He was the illegitimate child of Zeus and the nympth Leto, and hunted by Zeus' legal wife Hera (Ira in Greek) so that she fled to Delos and to give birth to Apollo and his twin sister Artemis. As an infant, he demanded bows and arrows and sought out the serpent Python on Mt Parnassos, who was his mother's enemy. The serpent fled to Delphi to the safety of the Earth Mother's shrine, but Apollo slew him anyway, thus polluting the shrine and offending the goddess. His purified himself of his crime in the Vale of Tempe, the gorge beneath Mt Olympos (or to Crete, according to the myth that places his origins there). According to Homer, he went into exile for eight years. Returning to Delphi, he persuaded Pan to reveal to him the art of prophecy (Pan being a manifestation of the Dionysian, earthly side of things formerly represented by the Earth Goddess). Dionysos came for three winter months every year to share the sanctuary with Apollo, when the latter went off to the north to spend time alone.
In killing the Python, Apollo became the Python himself-the voice of divine prophecy. The Sybils, who delivered his replies to questions posed him, were actually themselves called Pythia. At first they were chosen only from local virgins, but later only a woman over 50, who had lived an impeccable life, could fulfill this role. She drank first from the Kassiotis fountain near the temple (said to bestow the gift of prophecy), and then entered the crypt of the temple where she breathed the smoke of burning laurel leaves (laurel being the sacred tree of Apollo) and barley meal. Finally, she sat on a tripod cauldron near the Omphalos (navel of the earth) and near Dionysos' tomb. The pilgrims (men only) were ushered into the adjacent room where the priests heard their questions and then passed them on to the Pythia. She went into a trance, sometimes with convulsive twitchings, and both her vocal utterances and physical movements were interpreted by the priests, who expressed them in hexameter verse. This state of prophetic madness was known to Greeks as enthousiasmos (a word deriving from being in or with god (theos). Contrary to what is usually understood by the word prophecy, the replies took the form of counsel rather than prediction, though approval for various sides in warfare were included.