Marsyas is the flute player who engaged in a
musical contest with Apollo, and having lost,
was flayed alive by the god.
Marsyas finds the flute. 0935: Marsyas. Reconstruction of a lost bronze group from Acropolis. Städtische Galerie-Liebighaus, Museum alter Plastik, Frankfurt.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.