Flute made goddess’ face ugly

A woman holds a double flute on a sculpture at the Vatican Museum in the Vatican City. I took the photo in November 2015, but I don’t have more information on the artist or subject.

The goddess Athena discarded and cursed her flute after discovering her face distorted while playing.

Then a poor schmuck – a Satyr named Marsyas – found the discarded instrument, learned to make beautiful music, and wound up dead after challenging Apollo to a play-off.

I love Greek mythology, full of egos and drama. And my spouse studied classical archeology. We have loads of books on myth and history. One mythology handbook, written by Hyginus in Latin around 300-400 A.D., includes this great story about Athena’s flute and her vanity.

Here’s how it starts:

“They say that (Athena) was the first to fashion a flute out of deer-bone. She came to the gods’ banquet table to play it, but (Hera) and (Aphrodite) made fun of her becuase she turned blue and puffed out her cheeks.”

The puffed-cheek detail, makes me wonder if Athena’s flute was more like an oboe. But I’ll call it a flute for the sake of the story.

Athena huffed off, playing her instrument again in a forest by herself. But when she caught her reflection in a some water, she realized her fellow-goddeses were right.

“There was every reason for them to poke fun at her,” wrote Hyginus.

Athena threw out the flute and cursed it. The half-goat-half-man Marsyas, a shepherd, then discoverd the discarded instrument, learned it and practiced it.

Marsyas played the flute so well he challenged Apollo, the god of music (!), to a musical duel and he almost won. The muses and King Midas (yeah, the guy who later got the golden touch) judged the competition in different versions of the tale.

Apollo took the lead when he proved he could play his stringed instrument upside down. Flutes do not work upside down. So Marsyas lost. And his punishment? Apollo had the goat-man strung up by a tree and flayed.

My take-away is this: Don’t bother challenging the god of music to a music competition. Practical advice for all musicians.

A musician plays some kind of flute on the carvings around a tomb at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy. Photo taken November 2015.




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