Marsyas under Apollo's punishment; İstanbul Archaeology Museum.

In Greek mythology, the satyr Marsyas (gr. Μαρσύας) is a central figure in two stories involving music: in one, he picked up the double flute (aulos) that had been abandoned by Athena and played it;[1] in the other, he challenged Apollo to a contest of music and lost his hide and life. In Antiquity, literary sources often emphasise the hubris of Marsyas and the justice of his punishment.

In one strand of modern comparative mythography, the domination of Marsyas by Apollo is regarded as an example of myth that recapitulates a supposed supplanting by the Olympian pantheon of an earlier "Pelasgian" religion of chthonic heroic ancestors and nature spirits.[2] Marsyas was a devoté of the ancient Mother Goddess Rhea/Cybele, and his episodes are situated by the mythographers in Celaenae (or Kelainai) in Phrygia (today, the town of Dinar in Turkey), at the main source of the Meander (the river Menderes).[3]

When a genealogy was applied to him, Marsyas was the son of Olympus (son of Heracles and Euboea, daughter of Thespius), or of Oeagrus, or of Hyagnis.[4] Olympus was, alternatively, said to be Marsyas' son or pupil.


The finding of the aulos

Marsyas was an expert player on the double-piped reed instrument known as the aulos. In the anecdotal account, he found the instrument on the ground where it had been tossed aside with a curse by its inventor, Athena, after the other gods made sport of how her cheeks bulged when she played. The 5th-century poet Telestes doubted that virginal Athena could have been motivated by such vanity,[5] but in the 2nd century AD, on the Acropolis of Athens itself, the voyager Pausanias saw "a statue of Athena striking Marsyas the Silenos for taking up the flutes that the goddess wished to be cast away for good."[6]

Marsyas and Apollo

In the contest between Apollo and Marsyas, the terms stated that the winner could treat the defeated party any way he wanted. Since the contest was judged by the Muses,[7] Marsyas naturally lost and was flayed alive in a cave near Celaenae for his hubris to challenge a god. Apollo then nailed Marsyas' skin to a pine tree,[8] near Lake Aulocrene (the Turkish Karakuyu Gölü), which Strabo noted was full of the reeds from which the pipes were fashioned.[9] Diodorus Siculus felt that Apollo must have repented this "excessive" deed, and said that he had laid aside his lyre for a while,[10] but Karl Kerenyi observes of the flaying of Marsyas' "shaggy hide: a penalty which will not seem especially cruel if one assumes that Marsyas' animal guise was merely a masquerade."[11] Classical Greeks were unaware of such shamanistic overtones, and the Flaying of Marsyas became a theme for painting and sculpture. His brothers, nymphs, gods and goddesses mourned his death, and their tears, according to Ovid's Metamorphoses, were the source of the river Marsyas in Phrygia, which joins the Meander near Celaenae, where Herodotus reported that the flayed skin of Marsyas was still to be seen,[12] and Ptolemy Hephaestion recorded a "festival of Apollo, where the skins of all those victims one has flayed are offered to the god."[13] Plato was of the opinion that it had been made into a wineskin.[14]

There are alternative sources[citation needed] of this story which state that it wasn't actually Marsyas who challenged Apollo but Apollo who challenged Marsyas because of his jealousy of the satyr's ability to play the flute. Therefore, hubris would not necessarily be a theme in this tale; rather the capricious weakness of the Gods and their equally weak nature in comparison to humans.[citation needed]

There are several versions of the contest; according to Hyginus, Marsyas was departing as victor after the first round, when Apollo, turning his lyre upside down, played the same tune. This was something that Marsyas could not do with his flute. According to another version 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, not the voice. However, Apollo replied that when Marsyas blew into the pipes, he was doing almost the same thing himself. The Muses[15] supported Apollo's claim, leading to his victory.[16]

Ovid touches upon the theme of Marsyas twice, very briefly telling the tale in Metamorphoses vi.383-400, where he concentrates on the tears shed into the river Marsyas, and making an allusion in Fasti, vi.649-710, where Ovid's primary focus is on the aulos and the roles of flute-players rather than Marsyas, whose name is not actually mentioned.

The wise Marsyas

The hubristic Marsyas in surviving literary sources eclipses the figure of the wise Marsyas suggested in a few words by the Hellenistic historian Diodorus Siculus,[17] who refers to Marsyas as admired for his intelligence (sunesis) and self-control (sophrosune), not qualities found by Greeks in ordinary satyrs. In Plato's Symposium,[18] when Alcibiades likens Socrates to Marsyas, it is this aspect of the wise satyr that is intended. Jocelyn Small[19] identifies in Marsyas an artist great enough to challenge a god, who can only be defeated through a ruse. A prominent statue of Marsyas as a wise old silenus stood near the Roman Forum.[20]

This is the Marsyas of the journal Marsyas: Studies in the History of Art, published since 1941 by students of the Institute of Art, New York University.

Prophecy and free speech at Rome

Among the Romans, Marsyas was cast as the inventor of augury[21] and a proponent of free speech (the philosophical concept παρρησία, "parrhesia") and "speaking truth to power." The earliest known representation of Marsyas at Rome stood for at least 300 years in the Roman Forum near or in the comitium, the space for political activity.[22] He was depicted as a silen,[23] carrying a wineskin on his left shoulder and raising his right arm. The statue was regarded as an indicium libertatis, a symbol of liberty, and was associated with demonstrations of the plebs, or common people. It often served as a sort of kiosk upon which invective verse was posted.[24]

Denarius minted at Rome in 82 BC by L. Censorinus, with the head of Apollo and the figure of Marsyas holding a wineskin, based on the statue in the forum ( CNG)

Marsyas served as a minister for Dionysus or Bacchus, who was identified by the Romans with their Father Liber, one of three deities in the Aventine Triad, along with Ceres and Libera (identified with Persephone). These gods were regarded as concerning themselves specially with the welfare of the plebs. The freedom that the ecstasies of Dionysian worship represented took on a political meaning in Rome as the libertas that distinguished the free from the enslaved. The Liberalia, celebrated March 17 in honor of Liber, was a time of speaking freely, as the poet and playwright Gnaeus Naevius declared: "At the Liberalia games we enjoy free speech."[25] Naevius, however, was arrested for his invectives against the powerful.[26]

Marsyas was sometimes considered a king and contemporary of Faunus, portrayed by Vergil as a native Italian ruler at the time of Aeneas. Servius, in his commentary on the Aeneid, says that Marsyas sent Faunus envoys who showed techniques of augury to the Italians.[27] The plebeian gens of the Marcii claimed that they were descended from Marsyas. Gaius Marcius Rutilus, who rose to power from the plebs, is credited with having dedicated the statue that stood in the Roman forum, most likely in 294 BC, when he became the first plebeian censor and added the cognomen Censorinus to the family name.[28] Marcius Rutilus was also among the first plebeian augurs, co-opted into their college in 300, and so the mythical teacher of augury was an apt figure to represent him.[29]

The Torment of Marsyas (Le Supplice de Marsyas), Louvre Museum, Paris.

In 213 BC, two years after suffering one of the worst military defeats in its history at the Battle of Cannae, Rome was in the grip of a reactionary fear that led to excessive religiosity. The senate, alarmed that its authority was being undermined by "prophets and sacrificers" in the forum, began a program of suppression. Among the literature confiscated was an "authentic" prophecy calling for the institution of games in the Greek manner for Apollo, which the senate and elected officials would control. The prophecy was attributed to Gnaeus Marcius, reputed to be a descendant of Marsyas. The games were duly carried out, but the Romans failed to bring the continuing wars with the Carthaginians to a victorious conclusion until they heeded a second prophecy and imported the worship of the Phrygian Great Mother, whose song Marsyas was said to have composed; the song had further relevance in that it was also credited by the Phrygians with protecting them from invaders.[30] The power relations between Marsyas and Apollo reflected the continuing Struggle of the Orders between the elite and the common people, expressed in political terms by optimates and populares. The arrest of Naevius for exercising free speech also took place during this period.[31]

Another descendant of Marcius Rutilus, L. Marcius Censorinus, issued coins depicting the statue of Marsyas, at a time when the augural college was the subject of political controversy during the Sullan civil wars of the 80s BC[32] On the coin, Marsyas wears a Phrygian cap or pilleus, an emblem of liberty.[33] This Marcius Censorinus was killed by Sulla and his head displayed outside Praeneste. Sulla's legislative program attempted to curtail power invested in the people, particularly restricting the powers of the plebeian tribunes, and to restore the dominance of the senate and the privileges of patricians.[34]

Marsyas was also claimed as the eponym of the Marsi, one of the ancient peoples of Italy.[35] The Social War of 91–88 BC, in which the Italian peoples fought to advance their status as citizens under Roman rule, is sometimes called the Marsic War from the leadership of the Marsi. The Roman coloniae Paestum and Alba Fucens, along with other Italian cities, set up their own statues of Marsyas as assertions of their political status.[36]

During the Principate, Marsyas became a subversive symbol in opposition to Augustus, whose propaganda systematically associated him with the silens’ torturer Apollo. Augustus's daughter Julia held nocturnal assemblies at the statue, and crowned it to defy her father.[37] The poet Ovid, who was ultimately exiled by Augustus, twice tells the story of Marsyas's flaying by Apollo, in his epic Metamorphoses and in the Fasti, the calendrical poem left unfinished at his death.[38] Although the immediate cause of Ovid's exile remains one of literary history's great mysteries, Ovid himself says that a "poem and transgression" were contributing factors; his poetry tests the boundaries of permissible free speech during Rome's transition from republic to imperial monarchy.[39]

Pliny indicates that in the 1st century AD, the painting Marsyas religatus ("Marsyas Bound"), by Zeuxis of Heraclea, could be viewed at the Temple of Concordia in Rome.[40] The goddess Concordia, like the Greek Harmonia, was a personification of both musical harmony as it was understood in antiquity, and of social order, as expressed by Cicero's phrase concordia ordinum. The apparent incongruity of exhibiting the tortured silen in a temple devoted to harmony has been interpreted in modern scholarship as a warning against criticizing authority.[41]

In later art

Athena and Marsyas: the discovery of the aulos in an imaginative recreation of a lost bronze by Myron (Botanic Garden, Copenhagen)

In the art of later periods, allegory is applied to gloss the somewhat ambivalent morality of the flaying of Marsyas. Marsyas is often seen with a flute, pan pipes or even bagpipes. Apollo is shown with his lyre, or sometimes a harp, viol or other stringed instrument. The contest of Apollo and Marsyas is seen as symbolizing the eternal struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of human nature.

Paintings taking Marsyas as a subject include "Apollo and Marsyas" by Michelangelo Anselmi (c. 1492 - c.1554), "The Flaying of Marsyas" by Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), "The Flaying of Marsyas" by Titian (c. 1570-1576) and "Apollo and Marsyas" by Bartolomeo Manfredi (St. Louis Art Museum).

James Merrill based a poem, "Marsyas", on this myth; it appears in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959). Zbigniew Herbert and Nadine Sabra Meyer each titled poems "Apollo and Marsyas".

In 2002, British artist Anish Kapoor created and installed an enormous sculpture in London's Tate Modern called "Marsyas". The work, consisting of three huge steel rings and a single red PVC membrane, was impossible to view as a whole because of its size, but had obvious anatomical connotations.[42]

There is a bridge built towards the end of the Roman period on the river Marsyas that is still called by the satyr's name, Marsiyas.[43]


  1. ^ The folk of Celaenae held "that the Song of the Mother, an air for the flute, was composed by Marsyas", according to Pausanias (x.30.9).
  2. ^ According to this theory, the antagonists in the Labours of Heracles are, like Marsyas, representatives of the older religion; see Ruck and Staples 1994 passim.
  3. ^ The river is linked to the figure of Marsyas by Herodotus (Histories, 7.26) and Xenophon (Anabasis, 1.2.8).
  4. ^ Hyagnis (Greek: Ὑάγνις, gen.: Ὑάγνιδος, or Ἄγνις) was a mythical musician from Phrygia who was considered to be the inventor of the aulos. Hyagnis was also one of the three mythical Phrygian musicians (along with Marsyas and Olympus) to whom the Ancient Greeks attributed the invention of the Phrygian mode in music(see Anthi Dipla:2001).
  5. ^ Telestes, Fr. 805, quoted in Deipnosophistae
  6. ^ Pausanias, i.24.1.
  7. ^ Midas was judge in another musical contest, that of Apollo and Pan.
  8. ^ -Apollodorus, Bibliothekei.4.2
  9. ^ Strabo, Geography xii.8.15; Hazlitt, The Classical Gazetteer s.v. "Aulocrene lac."
  10. ^ Diodorus, Library of History v.75.3.
  11. ^ Karl Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks 1951:179.
  12. ^ Herodotus, Histories vii.26.3.
  13. ^ Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History iii, summarised by Photius, Myriobiblon 190.
  14. ^ Plato, ''Euthydemus, 285c.
  15. ^ The Muses are referees in Hyginus' telling.
  16. ^ The two most elaborated accounts are in two mythographers of the 2nd century CE, Hyginus (Fabulae, 165) and Pseudo-Apollodorus' Bibliotheke (i.4.2); see also Pliny's Natural History 16.89.
  17. ^ Diodorus Siculus, iii.59-59.
  18. ^ Symposium 215.b-c.
  19. ^ Jocelyn Penny Small, Cacus and Marsyas in Etrusco-Roman Legend (Princeton University Press) 1962:68.
  20. ^ Pliny, 34.11; Horace, Satires 1.6.119-21; noted by Niżyńska 2001:157.
  21. ^ N.M. Horsfall, reviewing Cacus and Marsyas in Etrusco-Roman Legend by Jocelyn Penny Small (Princeton University Press, 1982), in Classical Review 34 (1984) 226–229, vehemently rejects Marsyas's connection with augury, but this is a minority view.
  22. ^ Elaine Fantham, "Liberty and the Roman People," Transactions of the American Philological Association 135 (2005), p. 221; on assemblies of the people, see Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Bill Thayer's edition at LacusCurtius, "Comitia."
  23. ^ The distinction between a satyr and a silen was sometimes blurred in the later tradition.
  24. ^ Servius, ad Aeneidos 3.20; T.P. Wiseman, "Satyrs in Rome? The Background to Horace's Ars Poetica," Journal of Roman Studies 78 (1988), p. 4; Elaine Fantham, "Liberty and the Roman People," Transactions of the American Philological Association 135 (2005), p. 227; Ann L. Kuttner, "Culture and History at Pompey's Museum," Transactions of the American Philological Association 129 (1999), pp. 357–358.
  25. ^ Rather alliteratively: libera lingua loquimur ludis Liberalibus.
  26. ^ T.P. Wiseman, Roman Drama and Roman History (University of Exeter Press, 1998), passim, explores the connections among Marsyas, the Aventine trinity, the plebs, the Liberalia, and free speech. For a detailed discussion of the case of Naevius, see Harold B. Mattingly, "Naevius and the Metelli", Historia 9 (1960) 414–439. Marsyas was also the title of a work by the Roman playwright Lucius Pomponius, possibly a satyr play, in the 2nd century BC.
  27. ^ Servius, ad Aen. 3.59; T.P. Wiseman, "Satyrs in Rome?" Journal of Roman Studies 78 (1988), pp. 2–3 and p. 11, note 91, with additional sources on Marsyas p. 4, notes 26–28.
  28. ^ Robert Morstein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 99 online.
  29. ^ T.P. Wiseman, "Satyrs in Rome?" Journal of Roman Studies 78 (1988), p. 4. The Marcii also claimed descent from Ancus Marcius. Morstein-Marx comments that the attribution of the statue to Marcius Rutilus Censorinus "is attractive, but perhaps over-bold" (Mass Oratory and Political Power, p. 99).
  30. ^ Pausanias 10.30.9: "They say too that they repelled the army of the Gauls by the aid of Marsyas, who defended them against the barbarians by the water from the river [into which he had been transformed after his flaying] and by the music of his flute." The Celtic-speaking invaders who founded Galatia controlled the Great Mother's center of worship at Pessinus from the end of the 3rd century BC. One of the major deities of the Gauls was identified with Apollo and may have suggested opposition to Marsyas; see Frederick Ahl, "Amber, Avallon, and Apollo's Singing Swan," American Journal of Philology 103 (1982) 373–411.
  31. ^ T.P. Wiseman, Roman Drama and Roman History (University of Exeter Press, 1998).
  32. ^ Peter Justin Moon Schertz, "Marsyas Augur: A Plebeian Augur in the Time of Sulla?," paper presented at the 103rd annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, abstract from American Journal of Archaeology 106 (2002), pp. 270–271. Sulla increased the number of augurs; the nature of the controversy is debatable, but seems to do less with the proportion of plebeians to patricians than a question of whether new augurs would be coopted by current members of the college or whether they would be elected by vote of the people.
  33. ^ Robert J. Rowland, Jr., "Numismatic Propaganda under Cinna," Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 97 (1966), p. 417.
  34. ^ Ronald T. Ridley, "The Dictator's Mistake: Caesar's Escape from Sulla", Historia 49 (2000), p. 220.
  35. ^ T.P. Wiseman, "Satyrs in Rome?" Journal of Roman Studies 78 (1988), pp. 2–3 and p. 11, note 91, with additional sources on Marsyas p. 4, notes 26–28.
  36. ^ Servius, ad Aeneidos 3.20 and 4.58: "among the free cities, there was a statue of Marsyas, who was under the protection of Father Liber" (in liberis civitatibus simulacrum Marsyae erat, qui in tutela Liberi patris est). Also T.P. Wiseman, "Satyrs in Rome? The Background to Horace's Ars Poetica," Journal of Roman Studies 78 (1988), p. 4; Elaine Fantham, "Liberty and the Roman People," Transactions of the American Philological Association 135 (2005), p. 227, especially note 52.
  37. ^ Elaine Fantham, "Liberty and the People in Republican Rome," Transactions of the American Philological Association 135 (2005), p. 227, citing Seneca, De beneficiis 6.32 and Pliny, Historia naturalis 21.6.8–9, both of whom characterize Julia's meetings as sexual congress with strangers.
  38. ^ Publius Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses 6.383–400 and Fasti 6.649–710.
  39. ^ Joanna Niżyńska samples the extensive scholarship on the subversive qualities of Ovid's poetry in her comparative study "Marsyas's Howl: The Myth of Marsyas in Ovid's Metamorphoses and Zbigniew Herbert's ‘Apollo and Marsyas,’" Comparative Literature 53.2 (Spring 2001), pp. 151–169.
  40. ^ Pliny, Historia naturalis 35.66.
  41. ^ Joanna Niżyńska, "Marsyas's Howl," Comparative Literature 53.2 (Spring 2001), p. 152.
  42. ^ "The Unilever Series: Anish Kapoor", exhibition information
  43. ^ A. Güneygül on Archaeology


  • Ruck, Carl A.P. and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth (Carolina Academic Press) 1994.

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