In Greek myth, Apollo is the God of Harmony, Music, Prophecy and Healing. When he first came to Olympus with his lyre, the Gods could think of nothing but music. The nine Muses burst out singing while the three Graces, the three Horai and Harmonia, Hebe and Aphrodite (another group of nine) danced in a circle with Artemis leading them from the center. Even Ares and Hermes dropped their spear and staff in order to leap and cavort among the dancers. Apollo was promptly declared to be the God who brings nature into harmony. He plucks the strings of his lyre with a plectrum made of sunlight.
Except, the lyre hadn’t been invented yet.
On the day Hermes was born, he found a tortoise and used its shell to make the first lyre. He then stole Apollo’s cows for a small barbeque. When he was caught, Hermes gave the lyre to Apollo and taught him to play it as payment for the 50 cows he had already eaten. Apollo was delighted and felt he had gotten the better end of the deal saying the lyre’s harmonies caused bliss, love and restful sleep. He even used the string music to make the walls of Troy dance into place (unless that was Poseidon and his Godlike masonry).
Before the lyre lessons, Apollo played the aulos, a double-reed instrument that turned breath into flying notes and made all who heard it forget their worries. He played laments, music for sacrifices and foreign dances on the wild instrument. He even played country melodies in King Admetus's herding fields, were Apollo went to atone for several different wrongs.
Except, the aulos hadn’t been invented yet.
When Medusa was killed, her sisters wailed and keened for her so beautifully that Athena stopped to listen. She picked reeds and made the first aulos to imitate the Gorgons’ singing. The aulos became the wind instrument of choice in ancient Greece and aulos players were often kept on city payrolls just in case they were needed to appease a God or fight a plague (plagues were one of Apollo's special forms of revenge). The instrument was so common, today it is mistakenly translated as flute in English in spite of being played more like an oboe. Hermes even claimed he had invented it when he created the lyre, just to get in on the action. Apollo finally asked Athena to teach him the aulos so he could play harmonies and keep time for the antiphonal Muses in his role as their choir leader.
Except, he wasn’t the leader of the Muses yet.
Artemis sang and danced with the Muses in all the earlier stories and she was considered their dance leader even after Apollo got the higher ranking title. Some say he was in love with all of Mnemosyne’s Muse daughters and decided to stay unmarried when he couldn’t figure out how to marry all nine at once. Others said he was the father of the three Muses at Delphi; Kephiso “of the river Kephiso”, Borysthenis “strength” and Apollonis, a female version of Apollo.
In all the stories of Apollo’s many conquests, there is not one mention of a possible mother for the singing poets. The Muses of Delphi may have accepted Apollo as their honorary father, but the story doesn’t seem to have been finished. Possibly this was because they weren’t the most popular Muses anyway. This left hints and gaps showing how Apollo had moved into a place already filled to the rafters with Gods.
When Apollo claimed the Pythian oracle, it already spoke in meters and poems, which the Muses had loved long before Apollo was born. Delphi’s three resident Muses, even had to be renamed for the low, middle and high strings on the lyre that Apollo played before Apollo was allowed to join their trio.
Speaking of lyres, there were two different kinds that were used strictly for different styles of music. Apollo only played one with his uplifting, character building music. Dionysus played the other for his drunken runs through the mountains and to pump up the emotions of his theater shows. The Muses of course loved all music, not just Apollo Approved chords. Its hardly surprising that “Apollo’s Muses” kept running off to see Dionysus’s latest plays with their toe tapping tunes. Two Muses, Thaleia and Melpomene, even claimed comedy and tragedy as their special musical areas.
The Contests: Reeds vs. Strings
One day, after Apollo gave up the aulos for the lyre, Marsyas, a goat-footed satyr, found Athena’s first set of aulos reeds which almost played themselves thanks to the Goddess’s breath having touched them. He naturally challenged Apollo to a contest, satyrs having very little sense. They met and played in Phyrgia near a lake full of reeds perfect for making aulos mouth pieces. Some say Marsyas won and Apollo was so furious, he skinned Marsyas and used the goatskin as a wineskin. Some say Apollo won and skinned Marsyas for losing but the little country Gods turned Marsyas into a stream. Some say Marsyas won the first round but then Apollo turned his lyre upside down and played again or he sang while playing, both tricks a wind player can’t do. In other words, Apollo the God of natural rules and order, cheated. In most versions, the Muses were the judges, making it seem even less likely to have been a fair contest. Some people have claimed this story was meant to show that the civilized lyre was a better instrument than the bawdy aulos which was used in the worship of various foreign Gods. Although how the versions with Apollo losing show that, I’m not quite sure. The tag to the story, that Marsyas’s aulos was dedicated to Apollo after the contest, raises even more questions. One or two versions even have Apollo feeling sorry for how he treats his competition and tearing the strings from his lyre in atonement. Finally, Satyrs may have been the mythical version of shaman-priests wearing animal skins. To “skin” one would be nothing more than taking off a heavy robe and returning the priest to his everyday life.
|Pan playing the double aulos|
Cinyras/Kyknos was a king of Cyprus, a priest of Aphrodite and sometimes a son of Apollo. He got into a lyre contest with Apollo, too, but this time, both seem to have played the same instrument. The challenge suddenly became much more personal. Cinyras lost, we’re told, and threw himself into the sea or was turned into a swan (sacred to both Apollo and Aphrodite). His 50 daughters also turned into birds, out of sorrow it was said. Though on a side note, the Muses, who were known to turn into birds themselves, had once or twice changed other musical contestants into birds.
Paean, The Music Therapist
In early Greece, many healers used paeans as musical charms that both praised and asked a God for help. They were performed as a prayer, for good luck, to avert evil, to ask for healing, before battles and after victories. The early formal paean had a solo leader and a choral response while later versions were mostly antiphonal chorus, both very like the description of the Muses singing. They were usually accompanied by the kithara (Apollo’s lyre), but on the battlefield they were accompanied by both aulos and kithara, the instruments from Apollo’s contests. Paean is also the name of the God who healed both Ares and Hades with herbs and music when no one else could. Eventually, Paean became one of Apollo’s more famous titles, though other Gods with links to healing used that title too.
Apollo Musagetes “of the Muses”
Apollo Kitharodos/Chithaeroedus “the lyre singer”
Apollo Nomius “of the meadow/pasture” who plays shepherd pipes/aulos
Apollo Pythius of oracles, meters and poems
Apollo Paean “healer” and song
Apollo may have gotten top billing, but he always ended up sharing music and roles with others. He learned music and song from anyone he could, civilized or not. He organized music, defined harmony and made music into the finest, most soothing balm. Apollo is the dabbler who learns new music for fun and the student driven by ambition. He is the patron of all the divas who are justly proud of their skills and all the musicians who can’t wait to learn a new instrument. He is the first music theorist and orchestrator, the conductor and the promoter. He dragged society round by the ears to honor musical accomplishments and made music something all people could share. He shows how to use music to bring peace and healing to the soul.