Leto is said to have been always mild, gentlest
among the OLYMPIANS,
and kind to both mortals and immortals, for she is
believed to grant whatever is asked of her.
Although she is not Zeus'
wife, she may be seen playing the lyre with him in
the midst of the gods.
The Lycian peasants deny water to Leto and her newborn twins Artemis and Apollo. villenave01201: Leto and the Lycian peasants. Drawing by Jean-Michel Moreau "le Jeune", 1741-1814 (Les Métamorphoses d'Ovide, Paris 1806).
Zeus consorted with Leto
before he married Hera, and
because of their love affair, Leto was hunted over
the whole earth by the jealousy of Hera, not being able to
find a place where she could deliver her twins.
In her wanderings, Leto came to Crete, to Athens, to the island of
Aegina in the Saronic Gulf, to Athos in Thrace, to
Mount Pelion in Thessaly, to the Aegean island of
Samos off the western coast of Asia Minor, to the
island of Peparethus north of Euboea, to Mount Ida,
to the city of Phocaea in Asia Minor which is
between the Elaitic and the Hermaean Gulfs, to the
island of Imbros in northern Aegean Sea, to Lemnos, to the island of
Lesbos in the Aegean Sea opposite the coast of Asia
Minor, to the island of Chios off the coast of Ionia in Asia Minor, to
Mount Mimas opposite Chios, to the rock Corycius on
the coast of Asia Minor in Cilicia, to Clarus near
Ephesus, to the promontory Mycale in Ionia on the mainland
opposite Samos, to Miletus in Caria, to Cos off the
southwestern coast of Asia Minor, to Cnidos, Naxos,
Paros, and many other lands, looking for a place to
Having wandered through many countries, Leto
came to the rocky island of Delos, which is one of
the so called Cyclades Islands, and there she gave
birth to her twins. About this island it has been
said that when Zeus seduced Leto's sister Asteria 1, she flung herself into the sea in order to escape his amorous advances, being transformed into a quail by the god, who besides cast her into the sea. From her, a floating island sprang that was first called Ortygia, and later Delos. But others have said that Ortygia and Delos are two different islands, and that Artemis was born in Ortygia, and Apollo in Delos. It has also been told that Poseidon made an exchange with Leto, giving her the island of Delos for the island of Calauria, which is off Pogon, the harbor of Troezen, on
the Saronic Gulf.
When Hera learned about Zeus' and Leto's love
affair, she decreed that Leto should give birth at
a place where the sun did not shine. At the same
time, Python, the dragon that gave oracular
responses and was fated to be killed by Leto's son,
started to follow her in order to kill her. So Zeus let the North Wind (Boreas 1, see WINDS) carry her away, and the wind bore her to Poseidon, who protected
her without violating Hera's decree, by taking
her to the island of Ortygia, which he covered with
waves. That is why Python could not find her; and
when this dragon had returned to Mount Parnassus, Poseidon brought the
island to the surface of the sea.
Several goddesses were present when Leto was
about to give birth: among them Rhea 1, Themis and Amphitrite, Poseidon's wife.
However, after nine days of travail, the goddess of
childbirth Ilithyia had not yet arrived; for, they
say, she was kept in heaven by the envy of Hera, although others say that Ilithyia came directly to Delos, not from heaven but from the land of the Hyperboreans in the far north. In any case, the godesses who kept Leto company
bribed the heavenly messenger Iris 1 with a necklace
strung with golden threads, and she brought
Ilithyia to Delos.
Leto gives birth
On her arrival, Leto cast her arms around a palm
tree (though some say she was clinging to an olive
tree), and kneeling on the meadow, gave birth first
to Artemis, and then
with the help of this goddess' midwifery, to Apollo. After her travail, Leto bathed in the river
Cenchrius. Yet, this river is near Ephesus in Asia
Minor, traversing a grove with many cypresses
called Ortygia, and some affirm that here, and not
in Delos, is the olive tree and the place where
Leto gave birth. Above the grove lies Mount
Solmissus, where they say the CURETES made all
kinds of noises with their arms in order to
frighten the jealous Hera. Others have described what happened when Leto
was about to give birth thus:
"When Leto in
the frenzied pangs of childbirth set foot upon
Delos, then did four pillars, resting on adamant,
rise perpendicular from the roots of the earth, and
on their capitals sustain the rock. And there she
gave birth to, and beheld, her blessed offspring." (Pindar, quoted by Strabo, Geography 10.5.2).
The mean Lycian peasants
Her troubles did not stop after giving birth;
for Leto, having arrived with her newborns to a
certain place in Lycia, in Asia Minor, where there
was a lake, was forbidden by the inhospitable
locals to quench her thirst. No matter how much she
begged them to let her drink, they would still
forbid her to touch the water; and as Leto
insisted, the Lycian peasants threatened her, and
soiled the pool with their feet and hands, stirring
up the mud from the bottom. And seeing them so
tight-fisted and mean, and at the same time so in
love with the pool, Leto turned them into frogs so
that they could live in its depth for ever,
enjoying the water and the mud.
The twins punish their mother's enemies
Among the first things the twin gods Apollo and Artemis did so soon they were born, was to punish all the
men of that time, who refused to receive the
pregnant wanderer Leto when she came to their land. Some say that only four days after his birth, Apollo went to Mount Parnassus and killed the dragon
Python, thus avenging his mother.
Leto was once attacked by the giant Tityus, son
of Gaia, or son of Zeus and Elare. Some say
that Hera sent him against
Leto, and that he attempted to rape the goddess.
But the twins Artemis and Apollo killed him, or perhaps the thunderbolt of Zeus did. For having tried
to violate Leto, Tityus is still being punished in
the Underworld, where
a couple of vultures, or as some say a serpent, eat
his liver, which grows with the moon.
Leto was also insulted by Niobe 2, who boasted that she was more blessed with children than the goddess, or that her children were more beautiful. Leto then incited Artemis and Apollo against them, and Artemis shot down the females in the house, and Apollo killed all the males together as they were hunting on Mount Cithaeron (see NIOBIDS). But the Niobid Chloris 1 survived because of her prayers to Leto, which are, as they say, always granted.
During the Trojan
War, Leto sided, as her children, with the
Trojans, and she, together with her daughter healed
the wounded Aeneas in a
sanctuary, while Apollo fashioned a wraith in his likeness to delude the
warriors in the battlefield.