A fundamental text for understanding the concept of sound, word, song, and music in archaic religions; a topic kept in dim light or misunderstood in modern civilizations and religions, but which helps to reveal many philosophical, theurgic, and alchemical mysteries.
Marius Schneider (1903-1982) taught at the Universities of Barcelona, Köln, Amsterdam. Among his many works: History of Polyphony, 1934-1968; Symbolic animals and their musical origin in ancient mythology and sculpture, 1946, Il Significato della Musica, in Italian, 1970. I believe that none of these titles is currently available in a language other than German, French, or Italian – as these languages represent the “hamster wheel” of European culture.
My translation from the Italian edition of “La Musica Primitiva” by Marius Schneider, Adelphi Spa publisher, Milano, 1992. But a new edition is known in 2009.
Of course, there is always the publisher’s copyright issue of which I have no news of translation projects – Marius Schneider died many years ago now – and I know that the Italian edition is on sale in the USA in paper form. IMO, the indispensable culture must be shared, in a language that everyone, or almost everyone, can understand.
Reconstructing today the complex ideas that the great ancient civilizations and the current primitive peoples have formed about the nature of music is not easy. What struck us during our research and simultaneously facilitated the reconstruction work is the great uniformity of these ideas, a uniformity which, despite the numerous geographical and historical variations, leads us to suppose a common origin. However, we do not know whether such homogeneous conceptions have arisen from an elementary datum of human psychology or are instead the result of one or more specific cultural cycles. Even the phases of the development of this philosophy remain relatively obscure since, in the current state of our knowledge, it is almost impossible to separate the ideas which gave life to truly primitive civilizations from those to which the great cultures gradually contributed to this system’s basic philosophy. Indeed, we only know that the very idea of sound substance (as the substrate of the universe) is already present among the most primitive peoples. At the same time, the symbols and practical applications were mostly introduced by megalithic civilizations, which had an extraordinary diffusion all over the world. Significant traces of these cosmogonies are also found in Old Europe, but as far as music is concerned, they have largely disappeared.
The archaeological, literary, and ethnological documents capable of giving us information in this regard hand down only fragments: no Summa Musicae has been preserved. We have only isolated elements scattered in the most disparate contexts. Their mutual affinities allow us to suppose that they were once part of a coherent system of ideas. In this study, we will limit ourselves to reconstructing the concatenation of the isolated elements to identify the logical nexus that initially linked these ideas and determined the use of music in the rites. We could compare this work to the reconstruction of a painting of which there were still several poorly preserved, incomplete, and reduced to a thousand shreds reproductions. Our effort would then consist in examining each piece’s design and contours, trying to identify each time the part that fits perfectly with it. From the empirical juxtaposition of the elements derive the ideas that we will systematically expose in this chapter.
The Sound Creator of the World
A great deal of information about the nature of music and its place in the world comes from creation myths. Whenever the genesis of the world is described with sufficient precision, an acoustic element intervenes in the decisive moment of the action. When a god manifests the will to give life to himself or another god, to make heaven and earth or man appear, he utters a sound. He exhales, sighs, talks, sings, shouts, screams, coughs, expectorates, hiccups, vomits, thunders, or plays a musical instrument. He uses a material object to symbolize the creative voice in other cases. The source from which the world emanates is always acoustic. The primordial abyss, the gaping mouth, the singing cave, the singing or supernatural ground of the Eskimos, and the fissure in the rock of the Upanishads or the Tao of the ancient Chinese, from which the world emanates “like a tree”, are images of space emptiness or non-being, from which the barely perceptible breath of the creator blows. This sound, born from the Void, results from a thought that makes Nothing vibrate and, spreading, creates space. It is a monologue whose body of sound constitutes the first perceptible manifestation of the Invisible. The primordial abyss is, therefore, a “resonance foundation/bottom”, and the sound that flows from it must be considered the first creative force, which in most mythologies is personified in the singer-gods. In myths, the materialization of these gods, as a musician, a rock cave, or a screaming head (human or animal), is only a concession to myth’s more concrete and imaginative language.
Originally the term Brahman meant «magic force, sacred word, the hymn»; these are chants from the «mouth» of Brahmã. The Upanisads never tire of repeating to us that the sounds OM or AUM Are the “immortal and intrepid” creator syllable of the world. According to the Nãdabindu Upanişad, the sonorous breath of the Atman (i.e., the Atman itself) is symbolized by a bird whose tail corresponds to the sound of the consonant M. At the same time, the vowel A represents the right wing and the u, the left wing. Prajāpati, the Vedic creator god, also born of a sound breath, is a chant of praise. Its limbs and trunk are composed of hymns; its activity is, therefore, purely musical. “Whatever the gods do, they do through singing recitation” (Šatapatha Brāhmana). The Lakuts, as well as the ancient Egyptians and some primitive African tribes, imagine God as a great howler.
In Chinese mythology, many gods work mainly through shouts or musical instruments. The twenty-two characters enumerated by the Sefer Yezirah are God’s sonorous and creative emanations. Very often, the chant of the creator is identified with thunder. This assimilation is undoubtedly very ancient: in fact, we already find it in the mythology of primitive peoples such as the Californians, the Arandas of Australia, the Samoyeds, and the Coriakis of northern Asia. It also exists in southern Africa (Zulu, Bashilange), in Congo, in Niger, and among the Masai. In America, its diffusion is remarkable and persists in the great civilizations of the Near and Far East. In Africa and northern Asia, the voice of God is recognized in the sound of rain or the swirling wind. The creator often appears as a roaring quadruped (the Vedic or Persian bull), a buzzing insect, a thunderbird, or an anthropomorphic god-singer completely white and shining. The god Šiva is a dancer who keeps the world going by playing the drum, flute, conch, or zither. In Africa, the creator god of the Kamba is called “Mulungu”, which means “happiness, hollow bamboo, flute”.
In California (Kato, Pomo, Yuki), a large rumble produces the creator’s thunderous voice. The crocodile (Egyptian and Chinese), which, to bring order to chaos, strikes its belly with its tail is a drum. It is probable that the god of the Uitoto (America), who extracts the primordial waters from his body, is also a drum. In Asia Minor, the god Ea or Enki is “bulug”, the drum (“the Word of the creator”), as are the gods who, guiding creation, are found embodied in talking trees (Lango, Hottentots, Pangwe), which correspond to large drum-trees, usually carved in the shape of men or animals. The god Taaroa (Society Islands) begat himself in a conch shell, probably a Narina conch. According to the Taittirīya Brāhmana, to give rise to the world’s first rhythms (rși), Prajāpati shook himself. Was Prajāpati perhaps a rattle? In certain myths, the creative sound is not symbolized directly by a musical instrument but by some objects to which the ability to resonate is attributed. The reed referred to in Japanese myths was probably a bamboo flute. The smoke of the pipe, in which the great Manitou collects human souls, symbolizes the sound bridge of sacrifice. Numerous Californian tales tell us that the world arose from the chant of a quill or feather. At first, the quill floated motionless on the waters to the north, but soon it began to sing and whirl eastward, where its sounds made the earth appear. The rites lead us to suppose that the twirling of the pen marked a spiral shape.
The idea of the world generated by a chant must have a very remote origin. Its diffusion would suffice to prove it, but it appears very ancient also because it does not imply the pre-existence of a more or less perfected work tool. The most technically advanced civilizations often show us the creator as a potter, a carpenter, or a sculptor who, after having shaped the bodies, gives them life through a scream, a sound exhalation, or saliva. We will see later how these representations of the creator derive from a fusion of the god with his auxiliary spirits. Generally speaking; however, these civilizations insist less on the paramount importance of sound. The idea of creative sound reappears with full force only in the philosophy of great cultures. If the creator is a chant, it is evident that the world it gives life to is purely acoustic. The Chândogya Upanişad tells us that gäyatri rhythm is ‘all that exists’. However, the rhythms or meters enumerated by the Vedic rites are many more. Such ceremonies show us that the sound and rhythm peculiar to each being or the name assigned to them were the essences of the gods invoked and the beings created by them. The root, power, and form of all existing things are constituted by their voice or by the name they bear, for all beings exist only by having been called by name. The nature of the first beings is purely acoustic. Their names are not definitions but proper names or sounds: they are, therefore, vocal supports of the life force of beings and the beings themselves. It’s a rule with no exceptions. Even the supreme god, who creates himself, attains existence by pronouncing his name, unless he is himself generated by the sound of a bell (Java), an orchestra of drums (India), a word transmitted with the tam-tam (Uitoto) or a bamboo flute (Zulu). These sounds then constitute the highest and oldest conceivable sound grade in the order of creation.
In many myths, it is said that the first creation chants brought the flare or the dawn. Primitive peoples often attribute that scream of light to the sun, the crowing of a divine rooster, or the roar of a hungry beast. In great civilizations, this wondrous deed is usually the work of a particularly revered pet. In ancient Persia, the light was summoned by the celestial bull of Ahura Mazdah. The Vedic literature tells us about the “moo of a luminous cow”, which symbolizes the cloud pregnant with rain.
The Kāțhaka Upaniṣad describes the Atman (the supreme being), which externalizes itself in the syllable OM, Like an intense light. The Tahitians believe that the creative light comes from the mouth of the god Tane. According to the Maoris, God created the universe through a word that evoked light. In Polynesian myths, Atua began singing about him in the middle of the night, and the light was released only towards morning. Those chants are, therefore, now luminous voices, now sounds that produce clarity. Generally, the texts are not very explicit in this regard: in several legends, creation is born from a simple sound or a ray of light, but these texts are incomplete. It is very probable that the original version considered fire or the sun-singer as a primordial element, inaudible and hidden in the dark waters. Coming out of the sea, that chant (now the creator, now a creature of God) joins the chant of the waters, and the dawn appears. If we stick to the symbolism of the storm, God’s creative thought is the flash shout that produces thunder, and only after the storm does the chant of sunlight begin to radiate.
The Maiträyana Upanişad considers the Atman as the “first” sun from which emanates numerous rhythms which, after “sparkling, pouring rain and singing hymns”, return to the “cave” of the supreme being. Sometimes this sonorous cave or this primordial sun is symbolized by a shining egg or a shining shell from which the solar star emerged. After the Egyptian god Amun, in the form of a goose, had incubated the solar egg, with his voice, he announced the light. According to the Chândogya Upanişad, everything that exists developed in an egg with a slit from which the singing sun came out. Now, symbolically, the egg with the slit corresponds, anthropologically, to a head whose mouth emits the first chant of creation.
The Aitareya Brāhmana tells us that the egg hatched by the Atman “opened like a mouth” to utter the first word or to give birth to the head of Puruşa (the cosmic giant). The Rg Veda tells us the seven Rşi, mythical poets or poetic meters whose chant generated the first dawn and formed the head of Prajāpati, in charge of pronouncing the creative syllables of the world. According to another version, Prajāpati was born from a concert of seventeen drums. The image of the head as a symbol of the egg or the cave can facilitate the understanding of specific formulas frequently used in the description of this first, purely acoustic, stage of creation. To say that the gods “produce” and “fertilize” employing the mouth, while they “nourish” and “conceive” through the ear, is only a symbolic way of expressing oneself to mean that, during the first stage of creation, all acts were acoustic in nature. In his Die Religion des Vedas, H. Oldenberg rightly interpreted singing as an emission of semen. Still, he does not seem to have noticed that this “seed” is a purely acoustic element that comes out of the mouth of a god to fertilize his ear.
Singing first to themselves, the gods realize parthenogenesis, characteristic of the beginnings of creation. Thoth, the creator god of music, dance, and writing, and the sun god fertilize themselves by laughing or launching a light scream. The Heliopolis school expounded the story of creation in two different versions. According to the first, the sun god generated the other gods through a light scream. In the second version, this shout is replaced by an act of masturbation or an expectoration of the sun. Since the word, the sun or the egg, is first immersed in the night of eternal waters, it is evident that when they evoke the dawn, they are impregnated with humidity. In the cosmogony of the Dogon (Africa), this “wet and luminous word” intervenes in all the stages of the first phase of creation.
The role of enlightener attributed to the musician-gods seems to imply that ancient civilizations recognized music within the human culture from the beginning of creation. Located between the darkness and the light of the first day, on the human level, music is located between the darkness of unconscious life and the clarity of intellectual representations; therefore, it belongs mainly to the world of dreams. In the first stage of creation, during which sounds are gradually clothed in light, music precedes intelligible language as the dawn precedes the day. It contains both darkness and light, water and fire. Music is the moist sun that sings the dawn. But, as the sounds become more precise, this primary “language” divides: one part becomes the music proper; another is embodied in a language composed of clear and distinct sentences, subject to logical thought; the third part gradually turns into matter.
This music seems composed now of cries or magical syllables, now of moans or inarticulate noises. In this respect, the documents are contradictory, but it is likely a shout of joy mixed with pain since all these gods have a dual nature. In symbolic language, the hermaphroditic character of that music is clearly expressed by its identification with the dawn, since the fusion of night and day, of water and fire or rain and sunbeams “in the noise of the shining wedding of the ‘dawn” (Rg Veda) is a metaphor of marriage, i.e., of a rhythm produced by the union of sound and meter. Music is the prototype of the concerting principle of the forces of nature. All other phenomena of concrete nature which present two antithetical aspects are only material expressions of an essentially musical law. The ancient philosophers, therefore, never tired of using metaphors drawn from music, which is the prefiguration and essence of heaven and earth.
Next Chapter: 2 some Sounds create World and Humankind