Never enter a musical contest with a god

Marsyas being flayed by ApolloMinerva, goddess of the mind, war and music, invents the aulos, a type of double-pipe reed, but when the other gods make fun of her for the way it makes her cheeks bulge, she throws it away. The satyr Marsyas finds it and becomes a skillful player. He challenges Apollo to a contest, to be judged by the Muses, but naturally he is defeated by Apollo, who then flays Marysas alive for his hubris. The myth suggests the superiority of the orderly, refined music of the stringed lyre over the sounds of the countryside played by a nature spirit (the superiority of culture over country). For the Pythagoreans (6th century BC), the lyre did indeed embody harmony that could be broken by the shrill tones of the aulos. Pliny, in the first century AD, describes how a painting of Marsyas being flayed was displayed in a temple as a warning of what happens to those who disturb the social order.

This same preference for “culture” over “country” can be observed in another mythic contest with Apollo. Pan plays the panpipes. He is an ancient god — apparently older than the Olympians. The worship of Pan began in a rural, mountainous region called Arcadia. His sudden appearance in lonely places is said to inspire fear, or “panic.” Depending on the music he plays, he is capable of arousing inspiration, sexuality or panic. He challenges Apollo to a music contest. Although Pan’s music entrances King Midas, the rustic reeds he plays are no match for the sophisticated artistry of Apollo on his lyre, and Apollo is declared the winner. (Midas challenges the judgment, and is turned into an ass for his insolence.)

Contests between players of the kithara (a large lyre) and the aulos became increasingly popular in Greek culture after the fifth century B.C., and the number of virtuous multiplied. Aristotle rails against too much professional music training that produces such technical show-offs in his “Politics.”

Other mythic contests abound. The nine daughters of Pierus, king of Macedonia, are challenged to a singing contest by the Muses, to be judged by the nymphs. Calliope, accompanying herself on the lute, represents the Muses and wins the contest. For their beautiful singing that rivaled the Muses, the daughters are turned into magpies. Another consort of sisters — the Sirens — were induced by Hera to enter an ill-fated singing contest with the Muses and, naturally, lost. The Muses plucked out their feathers (previously given to the Sirens by the gods so the sisters could search for Proserpine by sea) and made them into crowns.

Thamyris, who played the kithara and was known for his beauty and singing quality (and was the same-sex boyfriend of Hyacinthus), also had a musical contest with the Muses. They agreed that, if he won, he would get to sleep with all of them; if he lost, he would be deprived of whatever they chose. By now you can guess the outcome. The Muses took away his sight and musical ability.

It’s not a good idea to enter a musical contest with a god.

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