Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

Page: 31

The Muses bestowed much deserved praise, and then bade Apollo surpass his rival if he could. No second command was necessary. The god seized his golden lyre, and poured forth impassioned strains. Before pronouncing their decision, the Muses resolved to give both musicians a second hearing, and again both strove; but on this occasion Apollo joined the harmonious accents of his godlike voice to the tones of his instrument, causing all present, and the very Muses too, to hail him as conqueror.

“And, when now the westering sun
Touch’d the hills, the strife was done,
And the attentive Muses said:
Marsyas, thou art vanquished!’”
Matthew Arnold.

According to a previous arrangement,—that the victor should have the privilege of flaying his opponent alive,—Apollo bound Marsyas to a tree, and slew him cruelly. As soon as the mountain nymphs heard of their favorite’s sad death, they began to weep, and shed such torrents of tears, that they formed a new river, called Marsyas, in memory of the sweet musician.

Apollo and Pan.

The mournful termination of this affair should have served as a warning to all rash mortals. Such was not the case, however; and shortly after, Apollo found himself engaged in another musical contest with Pan, King Midas’ favorite flute player. Upon this occasion Midas himself retained the privilege of awarding the prize, and, blinded by partiality, gave it to Pan, in spite of the marked inferiority of his playing. Apollo was so incensed by this injustice, that he determined to show his opinion of the dishonest judge by causing generous-sized ass’s ears to grow on either side of his head.

[75] “The god of wit, to show his grudge,
Clapt asses’ ears upon the judge;
A goodly pair, erect and wide,
Which he could neither gild nor hide.”

Greatly dismayed by these new ornaments, Midas retreated into the privacy of his own apartment, and sent in hot haste for a barber, who, after having been sworn to secrecy, was admitted, and bidden to fashion a huge wig, which would hide the deformity from the eyes of the king’s subjects. The barber acquitted himself deftly, and, before he was allowed to leave the palace, was again charged not to reveal the secret, under penalty of immediate death.

But a secret is difficult to keep; and this one, of the king’s long ears, preyed upon the poor barber’s spirits, so that, incapable of enduring silence longer, he sallied out into a field, dug a deep hole, and shouted down into the bosom of the earth,—

“‘King Midas wears
(These eyes beheld them, these) such ass’s ears!’”

Unspeakably relieved by this performance, the barber returned home. Time passed. Reeds grew over the hole, and, as they bent before the wind which rustled through their leaves, they were heard to murmur, “Midas, King Midas, has ass’s ears!” and all who passed by caught the whisper, and noised it abroad, so that the secret became the general topic of all conversations.