The Muses and the Sirens are the most ubiquitous mythological figures associated with song and the voice in ancient Greece. They give us access to the categories through which the ancients conceptualized vocality and sung music: pleasure, beauty, seduction, immortality, and various degrees of danger are features that characterize scenes staging these divinities.
My paper examines an alternative mythology of the voice – that found in Plato’s myth of the cicadas (Phaedrus 259b-e). I consider the myth as a locus of meditation on the nature of the voice and argue that the narrative about the insect’s origins directly tackles three questions: is the voice an object of aesthetic delight or a vehicle for logos? Is it somatic or immaterial? Is it mortal or immortal? To each of these questions, the myth gives the cicada as its riddling, metonymical, answer: the narrative of the musical insect’s life stands in for the paradoxical nature of the voice and its status in the world.
I start from Socrates’ introduction of the myth to Phaedrus and his considerations about the place of the insect in the “phonosphere” (Bettini 2008). Socrates describes their philosophical walk in the countryside as observed from an insect perspective: after presenting the cicadas as singing and dialoguing with one another (ᾄδοντες καὶ ἀλλήλοις διαλεγόμενοι), he focuses on the unsettling effect of their gaze. Fearing tettigal mockery, Socrates reminds Phaedrus of the importance of not behaving like animals, charmed (κηλουμένους) by sound, but instead of pursuing dialogue (διαλεγομένους). Yet Socrates further blurs “natural” boundaries, by comparing the seductive power of the insect singers to that of the Sirens, who should leave men uncharmed (ἀκηλήτους). Thanks to the comparison with the hybrid Sirens, part-human, part-animal, part-goddesses, Socrates removes the power of the (cicadas’) voice from its natural setting, and brings it closer to divine song than animal racket.
I then turn to the myth itself. Cicadas used to be men; after song was invented, they delighted so much in music that they forgot to eat and died. The Muses turned them into insects who sing continuously without needing sustenance. Once dead, the cicadas report to the Muses on the activities of men who honor the divinities (through song, love, oratory, or philosophy). I argue that this fanciful natural history of the insect dramatizes the liminal status of sounds, poised between the physical and the immaterial. The cicadas are a figure for the voice: a voice always echoes its somatic origins, but – like the insects – ultimately escapes the confines of the body. The cicadas come to embody the conundrum of the φωνή: both symptom of the body and a triumph over physical matter.
The second part of the myth takes this idea further. On my reading, the cicadas represent the paradox of carrying the work of the voice beyond death and allow us to think about the very essence of vocality: mortal in its phenomenology, but immortal in its power. The passage gives the key to its own reading in the last lines, by putting Calliope (the-one-with-the-beautiful-voice, who lets out καλλίστην φωνήν) above all other Muses, and by concluding with Phaedrus’ injunction to speak (λεκτέον).
By staging the insects as philosophers, seductive figures of death, and attachés to the Muses, the myth reflects on the voice as the ambiguous place where eternal soul encounters body, sense meets sensuality, and human logos can dissolve into animal sound or divine song. Rather than reading the myth for what it tells us about the philosophical arguments of the Phaedrus, I take it as raising the most important questions asked in recent voice studies (Cavarero 2005, Dolar 2006, Ilhe 2007) but contributing its unique, and disturbing, answer from nature.
Voice and Sound in Classical Greece