Apollon’s flute and the funerary dirge

I wanted to address Apollon’s flute, and the flute in general in the worship of Apollon, because I felt it was an important topic to address with so many people insisting that Apollon hates the flute, and usually associating this idea directly with Marsyas. The result is that the flute becomes set in a dichotomy against the kithara, and therefore with the kithara being associated directly with Apollon, that the flute is more aligned outside of Apollon’s domain. However classical literature gives an entirely different appreciation of the flute and the worship of Apollon.

The first that we can see comes from the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. In this myth the brothers, Apollon and Hermes, in a show of brotherly bonding that results in them being the closest of brothers, do a bit of cross trading. Apollon thus trades the caduceus for the kithara, with Hermes retaining a kind of ownership of the kithara and Apollon relinquishes all ownership of the caduceus, and then the bull-goad for the flute, the goad being something that remains partially in Apollon’s ownership and the flute becoming  his in that unlike the kithara we don’t really see it again associated with Hermes. As such we understand from this hymn that both the kithara, to which Apollon can sing as he plays, and the flute, belong to him. It is not merely the kithara that belongs to him, and nor that he scorns the flute as an inferior instrument. There is nothing to say that this is the case. In fact it is quite reverse that both instruments have great sacredness as the poetess Corinna, the teacher of Pindar, was said to have depicted Apollon as a flute playing god.

Pausanias gives as perhaps the best information regarding the flute and the worship of Apollon, for among those first contests for the Pythian games featured not only contests with the kithara, but also with the flute (both being played alone and being played with vocal accompaniment). He states that the kind of music that is played in the case of the flute is funerary music and it is this kind of music that won contests with the flute. The funerary nature of the flute is of course due to its bittersweet crooning, and as such it was an instrument that was appropriately used ritualistically in the grieving for Delphinia following her death, perhaps in imitation of a local belief that Apollon played the flute in her honor. However over the course of time it was decided by the game organizers that the sad funerary songs of the flute was not ideal for worship in the Pythian games and so for a time this was withdrawn. Later there are those who say that when it was readmitted to the games it was for the sake of Apollon laying aside is grievance with Marsyas, which is odd considering that Marsyas is not mentioned at all in the dismissal of the flute from the events.

Actually the myth of Marsyas makes an interesting side note in this discussion. I have commented before on many occasions in regards to Marsyas, on one hand that the contest of the god represents the soul signaling its development that it may be liberated from mortal life by his hand and thus join the gods (by which he goes from a Silenus to a river god), and the plausible interpretation of Marsyas being, like Medusa for Athena, a specific, perhaps elder, form of Apollon which he takes into himself by his destruction. However aside from the symbolism of the musical contest as representative of the judging of the music of the soul in regards to judging the elevation of the soul, but I have never spoken of the flute itself. Why does Marsyas have a flute and Apollon a kithara, especially given that both belong to Apollon? I don’t buy for a moment that it represents an overtaking of the primitive by the sophisticated, or any kind of jealous battle between opposites. Rather because of the purpose of Marysas part in the myth. He is the dying one and he plays the beauty of his soul, with all of its bittersweet laments over its lifes and deaths. He plays his last dirge, his last death song, to the glory of Apollon. In this myth we are introduced with another inventor of the flute, Athena, who casts the flute from her because of their unattractiveness which are found by Marsyas, but this seems to have more to do with the often cooperative relationship between Athena and Apollon. The specific flutes Marsyas plays are put together by her and cast before him by her to serve a purpose, for she is a goddess who aids those on the roads and helper of heroes. So she supplies this particular set of flutes by necessity, and as part of her activity in the development of the soul as it travels to the boundary of Apollon.

In this respect, though kithara plays the passage of time and the turn of the seasons, the flute plays an important part in the character of Apollon as the god who receives the lamented dead as lord of the ashes, and protector of tombs. Though it is appropriate too to play for him especially during the season of decay and death, no time of the year is preserved from death. As such the flute and lyre are appropriate in his worship whenever it strikes you, as the worshiper, necessary. Though I do not own nor play the ancient double flute, I do have a wooden flute that I play daily for him even as I play my lyre of such regularity, as I honor not only the emanation of light echoing from the strings of the lyre, but also the flute for the necessary part he plays in the destruction of life for which we all lament but which is necessary for own growth and development. The sigh of the flute may be sad, even as he is said in one myth to have inspired Pan to cut the reeds for the syrinx when he was sorrowful over the transformation of the nymph, but it is the necessary part of life and the movement of the cosmos. Thus the kithara and the flute both work together to symbolize these things. The kithara may be the instrument of divine dance and joy and beauty, but the flute tells the story of life with all its endings and new beginnings.


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