Musical Instruments

Category: Elements of Ritual > Implements & Instruments

1 Introduction

Music was an important part of worship in antiquity. There were “hymnologues, who sing the praises of the gods with ostentatious display”, apparently a temple occupation (Firmicus, Mathesis 3.5.33; cf. 4.10.3), and most public devotional celebrations involved groups of (professional or amateur) singers. Such hymn-singing was frequently accompanied by instruments, as the surviving hymns themselves often proclaim, and of course purely instrumental music too was sometimes called for in devotional contexts.

Some of the instruments popular at the time have since fallen out of use, others are still played, but in either case, the ancient modes of playing them have not been maintained by any kind of conscious tradition. Even the best music archaeology cannot undo this rupture. Still, it is worthwhile to study the various kinds of evidence that survive of ancient music, the modern musical traditions that have some historical connection to it, and (to come to the area where I can contribute) the cultural and symbolic meaning of the elements of music. In the absence of the kind of evidence that would allow for exact replication, this last too is clearly necessary for meaningful revival.

It seems that already in late antiquity, some pagans were studying writings about music while being severed from a living tradition of devotional music. At any rate, the polytheist Macrobius wrote in the early 5th century CE that “the theologues (‘mythological poets’) used to add musical sounds to the sacrifices, which used to be done with lyre or cithara by some, and by not a few with flutes or other musical instruments;” “the very hymns of the gods […] used to be performed with strophe and antistrophe” (Macrobius, On Scipio’s Dream 2.3.4–5).

So, this page will lay out the evidence for the cultural (and cultic) role of ancient musical instruments, while for information about what the instruments looked and played like, readers will have to look elsewhere.

2 Inventors

There was a rich literature about inventors (or ‘discoverers’, gr. euretai, lat. inventores) in antiquity, often in the form of lists. The idea behind this was not one of steady technological progress but about anchoring the present in an origin in antiquity. Such lists of inventors often do not make a distinction between mythical and historical accounts, or differentiate inventions of gods from those of humans.

For instance, Pan invented the flute (hence the modern term ‘Pan flute’; e.g., Hyginus, Genealogiae 274.18); or, according to “Euphorion the epic poet”, Pan’s father “Hermes invented the single-reed syrinx (‘Pan flute’) […], Silenus the multi-reed sýrinx, and Marsyas the wax-joined sýrinx” (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 4.82); Silenus and Marsyas are Satyrs, who are rural gods much like Pans. Fittingly, the Pan flute is associated with rural, especially shepherds’ music (hence frequently mentioned by the bucolic poets), and was also something that might be offered to rural gods like Pan and the Nymphs as a dedication (Longus, Daphne and Chloe 1.4.3). Syrinx is also said to have been a Nymph; for the myth, see the page on Pan.

A different kind of flute, the aulos (double flute, double-reeded flute), is said to have been invented by Athena. The goddess threw it away, however, after she played it and saw her puffed cheeks reflected in water, which offended her sense of dignity. It was then taken up by the Satyr Marsyas, who challenged Apollon to a contest, with Marsyas playing the aulos, the god his lyre; this costs the Satyr his life (Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.382–403).

The credit for inventing the cithara or lyre, a stringed instrument (or, technically, two different instrument), is usually given to Hermes. It is nevertheless regarded as the instrument of his brother, because he exchanged it for the caduceus (Servius, On the Aeneid 4.242). According to another view, Hermes invented the lyre, Apollon the cithara (Pausanias 5.14.8).

[Ps.-Plutarch, On Music 14 (1135f). Diodorus Siculus 3.58? ]

3 Devotional uses of different instruments

[cultural associations of lyre-playing. That hymn to Attis?
Ἐκ τυμπάνου ἔφαγον
Scholia on Apollonius of Rhodes, p. 103
Heron, De automatis 14.1
Source on ancient instruments]

4 Symbolism of the number of the lyres strings

Numeros omnimodos pulsas tuo plectro. Numeros dicit chordas siue nervos citharae. Nam citharam diversis numeris a veteribus constat esse compositam iuxta harmoniam mundi. Unde hi, qui ex quatuor elementis constare universa dixerunt, tetrachordon fecerunt. Quidam pentachordon, addentes quatuor elementis divinam providentiam. Nonnulli heptachordon iuxta numerum septem deorum, quorum nominibus dies nuncupantur. Alii ennachordon, qui his septem adiunxerunt caelum et terram, uel propter novenarium ab astagiis.

[John Lydus, De mensibus 4.51
Theon p. 141
Anatolius 12.19
Saturnalia: lyra Apollini
Ser. Aen. 8.75
Scholia on Aratus 269]