Friday, July 12, 2013

TFBT: The Mountain Gods and Musical Contests

It is odd, that a culture that personifies every river, creek, lake, spring, meadow, vale, city, region, and sea with a deity shows so little knowledge of the gods of the mountain peaks.  Hesiod (Theogony) lists none of the mountains by name and expends only 1 line of poetry.  He names forty-one of the three thousand Oceanides in thirty-six lines.  Searching the literature I can only find five mountains called “god”.  These are Helicon & Cithaeron both of Dorian Boeotia, Olympus of Phrygia, Oreios of Mount Othrys and Tmolos a mountain of Lydia. 
·        Othrys was the stronghold of the Titans in their contest with the Olympians. 
·        The Phrygian Olympus (not the mount of Zeus) was the father of the satyr Marsyas, who will be involved in one of musical contests under discussion here.
Only three of these gods have distinctive myths or personalities; Helicon,  Cithaeron and Tmolos.  All three are the sites of musical contests.   Cithaeron and Tmolos are associated with Dionysius.  Helicon more famously with Apollo and the Muses.   These three will be surveyed here in an attempt to determine why they were the sites of musical contests.


Wide-spread, tawny Helicon[i] stands in western Boeotia near Phocis.  Helicon is one of the mountains of Greece with the most fertile soil and the greatest number of cultivated trees. The wild-strawberry bushes supply to the goats sweeter fruit than that growing anywhere else[ii]...  between Lake Copais and the Gulf of Corinth. He appears to be childless and is the dancing ground of the Muses (along with Apollo, the Graces and their mother Mnemosyne, who reigns over the hills of Eleutheria.

He was also the site of a singing contest between the Muses and Pierides judged by the local nymphs called the Libethrides.  The Pierides were the nine mortal daughters of Pierus, King of Emathia.  The Muses were the nine divine daughters of Zeus representing the arts and sciences.  The Pierides bet the Muses they were better singers, the challenge was accepted, the local nymphs selected as judges, who took the oath by their own streams, and sat on benches shaped form living stone.”[iii]  The leader of the Pierides chorus “sang of the great war in heaven, ascribing spurious prowess to the Giants, belittling all the exploits of the gods : how Typhon, issuing from earth's lowest depths, struck terror in those heavenly hearts, and they (the Olympians) all turned their backs and fled”  (Ovid Metamorphoses).  Zoe Stamatopoulou[iv]  points out that the Pierides pick a song belittling the gods in an attempt to bridge the distance between gods and men, thus attaining divine honors for themselves.  From my readings in  this appears to be a “shame “song in a shame/praise culture.  (See The Best of the Achaeans by Gregory Nagy (Chpter 14)  I’ve written elsewhere about the hubris, folly and possibility of challenging the gods.  As usual it didn’t work out too well for the mortals.

Excellent, clear-voiced[v]  white-armed[vi] Calliope who is the chief and eldest of   all the Muses[vii]  arose and “sings the  tale of the abduction of Persephone.  That’s all that Ovid has to say about their performance.  After several damning lines about the Pierides song, he barely gives a line of poetry to Calliope’s.  Following Stamatopoulou’s logic I assume the Muses’ song was one of praise regarding Persephone, but what and why so short?  Something the poet couldn’t expound further on from the Eleusinian Mysteries?  Other authors say more;  Heaven, the stars, the sea and rivers stood still, while Mount Helicon, beguiled by the pleasure of it all, swelled skyward till, by the will of Poseidon, Pegasus checked it by striking the summit with his hoof (Anton. Lib. 9)
Calliope sang; the nymphs unanimously declare the Muses the winners.  The muses are as usual ungracious in victory and turned the mortals in various birds.  (Ovid, Metamorphoses) 

 Cithaeron in the form of a man laments the woes soon to occur on his slopes, and he wears an ivy crown (of Dionysius) aslant on his head--for he accepts the crown most unwillingly” Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 14

Cithaeron is a mountain-god and his mountain range, in central Greece, standing between Boeotia in the north and Attica in the south. It is mainly composed of limestone and rises over four thousand feet above the wine dark sea.   Some authors suggest he is Nysa, the foster father of Dionysius.   He appears to be childless.  His slopes are the site of many of the tragedies befalling the house of Cadmus and visited by the Eriny Tisiphone  The god either presided over the marriage of Zeus and Plataea, nymph of the region and daughter of the river god Asopos (Homer's Epigrams 6) or arranged a mock marriage at which when the jealous Hera arrived and ripped the wedding veil from the bride discovered a wooden image instead of a nymph. [viii]
A fragment by the poetess Corinna describes a musical contest between Mt. Helicon and Mt. Cithaeron.  All we know is the Cithaeron took up the lyre and sang in honor of the goddess Rhea, mother of Zeus.  The Muses called for a voted by all the blessed gods and Hermes declared Cithaeron the victor.  “with wreaths…the blessed gods crowned him and his mind rejoiced.  But filled with harsh grief Helicon (ripped out) a bare rock and…hurled it from on high into myriad stones.”  Although we have not record of what Mt. Helicon  sings, Collins[ix] suggests that “Corinna can be seen cleverly to oppose a local Boeotian variant against a Panhellenic version centered on Ida”  I note that the god Cithaeron sang accompanied by the lyre while the mountain-god Helicon is more famous for choral music.  Maybe by definition citharoedic music is the winner on Cithaeron. 


"The crags of Tmolos, steep and wide and high, gazing across the sea, at one side fall to Sardis, at the other reach their end at small Hypaepae. “  Ovid, Metamorphoses 11. 150 

Some sources describe the god of Mount Tmolos in Lydia as husband of Pluto (or Omphale) and father of the cannibal Tantalus[x].  Mount Tmolos was the site of a musical contest between Apollo on lyre and Pan (or Marsyas son of Olympus) on pipes.  The mountain god is one of the judges and gives the victory to Apollo.[xi]  In the version with Pan, no great tragedy seems to follow, but in the case of Marsyas’ defeat he is skinned alive by the ungracious Loxias[xii]  The fable evidently refers to the struggle between the citharoedic and auloedic styles of music, of which the former was connected with the worship of Apollo among the Dorians, and the latter with the orgiastic rites of Cybele (Rhea) in Phrygia.[xiii] 

I can gain no inspirational  insights from this survey and in finishing can only add a few more details and close with a matrix.
The Ancient Greeks apparently had three different musical modes.  I believe this term has something to do with musical scales and tuning an instrument.  They are; Dorian, Lydian and Phrygian; as in (Helicon & Cithaeron), Tmolos and Olympus. [xiv]   Echo an oread of Cithaeron  has myths set on Helicon.  And the winning lyrics honor a goddess.
Associated with
battle for universal  supremacy

Rhea, Dionysius
Apollo, Muses
lyre and PanHellenic/choral and local
Rhea, Dionysius

[i] Homer's Epigrams 6
[ii] Pausanias 9.28.1
[iii] Ovid, Metamorphoses 5. 662
[iv] Hesiodic Muses and Anti-Hesiodic Pierides in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Zoe Stamatopoulou
[v] Stesichorus, Fragment 240& 275
[vi] Bacchylides, Fragment 5
[vii] Hesiod, Theogony 75 
[viii]Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 3. 1)
[ix] Derek Collins Corinna and Mythological Innovation
[x] Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology
[xi] Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae
[xii] Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 24
[xiii] Dic. Of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology
[xiv] Pythagoras added an 8th string to his 7-stringed Kithara, thus completing the octave. In these times, players had a single Mode on their Aulos or their Kithara. An aulete or Kithara player from Athens would have the Dorian Mode on his instrument, one from Phrygia, the Phrygian Mode, and a third from the province of Lydia, the Lydian Mode. At the Pythian Games the various players and singers would assemble, and perhaps the Kitharists might envy one another’s scales and would like to play them also. Thus more strings were gradually added to their Kithara, so that this might come about. THE MODES OF ANCIENT GREECE by Elsie Hamilton 


  1. Did I mention that in his treatment of Marsyas, Apollo was partly motivated by his desire to study anatomy and physiology?

  2. Yes you did. What are you talking about? Made joking coming?