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Marsyas finds the flute. 0935: Marsyas. Reconstruction of a lost bronze group from Acropolis. Städtische Galerie-Liebighaus, Museum alter Plastik, Frankfurt.

Marsyas is the flute player who engaged in a musical contest with Apollo, and having lost, was flayed alive by the god.

Phrygian tales

Some Phrygian stories tell that the daughter of the river god Sangarius took the fruit of an almond tree that had grown up from the sexual organ of Agdistis, which the gods had cut off, and found herself pregnant with Attis. When later Attis, who was dear to Cybele, died after going mad and castrating himself, the goddess went out to the countryside, and crying and beating upon a kettledrum, she visited every country.

Marsyas joins Cybele

In her wanderings, she met Marsyas, who feeling pity for her grief, followed her voluntarily in her journey until they came to the abode of Dionysus 2 in the town of Nysa, which, like the country and the mountain of the same name, is of uncertain location.

Marsyas meets fate in legendary Nysa

In Nysa they met Apollo, and they also learned how famous the god was because of his musical performances with the lyre that Hermes had invented and that Apollo himself had made even more perfect. For Hermes invented the three-stringed lyre, but Apollo added four strings to it, creating unprecedented harmonious sounds.

Athena and the flute

Now Marsyas was an accomplished flute-player, for some time before he had found the flute which Athena had thrown away because it made her ugly. Some have said that Hyagnis invented the flute, but others affirm that the first long flute was made by Athena out of deer bones, or by piercing boxwood with holes wide apart, and that, proud of her invention, she came to the banquet of the gods to play. However, Aphrodite and Hera, seeing Athena's cheeks puffed out, mocked the latter in her playing and called her ugly. This is why Athena came to a spring in Mount Ida in order to view herself in the water; and having looked at herself in the water of the spring, she understood why she was mocked, and threw away the flute, vowing that whoever picked it up would be severely punished:

"The sound was pleasing; but in the water that reflected my face I saw my virgin cheeks puffed up. I value not the art so high; farewell my flute!" (Athena. Ovid, Fasti 6.697).

Marsyas challenges Apollo

He who found the flute was the shepherd Marsyas, who having learned by art and practice to produce ever sweeter sounds, happened to meet Apollo and his lyre. He then challenged the god to a musical contest, which took place, some say, in the mentioned city of Nysa, being either the Nysaeans or the MUSES the judges. They also agreed that the victor should do what he wished with the defeated.

The contest

Some have told that Marsyas was departing as victor when Apollo, turning his lyre upside down, played the same tune, a prowess that Marsyas could not do with the flute. But others affirm that Marsyas was defeated when Apollo added his voice to the sound of the lyre. Marsyas protested, arguing that the skill with the instrument was to be compared, and not the voice. However, Apollo replied that when Marsyas blew into the pipes, he was doing almost the same thing as himself. And the argument presented by Apollo was judged by the Nysaeans, or by the MUSES, to be the most just, and that is why, after comparing their skills again, Marsyas was defeated. Some have said that it was on this occasion that King Midas got the ears of an ass.

Marsyas' death

Having won the contest, Apollo flayed Marsyas alive while the unfortunate musician hanged on a tall pine-tree, or else he let a slave from Scythia do this. And while his skin was stripped off the surface of his body that was but one wound, Marsyas complained:

"Why do you tear me from myself? Oh, I repent! Oh, a flute is not worth such a price!" (Marsyas. Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.385).

Apollo flaying Marsyas. 4417: Giovanni Stefano Danedi, dit Montalto 1612-1690: Apollon écorchant Marsyas. Musée des beaux arts, Rouen.

Apollo repents

It is told that the god quickly repented, and being distressed at his horrible deed, he broke the four strings of the lyre that he had discovered. For Hermes had invented the three-stringed lyre and Apollo had added four more strings to it. These were later rediscovered, partly by the MUSES, when they added a middle string, partly by one Linus, who added the string struck with the forefinger, and partly by Orpheus and Thamyris 1, who discovered the remaining two strings that Apollo had broken.

The river Marsyas

The river Marsyas, which empties into the Meander in Phrygia, was called after the defeated musician, and was created by the tears of those who grieved him, SATYRS, NYMPHS, country people, and many others.

Marsyas' flute

The flute of Marsyas, they say, was dedicated in a temple in Sicyon, a city on the Peloponnesian coast of the Gulf of Corinth. For when the musician died, the river Marsyas carried the flute to the river Meander, and after reappearing in the Asopus in Boeotia, it was cast ashore in the country around Sicyon, where a shepherd found it and gave it to Apollo.

Deed of Marsyas after death

According to the Phrygians from Celaenae (a city in Caria, southwestern Asia Minor), Marsyas was the composer of the Song of the Mother, an air for the flute. When many years later they repelled the Gauls that had attacked them, they said that Marsyas had defended them against the barbarians from the river that bears his name, and by the music of his flute.


Parentage (two versions)

Olympus & Hyagnis

Oeagrus & Hyagnis

Olympus is sometimes said to have been the pupil of Marsyas instead of his father. Olympus is the son of Heracles 1 & Euboea 1, one of the many daughters of generous Thespius (see Heracles 1).
Hyagnis is said to have invented the music of the double pipes with clever holes.
Oeagrus is known for being the father of the minstrel Orpheus.

0137: Marsyas. Kopie nach einer in Kleinasien aufgestellte Gruppe (200-190 v. Chr.). Glyptothek, München.

Related sections Marsyas in GROUPS: SATYRS, RIVER GODS  

Apd.1.4.2; Dio.3.59.1, 5.75.3; Strab.12.8.15; Hyg.Fab.165; Pau.2.7.9; Nonn.10.233, 19.317ff; Hdt.7.26; Ov.Fast.6.693; Ov.Met.6.382ff.