Marsyas

Published June 23, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

It’s very late to be starting this — an hour and a half to midnight on the appointed day! — and I’m not really feeling it, but I need to get back into the groove.

Which does suggest that I chose this week’s myth poorly…


Following the death of Medusa, her sisters mourned excessively, and though they were ugly, their song was beautiful, and Athene was moved to emulated it.

Since there were two Gorgons, Athene took two reeds, and fashioned them together to make a single pipe, so that both parts of the melody could be played at once.  After experimenting with it for a short while, she found she could replicate the song perfectly.  She took her new pipe, the aulos, and went to find the other gods, to share the haunting tune with them.

Unfortunately, the first gods she found were Aphrodite and Ares.  So eager was she to share the song that Athene didn’t stop to think about how foolish it was to share something so deep with gods so shallow, and instead lifted the pipe to her lips, and began to blow the haunting tune.

She had hardly started when Aphrodite began to laugh at her, exclaiming that she looked like a frog with her cheeks all puffed out like that.

Enraged by her sister’s idiocy, Athene threw down the pipe in disgust, and returned to Mt. Olympos.

And there the aulos should have remained, had it not been for Marsyas the satyr.

He had seen the exchange, and heard just enough of Athene’s performance to have caught the beginning of the melody, and to understand the beauty of the instrument.

His tail twitching with an impatience that made him tingle from the bottoms of his hooves all the way to the tips of his horns, Marsyas waited and waited for Aphrodite and Ares to finish their — ahem — business and depart.

Once the double pipe, abandoned and forgotten, was all alone, Marsyas dashed out and claimed it for his own.  Then he scampered back to his Phrygian home, where he spent years practicing playing the aulos.

He had heard the beginning of Athene’s tune, but had to invent the rest.  The funeral dirge of the Gorgons gave way to a tune that swelled with the joy and gaiety of a satyr romping through fields of flowers and virgins, caressed on all sides by beauty and wine.  Where Athene’s song had been the sorrow of the dead, Marsyas’ song was the essence of a life most fully lived.

As soon as he felt he had fully mastered his instrument, Marsyas set out wandering and playing for all who would hear him, and winning the accolades of every mortal ear that was wooed by his song.

Soon, all across Phrygia, men and women were saying that Marsyas was the finest musician there had ever been.

They even began to compare him favorably to Apollo.

So long as it was only the mortals saying that, Apollo laughed it off.  He didn’t care what the mortals thought.

But then he went to visit a very pretty Phrygian nymph, who he had been courting in song for many decades…only for her to have been charmed by the music of Marsyas, and no longer willing to listen to Apollo’s careful and methodical songs of gentle, proper love.

Incensed that his nymph — who he hadn’t even bedded yet! — would prefer the unruly music of a hideous satyr to the perfect strumming of a beautiful god like himself, Apollo decided that something had to be done about Marsyas.  He could not be allowed to continue mocking the gods in such a manner!

When Apollo finally found Marsyas, the satyr was drunk — typical of a satyr, after all — and thought the god had come to him for music lessons.  Apollo disillusioned him harshly, and insisted that the satyr hand over the aulos, and renounce his vain musical ambitions.

“But everyone loves my music!” Marsyas pointed out, with breath that could sear the hairs off a dog.  “They give me everything I want if I agree to play for them!  They never wanted me around when I was just another ugly satyr!”

“Hand it over!” Apollo repeated.

“Yer jealous!” Marsyas slurred, with a laugh.  “Even though you’re a god, yer jealous of me!”

“What rubbish!  I am simply tired of my ears being assaulted by your caterwauling,” Apollo insisted.

“It’s not…catter–caiter–cader–it’s not wailing,” Marsyas said, nodding his head excessively as he spoke.  “‘S just music!  Just pretty music to make the ladies like a satyr for once!  Nothin’ wrong with that!”

“No one with ears could prefer your noise to true music,” Apollo laughed, his very laughter itself musical.

But Marsyas laughed, too.  His laugh was rough and coarse, like the croaking of a crow, and yet it contained far more mirth than Apollo’s.  “Maybe you’d like a wager, then!” he chuckled.  “A contest to see whose music pleases the audience better.”  So long as the audience was mortal, Marsyas knew he couldn’t lose; his song couldn’t be beat.

“And what have you to wager with?” Apollo asked.  He hardly felt it was worth his while to enter into a crude contest with this boorish satyr just to take away the thing’s little toy.  It would be far easier to just kill him and have it done.

Marsyas looked from one side of him to the other, then laughed.  “Nothing, really,” he admitted.  “How ’bout the loser surrenders his instrument?”

“That is hardly reward enough to make the contest worth my time,” Apollo replied.  After all, accepting the challenge would be like admitting that Marsyas came close to his level.

“No?”  Marsyas was momentarily stumped, and he looked long and hard at the golden god, trying to guess what would make an Olympian interested.

He didn’t figure that out, not one bit, but he did notice that Apollo was really a very handsome young god, still with a fresh, smooth face like a boy’s, and satyrs, after all, were hardly picky about such things:  they would never say ‘no’ to a pretty boy to wait for a pretty girl.

“Then how’s this?” Marsyas laughed.  “The winner gets to do whatever he wants to the loser.”

A cold shudder ran down Apollo’s spine.  He assured himself that it was anger and disgust at the pride and lechery of the satyr, and certainly never fear.  “Very well,” he said, with a cold smile.  He would make sure the satyr suffered

Apollo set out to round up some judges, giving Marsyas the order to sober up while he waited, as beating a drunkard was hardly worth the effort.  Marsyas agreed, on the condition that the judges all be pretty maidens.

Unfortunately for Marsyas, he had forgotten to specify that they had to be mortal maidens.  He had just finished plunging his head into a cold lake to rouse himself from the wine when Apollo returned with nine judges in tow, each as lovely a lady as ever trod the earth.

But they were all immortal:  Apollo had fetched the Muses to judge their contest.

Marsyas refused to be daunted by the judges who were so heavily leaning in his opponent’s favor before the contest even began, and he took his place before them without fear.

Apollo went first, playing a beautiful song on his lyre.  His playing captivated the Muses, and they watched him with slavish devotion.

Then Marsyas played his own song — he still only knew the one — and so filled the air with life, laughter and love that the Muses were amazed, and had to admit that the satyr’s music was at least on a level with Apollo’s, if not even better.

Since there was dissent among the Muses as to which was the winner of the contest, Apollo suggested a second round.  “And that there may be no simple repetition of the first round, this time we must play differently.  Perhaps…yes, let us turn our instruments upside down, and play that way.”

Without waiting for anyone to agree, Apollo turned his lyre in his hands, and played another song, even more beautiful than the last.  (He had not felt it necessary, in the first round, to play his most lovely song.  After all, his opponent was merely an ugly satyr.)

Dismayed, Marsyas turned his flute upside down and attempted to play it, but with the holes at the bottom, he couldn’t make it work properly, and all that came out was a miserable whistling sound.  He protested that with practice he would surely be able to play it upside down, too, but to no avail:  the Muses unanimously judged Apollo to be the winner of the contest.

Ignoring the complaints of the loser, Apollo dragged the satyr to the nearest tree, and tied him to it.  Then, with a methodical and painstaking precision, he flayed Marsyas alive, leaving the satyr’s body to rot while he nailed the skin to another tree nearby, as a lesson to all those who would go against the gods.

So many mourned Marsyas’ death that their tears formed a river, which was given his name, so that he would live on.


Ugh.  Sorry.  That really sucked.  I mean, like, even more than usual…

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