Instruments Used in Greek Mythology

Apollo, god of music, learned to play the lyre from his brother Hermes.
... Images

Apollo was the god of music in Greek mythology, while the Muses inspired humans in all creative endeavors, including musical composition. Yet several mythological figures created new musical instruments out of raw materials. They would then play these instruments to appeal to, and in some cases to challenge, Apollo or the Muses.

1 The Stolen Strings of Hermes' Lyre

When he was a mere infant, Hermes, god of thieves and travel, constructed the world's first lyre out of a hollow turtle shell and seven strings. Later, he stole Apollo's cattle and sacrificed two of them. Apollo was angry when Hermes finally led him to the incomplete herd. Yet when Hermes took out his lyre and began to sing, Apollo's anger vanished, replaced by wonder at the sweet sound of the new instrument. Instead of punishing the child, Apollo offered to trade his cattle and his wand for the lyre.

2 The Pipes of Pan

Hermes' son Pan, the goat-bodied nature god, didn't fare as well when he challenged Apollo to a musical contest. Pan had glued reeds together with wax, creating the instrument known as the panpipe. Apollo, in the meantime, had upgraded his lyre to one made of gems and ivory. The contest's judge, the mountain god Tmolus, listened very briefly before telling Pan to stop playing, as Apollo's instrument and skill were clearly superior. The foolish King Midas preferred Pan's playing, so Apollo turned his ears into that of a donkey as punishment for his poor judgment.

3 The Abandoned Double-Flute of Athena

Apollo's half-sister Athena was the goddess of wisdom, and used her knowledge to develop the double-flute. But while the instrument created beautiful music with little effort, Athena felt she looked undignified when she played it. She gave it to the satyr Marsyas, who found the instrument captivating. Unfortunately, like Pan, Marsyas was foolish enough to challenge Apollo to a musical competition. Unlike Pan, Marsyas paid the price for his insolence. When Apollo won the contest, he tied Marsyas to a tree and skinned him alive.

4 The Voice of the Harp

Though his colleague, Linus, invented the harp, the great musician Thamyris showed his superior skill by playing the instrument with no vocal accompaniment, amazing listeners with his deft playing. However, Thamyris was equally proud of his singing voice, going to far as to claim he could sing more beautifully than the Muses, goddesses who inspired all creative thought. Affronted, the Muses punished him by making him forget how to play music and by physically maiming him.

Since 2003, Momi Awana's writing has been featured in "The Hawaii Independent," "Tradewinds" and "Eternal Portraits." She served as a communications specialist at the Hawaii State Legislature and currently teaches writing classes at her library. Awana holds a Master of Arts in English from University of Hawaii, Mānoa.