Leto in ancient Greek myths was the representation of motherhood. Like every mother, she suffered a lot to give birth to her children and then to protect and raise them up in the proper way. Leto suffered many misfortunes because of her relationship with Zeus, which caused Hera's jealousy and cursed Leto not to find a stable place on Earth to deliver her children. That is how Delos emerged, which was believed to be a floating island. Leto gave birth to Artemis and Apollo there and since then Delos became the sacred place of god Apollo.
Discover the myth of Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis
Her relationship with Zeus
Leto was the daughter of Titans Croesus and Phoebe. She had some supernatural powers herself but only a few, compared to the Olympian Gods. Leto is mostly famous because of her relationship with Zeus, which resulted in giving birth to two divine children, who would later be considered amongst the twelve Olympian gods, Artemis and Apollo. Everything started when Hera found out that Leto was pregnant by her husband, Zeus. Furious and ashamed of this betrayal from Zeus, she cursed Leto not to find a solid ground or island on Earth to give birth to her children.
Leto, in labor and great pain, had wandered around all Greece to find a place to give birth but people didn't let her bear her children close to their homes, afraid of Hera's anger. That is when Zeus emerged an island from the sea so that Leto would find a refugee. This island was Delos, which was believed to be a floating island. One version of the myth says that Delos was uninhabited while another says that at first, the inhabitants of Delos didn't want Leto on their land, until she made them a great gift: she anchored Delos on the bottom of the Aegean Sea with four anchors to give the island stability.
Giving birth to two gods
Leto found a safe refugee to give birth on Delos, which was surrounded by swans. The delivery of Artemis was painless but the birth of Apollo lasted for nine whole days and nights because Hera had kidnapped Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, preventing Leto from having an easy and painless labor. It is said that, with the absence of Eileithyia, Artemis was the one to help her mother deliver her twin brother, Apollo. The delivery took place under a palm tree.
Indeed, there is a palm tree today on Delos the ancient Greeks planted to commemorate the birth of the god. Homer mentions that all gods and goddess, except for Hera, were present at the delivery of Apollo to establish from the first moment the authenticity of a child who was later to become an Olympian god. Therefore, that is how Delos later became the sacred place of Apollo.
Wandering around the world
However, this wasn't the end of Leto's woes. She and her children were constantly harassed by earth-born creatures sent by Hera. Tityus, an earth-born giant, tried to abduct Leto but his advances were repelled by Apollo, who slew him with his arrows. Python, a giant serpent guarding the oracle of Delphi, was also slain by Apollo because he had raped Leto while she was still pregnant with the twins.
According to another story, while Leto was passing through Lycia, she felt thirsty and tried to drink from a well. The peasants however, stirred up mud and made the water undrinkable for her and her children. In anger for the unfairness towards her children, Leto turned them all into frogs. The central fountain in the terrace garden of Versailles depicts this scene.
The incident with Niobe
Other sources say that after many years of wandering and when her children went to their father on Olympus to live as gods, Leto finally settled in Thebes to spend the rest of her life. There, Niobe, the arrogant queen of the city, once said that she was superior to Leto, because Niobe had given birth to fourteen children, seven male and seven female, instead of two. Leto and her divine children were so insulted when they found out about this, that Apollo and Artemis took revenge, killing all fourteen of Niobe's children. When Niobe discovered what had happened, she burst in great grief. She then asked Zeus to show mercy of her and turn her into a stone, so that she wouldn’t hurt. Indeed, Zeus turned her into a pillar of stone but people said that when they were passing by this pillar, they could see it weep tears.
The goddess of motherhood
The cult of Leto was wide-spread all over Greece and Asia Minor for being the mother of two Gods. She was usually honoured and depicted in combination with her children. The origin of her name is not known. Some say that it means "unseen" and this makes a connection to her modesty, as in most Greek vases, she was depicted as a modest young woman lifting her veil to Zeus. Others suggest that her name derives from "lada", which was the Lycian word for woman. The bottom line however is that Leto was a very decent and respectful figure in Greek mythology and she was actually representing motherhood.