One day, Marsyas saw the radiant god Apollo playing his lyre (which, in Greco-Roman society, was the instrument of the aristocracy). Lord Apollo was clad in the costliest raiment and equipped with the finest gold trappings. He was inhumanly beautiful…dangerously beautiful. Marsyas was overwhelmed: he was a crude goat-man, and Apollo was the god of music (and sunshine, and medicine, and prophecy). At this juncture, Marsyas made a fateful choice–he decided to challenge glorious Apollo to a musical contest. The winner would be able to “do whatever he wanted” with the loser. Marsyas, a satyr (synonymous, in the classical world, with lust) thus imagined that he would “win” or “be won” no matter which way the the competition worked out.
Apollo grew oddly enflamed by the challenge and agreed readily–with one stipulation of his own. The muses, the goddesesses of art, would judge the event. Now the muses were daughters of Apollo, both figuratively and literally. To a disinterested observer the arrangement might smack dangerously of favoritism, but Marsyas was blinded by longing and besotted by hist art.
The two musicians set up beside a river and began to play. Apollo played a complicated piece about laws and lords and kings. It sparkled like sunshine. It grew oppressively magnificent like the great gods of high Olympus. It ended like glittering starlight in the cold heavens. Next Marsyas played and his music was completely different–it spoke to the longing of the weary herdsman coming home at sundown. It was about the mist rising from furrowed farmlands, about fruit trees budding in the orchard, and about the soft places where the meadows run out into the rivers.
The muses listened closely to the music and made their choice. “These pieces are played by opposite beings on dissimilar instruments. The works have completely different subjects, but both pieces are perfect. Neither is clearly “better” than the other.” Sublime music had won the contest!
But Apollo was not satisfied. There are two versions of the story: in one he turned his lyre upside down and played it as well as ever (Marsyas, of course, could not do the same with the aulos). In the other version, Apollo played the lyre and sang (also impossible with the aulos). “I have two arts, whereas Marsyas has only one!” he proclaimed. The muses halfheartedly assented: Apollo had officially won the contest.
This was the moment Marsyas had planned for. He was shaking with excitement as Apollo took hold of his unresisting form and shackled him to a tree. Then Apollo picked up a skinning knife and started flaying the saty’s skin off. Marsyas screamed and bleated in horror and pain, but Apollo kept cutting and peeling until he had removed the satyr’s entire hide. Then the lord of music sat and watched while Marsyas bled to death, before hanging up the horrible dripping pelt in the tree and departing. Vergil avers that the blood of Marsyas stained the river everlastingly red–indeed the waterway was thereafter named the Marsyas.
Apollo and Marsyas (Bartolomeo Manfredi, ca. 1615-1620, oil on canvas)
The artistic thing to do, would be to leave the story as it stands–to let readers mull the troubling tale on their own. However I have been thinking about it a great deal…Every artist thinks about it a great deal. Museums are filled with interpretations of the story by history’s greatest painters and sculptors. There was a version of Apollo and Marsyas painted on the ceiling of the Queen of France (in that version, the skinning is done by underlings as Apollo languidly points out how he wants things done). Since I have seen plenty of museum-goers blanch when looking at pictures of Marsyas and hastily turn away, I will provide some ready made meta-interpretations to start the conversation.
First, this story is a tale of masters and servants. The lyre is the instrument of the rich. It was expensive to own and required tutors to learn. The aulos was the instrument of shepherds, smallfolk, and slaves. The tale of exploitation is a very familiar one throughout all of history. It always goes one way: somebody gets fleeced.
Also this is self-evidently a tale of forbidden sexuality. It was immensely popular with Renaissance, Baroque, and Victorian artists from the west because of the opressive mores of society. By presenting this story as a classically varsnished picture, people could represent forbidden ideas about same-gender relationships which society would literally kill them for saying or acting upon. Indeed the story’s ghastly climax represents exactly that!
In a related vein, philosophers and writers interpret the story as “reason chastening lust.” The former is more powerful than the latter: ultimately the mind subjugates the passions. Perhaps this is why the picture was above the queen’s bed–maybe the king commanded that it be painted there. Yet the reason of Apollo does not strike me as at all reasonable. If this is what rationality accomplishes, then reason is monstrous (and it often seems so in the affairs of men). I wish I could sit with Jeremy Bentham and talk about this. Utility and pragmatism oft seem as ruthless as cruel Apollo.
It is also a tale of artists and their audiences (and their art). Marsyas does not clearly lose the contest. His music is as beautiful as that of Apollo–maybe better. However the game was rigged from the start. Art is a mountain with infinite facets but the sun of fashion only shines on a few at a time. The greatest artists are not necessarily appreciated or loved. I can’t imagine a single artist who painted this story imagined themselves as Apollo. Unless you have personally rigged the game with money and power, it will not benefit you. You must prepare for operatic destruction at the hands of the world. It is a terrible part of art. The world’s inability to discern true worth is one of life’s most disappointing aspects.
Above all, it is a story of gods and mortals. For daring to step on the field with the divine, mortality is punished with the ultimate penalty–mortality. I don’t believe in gods or divinity (people who literally believe in such things strike me as dangerous lunatics). Divinity is a myth–but an important one which informs us concerning humankind’s ultimate purpose and methods. We have strayed into vasty realms. I’ll come back to this theme later but for now let’s say that the defeat of Marsyas reveals something. Would you prefer if he just gave up and groveled before Apollo? No, there would be no story, no striving, no art. There is a divine seed within his failure–a spark of the celestial fire which animates (or should animate) our lives.
Anyway, for putting up with this rather horrible week I have a Halloween treat for you tomorrow. Remember, I am not just a moral and aesthetic philosopher but a troubled toymaker (and a lost artist) as well. Happy Halloween!