Linus—The Literature And Music Instructor Of Ancient Greek Heroes

Ancient Greek heroes of myth and legend, besides their alleged godly parentage, were also aided in their ascendance to greatness by being mentored and honed by great teachers. One such instructor was a figure named Linus (or Linos), who specialized in poetry and music. Due to Linus’ musical talent, he was sometimes said to have been a brother of the demigod bard, Orpheus, a muse-born superstar musician of ancient Greek mythology who had the power to entrance everything in creation with the power of his music. If Linus and Orpheus were truly brothers, then Linus was likely the eldest, for Orpheus became one of Linus’ first pupils. Besides teaching Orpheus—a case where the student truly surpassed the master—Linus also was said to have instructed the mythical Thracian bard, Thamyras, and he also attempted to educate famous Heracles (or Hercules) in the ways of music. The ancient Greek-Sicilian scholar, Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), wrote of Linus and the skills he offered to his students, stating, “Among the Greeks Linus was the first to discover the different rhythms and song, and when Cadmus brought from Phoenicia the letters, as they are called, Linus was again the first to transfer them into the Greek language…Linus also, who was admired because of his poetry and singing, had many pupils and three of greatest renown, Heracles, Thamyras, and Orpheus” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 3.67). Although Heracles may have been Linus’ most famous student, he was also the most deadly pupil.

Heracles, as it turned out, was not an ideal student. Perhaps, he was an excellent and attentive pupil in his military lessons, for he was instructed by other people in matters such as chariot-driving, wrestling, archery, fencing, so on and so forth. In Linus’ classes for poetry and music, however, rough and rowdy Heracles was as bored and uninterested as a stereotypical delinquent child could be, which no doubt would have tested Linus’ patience and pride. As the story goes, exasperated Linus eventually lost his temper with his unruly charge and decided to discipline Heracles during a lesson on playing the lyre. Linus, so the tale goes, took up a rod and used it to strike the mighty hero—perhaps it was a move akin to the stereotypical and archaic method of a teacher rapping the knuckles of a student with a wooden ruler. Whatever the case, it was a terrible mistake. Heracles was outraged by the incident and, wielding the lyre that he had been given for the lesson, he horribly used the instrument to beat poor Linus to death.

As the myth goes, Heracles was put on trial over the incident. A scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) reported the curious tale of what happened next, writing, “When a charge of murder was brought against Heracles, he cited a law of Rhadamanthys saying that if a person defends himself against another who has initiated violence, he should suffer no penalty. So Heracles was acquitted” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.4.9). Heracles, therefore, suffered no consequences for the killing of Linus. Orpheus, Linus’ brother, similarly seemed to not hold any grudge against Heracles when they later met during the adventures of the Argonauts.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cropped section of a painting of Orpheus, painted by Johann Peter Krafft (c. 1780 – 1856), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Belvedere Museum).



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