BMCR 2022.11.35

Soundscape and landscape at Panhellenic Greek sanctuaries

, , Soundscape and landscape at Panhellenic Greek sanctuaries. Telestes: collana di studi e ricerchi di archeologi musical nel medirerraneo, 6. Pisa; Rome: Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 2021. Pp. 111. ISBN 9788881475292. €38,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


In a recent temporary exhibition organized at the Acropolis Museum of Athens in cooperation with the Ioannina Ephorate of Antiquities, the sanctuary of Dodona was featured as “the oracle of sounds,”[1] an allusion to the rustling oak and percussive cauldrons that tradition claims were used there as oracular sources. Dodona is not, however, the only Greek sanctuary that would have deserved this title; in fact, investing sounds generated by wind, water, animals, and humans in the acoustic conditions imposed by natural features with oracular or other symbolic significance would have been a common practice in the sacred landscape of any Greek sanctuary. The author of this review had the rare opportunity to experience the sonic magnificence of such a landscape before sunset on July 6, 2018 during Theodoros Terzopoulos’ performance of The Trojan Women in the theater of Delphi,[2] through the sounds generated by the actors’ bodies echoing off the Phaidriades cliffs.

Despite the obvious gaps in the available evidence, the development of a sonic ecology of Greek sacred space seems to be a challenge worth tackling. This has been recently demonstrated by a colloquium entitled “Soundscape and Landscape at Panhellenic Greek Sanctuaries,” organized by Erica Angliker and Angela Bellia at the virtual 2021 Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. The edited volume under review is loosely based on this colloquium; it is published in the peer-reviewed series Telestes (2014–), one of two active academic series specializing entirely in the interdisciplinary research field of music archaeology (the other one being Publications of the ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology, 2013–). A great deal of the dynamic growth of this field over the past decade is due to the efforts of Angela Bellia, the editor of this series and of a new journal under the same name, Telestes (2021–).

The book is a collection of five lengthy papers preceded by a short introduction and followed by an equally short afterword. In the introduction, Erica Angliker situates the content of the book within recent scholarship that focuses on the performative, social, and cultural aspects of Greek music-making, whereas in the afterword Angela Bellia articulates her vision of “soundscape archaeology” situated at the intersection of archaeoacoustics, archaeology, and cultural heritage studies. The focus on Panhellenic sanctuaries, justified by Angliker with “the advantage of containing more of the kind of evidence useful to this scholarly topic” (p. 16), applies to three of the five main chapters dealing with Olympia (Vergara Cerqueira), Dodona (Angliker), and the Sanctuary of Zeus at Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia (Jordan). The two Heraia at Poseidonia in Magna Graecia (Bellia) may not fall into the category of Panhellenic sanctuaries, but they have yielded important evidence for musical performances, including five bone auloi fragments and several figurines of musicians with their instruments (see below). The fifth chapter deals with the social, religious and pedagogical aspects of Spartan choral practices at home and elsewhere. Regrettably, Delos, Delphi, and other Panhellenic sanctuaries (or sanctuaries with Panhellenic contests) do not receive chapter-long treatments but they are discussed in passing throughout the book, as are Attic festivals.

The range of sonic practices to be studied have changed significantly over time. Martin L. West, for example, proclaimed thirty years ago that “it is by courtesy that we give attention to [the salpinx], as it was not used for musical purposes but only for giving signals.”[3] The authors of the book under review now give their full attention not only to spectacular dance and choral performances accompanied by the aulos or other instruments (Bellia and Valleta) but also to sound signals marking official announcements, the start of races and the like; rhythmic accompaniment of athletic training, contests and award ceremonies (Vergara Cerqueira); the rustling of tree-leaves—it becomes cultural sound as soon as oracular value is ascribed to it—and the sound produced by bronze cauldrons being struck like gongs (Angliker); or to any sound, including speech, that could have become the focus of sonic experiences in a sanctuary setting (Jordan). This inclusivity of sonic practices represents a major strength of the book.

The range of evidence and analytical methods employed is equally diverse. Jordan pursues a primarily spatial approach, using on-site binaural recordings and psychoacoustic analysis to explore the acoustic behavior of the natural and built environment of the entire sanctuary complex at Mt. Lykaion. She identifies parts of the sanctuary that would have been particularly appropriate for communal practices involving sound, as well as enclosed spaces that would have provided insulation for more private sonic experiences. She also maps how sounds spread around the sanctuary from spots, such as a fountain or the starting point of a race, that would have been the focus of ritual and therefore sonic activity. With an academic background in architecture and historic preservation, Jordan is to be commended for adding sonic substance to our understanding of the Mt. Lykaion sanctuary, and even more so for not failing to point to the limits of this approach: the sonic analysis of landscapes helps reveal the “potentials” of site acoustics rather than their actual exploitation in antiquity, and such analysis is based on the assumption that the current landscape is not significantly different from the ancient one.

Extant fragments of musical instruments and iconographic evidence for musical practices supported by literary and epigraphic evidence are used by Vergara Cerqueira, Angliker, and Bellia in more traditional but extremely productive archaeological approaches. The inscribed honorific stele (not a statue) of the auletes Pythokritos in Olympia mentioned by Pausanias, the Ὀλυμπιακὴ σάλπιγξ mentioned by Philostratos, and the addition of a salpinx contest to the Olympic Games in 396 BCE offer convincing evidence for Vergara Cerqueira’s suggestion of a quasi-omnipresence of the aulos and the salpinx as ceremonial instruments in Olympia. There is no need to assume that the Homeric metaphor ἐσάλπιγξεν μέγας οὐρανός (Il. 21.388) in the presence of Zeus indicates any particular association of the salpinx with this god. On the contrary, the salpinx as an instrument for war signals is firmly associated with Athena and her companion Nike;[4] for this reason, Vergara Cerqueira’s choice to use Attic iconographic evidence to fill the gap of evidence from Olympia itself presents some methodological problems.

In the case of Dodona, Angliker provides an insightful overview of the topography and history of the sanctuary and of the ancient accounts about its function, including the main sources of oracular consultation: Zeus’ sacred oak, for which Dodona was already well known to Homer (Od., 14, 327–328; 19, 296–297), the percussive cauldrons, and the flight of doves. Angliker’s chapter can be read in tandem with a recent paper by Jessica Piccinini, which draws attention to a number of musically relevant finds from the sanctuary, including dedications by a likely lyre-player and two rhapsodes, an oracular tablet mentioning a certain tragoidos, a cymbal, and the figurine of an aulos player; Piccinini considers these finds as evidence for rhapsodic and dramatic contests at the sanctuary.[5]

In a comprehensive chapter on the two Heraia at Poseidonia, Bellia covers the history, natural and built environment, and votive traditions of the sanctuaries with a particular focus on the extraurban Heraion near the Sele River (Foce del Sele). Here, the soundscape would have included natural sounds characteristic of this sanctuary—its “soundmarks”—as well as the auletic and vocal music that would have accompanied a variety of processional rituals and circular dance performances. This is indicated by the extant aulos fragments, the terracotta figurines of musicians and dancers, and the carved sandstone metopes of dancing girls that have been found at the Sele sanctuary. Comparisons with other Heraia in Magna Grecia and in Greece itself, supported by literary references, round out the picture of a vivid sacred soundscape created in honor of Hera.

Literary sources such as Alcman, the Homeric Hymns, Terpander, and Plato naturally take precedence in Valletta’s chapter on Spartan choral performances. In the example of Alcman’s Great Partheneion, Valletta first explores the role of choral performances as offerings to the gods and as a means of communication with them. The social and political implications of musical performances are then discussed on the basis of ancient testimonia associating the musical activity of Terpander, the Cretan Thales (or Thaletas), and Tyrtaeus at Sparta with healing, the appeasement of sociopolitical tensions and the restoration of civic harmony. A short discussion of the sonic role of wind and water in the wider Laconian landscape between the Taygetos and Parnon ranges, and a final section about the presence of Spartan musicians and choruses in Panhellenic sanctuaries close the chapter.

The reader of the book is well served by an abstract and several keywords at the head of each paper, a list of abbreviations, and two indices of places and subjects, including proper names of gods, heroes, festivals, poets, and musicians. Some thirty black-and-white images satisfy the basic needs? for visual material. Several typos can be noticed throughout the book, particularly affecting Greek terms and bibliographic data: e.g., “halteres” (the stones held by an athlete to facilitate the jump) is written as “haltares” on p. 21; “βίαιον” as “βίαινον” on p. 36; “Mousikoi Agones” as “Mousikos Agones” on p. 37; “Facts and Models” as “Fasts and Models” on p. 64; and “IΘAKH” as “IQAKH” on p. 80. Furthermore, in “to enhancing improving religious experience” (p. 67) there is one -ing form too many. Otherwise, the book is handsomely produced in the classical typographic style and high-quality bookbinding that are characteristic of Fabrizio Serra editore.

As a whole, the collection is a remarkable achievement and illustrates how much there is to gain from a sharper focus on the sonic dimension of Greek sacred landscapes. The book therefore belongs in the library of any institution or scholar involved in archaeological, historical, or literary research on Greek religion and cult.


Authors and titles

Erica Angliker, Introduction: Soundscape and Landscape at Panhellenic Greek Sanctuaries

Fábio Vergara Cerqueira, The Aulos and the Salpinx in the Soundscape of Olympia
Erica Angliker, The Soundscape of Dodona: Exploring the Many Functions of Sound

Pamela Jordan, Sounding the Mountain: Analyzing the Soundscape of Mount Lykaion’s Sanctuary to Zeus

Angela Bellia, Soundscape and Landscape in the Sacred Spaces: The Case of the Heraia in Magna Graecia

Lucio Maria Valletta, “She is Actually the One Who Heals our Strains” (Alcm., fr. 3, 88–89 Calame): Craftsmanship, Apprenticeship and Ritual Function of Spartan Choral Performances

Angela Bellia, Afterword: Towards a Soundscape Archaeology



[1] For the exhibition catalog, see Stamatia Eleftheratou and Κonstantinos I. Soueref (eds.), Dodona: The oracle of sounds (Athens 2016).

[2] Further informtion on this performance, including a video recording, is available on the Onassis Foundation website. For Terzopoulos’ body theater in general, see Harald Müller (ed.), Dionysus in Exile: The Theatre of Theodoros Terzopoulos (Berlin 2019); and Freddy Decreus, The Ritual Theatre of Theodoros Terzopoulos (London 2019).

[3] Martin L. West, Ancient Greek Music (Oxford 1992) 118.

[4] Gullög Nordquist, “The Salpinx in Greek Cult,” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis 16, 1996, 246.

[5] Jessica Piccinini, “A Forgotten Votive Plaque from Dodona: A Brief Addendum to P. A. Hansen, Carmina Epigraphica Graeca,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 187, 2013, 69-71.