Goddess of womanly demure and motherhood
Leto with the infants Apollo and Artemis, by Francesco Pozzi (1824)
|Symbol||Veil, dates, palm tree, rooster, wolf, gryphon, weasel|
|Parents||Coeus and Phoebe|
The island of Kos is claimed as her birthplace. Diodorus, in 2.47 states clearly that Leto was born in Hyperborea and not in Kos. In the Olympian scheme, Zeus is the father of her twins, Apollo and Artemis, which Leto conceived after her hidden beauty accidentally caught the eyes of Zeus. Classical Greek myths record little about Leto other than her pregnancy and her search for a place where she could give birth to Apollo and Artemis, since Hera in her jealousy caused all lands to shun her. Finally, she found an island that was not attached to the ocean floor so it was not considered land and she could give birth. This is her only active mythic role: once Apollo and Artemis are grown, Leto withdraws, to remain a dim and benevolent matronly figure upon Olympus, her part already played. In Roman mythology, Leto's Roman equivalent is Latona, a Latinization of her name, influenced by Etruscan Letun.
In Crete, at the city of Dreros, Spyridon Marinatos uncovered an eighth-century post-Minoan hearth house temple in which there were found three unique figures of Apollo, Artemis and Leto made of brass sheeting hammered over a shaped core (sphyrelata). Walter Burkert notes that in Phaistos she appears in connection with an initiation cult.
Leto was identified from the fourth century onwards with the principal local mother goddess of Anatolian Lycia, as the region became Hellenized. In Greek inscriptions, the children of Leto are referred to as the "national gods" of the country. Her sanctuary, the Letoon near Xanthos predated Hellenic influence in the region, however, and united the Lycian confederacy of city-states. The Hellenes of Kos also claimed Leto as their own. Another sanctuary, more recently identified, was at Oenoanda in the north of Lycia. There was a further Letoon at Delos.
Leto's primal nature may be deduced from the natures of her father and mother, who may have been Titans of the sun and moon. Her Titan father is called "Coeus", and though H. J. Rose considers his name and nature uncertain, he is in one Roman source given the name Polus, which may relate him to the sphere of heaven from pole to pole. The name of Leto's mother, "Phoebe" (Φοίβη "pure, bright"), is identical to the epithet of her son Apollo, Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων, throughout Homer.
Several explanations have been put forward to explain the origin of the goddess and the meaning of her name. Older sources speculated that the name is related to the Greek λήθη lḗthē (lethe, oblivion) and λωτός lotus (the fruit that brings oblivion to those who eat it). It would thus mean "the hidden one".
In 20th-century sources Leto is traditionally derived from Lycian lada, "wife", as her earliest cult was centered in Lycia. Lycian lada may also be the origin of the Greek name Λήδα Leda. Other scholars (Paul Kretschmer, Erich Bethe, Pierre Chantraine and R. S. P. Beekes) have suggested a Pre-Greek origin.
According to Hyginus (Fabulae) when Hera, the most conservative of goddesses – for she had the most to lose in changes to the order of nature — discovered that Leto was pregnant and that Zeus was the father, she realized that the offspring would cement the new order. She was powerless to stop the flow of events. Hera banned Leto from giving birth on "terra firma", the mainland, any island at sea, or any place under the sun.
According to Pseudo-Apollodorus (Biblioteca) "Latona for her intrigue with Zeus was hunted by Hera over the whole earth, till she came to Delos and brought forth first Artemis, by the help of whose midwifery she afterwards gave birth to Apollo."
Antoninus Liberalis is not alone in hinting that Leto came down from Hyperborea in the guise of a she-wolf, or that she sought out the "wolf-country" of Lycia, formerly called Tremilis, which she renamed to honour wolves that had befriended her for her denning. Another late source, Aelian, also links Leto with wolves and Hyperboreans:
Wolves are not easily delivered of their young, only after twelve days and twelve nights, for the people of Delos maintain that this was the length of time that it took Leto to travel from the Hyperboreoi to Delos.
Most accounts agree that she found the barren floating island of Delos, still bearing its archaic name of Asterios, which was neither mainland nor a real island and gave birth there, promising the island wealth from the worshippers who would flock to the obscure birthplace of the splendid god who was to come. The island was surrounded by swans. As a gesture of gratitude, Delos was secured with four pillars and later became sacred to Apollo.
By contrast, according to the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo, Leto labored for nine nights and nine days for Apollo, in the presence of all the first among the deathless goddesses as witnesses: Dione, Rhea, Ichnaea, Themis and the "loud-moaning" sea-goddess Amphitrite. Only Hera kept apart, perhaps to kidnap Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to prevent Leto from going into labor. Instead, Artemis, having been born first, assisted with the birth of Apollo. Another version, in the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo and in an Orphic hymn, states that Artemis was born before Apollo, on the island of Ortygia, and that she helped Leto cross the sea to Delos the next day to give birth there to Apollo.
According to the Homeric hymn, the goddesses who assembled to be witnesses at the birth of Apollo were responding to a public occasion in the rites of a dynasty, where the authenticity of the child must be established beyond doubt from the first moment. The dynastic rite of the witnessed birth must have been familiar to the hymn's hearers. The dynasty that is so concerned about being authenticated in this myth is the new dynasty of Zeus and the Olympian Pantheon, and the goddesses at Delos who bear witness to the rightness of the birth are the great goddesses of the old order. Demeter was not present and Aphrodite was not either but Rhea attended. The goddess Dione (in her name simply the "Goddess") is sometimes taken by later mythographers as a mere feminine form of Zeus (see entry Dodona). If that was the case, she would not have assembled here.
Leto was threatened and assailed in her wanderings by chthonic monsters of the ancient earth and old ways, and these became the enemies of Apollo and Artemis. One was the giant Tityos, a phallic being who grew so vast that he split his mother's womb and had to be carried to term by Gaia herself. He attempted to rape Leto near Delphi under the orders of Hera, but was laid low by the arrows of Apollo and/or Artemis, as Pindar recalled in a Pythian ode.
Another ancient earth creature that had to be overcome was the dragon Python, which lived in a cleft of the mother-rock beneath Delphi and beside the Castalian Spring. Apollo slew it but had to do penance and be cleansed afterward, since though Python was a child of Gaia, it was necessary that the ancient Delphic Oracle passed to the protection of the new god.
Leto was intensely worshipped in Lycia, Anatolia. In Delos and Athens she was worshipped primarily as an adjunct to her children. Herodotus reported a temple to her in Egypt supposedly attached to a floating island called "Khemmis" in Buto, which also included a temple to an Egyptian god Greeks identified by interpretatio graeca as Apollo. There, Herodotus was given to understand, the goddess whom Greeks recognised as Leto was worshipped in the form of Wadjet, the cobra-headed goddess of Lower Egypt.
Leto was also worshipped in Crete, whether one of "certain Cretan goddesses, or Greek goddesses in their Cretan form, influenced by the Minoan goddess". Veneration of a local Leto is attested at Phaistos (where it is purported that she gave birth to Apollo and Artemis at the islands known today as the Paximadia (also known as Letoai in ancient Crete) and at Lato, which bore her name. As Leto Phytia she was a mother-deity.
Pindar calls the goddess Leto Chryselakatos, an epithet that was attached to her daughter Artemis as early as Homer. "The conception of a goddess enthroned like a queen and equipped with a spindle seems to have originated in Asiatic worship of the Great Mother", O. Brendel notes, but a lucky survival of an inscribed inventory of her temple on Delos, where she was the central figures of the Delian trinity, records her cult image as sitting on a wooden throne, clothed in a linen chiton and a linen himation.
Leto's introduction into Lycia was met with resistance. There, according to Ovid's Metamorphoses, when Leto was wandering the earth after giving birth to Apollo and Artemis, she attempted to drink water from a pond in Lycia. The peasants there refused to allow her to do so by stirring the mud at the bottom of the pond. Leto turned them into frogs for their inhospitality, forever doomed to swim in the murky waters of ponds and rivers.
This scene, usually called Latona and the Lycian Peasants or Latona and the Frogs, was popular in Northern Mannerist art, allowing a combination of mythology with landscape painting and peasant scenes, thus combining history painting and genre painting. It is represented in the central fountain, the Bassin de Latone, in the garden terrace of Versailles.
Niobe, a queen of Thebes and wife of Amphion, boasted of her superiority to Leto because she had fourteen children (Niobids), seven sons and seven daughters, while Leto had only two. For her hubris, Apollo killed her sons as they practiced athletics, and Artemis killed her daughters. Apollo and Artemis used poisoned arrows to kill them, though according to some versions a number of the Niobids were spared (Chloris, usually). Amphion, at the sight of his dead sons, either killed himself or was killed by Zeus after swearing revenge. A devastated Niobe fled to Mount Sipylus in Asia Minor and either turned to stone as she wept or killed herself. Her tears formed the river Achelous. Zeus had turned all the people of Thebes to stone so no one buried the Niobids until the ninth day after their death when the gods themselves entombed them.
The Niobe narrative appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book VI) where Latona (Leto) has demanded the women of Thebes to go to her temple and burn incense. Niobe, queen of Thebes, enters in the midst of the worship and insults the goddess, claiming that having beauty, better parentage and more children than Latona, she is more fit to be worshipped than the goddess. To punish this insolence, Latona begs Apollo and Artemis to avenge her against Niobe and to uphold her honor. Obedient to their mother, the twins slay Niobe's seven sons and seven daughters, leaving her childless, and her husband Amphion kills himself. Niobe is unable to move from grief and seemingly turns to marble, though she continues to weep, and her body is transported to a high mountain peak in her native land.
|Leto's family tree|