The Myth of Marsyas in Ancient Greek Art: musical and mythological iconography

TitleThe Myth of Marsyas in Ancient Greek Art: musical and mythological iconography
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2004
AuthorsVan Keer, E
JournalMusic in Art

This paper explores the iconographical approaches to the ancient Greek aulos and its myths. The general aim is two-fold: (a) to demonstrate the relative autonomy and complementary value of textual and visual sources in study of ancient Greek myth and music; (b) to establish the reciprocity of the disciplines involved in studying visual representations of musical myths, notably musical and mythological iconography. In particular, this paper integrates approaches researchers can take in studying the Greek myth of Marsyas. In classical mythology, with its primary literary orientation, the myth of Marsyas is widely regarded as an ultimate mythical expression of typical "Greek" dichotomies such as of aulos-kithara, Apollo-Dionysos, Greece-barbarians, etc. However, we can achieve a more nuanced picture by taking a closer look at the iconography, because visual sources are more numerous and specified in time and pace. The Italiote vases are quite independent of the Attic ones. Even the Attic vases in themselves display a variety of traditions. They do not simply depict Marsyas as the doomed opponent of Athena and Apollo. Images of the contest mostly show the satyr performing. Moreover, he plays not only the aulos but other instruments too, even the kithara. Furthermore, he also occurs in less irreputable musical contexts, notably with Olympos. In this, his myth reflected and shaped the debate over the rise of aulos and the "new music" known from music history in all its complexity. [Ellen Van Keer]


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