BMCR 2008.12.09

Voci: Antropologia sonora del mondo antico. Saggi, 892

, Voci : antropologia sonora del mondo antico. Saggi ; 892. Torino: G. Einaudi, 2008. xii, 309 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9788806191320. €24.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

[The reviewer wishes to apologize for the delay of this review.]

Maurizio Bettini’s Voci traces a fascinating path through the fonosfera, or soundscape,1 of the ancient world. Voices of animals are the study’s main focus, which we hear, or hear about, through the (written) voices of ancient authors. And indeed, the book is most interested in probing the tangled relationships, the concrete and symbolic ecology, between ancient peoples and animals—how animal sounds were turned into human words; how those words in turn were imbued with meanings, morals, and myths; and how humans might come to speak with animals, understand their language, or impersonate them. Sensitive philology combines with eclectic but sensible comparatism to shed new light on many well- and lesser-known texts, and the book succeeds in challenging any presumption that how the ancient Greeks and Romans perceived other animals can be understood simply by applying our own standards or common-sense assumptions.2 It also takes the theoretical focus on orality/aurality to its logical limit, conceptualizing the entire enveloping atmosphere as a fluid medium for vocal meanings, songs, and boisterous animal communications of all sorts.

The book is divided into ten chapters book-ended by a short “prelude” and “finale,” and rounded out with copious discursive end-notes, full bibliography, index of names (but not subjects), and a well annotated appendix with the original Greek and Latin of several key source texts, which are quoted in the chapters in Italian translation only.

The “prelude” sets the stage by reminding us that sounds are evanescent, the everyday sounds of the ancient world were different from our own (more donkey brays, no car horns or cellular ringtones), and—the thesis—that animal voices were full of meaning for the ancients, more ominous, angelic, and marvelous than we are used to thinking them. The irony is that our only access to these “lost voices” is through written words: silent texts to prompt our imagination into a “mental image” of those voices that once “nourished the ancient soundscape.” (B.’s poetic style and sensibility will appeal to some, perhaps not to others; an elegiac tone recurs throughout.)

Chapter 1 opens with a great fragment of Suetonius that catalogs over sixty verbs for the sounds different animals make (a sort of ancient “See and Say”; my favorite, the sorex goes desticat). B. seeks and finds a convincing “cultural logic” in their order, which leads to his broader point that the real voices of animals are in fact fodder for cultural constructions. Here he prefers the term affordances from the psychology of perception, in order to emphasize that the actual nature of animals and their voices will exercise some constraint on the possible symbolic uses to which humans can, or at least are likely to, put them (an implicit critique, perhaps, of extreme cultural relativism, although B. is almost never polemical). B. compares a similar Late Antique catalog poem, the elegiac Carmen de Philomela, and briefly discusses the catalog genre’s roots in oral poetics. We learn about the emperor Geta’s cheeky penchant for quizzing his court grammarians on the sounds of animals, and a digression discusses the ancient “animal rights” debate, between anthropocentric Stoics who might grant animals speech but deny them reason, and zoosympathizers like Plutarch and Porphyry who would grant animals both. In the latter camp is Aelian, who gives animals each their own language like the nations of man, and endows them with familiar moral virtues and vices. The chapter closes, suggestively, with two more reflections of the catalog of animal voices—a passage from Rabelais, and its 17th-century translation into English—and pegs these cacophonous catalogs as perfect examples of “carnivalesque” overabundance.

The remaining chapters similarly blend (in varying order) focus texts, a main theme, philosophical or theoretical reflections, and playful digressions. Chapters 2-4 continue to explore the ancients’ basic conceptions of animal voice, chiefly in opposition and contrast to human voice and language. Chapters 5-8 examine the various sorts of narratives that animal voices tell, from myths that center on speaking animals, to the fascinating tales that get condensed in animal sounds when re-expressed as phrases with articulate human meanings. Chapters 9-10 focus on various sonorous connections to divinity, first in glossalalia, where inarticulate voice verges into the angelic, then in divination, where legendary seers and mantics gain privileged knowledge from attending to the divine voices of birds. Truly, the book offers its own carnivalesque profusion of detail which defies easy, or brief, summary. I’ll try to hit the high points.

Chapter 2 ponders the metaphorical elision of poets’ and birds’ songs, with key texts from Plautus’ Casina, Pliny’s NH and Alcman—after adverting to an intriguing passage in Philo about Greek myths regarding the time past when animals all spoke one tongue but then lapsed from this “golden age of language” when they had the arrogance to demand immortality and eternal youth. The resulting diversity of animal voices—a world of discrimina vocum, a phrase from the Carmen de Philomela that B. relishes for its potential parsing in terms of semiotics—constitutes a “sonorous fragmentation,” a cursed Babel of beastly tongues that is nevertheless a blessing for interpreters and lexicographers. B. notes how both Plautus and Pliny talk about birdsong in poetic terms ( versus, cantus), Pliny’s famous description of the nightingale’s “perfect knowledge of music” even anticipating findings of modern ornithology. If Roman birds are poet-singers, archaic Greek birds are poet-teachers: Alcman (fr. 39) says he found his verses in the voice of the partridge, and legends of Homer relate that as a baby he sang in the voices of birds. Is this mere metaphor? B. says it goes deeper (rightly, in my view): from an evolutionary perspective birdsong exhibits aesthetic and behavioral complexity that justifies comparison to human musical art, an instance of convergent evolution. At the same time, birds are known to imitate human song just as humans imitate birds. The two vocal universes have interacted down the ages, human and bird memes cross-pollinating on the air: thus cultural imitation and natural convergence at once. (Here B. might have cited, in addition to K. Lorenz and the work of zoomusicologists, Darwin’s own Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.)

Chapter 3 focuses on ancient attitudes to human imitators of animal sounds, and animal imitators of human language. B. makes it clear that aping animal sounds was a common enough form of popular entertainment in Greece and Rome (Plutarch recalls a comic actor Parmeno, famed for his authentic pig squeals); at the same time, mimesis of animal voices was viewed by philosophers like Plato as degrading and unworthy of good men. Later, Christian authors regarded such imitation as sacrilegious, an abasement of natural human dignity that displeases God. B. argues from textual and visual evidence that such Christian attitudes may well have served a purpose in their opposition to the cult of Mithra, in which initiates seem to have donned animal masks and imitated animal sounds (raven calls, lion roars). Such imitations, B. says, constitute a form of “sonorous metamorphosis,” which is the key both to their pleasure (Plutarch argues that it is the imitation per se that gives pleasure) and their sense of transgression and danger, in that humans risk losing their essential vocal/linguistic nature when they stoop to aping the “animal other.” Conversely, animals that imitate human voice, like the fabled hyena or corocotta that lure people to their death, are viewed as frightful and monstrous. Overall, voice seems to be a charged locus that serves to define humanity over against animals whose voices are, in general, dissonant or discordant ( absonus, dissonus).

Chapter 4 explores, first, the linguistic processes whereby the sounds animals make are rendered articulate in human terms, which means both onomatopoeic imitation (seen in the stems of animal sounds: mug-, bae-, hin-) as well as grammaticalization (i.e. the formation of verbs using regular endings: mug-it, bael-at, hinn-it). Here B. delves into the impressionistic realm of phonic symbolism, ranging from Plato’s Cratylus to modern linguists like Jespersen and Jakobson. Analyzing the strange words for birdsong in Latin (with stems like cacca-, crisp-, crocit-, glot-, gracc-, pulpul-, and scling-), B. makes an interesting point: these seem like words out of a foreign language, as though the choice of phonemes to describe birdsongs was meant to convey an idea of radical otherness. The discussion then moves to ancient theories of language origins. Quintilian identifies onomatopoeia, fictio nominis, as one process by which those who “first made speech” created words, such as mugitus and sibilus, by adapting sound to sensations. Thus primitive language was imitative. Herodotus’ story about Psammetichus’ experiment with the two infants to discover the earliest language—Phrygian—finds another explanation in the scholia of Apollonius: the babies’ spontaneous word bekos was in fact an imitation of the bleating of the goats that nursed them. Augustine criticized the “natural” onomatopoeic theory of the Cratylus, later adopted by Stoics, by pointing to the infinite regress involved in explaining word origins using other words. Even so, animal-sound words are still somewhat exceptional, in that they constitute “sonorous icons” (using iconic in the sense defined by linguists C. S. Peirce and Charles Morris) with at least partial roots in natural sounds. Some animals in fact seem trapped in their vocal icon, inasmuch as their names are the same as their sound (e.g. grus gruit, bubo bubilat). The chapter ends with a discussion of the voices of weasels (a focus in B.’s earlier work). Here a brief reference to Lucretius’ passage (5.1059-1090) about animal sounds expressing different passions, in the wider context of Lucr.’s theory of language origins, does not really receive the discussion it deserves; it might also have been put to use in chapter 1, in the discussion of ancient debates about animal psychology.

Chapter 5 presents several detailed case studies that dissect the cultural/linguistic processes that lead from mere onomatopoeic icons to dense webs of connotation. B. explores three types of words for animal sounds that are not simple sound-icons. The first are generic sound-words of probable onomatopoeic origins which are then applied to animals (e.g. sibilare of snakes, clangere of eagles, ululare of wolves). The second type is not onomatopoeic at all but still describes an animal’s vocal utterance, such as quiritare, used of verres (an uncastrated male pig), and gemere, used of doves. The third type are words that describe not the voice but characteristic behavior of animals, such as saevire of bears or frendere of wild boars. In all three cases B. finds instances of fascinating cultural “density” or narrative thickness (as in Geertz’s thick description of Balinese cockfights) waiting to be unpacked. The thrust in each is that the voice of the animal presents a “narrative nucleus” that codes for specific cultural stereotypes about that animal, which can then be seen playing out in different texts. Certainly the most curious example is quiritare (to cry “Quirites”) used of an uncastrated hog, which B. explains by comparing an Aesopic fable, where the pig lets out a “cry for help” ( βοή) because the herdsman comes to slaughter him, and to Roman dramatic texts supporting the idea that it is specifically castration that the verres was thought to be afraid of when he quiritat, “calls out for help.” (The several other instances are equally fine-grained and go beyond space available. The closing discussion of the powerful and terrifying donkey bray, which helped the gods win the battle with the Giants, explains the otherwise slightly mystifying full-colored plates of Giulio Romano frescoes.)

Chapter 6 (the shortest) continues to explore specific narrative nuclei involving animals and their voices, with two instances of sonorous and physical ambiguity: werewolves and the ululare of wolves, which B. connects with the nocturnal atmosphere of Bacchanals; and, quite interesting, the ambiguity of rabbits in the Greek and Roman imagination, animals associated both with childhood innocence, fecundity and sexuality, as well as with howling ghosts (Petronius’ strigae). B.’s detective work leads him to the conclusion that the evil spirits ( strigae / striges) described as emitting a stridere sound were thought to sound like a rabbit in distress, as when being chased by a dog. (I can attest to the plausibility of this: a couple years ago in my garden I heard high-pitched distress squeals that put my hair on end. It turned out to be a gopher snake catching, then promptly dispatching, a baby cottontail rabbit.)

Chapter 7 (re)turns to birds, circling back to fuller discussions of both the cum cibo cum quiqui line in Plautus and Alcman’s boast about learning from the partridge’s song. The focus in this chapter is on the widespread practice of semantic “rearticulation,” that is, turning bird songs and calls into human language words and phrases, which then often motivate or are explained by popular narratives about the birds. B. cleverly reads Alcman’s line in terms of this process, translating γεγλωσσαμέναν κακκαβίδων ὄπα συντηέμενος, in effect, as “rearticulating the voice of the partridges in (human) language.” Passages from Aristotle, Pliny, Theophrastus, and Aelian show the extent of ancient thought and knowledge about birdsong, anticipating modern studies about song learning in birds, regional dialect variations, and the ability of some species to mimic true human speech. All these audible phenomena among birds tended to make ancient observers speak about birds, of all nonhuman animals, most consistently in terms of articulate language. The chapter also has a section on modern musicians, from Clement Janequin, Mozart, and Beethoven, to Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen (who documented his life-long study of birdsong in seven volumes), who studied, imitated, and emulated birds in order to bring into human music a ‘style oiseau.’ The rest of this rich chapter explores many and diverse examples of folk rearticulations of birdsong—from New Guinea to Sicily as well as ancient Greece and Rome—and B. discovers that they are often perlocutionary speech-acts. The song of the swallow, for instance, was a sign for spring and a call to human labor; the rooster’s crow had the same function on a daily basis (Pliny even attributed knowledge of the constellations to this avian time-keeper). B. aligns these cultural interpretations of bird behavior with divinatory thinking and praxis, yet another case where aves and their signs/omens were granted certain kinds of authority over human action. The chapter closes with a detailed reading of the lavish song of the hoopoe in Aristophanes’ Birds, a poetic tour de force of ‘style oiseau’ which mingles pure onomatopoeic sound with clever rearticulations of sense.

Chapter 8 examines cases where birds were thought to sing—or, through other behavior, recall—myths. These include the francolin (Gk. attagas) and guineafowl (Gk. meleagris), which Aelian says “pronounce their own names” in their cries, as well as the famous ill-starred trio of the nightingale/Procne, swallow/Philomela, and hoopoe/Tereus. Besides discussing the connection of these cases to myths of bird-metamorphosis, B. reads this phenomenon as a process of narrative “condensation” into potent mythic names, which causes the phonosphere, when these birds cry, to be filled with stories. Other, less celebrated instances, include the thirsty crow that recalls its punishment by Apollo with a cry that sounds like raindrops; the anthos bird that neighs like a horse in terrified recall of the horse herd that killed and devoured him while human (Ant. Lib. 7); the memnonides birds that sprang from the ashes of Memnon and the birds of Diomedes that guard and purify the tomb of the hero. The chapter closes with several examples from European tradition, among them, how and why the dog yelps “Cain, Cain” in Portugal; how in Sicily the owl blames his wife for his foolish and greedy prayer for God to make him God, how the hoopoe talks about making coffee, and the farm animals at Christmas speak of Christ’s birth. All such cases, B. says, indicate that birdsongs are “half-worked” sonic products that are then “finished” in various forms in different times, places, and cultures. (Perhaps here or elsewhere Pliny’s discussion of dolphins ( NH 9.7-9) might have found a place: their voice is like human complaint, they all “recognize and prefer to be called Simo” (because of their flat nose) and they love the art of music, especially “harmony in song and the sound of the hydraulos.”3)

Chapter 9, about glossalalia,4 takes off from Cassandra in Aesch. Ag., with her ecstatic utterance which follows Clytemnestra likening her to a swallow. Other texts, like Lucan’s witch Erictho ( BC 6.685 ff.), show the persistent connection between ecstatic, prophetic speech and the disarticulate voices of beasts. Carefully reading Cassandra’s ecstatic outcry, hinging on the ambivalence of Apollon as the name of the god and the word for destruction, B. develops the idea of “auto-interpretation”: by dissolving speech into inarticulate sound, the ecstatic exploits the disruption of sense in order to “readapt [the speech sounds] to a different, more potent code of articulation” (p. 166), specifically the assertion of divine utterance, inspired and controlled from the outside. The ecstatic is being used as the phonic instrument of the deity. He compares this process to the creative rearticulation of birdsongs, a move which certainly lends a symbolic and cognitive depth to the surface comparison between ecstatics and birds. The rest of the chapter is perhaps the most widely comparative in the book, looking at speaking in tongues in the early church—B. closely inspects 1 Corinthians and the day of Pentecost narrative in Acts as well as a captivating description in Celsus (this text deserved to be printed in the Appendix)—and cases of ecstatic speech and song among 18th and 19th-century religious sects (the Khlysty in Russia and the Quakers). The chapter ends with a lengthy account and discussion of Oskar Pfister, the Swiss Protestant minister and psychoanalyst, and his troubled patient/subject Simon who had his own strange private language. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern is productive, and we begin to see Paul’s reflections — in their insistence on interpretation ( hermeneia), and the bifurcation of “spirit” ( pneuma) and “mind” ( nous), each with its own relationship to linguistic sound and meaning—as potent semiotic and/or psychoanalytical observations after their own fashion. In general, the insights of this chapter are the payoff of the lengthy inquest of sound and voice that precedes it, in which the reader has been fully estranged from taking linguistic meaning for granted. Indeed, pondering the psycho-linguistic sufferings of Simon serves to remind one of how fragile the bond really is between arbitrary phonemes and the conventional meanings that tie the mind and person to others in society.

The last chapter, another long one, completes the circuit of the sonic-symbolic ecology of humans and animals. One of the most privileged of human types, the seer, was to the Greeks, and to a certain degree the Romans, a person who had been gifted by the gods with the power to “understand,” that is, read and comprehend the language — inscribed in voice and behavior — of birds and other animals. The belief in this divine gift is found in many cultures, and B. takes a broad comparative view at the folklore surrounding it. The stories about the heroic seer Melampus receive extended structural-thematic analysis (at times going well beyond the topical focus of sound and voice). That snakes licked Melampus’ ears, purifying and opening them to understanding of animal language, leads into a study of the “thumb of knowledge” motif in Norse and Celtic mythology, in which a hero eats the flesh of a snake (or in Ireland, a salmon), puts his thumb in his mouth and thereby gains the gift of knowledge of bird/animal language. The belief that consuming magic potions of snake-flesh could give one this power are even found in Pliny, who says Democritus wrote about them ( NH 29.72). The entire discussion is fascinating, and leaves one with the impression that gaining direct knowledge of bird/animal language through magical means was for some in antiquity and the early Middle Ages akin to the quest for the philosopher’s stone in the alchemical tradition.5 And why so? It goes back to—and so the book concludes with—the ancients’ belief about the birds and their direct, if occult, connection to the gods. Amphiaraus in Statius’ Theb. (3.471 ff.) rehearses various theories for the “honor of old” ( olim…honor) that the birds have from the gods, and Plutarch’s own theory is especially keen: the natural acuteness and intelligence of birds makes them perfect [musical?] instruments ( organoi) for the gods, who “direct their movements, voices, songs, and positions, which sometimes are contrary, other times favorable, like the winds.” Porphyry similarly says the birds are better than men at understanding the silent thoughts of gods, and thus can act as heralds to communicate them to mortals. Thus birdsong was not only of aesthetic but also of quite serious pietistic and divinatory interest to the ancients.6

One comes away convinced that, if the Greeks and Romans imagined the nature, place, mind, and voice of nonhuman animals differently than we do, nevertheless most would not have found the conclusions of modern ethologists about the intricate complexities of animal communication and cognition very surprising. The animals, too, had their own languages, perhaps not as articulate and thick with meaning as human speech, but nevertheless often keyed in to divine secrets that the gods withhold from men. As a study of language in its native aerial habitat, so to speak, B.’s Voci will be of interest to scholars of ancient linguistics, poetry, musicology, natural history and philosophy, while Biblical scholars may also find noteworthy its discussion of glossolalia.


1. In anglophone discourse soundscape has become the predominant term used within the multidisciplinary field of “acoustic ecology” (see e.g. the website of the Acoustic Ecology Institute).

2. Assumptions that derive more from early modern intellectual history than from any direct connection to ancient attitudes to animals (for example, Descartes’ radical refusal of consciousness to animals; see e.g. Harrison, Peter, 1998, “The Virtues of Animals in Seventeenth-Century Thought,” Journal of the History of Ideas 59(3): 463-484.)

3. pro voce gemitus humano similis, dorsum repandum, rostrum simum. qua de causa nomen simonis omnes miro modo agnoscunt maluntque ita appellari. Delphinus non homini tantum amicum animal, verum et musicae arti, mulcetur symphoniae cantu, set praecipue hydrauli sono.

4. B. uses definitions offered in the books of J. Samarin and C. G. Williams (the latter: “unintelligible, non-cognitive utterance which may vary in sound from inarticulate to articulate.”)

5. By contrast with today, when “talking with animals” has been, in the U.S. at least, radically democratized in our extravagant popular culture of pets. A search of “animal communication” on yields many bemusing results (“intuitive” and “telepathic” seem to be the favorite buzzwords).

6. I only noticed a few typos, mostly in the notes: e.g. “Field” (author of Sound and Sentiment) should be “Feld” both in the notes (p. 247) and bibliography. The only one liable to cause trouble is a cross-reference in n. 74 on p. 251: “p. 186” should read “p. 86.”