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Lament is frequently represented as a musical paradox in Greek tragedy. From Cassandra’s nomos anomos (“tuneless tune”) in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon to the description of mourning as “unmusical” in Euripidean drama, the musicality of lamentation tends to be simultaneously stressed and negated. The motif of the “unmusical muse” has been viewed in terms of its emotive affect—the pleasure produced by songs of suffering (Segal 1993). Little attention has been paid, however, to how this relates to a more fundamental issue, namely the tension between lament’s musicality and its frequent characterization as inarticulate noise. In this paper I demonstrate how closely intertwined these two aspects are in the performance and conceptualization of lament in tragedy, as well as in ritual practice.

The “unmusical” quality of lament does not contradict its extreme musicality: rather, the genre incorporates the sounds from which more crafted mourning music—even song itself—is thought to develop (on lament as originary mousikē, see Ford 2010, Steiner 2013). These are the spontaneous, emotional wails (góoi) of ritual lament, which are preserved in tragic representations of mourning through references to mere noise and the incorporation of cries like aiai. The nightingale, the archetypal mourner, encapsulates lament’s twofold nature. Like the song she produces, she is a model of supreme musicality, as her name (aēdōn) suggests. But in tragedy, the bird’s identification with lament is based on both the melodic complexity of her song and the acoustic correlation between her sound and the cries of mourning that were originally associated with the góos. This combination is especially clear when the chorus of Agamemnon compares Cassandra’s nomos anomos to the nightingale’s “insatiable cry” (1143).

The twofold conceptualization of the nightingale’s song may explain its association with the aulos in tragedy (Barker 2004). I argue that this results not only from a perceived acoustic similarity based on complex modulation, but from the idea that both the instrument and the bird, as well as the lament she sings, produce nonverbal noise that can threaten speech (logos). Such “noise” is a fundamental part of their extreme musicality. Indeed, in cultures where ritual lament still survives today, wailing can be the melodically most complex form of song, partly because it lacks linguistic features, and thus often stands as opposed to oratory as a form of public performance (Graham 1986, Feld 2012). I suggest that, rather as the aulos was deemed especially exciting as a result of its overwhelming musical force (e.g. Arist. Pol. 1342b), so lament’s ability to override logos is tied to its power to stir up dangerous emotions (Alexiou 1974, Holst-Warhaft 1992).

The second part of my paper explores how tragedians exploit the idea of lament as contrary to logos, particularly in the representation of foreigners. It has often been noted that lament in tragedy, especially in Aeschylus and Euripides, tends to be associated with women and foreigners, reflecting ambivalence about its practice in the democratic polis (Loraux 1986, 1998, 2002; Hall 1999, 2002). On a conceptual level, tragedians use lament as a marker of foreignness to contrast barbarian abandonment with Greek moderation. I show how, on an acoustic level, the nonverbal aspects of lament can produce an illusion of foreign speech as opposed to Greek logos. Aeschylus particularly exploits this effect in Persae, giving the impression of incomprehensible language through the repetition of typical cries of lament and other short words that become virtually vocables. The Phrygian Slave in Euripides’ Orestes also demonstrates the acoustic association of foreign speech with lament through his report of the murder attempt on Helen—a frantic lament which includes many repeated cries and a phonetic play between “a” and “i” sounds and the word “Asia.” I suggest that his song is to be heard in contrast with the earlier messenger speech, highlighting the reduction of language to emotional, inarticulate cries in the mouth of a foreigner.