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Ancient Greek Lullabies: Magic or Mundane?

Abbe Walker

          Ancient Greek lullabies resemble protective magical incantations designed to protect the hearer from the attack of daimonic forces. Scholars have noted the ritualistic nature and magical potential of the performative aspects of lullabies to lull an audience to sleep or express and alleviate the fears of the performer (Wærn 1960; Frankfurter 2009; Karanika 2014), but little attention has been paid to the ancient lullaby as a vehicle for apotropaic or protective magic in particular or to how such verbal protective magic could be thought to work. Karanika has recently pointed out that “lullabies are ubiquitous yet elusive” (Karanika 2014: 160), and much the same can be said about verbal protective charms, which, unlike physical amulets, leave no trace in the archaeological record. Passing statements attest to the prevalence in the ancient Greco-Roman world of verbal charms to ward off evil or to heal damage, yet the transmission of such incantations, like that of infant-directed songs and nursery songs to soothe upset children and put them to sleep, remained primarily oral and domestic. Only vestiges of the presumed widespread oral tradition of lullabies make their way into the more highly wrought poetry of antiquity, such as Danaë’s fear-tinged song to baby Perseus (Simonides 543.6-12) or Alcmene’s hopeful yet wary sleep inducing song to her twin boys, Iphicles and Heracles (Theocritus 24). I argue nevertheless that through such vestiges of ancient lullabies we can find clues to understand the mechanics of another mostly lost sub-genre of oral tradition, the protective magical incantation.

           Modern definitions of lullabies tend to stress both the psychological and developmental impacts on mother and child, as well as stylistic features such as simple rhythms and rhymes, repetition, alliteration, exaggerated melodies, a generally higher pitch and simple tone (Trehub and Trainor 1998; Doja 2014). Certain thematic features, however, are also common to lullabies, including hopes for a happy future that are often paired with images of danger, falling, and even death (Giudice 1988; Frankfurter 2009). A common denominator among our surviving evidence for ancient lullabies is a moment of crisis or threat to the child. The song can be directed at either a known threat—as in Danaë’s admonition to the sea—or an unnamed and thus unknown threat—as in Alcmene’s wish for her babies to sleep the sleep from which one wakes (that is, the opposite of the sleep of death). Such moments of childhood crisis paired with a soothing song provide context for a scenario that Plato hints at in his Phaedo, where Socrates advises his emotionally stressed companions to soothe their fear of death, which they compare to the child-killing demon, mormolukeia (77e7), by singing charms (ἐξεπάισητε, 77e9) to their inner child everyday until the fear of the bogey is expelled.

            While the ancient lullabies preserved in Simonides, Theocritus, and elsewhere are not necessarily magical spells, the comparison with the few ancient comments on oral protective magic for children (e.g, Plato, Phaedo 77e; Homeric Hymn to Demeter 225-230; Verrius Flaccus PMG 859) suggests that they are very much like magic. Although the ends of both lullabies and magical incantations are the same—to soothe the audience into sleep, it is the source of the believed disruption to that sleep that separates them. Using Malinowski’s theory of the coefficient of weirdness and J. Z. Smith’s comments on the daimonic in antiquity, I argue that magical lullabies were directed against the unknown and non-human, neatly represented by the class-type daimones (Malinowski 1935; Smith 1978). These songs were not so much about quieting the baby as keeping out the daimonic disruption.

Session/Panel Title:

Perception and the Senses

Session/Paper Number

22.3

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