In Greek mythology, Leto (Greek: Λητώ; Λατώ, Latō in Dorian Greek, etymology and meaning disputed) is a daughter of the Titans Coeusand Phoebe and the sister of Asteria. The island of Kos is claimed as her birthplace. In the Olympian scheme, Zeus is the father of her twins, Apollo and Artemis, the Letoides, which Leto conceived after her hidden beauty accidentally caught the eyes of Zeus. For the classical Greeks, Leto is scarcely to be conceived apart from being pregnant and finding a place to be delivered of Apollo and Artemis, forHera being jealous, made it so all lands shunned her. Finally, she finds an island that isn't attached to the ocean floor so it isn't considered land and she can give birth. This is her one 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 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 Burkertnotes that in Phaistos she appears in connection with an initiation cult.
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Several explanations have been put forward to explain the origin of the goddess and the meaning of her name. Possibly related to "lethe" (λήθη; oblivion) and "Lotus" (the fruit that brings oblivion to those who eat it). It would thus mean "the hidden one". It is most likely to have a Lycian origin, as her earliest cult was centered there. Leto may have the same Lycian origin as "Leda", meaning "woman/wife" in the ancient Lycian language.
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. "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." Hera banned Leto from giving birth on "terra firma", the mainland, any island at sea, or any place under the sun.Antoninus Liberalis is not alone in hinting that Leto came down from the land of the Hyperboreans 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.
It is remarkable that Leto brought forth Artemis, the elder twin, without travail, as Callimachus wrote, as if she were merely revealing another manifestation of herself. By contrast, Leto labored for nine nights and nine days for Apollo, according to the Homeric Hymn to Delian 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 or Ilithyia, 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 to be 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 is not present; her mother Rhea attends. Aphrodite, a generation older than Zeus, is not present either. 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 this were so, 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 giantTityos, 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 Pytho, or 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 afterwards, since though Python was a child of Gaia, it was necessary that the ancient Delphic Oracle pass to the protection of the new god.
Leto was intensely worshipped in Lycia, Asia Minor. In Delos and Athens she was worshipped primarily as an adjunct to her children. Herodotus reported a temple to her in Egyptsupposedly 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.
Latona and the Lycian Peasants, ca. 1605, by Jan Brueghel the Elder.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 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 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 toMount 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 a
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 Letoides are referred to as the "national gods" of the country. Her sanctuary, the Letoon nearXanthos 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, of course, a further Letoon at Delos.
A measure of what a primal goddess Leto was can be recognized in her father and mother. Her Titan father is called "Coeus," and his obscure name links him to the sphere of heaven from pole to pole. Leto's mother "Phoebe" is precisely the "bright, purifying" epithet of the full moon.