Nursemaid to a Monster:
Typhon and Pytho in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo

Kelly E. Shannon (University of Virginia)

One of the apparent oddities in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo is the story of the monster Typhon (lines 300-369). The account is very different from Hesiod’s version (Theog. 820-880), and at first glance Typhon’s story seems to have no place in Apollo’s. However, a closer examination reveals that the monster has an important role to play. Typhon, like Apollo, is presented as a potential successor to Zeus threatening the king of the gods with a second intergenerational conflict like the one Zeus fought and won against his father Cronus. Apollo, by contrast, uses his fearsome power to fight on behalf of Zeus rather than against him when he slays the monster’s guardian Pytho. This triumph of order over chaos is commemorated in the sanctuary he founds at Delphi.

Recent scholarship has established that Apollo and Typhon have a lot in common. In her discussion of this episode in The Politics of Olympus, Clay shows how the hymn-poet changes the monster’s parentage and the chronology of its birth in order to draw a parallel between Typhon and Apollo. In the Theogony, Typhoeus is the child of Gaia and Tartarus, produced in response to Zeus’ punishment of the Titans; the monster is already conquered and imprisoned in Tartarus by the time Apollo is born. In the Hymn, Typhon is the child of Hera conceived out of jealousy after Zeus bears Athena asexually. Hera’s intention is the overthrow of her husband by a child she will produce without his help. In this endeavor she enlists the help of Gaia and Uranus; these same deities helped Rhea save Zeus from Cronus in the Theogony during the last intergenerational conflict.

What has not received sufficient attention, however, is the monster Pytho, who serves as the connection between Typhon and Apollo. Although Pytho is sometimes female in Delphic cult myth, the Hymn is the only surviving literary work where Pytho is a female monster; she serves as a surrogate mother to Hera’s monster-child. When Pytho takes over Hera’s motherly obligations to Typhon, she also takes in hand everything the monster represents: Hera’s jealousy toward Zeus and her desire to start another generational war ending in the overthrow of her husband. Since Gaia served as the nurse to Zeus during the last such war against Cronus, Pytho is equated with the chthonic feminine force who pits herself against each current regime.

It is thus fully appropriate that the Pytho killed by Apollo in the Hymn plays the nanny to Typhon. Hera’s desire to overthrow her husband and her chthonic surrogate then, die simultaneously at the hands of another child of Zeus. When he boasts over Pytho’s body, Apollo hints that Typhon’s days are also numbered, clearly tying his own conquest to Zeus’s subsequent victory over Typhon. Hesiod relates that the stone that Cronus swallowed mistaking it for his son was later set up by Zeus at Delphi (Theog. 498-500); even in the time of Pausanias, this stone was still a sight to be seen there (10.24.6). Another generational war, fomented by feminine jealousy and aided by Gaia, has been averted; the stone and the Hymn remind Apollo’s worshippers that the god is firmly on the side of Zeus, and that the Olympian order is here to stay.

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