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Marsyas’ flute and Apollo’s lyre: study of a musical competition in Greek mythology

marsyas and apollo myth flute and lyre
Mario Friscia

Mario Friscia

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Marsyas and Apollo: a musical challenge between balance and chaos

As you may already know, references to musical instruments are easily found in Greek mythology.

This is the case, for example, of the myth of Marsyas and Apollo, which tells of a musical competition between the two and, more specifically, between the flute of Marsyas and the lyre of Apollo.

I have already dedicated some articles to the relationship between musical instruments and the myths related to ancient Greece.

I’m talking about the myths of the lyre of Amphion and the lyre of Orpheus.

Today, however, we’re going to deal with Marsyas and you’re going to discover a series of “facts” about this satyr such as the myth that bounds him to the goddess Athena, the reason why he decided to challenge the god Apollo, who had the better of the two, the symbolic meaning that the Greeks attributed to the lyre and the flute and, most importantly, the underlying moral of this musical challenge that we can define tragic.

 

What instrument did Marsyas play?

Before telling you in detail the two stories involving Marsyas, I think it is important to make a clarification.

Although many believe that the instrument played by the satyr is the flute, this statement is not entirely correct.

In fact, Marsyas’ musical instrument is the aulos.

These images will already give you a first idea of ​​the difference between the two musical instruments:

Marsyas Flute
Example of Flute (Photo by VijayForVictoryCC BY-SA 2.0 )

 

Marsyas aulos
young musician playing the aulos ( Photo by Egisto Sani CC BY 2.0 )

As you can see, the aulos is an instrument made up of a reed tube, generally made of wood, with a bulbous mouth and a reed, which is a movable tongue whose vibration makes the wind instrument play.

The flute, on the other hand, has a simpler structure: it is a reedless tube made of bone, ivory, wood or bamboo in which the sounds get produced by blowing directly into the mouthpiece.

The other significant difference between the two instruments is the playing technique:

specifically, the aulos is played through circular breathing, that is, a technique of continuous inhalation and exhalation, allowing the musician to play a melody without ever stopping.

Having made the right premises, let’s start by outlining the main protagonist of this myth.

 

Who was Marsyas?

Marsyas (pronunciation: mär′sē əs) was a satyr related to the early period of Greek music.

A satyr is generally represented as a bearded human being with animal connotations, such as legs, horns, goat’s or horse’s tail.

Marsyas the satyr
Young Marsyas, Elihu Vedder ( Photo by FloradorCC BY-NC 2.0 )

He was a devotee of the Mother Goddess Cybele and his stories were placed by mythographers in Celene, Phrygia, at the main source of the Meander river, located in today’s Turkey.

Furthermore, he was connected with the satyrs of Tityroi, who were famous for performing music with their flutes before the god Dionysus.

For some scholars Marsyas was the son of Olympus, while others believe he was the son of Hyagnis or Eagrus.

Other sources tell us that Olympus was actually Marsyas’ son or pupil.

In addition, not everyone agreed in calling him a satyr, in fact, some considered him a peasant.

The figure of Marsyas is related to two very important myths involving the aulos:

the myth of Marsyas and Athena and the myth of the musical contest between Marsyas and Apollo.

 

The myth of Marsyas and Athena

Marsyas and Athena
Athena playing the Aulos (Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra CC BY 2.0 )

Some mythographers claim that it was Athena, goddess of Wisdom, Arts and War, who invented the instrument called Aulos.

Others, however, attribute the invention to Marsyas.

The myth involving Athena, according to Melanippides, tells that one day as she was playing the flute she decided to look at herself in the waters of a river, as she used to do.

She learned that the sound produced by the aulos was pleasant, but she also noticed that playing the instrument made her cheeks puff up and, even more tragically, made her face unpleasant and inelegant.

A version of the myth tells us that Athena was even derided by the gods for the funny features that her face generated while playing her flute.

In this regard, I recommend you to watch this video that shows how the swelling of the cheeks is necessary to play the aulos correctly:

 

 

Upset by the physical effects connected to playing the aulos, Athena affirmed that the art of mastering this flute was not worth its “ugliness” and decided to get rid of the instrument by throwing it to the river.

The poet Telestis (5th century) questioned that Athena could have thrown the instrument out of vanity alone.

However, Athena, annoyed and indisposed for what had happened, launched a curse that involved the atrocious death of anyone who had picked up the musical instrument.

The aulos that Athena threw to the river was later collected by the satyr Marsyas.

Marsyas initially appeared amazed by the instrument and had no idea how to use it.

But later he realized that the breath generates sound and he became so good at playing it that he started boasting to the Nymphs.

 

The myth of Marsyas and Apollo

The flute, once played by the goddess Athena, emitted such beautiful melodies that Marsyas, delighted by his musical skills, decided to challenge Apollo in a musical competition.

This defiant attitude towards the gods is repeatedly narrated in Greek mythology and is indicated by the term Hybris.

But what did Marsyas claim he was better at?

He firmly maintained that he could perform significantly superior music with the aulos compared to what Apollo could produce with his lyre.

This video by Michael Levy shows a possible reconstruction of the lyre used by Apollo in the mythological contest:

 

 

But you know, challenging the gods is never a good thing.

They would still find a way to take revenge, even in case of defeat.

In fact, the musical contest between Marsyas and Apollo provided that the winner could punish the loser in any way he wished.

Judging the competition there were, according to some, the Muses, others affirm the Nisei while others say there was Midas, the Phrygian king.

Marsyas and Apollo Music Contest
Relief slab found in Mantineia, 340 B.C. ( Photo by Carole RaddatoCC BY-SA 2.0 )

At this point, we have several versions of the continuation of the myth of Marsyas and Apollo.

Hyginus’s version tells us that Marsyas was getting the better of Apollo in the first part of the musical struggle.

In fact, everyone enjoyed the melodies produced by his aulos and danced to its wild rhythms.

But Apollo did not give up and with a bit of cunning overturned his lyre and began to play the same melody as the satyr, inviting him to do the same.

Clearly, the aulos of Marsyas did not lend itself well to being overturned and, as a result, was defeated by the lyre of Apollo.

Diodorus Siculus’ version is slightly different, though.

He claimed that Apollo added the sound of his voice to the melody of the lyre so as to move the audience.

Marsyas tried to question this sort of deception devised by Apollo and claimed that the competition was based on the sound of the instruments and not the voice, but Apollo replied that he too was doing something similar when he was blowing into the pipes.

The judges approved Apollo’s claim and declared his victory.

A third version of the myth, however, tells that Marsyas was not able to play the flute at all and, out of shame, decided to punish himself by being flayed alive for a skin of wine.

In the version that sees King Midas in the role of judge of the musical contest, the myth tells that when Apollo’s victory was being established, Midas declared that the victory actually belonged to Marsyas and Apollo, angry at what he had just heard, turned his ears into those of a donkey.

 

 

The satyr’s Death: how was he punished by Apollo?

Apollo chose to punish Marsyas with death.

He decided that Marsyas had to be flayed alive, as this is the right punishment for those who arrogantly dare to challenge a god.

In fact, he was tied to a tree and all the skin was torn off, limb after limb.

Marsyas punishment
Marsyas punished by Apollo, Hierapolis Archaeological Museum, Turkey ( Photo by Carole RaddatoCC BY-SA 2.0 )

Marsyas, in desperation, tried to tell him that he had repented, that a flute is not worth his life, but that was not enough.

Blood started flowing slowly all over the place and his skin was exposed in southern Phrygia, as claimed by the Greek historians Xenophon and Herodotus.

Other sources of the Greek myth narrate that Marsyas did not commit any kind of Hybris and that it was Apollo who decided to challenge him in a musical competition, because he could not bear the fact that the satyr was so talented in playing the aulos.

Marsyas skinned alive by Apollo
Marsyas skinned alive by Apollo, Frieze at Villa Farnesina, Rome ( Photo by Slices of LightCC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

In other versions of the myth, indeed, it seems that it was Athena who punished Marsyas, as he picked up the aulos she had thrown away.

According to Ovid, many mourned the death of Marsyas: nymphs, gods, goddesses, shepherds, satyrs.

Their copious tears gathered in a river that took the name of the satyr.

Diodorus Siculus claimed that Apollo severely punished Marsyas and that, at one point, he regretted having done so and tore off the strings of the lyre and didn’t play it for some time.

 

Analysis of a symbolic fight between Citharody and Auletic

The myth of Marsyas and Apollo is a clear example of the dangers of hubris.

No matter how good Marsyas was at playing his aulos, his decision to challenge a god wasn’t a very wise choice.

The satyr was punished by his own pride and, above all, for having tried to modify the hierarchies that order the relationship between the gods and other living beings.

It is also interesting to note that the musical contest between the two generated two different reactions in those who held the role of judge.

With the flute played Marsyas everyone went wild and danced; with the melodies produced by Apollo’s lyre, combined with the sound of his voice, the judges and the audience were deeply touched.

Marsyas and Apollo Myth
Musical contest between the god Apollo and the satyr Marsyas ( Photo by Luc Coekaerts – Public Domain )

Why, in your opinion, are we faced with two moods so different from each other?

What do the two instruments, the aulos and lyre, symbolize for the Greeks?

The flute was an instrument played mainly at ritual gatherings in honor of Dionysus, the god of vegetation, wine, ecstasy and theatre.

Dionysus was a very noisy god and, in fact, he was also called Bacchus, which in Greek means “clamor”.

It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that the flute was a musical instrument linked to excess, to the rejection of rules, to obscurity and, consequently, to the most irrational and wild aspects of the human being.

That’s why the sound produced by Marsyas’ aulos made everyone dance wildly.

The lyre, on the other hand, was the instrument of the aristocrats and was used to educate and make the human being reflect on the values of virtue.

It was able, therefore, to equally contact the rational part of men and their greater emotionality.

And moreover, Apollo didn’t just play the lyre, he also added his voice.

This musical choice was decisive for his victory since, unlike the flute, the lyre allowed to combine poetry and music.

All this confirms that for the Greeks the lyre, especially when combined with the voice, was a superior instrument, capable of elevating the soul and teaching something.

But it should be noted that Apollo won the musical competition with difficulty and with a bit of deception, which proves that the aulos of Marsyas had great power on those who heard its sound.

These considerations can also be applied to the myth involving Athena and Marsyas.

Athena, as you already know, threw her aulos to the river because the process of playing the flute made her face look ugly.

The aesthetic ugliness of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, symbolizes the reason that repudiates the darkest and wildest sides of the soul, represented by the type of music produced by the flute.

Going even deeper into the myth, the musical competition between Apollo and Marsyas also highlights the “continuous” struggle between two musical styles: citharodic and auletic.

The term citharodic refers to the music involving both the lyre and human voice while the definition of auletic is instrumental music accompanied only by the aulos.

Greek culture considered citharody superior to auletic as evidenced by the ending of this mythological contest.

This myth, halfway between arrogance and creative freedom, remains one of the most tragic music related stories of the ancient world.

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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