ANCIENT GREEK MUSIC AND DANCE

ANCIENT GREEK MUSIC

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music, wine, ecstacy
We do not know for sure what ancient Greek music sounded like because it was never written down. Most Greeks songs consisted of a single melody repeated in unison by singers and musical instruments. There were songs for all different occasions: working, celebrating, birth, death and drinking.

The Greeks ranged tones in scales called modes . Two of these scales provided the basis for music in the Western world. In the 6th century B.C., Pythagoras accurately determined the numerical relationships between strings that produced tones at different pitches.

Music, dance, poetry and drama were all intertwined. Choruses played an important role in dramas and festivals featured poet-musicians competitions. The amateurs performed recited poems accompanied by lyre or a cithara. See Poetry and Drama.

According to the The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Music was essential to the pattern and texture of Greek life, as it was an important feature of religious festivals, marriage and funeral rites, and banquet gatherings. Our knowledge of ancient Greek music comes from actual fragments of musical scores, literary references, and the remains of musical instruments. Although extant musical scores are rare, incomplete, and of relatively late date, abundant literary references shed light on the practice of music, its social functions, and its perceived aesthetic qualities. Likewise, inscriptions provide information about the economics and institutional organization of professional musicians, recording such things as prizes awarded and fees paid for services. The archaeological record attests to monuments erected in honor of accomplished musicians and to splendid roofed concert halls. In Athens during the second half of the fifth century B.C., the Odeion (roofed concert hall) of Perikles was erected on the south slope of the Athenian akropolis—physical testimony to the importance of music in Athenian culture. [Source: Collete Hemingway, Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2001, metmuseum.org \^/]

“In addition to the physical remains of musical instruments in a number of archaeological contexts, depictions of musicians and musical events in vase painting and sculpture provide valuable information about the kinds of instruments that were preferred and how they were actually played. Although the ancient Greeks were familiar with many kinds of instruments, three in particular were favored for composition and performance: the kithara, a plucked string instrument; the lyre, also a string instrument; and the aulos, a double-reed instrument. Most Greek men trained to play an instrument competently, and to sing and perform choral dances. Instrumental music or the singing of a hymn regularly accompanied everyday activities and formal acts of worship. Shepherds piped to their flocks, oarsmen and infantry kept time to music, and women made music at home. The art of singing to one's own stringed accompaniment was highly developed. Greek philosophers saw a relationship between music and mathematics, envisioning music as a paradigm of harmonious order reflecting the cosmos and the human soul.” \^/

Sometimes music and poetry contests were staged in conjunction with Olympic-style athletic competitions. Strabo wrote in “Geographia” (c. A.D. 20): “There was anciently a contest held at Delphi, of players on the cithara, who executed a paean in honor of the god. It was instituted by the Delphians. But after the Crisaean war the amphictyons, in the time of Eurylochus, established contests for horses and gymnastic sports, in which the victor was crowned. These were called Pythian games, in addition to the musical contests.” [Source: Fred Morrow Fling, ed., “A Source Book of Greek History,” Heath, 1907, pp. 47-53]

Pythagoreans and Music

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Pythagorians
The Pythagoreans were followers of the philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras. Headquartered first on the island of Samos and later Croton in southern Italy, they were the first to make the profound discovery that all aspects of nature---musical notes, mathematics, science, architecture and engineering---followed rules that were determined by the relationship between numbers.

The Pythagoreans showed how numbers could be used to describe the harmonies and beauties of music and introduced the musical terminology of the octave, the fifth, the forth, expressed as 2:1, 3:1 and 4:3. They found that the most pleasant sounds occurred in exact proportions and discovered that the length of a musical string was is in an exact numerical relation to the pitch of its tone.

Notes are sound waves created by vibrations. A vibration that is twice as high as another is an octave. Others that are pleasant together are those whose vibration are a forth or fifth higher. These same proportions are used in designing what are regarded as aesthetically pleasing building, which is why architecture has been called “frozen music.”

The Pythagoreans argued that of numbers worked so well describing music they could also describe everything in the universe. Describing the Pythagoreans in his Metaphysics , Aristotle wrote: "they say that the things themselves are Numbers and do not place the objects of mathematics between Forms and sensible things...Since, again, they saw that the modifications and the ratios of the musical scales were expressible in numbers---since, then, all other things seemed in their whole nature, they supposed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number...and the whole arrangement of the heavens they collected and fitted into their scheme; and if there was a gap anywhere, they readily made additions so as to make their whole theory coherent."

See Pythagoreans, Philosophy and Science

Music and Festival Entertainment in Ancient Greece

Xenophon (c430-354 B.C.) wrote in Symposium II: “When the tables had been removed and the guests had poured a libation and sung a hymn, there entered a man from Syracuse, to give them an evening's merriment. He had with him a fine flute-girl, a dancing-girl--one of those skilled in acrobatic tricks,--and a very handsome boy, who was expert at playing the cither and at dancing; the Syracusan made money by exhibiting their performances as a spectacle. They now played for the assemblage, the flute-girl on the flute, the boy on the cither; and it was agreed that both furnished capital amusement. Thereupon Socrates remarked: “On my word, Callias, you are giving us a perfect dinner; for not only have you set before us a feast that is above criticism, but you are also offering us very delightful sights and sounds.” “Suppose we go further,” said Callias, “and have some one bring us some perfume, so that we may dine in the midst of pleasant odours, also.” “No, indeed!” replied Socrates.”

In a letter to Ptolemaios, Demophon wrote (c. 245 B.C.): “Send us at your earliest opportunity the flutist Petoun with the Phrygian flutes, plus the other flutes. If it is necessary to pay him, do so, and we will reimburse you. Also, send us the eunuch Zenobius with a drum, cymbals, and castanets. The women need them for their festival. Be sure he is wearing his most elegant clothing. Get the special goat from Aristion and sent it to us. Send us also as many cheeses as you can, a new jug, and vegetables of all kinds, and fish if you have it. Your health! Throw in some policemen at the same time to accompany the boat.

Strabo wrote in “Geographia” (c. A.D. 20): “A festival is celebrated every year at Acharaca; and at that time in particular those who celebrate the festival can see and hear concerning all these things; and at the festival, too, about noon, the boys and young men of the gymnasion, nude and anointed with oil, take out a bull and with haste run before him into the cave; and, when they arrive at the cave, the bull goes forward a short distance, falls, and breathes out his life. [Source: Strabo, The Geography of Strabo: Literally Translated, with Notes, translated by H. C. Hamilton, & W. Falconer, (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854-1857)

The Roman-era Greek orator Dio Chrysostom wrote (A.D. 110): “Some people attend the festival of the god out of curiousity, some for shows and contests, and many bring goods of all sorts for sale, the market folk, that is, some of whom display their crafts and manufactures while others make a show of some special learning---many, of works of tragedy or poetry, many, of prose works. Some draw worshipers from remote regions for religion's sake alone, as does the festival of Artemis at Ephesos, venerated not only in her home-city, but by Hellenes and barbarians.

Clementis Recognitiones wrote (c. A.D. 220): “Most men abandon themselves at festival time and holy days, and arrange for drinking and parties, and give themselves up wholly to pipes and flutes and different kinds of music and in every respect abandon themselves to drunkenness and indulgence.”

Ancient Greek Musical Instruments

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Harp player at a symposia
The ancient Greeks used three main types of instruments: 1) strings such a lyres and harps; 2) winds, mostly flutes and pipes; and 3) percussion instruments such as drums, tambourines, bells, castanets and cymbals. Among the most common Greek musical instruments were turtle shell lyres with sinew strings and reed flutes carved from sycamore wood that were played with a leather strap around the musicians face to keep his cheeks from bulging out too far. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

The harp is the oldest stringed instrument known. It was popular in ancient Greece and played by the Druids. It was used by David when composing the psalms. Greeks played lyres (primitive harps with four to ten strings) and the Kithara (a lyre-like instrument with more strings). According to legend Hermes made these instruments from tortoiseshell a few hours after his birth and presented them to mankind as a gift.

Lyres were arguably the most important and widespread instrument in ancient Greece. They were commonly used by poets as they recited Homeric tales, were associated with Apollo and were used in the musical education of Greek youths. The Kithara were the most sophisticated instrument used by professionals. The phorminx was a primitive string instrument used by epic singers.

Among the many wind instruments the ardos (a double-reed instrument) was the most common. Often used in duets with a kithara, it figured prominently in many social and religious occasions, including processions, banquets, dramatic festivals, Dionysian gatherings and the Olympic games. At Dionysian festivals women played drums made of hollow cylinders with skin membranes stretched over the ends. Bells were widely used to keep rhythm during ceremonies and at dance lessons.

The earliest known pipe organ, called a hydraulis, was invented in the third century B.C. by a Greek engineer from Alexandria named Ctesibius. It employed falling water to produce a constant flow of air that was directed through different size tubes. Organs with piston pumps and wooden sliders that made sound in pipes were described in Hellenistic times. These instruments were widely used across the Roman Empire.

Kithara: the Ancient Greek Lyre

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The kithara, an instrument of the lyre family, had seven strings of equal length and a solidly built, wooden body, usually with a flat base. Strings of gut or sinew were stretched from a holder at the base of the instrument over a bridge to the crossbar that joined the two sidepieces. The musician (kitharode), who usually stood while playing, made music by stroking the plektron in his right hand across the strings, sounding all those not damped with his left fingers. [Source: Collete Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002, metmuseum.org \^/]

During performances, the instrument rested against the musician's shoulder, and was supported by a sling that wrapped around the left wrist. The musician could regulate pitch by the tension and, perhaps, thickness of the strings. By the end of the seventh century B.C., the kithara found a major niche in Greek public performances. Although similar in form to the tortoiseshell Greek lyra, which any well-bred Greek citizen might play, the kithara with its large sound box was more suited for virtuoso display. It was generally a professional musician's instrument reserved for public concerts, choral performances, and competitions.\^/

“Strings of gut or sinew were stretched from a holder at the base of the instrument over a bridge to the crossbar that joined the two sidepieces.Very little is known of the precise sound of the kithara in performance. In general, our knowledge of Greek music comes from fragmentary musical scores, some remains of instruments (mostly reed-blown pipes), inscriptions, and depictions in Greek sculpture and vase painting. Nontechnical references in ancient literature, especially the works of poets and philosophers, shed some light on the practice of music, its social roles, and perceived aesthetic qualities. \^/

“Greek theoretical essays provide insight into the structure of ancient music, and a limited number of essays, most notably passages of Athenaeus and the pseudo-Plutarchan dialogue, De musica, describe the nature and history of musical practice. The kithara is known primarily from written sources and from images on black- and red-figure pottery, such as the amphora attributed to the Berlin Painter (56.171.38) in the Metropolitan's collection. Here, a musician in a long, slim garment accompanies himself on the kithara, his sash swaying with the rhythm of his song. He spreads the fingers of his left hand behind the strings of his instrument and prepares to strike them with the plektron, or pick, in his right hand. The muscles in his neck stretch as he throws back his head and opens his mouth to sing.” \^/

Delphic Hymn to Apollo

This hymn to Apollo, god both of the Delphic Oracle and of music, was found inscribed on a stone at Delphi. The text is marked with a form of music notation which makes it one of the earliest pieces of music to have survived in the western world. We have no way of determining exactly how the piece would have been performed, but recordings have been made which may convey something of the sound of the work. One version is available on the album “Music of Ancient Greece,” Orata ORANGM 2013 (track 3), and another on “Musique de la Grèce Antique” Harmonia Mundi (France) HMA 1901015 (track 24). Here is a translation of the first part of the Paean.

Oh, come now, Muses, (1)
and go to the craggy sacred place
upon the far-seen, twin-peaked Parnassus, (2)
celebrated and dear to us, Pierian maidens. (3)
Repose on the snow-clad mountain top;
celebrate the Pythian Lord (4)
with the goldensword, Phoebus,
whom Leto bore unassisted (5)
on the Delian rock (6) surrounded by silvery olives,
the luxuriant plant
which the Goddess Pallas (7)
long ago brought forth. [Source: translated by Richard Hooker]

Notes: (1) The muses were the goddesses of the arts, the word “music” comes from their name. (2) Mount Parnassus was the site of the temple of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, the most sacred spot in Greece. (3) The muses were also associated with a place called Pieria near Mount Olympus; but another explanation of the reference is that they were said to be the nine daughters of one Pierus. (4) Apollo. His priestess was called the Pythia, after a legendary snake that Apollo had killed in laying claim to the shrine. (5) There are many different accounts of how Apollo’s mother wandered the earth looking for a safe place in which to bear her child. (6) The island of Delos. (7) Athena. Note how the Athenian poet, even while praising the chief god of Delphi manages to bring in by a loose association the chief goddess of Athens.

Ancient Greek Dance

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flute player at a banquet
The ancient Greeks believed that dance originated in Crete when Zeus was born to Rhea, the Earth mother. According to a famous myth Rhea’s husband Cronus (Time), fearing he would be overthrown by his offspring, devoured each one at birth. After Zeus was born Rhea deceived Cronus by making a quick switch so that Cronus consumed a stone rather than baby Zeus, who in the meantime was hidden with Curetes of Crete, who danced around him making a ruckus to disguise his cries. In Greek literature and art there are many example of dancing deities. [Source: Libby Smigel, International Encyclopedia of Dance , editor Jeane Cohen]

Dancers were depicted on frescoes, reliefs and vase paintings. The oldest example is an inscription on a vase, dated to the 8th century B.C., given out as a trophy to a dancer. It reads: “Whoever of the dancers makes merry most gracefully, let him receive this.” Socrates was a great fan of dancing and extolled its virtues. Plato on the other hand believed it undermined noble character and called for severe punishments for those engaged on orgiastic dancing and demanded that lewd suggestive dancing be taken out of comedies.

Images of dancers suggest natural movements. Some Greek dancers used to cover themselves completely from head to foot with clothing and do a dance. Spartan men danced with their armor to increases their strength.

After reading books by famous archaeologists and studying Greek vases and statues in museums, the American dancer Isadora Duncan developed a style of dance in the 1920s based on her imagery of seductive Greek dancers at Dionysian festivals. In her performance she shocked her well-heeled audiences by dancing in revealing Grecian tunics that exposed her legs and clung to her body. In Boston, she reportedly danced in the nude. Explaining how she arrived at her theory of "free dance," she later recalled, "For hours I would stand quite still, my two hands folded between my breast, covering the solar plexus...I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement, the creator of the motor power, the unity from which all diversities of movement are born, the mirror of vision for the creation of the dance.”

Purposes of Dance in Ancient Greece

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dancer
The earliest dances are thought to have been parts of rituals---in which leaders read poems accompanied by music and dance---that were performed at important milestones such as births, marriages, deaths, harvest festivals, athletic events and military victories.

Dances appears to have been part of the education of children, Girls are depicted on vases dancing with clappers under the supervision of instructors. With boys, dance training was part of training for sports and the military.

Dance was also a popular form of entertainment. There are a number of descriptions of such dances in the Iliad and Odyssey . They appear to have been featured at banquets and were performed along with dramas at weddings. Based on descriptions in the Odyssey it seems like participants in feasts and wedding parties mostly sat back and watched. One episode at a double wedding features a king playing a lyre while acrobats perform moves and dance among the guests. There are few descriptions of audience members joining in.

Types of Ancient Greek Dance

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Terracotta dancing maenad
There were two primary kinds of dances: circular ones around an altar or votive offering and lines dances performed during processions. In general men and women danced separately. There are deceptions in the Iliad and other places of men and women dancing together holding hands.

Vase images of dancers dressed in costumes resembling birds, horses and bulls suggested the Greeks performed dances mimicking these animals. Some comedies such as Aristophanes Birds have people dressed as animals in the chorus

Pyrrhic dances (dances with weapons) were invented by Greeks but popularized by Romans. Pyrrhic dancers were commonly painted on vases designed to hold oil. On these vases dancers are shown doing their steps and movements wearing full body armor, apparently to develop their strength and skill in military sports and for battle itself. The same movements were sometimes performed in dances performed by the chorus at poetry contests. The anapale , a dance with wrestling movements originated in Sparta. Pyrrhic dances were performed during military campaigns. There are description of them being performed for ambassadors and special guests.

Cordax

The cordax was a provocative, licentious, and often obscene mask dance performed in ancient Greek comedies. In his play The Clouds, Aristophanes complains that other playwrights of his time tried to hide the feebleness of their plays by bringing an old woman onto the stage to dance the cordax. He noted with pride that his patrons did not find such gimmicks in his plays. The dance can be compared with the modern Tsifteteli (a belly-dance-like dance of Anatolia and the Balkans). [Source: Wikipedia +]

The cordax was performed by actors and the chorus in Greek comedies. The first mention of it dates to the 5th century B.C. It was performed by men and women in groups and solo. Descriptions mention kicking the buttocks, rotating the hips, slapping the thighs and leaping. Plato was among the philosophers and orators that denounced the dance as degenerate and associated it with drunkenness. Demosthenes derided a vulgar performance of the dance in the court of Philip of Macedon. [Source: Encyclopedia of Dance]

Petronius Arbiter in his Roman novel the Satyricon has Trimalchio boast to his dinner guests that no one dances the cordax better than his wife, Fortunata. The nature of this dance is described in the satires of Juvenal, who says "the girls encouraged by applause sink to the ground with tremulous buttocks." The poet Horace and playwright Plautus refer to the same dance as iconici motus. Juvenal makes specific mention of the testarum crepitus (clicking of castanets). In the earlier Greek form, finger cymbals were used. +

Festival Dancing in Ancient Greece

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Dancing was usually performed at festivals and poetry competitions. To pay their respect to Dionysus, the citizens of Athens, and other city-states, held a winter-time festival in which a large phallus was erected and displayed. After competitions were held to see who could empty their jug of wine the quickest, a procession from the sea to the city was held with flute players, garland bearers and honored citizens dressed as satyrs and maenads (nymphs), which were often paired together. At the end of the procession a bull was sacrificed symbolizing the fertility god's marriage to the queen of the city. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

The word “maenad” is derived from the same root that gave us the words “manic” and “madness”. Maenads were subjects of numerous vase paintings. Like Dionysus himself they often depicted with a crown of iv and fawn skins draped over one shoulder. To express the speed and wildness of their movement the figures in the vase images had flying tresses and cocked back head. Their limbs were often in awkward positions, suggesting drunkenness.

The main purveyors of the Dionysus fertility cult "These drunken devotees of Dionysus," wrote Boorstin, "filled with their god, felt no pain or fatigue, for they possessed the powers of the god himself. And they enjoyed one another to the rhythm of drum and pipe. At the climax of their mad dances the maenads, with their bare hands would tear apart some little animal that they had nourished at their breast. Then, as Euripides observed, they would enjoy 'the banquet of raw flesh.' On some occasions, it was said, they tore apart a tender child as if it were a fawn'"μ

One time the maenads got so involved in what they were doing they had to be rescued from a snow storm in which they were found dancing in clothes frozen solid. On another occasion a government official that forbade the worship of Dionysus was bewitched into dressing up like a maenad and enticed into one of their orgies. When the maenads discovered him, he was torn to pieces until only a severed head remained.μ

It is not totally clear whether the maenad dances were based purely on mythology and were acted out by festival goers or whether there were really episodes of mass hysteria, triggered perhaps by disease and pent up frustration by women living in a male-dominate society. On at least one occasion these dances were banned and an effort was made to chancel the energy into something else such as poetry reading contests.

Dancing Girls in Ancient Greece

Leonard C. Smithers and Sir Richard Burton wrote in the notes of “Sportive Epigrams on Priapus”: “Lipsius discourses on public prostitutes in the theatre. Telethusa and Quinctia were probably Gaditanian damsels who combined the professions of dancer and harlot. These dancing girls were called saltatrices. Ovid in his Amores, speaks of dancing women: 'One pleases by her gestures, and moves her arms to time, and moves her graceful sides with languishing art in the dance; to say nothing about myself, who am excited on every occasion, put Hippolytus there--he would become a Priapus.' Dancing was in general discouraged amongst the Romans. During the Republic and the earlier periods of the Empire women never appeared on the stage, but they frequently acted in the parties of the great. These dancing girls accompanied themselves with music (the chief instrument being the castanet) and sometimes with song. [Source: “Sportive Epigrams on Priapus” translation by Leonard C. Smithers and Sir Richard Burton, 1890, sacred-texts.com]

” In the Banquet of Xenophon reference is made to their agility and intelligence: “Immediately Ariadne entered the room, richly dressed in the habit of a bride, and placed herself in the elbow-chair ... Then a hoop being brought in with swords fixed all around it, their points upwards, and placed in the middle of the hall, the dancing-girl immediately leaped head foremost into it through the midst of the points, and then out again with a wonderful agility ... I see the dancing-girl entering at the other end of the hall, and she has brought her cymbals along with her ... At the same time the other girl took her flute; the one played and the other danced to admiration; the dancing-girl throwing up and catching again her cymbals, so as to answer exactly the cadency of the music, and that with a surprising dexterity.

“The costume of female acrobats was of the scantiest. In some designs the lower limbs of the figures are shown enveloped in thin drawers. From vase paintings we see that female acrobatic costume sometimes consisted solely of a decorated band swathed round the abdomen and upper part of the thighs, thus resembling in appearance the middle band adopted by modern acrobats. Juvenal speaks of the 'barbarian harlots with embroidered turbans', and the girls standing for hire at the Circus; and in Satire XI he says, 'You may perhaps expect that a Gaditanian singer will begin to tickle you with her musical choir, and the girls encouraged by applause sink to the ground with tremulous buttocks.' This amatory dancing with undulations of the loins and buttocks was called cordax; Plautus and Horace term a similar dance Iconici motus. Forberg, commenting on Juvenal, says, 'Do not miss, reader, the motive of this dance; with their buttocks wriggling the girls finally sank to the ground, reclining on their backs, ready for the amorous contest. Different from this was the Lacedaemonian dance bíbasis, when the girls in their leaps touched their buttocks with their heels. Aristophanes in Lysistrata writes--'Naked I dance, and beat with my heels the buttocks.' And Pollux, 'As to the bíbasis, that was a Laconian dance. There were prizes competed for, not only amongst the young men, but also amongst the young girls; the essence of these dances was to jump and touch the buttocks with the heels. The jumps were counted and credited to the dancers. They rose to a thousand in the bíbasis.' Still worse was the kind of dance which was called `eklaktisma, in which the feet had to touch the shoulders.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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