Apollo and Marsyas

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Apollo and Marsyas

Image ID: 832277 Musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas, with Muse
Lekanis, 4th C. "Apollo seated on a rock plays his cithara. He is richly dressed in an Asiatic or Scythian costume indicating Apollo Hyperborean. Marsyas playing his double flute wears a leopard skin tied over his chest. Calliope with a lyre and drum.". NYPL Digital Gallery

Time and again in Greek mythology, we see mere mortals foolishly daring to compete with the gods. We call this human trait hubris. No matter how good a pride-filled mortal may be at his art, he can't win and shouldn't even try. Should the mortal manage to earn the prize for the contest itself, there will be little time to glory in victory before the angered deity exacts revenge. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that in the story of Apollo and Marsyas, the god makes Marsyas pay.

It's Not Just Apollo

The origin of the spider in Greek myth comes from the contest between Athena and Arachne, a mortal woman who boasted that her weaving skill was better than that of the goddess Athena. To take her down a peg, Athena agreed to a contest, but then Arachne performed as well as her divine opponent. In response, Athena turned her into a spider (Arachnid).

A little later, a friend of Arachne and a daughter of Tantalus, named Niobe, boasted about her brood of 14 children. She claimed she was more fortunate than Artemis and Apollo's mother, Leto, who only had two. Angered, Artemis and/or Apollo destroyed Niobe's children.

Apollo and the Music Contest

Apollo received his lyre from the infant thief Hermes, future father of the sylvan god Pan [Hermes and Apollo Sibling Rivalry.] Although there may be dissension, the lyre and cithara were in early days the same instrument, according to William Smith's A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1875).

In the story about Apollo and Marsyas, a Phrygian mortal named Marsyas, who may have been a satyr, boasted about his musical skill on the aulos. The aulos was a double reed-blown flute Marsyas found after Athena had abandoned it or an instrument Marsyas invented -- incidentally, one that Cleopatra's father evidently also played since he was known as Ptolemy Auletes. Marsyas claimed he could produce music on his pipes far superior to that of the cithara-plucking Apollo. Some versions say it was Athena who punished Marsyas for daring to pick up the instrument she had discarded (because it had disfigured her face when she puffed out her cheeks to blow). In response to the mortal braggadocio, either the god challenged Marsyas to a contest or Marsyas challenged the god. The loser would have to pay a gruesome price.

Go to the next page to find out what happened to Marsyas.

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Apollo Tortures Marsyas

St Petersburg - Hermitage - Punishment of Marsyas
St Petersburg - Hermitage - Punishment of Marsyas for daring to challenge Apollo to a music contest. Roman, after Greek sculptural group of the second half of 3rd century B.C. Marble. CC Flickr User thisisbossi

In their music contest, Apollo and Marsyas took turns on their instruments: Apollo on his stringed cithara and Marsyas on his double pipe aulos. Although Apollo is the god of music, he faced a worthy opponent. Musically speaking, that is. Were Marsyas truly an opponent worthy of a god, there would be little more to be said.

It may have been the Muses who were to judge the wind vs. string contest; otherwise, it was Midas, king of Phrygia. Marsyas and Apollo were almost equal for the first round, and so the Muses judged Marsyas victor, but Apollo had not yet given up. Depending on the variation you are reading, either Apollo turned his instrument upside down to play the same tune, or he sang to the accompaniment of his lyre. Since Marsyas could neither blow into the wrong and widely separate ends of his aulos nor sing -- even assuming his voice could have been a match for that of the god of music -- while blowing into his pipes, he did not stand a chance, in either version.

Apollo won and claimed the prize of the victor that they had agreed upon before beginning the contest. Apollo could do whatever he wished to Marsyas. So Marsyas paid for his hubris by being pinned to a tree and flayed alive by Apollo, who perhaps intended to turn his skin into a wine flask.

In addition to the variations in the story in terms of where the double flute came from, the identity of the judge(s), and the method Apollo used to defeat the contender, there is another important variation. Sometimes it is the god Pan rather than Marsyas who competes with his Uncle Apollo.

In the version where Midas judges:

" Midas, Mygdonian king, son of the Mother goddess from Timolus was taken as judge at the time when Apollo contested with Marsyas, or Pan, on the pipes. When Timolus gave the victory to Apollo, Midas said it should rather have been given to Marsyas. Then Apollo angrily said to Midas: 'You will have ears to match the mind you have in judging,' and with these words he caused him to have ass's ears."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 191 (From the Theoi page on Marsyas)

Much like the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, sporting a stocking cap regardless of the weather whenever he had to mingle with 20th Century Earthlings, Midas hid his ears under a conical cap named for his and Marsyas' homeland of Phrygia. It looked like the cap worn by Roman freed slaves, the pileus or liberty cap.

Sources on the contest between Apollo and Marsyas include: The Bibliotheke of (Pseudo-) Apollodorus, Herodotus, the Laws and Euthydemus of Plato, the Metamorphoses of Ovid, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch's On Music, Strabo, Pausanias, Aelian's Historical Miscellany, and (Pseudo-) Hyginus, according to the Theoi article on Marsyas.