Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Flute and the Flayed

Ancient lore is ripe with tales of gods and monster, heroes and heroines and their wars, affairs and voyages. Oft is fate written in the stars, virtue praised and pride punished. When mortals rise above their stations, they are punished. But the divine powers are flawed too. Sometimes even the gods could go too far...

2nd Century AD Roman copy of a Greek original
Legend says that a long time ago, in the Golden Age of the Olympians and heroes, the goddess Athena, daughter of Zeus the Thunderer, was wandering in the sunny vales of the forest of Phrygia. The goddess' chaste ears pricked up at the sound of the birdsong in the breeze, a soothing accompaniment to the percussion of the rustling leaves. Filled with a peculiar joy, she was filled with a passion to make merry in the forest. Taking from the leaf strewn earth the bones of a young doe, the goddess fashioned from them a strange instrument. Whittling a series of pipes from the matter, she lashed them together and considered her new craft. With a modest intrigue, she placed the pipes to her mouth and blew. What a fair sound it was indeed; a soft vibration, a gentle melody and hypnotising note. Spurred on, bolstered by the music of the forest, the virgin goddess could scarcely put them down. Soon her absence was noted on the snowy peaks of lofty Olympus, and gossip flew to and fro, from scheming god and intrigued goddess. All too happy to share her new art, Athena proposed to show them all the sweet sounds at a lavish banquet in Heaven's Halls.

The eve came and the resplendent array of the skies awaited, fascinated by what was to come. When the moment came, the goblets were empty, the ambrosia consumed, the goddess rose to her feet. Brimming with excitement and nerves, she began to play. In the beginning, all was well, as the dulcet tune serenaded the divine array, and seldom were such sweet tones heard in the Palace of Olympus. Zeus the father of gods and men looked merrily on, proud of his daughter's talents. Hephaestus, master of the forge, sat entranced by the music so seldom heard in the roar of the furnace. Ares, lord of war, for whom the screams of the dying were oft his cadence, could scarce hide his delight. But it was then that the eyes of Pallas Athena saw Hera and Aphrodite. Far from listening with rapture, it was with a fits of laughter they returned her song. Though fair and noble, terrible could be the warrior maiden's fury. In anger she departed, seeking solace in the wilderness. When strolling the paths of the Forest of Ida, she stopped by a great pool of glassy water, her joy poisoned by doubt. She took up the pipes once more, and for the last time did she play. In the soft ripples of the water did she see her image cast, and within was held the revelation she sought. She had not noticed until now that as she played, she puffed her cheeks out proudly, their oft white complexion soon a crimson red. Frustrated by the immaturity of her fellow goddesses, with whom she bore a ruinous rivalry, she cast her creation aside. Laying upon the pipes a curse, she vowed calamity upon whomsoever should play them again. Woe that her malediction should have found a mark.

Marsyas in the Forest
Painting by Pyotr Basin
One day, when the memory of the pipes had passed into legend, there lived a shepherd who made Forest of Ida his serene home. His name was Marsyas the son of Oeagrus, and no man was he, but a Satyr. A servant of the god Bacchus, the Satyrs lived a merry life of revelry, dancing and song, frequently spreading havoc and drunken anarchy where their cloven feet trod. Marsyas, however, possessed a gentler spirit, preferring the solitude of the forest to the chaos of the plains. There came a day, however, that neither the Satyr nor the forest would ever forget. Stumbling upon a clearing in the thick canopy of the trees, where lay a crystal pool of ice cool water, Marsyas stopped to refresh. Throwing the pleasant water over his face, he gave a sigh of satisfaction, droplets from his tangled beard breaking the mirror like reflection of the surface. Turning to dry his face, however, he spotted a strange yet curious thing cast in the bushes at the water's edge. Stained with earth and covered in moss, it seemed a relic of an ancient past. Picking the strange object up, the Satyr, acquainted as all Satyrs are with the ways of merriment, realised at once that it bore the form of an instrument. Scraping aside the grime and muck, dousing it in the clear water, he saw the simple pipes in their fresh glory.

Tentatively, the Satyr put the pipes to his lips and blew. The note was rough, but charming. He blew again. Better, but a shade of the performance of the instruments original creator. For an age did Marsyas obsess over the pipes, unable to resist the allure he could not explain, the will to keep playing. Throughout the hours when the sun drenches the Earth did the Satyr practice anew, studious and assiduous. Day by day the Satyr's prowess grew, and with his talent came music sweeter than ever before. Birds began to perch upon nearby boughs, listening intently to Marsyas' song, the notes fairer even than their own. Creatures and being from far and wide began to marvel at the Satyr's song, but before long the curse began to manifest. Pride, the ruin of the great, wove its intoxicating spell in the Satyr's mind, as his humility could deflect the shower of praise no more. Time passed, and soon Marsyas declared himself a musician beyond compare in the world. The fatal hour arrived when the Satyr challenged Apollo, the god of music himself, to a contest.

High on Olympus, Apollo heard his challenge, and the god was angered by the daring of a mortal. Soaring down from the frozen summit, Phoebus Apollo came before Marsyas, and the admiring crowds scattered in fear and awe. Shaking with rage, Apollo declared the contest begun. The Muses, the spirits of the arts, were summoned to judge, and the terms were set. Whoever showed the greater mastery of music would triumph, and the victor won the right to treat the defeated as he pleased. Alas that Marsyas was deaf to the subtle warning that lay veiled within, as the curse brandished its edge, and the proud Satyr accepted. The stage was set. Marsyas took the pipes his beloved pipes, Apollo the lyre with which he was so skilled. The god played first. What ambience the grove had never known! With each pluck of the god's fingers upon the strings, soothed was the soul of all beings present, and the Muses sighed in awe of their master. When the god finished his piece, all gathered saw the end coming for the Satyr. But Marsyas, spurred on by the curse, boldly raised the pipes to his lips. With a jolt the gathered assembly was stunned into silence. With each honey soaked note, the very forest itself seemed to sing, vibrating with raw power. All earthly woes lay distant and forgotten for all mortals there that day, and warmed were the hearts of the Muses. Incensed by fire, alas, was the heart of Apollo. Just as the Satyr neared the boundary of the grove, victory near at hand, the god called to him. If the Satyr could play as he could now, Apollo would concede defeat. Intrigued, yet proud, Marsyas agreed. Without delay did the sun god spin his lyre around, striking a haunting melody, his instrument upside down. The Muses, delighted, applauded the god's performance, before turning to Marsyas, expectant. With a glint of malice in his eye, well did Apollo know that it was impossible to play the pipes upside down. Too late did the Satyr realise this too. His mouth went dry with terror, as the judges were struck with disappointment. To the son of Zeus was triumph assigned, and to the Satyr, ignoble defeat

Marsyas Flayed
Painting by Titian
Near dumbstruck, the Satyr watched helplessly as the god approached, vengeance that only a god could muster flaming in his eyes. Poor Marsyas searched for words but none could be found, none to quench the fire before him now. Hands grabbed him from all around, and terror flooded his veins. Thus was begun a punishment terrible to behold. Strapped to a nearby oak was the quivering Satyr, and tightly bound. The servants of Apollo seized their blades and descended upon poor Marsyas.

                  " 'Why do you tear me from myself, he cries?
                     Ah cruel! Must my flesh be made the prize?
                     This for a mere pipe?' He roaring said,
                     Meanwhile the skin from off his limbs were flay'd.
                     All bare, and raw, one large continu'd wound,
                     With streams of blood his body bath'd the ground.
                     The blueish veins their trembling pulse disclos'd,
                     The stringy nerves lay naked and expos'd;
                     His guts appear'd, distinctly each express'd,
                    With ev'ry shining fibre of his breast... "
                      - THE PUNISHMENT OF MARSYAS

His muffled screams were the last song of Marsyas, raw muscle and tendon bare to the elements now. Such was the justice of Apollo, so great the price of a mortal daring to raise himself above a god.

But not all beings shared Apollo's wrath. The fauns, silvans, nymphs, naiads and spirits of the forest, once serenaded by the Satyr's song, came to his mutilated corpse. Tears flowed from their eyes at their gaping loss, the knowledge that his pure song might never woo them again. It is said that even vengeful Apollo himself was later moved to regret, and not readily did he string his lyre in ages to come, remorseful of his act. "With their tears that flow'd, a kindly moisture on the earth bestow'd, that soon, conjoin'd, and in a body rang'd, sprung from the ground, to limpid water chang'd; which, down thro' Phrygia's rocks, a mighty stream, comes tumbling to the sea, and Marsya is its name..."

Like poor Actaeon before him, Marsyas felt the terrible fate of stumbling innocently in the path of a god. It was the folly of a fool to violate the laws of Heaven, but to challenge them openly, why only those blind to all other things would dice with such death. Nevertheless, even in the ancient world there were many who questioned the magnitude of poor Marsyas' punishment...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

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