The Story of Apollo and Marsyas

The Musical Contest between Apollo and Marsyas, circa 1545. Artist: Jacopo Tintoretto.

Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty Images

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Apollo and Marsyas

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 against a god 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

This hubris/revenge dynamic plays out again and again in Greek mythology. 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. Despite scholarly dispute, some scholars hold that the lyre and cithara were, in early days, the same instrument.

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 flute. The instrument has multiple origin stories. In one, Marsyas found the instrument after Athena had abandoned it. In another origin story, Marsyas invented the aulos. Cleopatra's father evidently also played this instrument, 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 of this myth 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, different versions hold that either the god challenged Marsyas to a contest or Marsyas challenged the god. The loser would have to pay a gruesome price.

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Apollo Tortures Marsyas

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.

The deciding judges are also different in different versions of the story. One holds that the Muses judged the wind vs. string contest and another version says it was Midas, king of Phrygia. Marsyas and Apollo were almost equal for the first round, and so the Muses judged Marsyas the 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

Much likd the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock of "Star Trek," who sported a stocking cap to cover his ears whenever he had to mingle with 20th century Earthlings, Midas hid his ears under a conical cap. The cap was named for his and Marsyas' homeland of Phrygia. It looked like the cap worn by formerly enslaved people in Rome, the pileus or liberty cap.

Classical mentions of the contest between Apollo and Marsyas are numerous and can be found in 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.


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Gill, N.S. "The Story of Apollo and Marsyas." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). The Story of Apollo and Marsyas. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Story of Apollo and Marsyas." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).