Spin

The hot topic at a recent dinner party was the excellent French political drama series entitled Spin that had us all well and truly hooked for three seasons. Why did it impress us so much? Because it lays bare the extraordinary behind-the-scenes efforts that are involved in crafting a positive political image to sell to the public in the face of a wave of personal and political scandals – a timely subject given the events of the last few weeks in Australian politics.

Today, as I rifled through my books, I found myself wondering about ‘negative image management’ in the ancient world. There is, of course, plenty of evidence of ancient leaders doing their utmost to craft a positive image of themselves for posterity: from the massive carved reliefs and monuments depicting military victories, to the vastly exaggerated numbers of enemy dead described in historical accounts, to the erasure of the names of opponents from official records and the propagandized images on coins deliberately circulated throughout empires.

But there is one story that strikes me as a curious example of the age-old need for  ‘spin’ and it involves a rather curious encounter between the god Apollo and the satyr Marsyas. When we think of Apollo, we think of him as a strikingly handsome youth, with a perfect male form, god of archery, prophecy, music and healing. He has, one could say, a pretty good public image. But there is a lesser known and less attractive side to his character – a fair amount of vanity and pride, a youthful arrogance and sense of presumption, bad luck in love and an inclination toward violence.

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[Belvedere Apollo – Vatican Museums]

Marsyas, the other character in this story, was a satyr, one of those curious composite beings, with both human and animal features, half divine, half beast, he is said to have been the son of Olympos or Oiagros. Marsyas is said to have been born in Phrygia and to have been a follower of the goddess Cybele, the Phrygian mother of the gods.

The short version of the story is that Marsyas engaged in a musical contest with Apollo and lost. Apollo then killed Marsyas. Fair enough, we might think. No-one in their right mind would dare to take on a Greek god in a contest of any sort and, if one does, there is bound to be an unhappy result. But the manner of Marsyas’ death at the hands of Apollo is so cruel and so shocking – Apollo hung Marsyas from a tree and flayed him alive – that it seems pretty hard to put a positive ‘spin’ on it. Still, I have to hand it to the ancient writers and mythographers for doing their best with this story.

The earliest reference to the myth dates from the fifth century and it adopts a no-nonsense approach. Herodotus, describing the march of Xerxes’ army through Phrygia, tells us about a place named Celaenae, where Herodotus matter-of-factly says, “the skin of Marsyas the Silenus also hangs there; the Phrygian story tells that it was flayed off him and hung up by Apollo.” Herodotus gives no motive or explanation for the flaying. This is one approach to a difficult and unpleasant topic  – simply relate the ‘facts’ in a nonchalant way without blinking an eye and your audience might just accept them, or not notice them very much.

It is Xenophon who gives us the reason for the flaying of Marsyas but he does so for a very specific purpose. Xenophon describes the great palace complex of King Cyrus at Celaenae where the river Marsyas flows through the city and empties into the Maeander. Xenophon explains: “It was here, according to the story, that Apollo flayed Marsyas, after having defeated him in a contest of musical skill; he hung up his skin in the cave from which the sources issue, and it is for this reason that the river is called Marsyas.” Xenophon demonstrates another approach to ‘spin’ – diverting the reader from dwelling on the gruesome facts by giving an entirely reasonable and practical explanation for a loosely related phenomenon (in this case, the origin of a river).

Another technique employed in ‘spin’ is to conveniently focus people’s attention on the earlier, better or more sanitized aspects of the story, and only hint at the later events. Thus, the group of statues that once inhabited a prominent position on the Acropolis only depict Athena cursing and throwing down the double flute which Marsyas later uses in his contest with Apollo.

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[Athena and Marsyas statue group, Vatican Museums]

We have to fit the various pieces of the story together for ourselves. Athena is said to have invented the double flute but later discarded it because she didn’t like how she looked when she played the instrument. It gave her swollen cheeks and a bluish face and she was offended that Hera and Aphrodite laughed at her when she played it. So she cursed the instrument, only for it to be adopted by the unlucky Marsyas. In some versions, Marsyas is unaware of the curse, while in others, he simply picks up the flute and begins to play.

Clearly, Marsyas became a little too accomplished with his flute-playing. In some versions, the local people are said to have boasted that Apollo could not make better music with his lyre, while in other versions, Marsyas boasts about his own abilities. Either way, Apollo becomes angry and he challenges Marsyas to a contest. The winner, Apollo says, will be allowed to inflict whatever punishment he likes on the loser. Marsyas agrees and the Muses sit as judges of the contest.

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[Relief from the Mantinea base depicting a seated and robed Apollo with lyre (on the left), Marsyas playing the double flute (right) and a rather nonplussed looking Sythian executioner waiting with knife in hand (centre)].

The contest begins. Marsyas plays the flute and proves to be equal in skill to Apollo who sings and plays on the lyre.  The Muses simply cannot choose a winner. It looks like Apollo has finally met his match but in a brilliantly deceitful manoeuvre to regain his reputation, Apollo suddenly changes the rules of the game and challenges Marsyas to play his instrument upside down and play and sing at the same time. Obviously Marsyas cannot meet this impossible challenge. Apollo meanwhile, turns his lyre upside down and begins to sing beautiful hymns. The Muses judge Apollo to be the winner. Marsyas must admit defeat and accept whatever punishment Apollo decides. The punishment that Apollo chooses is for Marsyas to be flayed alive and his skin nailed to a tree.

The matter-of-factness of the Greek accounts of the myth up to this point make sense in light of the rivalry between the Greek Apollo and the Phrygian Marsyas. As Wyss puts it, “[a] story that pits the Athenian city goddess against an uncouth, arrogant Phrygian satyr and then tells of his execution by a major Greek deity is indeed well suited to boost Athenian pride.”

As the decades roll on however, and the political imperative shifts, the myth evolves too. Over time, greater sympathy is shown towards Marsyas, especially in the versions of the myth from Hellenistic and Roman times. Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, adds new details to the story, including a description of Marsyas winning the first contest, but not the second (The Library 3.59.2–3). He also describes a heated debate between Marsyas and Apollo about the fairness of the contest and its result (3.59.3–5). Diodorus also adds a description of Apollo’s regret after he has flayed Marsyas:  “quickly repenting and being distressed at what he had done, he broke the strings of the lyre and destroyed the harmony of sounds which he had discovered” (3.59.5–6).

By the time we get to Ovid’s account in the Metamorphoses (6.382–400) written some time in the early years of the first century CE, there isn’t much sympathy for Apollo at all. Ovid gives such a vivid description of the cruelty of Marysas’ punishment as to render it unforgettable:

Apollo stripped his skin; the whole of him

Was one huge wound, blood streaming everywhere,

Sinews laid bare, veins naked, quivering

And pulsing. You could count his twitching guts,

And the tissues as the light shone through his ribs.

The sympathy from the people who witness this horrific scene reflects our own sympathy for Marsyas as we read Ovid’s account, and Marsyas, the new hero of the tale, experiences a sort of rebirth and metamorphosis:

The countryfolk, the sylvan deities,

The fauns and brother satyrs and the nymphs,

All were in tears, Olympus too, still loved,

And every swain who fed his fleecy flocks

And long-horned cattle on those mountainsides.

The fertile earth grew moist and, moistened, held

Their falling tears and drank them deep into

Her veins and, changing them to water there,

Issued them forth into the open air;

And thence a river hurries to the sea

Through falling banks, the river Marsyas,

The freshest, clearest stream of Phrygia.

Ovid washes the slate clean with his marvellous poetry, transforming a straightforward and unrepentant story of Apollo’s divine vengeance into a story of Marsyas reborn as a clear-watered stream. Still, one can’t help feeling that the uncomfortable account of Marsyas’ contest with Apollo began as a very old story that could never be entirely erased or ‘spun out’ of people’s collective memory. It could be given new slants, new interpretations, new meanings, but the fact remains that Marsyas was a great musician who appears to have risen to great heights owing to a form of divine inspiration and musical ability that did not come as a gift from Apollo. Furthermore, Marsyas may be an emblem of a foreign musical tradition that easily rivalled that of the Greeks. It was this slight on Apollo as the Greek god of music, as well as the slight on his authority and power and his precious self-image and his vanity that necessitated ‘spin’, and in that wider sense, the circumstances that give rise to the need for ‘spin’ really haven’t changed a jot.

Primary sources:

Herodotus, Histories, 7.26 (available on Perseus online)

Xenophon, Anabasis, 1.2.6 (available on Persesus online)

Diodorus Siculus, The Library, 3.59.1-6 (available through University of Chicago online texts)

Ovid, Metamorphoses (transl. A.D. Melville), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Secondary sources:

E. Wyss, The Myth of Apollo and Marsyas in the Art of the Italian Renaissance, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

Images: Vatican Museum and Internet commons

Spin / Les hommes de l’ombre: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2181219/

 

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