for Thibault and Andrea

Seven years ago, I started this blog with the intent of writing about what I want. My confidence grew, and eventually got to the stage where I was writing pieces that other outlets wouldn’t publish. But for various, reasons, I fell off. It’s the New Year, so there’s no better time than to return to where I started by nerding out for a very select (boutique, niche, etc.) audience.

Like everyone else, I had some newfound spare time in March 2020. It was that year that I learned to read and enjoy the ability to consume dense literature without any sense of urgency or distraction. In late February, I had just finished a tour with Apollo’s Fire. Not long after we played our final concert in Chicago, the lockdowns began and I stayed put for several months, staying in the empty apartment of an old professor of mine who generously allowed me to squat. I called my roommate to pull out of my lease (which was fortunate, as her fiancé had to leave his student accommodation and move in). I had my harps, a suitcase of clothes, and only a few books: Stendhal’s Italian Chronicles, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (please chuckle at the irony), Roth’s Radetzky March and Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. The last of these would initially occupy me for nearly a month and fundamentally change how I thought about mythology and, in turn, music.

Calasso’s central thesis is simple: when taking in the cumulative sweep of Classical literature, – that is, from Hesiod right up to late Roman scholars (and even early Byzantine critics) – one sees that each fable or tale of morality is but a repetition or reference to another story. In the opening chapter, Calasso repeats the question “but how did it all begin?”

Europa is abducted by Zeus, disguised as a bull.

But how did it all begin? Golden basket in hand, she is picking flowers, as Persephone did before her, before being taken by Hades; or perhaps like Thalia, who wandered among the flowers on the mountainside, before being whisked away by Zeus disguised as an eagle; or even Creusa, who picked saffron flowers by the Acropolis before being kidnapped by Apollo.

But how did it all begin? Europa’s golden basket is a family heirloom, made by Hephaestus and granted to Libye, who passed it to Telephassa, who bequeathed it to Europa. It is embossed with a Golden bull resting on the waves. Not Zeus, but Europa’s great-grandmother Io. Not the Aegean, but the Nile.

But how did it all begin? Io was saved by Zeus. Having fled to Egypt after being transformed into a bull, Zeus finds her in Egypt. He skims lightly skims his hand over her. She becomes mortal again.

Calasso concludes: “as Europa walked down the flowery meadows near the sea, what Europa was carrying, embossed in precious metals, was her destiny. As in a piece of music, her own tune was the melodic inversion of her ancestor, Io’s. A bull would carry her off from Asia toward the continent. A bull would carry her off from Asia toward the continent that was to be called Europe, just as years before the desperate sea wandering of a young cow who had first grazed in Greek pastures was to end in Egypt with the light touch of Zeus’s hand. And one day the gift of the golden basket would be handed down to Europa. She carried it along, without thinking.” (Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony)

On and on the book goes likewise, each page containing paraphrases of the collected interpretations of mythology, from the Homeric Hymns right up to the Early Christian critics. The key point however is not that it is about classical literature, but that the revisitation of this material carries on the tradition of reinterpretation. After all, the reader is party to the knowledge of all those things which the mythical characters do not know and cannot know. We are like Argus, having many eyes, able to see each and every folly without being able to predict the fate that will befall us.

“Everything repeats itself, everything comes back again, but always with some slight twist in its meaning… And there is always some tiny territory untouched by the anthropologist’s fine-tooth comb that survives, like an archaic island, in the modern world: thus it is in antiquity we come across the emissaries of a reality that was to unfold more than two thousand years later.” (Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony)

Calasso touches on a lot of things: the philosophies of history, on the warning signs the Classics might even give us about totalitarianism, gender, sex, remorse, etc. Sadly, music is largely absent. But in this little book, I found the most fantastic blueprint for thinking about our myths about music in the theogony. And so, I started reading more and more, accessing Loeb translations online and starting with the story that musicians (especially harpists) know best: Orpheus.

Orpheus marries Eurydice, but soon after she dies, having trodden on a snake. She’s taken to Hades where Orpheus tries to fetch her. He plays the harp for Charon, and is allowed into hell. He’s allowed to take Eurydice back from Hades so long as he doesn’t look behind. (There is no Chekhov’s Gun quite like a contract meant to be broken.) He turns around, and she is lost. In grieving, he forswears women. The women of Thrace get angry, flay him alive, and tear him limb from limb.

But an amazing thing will happen to you, Orpheus: you now charm wild beasts and trees, but to women of Thrace you will seem to be sadly out of tune and they will tear your body in pieces, though even wild beasts had gladly listened to your voice. (Philostratus, Imagines 6)

As with every myth, any number of things can be latched onto in the Orpheus myth. One could speak of the symbolism of the Styx, the trope of the dead woman and the male gaze, or even the snake that killed her. But what if a key to understanding Orpheus had nothing to do with Orpheus, but with the instrument he had in his hand?

Before Orpheus, there was famously Apollo. But where did it all begin?

“Leto’s all-glorious son goes to rocky Pytho, playing upon his hollow lure, clad in divine, perfumed garments; and at the touch of the golden key his lyre sings sweet. Thence, swift as thought, he speeds from earth to Olympos, to the house of Zeus, to join the gathering of the other gods: then straightway the undying gods think only of the lyre and song, and all the Muses together, voice sweetly answering voice, hymn the unending gifts the gods enjoy and the sufferings of men.” (Homeric Hymn 3 to Pythian Apollo)

But the skill of Apollo was once put to the test. Though it is not known why, he was challenged a musical contest by the flute player Marsyas, a satyr. Apollo not only played, but sang and even turned his harp upside down. King Midas, the umpire was impressed and Marsyas forefeited both the contest and his life.

“The Satyr Marsyas, when he played the flute in rivalry against Apollo’s lyre, lost that audacious contest and, alas! His life was forfeit; for, they had agreed the one who lost should be the victor’s prey. And, as Apollo punished him, he cried, “Ah-h-h! why are you now tearing me apart? A flute has not the value of my life!” Even as he shrieked out in his agony, his living skin was ripped off from his limbs, till his whole body was a flaming wound, with nerves and veins and viscera exposed.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 6)

Marsyas’ body would serve as an example.

And so Apollo defeated Marsyas, bound him to a tree, and turned him over to a Scythian who stripped his skin off him limb by limb. He gave the rest of his body for burial to his pupil Olympus. From his blood the river Marsyas took its name. (Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 165)

But where did it all begin? His harp came to him via Hermes, who stole two cattle from Apollo and flayed them alive. In his anger, Apollo tried to punish Hermes.

“Apollo twisted strong withes with his hands meaning to bind Hermes with firm bands; but the bands would not hold him, and the withes of osier fell far from him and began to grow at once from the ground beneath their feet in that very place. And intertwining with one another, they quickly grew and covered all the wild-roving cattle by the will of thievish Hermes, so that Apollo was astonished as he gazed.” (Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes)

It is Argus who ameliorates. He sees Hermes’ harp on the ground, and begins to fumble on its strings to distract Apollo. The archer is entranced, plucks the strings as if it were his bow, and demands to take the harp for himself. Hermes tells him,

“ ‘…as it seems, your heart is so strongly set on playing the lyre, chant, and play upon it, and give yourself to merriment, taking this as a gift from me, and do you, my friend, bestow glory on me. Sing well with this clear-voiced companion in your hands; for you are skilled in good, well-ordered utterance.’ (Homeric Hymn to Hermes 4)

All of Apollo’s cattle are now Hermes’, in exchange for harp?

When Hermes had said this, he held out the lyre: and Phoebus Apollo took it, and readily put his shining whip in Hermes’ hand, and ordained him keeper of herds. The son of Maia received it joyfully; the glorious son of Leto, the lord far-working Apollo, took the lyre upon his left arm and tried each string with the key. Awesomely it sounded at the touch of the god, while he sang sweetly to its note.” (Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes)

But where did it all begin? But does Apollo not know? Hermes not only had a harp, but invented it. After finding a tortoise near his dwelling in the mountains, Hermes is shocked but also delighted. It is in mirth he mutilates the animal to see what will happen.

“Living, you shall be a spell against mischievous witchcraft; but if you die, then you shall make sweetest song.’ “

“Thus speaking, he took up the tortoise in both hands and went back into the house carrying his charming toy. Then he cut off its limbs and scooped out the marrow of the mountain-tortoise with a scoop of grey iron. As a swift thought darts through the heart of a man when thronging cares haunt him, or as bright glances flash from the eye, so glorious Hermes planned both thought and deed at once. He cut stalks of reed to measure and fixed them, fastening their ends across the back and through the shell of the tortoise, and then stretched ox hide all over it by his skill. Also he put in the horns and fitted a cross-piece upon the two of them, and stretched seven strings of sheep-gut. But when he had made it he proved each string in turn with the key, as he held the lovely thing. At the touch of his hand it sounded marvelously; and, as he tried it, the God sang sweet random snatches, even as youths bandy taunts at festivals.” (Homeric Hymn to Hermes 4)

But where did it all begin? Argus picks up and saves Hermes, not knowing that Hermes will betray him. Argus (of 100 eyes) appointed by Hera to kidnap and guard Io, who was transformed into a heifer when Zeus found affection in her.

Yielding obedience to such prophetic utterances of Apollo, he drove me away and barred me from his house, against his will and mine; but the constraint of Zeus forced him to act by necessity. Immediately my form and mind were distorted, and with horns, as you see, upon my forehead, stung by a sharp-fanged gadfly I rushed with frantic bounds to Kerkhnea’s sweet stream and Lerna’s spring. But Argos, the earth-born herdsman, untempered in his rage, pursued me peering with his many eyes upon my steps. A sudden death robbed him of life unexpectedly; while I, still tormented by the gadfly, am driven on from land to land before the heaven-sent plague.

“Oh, oh! Aah! Aah! A gadfly, phantom of earth-born Argos is stinging me again! Keep him away, O Earth! I am fearful when I behold that myriad-eyed herdsman. He travels onward with his crafty gaze upon me; not even in death does the earth conceal him, but passing from the shades he hounds me, the forlorn one, and drives me famished along the sands of the seashore. The waxen pipe drones forth in accompaniment a clear-sounding slumberous strain. Alas, alas! Where is my far-roaming wandering course taking me? . . . I cannot discern how to escape my sufferings.” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound)

Fearing for Io’s life, Zeus sends Hermes to fetch her. Hermes lulls Argos to sleep with his flute and voice and kills him.

So Hermes joined him, and with many a tale he stayed the passing hours and on his reeds played soft refrains to lull the watching eyes. But Argus fought to keep at bay the charms of slumber and, though many of his eyes were closed in sleep, still many kept their guard. Argus asked too by what means this new design the pipe of reeds, was found. Then the god began to tell the story Pan. But the story remained untold; for Hermes saw all Argus’ eyelids closed and every eye vanquished in sleep. He stopped and with his wand, his magic wand, soothed the tired resting eyes and sealed their slumber; quick then with his sword he struck off the nodding head and from the rock threw it all bloody, spattering the cliff with gore. Argus lay dead; so many eyes, so bright quenched, and all hundred shrouded in one night. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 1)

For all of Argos Panoptes’ ability to see, his ears can be deceived. After he dies, Hera takes his eyes and preserves them in the feathers of the peacock, the loud, shrill guardians whose cries cannot be ignored.

But where did it all begin? Hermes has a new flute, yes, but so did Athena once. Pausanias tells of a statue of Athena striking Marsyas for taking the flute that was to be cast away for good. For though she invented it, we know she hated it.

On flute playing: Athena for foundress and Apollon for patron, one of whom cast the flute away in disgust, and the other flayed the presumptuous flute-player, Marsyas. (Plutarch, Life of Alcibiades 2)

(After all, like Hermes’ harp, it is fashioned from slaughter.)

Minerva is said to have been the first to make pipes from deer bones and to have come to the banquet of the gods to play. Juno and Venus made fun of her because she was grey-eyed and puffed out her cheeks, so when mocked in her playing and called ugly she came to the forest of Ida to a spring, as she played she viewed herself in the water, and saw that she was rightly mocked. Because of this she threw away the pipes and vowed that whoever picked them up would be punished severely. Marsyas, a shepherd, son of Oeagrus, one of the satyrs, found them, and by practicing assiduously kept making sweeter sounds day by day, so that he challenged Apollo to play the lure in a contest with him. (Hyginus, Fabulae 165)

But where did it all begin? Athena was not the last to forfeit her instrument. Hermes gave his harp to Apollo, yes, in order to continue to search for Io. But after slaying Marsyas, Apollo would repent of the evil he had done and resign his instrument.

Hermes also introduced wrestling-schools and invented the lyre out of a tortoise-shell after the contest in skill between Apollo and Marsyas, in which ,we are told, Apollo was victorious and thereupon exacted an excessive punishment of his defeated adversary, but he afterwards repented of this and, tearing the strings from the lyre, for a time had nothing to do with its music. (Diodorus Siculus, Library 5)

Hermes lust for contest would return. It is Linus who would find the instrument, and teach it to his brother Orpheus, but also Thamyris and Heracles.

Linus who was admired because of his poetry and singing, had many pupils and three of greatest renown, Heracles, Thamyris, and Orpheus. Of these three Heracles, who was learning to play the lyre, was unable to appreciate what was taught him because of his sluggishness of soul, and once when he had been punished with rods by Linus he became violently angry and killed his teacher with a blow of the lyre.

Thamyris, however, who possessed unusual natural ability, perfected the art of music and claimed that in the excellence of song his voice was more beautiful than the voices of the Muses. Whereupon the goddesses, angered at him, took from him his gift of music and maimed the man, even as Homer also bears witness when he writes.

There met the Muses Thamyris of Thrace and made an end of his song…But him, enraged, they maimed, and from him took the gift of song divine and made him quite forget his harping. (About Orpheus, the third pupil, we shall give a detailed account when we come to treat of his deeds.) (Diodorus Siculus, Library 3)

Now, back to Orpheus. Is he really innocent? Or does his grief turn to pride? Jadedness?

But having gone down into Hades because of his wife and seeing what sort of things were there, he did not continue to worship Dionysus, because of whom he was famous, but he thought Helios to be the greatest of the gods, Helios whom he also addressed as Apollo. Rousing himself each night toward dawn and climbing the mountain called Pangaion, he would await the Sun’s rising, so that he might see it first. Therefore, Dionysus, being angry with him, sent the Bassarides, as Aeschylus the tragedian says; they tore him apart and scattered the limbs. (Homer, Illiad)

Did he not learn from the example of Pentheus, who likewise refused to worship Dionysus, and was ripped apart by Ino and Autonoe, while his mother Agave looked on?

His mother, as priestess, began the slaughter, and fell upon him. He threw the headband from his head so that the wretched Agaue might recognize and not kill him. Touching her cheek, he said : ‘It is I, mother, your son, Pentheus, whom you bore in the house of Ekhion. Pity me, mother, and do not kill me, your child, for my sins.’

But she, foaming at the mouth and twisting her eyes all about, not thinking as she ought, was possessed by Bakkhos, and he did not persuade her. Seizing his left arm at the elbow and propping her foot against the unfortunate man’s side, she tore out his shoulder, not by her own strength, but the god gave facility to her hands. Ino began to work on the other side, tearing his flesh, while Autonoe and the whole crowd of the Bakkhai pressed on. All were making noise together, he groaning as much as he had life left in him, while they shouted in victory. One of them bore his arm, another a foot, boot and all. His ribs were stripped bare from their tearings. The whole band, hands bloodied, were playing a game of catch with Pentheus’ flesh.

His body lies in different places, part under the rugged rocks, part in the deep foliage of the woods, not easy to be sought. His miserable head, which his mother happened to take in her hands, she fixed on the end of a thyrsos and carries through the midst of Kithairon like that of a savage lion, leaving her sisters among the Mainades’ dances. She is coming inside these walls, preening herself on the ill-fated prey, calling Bakkhos her fellow hunter, her accomplice in the chase, the glorious victor–in whose service she wins a triumph of tears. (Euripides, Bacchae 990)

With each answer, a new question arises. The question “where did it all begin” asks how, but also why, over and over and over again. Stories of tragedy are foretold ahead of time, either in their own lives or the lives of ancestors.

Eventually the search stops. Both an innocent party and a guilty perpetrator are identified. Ovid identifies Marsyas’ hubris as the source for his demise, and focuses on the pain felt by those who grieved his death. Hyginus focuses on the fact that Apollo won by deception, turning his harp upside down. (Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Ovid came from wealth, whereas Hyginus was a freedman.)

And when Marsyas was departing as victor, Apollo turned his lyre over, and played the same song, which Marsyas couldn’t do with his pipes. And so Apollo defeated Marsyas, bound him to a tree, and turned him over to a Scythian who stripped his skin off him limb by limb. He gave the rest of his body for burial to his pupil Olympus. From his blood the river Marsyas took its name. (Hyginus, Fabulae 5)

Indeed, the image of his innocence has endured. For Plato, it is Marsyas to whom Socrates is compared.

The way I shall take, gentlemen, in my praise of Socrates, is by similitudes. Probably he will think I do this for derision; but I choose my similitude for the sake of truth, not of ridicule. For I say he is likest to the Silenus-figures that sit in the statuaries’ shops; those, I mean, which our craftsmen make with pipes or flutes in their hands: when their two halves are pulled open, they are found to contain images of gods. And I further suggest that he resembles the satyr Marsyas. Now, as to your likeness, Socrates, to these in figure, I do not suppose even you yourself will dispute it; but I have next to tell you that you are like them in every other respect. You are a fleering fellow, eh? If you will not confess it, I have witnesses at hand. Are you not a piper? Why, yes, and a far more marvellous one than the satyr. His lips indeed had power to entrance mankind by means of instruments; a thing still possible today for anyone who can pipe his tunes: for the music of Olympus’ flute belonged, I may tell you, to Marsyas his teacher. So that if anyone, whether a fine flute-player or paltry flute-girl, can but flute his tunes, they have no equal for exciting a ravishment, and will indicate by the divinity that is in them who are apt recipients of the deities and their sanctifications. You differ from him in one point only—that you produce the same effect with simple prose unaided by instruments. For example, when we hear any other person— quite an excellent orator, perhaps—pronouncing one of the usual discourses, no one, I venture to say, cares a jot; but so soon as we hear you, or your discourses in the mouth of another,—though such person be ever so poor a speaker, and whether the hearer be a woman or a man or a youngster—we are all astounded and entranced. As for myself, gentlemen, were it not that I might appear to be absolutely tipsy, I would have affirmed on oath all the strange effects I personally have felt from his words, and still feel even now. For when I hear him I am worse than any wild fanatic; I find my heart leaping and my tears gushing forth at the sound of his speech, and I see great numbers of other people having the same experience. When I listened to Pericles and other skilled orators I thought them eloquent, but I never felt anything like this; my spirit was not left in a tumult and had not to complain of my being in the condition of a common slave: whereas the influence of our Marsyas here has often thrown me into such a state. (Plato, Symposium 215)

In reading and rereading Calasso over the last few years and obsessively pouring over Classics translations online, I feel as if I’ve started seeing Marsyas and the extended family tree of musical violence everywhere. In Bellini’s The Holy Allegory, the Virgin Mary sits under a canopy, on the top of a small set of stairs. She looks upon elderly Job and Saint Sebastian, shot with an arrow. A frieze on the side of the staircase depicts Marsyas’ death at the hands of Apollo. A cross can be seen in the distance, though it looks as if it’s but a shadow. The crucifixion is indeed implied by those stories which foretell and echo it at the same time.

I wandered the Met Museum the other day after being shown the Tudor exhibit by its curator. I didn’t get very far, as when I got into the rooms of vases, I spent an hour in total awe that all the minuscule connections in literature also appear in living, visual artifacts. Athena looms over the flute players, and Apollo over the Citharodes. Olympus is haunted by his dead lover, and Apollo by clever Hermes. Heracles’ toils are illustrated with lyre players in the foreground, at once telling his deeds with the art of his teacher Linus, who he killed in anger. There is no image without a moral. There is no harp without its violent inheritance. There is no music without memory.

As I keep reading, it’s my hope that I’ll keep sharing thoughts on what I discover. Needless to say, I’ve found some material to reinvigorate the urge to write.

1 thought on “Marsyas”

  1. Dear Parker (if I may),
    Many thanks for sharing this extremely interesting reflections. And congratulations for your recent CD featuring Bach and Nico Muhly. I enjoy it a lot. And I also remember your excellent organ playing at King’s, when you were an Organ Scholar, especially Froberger, as well as your interpretation of Duruflé’s Toccata. Best wishes from Europe. Dean


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