Music is as integral to the human experience as anything else, perhaps even predating language itself. Though the human voice was probably the initial choice for prehistoric man, instruments have been found which date back more than 35,000 years.
Mythology has been similarly ubiquitous throughout human history. As such, myths have built up to explain various aspects of music, including its very creation. Here are ten of them.
Tezcatlipoca (right above) and Quetzalcoatl (left above), the sky god and wind god, respectively, are two of the more widely known of the Aztec deities. Quetzalcoatl, colloquially known as the “Feathered Serpent,” was also the god of wisdom, and he and Tezcatlipoca had a love-hate relationship. One day, while Quetzalcoatl was busy making hurricanes, Tezcatlipoca noticed a distinct lack of singing or music on the part of the humans. Distraught at the thought of a world of silence, he developed a plan which would resolve the problem: have his brother take music from the Sun.
After an arduous journey, Quetzalcoatl finally made it to the House of the Sun, guided there by the lovely sound of music carried through the air. Face-to-face with the god of the wind, the Sun commanded the singers and musicians to be quiet, for fear they would be taken down to Earth. After displaying the frightful majesty of his powers, Quetzalcoatl convinced them to come with him. As he neared Earth, fruits began to ripen, flowers began to bloom, and it appeared as if the whole planet had awakened from a deep slumber. Happy with what they had accomplished, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl basked in the harmonious glow of the music which has existed ever since.
Better known as the herald for the rest of the Olympian gods, Hermes was also the god of thieves, merchants, and literature. As a baby of sorts, he escaped his swaddling bands and ran off to where his brother Apollo grazed his cattle. After helping himself to a number of them, Hermes caught a tortoise, killed it, and hollowed out its shell. Using some entrails from one of Apollo’s cows, he crafted the first lyre. Later, while under interrogation for stealing the cattle, he played the lyre so beautifully that Apollo traded the cattle for the lyre. Hermes is credited with inventing the flute and the panpipes as well.
Another character heavily involved with the creation of music in Greek mythology is Orpheus (pictured above). The son of a muse, perhaps Calliope, the patron of epic poetry, he has been called “the father of songs.” Given his first lyre by Apollo himself, Orpheus was said to have played so beautifully that animals, trees, and rocks would dance around him. After his death, his lyre was placed among the heavens as a constellation, playing its sweet music for the rest of eternity.
Saint Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch, an early Christian position allegedly founded by the apostle Saint Peter, and he was a relatively prolific writer of early Christian theology. When he was younger, he was said to have been hugged by Jesus Christ himself, in an event memorialized in Matthew 18:3. In AD 107, after the Roman emperor Trajan had ordered everyone to give thanks to the Roman gods, Ignatius refused to worship any idols. He was then ordered to Rome, where he was martyred by being thrown to wild beasts. (Lions, in most versions.)
As for his contribution to music, it is said that he had a vision while he was the bishop of Antioch. Ignatius was transported to Heaven, where he saw two choirs of angels singing, alternating between each other, in praise of God. When he awoke from his vision, he immediately reformed his own church’s choir, instructing them how to replicate what he had seen. Socrates (not the Greek one) attributed the creation of antiphonal singing to Ignatius.
The only Greek god whose name remained the same (along with many of his stories) when adopted by the Romans, Apollo was venerated as the god of the Sun, truth, healing, and music. When he was younger, he had yet to earn the title as god of music; it was only after a battle (when he was four days old) with a python that lived on Mount Parnassus that he was awarded it by Zeus. Having shot the mighty beast to death with an arrow, Apollo decided to play a victory song on his lyre. His playing was so perfect that he was immediately made the god of music.
In addition, Apllo would have to defend his musical skill from time to time. A satyr named Marsyas challenged the god to a musical competition, using a double flute. He failed, and for his hubris, he was hung from a pine tree and flayed alive. Later, the god Pan thought he could beat Apollo with a double flute. Playing in front of the legendary King Midas, Pan was judged to be the winner. Angry that Midas had chosen Pan and his double flute, Apollo turned the king’s ears into those of a donkey.
Otherwise known as Amenouzume No Mikoto, Uzume is the Japanese Shinto goddess of joy and happiness. With a nickname like “Heaven’s Forthright Female,” it should be no surprise that she is also seen as the embodiment of the perfect female. (Another god, Sarudahiko, represents the male, and the two are often depicted as husband and wife.)
As for the musical side of her nature, Uzume expressed it most beautifully in a story involving Amaterasu, the Sun goddess. Amaterasu had hidden herself in a cave, driven there out of anger at the storm god Susanoo. Unfortunately, this covered the world in darkness, leaving nothing able to grow anymore. All of the gods tried in vain to convince Amaterasu to leave the cave, with Uzume finally figuring out a way. She covered herself with moss and leaves and began singing and dancing wildly. When she accidentally exposed herself, the other gods laughed raucously, leading Amaterasu to leave the cave in curiosity.
In addition, the Shinto religious music and dancing, known as kagura, is said to be modeled after Uzume’s singing and dancing.
Jewish tradition as well as Genesis 4:21 treat Jubal as “the father of all such as handle the harp and pipe.” The son of Lamech, himself said to be the most ancient poet of the world before the flood, Jubal is said to have invented various stringed and wind instruments, chief among them being the aforementioned harp.
Later rabbinical writings, especially the Midrash HaGadol, or The Great Midrash, also credit Jubal with inventing all other musical instruments as well as singing itself. Other rabbinical writings take note that Jubal is a descendant of Cain and that the music he introduced to the world can have a deleterious effect, often when used in an act of seduction. Later Christian and Muslim writers associated music with Satan himself, believing it had a pseudo-magical influence over human beings.
The Hindu goddess of knowledge and the arts, Sarasvati (also spelled “Saraswati”) first appeared in the literature as the personification of a sacred eponymous river in India. Among the many prolific exploits with which she is credited is the invention of the Sanskrit language. Either the consort, daughter, or granddaughter of Brahma, a creator god, Sarasvati is also quite popular in Jain and Buddhist mythology.
Her creation was at the hands of Brahma, who made her after discovering the melody of mantras in the chaos of the unformed universe. Later, after various gandharvas stole a ritual plant known as the Soma plant, which they were tasked with guarding, Sarasvati ventured to them on behalf of the other gods. After ensnaring their ears with the beautiful music which flowed from her veena, a stringed instrument, she offered to teach them how to play it, provided they return the Soma plant. The gandharvas agreed, and the musical genre known as raga was born.
In Norse mythology, there was a legendary drink known as the Mead of Poetry, which had been created by the dwarves. Depending on the version of the myth, it either turned one into a poet or granted one the ability to speak with wisdom. For ages, it was guarded with secrecy until the giant Suttung came and stole it, hiding it in a mountain cave under the protection of his daughter. The great Norse god Odin believed that being a good poet was as crucial as being a good warrior, so after an arduous journey, he managed to convince Suttung’s daughter to allow him to drink the mead. He later escaped, turning into an eagle, and poured the mead over the whole world.
Another possible reason given is tied to Bragi (pictured above), the god of poetry and eloquence and (sometimes) the son of Odin. He had a tongue engraved with runes of speech, which gave him the ability to speak wisdom whenever he opened his mouth. Described as the most perfect of all the poets, Bragi was credited in some myths with the invention of poetry.
The god of knowledge, the Moon, and writing, among numerous others, Thoth was a major player in ancient Egyptian mythology. Credited with the invention of hieroglyphics themselves, he was also seen as the protector of scribes and secret knowledge. The Greeks associated with him their god Hermes, so it should be no surprise that Thoth’s music myth resembles Hermes’s.
The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, credited Thoth with the invention of the lyre. It was said that the Egyptian lyre consisted of three strings: acute, grave, and middle; they were said to imitate the three seasons of the year. (Apparently, there was no fall in ancient Egypt.) The traditional Greek lyre had seven strings. In the version of the myth involving Egypt, the shell of a dried tortoise was lying along the shore of the Nile. Thoth kicked the shell, pleased with the sound it made. He then picked it up and made a lyre out of it, along with some dead animals’ entrails.
Though some myths attribute the creation of music to a cultural hero named Kui, more sources cite Ling Lun as the legendary founder of music for ancient China. The Yellow Emperor, a deity in Chinese religion, is said to have ordered Ling Lun to create music. Ling Lun’s first attempt was a flute made out of bamboo, which was said to be unpleasant. In fact, when the Yellow Emperor was passing by on his horse, the noise startled the animal, and the emperor was thrown to the ground.
When he arose, Ling Lun fell to his knees, embarrassed and ready to accept death. However, the Yellow Emperor was astounded the flute made any noise at all and told him to continue his efforts. Eventually, Ling Lun ended up at Mount Phoenix, named after the mythical birds which frequented the area. The male and females each sang six distinct tones, and he carved his flute to match their pitches.