And the Band Played On...But What Did They Play On?
The text itself is music. Like a refrain, the litany of instruments is repeated four times in chapter 3 of the Book of Daniel: “the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick.” Like an insistent ostinato, the names Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego—the three young Hebrew exiles who will be fed to the “fiery furnace”—are repeated 13 times in the same chapter. The introduction and coda—twice at the beginning and once at the end—are “the satraps, the administrators, the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces,” who are called together to hear the decree of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Anyone who fails to bow down to the king’s golden statue at the sound of the orchestra will be thrown to the flames, the king’s herald declares. Of course, you know the rest: The three Hebrews—Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego—refuse to bow down, so they are tossed into the fire with their clothes on. But they remain unscathed: Not “a hair of their heads” is singed! Thus Nebuchadnezzar learns a little respect for the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego.
For sheer poetic beauty, it is difficult to surpass the 17th-century King James Version (also known as the Authorized Version), quoted above. Yet just what does this musical passage tell us about the orchestra that Nebuchadnezzar assembled?
Any study of these instruments must address two issues: First, the King James translators had a difficult time determining what instruments were meant by the original Aramaic text (Daniel, unlike most of the Hebrew Bible, is partly written in Aramaic). Second, a modern reader will have difficulty understanding what instruments the King James translators were referring to because some of the same terms are used for very different instruments today.
Take, for example, the cornet of the King James Version, which is a translation of the Aramaic term qeren. Today a cornet is a small brass trumpet, popular among military bands. But that’s not what the King James translators had in mind: In the 16th to 17th century, the cornet was usually a curved, horn-shaped instrument. Some were carved from wood and covered with leather; others were made of ivory.1
The translators’ use of the word “cornet” suggests that they were aware of the base meaning of the word: The English “cornet” is derived (via French) from the Latin cornu, which means “horn.” (In modern translations, qeren is usually translated as “horn”; see the sidebar to this article.) The word qeren occurs frequently in the Hebrew Bible, usually in reference to the horn of an animal, such as a goat, rather than a musical instrument. Shofar (ram’s horn) most commonly fills that function, but that both shofar and qeren had the same meaning in early Hebrew is clear from the passage in Joshua that describes the fall of Jericho. There the priests are commanded to blow ram’s-horn trumpets: “So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets and it came to pass&that the wall fell down flat” (Joshua 6:20). Shofar is used in Joshua 6, verses 4, 6, 8, 13 and 20, but qeren is used in verse 5. This shows that the qeren was known as a musical instrument at an early date.
Which brings us to the question of the date of the Daniel story. Many modern commentators argue that the book is a product of the second century B.C., but this is not a universally held view. While the text has probably suffered from scribal errors in transmission and we do not have it precisely as originally written, I believe there are reasonable grounds for dating the original composition as early as the fifth or even the late sixth century B.C., not long after the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (605–562 B.C.). In looking for the instruments that are indicated in the biblical text, we may therefore consider instruments known in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.
Let’s move on to the flute—as the translators rendered the Aramaic term mashroqi. The flute used at the time of the King James translation was not unlike that of today; the instrument was made of wood or ivory, rather than metal, but it still consisted of a long narrow tube that was closed at one end and had finger holes. The sound was produced by blowing across a hole near the closed end of the tube.
The word mashroqi occurs only this once in the Bible. Scholars call this singular usage a hapax legomenon (from Greek, meaning “once said”). Moreover, the word does not occur at all in any ancient extrabiblical text. The only clue to its meaning is its possible derivation from the Hebrew verb sharaq, “to hiss,” which suggests that the mashroqi was some kind of wind instrument, such as a pipe or a flute. This is only a guess, but it is a reasonable one, and it lies behind all the modern versions, which translate mashroqi as either flute or pipe.
We can hardly blame the King James translators. They did the best they could with the information they had. Not until the early 19th century did excavations reveal actual musical instruments or representations of them (such as those on monuments in Mesopotamia, north Syria and Egypt) dating from the third to first millennia B.C. Explorers and archaeologists in Egypt and Mesopotamia have supplied us with a wealth of material unavailable to earlier Bible translators.
Two of the instruments mentioned in the King James Version of Daniel–the sackbut and psaltery–are especially intriguing because they are quite unfamiliar to us today. The Aramaic for the first of the two is sabk. I suspect that when the King James translators rendered this as sackbut, they were simply making a guess on the basis of aural similarity. In the medieval period, a sackbut was a kind of trombone or slide trumpet.
The authors of the biblical text themselves may not have recognized these instruments, as is indicated by the fact that they spelled this word in more than one way (sabk and sabk, with a different s) in the same episode. This uncertainty about the spelling indicates that it is not an Aramaic term but a foreign loanword, very probably related to the Greek sambukē. Since this in its turn is regarded as a loanword in Greek (that is, it is not native Greek), it is possible that both sabk and sambukē derive from a common, third source. In the Septuagint, the third-century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, sabk is indeed translated into Greek as sambukē, showing that in the Hellenistic period the translators were aware of the similarity. The use of sambukē in Greek, however, does not shed much light on the meaning of sabk. The word is used in military contexts to refer to some kind of siege engine, perhaps as a sort of barrack-room joke. These jests suggest that the sambukē had a triangular shape. At the same time, references in musical contexts mention strings, sometimes “many strings,” and indicate that the instrument had a high pitch. So some kind of small harp is a reasonable guess.
The harp that we know today is the large instrument played by Harpo Marx in the movies and seen on the concert platform during performances of the dramatic music of composers such as Berlioz. It has a substantial base resting on the ground, foot pedals and a heavy frame, as well as a substantial strut “outside” the longest string. The 16th- to 17th-century harp had the same general shape but was much smaller and could be carried by a standing musician. The harp was held against the chest by a strap over the shoulder. Similarly, the ancient harp was a hand-carried instrument, as we know from reliefs and other representations.
Like sabk, the Aramaic word translated “psaltery” is also spelled two different ways in the Aramaic text of Daniel: pĕsantērîn and pĕsantērîn (with a different t). It too appears to derive from a foreign loanword, the Greek psalterion. The psalterion was literally something plucked, from the Greek verb psallein, “to pluck.”
At this point, let me clarify the difference between a harp and a lyre. In very general terms, a harp can be seen as descended from the archer’s bow, with a sound box attached to the bow part and additional strings, shorter and shorter in length, filling the space inside the original, single string (see Mareshah burial cave fresco).
The lyre is quite different. It consists of a sound box with an aperture in the side and two upright arms spanned by a crosspiece (see eighth-century relief from Karatepe, Turkey and wall painting from the Tomb of the Leopards). The strings were stretched between the sound box and the crosspiece, the latter normally being at an angle so that differences in pitch could be obtained by strings of varying length.
Classical scholars usually understand the word psalterion to mean “harp,” but this view is largely based on the assumption that only harps were plucked. It is clear from textual references, however, that lyres were also sometimes plucked. Since there is evidence for many lyres in the ancient Greek world but very few harps, it is a reasonable guess that in this context the psalterion/pesanterin could have been a lyre.2
We have now renamed the King James sackbut as a probable harp and the psaltery as a probable lyre. So what about the instrument that the King James Version does call a harp? This is a translation of the Aramaic word qayteros, very likely another loanword from Greek: Kitharis, meaning “lyre,” is found in the Homeric books dating to about the eighth to seventh century B.C. This term acts as a sort of chronological marker because in about the sixth century B.C. the form kitharis went out of use. So the related qayteros is unlikely to be later than the sixth century.
Since Greek helps us to identify qayteros as a lyre, and since we have already identified psalterion as a lyre—what are we to make of the fact that we now seem to have two lyres? Well, the truth is that in ancient times there were many kinds of lyre. Greek sources, particularly vase paintings, show a great variety of lyres (but a limited number of harps). Although the use of the word psalterion in reference to a musical instrument is not attested in Greek texts until the fourth century B.C., we have numerous representations of lyres from the second half of the eighth century B.C. onwards.3
Artistic representations show that the Greeks had at least four types of lyre: the lyra (with a small tortoise shell as the sound box), the barbitos (with longer arms and a larger tortoise shell as the sound box), the kithara (an elaborate wooden instrument, sometimes richly decorated) and a smaller wooden instrument, often used by women, for which the ancient name is not known.
These images also offer clear evidence that two different kinds of lyre were sometimes used in the same musical group: An eighth-century B.C. stone relief from Karatepe, in south central Turkey, shows four musicians, two of whom are playing different kinds of lyre (see eighth-century relief from Karatepe, Turkey). Similar evidence comes from the Greek world. Two types of lyre are depicted on some Attic red-figure vases a from about the fifth century B.C. Although the lyres are not actually being played, they are clearly depicted in the same scene.4 These images suggest that Nebuchadnezzar’s orchestra may well have had two different kinds of lyre—a kithara and some other kind.
This leaves us with what is perhaps the most intriguing of the six instruments referred to, what the King James translators call a dulcimer, sumponeya in Aramaic. The designation “dulcimer” is questionable, as reflected in the variety of modern translations for sumponeya in addition to “dulcimer”: “bagpipes” (Revised Standard Version), “pipes” (New International Version) and even “an entire musical ensemble” (New Revised Standard Version).
A dulcimer, both in King James’s time and ours, is a stringed instrument backed by a soundboard and played with hammers. There is, however, no evidence for the dulcimer in antiquity.5
For a long time it was thought that the dulcimer appeared in the series of sculptures showing the war of Ashurbanipal in Elam, which was found in 1850 by Austen Henry Layard at Kuyunjik, ancient Nineveh, in the Palace of Sennacherib. (The sculptures are now in the British Museum.) One of the reliefs depicts a group of musicians, including one playing a strange instrument that some have identified as a possible dulcimer (see the second sidebar to this article). Layard illustrated these musicians in his great folio publication Monuments of Nineveh as well as in his popular book Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon, where he implicitly linked the instrument in the relief with the dulcimer by citing the Daniel passage in a footnote and by comparing this strange instrument with the “modern santour of the East”6 (the santuµr being a Persian instrument very like the dulcimer).7
A “tidied-up” illustration of this supposed dulcimer appeared in two important publications in the 1860s.8 In one of them, the instrument is explicitly referred to as a dulcimer, although the author does note that the sculpture depicts it in a strange way.9 Nevertheless, for years this relief was thought to give credence to the idea that there was a dulcimer in ancient times.
The series of sculptures in which the supposed dulcimer appears is one of the few Nineveh reliefs made of limestone, which is prone to shattering, rather than gypsum. It was brought to London in many fragments and put together in the British Museum. A substantial break ran right across the representation of the supposed dulcimer. The basis of later, more refined drawings of the “dulcimer” was the rougher sketch made on-site by Layard, who fudged over the damaged area. Because of this, in 1979, as Deputy Keeper of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum, I arranged for William Langford, the specialist stonemason in my department, to remove the modern “makeup” that filled this damaged area. This made it clear that the instrument in question was nothing other than a horizontal harp of a type well known in Assyrian reliefs. And that was the end of our only ancient “dulcimer.”
So if the sumponeya was not a dulcimer, what was it? Sumponeya, too, is a loanword from Greek, but there are two possible source words: sumphonia or tumpanon, the latter being a tambour, a kind of drum. The first possibility, sumphonia, is attested in Greek literature from the fourth century B.C. on with the general sense “concord,” “unison of sound”; hence the renderings in the New Revised Standard Version, “an entire musical ensemble,” and the Revised English Bible, “full consort”–perhaps what we would call a symphony orchestra.
The latter possibility, that sumponeya might have been derived from the Greek tumpanon, was first suggested by Ray Joyce.10 This sort of alternation between s and t is known in ancient Greek, so I find this suggestion quite persuasive. The Greek historian Herodotus mentions a tumpanon as part of the cultic equipment used in a festival of the Mother Goddess in the early sixth century B.C.11 In the fifth century the word is mentioned by the poet Pindar and the playwright Euripides.12 Tambours (like tambourines without the jingles) (see eighth-century relief from Karatepe, Turkey) are well attested in Attic red-figure vase paintings of the fifth century B.C., so this is a possibility.13
If the interpretation as tumpanon is correct, this would be a kind of handheld drum.
So perhaps the famous refrain from the Book of Daniel ought now to read, “If ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyres and tambour, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made.”
1. Mary Remnant, Musical Instruments of the West (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), p. 138 and figs. 119.5–9.
2. See Terence C. Mitchell, “The Music of the Old Testament Reconsidered,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 124 (1992), p. 137.
3. See, e.g., John Boardman, Early Greek Vase Painting: 11th-6th Centuries B.C.—A Handbook (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998), figs. 99, 105, 131, 145.
4. See Martha Maas and Jane M. Snyder, Stringed Instruments of Ancient Greece (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1989), p. 74, fig. 7; pp. 102–111, figs. 5, 6, 11, 17, 26; p. 134, fig. 11.
5. See Mitchell, “Music of the Old Testament,” p. 135.
6. See Austen Henry Layard, Monuments of Nineveh, 2nd ser. (London: John Murray, 1853), pl. 49; and Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon (London: John Murray, 1853), pp. 454–455, p. 454 n.
7. See, e.g., Remnant, Musical Instruments of the West (London: Batsford, 1978), p. 177; see also, conveniently, The Century Dictionary, rev. ed., 10 vols. (London and New York: The Century Co., 1899), vol. 7, p. 5337, with an illustration from a Persian painting (this dictionary was edited by the great Yale Sanskrit scholar William Dwight Whitney).
8. The illustration appeared in George Rawlinson, The Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1881), vol. 1, p. 538; and Carl Engel, The Music of the Most Ancient Nations, Particularly the Assyrians, Egyptians and Hebrews (London: J. Murray, 1864).
9. Engel, Music.
10. In Mitchell and Ray Joyce, “The Musical Instruments in Nebuchadnezzar’s Orchestra,” in D.J. Wiseman, ed., Notes on Some Problems in the Book of Daniel (London: Tyndale Press, 1965), pp. 19–27, at pp. 25–26.
11. Herodotus, Histories 4.76.
12. Conveniently quoted in Andrew Barker, Greek Musical Writings, vol. 1, The Musician and His Art (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 59–60, 74–76, 88.
13. E.g., in Boardman, Athenian Red Figure Vases: The Classical Period—A Handbook (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), pls. 177, 229, 285, 294, 324; see also, in general, Martin Litchfield West, Ancient Greek Music (Oxford and New York: Clarendon, 1992), p. 124; Mitchell, “Music of the Old Testament,” p. 137.
a. During the seventh to fifth centuries B.C., Greek vases were generally decorated with black figures on a lighter background. During the Attic period (fifth to fourth century B.C.), however, the natural red terra-cotta of the vase was left exposed for the figures, and the background was painted black.
Terence C. Mitchell
Terence C. Mitchell was the Keeper of the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum in London from 1983 until his retirement in 1989. He is the author of The Bible in the British Museum (British Museum Press, 1996) and several chapters in the revised Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982).
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