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With Clashing Bronze and Shrieking Pipes: Ovid’s Representation of the Sound of (Mystery Cult) Music

Rebecca A. Sears

Tulane University

     Ovid composed two evocative descriptions of the music associated with mystery cults: the procession of Cybele’s Galli during the Ludi Megalenses (Fasti 4.181-190, echoed at 4.341-2), and the murder of Orpheus by Thracian Maenads (Metamorphoses 11.15-19). Ovid’s emphasis on the distinctive sonorities of the tympanon (Met. 11.17, Fasti 4.183-4) and the curved “Phrygian” aulos (“Berecyntia tibia cornu” Met. 11.16 and Fasti 4.181) evokes a long-standing literary trope. I concur with Hardie that these stereotypical descriptions, which date back at least to the Homeric Hymns (Calame 347) and Aeschylus’ Edonians (Burges Watson 456), conflate the music of the cults of Dionysus, Orpheus, and Cybele (Hardie 32-33). In this paper, I argue that Ovid capitalizes on the foreign—Otherized and Eastern (e.g. Beard 325 and 353; Littlewood 381)—characterization of these rituals in the Greek and Roman literary imagination in order to emphasize the overwhelming effect of such religious music on its hearers through the silencing of two specific poetic audiences: himself (Fasti 189-190) and Orpheus (Met. 11.18-19).

     These two passages also introduce a methodological question: namely, whether or not useful information about music as a cultural and religious practice can be inferred from descriptions in poetic sources. In regards to Catullus’ presentation of the worship of Cybele in Carmina 63, Panoussi has correctly emphasized “the need to reevaluate the function of ritual descriptions in literary texts” (102) in terms relevant to their poetic context (discussed more broadly by Beard 324-325). However, the comparative lack of sources of evidence for the sounds of the musical performances associated with ritual necessitates the continued (re-)evaluation of such poetic depictions, in particular for understanding the effect of this music on its audience (cf. Lind 197).  In this regard, Ovid’s description of the procession of Cybele’s priests in the Fasti is usually regarded as representative of Roman ritual practice, whereas Orpheus’ death in the Metamorphoses is treated as belonging to the mythological imaginary. However, the similarity of Ovid’s descriptions, particularly in his emphasis on the effect of the overwhelming volume of sound on the poems’ internal audiences, suggests that it might be more reasonable to regard them as equally suggestive of both cultural practice and mythology.

     In the Fasti, Ovid exploits his reaction (me... terret, 4.189-190) to the tremendous volume of sound (horrendo… sono, 4.190) associated with the procession of the Galli to inquire, from Cybele herself, about the aetiology of her preferred music. Cybele defers to the expertise of the Muses, specifically Erato, because of her association with the initial cause of Ovid’s antiquarian curiosity (cf. Boyd 21-22), although the conversation moves to other aspects of Cybele’s cult in Rome. In Erato’s response, she emphasizes the connection between Cybele’s cultic music and the weapons employed by the Curetes and Corybantes to obscure the cries made by the infant Zeus (4.209-214, cf. Fantham at Fasti 4.189-190), thus assimilating ritual music to the sounds of warfare. In his description of Orpheus’ death in the Metamorphoses, Ovid literalizes this analogy between Bacchic music and weaponry. Music, or sound, transforms into the medium for a supernatural battle between Orpheus and the Maenads, who triumph over Orpheus’ sophisticated lamentations through the sheer volume of their ritual (ingens clamor, 11.15-16, and obstrepuere, 11.18; cf. Hill 134-135). Both Ovid and Orpheus are uninvolved bystanders, witnesses to, rather than participants in, the performance of powerful cult music; but for Orpheus, implicated in the creation of such music (Hardie passim), his powerlessness to resist the Maenads forms an ironic counterpoint to his role as mystery cult founder.

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