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Loud trumpets and low bodies

Sarah Nooter

University of Chicago

In this paper I look at places in Greek literature where the voice is transformed by instruments, in particular the salpinx (“war-trumpet”). The voice in this transformation becomes something like a prosthesis, both an extension and displacement of identity by way of a newly formed persona (Warr 2012). When this extension to the body takes the form of a vocal enhancement and seems able to reach farther than the human voice, or boom more loudly, or ventriloquize too perfectly, an experience of the inhuman is created that awakens unsettling connotations of the “the vocalic uncanny” (cf. Connor 1998, Tajiri 2007) and can be conjured to illustrate terrifying invulnerability.

I start by discussing the aulos (much-discussed; cf. Wilson 1999, Martin 2003, Csapo 2004, Steiner 2013, and LeVen 2014) as a baseline of vocal enhancement, which Plato and others found problematic due to its ability to mimic human voices in lamentation and its disallowing of an aulos-player to express words. From this perspective, the aulos is affixed to the body to muffle the better sounds of the human voice. Rather than expressing words, it gives voice to the most degraded part of human experience, as is seen in several myths involving its invention by way of Athena, or simply its role in the divine structure of things via Marsyas.

I then move on to the salpinx and argue that its sound is meant to produce the illusion of invulnerability, inasmuch as it is both imagined as the metallic voice of the gods and deployed in the context of war to silence and intimidate the enemy. Both aspects of metallic voicing will be discussed as they appear in the Iliad to describe the divine voice and its destructive effect (Il. 2.484-93, 18.217-31). Unlike the aulos, the salpinx is not posed in literature from the perspective of the player but from that of listeners. Thus the body or mouth of the salpinx-player is never pictured, nor is any story of its invention told. Rather, it is configured as fully formed and loudly blaring, often from some distance, and as inciting and connoting imminent destruction (cf. Aeschylus, Persians 386-97, Xenophon, Anabasis 3.4.4, 4.2.7, 5.2.14, 6.5.27, and 7.4.16). In this sense, the salpinx itself acts as a divine and invulnerable sonic force that disembodies the individual who plays it.

By a kind of sonic simile, the sound of the salpinx could also function within cultural frameworks beyond war, as we see in Aeschylus’ Eumenides (576-83) when Athena has a herald blow into a salpinx to quiet crowds of onlookers and establish a new system of juridical law. Thus the symbolic and phenomenological meaning of the salpinx could be transferred from the field of battle into other social spaces with its divine ontology intact. I will end by looking at how the role of this fundamentally martial sound makes meaning when removed from military contexts.

Session/Panel Title:

The Sounds of War

Session/Paper Number


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