The divine origin of music and flute in Greek Mythology

by Yulia Berry

The ancient Greeks thought music was of divine origin. The gods and Muses were connected with music, and some even invented musical instruments: the lyre by Hermes or Apollo, the simple flute by Athene, the shepherd’s flute by Pan. 

The Greeks cultivated music at a very early epoch. They used it not only for entertainment and all kinds of events, but also gave it a great importance in refining the feelings and building the character. Numerous myths tell us how powerful the music can be. (Remember the beautiful and sad myth of Orpheus and Euridice?)

At the public festivals, such the Pythian games the Greeks also held music contests. Athens, the home of Greek dramatic poetry, in its golden age was the main city where professional musicians met each other. Public concerts became common towards the end of the Republic and formed a part of the musical contests. By the time of the Persian Wars the music got to its highest point of the development, which completed the ancient system.

Dancing and music entertainment became common at the meals of aristocratic families. Younger family members took instruction in these arts, as it was a part of higher education. 

It’s interesting to note that the flute playing was limited to certain occasions, as its sound seemed to the ancients to arouse enthusiasm and passion [Aristotle, Politics, viii 3].  For example, dramatic music was introduced with the Greek Drama, but limited to flute-playing. 

Let’s review some mentions to flute and music in Greek mythology.

Euterpe 

Euterpe is one of the nine muses, fathered by Zeus. All the muses were assigned various roles and Euterpe became Muse of Music and Lyric Poetry. She is almost always depicted holding a flute. 

Eustache Lesueur 1626-1656 Paris Clio, Euterpe et Thalie 1655 Louvre.

Composers often drew inspirarion from the Greek myphology. Below are a few pieces that any flutist, who loves myphology, can add to their repertoire: 

Euterpe by Augusta Read Thomas. A two-minute fanfare composed in 2008.  

Euterpe: Greek Muse of Music by Kevin Kaisershot. Composed in a moderate 4/4 time, the flute soloist gets a chance to show their technical ability intertwined with ornamentation in a light and lilting melody. 

Athena 

The goddess Athena was the goddess of wisdom, strategy in warfare, and crafts. She was the patroness of the city of Athenes and helped Greek heroes, such as Hercules and Odysseus on their adventures.

Athene invented the flute, but discarded it after discovering that her face is distorted while playing. 

Hyginus included a great story about Athena’s flute in his book, written in Latin around 300-400 A.D. 

“They say that (Athena) was the first to fashion a flute out of deer-bone. She came to the gods’ banquet table to play it, but (Hera) and (Aphrodite) made fun of her because she turned blue and puffed out her cheeks.”

Athena ran to a forest and tried to play it again by herself. Suddenly she caught her reflection in a stream and realized that her fellow goddesses were right. 

“There was every reason for them to poke fun at her,” wrote Hyginus. 

Athena got so upset that she threw out the flute and cursed it. The curse would severely punish anyone who picks up the flute. 

The satyr Marsyas found the discarded instrument and learned how to play it.

Marsyas 

Marsyas became so skilled in flute playing that he challenged Apollo, the god of music (!), to a musical duel! It was judged by the Muses and King Midas (who later got the golden touch). The terms of the duel stated that the winner could treat the defeated side any way he wanted. 

First, Marsyas played such a wild and coaxing tune that the birds hopped from the trees to get near, the animals came up closer, and the trees swayed as if they wanted to dance. Then, all living creatures started dancing wildly, and Midas thought it was the sweetest music in the world. 

When it got to his turn, Apollo rose, holding a golden lyre in his hands. He touched the strings of the lyre, and suddenly the music mesmerized them all. Never before gods or mortals heard anything as beautiful and emotional as Apollo’s music. The wild creatures stood still, the trees kept every leaf from rustling, and the earth and air went utterly silent. When Apollo stopped playing, it took some time for the spell of his music to break. Finally, the listeners fell at Apollo’s feet and proclaimed him the winner. 

All but Midas, who alone would not admit that the music was better than Marsyas. “If thine ears are so dull, mortal,” said Apollo, “they shall take the shape that best suits them.” 

Apollo touched the ears of Midas, and they turned into the donkey ears. 

Karel van Mander, 1548-1606, Amsterdam. Landscape with the Judgment of Midas. 

However, several versions tell us more about how it all went at the end. 

The most notable are found in Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History, Hyginus’ Fabulae, 165, Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheke i.4.2, and Pliny’s Natural History 16.89. 

According to Hyginus, Marsyas was departing as the victor after the first round, when Apollo turned his lyre upside down and played the same tune. Marsyas could not do with his flute, so he succumbed. 

According to Diodorus Siculus, who admired Marsyas for his intelligence and self-control, he was defeated when Apollo started singing along playing the lyre. Marsyas protested, arguing that it is not fair because he can’t sing while playing the flute. However, Apollo replied that by blowing into the flute, Marsyas was doing almost the same thing himself. Thus, the Muses supported Apollo and announced his victory. 

Yet another version states that Marsyas played the flute out of tune! Out of shame, he accepted the defeat and Apollo’s punishment, which was absolutely cruel. Apollo had the satyr strung up by a tree and flayed alive. The legends describe how his skin was nailed to a pine tree and moved joyfully when a flute was played. 

Guido Reni, 1575-1642, Bologna. Apollo flaying Marsyas, 1633

Marsyas’ brothers, nymphs, gods, and goddesses mourned his death. Their tears, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, were the source of the river Marsyas in Phrygia, which today is called Çine Creek. A bridge on the river Marsyas, built towards the end of the Roman period, is still called by the satyr’s name, Marsyas. 

The contest symbolizes the eternal struggle between two aspects of human nature and has been a favorite subject in art. 

Paintings taking Marsyas as a subject also include “Apollo and Marsyas” by Michelangelo Anselmi (c. 1492 – c.1554), “The Flaying of Marsyas” by Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), the Flaying of Marsyas by Titian (c. 1570–1576) and “Apollo and Marsyas” by Bartolomeo Manfredi (St. Louis Art Museum).

There are beautiful music compositions that will make a great addition to any flutist repertoir:

Leonardo Lorenzo, Mythological Suite Suite mitologica, for flute, op. 38 has three parts: Pan, Marsyas and Apollo.

Lorenzo (1875-1962) was an Italian virtuoso flutist, composer for the flute repertoire, researcher and prominent flute pedagogue. Among his students was Julius Baker. He was a soloist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Gustav Mahler and had a very successful flute career.

Pan and Syrinx 

One of the most famous myths about Pan told us about the origin of his pan flute. A pan flute is also known as panpipes or Syrinx. It consists of multiple pipes without lateral holes, which are fastened together and gradually increasing in length. The pipes are typically made from local reeds, giant cane, or bamboo. Other materials include wood, plastic, metal, and ivory. 

Pan was the god of the wild and patron of shepherds. He was half-goat and half-man. The Romans identified Pan with the Italian Faunus. 

Ovid included the story of Pan and Syrinx in Book One of the Metamorphoses. 

The story begins when Pan fell in love with a nymph named Syrinx. One day while romping through the forest of Arcadia, Pan saw a beautiful nymph Syrinx, a daughter of the River God, Ladon. Pan immediately felt a desire and determination to have the beautiful nymph for himself. Syrinx was used to being pursued because her incredible beauty brought her lots of unwanted attention from both gods and men. Syrinx was a skilled huntress who could move fast through a forest and could endure a long run. She could easily elude her pursuers in the past, but unfirtunately not this time. Unlike the other men, Pan was able to run for long periods of time through the forests and mountains without tiring. He chased Syrinx for days through the hills, mountains, forests and valleys of Arcadia. Syrinx was exhausted and desperate to escape Pan’s chase. She ran to the river, where she begged her father, river god Ladon to help her. A moment before Pan’s grasp, she was turned into wild marsh reeds.

Syrinx by Rubens, Peter Paul; 1577–1640, and Brueghel, Jan the Younger; 1601–1687.
“Landscape with Pan and Syrinx”, undated.

(Figures painted by Rubens, landscape and birds by Brueghel)

Enraged, Pan smashed the marsh reeds into pieces. As he sat at the river bank distraught over his lost “love,” the wind picked up and blew through the broken reeds. It made a magical sound, which reminded Pan the sweet melody of Syrinx’s voice. Desperate to hear her voice again, Pan gathered nine different sizes of broken marsh reeds, tied them together in a line from smallest to largest, and named the instrument Syrinx in honor of his reluctant love. 

In the end, Pan got what he wanted – he never spent a day without his love. 

Pan playing his pipes by Walter Crane, 1883

The legend inspired some of the greatest composers to write incredibly beautiful music and flute solos.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy

In 1894 Claude Debussy wrote a beautiful symphonic poem Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). It is based on the poem by the famous French poet Stephané Mallarme. 

At the premiere in Paris, the flute solo was played by Georges Barrère.

Gustave Doret, the conductor who premiered the piece wrote in his memoirs, Temps et contretemps, 1942:

“There was a vast silence in the hall as I ascended to the podium and our splendid flutist, Barrère, unfolded his opening line. All at once I felt behind me, as some conductors can, an audience that was totally spellbound. It was a complete triumph, and I had no hesitation in breaking the rule forbidding encores.” 

Composer and conductor Pierre Boulez even declared that

“the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.”

There are many available arrangements for flutists who would like to perform the solo at concerts. 

Syrinx by Claude Debussy

In 1913 Debussy wrote a piece for solo flute Syrinx, expressing Pan’s sadness over losing his love. The work became incredibly popular and is an indispensable part of any flutist’s repertoire. 

La Flûte De Pan, op.15 by J.Mouquet

In 1904 Jules Mouquet composed sonata La Flûte De Pan, op.15 for flute and piano. It includes Pan et les Bergers, Pan et les Oiseaux and Pan et les Nymphes. There is also a version for flute and orchestra.  The sonata is dedicated to French flutist and teacher Léopold Jean Baptiste Lafleurance, who had been a student of Paul Taffanel. Jules Mouquet taught at the Conservatoire de Paris in the early 1900s as a professor of harmony and composition. 

Bourdin, Chanson De Pan, Flute Solo piece (1968)

Roger Bourdin (1923-1976) was a French flutist. He was a professor at the Versailles conservatory. He founded a flute quartet with Pol Mule, Jean-Pierre Rampal and Eugène Masson in 1945. Bourdin had a successful carrier as a performer, teacher and conductor.

Jacques Charpentier: Pour Syrinx (Flute & Piano)

Jacques Charpentier (1933-2017) was a French composer and organist. Pour Syrinx was published in 2002.

Daphnis

In Greek mythology, Daphnis was a Sicilian shepherd who was the son of Hermes and a nymph who created the genre of pastoral poetry and was taught by Pan to play the shepherd’s flute. In the later legends, he was named a teacher of Marsyas. 

Pan teaching Daphnis to play the flute

In the second century A.D., Greek novelist Longus wrote Daphnis and Chloe. The story tells us about a girl and a boy, abandoned at birth and brought up by shepherds. They fall in love at an early age, but soon get kidnapped and separated. After several adventures, they reunited. 

“Daphnis et Chloé” by Baron François Gérard, 1824-1825

Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé (1912) refers to Pan and Syrinx’s story. Pan is described throughout a flute solo after he appears to rescue Chloé from pirates. At the banquette in his honor, he plays a passionate and tender melody, remembering Syrinx, while Chloé dances. The flute solo became one of the most important solos in the flute orchestral repertoire and is often included in audition requirements.

There is an arrangement for flute and piano Daphnis et Chloe, Suite no.2 and more various arrangements for flute ensembles on the same website.

Orpheus and Eurydice

Ovid opened the Book 10 of Metamorphoses with one of the greatest and most enduring stories of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice (c 1814)

Orpheus loses the love of his life Eurydice after she is bitten by a poisonous snake. He mourns his loss and the whole world mourns with him. Heartbroken and desperate, he starts begging Hades, the god of the underworld to give her back. Moved by his love Hades agrees to this, but with one condition: he must not look back to his beloved before they are safe together again in the world of men. 

Edward Poynter (1836–1919), Orpheus and Eurydice (1862)

He fails at the end, and loses Eurydice this time forever.
After three years a group of female worshipers of god Dionysys, called Maenads, blind hatred, teared him alive to pieces for refusing to entertain them while mourning the loss of his wife. His soul floats down to Hades, where he is finally reunited with Eurydice.

Dance of the Blessed Spirits

In 1762 Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote opera Orfeo ed Euridice. It was the first of Gluck’s “reform” operas in which he attempted to replace the complex music and plot from the traditional ‘opera seria’ for more clean and simpler structure.
Since the premiere happened for the birthday of Emperor Franz of Austria, Gluck was forced to change the bloodthirsty end.

In 1774 Gluck revised the score for a production by the Paris Opera and included a ballet part Dance of the blessed spirits, which contains a famous flute solo.

Hector Berlioz wrote in his Treatise on Instrumentation (1843):

“When listening to the D-minor melody of the pantomime in the Elysian-Fields scene in Orfeo, one is immediately convinced that only a flute could play this melody appropriately… The voice starts almost inaudibly, seeming afraid to be overheard; then it sighs softly and rise to the expression of reproach, of deep pain, to the cry of a heart torn by incurable wounds; gradually it sinks into a plaint, a sigh, and the sorrowful murmur of a resigned soul. Gluck was, indeed, a great poet!”


 The flute repertoire has more beautiful pieces, based on Greek mythology.

Polymnia e Tersicore for Solo Flute by Onorio Zaralli

Polymnia is the Muse of sacred poetry, sacred hymn, dance, and eloquence as well as agriculture and pantomime. Tersicore (Terpsicore) is one of the nine Muses and goddess of dance and chorus.

The Nymphs by Onorio Zaralli for piccolo and three flutes.

Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in mountainous regions and forests by springs or rivers.
Other nymphs, always in the shape of young maidens, were part of the retinue of a god, such as Dionysus, Hermes, or Pan, or a goddess, generally the huntress Artemis.
Nymphs tended to frequent areas distant from humans but could be encountered by lone travelers outside the village, where their music might be heard, and the traveler could spy on their dancing or bathing in a stream or pool, either during the noon heat or in the middle of the night. Nymphs were the frequent target of satyrs.

I hope this article made you inspired to dive into the incredibly beautiful, dramatic and intense world of Greek Mythology and explore the available flute repertoire.


Yulia Berry

Web Flute Academy | The Babel Flute | | New England Flute Institute

Yulia Berry is an American flutist of Russian origin, founder of Web Flute Academy, The Babel Flute and New England Flute Institute, creator and developer of the popular “All about Flute” Mobile app, highly experienced flutist and mentor teaching at all levels, with a Doctor of Music Arts degree focused in Flute Performance, Pedagogy and Music Education from the Saint Petersburg State Conservatory named after N.A. Rimsky-Korsakov (Russia).