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Apollo and Python (J.M.W. Turner, 1811, oil on canvas)

The giant Burmese pythons invading South Florida are back in the news.  We have examined the disturbing progress of these tropical apex predators in a previous post.  Unfortunately the stiff winter of 2010 was not enough to slow their relentless progress.  It is now reported that the renegade serpents have caused mammal populations throughout the everglades to crash.  This upsetting news article indicates that populations of raccoons, opossums, and white-tailed deer are down by more than 90%.  Researchers couldn’t find any rabbits or foxes at all.  Native, domestic, and invasive birds have also been hit hard by the snakes.  Not only are the pythons excellent predators in land, water, or trees, but mammals and birds have lost their evolved response to giant snakes (the last native boa constrictors went extinct 16 million years ago).

Humankind is ingenuous at killing things when there is an incentive to do so.  Perhaps the fashion industry could revive python skin (in an environmentally sensitive way that did not involve slaughtering endangered snakes overseas).  Or we could take a cue from the sun god Apollo and just go on an infuriated killing rampage. The ancient Greeks admired and venerated snakes in a way which we do not, but one of the main myths about Apollo involves the story of how he killed a giant underworld python and remade the creature’s lair into the locus of sun worship and prophecy in the ancient world.

Apollo Slaying Python (Eugene Delecroix, 1851, ceiling)

Zeus dallied with the goddess Leto who became pregnant with twins.  Vengeful Hera could not directly punish Zeus, but she took out her wrath on Leto by sending a monstrous python to hound the expectant goddess from all terra firma (and from anywhere the sun shone).  Finally Leto found refuge on Delos, a floating island which Zeus covered with clouds. She gave birth to twins: Artemis, (Diana in Roman) the virgin goddess of the hunt; and Apollo, sun god and deity of beauty, prophecy, and enlightened art. Apollo represented the apex of classical beauty and virtue at a time when martial skill and revenge were paramount virtues.  As soon as he grew to manhood he took his divine golden arrows and hunted for the python which had tormented his mother.  He hunted the underworld monster to Delphi where the python lived wrapped around the Omphalos, the navel of the earth.  In single combat he shot an arrow of divine agony into the creature’s throat, causing the snake to die at the center of the world in terrible pain.

The python was sacred, the offspring of mother Earth herself.  Even for an Olympian god such a deicide was a tremendous sin.  Zeus decreed that Apollo must serve eight years of menial service as a slave to atone for killing the Python.  After this period was over, Apollo rededicated the Python’s oracular shrine to himself as the foremost center of augury in the ancient world.  A yearly Greek holiday Septerla was established to commemorate the god’s triumph over the chthonic snake and every four years the Pythian Games were held at Delphi.  The Pthian games were second only to the Olympics in fame and prestige.

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