Gateway to the Classics: Gods and Heroes by R. E. Francillon
Gods and Heroes by  R. E. Francillon

The Flayed Piper; or, The Story of Marsyas

T HE men who filled the earth after the Great Flood were a great deal cleverer than people are now. A king's son named Cadmus invented the alphabet—which is, perhaps, the most wonderful thing in the world. And when he wanted to build the city of Thebes, he got a great musician, named Amphion, to play to the stones and trees, so that they, by dancing to his tunes, built themselves into walls and houses without the help of any masons or carpenters. At last men became so wonderfully clever in everything, that a physician named Æsculapius, who was a son of Apollo, found out how to bring back dead people to life again.

But when Jupiter heard that Æsculapius had really made a dead man live, he was angry, and rather frightened too. For he thought, "If men know how to live forever, they will become as great and as wise as the gods, and who knows what will happen then?" So he ordered the Cyclopes to make him a thunderbolt, and he threw it down from heaven upon Æsculapius and killed him. No other man knew the secret of Æsculapius, and it died with him.

But Apollo was very fond and proud of his son, and was in a great rage with Jupiter for having killed him. He could not punish Jupiter, but he took his bow and arrows and shot all the Cyclopes who had made the thunderbolt.

Then it was Jupiter's turn to be angry with Apollo for killing his servants, who had only done what they were told to do. He sentenced him to be banished from the sky for nine years.

So Apollo left the sky and came down to the earth, bringing with him nothing but his lyre. You know that Mount Olympus, where the gods live, is in Thessaly, so that Thessaly was the country in which Apollo found himself when he came down from the sky. He did not know what to do with himself for the nine years, so he went to a king of Thessaly named Admētus, who received him very kindly, and made him his shepherd. I don't think Admetus could have known who Apollo was, or he would hardly have set the great god of the Sun to look after his sheep for him.

So Apollo spent his time pleasantly enough in watching the king's sheep and in playing on his lyre.

Now there was a very clever but very conceited musician named Marsyas, who had invented the flute, and who played on it better than anybody in the world. One day Marsyas happened to be passing through Thessaly, when he saw a shepherd sitting by a brook watching his sheep, and playing to them very beautifully on a lyre. He went up to the shepherd, and said:—

"You play very nicely, my man. But nobody can do much with those harps and fiddles and trumpery stringed things. You should learn the flute; then you'd know what music means!"

"Indeed?" said Apollo. "I'm sorry, for your sake, that your ears are so hard to please. As for me, I don't care for whistles and squeaking machines."

"Ah!" said Marsyas, "that's because you never heard Me!"

"And you dare to tell me," said Apollo, "that you put a wretched squeaking flute before the lyre, which makes music for the gods in the sky?"

"And you dare to say," said Marsyas, "that a miserable twanging, tinkling lyre is better than a flute? What an ignorant blockhead you must be!"

At last their wrangling about their instruments grew to quarreling; and then Apollo said:—

"We shall never settle the question in this way. We will go to the next village and give a concert. You shall play your flute and I will play my lyre, and the people shall say which is the best—yours or mine."

"With all my heart," said Marsyas. "I know what they will say. But we must have a wager on it. What shall it be?"

"We will bet our skins," said Apollo. "If I lose, you shall skin me; and if you lose, I will skin you."

"Agreed," said Marsyas.

So they went to the next village, and called the people together to judge between the flute and the lyre.

Marsyas played first. He played a little simple tune on his flute so beautifully that everybody was charmed. But Apollo then played the same tune on his lyre, even more beautifully still.

Then Marsyas took his flute again and played all sorts of difficult things—flourishes, runs, shakes, everything you can think of—in the most amazing manner, till the people thought they had never heard anything so wonderful. And indeed never had such flute-playing been heard.

But Apollo, instead of following him in the same fashion, only played another simple tune—but this time he sang while he played.

You can imagine how gloriously the god of Music sang! You can fancy how much chance Marsyas had of winning when Apollo's voice was carrying the hearts of the people away. . . . "There," said Apollo, when he had finished, "beat that if you can—and give me your skin!"

"It is not fair," said Marsyas. "This is not a singing match: the question is, Which is the best instrument—the flute or the lyre?"

"It is  fair," said Apollo. "If you can sing while you are playing the flute, then I have nothing to say. But you can't sing, you see, because you have to use your lips and your breath in blowing into those holes. Is not that instrument best which makes you sing best—Yes or No? And if I mustn't use my breath, you mustn't use yours."

You must judge for yourself which was right. But the people decided for Apollo. And so Apollo, having won the wager, took Marsyas and skinned him, and hung his body on a tree.

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