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In Greek mythology, Marsyas was a satyr who challenged Apollo to a contest of music. Marsyas was an expert player on the double reed pipe known as the aulos. He found the instrument on the ground where it had been tossed by its inventor Athena, after the other gods made sport of how her cheeks bulged when she played. Since the contest was judged by the Muses, Marsyas naturally lost and was flayed alive in a cave near Calaenae in Phrygia for his hubris to challenge a god. His blood turned into the river Marsyas.

In the art of later periods, Marsyas is often seen with a flute, pan pipes, or even bagpipes. Apollo is shown with his lyre, or sometimes a harp, viol, or other stringed instrument. The contest of Apollo and Marsyas is seen as symbolizing the eternal struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of human nature.