Music in ancient Egypt

    The importance of music to the ancient Egyptians can hardly be exaggerated. Ihy was the god who presided over the art, but many of the greatest Egyptian deities, such as Amun, Hathor, Isis and Osiris, had musical associations. It was no accident that when describing Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, Virgil (Aeneid, viii.696) has her rattling the ‘native sistrum’, the instrument most associated in the Roman mind with Egyptian rites. Osiris himself is dubbed ‘the fair sistrum player’ in a papyrus (probably 4th century bce), containing the Songs of Isis and Nephthys, and from Dynasty 21 (c1070 bce) great political influence was wielded at Thebes by the divine wives of Amun, royal princesses whose duties included playing the sistrum before the god. Although idiophones provided Egypt’s earliest and most characteristic instruments, temple scenes, tomb paintings and museum collections testify abundantly to the variety and richness of Egyptian music-making. (For a discussion of the Egyptian art of cheironomy)

  1. Literary sources.

Classical authors preserved many traditions about ancient Egyptian music. Plutarch recorded that Thoth (Hermes) invented it (De Iside et Osiride, 352.3) and that Osiris used it extensively in his civilizing mission throughout the world (356.13), although there were notable restrictions on its employment in his worship (Strabo, Geography, xvii.1.44). Plato, supposed to have studied in Egypt, extolled the excellence of Egyptian musical standards (Laws, 657), and Pythagoras is said to have investigated musical theory there (Iamblichus, De vita Pythagorae, iv). Dio Cassius (Roman History, xxxvii.18) stated that Egyptian music was closely connected with astrology. Plutarch commented on the significance of the sistrum’s structure (De Iside et Osiride, 376.63) and on the fact that the inhabitants of Busiris and Lycopolis made no use of the trumpet because its braying sound recalled the god Seth (Typhon), whose colour resembled that of an ass (362.30). Diodorus Siculus attributed the discovery of the lyre to Thoth (History, i.16) and commented on the dangers of effeminacy through indulgence in music (i.81). Herodotus mentioned the aulos (ii.48) and an Egyptian song identical with the linos he knew from other parts of the Near East (ii.79;). He also described the music at annual celebrations at Bubastis (ii.60). For the Ptolemaic period and later, Strabo mentioned the licentious use of the aulos (Geography, xvii.1.17); Athenaeus (v.201–2) referred to a choir of 600 with 300 harpers in the reign of Philadelphus (285–246 bce), the outstanding musicianship of the Alexandrians (iv.176), and the effect one of the citizens made in Rome with his performance on the trigōnon. Important Alexandrian contributions to the Hellenistic heritage were the invention of the hydraulis by Ctesibius (fl c270 bce) and the treatise Harmonica by Hero of Alexandria.

To what extent Egyptian music influenced the classical world is uncertain. The vast time-span of Egyptian history made a great impression on the Greeks and Romans, whose literature often alludes to the debt they thought they owed to many branches of Egyptian learning, including music. This evidence, however, must be treated with caution: it concerns only the latest periods of ancient Egyptian history, when Pharaonic civilization was already in decline; its elements are often fanciful and bizarre; its method is unscientific; and it is based on theories that Egyptian archaeology has so far done little to corroborate.

The literature of Egypt itself also abounds in musical references: in the last of the stories concerning King Cheops and the magicians, for example, a group of goddesses appears disguised as a party of itinerant musicians; and the tribulations of Wenamun were alleviated only by the presence of a female Egyptian singer at Byblos. There is praise of the art on a stela of Wahankh Intef II (Dynasty 11, c2100 bce; New York, Metropolitan Museum); and the texts survive of many Egyptian songs, such as those concerning love (about 60), the shepherd’s lot (in two Old Kingdom tombs) and workers in the field (e.g. in the tomb of Paheri at El-Kab dating from the New Kingdom), and those suitable for performance at a banquet (e.g. the Song of the Harper). Above many musical scenes are the names of the instruments played and the words sung, but there is no hint of notation.

  1. Iconography.

Throughout Egyptian history the musical iconography has been rich. The significance of prehistoric dancing figures in rock drawing or on pottery (Naqada 2 period, before 3000 bce) is not easy to interpret, and the suggestion that the sticks held by two men on a contemporary pot from El-Amra are clappers can be only conjectural. However, there can be no doubt about the fox with an end-blown flute on the Ashmolean ceremonial palette from Hierakonpolis (Protodynastic, c2900 bce. Whether the neighbouring giraffe and ibex are in fact dancing, and whether or not Mesopotamian influence may be detected, the scene is nevertheless a playful example of the music-making that was so prevalent in Egyptian life and that can be seen depicted in at least a quarter of the 450 private tombs of the Theban necropolis.

From the time of the Old Kingdom (c2575–2134 bce) the main instruments represented in the tombs are the end-blown flute played obliquely, a pipe (single or double) of the clarinet type using a single reed, and the harp; usually there are also singers and often dancers. At this period the players are mostly male, although women are sometimes seen at the harp (e.g. in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara, dated to Dynasty 6, c2323–2150bce, where in front of her husband the Princess Seshseshet accompanies her own song). Larger combinations include the group from the mastaba of Werirenptah (Dynasties 5–6; from Saqqara, now in the British Museum), in which two singers, apparently emphasizing the rhythm with their hands, are joined by a flautist and harpist (all male), while in a lower register four dancers face two singers (all female); and a scene in the tomb of Ibi at Deir el-Gebrawi (Dynasty 6) comprising seven male harpists. The tomb of Kagemni (Dynasties 5–6; Saqqara) may contain the earliest representation of a trumpet player, participating, perhaps, in a ritual scene.

During the Middle Kingdom (c2040–1640 bce) the chamber groups tend to be smaller and to contain more women. Sometimes a singer is accompanied only by hand-clapping or by a harp. In Ukhhotep’s tomb at Meir (Dynasty 12, c1991–1783 bce) a long end-blown flute and large harp accompany a man who sings holding his left hand against his left ear (an attitude still commonly seen in Egypt). In the tomb of Amenemhat at Beni Hasan (Dynasty 12) three singers are accompanied by two harps, a sistrum and a rattle (the group is female except for one of the harpists), and the approximately contemporary tomb of Khnumhotep at the same site contains the first Egyptian scene with a lyre.

In the New Kingdom (1550–1070 bce) new instruments of increased variety are used by the Egyptian chamber groups. The lute and lyre appear, together with a pipe of the oboe type (usually double and splayed at the distal end) with a double reed, in combination with various types of drum and tambourine and, in military scenes, the trumpet. In the tomb of Paser at Thebes, for instance (contemporary with Amenhotep II, 1427–1401 bce), are found an angular harp, an arched harp, a lyre and lute; certain rooms of the royal palace at El-Amarna apparently devoted to music are shown in the tomb of Ay (reign of Akhenaten, 1353–1335 bce), where lutes, harps and lyres of various shapes and sizes seem to have been stored, with female musicians at practice on some of them. Two banquet scenes originally from Thebes (Dynasty 18, c1550–1307 bce; British Museum) distinguish the two main types of Egyptian lute and show the double reeds with which the splayed double oboe-type pipes were sounded; in both instances the instrumentalist’s hands appear to be crossed. A lively dance scene from a tomb at Saqqara (Dynasty 19, c1307–1196 bce; Egyptian National Museum) shows eight girls with tambourines and two others, each with two pairs of clappers or castanets.

Many Egyptian instruments were closely associated with animals, but a papyrus in Turin (Dynasty 19) is clearly satirical in intent. On it an ass plays a large harp of the kind made familiar from ‘Bruce’s Tomb’ (that of Ramesses III, c1194–1163 bce, at Thebes); a double oboe-type pipe is in the hands of a monkey; a crocodile strums the lute, and a lion the lyre. Of equal vivacity is a scene on a steatite bowl in the British Museum (Persian period, 525–404bce): five performers (three male) approach a kiosk of the goddess Hathor, one with a large round tambourine, the second with a lyre, the third with a pair of clappers, the fourth with the lower part of her dress wound round one arm, while with the other she slaps her buttocks, and the fifth with a double pipe of the clarinet type. Herodotus’s description (ii.60) of licence at Bubastis is aptly recalled.

  1. Surviving instruments.

Many ancient Egyptian musical instruments still exist. Among the earliest idiophones are clappers in the Egyptian National Museum, mostly decorated with animal heads and dating from Dynasty 1 (c2920–2770 bce); bearded human heads also appear in the Protodynastic period. But the commonest type of clapper (mostly of bone or wood) is in the form of a human hand with the head of the goddess Hathor below, and with the handle shaped as a forearm, an animal’s body or a plant-derived architectural feature. Pairs of clappers mounted on a handle are also found, as are castanets, though only from the Late period (the 1st millennium bce). Bronze cymbals of three main kinds (large, plate type; medium-size, cup type; small, clapper type) and crotala (small cymbals mounted on wooden or metal handles) date mainly from the Greco-Roman or Coptic (Christian) periods. Bells, used mainly for ritual or apotropaic purposes, also came late to Egypt; they are mostly of bronze, although more precious metals are sometimes used. The body of the bell is often ornamented with a head of the god Bes or a mythological animal. Jingles and rattles (of plaited straw, for instance, or terracotta) are found rarely, but the latter date back to the prehistoric period. In the arched sistrum (usually of metal) and the sistrum in the form of a naos or shrine (mostly of faience), the central feature is a Hathor head. Decoration often includes a cat (sacred to the goddess Bastet) and the uraeus (the snake associated with Edjo, Hathor and Sekhmet). The ends of the metal rods used for the mounting of the sounding-plates may be shaped to represent the uraeus or a bird’s head. There is a model alabaster sistrum inscribed with the titles of King Teti (c2323–2291 bce) in the Metropolitan Museum.

The earliest Egyptian membranophone is a palm-wood drum from Beni Hasan, cylindrical in shape (Dynasty 12; Egyptian National Museum); other examples are barrel-shaped and of bronze. The tambourine or frame drum has two main forms: it is either round, or rectangular with concave sides. The former type varies considerably in size and is often associated with the god Bes (e.g. a New Kingdom statuette in the British Museum) or outdoor ceremonies; a pair of richly decorated covering skins, inscribed with the name of the goddess Isis and dating from the Late period, is in the Egyptian National Museum. The rectangular kind was much used at New Kingdom banquets and was always played by women.

Less common aerophones include the terracotta rhytons characteristic of the Greco-Roman period, the two trumpets (one bronze or copper, one silver) from the tomb of Tutankhamun (1333–1323 bce; Egyptian National Museum) with richly decorated bells, and toy instruments such as an ocarina in terracotta (Egyptian National Museum) moulded into the shape of a monkey. Surviving end-blown flutes date back to the Middle Kingdom; a damaged example from Beni Hasan (Egyptian National Museum) is 91 cm long. Larger instruments have been found, and some less than half the size. The number of playing holes is usually four to six (with three to eight as the extremes). The classification of pipes requiring either a single or double reed is more difficult, if only because the reeds rarely survive. Fewer instruments of the clarinet type (attested from the Old Kingdom) appear in collections than of the oboe type introduced in the New Kingdom. The Egyptian National Museum possesses a wooden box of the New Kingdom that once contained, according to the Journal d’entrée, four ‘flûtes’, two ‘roseaux’ (reed pipes) without holes, and a pair of straws possibly intended for the fashioning of reeds.

Of the main chordophones, the Egyptian lyre appears to date from the New Kingdom and to have been an Asiatic import. There are two types, symmetrical and asymmetrical, both with a rectangular soundbox. An example of the latter type, with fragments of the original stringing, was found at Deir el-Medina (Dynasty 18; Egyptian National Museum). The history of the Egyptian lute is similar. Of the two distinct sizes, the longer has a soundbox of wood (the earliest soundbox of this type, perhaps Dynasty 17, c1640–1550 bce, is in the Metropolitan Museum), the shorter of tortoiseshell. The slender neck was usually fretted and appears to have acted both as a fingerboard and as a basis for the attachment of the strings (two or three in number and normally played with a plectrum), which were raised above the soundbox by a tailpiece. The lute of the singer Harmose, found near the rock tomb of Senmut, is characteristic of the smaller type (Dynasty 18; Egyptian National Museum).

Harps may be divided into two groups, the arched or bow harp and the angular. The latter seems to have been another New Kingdom Asiatic import and appears less frequently in collections (there is a large example of uncertain date in the Egyptian National Museum); originally a right-angled triangle in shape, the instrument later tended to have three acute angles. The arched harp is attested from Dynasty 4 (c2575–2465 bce) onwards and is most easily classified by the shape of its soundbox. During the Old Kingdom a soundbox resembling a shallow spoon or spade was preferred; during the Middle Kingdom a deeper, oval type like a ladle developed; and a smaller boat-shaped type is characteristic of the New Kingdom. These shapes did not supplant one another. The harps vary considerably in size and in number of strings. Museum collections provide representative examples of each type; a particularly fine model harp, perhaps from the tomb of Ani at Thebes and elaborately decorated, closely resembles the instruments illustrated in votive scenes (Dynasty 18; British Museum.

Experiments have been carried out on the spacing of holes in Egyptian aerophones, and attempts have been made to reconstruct the stringing of the chordophones; but only in the case of the Tutankhamun trumpets and certain idiophones can there be any sure knowledge of how an ancient Egyptian instrument sounded. Many theories have been put forward, but so far they are without adequate foundation.

By  Grove Dictionary

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