Nursemaid to a Monster:
Typhon and Pytho in the Homeric Hymn
Kelly E. Shannon (University of Virginia)
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.
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.
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.