Conservation Project: Auloi of Meroë, Iconography

Conservation and Collections Management

There are more than 40 works of art that depict auloi in the Museum’s collections. The majority of these are painted red-figure ceramic pottery, but the instrument is also represented in sculpture, jewelry, and even coins. The iconography can be found on artwork that is Greek, Roman, Etruscan, and Cypriote.

See examples of auloi iconography

Mixing bowl (bell krater), by The Painter of Boston
Mixing bowl (bell krater), by The Painter of Boston 00.348, Greek, South Italian, Classical Period, about 370–360 B.C.

The bell krater pictured above depicts the main characters in a story about the auloi from Greek mythology. The goddess Athena, who is said to have created the auloi, is seen playing the instrument under an olive tree. While entertaining the Olympian gods, she becomes embarrassed when she discovers how distorted her face appears when blowing the reeds of the auloi, and thus casts the instrument aside. Marsyas, a Phrygian satyr shown at the far right, finds the discarded auloi, claims them as his own invention, and becomes famous for his beautiful playing. Apollo, depicted to the right of the tree, is challenged by Marsyas to a godly “battle of the bands.” The terms of the competition dictate that the winner would choose the punishment for the loser. Both play their instruments with great skill—Marsyas on the auloi and Apollo on his stringed lyre. Apollo then challenges Marsyas to play his instrument upside down. While this was easily done on the lyre, Marsyas was unable to play his auloi in this fashion. Serving as judges, the Muses award the contest to Apollo. As punishment, Apollo had Marsyas hanged from a tree and flayed. The pipes of his auloi were reportedly joined to his eviscerated body to create the first bagpipe.

Auloi are well documented in Greek mythology, iconography, and even texts, including the Bible. Played by both men and women, they were used for celebrations such as Dionysian festivals, and also for funeral rites, which may explain why the MFA’s auloi were discovered at a burial site. The instruments were often played alone, but were also used to accompany singing and dancing.

The numerous artworks showing auloi performers not only illuminate various classical myths, but also provide useful information regarding how the instruments were played and what their role was in the ancient world. Auloi are represented in iconography at the Museum more than any other type of instrument, and this rich visual archive has been very helpful in further understanding specific attributes of the rare examples from Meroë.