The Satyr’s Skin, or, Why I Flayed Marsyas

Will My own books, Philosophy, writing 1 Comment

            <a href=""><img src="" alt="goat music" width="204" height="300" class="alignright size-medium wp-image-84222" /></a>I'm not sure precisely when I came across the story of Marsyas, the satyr who was flayed by the god Apollo. It was perhaps when I was an art student, immersing myself in the iconography of the Renaissance. Or perhaps it was before then (because there's still this curious notion that Greek myths are charming tales fit for children). But from the first, it was a story that filled me with horror.

The tale, for those who are unfamiliar with it, goes like this. Marsyas finds some pipes belonging to Athene, and discovers that he can play sweetly upon them. Because he’s slightly over-excitable, he challenges the god Apollo, who plays upon the lyre, to a contest in the art of music. Apollo accepts and sets the terms of the contest: the winner should be permitted to do anything he wishes to the loser. Marsyas, sure of his ground, accepts.

The contest takes place on the slopes of mount Tmolus. The first round is pronounced a draw. Apollo, outraged, demands a second round, but this time with both musicians playing with their instruments turned upside down. This time, Apollo wins outright: Marsyas can make no more than feeble farting sounds through his pipes. And so, Apollo — god of music, truth, light and several other things besides (including plagues and mice) — sets about skinning Marsyas alive. The tears of the mourners, Marsyas’s friends, are so copious that they become a river. And the river is named after the poor, flayed satyr.

Here’s how Ovid puts tells the grim ending of the tale.

‘Help!’ Marsyas clamoured. ‘Why are you stripping me from myself? Never again I promise! Playing a pipe is not worth this!’ But in spite of his cries the skin was torn off the whole surface of his body: it was all one raw wound. Blood flowed everywhere, is nerves were exposed, unprotected, his veins pulsed with no skin to cover them. It was possible to count his throbbing organs, and the chambers of the lungs, clearly visible within his breast. Then the woodland gods, the fauns who haunt the countryside, mourned for him…

Apollo and Marsyas, Palma il GiovaneAlthough I’d been familiar with the story for a while, it really started to haunt me over a decade ago, after the attacks on the World Trade Centre, and during the strange, hallucinatory lead-up to the Iraq war. As I watched events unfold — my ears filled with Apollonian political talk of justice and right and duty and necessity — I found myself increasingly preoccupied with the questions that such talk obscured: questions about the trembling flesh of real, living beings caught up in these terrible events.

By the time the the war came and went and turned into the uneasy, bloody aftermath that followed, I was so obsessed with the figure of Marsyas that I decided to retell this story myself.

It took a long time between that decision, and the final publication of my novel, Goat Music. You have to give myths time: to really write or rewrite them, you have to let them seep into your imagination and your flesh and your bones. You can’t rush. For several years, I read every Greek tragedy, comedy and satyr play I could get my hands on. I worked through a primer on ancient Greek (I was working in a museum at the time, and I used to find quiet corners to hide from the public so that I could study). I ploughed through tomes on Greek myth. I studied sculptures and paintings. And increasingly, I was disturbed by the fact that many readings of the story in European history — perhaps a larger part of them — tended to take the side of Apollo, or at least to err in his favour. They disapproved of Marsyas, whilst looking upon Apollo in a more kindly light: Apollo the cheat; Apollo the murderer; Apollo the torturer.

Take, for example, the following from the Italian Renaissance text, the Ovidio Volgare or ‘Popular Ovid’, which I found in Winternitz’s 1967 book, Musical Instruments and their Symbolism in Western Art.

And Marsyas means: a man who always lives in error. And it is the same to say Marsyas in Greek and Ironius in Latin, since both of them wish to argue with Apollo — that is, the wise one. But Apollo defeats them with the kithrara — that is, with real resounding arguments — with the strings and not with the voice. And this means that knowledge comes from the heart. This is proven by the kithara, which is played by being held against the heart; this shows that the true knowledge comes from the heart. That Marsyas was defeated and Apollo flayed him: this means he stripped him of his errors and assigned to him the truth, and made it clear to people how little brains he had in him — at the place where Ovid says one could see the entrails. And Ovid says Marsyas became a river: this is because, as the river flows openly over the ground, the mistake of people like Marsyas is revealed, as is also the science of Apollo, that is to say, the wise people — the science by which the world is governed and ruled.

I wondered then, as I wonder now, what it takes to read the story of Apollo and Marsyas in this fashion. What kind of dulling of the imagination? What kind of wilful refusal to look at the bare fact of suffering? Because here it seems that everything that takes the side of the flesh is abolished. We are left with ‘real, resounding arguments’, arguments that have the power to — in perhaps the most terrifying passage of all — assign others to truth. Reading this, I thought about the way that Britain and America had set about this business of ‘assigning truth’ over the previous few years. And it seemed that I could hear the sounds of Apollo’s lyre woven into their arguments.

Not only is the Ovidio Volgare underpinned by a profoundly unsettling and morally questionable notion the value of truth above all else, it also omits all reference to Apollo’s trickery and deceit. And this is strange. How is it that truth requires such trickery to do its work? Why do real, resounding arguments need tricks, sleights of hand, and dodgy dossiers? How strange it is that the work of justice should have to kick over the traces, so that we can’t see how this justice is justified.

When at last I realised how I wanted to retell this story, I knew I wanted the book to be something neither comedy nor tragedy. Instead, I wanted a fleshier kind of thing: a story that felt something like a satyr play, that strange third genre of ancient Greek drama. I wanted exuberance, foolishness, silly songs, sex, banter, earthiness, delight, pleasure, fart jokes. I wanted those things that remind us of the flesh. Because the flesh matters. And I wanted to pit these things of the flesh against those gods who want us to forget that this is where life matters most. And if I wasn’t sure I could prevent Apollo’s victory a further time — the gravitational pull of the myth was too strong — at least I wanted the victory, if it came, to lose all its relish. I wanted that insistent buzzing of the flesh to unsettle and trouble the victor.

So when I set about writing, it was in the hope that by retelling the story, I might go some way towards speaking on behalf of Marsyas and on behalf of his so-called foolishness. And it was in the hope that I might be able to bring to the fore Apollo’s deceit, so that it would be possible to look at the story afresh. As it eventually took shape, I realised that Goat Music was a book that needed to grapple with far more horror than I have faced before as a writer. This made it neither easy nor quick to write. I am an optimist at heart, I think. And yet I knew that in this retelling, it might not be possible to save the poor satyr from being flayed and re-flayed. So I wanted to go for second best. I wanted to write something on behalf of the flesh, something about the truth of suffering, in the face of the counter-truth of the ‘real, resounding arguments’ of those in power. And I wanted to be attentive to the sounds of suffering behind the soothing sounds of the lyre. Because,as Tony Harrison puts it in his The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus:

Wherever the racked and the anguished cry
There’s always a lyre-player standing by.
Some virtuoso of Apollo’s ur-violin
Plays for the skinners as they skin.

Now the book is published, and the conditions that gave birth to it are somewhat distant. But still, as I stop to listen, it seems that the strains of Apollonian music go on and on. At home and abroad, slick Apollonian gods continue doing what they have always done: wielding their knives and stripping the powerless of their supposed errors and of their flesh. And in the face of such gods, it is the least we can do, as a kind of rebellion, to sing the ordinary virtues of the flesh — with all the foolishness, sex, silly songs, banter, earthiness and fart jokes this implies.

And where barbarism is masked with the melodic language of truth and justice and right, we can at least point again to the trembling body of the satyr who is stripped of that which is most intimately his, and say to the Apollonian gods: this too is your work.

Get Hold of Goat Music
goat music
You can get hold of Goat Music using the following links. I recommend if you are in the UK, given that Amazon is decidedly on the side of Apollo. The cover on the right links to the Hive site.

Unfortunately, distribution in the US is currently limited, so you’re probably stuck with Amazon if you are over there. I’ll update this if things change.

There’s also a GoodReads give-away, with two free copies to give away. The give-away closes on October 31st. Go to the link here to enter.

Comments 1

  1. Interesting take!
    Though I always felt that Ovid’s retelling doesn’t do justice to this story. Neither would we if we stop at reading Ovid’s retelling. It is not that simple. There are other versions, including the ones where Athena curses Marsyas to be cruelly punished, and the one Marsyas himself assigns this punishment to him after playing the flute out of tune. Not only does it have the theme of hubris, but also of purification – which Marsyas undergoes. This story is symbolic. It cannot be and should not be tried to fit into today’s values and views.
    Though the myth is filled with horror and pity for Marsyas, I think people are not wrong in taking Apollo’s side. Because delving into the world of Ancient Greece and their morals, Apollo’s right. Hubris is to be, eventually, punished greatly.

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