Trial by Magda Czajkowska

One of the most famous contests in antiquity was concerned with music. There was the challenge, the contest, the judgement and the punishment. As is usual when dealing with the mists of prehistory, the protagonists were a god and a satyr. The god was Apollo who stood for all we think of as civilisation—concerned with law and order, as well as the arts. A god who prided himself on slogans such as “know thyself” and “nothing in excess”. One who considered himself a superb musician in lyre and song now being challenged by a mere satyr, no god at all, by the name of Marsyas.

“How about a contest, in the spirit of friendly rivalry,” said Marsyas, a brilliant flute player, encouraged by all who had a chance to listen to him as he approached the god. “Let the audience decide who is the better player.”

Apollo the beautiful looked at the hairy, uncouth creature who dared to challenge him, and nodded in agreement. “On one condition,” he nodded, “the winner can impose any punishment he likes.”

Marsyas shrugged. If it comes to the worst he’ll take away my flute, but anyway I’m better than him, he thought. If I win, I’ll take his lyre.

In the meantime, Apollo called the Muses, his companions, to join the audience. They descended willingly from their home on the Helicon.

A word about the Muses. They were minor goddesses who presided over music, song, poetry and drama, and infused the mortals with poetic inspiration. They would often stay with Apollo on the Parnassus singing, playing and reciting poetry.

“They will be the jury,” he said to the audience of nymphs, satyrs and animals of the forest who gathered to listen. He welcomed King Midas of Phrygia who just then was passing by to join the Muses.

The concert began. Marsyas was first. He played the flute beautifully and received an enthusiastic ovation from the audience. When he finished, Apollo languidly picked up his lyre, sang and played for a long time. The clapping was polite.

It was time for the jury to choose the winner. King Midas loyally supported Marsyas who came from his kingdom of Phrygia, ignoring Apollo’s frown. The nine Muses were unequivocal in support of their divine patron. The verdict was predictable. What was Marsyas thinking of? That he would be judged on merit alone? As always in a trial, right and wrong apart, other considerations are taken into account, such as loyalty, fear, self-interest, skill of the presentation of the case.

The god stood up and pronounced the punishment. In that moment he forgot all he supposedly stood for—all that civilisation, the moderation in all things, the law-and-order nonsense. Or, as we would put it these days—incensed for having been challenged, he lost it. Midas did not escape his unbridled wrath. He was punished with asses’ ears. Marsyas, however, was to be flayed alive. It mattered not a bit that all the creatures in the audience cried so much their tears formed a river as Marsyas was led away by the executioner. There was no mistaking the triumph of power.

Today we might ask ourselves the question—how relevant is this mythical unequal duel of might against merit? By all means, stand up for what you hold right or true, but don’t expect a fair deal.


Magda Czajkowska was born in Poland, came to Britain in 1948, and has lived in London ever since. She studied Botany at Imperial College London and Art and Ancient History at the Open University. She has published The Garden of Paradise—Images of the Garden of Heaven in Art and Culture and a number of non-fiction stories and articles through the years. Her translations from the Polish were published in various periodicals and broadcast by the BBC. Her book about the correspondence with the distinguished Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert had reached wide acclaim in Poland, was re-printed twice, and adapted for the stage. She has published three books for bilingual (English/Polish) children. A Penguin Christmas has been re-enacted on the stage by children at Christmastime. Her book on Greek mythology entitled The Garden of the Gods is scheduled to come out later this year.

Author's note

It is my belief that mythology contains essential truths that continue to be relevant to our times. My story about the ancient fable of the contest between Apollo and Marsyas with its predetermined outcome was inspired by reading about court cases where the verdict depended on expensive lawyers rather than objective truth. I was further inspired by a poem “Apollo and Marsyas” by a Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) who lived in the so-called Stalinist times in Poland when predicted verdict show trials took place. His poem concentrated on the resulting pain and an outcome of something irrelevant, a new trend in art, perhaps? We are presently witnessing a contest between might and right. Plus ca change.