Apollo – Taken from Parnassus or Apollo and the Muses (c.1640) by
Simon Vouet (Source – Wikipedia)

Amongst other things, the Olympian Apollo was the god of music who had a particular flair for playing the lyre. The son of Zeus and Leto, Apollo had acquired his instrument from his paternal half-brother Hermes, who before they met stole his oxen. However his deed was uncovered and when Apollo went to retrieve his cattle, he happened to hear his brother play a little. So taken was he with the sound that he allowed Hermes to keep his ill-gotten gains in return for the musical instrument, on which he learned to play the most beautiful music ever heard by man or god.

The Music Contest of Apollo and Pan

Pan, the god of shepherds and nature, was also a great musician who invented and played the Pan Pipes. So arrogant was he about his own talents, that he challenged Apollo to a musical duel. They chose the mountain Tmolus to decide the winner of the contest as, the two agreed, nobody was as old and wise as the hills.

The followers of the two gods came to witness the contest including a particularly devout mortal follower of Pan named Midas. Pan got the contest underway and the music he made had a wild quality about it that was so endearing that birds flew from their tree top perches to get closer, squirrels left their holes and even the trees themselves swayed as if dancing to the sounds.

Next was Apollo’s turn, when he touched his golden lyre the music he produced was his finest yet. Everything in the surrounding area, the wild creatures, the babbling brook, the plant life and even the air stopped moving, not wanting to make a sound lest they miss out on the heavenly music they bore witness to. When the music finally stooped, all listeners had a feeling of grief, as though they had just said goodbye forever to their own mothers and fathers.

Competition between Apollo and Pan (C. 1677) by Jacob Jordaens (Source – Wikipedia)

Tmolus immediately declared Apollo the winner and all who were present fell at his feet, all except Midas, whose loyalty to Pan was so strong he could not admit that he had lost the contest. Apollo was bemused by this and told him, “If your ears are so dull mortal, they shall take the shape that best suits them”. He them touched Midas and his ears transformed into those of an ass.

The Music Contest of Apollo and Marsyas

Marsyas was a satyr, a forest god with the face and body of a man, and the legs, ears and a tail of a goat. One day while out walking, he found a flute that had been discarded by the goddess Athena who disliked playing the instrument because it made her cheeks go puffy and red. As the flute had touched the lips of such a powerful goddess, Marsyas found that when he played it, he could produce the most beautiful music he had ever heard.

So good was the sound he created, he believed that he could even outplay the great musician Apollo so he promptly challenged the superior god to a music contest. Apollo was angered that such a minor deity would have the impudence to challenge him so agreed to the contest and declared that the winner could choose any forfeit he liked for the loser. It was also decided that the Muses, being goddesses of music, song and dance would make the best judges for the contest as their knowledge and fair-mindedness were well known.

The competition lasted several rounds with both making music so beautiful that it was imposable to decide the winner. Eventually, Apollo came up with a winning tactic and added the tones of his sweet singing voice to his heavenly melody. As he needed his mouth to play the flute, the Satyr couldn’t match this and so the Muses declared the victory was Apollo’s.

Apollo and Marsyas (17th century) by Giulio Carpioni (Source – Wikipedia)

Still unhappy that his opponent had had the audacity to challenge him, Apollo came up with a dreadful forfeit for him and had the Satyr flayed alive there and then. So well-loved was the unfortunate musician by his companions, that upon witnessing his terrible fate, their tears joined together to form a river that is still known to this day by his name, Marsyas.


Bishop, D. [Internet]. 2013. The Musical Duel of Pan and Apollo. Panflutejedi.com. Available from: http://www.panflutejedi.com/pan-apollo.html [Accessed November 19, 2013].

Goldberger, K. [Internet]. 2011. Phoebus-Apollo. Rochester Institute of Technology. Available from: http://people.rit.edu/asg1478/iweb/turbo/apollo.html [Accessed November 19, 2013].

Kern, D. [Internet]. 2013. A Brief History of Apollo. Penn State University. Available from: http://www.personal.psu.edu/djk189/apollo.htm [Accessed November 19, 2013].