1. Education

Apollo and Marsyas


1 of 2

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 silvan 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 Marysas, 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 Marysas 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.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.