflicted, Apollo asked Hephaestus to craft him an archery set.


“Golden is the tunic of Apollo and golden his mantle, his lyre and his Lyctian bow and his quiver: golden too are his sandals; for rich in gold is Apollo, rich also in possessions: by Pytho mightst thou guess.”
(Callimachus, Hymn to Apollo)


In Greek myth, Apollo’s anger would often cause him to vengefully strike down offenders with his golden arrows… but in other cases, Apollo would be the savior to lots of people, and so he earned the epithet agyieus which meant “protector” or “defender” of streets and homes.


The Moon & the Sun

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Apollo in his Chariot, by Lucas Giordano, c.1685, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Diana (Artemis) in Her Chariot, by Claude Mellan, 1633, via the Met Museum


The symbolism of the coin with two sides was manifest in the twins’ responsibilities. In Greek mythology, Apollo and Artemis each had dominion over different parts of the cycle of day to night. Apollo was given the responsibility of raising the sun each day across the sky, from east to west. Naturally, his sister Artemis drew the moon across the sky throughout the night. As such, Apollo became associated with golden light and Artemis silver light. Overall, Artemis and Apollo worked in tandem to bring light to the world in myth.


Ironically, the American spacecraft with the mission to fly to the moon was named after Artemis’ brother, Apollo. However, a current ongoing program by NASA is called the Artemis program, and its goal is to eventually land people on the moon.


Chastity and Promiscuity

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Apollo served by nymphs, by François Girardon, 1666-75, via Google Arts & Culture


Another point on which the divine twins differed was  their lifestyles. While Artemis vowed to be a virgin huntress for eternity, Apollo enjoyed the attentions of men and women alike. In this, the twins were very adamant about their choices.


Apollo fell in love deeply and madly. He would tirelessly pursue his love interests and experienced many heartbreaks. Apollo had affairs with many nymphs, princesses, and princes. Sometimes the god was rejected, as in the case of Daphne and Cassandra. Daphne was pursued by Apollo until her father turned her into a laurel tree to protect her from the god. Apollo took the laurel tree as his sacred plant, and used the leaves to crown victors.


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The Death of Hyacinth, by Nicholas René Jollain, 1768, via the Louvre


It is said that Apollo’s favourite love was a Spartan youth named Hyacinthus. The god taught Hyacinthus how to play the lyre, which was the god’s own divine instrument. Hyacinthus loved athletic games, and Apollo was eager to join him. One day, the two were throwing a discus between them. However, a jealous wind god named Zephyrus sent a gust of wind so that Hyacinthus was struck in the head with the discus. Apollo was distraught at his lover’s death, and so named the hyacinth flower after him.


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Diana (Artemis) and her nymphs (huntresses), by Angelica Kauffmann, 1778-82, via AGSA Gallery


On the contrary, Artemis decided to be free from male attention forever. To ensure the vow was respected eternally, she asked her father, Zeus the king of the gods, to agree to the vow and protect her from those who would disregard her choice. Zeus agreed to her wish.


The goddess was forever an independent huntress, and she chose young women who also took on a vow of chastity to become her eternal companions. These women became the Huntresses or nymphs of Artemis.


Artemis was very strict about the chastity vow, and anyone who violated their vow would be severely punished. In one myth, a hunter named Actaeon stumbled across the goddess bathing in the woods. In a rage, Artemis transformed him into a stag and his own hunting hounds tore him apart.


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 Jupiter (Zeus) and Callisto, by François Boucher, 1744, via Pushkin Museum


In another myth, Kallisto was one of Artemis’ huntresses. However, Zeus was inflamed with desire for Kallisto, and so he disguised himself as Artemis herself, and approached Kallisto when she was separated from the group. Kallisto openly received the affections of Zeus-disguised-as-Artemis but was horrified when Zeus finally revealed himself.


Poor Kallisto attempted to hide her pregnancy from Artemis, but the goddess soon found out. Artemis was outraged at the broken oath, despite the union being non-consensual, and turned Kallisto into a bear. With the oath broken, Kallisto could no longer be a huntress. When she died, Kallisto was turned into a constellation, to grace the sky along with the goddess every night.


Orion & Chione

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Diana and Cupid, by Pompeo Batoni, 1761, via the Met Museum


When it came to contests, the rivalry between Apollo and Artemis could become quite drastic. Caught in the middle were some unfortunate and unsuspecting souls. Throughout the entirety of Greek myth, only one man was ever allowed to join Artemis’ Hunt. And this man was named Orion. He was a skilled hunter whose only competitor was the goddess herself. In one version of the myth, Apollo was concerned that Artemis would compromise her chastity vow for Orion.


Artemis had for so long rejected the influence of Eros (Cupid) and for a goddess to break her divine vow would bring serious consequences. So, Apollo tricked Artemis into killing him, and the temptation was eradicated. The myth is told as so:


[she] loved Orion and came near marrying him. Apollo took this hard, and when scolding her brought no results, on seeing the head of Orion who was swimming a long way off, he wagered her that she couldn’t hit with her arrows the black object in the sea. Since she wished to be called an expert in that skill, she shot an arrow and pierced the head of Orion.”
(Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica)


Artemis was distraught at Apollo’s trick, and so she turned Orion into a constellation. In retaliation, she also killed one of Apollo’s own love interests, named Chione, when provoked. Chione had boasted that she was more beautiful than Artemis because both Apollo and Hermes had fallen for her. Artemis did not hesitate to strike her down.


United Goals

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The Destruction of the Children of Niobe from a set of “The Horses”, by Frans Cleyn, c. 1650-70, via the Met Museum


In some cases, the siblings could unite. During the Trojan War, the twins were on the same side, as they both supported the Trojans. Artemis removed the winds from the ocean so that the Greek fleet could not set sail to Troy, and she demanded Agamemnon’s most prized possession before returning the wind. Agamemnon chose his daughter to sacrifice, but Artemis pitied the young girl and whisked her away at the last minute, replacing her with a deer instead. Later in the war, the twins shot arrows of plague at the Greeks for offending one of Apollo’s priests.


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The Punishment of Arrogant Niobe by Diana (Artemis) and Apollo, by Pierre Charles Jombert, c.1772, via the Met Museum


In another myth, when the prideful Niobe boasted that she was better than Leto, because she had more children, the twins punished Niobe by killing all of her children. In some variations, they left one daughter and one son alive. However, the mother became so depressed that she cried endless tears. The gods turned her into a waterfall to end her suffering, but she also stood as a monument to show how the gods punished pride.


The Divine Twins Apollo & Artemis

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Close Up of Admission Ticket depicting Apollo and Artemis, by James Barry, 1779, via the British Museum


Apollo and Artemis were often in opposition, and yet they sometimes came together in unison. Together they represent the impossibility of having one side of something without the other. Without the light, there would be no moon. Their opposites and parallels signify the duality of mankind through divine expression.


“The goddess Artemis had a twin brother, Apollo, the many-faceted god of the Sun. He was her male counterpart: his domain was the city, hers the wilderness; his was the sun, hers the moon; his the domesticated flocks, hers the wild, untamed animals; he was the god of music, she was the inspiration for round dances on the mountains.
author Jean Shinoda Bolen.

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By Bethany WilliamsBA Classics and English, MA LiteratureBethany is a Masters student, currently studying the adaptation of Greek myth in modern literature. She is a graduate of Classics and English (BA), during which she studied Ancient Greek language, classical reception within its own time and throughout history, as well as Greek and Roman history. Apart from her studies, she has an appreciation for art, philosophy, and travel. She may be based in England, but her heart is in Greece.