How Apollo found his Lyre

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Apollo plays the lyreHow Apollo found his lyre

Written by Bertie
Read by Bertie
Sponsored by Little Passports.
Picture by Adobe.

Hello, this is Bertie

And I’m here with some Greek myths about Music. We were planning to bring you the next episode of the Dutch Hotel, but unfortunately Jana has lost her voice. We think it’s due to a summer cold. We aren’t quite sure, but I’m glad to say she doesn’t have a temperature or anything like that. So for that reason, I am here with two musical myths that I hope you will enjoy.

First, I’m going to tell you how the Greek God Apollo began to play the musical instrument called the Lyre. A lyre is a kind of harp, or you might even think of it as an ancient guitar. One form of a lyre uses a tortoise shell as its soundbox. The frame is sometimes made from antlers. This story explains how Apollo came to play a tortoise shell lyre. But the tale begins with another god, Hermes. Hermes was the messenger of the gods, also known as a trickster,and a dream-giver and a thief.

The mother of Hermes was Maia, a nymph who gave birth to him in a cave. As soon as he was born, his father, who was Zeus, king of the gods, gave him a pair of winged sandals that enabled him to fly. The baby-god was just a day old when he first flew out of the cave and went to explore the world. As he was flying around, a plodding and wrinkly faced creature caught his eye. This was the tortoise who carried her shell around on her back. As soon as Hermes saw the shell, he saw how it could be useful to him, and he wanted it. So he landed in the tortoise’s path and declared:

“Hello my pretty one, how are you today?”

No one had ever spoken to the tortoise like this before, let alone a baby with winged sandals. She should have suspected a trick, and perhaps she did, but the Hermes flattery worked its charm on her. She smiled her prettiest smile, which wasn’t that pretty, unless you are another tortoise.

The infant smiled back and said:

“I’d love to see you dance, and I bet your singing voice is as beautiful as your face.”

“Now you’re going too far!” laughed the tortoise. I’m far too shy to dance, and as for singing, I’ve not even tried. I leave that sort of thing to the birds and grasshoppers who have artistic natures!”

“But I tell you that you have the most beautiful voice of all!” declared Hermes. “You can take me at my word. I’m a god, and we immortals never lie,” he insisted. And if you know anything about mythology, you will realise that this was far from true. The gods almost always lie, even when there’s no need to: just for practice.

And so with lies and flattery the baby god won the trust of the tortoise, who should have known better, but all he really wanted to do was to steal her beautiful shell. When she was looking the other way, he grabbed it off her back and flew off with it, leaving the poor tortoise behind, shell-less and homeless. And the moral of this part of the story, in case you haven’t understood it yet, is this: never talk to strangers.

The shell had made a snug house for the tortoise, but Hermes had different ideas for it. But before he could make his invention, he needed the horns of a bull. So he began to think about some more mischief that he could play.

He knew, because the gods know everything, even baby gods, that no thief should even dream of stealing the Cattle of the Sun. The Cattle of the Sun were the blessed cattle of the immortals, guarded by the sun god Apollo, and anyone who stole them would be thrown down into deepest, darkest Tarturus, a punishment far worse than death.

So since it was totally forbidden to steal the Cattle of the Sun, Hermes wanted to do it. He was that sort of baby. The temptation was too great, and so he flew directly to the mountain where Apollo kept the holy cattle. He found them grazing the sweet grass on a slope overlooking the sea. The baby-god chose 50 of the best cattle and started to drive them away - only he did this in a cunning fashion. He made the cattle walk backwards, that way, any person, or god, who found the tracks, would think they showed the cattle moving in the opposite direction. Flying around the cattle like a gadfly, he drove them down the slope. Now it happened that they passed an old man tending to his vineyard. In all his many years, the man had never seen a baby cow-herder driving cattle backwards. Hermes saw the look of astonishment on his face and called out, “Old Man, if you want a fine crop of grapes and barrels overflowing with wine, be sure to tell no mortal or immortal person what you saw today.”

On and on he drove the cattle, first along the beach, and then onto an old farm and an empty cowshed. That evening, as Apollo rested his shining head beneath the horizon, Hermes went out to gather dry sticks for a cooking fire. After he had made a sacrifice to his father Zeus, and he himself had tasted the roast meat of the gods, he set about fashioning the first ever lyre.

The horns of a bull made the frame of the lyer, and the tortoise shell became the soundbox to amplify the music. He added a cross bar of olive wood, and then he pulled seven gut strings over it.

The sweet notes rang out at the touch of his hand and he said to himself,”I wasn’t lying when I said to the tortoise that she could sing sweeter than any bird.”

He was so pleased with his invention that he composed a song in honour of his mother Maia, the one person whom he truly loved. And this was how the baby Hermes invented the Lyre.

The next day, Hermes flew off, taking his precious instrument with him. He played as he flew, and the birds were envious of his musical skill. He returned to his mother’s cave where he fell happily asleep. But this is not the end of the story. On no! As you know, it is not Hermes who we associate with the lyre, it is the god Apollo.

It was Apollo’s job, as the official Sun God, to drive the sun chariot across the sky. On his way, he looked down on the Cattle of the Sun and thought, “That’s funny, some of them seem to be missing.” He counted the cattle two or three times to be sure, and each time he came up with a number that was 50 short. That was when the sky went dark, because Apollo immediately aborted his mission and set off in search of the missing cattle. The Blazing Sun God soon found the old man who had witnessed the crime, and who told him the story, as far as he could make head or tale of it.

“I was up in my little vineyard working from dawn to dusk, and as the sun was going down I had the impression that I saw a child following a herd of cows, a baby with a stick who zigzagged side to side, and made the cows walk backward, their heads toward him."

Now Apollo was hot on the tail of the baby-thief. He soon found a flock of birds who told him of the kid who flew through the air making beautiful sounds, and before long he tracked Hermes down to the cave.

When the Sun God filled the cave with golden light, Hermes sucked his thumb and pretended to be a child overcome by sweet sleep. But Apollo was not fooled so easily. He called out:

“Little boy lying in the cradle, you had better tell me quickly what happened to my cattle, or you and I will soon be in an unseemly fight.”

“Search me!” replied the baby-god. “Why ask me about your missing cows? I haven't seen them. I haven't heard a word about them. No one's told me a thing.”

“Stop Lying. I’m not the fool you think I am.”
“Do I look like a cattle driver? A big strong guy? I’m not interested in cows. All I want is my baby-sleep and my mother’s milk.”

By now, Apollo’s golden skin had turned red with rage: “Hand over my cattle right now before I cast you down into darkest Tartarus for even and a day!” he bellowed.

“ I wish all the cattle in the world would drop dead! I didn't steal your cows”

Apollo made his move, and would have seized the thieving child, crib and all, if Hermes had not acted just in the nick of time.

He began to play his lyre, so sweetly and so magically, that the sun god stopped in his tracks, amazed at the sound of the music. His temper soon became quite soothed. And then he began to laugh for job as the sound of the instrument stole his heart.

“What is this new sound, this wonder to my ears; I swear, neither men nor Olympian gods have ever heard anything like it!”

“It’s called music,” replied Hermes, and if you like, I can give this gift to you. He would not have made such a generous offer, except to save himself from being cast into the deepest, darkest Tartarus.

Having said all this, Hermes held out the lyre; bright Apollo took it and willingly gave him a gift in exchange. He handed him his magic wand, a stick entwined with two wooden snakes. This stick became on of Hermes’s most precious possessions, alongside his broad hat and his wooden sandals. When he grew up to be the messenger of the gods, he always took it with him, and the snake wand became the ancient symbol of messengers.

As for Apollo, he loved his lyre made from a tortoise shell and a bull’s horns. He is often depicted making the music of the gods.

And that’s the ancient myth of how Apollo acquired his lyre. I do hope you enjoyed it. In a minute or so, I shall tell you another story about Apollo and his lyre, and I shall also mention the origins of the flute. So don’t go away. But first, I’d like to tell you about our Wonderful Sponsor, Little Passports.

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Now to return to our theme of ancient music.

There’s a story that the flute was invented by the goddess Athena. She revealed her invention at one of those immortal parties on Mount Olympus, when the gods and goddesses lounge for centuries around sipping ambrosia. Athena thought some flute playing would make a welcome distraction from all the gossip and back-biting. She took out her invention, but when she blew into the flute, her eyes went cross-eyed and her cheeks hollowed out and went bright red, before turning purple.

The queen of the gods, whose name was Hera, was highly amused by Athena’s puffing.

“Our goddess of wisdom looks like a perfect fool,’ she said .

“And quite ugly too,” added Aphrodite.

This was not the effect that Athena was aiming for. She dropped down to earth where dhr practised her flute by the side of a lake. Her reflection in the water showed her that the gossipy goddesses were not far wrong - she did not look at all her best when she was blowing nto a flute. In disgust, she cast the flute away and never gave it another thought.

Now some time later, a god of the woods called Pan found the flute. Pan was a minor god, with legs of a goat, and did not have the right to live on Mount Olympus and look down on the world from a great height. In fact, he is generally thought to be a hanger-on of Dionysus, the god of wine. But he did have musical talent, and he practised and practised on the flute until he became pretty proficient at it. He was so pleased with his progress that he challenged the Olympian god Apollo to a musical contest.
It was quite an occasion.
The judges were to be the nymphs and satyrs and demigods of the woods, and presiding over all the judges was King Midas, who happened to live nearby. You may have heard of him. He was the king who had a golden touch - all that he touched turned to gold. He had been cured of that terrible curse, but now he was about to incur an even worse fate, fool that he was.
First Pan made a magical sound on his flute.

And then it was the turn of Apollo to perform on his lyre.

Now I cannot say who was the better player, but the judges understood that it was only wise and safe to pick Apollo. Apollo was a much more powerful god than Pan, and to go against him was dangerous. Everyone understood this well, except for King Midas. He thought the point of being a judge was to give his honest opinion. Poor fool.

“I adored the playful flute, and therefore I give my vote to Pan,” he declared.

In a life famous for its foolishness, this was probably the most foolish thing King Midas ever said. Apollo grew so hot with anger that he almost set alight to the woods.

“Since you have the musical taste of a donkey,” he said, “From now on you shall have the ears of a donkey.”

And poor Midas found that his ears had grown long and furry. He felt such terrible shame, that he had not choice but to wear a turban around his head for the rest of his days. Only his barber knew his secret. How he wished that he was bald! But his hair grew thick and long like a lion’s, and he had to have it trimmed once a month.

At first the barber kept this terrible secret, but eventually he could hold it inside him no more. He went for a long lonely walk and spoke to some reeds: “King Midas has donkey’s ears.” Little did he know that the reeds would repeat the wonderful secret to anyone who would listen. All day long they whispered, Midas has Donkey’s Ears, Midas has Donkey’s ears. And the gossip and scandal grew so great that Midas had no choice but to leave his palace and go to live in a cave where nobody could see the king with donkey’s ears.

And that was the story of King Midas’s donkey ears.

Now I’m planning to return to my writer’s cave. I hope that Jana will find her voice soon and read the second part of the Dutch Hotel. I’ve already written it, and I think it’s very exciting. For now, from me Bertie, at Storynory.com - au revoir!