“In us there is the Light of Nature, and that Light is God” – Paracelsus.
I have spoken in a previous blog Man’s Infernal Talent; The Divine Shell about Marsyas and the Divine competition with Apollo. There is one element of that story I touched upon but in no great depth, the flaying and skinning of Marsyas. A brutal and vicious act full of wonderful imagery that has inspired many an artist by it’s cruelty.
To summarise, Marsyas lost a music contest to Apollo and the winner could do as he wished to the loser. Apollo, in his divine mercy, tied up the satyr and skinned him alive to make a wine skin.
The brutal act is much akin to the story of Enkidu in Mesopotamian mythology, the wild man who is bedded by Shamhat the sacred prostitute which brings about civilising Enkidu. In the same way Marsyas loses his satyr skin to the deity of civilisation.
We cannot know how much costume was used in the famous Satyr plays of ancient Greece, but the flaying of Marsyas offers visuals that beg to be enacted in theatre. Many elements are humorous such as Athena in outrage at her ugliness when blowing the reeds. We know that the actors wore masks representing their characters, but the skinning scene calls for a striptease of a costume, a physical defrocking of the satyr by the god. It makes sense that this had been translated into Greek theatre, the satyr plays offset tragedies by their comedic element, were considered unrefined, played on a well known myth or story and used satire to undermine social or political conventions, and contained satyrs of course.
In Greek and Roman art, especially sculpture, satyrs were depicted as men, even with human legs. The half goat/deer men with shaggy hinds came much later. They were men and their bestial nature was depicted by a drapped animal skin over an arm, leg or shoulder. These were pelts and betook the satyrs not as supernatural beings but more akin to wildmen or rural folk who lacked the fine fabrics of the city people and made do with what could be captured, killed and skinned. Thus the imagery of Marsyas is that of a civilised, lordly man, stripping off a wanton peasant, which would have been hilarious to the cultured bourgeois class and would have carried deeper meaning to the plebs if they had the sense to see it. More likely is that the titillating prospect of the man stripped on stage would have gathered the crowds in, in much the same way that a quota of nudity in each episode of Game of Thrones boosts the ratings.
To my mind there is a different and humbling element to this scene. The flaying of Marsyas is a rape scene. Apollo, the hand of power, or the dominant party, has strapped Marsyas down and flays off his skin. One can almost envisage a flail, used in torture for tearing off skin, like that used by wealthy slave owners on disobedient property, but most artists have portrayed Apollo with a blade.
All interpretations bear one thing in common which is quite startling. Apollo is tearing away at the satyr, or ordering someone to, cutting a limb, often the furred leg, other times an arm, whilst maintaining a passive demeanor. The gods do not care, they level out punishment but are never emotionally invested in mankind. Marsyas is always in strict contrast, the body is bound by tethers but contorted, his face an expression of agony…or is it ecstasy?
I am reminded of a quote by Sade, “sex without pain is like food without taste”, and many artists have explored the notion that Marsyas, sexually rampant as all satyrs are, is enjoying his skinning. Look at the symbology of the animal hide, is it the peasant’s clothing being taken off for divine pairing? After all this is an exploration as to how rural man becomes civilised, and the precedent is there with Shamhat and Enkidu, that sex plays a part. I am reminded of my bible studies and the passage of Noah and his son Ham, who finds his father naked and is cursed by his father for this act. There have been many interpretations of that account that shows a development story into civilisation, where Noah makes wine which is considered a fundamental building block of culture, and that Ham may have been sexually explicit with his father; a terrible crime in ancient Israel. Whereas sex between two men in Ancient Greece was at worst, mundane.
I love this story. I am working on using a marriage of self-flagellation and the Flaying of Marsyas in both a novel and a painting. It will portray self-mortification in the same light as self-gratification, as one tends to compliment the other, using the body of Marsyas, the satyr who strips off his own skin to cast aside his divinity to become “cultured man”.