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Adams, L. (1988). Apollo and Marsyas: A Metaphor of Creative Conflict. Psychoanal. Rev., 75(2):319-338.

(1988). Psychoanalytic Review, 75(2):319-338

Apollo and Marsyas: A Metaphor of Creative Conflict

Laurie Adams, Ph.D.

Fortunately for psychoanalysis, the ancient Greeks created myths that illustrate most of the conflicts we encounter in our clinical practice. Not only did Freud name his most famous discovery after a Greek tragic hero, but his entire approach to his subject was imbued with history, archeology, the arts, and an interest in the nature of creativity.

The musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas is a particularly rich myth for psychoanalytic investigation because it resonates with the creative conflict on several levels. It may be seen as a metaphor for the Oedipus complex as described by Freud, for pre-oedipal issues of potential space between inside and outside as discussed by Winnicott and Deri, and for the split image of self sometimes experienced by creative people. The frequent appearance of the Apollo/Marsyas myth in ancient Greek literature and art, its revival during the Renaissance, its popularity with Baroque painters, and its persistence in the modern unconscious attest to its wide appeal.

The primary source for the myth of Apollo and Marsyas is Ovid's Metamorphoses. The Metamorphoses, completed in the year 8 A.D. during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, is not the earliest literary mention of this contest but it is the most detailed. In fact, Ovid divides the contest into two separate episodes, one tragic and the other humorous. Both stories were conflated in the Renaissance and in antiquity by other writers.

The first episode, recounted in Book VI of the Metamorphoses, is a tragic story of the musical contest between Apollo, the Greek god of the sun and music, and Marsyas, a satyr (figure 1).

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