August 19, 2015

Athena and Hermes Musical Invention

Athena and Hermes. Aulos and lyre. Pipes and strings. And the much neglected trumpet and shepherd's pipe. These are Gods of innovation, new uses and thoughts. These are also the Gods who gave away their creations without hesitation. To pay for a theft or because of a glance in the mirror, they tossed their instruments aside for others to play. They could always make more.

Hermes’s story is always good for a laugh so let’s begin there. Three days after he was born, Hermes had already gotten bored with behaving himself. So off he went to his brother’s pastures and stole Apollo’s cows. He cooked them up and settled down to some inventing. He caught and killed a tortoise and used it’s shell and the guts of the sun God’s cows to build the first lyre in the world (well, so he said.) When Apollo finally found the little thief, the chords that poured out of the lyre stopped him in his tracks. Singing with the Muses and playing reed pipes suddenly seemed like ancient history compared to the thought of playing this new instrument. And Hermes, clever little trickster that he is, offered not only to give Apollo the lyre but to teach him how to play it. In exchange for the cows that he had already stolen.
After Apollo left to write up he’s newly created rules of harmony, Hermes skipped off and gathered reeds to build a syrinx (though some say he stole that instrument from Pan and who’s to say which one of these two is more trustworthy) and continued to fill his after dinner hours with new music.
Once, Zeus asked Hermes for help getting past Argos, the hundred eyed monster who never slept. Hermes took his syrinx and played lullabies to Argos until all of his eyes finally closed. Some say that Apollo traded his golden staff and lessons in prophecy for Hermes’ shepherd's pipe.

Athena’s music by contrast seems to be tied to sorrow and pain. She had given Perseus the tools he needed to kill Medusa of course but when Medusa died, her sisters wept. And keened. And sang. Athena, the war Goddess, promptly dropped her spear and began shaping a pair of reeds into a double-reed instrument, the aulos. Athena could use this hollow tube to transform all the sorrow and grief of the world into laments and dirges that broke and healed the hearts that heard them. (Many people translate aulos as flute which is why so many sources say Athena invented the flute. As a Goddess of wisdom, she herself would be the first to point out how wrong that is.)
And then, as suddenly as she started, Athena stopped playing. Some say she didn’t like how she looked in the mirror, others that Hermes made fun of how her cheeks puffed out. But maybe she knew others would need some way to release their deepest, musical voice and that is why she dropped her reed pipes to the ground. But even after she stopped playing, the Goddess’s breath still lived in the aulos. They hummed in the forest until a satyr named Marsyas found them and brought their melodies back to the world.
She guarded and supported the musicians of Olympus, the Muses. She caught and tamed Pegasus, the winged horse child of Medusa, and gave him to the Muses for their pleasure and delight.
She was called Athena Salpinx (war trumpet) in Argos and she is credited with inventing all forms of art that require time and study.

These two Gods are the inventors of their pantheon. Each new object they create draws gasps of amazement and becomes sacred in an eye blink. But these two beings barely seem to notice how precious their inventions are. They hand their creations off to others without a second thought, knowing that the most valuable gift they are giving us is the ability to imagine new ways to use the objects they leave scattered around us.

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