A glance back on the ancient past
The peculiar form of a harp attracts attention, and our eyes unintentionally take delight in its delicate curved shape. When sounding, the harp’s tone gently resonates and mysteriously booms, as if sending a message from a misty faraway place and remote past.
Far, far away in the mist of prehistory…
According to one of the drawings of the Stone Age, on the walls of the caves discovered in Southern France, the magician as a medium, wearing a mask and so to say in ecstasy, mediated between a mysterious superior world and the reality of everyday life. He charmed and allured the beasts of the woods and fields to himself and his tribe by rapping his bow.
Thousands of years passed, and bows became the symbolic means of magic, in the hands of dancing wom-en as is depicted in one of the almost sixty-seven-thousand-year-old pictographs in West Africa; whose 20th-century discovery was promoted by the Hungarian Count László Almásy, the inspirer of the Academy Award winning film, “The English Patient”.
Meanwhile, having been enlarged with a resonant body and maybe inspired by the sound of a zipping ar-row, the bow turned into a monochord plucked instru-ment of mellow sound, which can be regarded as the harp’s ancestor. Even in our time, there are tribes in Afri-ca and descendants of Native Americans, respectively, who believe in the instrument’s magic power. They be-lieve that the gentle sound of the chord serves as estab-lishing the contact with the spirit of the ancestors through their ritual ceremonies.
A bow, as a weapon or as a means of magic is not at all far removed from becoming an instrument, as it would seem at the outset. For example, Alexander Horsch from East Germany wanted to move to the Federal Republic of Germany via Budapest at the end of the 1980s. However, he fell in love with the ancient and remarkably rich Hun-garian folk music and his wife, who made him familiar with it, so he stayed in Hungary. He became a folk musi-cian, researcher and maker of reproductions of historic instruments. He also acquired the traditional art of Hun-garian archers. He soon became an excellent archer, who could sound the bow as a musical instrument. The same might have happened thousands of years earlier as well…
The single chord was later followed by two, three… and thus the poly-chord harp of bow-shape came into being. Ethnographic descriptions inform us that similar instruments having more chords were found, e.g., along the western coasts of Africa and on some remote islands of Indonesia; these instruments were still played in the 20th century.
As a form of community life, groups mainly based on ties of kindred sounded the chords of this harp by dis-tributing the chords of different tones among themselves.
Of course, very little is known about the initial phase of development. For that very reason, the material proofs – the results of ethnographic research displaying the life-style and personal belongings of tribes, which live under almost isolated Neolithic conditions and preserve their ancient culture even in the 20th century – can serve as an important compass. Thus, for example, the Kafir ethnic group living isolated among the chain of mountains in the North-West of Afghanistan, and one of their musical instruments, the harp were found in the 1950s.
The instrument was made of hollowed wood, animal skin was stretched over the resonant body, and the curved branch supporting the chords was set into its middle. The instrument of four or five chords was held in the left arm and plucked by a plectrum in the right hand, while the fingers of the left arm controlled the length of sounding by touching the chords.
This harp, with a history of thousands of years excel-lently exemplifies the inventiveness, musical sensitivity and even striving for perfection of people living among primitive natural circumstances. At the same time, it marks a really ancient type, which can be a link besides the further forms of harps towards the development of later plucked instruments, and maybe towards bowed-stringed instruments as well.
As is shown by this, and many earlier or later exciting discoveries, the importance of ethnographic research lies concealed in the fact, among others, that it draws atten-tion to a surprisingly great number of identical or similar features, shared by the everyday customs, musical life and instruments both of prehistoric groups and contem-porary communities still preserving their culture, thus forming a bridge between the present and the past.
Besides ethnography, the other source of our implica-tions is archaeology whose experts question the relics of the past with endless patience. Although the discovered remains of the age-old arts and crafts are few and frag-mentary, as small lanterns from afar, they can illuminate the important stages of development.
The agricultural way of life and the more concentrated exploitation of natural resources led the historic devel-opment from a tribal lifestyle towards a society of labour-division and class-structure, the formation of a state.
Music, musicians and the corresponding instruments played a very important role as early as the astonishingly high standard of cultural life of the ancient civilisations in the great river valleys. The development of the comparatively short period, leading to this stage seems to disappear in the mist of distant past, because the beautifully shaped and varied forms of harps displayed by the archaeological findings from the third millennium BC renders a longer pre-history probable by that time.
In the course of this history, also other types of plucked instruments developed from the ancient instru-ments of many strings: lyres, lutes and zithers. These closely related plucked instruments differed in their shapes, number of strings, or maybe materials only. Thus, two figures could even be combined or could be reshaped in a third form.
However, the role fulfilled by these stringed instru-ments while employed, was the same with each of them. At most, their number changed, since their number was defined by the purpose of the performance, the character of the occasion, the required volume of an open space or a silent room. For that very reason, different plucked in-struments frequently played together during rituals, and greater or occasional celebrations.
THE GREAT CULTURES OF ANTIQUITY
Sumer, Babylon, Assyria
The first relics concerning harps were excavated in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the two great civilisations of antiquity.
Sumer, considered to be the cradle of civilisation, lay on the fertile plain between the rivers Tigris and Euphra-tes. Its diligent and inventive inhabitants of unknown origin might have come from the direction of the Iranian mountains or probably from that of the sea.
From as early as 3100 BCE, they lived in city-states, among which the most famous ones were Ur, Eridu and Uruk. Their community life was formed by agriculture dominated by irrigation. The development of cuneiform is attributed to them, through which their way of life was documented. They were familiar with forging, brick bak-ing, bread-making and beer-brewing, canalisation, water-wheels, fish-ponds, and many more. Their culture of high standard, which developed incredibly fast, exerted a lasting influence on the surrounding peoples and the future conquerors.
After the conquest and rule of the Akkadians (at the end of the third millennium BCE), Sumer temporarily became stronger again. However, from the 19th century BC on, Babylonians and Assyrians established empires here. The Kassites, the Medes and the Persians were at war for the possession of the territory, which entailed the frequent changes of political conditions, ethnic and reli-gious customs. Thus, the archaeological findings had to, and still have to, be singled out from the excavations dis-covering many cultures built upon each other. The re-liefs, figurines, ceramics and mosaics or signets found among ruins narrate the story of music and instruments, among others.
Although the ceremonies accompanied by music were not held in caves anymore, but in large-sized temples, the decoration of animal heads – especially those of bulls – on instruments and the representation of people wear-ing masks still refer to the not too distant presence and significance of totems.
Music was instrumental in establishing a connection with the gods. The instruments of the temple were pro-tected by Ea, the god of depths, merry, entertaining and profane music was favoured by the god of storm and thunder. Lamenting and repentant songs or those of thanksgiving were accompanied by instruments required by the occasion. For example, at libations harps were employed, and priestly prophecies were also supported by the sound of harps.
Instruments were not missing from life at court, either. A singer and a musician of plucked instruments “dispels the gloom of sorrow” at a banquet – as is said by an epi-graph next to a relief from the middle of the 3rd millenni-um BCE. The existing epic poem, Gilgamesh and a strophic song “composed for harps” by the king of Lagash, Gudea inform us that songs accompanied by plucked instruments meant a natural form of artistic manifestation in the life of the Sumerians.
The most significant relics came from the city of Ur, namely the royal tombs full of treasure. Not only repre-sentations, but original plucked instruments too. Howev-er, the instruments broken into small pieces, or the ones disintegrated on being exposed to air, or the harp lost in the Gulf War of 1993 can be imagined on the basis of re-construction only.
The excavations were led by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. He spoke many languages, even a bit of Hun-garian. As a matter of course, he registered the details of the working process, the achievements, and documented the findings in photos.
The tombs, from which many harps were excavated, had been used for burials between BC 2600 and 2400. Some of them were robbed, e.g., that of King Abargi, but that of his wife remained intact. According to the cus-toms of the time, Queen Subad was escorted in death by twenty-five of her attendants richly decorated with jew-els; as signs reveal, they assumed the sacrifice and took poison willingly and with dignity.
It is strange and moving as one of the harpists is plucking the chord of the instrument, even in the moment of death to preserve this ultimate gesture for thousands of years.
Although the Sumerians loved harps, they did not stand pre-eminent among the other plucked instruments; on the contrary, they gradually lost importance behind lyres and lutes. However, they remained popular after the Sumerians in Babylon and the Assyrian Empire. The Babylonian hymn about the creation of man, for example, was always accompanied by harps.
The enjoyable, spiritual and even entertaining perfor-mance of harpists (and musicians in general) was highly appreciated. There were times at the Assyrian court when they had greater prestige than the scholars, and their rank hardly lagged behind rulers.
Their instruments reached artistic level because of their careful and beautiful formation, many times their decoration of gold, silver and gems.