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Friday, January 8, 2021

Marsyas: The Price of Hubris

One of the most moving sculptures I have ever photographed is a depiction of the satyr Marsyas who has been flayed alive by Apollo for his hubris of challenging Apollo, the god of music (among other things), to a music contest.  The large statue of Marsyas bound and hanging by his hands with his skin already partially removed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome is a Roman Imperial Period copy of a 2nd century BCE Greek original. 

In antiquity, literary sources often emphasize the hubris of Marsyas and the justice of his punishment. Hubris has been described as a personality quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence, often in combination with (or synonymous with) arrogance. Hubris, arrogance and pretension are related to the need for victory (even if it doesn't always mean winning). Hubris is usually perceived as a characteristic of an individual rather than a group, although the group the offender belongs to may suffer collateral consequences from wrongful acts. Hubris was thought to indicate a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence, accomplishments or capabilities. In ancient Greece, hubris referred to “outrage” - actions that violated natural order, or which shamed and humiliated the victim, sometimes for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser.

Aristotle defined hubris as shaming the victim, not because of anything that happened to the committer or might happen to the committer, but merely for that committer's own gratification: 

"Hubris is not the requital of past injuries. This is revenge. As for the pleasure in hubris, its cause is this - naive men think that by ill-treating others they make their own superiority the greater."

As hubris was considered a transgression against the gods, it was rarely left unpunished in Greek mythology.  Marsyas was ordered flayed.  Arachne, a talented young weaver, was transformed into a spider when she said that her skills exceeded those of the goddess Athena. Niobe boasted of her fourteen children, seven male and seven female (the Niobids), to Leto who only had two children, the twin gods, Apollo and Artemis. Using arrows, Artemis killed Niobe's daughters and Apollo killed Niobe's sons.  So, the consequences of hubris were severe.

These events were not limited to myth, and certain figures in history were considered to have been punished for committing hubris through their arrogance. In Aeschylus' play, "The Persians," King Xerxes is said to have suffered his defeat at Salamis because he arrogantly lashed the waters of the Hellespont with chains after his fleet was destroyed by a storm.


Full length view of of Marsyas hanging on the tree as he is going to be flayed by Apollo. Marble, Roman copy of the 1st-2nd century after a Hellenistic original. Found in Rome, Italy, part of the Borghese Collection at The Louvre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddato.

Head of Maryas found in the Baths of Caracalla, Roman copy of Greek original from 150-100 BCE, now in the Antikensammlung inf Berlin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko.

Roman fresco of the Myth of Marsyas in continuous narration, found in Pompeii in the House of Paccia (V, 2, 10, cubicle q), now on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inv. 120626). Marsyas observes from the top of a rock the continuation of his story: below Minerva, while playing the double flute, is reflected in the circular mirror held by a nymph who has emerged from the water. A little above the nymph is Marsyas who is fleeing with the double flute that the goddess had thrown away. Still further on, we see the satyr from behind playing the double flute and approaching the procession of Muses led by Apollo, whom he will soon challenge in a musical contest. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko.

Ceiling panel depicting Marsyas in chains by Raphael, 1509-1511, at the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope, in Vatican City courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Closeup of inscription on bronze thymiaterion (incense burner) with Marsyas, late 4th century BCE, Etruscan, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Bronze thymiaterion (incense burner) with Marsyas, late 4th century BCE, Etruscan, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Roman mosaic depicting Apollo's sentence of Marsyas found near Cap d'Agde, France courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor inharecherche.

Apollo and Marsyas mosaic at the House of Aion, Paphos Archaeological Park, Cyprus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Jules Verne Times Two.

Right corner of a sarcophagus depicting the myth of the musical contest between the satyr Marsyas and the god Apollo Roman Severan 210-230 CE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The Satyr Marsyas Roman about 200 CE Marble that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

Closeup of Marsyas hanging on the tree as he is going to be flayed by Apollo. Marble, Roman copy of the 1st-2nd century after a Hellenistic original. Found in Rome, Italy, part of the Borghese Collection at The Louvre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

This statuette fragment, now in the Louvre, represents the flaying of the satyr Marsyas. The original statue is known to us from many other replicas (see Ma 542 in the same room) and was part of a lost bronze statue group known mainly from a Roman bas-relief found in the theatre of Hierapolis (an ancient city of Asia Minor, in present-day Turkey). The god Apollo watched the scene while a Scythian slave whetted his knife (see the modern copy in the Michelangelo gallery). The air of pathos that hangs over the preparations for the ordeal suggest the original work should be dated to the late 3rd century BC and was linked to the Pergamum school. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor, Carole Raddato.

Marble statue of Marsyas from Tarsus, Roman copy of a 3rd BCE original. Istanbul Archaeological Museums courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sandstein (digitally enhanced)

Marsyas the satyr who was flayed alive by Apollo for challenging him to a music contest Roman imperial period copy of 2nd century BCE Greek original that I photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Marsyas the satyr who was flayed alive by Apollo for challenging him to a music contest Roman imperial period copy of 2nd century BCE Greek original that I photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Marsyas the satyr who was flayed alive by Apollo for challenging him to a music contest Roman imperial period copy of 2nd century BCE Greek original that I photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.


 

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