The most famous deities in the Greek pantheon are the Twelve Olympians. While many gods and goddesses came before them, the Olympians famously ruled on Mount Olympus and participated in many stories throughout Greek mythology.
Most of the famous immortals come from the same Titan parents. The fall of the Titans and the subsequent rise of the Olympians is an epic tale that starts with a well-known story. The Titan Cronus swallows his children before a young Zeus evades engorgement and later releases his siblings. Those siblings would famously take the mantle at Mount Olympus.
However, not all Olympic gods had a part in the Succession Myth. Apollo and Artemis entered the scene later, thanks to the actions of Leto. The story of Leto is a lesser-known tale that paints some of the Olympians in an unflattering light. But the struggles of the Titan goddess would go on to influence Greek mythology forever.
The Origins of Leto
Leto is officially known as the goddess of motherhood. Along with Artemis and Apollo, she’s also a protector of children.
After Zeus released his siblings from the belly of Cronus, a Divine war began. The Titanomachy raged for ten years between the Titans and the Olympians. Leto’s parents, Coeus and Pheobe, fell to the Olympians and were ultimately banished to Tartarus. But because Leto remained neutral during the war, she did not receive any punishment.
Leto and Zeus
After the Titanomachy, there was a moment of relative peace as the immortals rebuilt and filled the world with life. According to many descriptions from poets and ancient Greek artwork, Leto was a woman of immense beauty and modesty. She was demure, which attracted the attention of many gods.
One of those gods was Zeus. He was reportedly enamored with her beauty. The two had a brief relationship, resulting in Leto’s pregnancy. Despite his infatuation with the Titan goddess, Zeus married Hera shortly after his encounter with Leto.
It didn’t take long for Hera to learn of Leto’s pregnancy. While the relationship occurred before she became Zeus’ husband and queen of the gods, the pregnancy enraged Hera. Zeus was prone to infidelity, and Leto’s story is just one example of Hera’s vengeful nature.
The Wrath of Hera
According to Hyginus, Hera forbade Leto from giving birth on any land. Fearing her safety and the safety of her babies, Leo fled. But that didn’t stop Hera from going after her.
Leto wandered tirelessly, looking for refuge. All the while, the dragon Python chased after her at the behest of Hera. No one would accept Leto in fear of Hera’s retaliation. It wasn’t until she found the isle of Delos that she could experience some solace.
There are a couple of versions of how she got to Delos. One retelling said that Poseidon brought the island up from the depths of the sea, separating it from the ocean floor. That technicality allowed Leto to go onto the floating island to give birth. However, other accounts say that Leto arrived on Delos because of Zeus. He reportedly sent Boreas, the North Wind Anemoi, to carry her out to sea and onto the desolate island surrounded by swans.
Either way, Leto finally found a place to give birth.
The Birth of Artemis and Apollo
At first, the birthing process was relatively simple. Homer says that several goddesses arrived on Delos to welcome the children into the world. Witnesses of the birth included Dione, Rhea, Themis, Amphritie, and more. Demeter, Aphrodite, and of course, Hera, were not present. Clinging to either an olive tree or a palm tree, Leto gave birth to Artemis.
However, the birth of Apollo was painful and laborious. That’s because Hera kidnapped Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth. The goddess Leto suffered for nine days before Iris, the personification of the rainbow, was able to bring Eileithyia back. Some versions say that Leto gave birth to Apollo with nothing but help from Artemis.
The Hunt Continues
After giving birth, Leto continued to wander as she tried to escape the wrath of Hera. According to one story, Leto went to the Lycia to recover. However, the Lycian peasants refused to let her drink from their water well due to fear of Hera. So, Leto turned the Lycians into frogs!
Leto’s troubles were far from over. Hera was still hot on her trails. However, she now had the protection of Apollo and Artemis. The two babies eventually became Olympians, but their immortal skills were present long before they rose to Mount Olympus.
Just three days after his birth, Apollo obtained a bow from Hephaestus and struck down the dragon Python. Some versions of the tale say that Python was guarding the oracle of Delphi. By slaying it, Apollo became the deity of Delphi even as a newborn!
Hera continued to send more beasts to slay Leto. The queen of the gods sent a Euboean giant named Tityus (Tityos) to abduct and kill Leto. Once again, Apollo came to save the day by slaying the giant with his bows. Artemis and Apollo would later banish the giant Tityus to Tartarus, sentencing him to an unusual punishment of having two vultures feed on his liver, much like Prometheus.
Leto in Thebes
As Apollo and Artemis rose to Mount Olympus, Leto went to live in peace in Thebes. However, the Theban Queen and wife of Amphion, Niobe, would cause trouble for the Titan goddess. This legend says that Niobe was jealous of Leto’s adulation. The queen of Thebes believed that she was more deserving of praise by the people of Greece because she gave birth to seven boys and seven girls.
Of course, that didn’t sit too well with the overly protective Apollo and Artemis. The two were devoted to protecting their mother and her honor. The twin gods came to Thebes and slaughtered 13 of Niobe’s 14 children. The only one they granted clemency was Niobe’s daughter Chloris. The reason they didn’t kill her was that Chloris prayed to Leto.
Niobe reportedly burst into a fit of grief and fled to Mount Sipylus in Asia Minor. She suffered so much that she begged Zeus to turn her into stone so that she could no longer feel her pain. He obliged, and Niobe turned into a pillar of stone that reportedly wept.
Leto and Mount Olympus
While she was not an Olympian, the Greek goddess Leto eventually settled on Mount Olympus with Artemis and Apollo. She spent most of her time hunting alongside Artemis.
Even to Hera’s disapproval, Leto was back in Zeus’ favor. She went on to play a minor role in Greek mythology, but she appeared several times. For example, she sided with Troy and healed Aeneas of his wounds during the Trojan War. She also had a unique encounter with Hermes after the messenger god beat Artemis with her own bow.
When Apollo killed one of the Cyclopes, Leto even convinced Zeus to lighten his plans of punishment. The mother of Apollo was just as protective of her offspring as they were of her. She also showed grace by placing the fallen Orion in the stars after his death.
While not too many are familiar with Leto’s story, she suffered a great deal to birth two of the most prominent immortals of Greek history. For that reason alone, she’s remembered fondly in the works by Hesiod, Homer, Ovid, and other famous poets throughout history.
Leto is the Greek goddess of motherhood. She’s also considered one of the protectors of the young.
The Roman equivalent of Leto is Latona.
Leto is the daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe.
Leto became impregnated by the king of the gods, Zeus.
The Titan goddess fled to the island of Delos to give birth.
Leto is the mother of Greek god Apollo and goddess Artemis, the twin deities who would become two of the Twelve Olympians.
After giving birth, Leto fled to Lycia and turned Lycian peasants into frogs.
Leto earned the protection of her two children and eventually returned.
Later, Zeus would participate in the Trojan war by healing Aeneas.
Leto was worshipped along with her children in Delos, Crete, Rhodes, and possibly Lesbos.
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