Ancient Greek Music – By Anthony Paraskevopoulos, Ed. D.

Carnegie Hall. Photo: TNH, File

By Anthony Paraskevopoulos, Ed. D.

Mythology and Magic: There is no way we can adequately describe the degree to which Music was important in Ancient Greece. Although most of us know them only as a nation of poets, philosophers, historians, mathematicians, sculptors, and architects –and hardly speculate about their musicians — the Greeks were as much influenced by musical ideas as we today are influenced by the Theory of Relativity and the achievements of nuclear physics. Music was not just another art for them; it was a way of life whose affairs were considered to be the states’ responsibility and whose origins were believed to lie in the activities of the gods.

I begin with accounts of mythical and magical notions of music prevalent in Ancient Greece. It should be noted that, in general, myths were not used to cover the complete range of man’s existence, but only that which determined his unique identity and place in his cosmos. By claiming divine origins for music and by placing them into mythological frameworks, the early Greeks were seeking to confer upon it far greater significance and, as it were, truth than could be had if they allowed it to remain within the mundane world of human activity. It was — for them — more than simply one pursuit among others in their everyday lives, but an expression of their highest faculties; an activity of such importance that it’s very foundations and sanctions lay in Mount Olympus.

Let us consider, then, some of these myths and theories of magic and their importance for an understanding of Greek music. To begin, it is useful to observe that the term “music” has its origins in the word “Muse,” the name of the demigoddesses living at the foot of Mount Olympus. They were the guardians and inspirations of the arts and artists. In fact, “music,” in Greek, literally means “art of the Muses.” In addition to these Muses, however, Apollo was — traditionally speaking — the god most associated with music. In fact, he was called Apollo Phoebus (the shining) the sun god. And it was he who possessed as one of his many attributes the talent of playing that very important instrument, the lyre. Even now, one may see representations of him holding a lyre as often as one may see representations (of him) holding his ever-famous death-arrows. According to myth, Apollo acquired the lyre when his young brother, Hermes, after killing a turtle and fastening on its shell gut strings from an ox (stolen from Apollo’s herd) gave the newly invented instrument to Apollo as repayment for the theft. In fact, the lyre was such a predominant part of Apollo’s worship — and Greek life as well — that any attempt to challenge its supremacy was easily turned aside with the warning of the fate of a certain musician who thought he could dispute the lyre’s position. As the story goes, Marsyas, a famous flutist, came upon the flute of the goddess Athena and, becoming ecstatic at his find, challenged Apollo to a contest. Apollo won, of course, and he (Marsyas) was flayed alive for his hubris. But, the lyre was not dominant in all parts of Greece, as can be attested to by the myths. In northeastern Greece for, example, the aulos, or reed pipe, was the main cultic instrument, instead. The inventors of this instrument were Hyagnis and Marsyas (of above-mentioned fame). Although it is difficult to speculate, it is not impossible that the story of the contest with Apollo was started by the Western Greeks who sought to preserve their dominion in the matter of music authority as well as comment upon what they felt to be the rustic nature of the aulos in conjunction with the purity of the lyre. It is also possible that the story was devised to show the supremacy of Apollo over the god Dionysus who was the patron of the aulos.

Yet, even beyond making plain the importance of music as an attribute of the gods, Greek mythology testifies to the magic of music as a force which had a power all its own. The well-known story of the Sirens presents a perfect example of this power. According to this myth, Odysseus had to be restrained with ropes tying him to the mast of his ship to prevent him from being overcome by the enchanting beauty of their song. During this time (of the Trojan War) the importance of music was strongly felt. Homer notes, for instance, that Achilles was a singer and lyre performer, in addition to being an indefatigable warrior. The poet offers a glimpse of the young man’s musical talent (and of course the power of music) when he tells us that he (Achilles) aggrieved at the loss of his beloved Briseis, forgot his sadness the moment he struck the golden strings on his lyre. “How he comforts his heart with the sound of the lyre … stimulating his courage and singing the deeds of the heroes.”

Again in Homer we read of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, who — having heard a song from the musician Phemius — she entreated him to stop because the force of his song increased her grief for her missing husband. “Phemius! Much art though skilled in moving our hearts by singing; telling the deeds of the heroes and great gods, famous in story; truly thy strain awoke deep down in my heart lamentation.”

Anthony Paraskevopoulos holds a Doctorate degree in Music & Education from Columbia University. He is fluent in Greek and Spanish, has intermediate-level knowledge of Latin, Korean, and Japanese and is presently studying Italian. He has received the following awards: Kappa Delta Pi — a national honor society in education — The Makarios Award — Presidential Award: Government of Cyprus. Teacher of the Year — Korean/American Parent-Teacher Association Award — and The Peter Ohm Award  –Korean Language Award, University of Yonsei, Seoul, Korea.