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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.

Pythagoreans and Music

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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

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.

Ancient Greek Dance

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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

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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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.

Festival Dancing in Ancient Greece

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.

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

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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