Category Archives: mythology

From Thin Air

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The genesis of musical creativity has long been perplexing. As a medium comprised of the invisible properties of silence and sound, music seems to emerge from and return to thin air. Its substance and impact defy pictorial and linguistic descriptions, and the experience of it is beyond the grasp of notated scores and mathematical graphs. Of all the arts, music is both the most mysterious and the most intimate. It is intangible and transient, yet deeply affects the interior of our being.

Because music-making is so difficult to unravel, many cultures have arrived at supernatural explanations. These range from calling musical genius a “gift from heaven” to more involved mythologies. An extreme example is found among the Suyá, a tribe of about three hundred located at the headwaters of the Xingu River in Mato Grosso, Brazil. The Suyá maintain that all new music originates outside of their dwellings. The composer’s spirit is sent to a village of animal spirits, where it listens to and learns different songs. When the spirit returns, the composer transmits the songs to the people.

The Suyá also believe that the spirits of tribespeople are linked with particular animal spirits. This has musical implications, as the spirit of one person may travel to the spirit village of fish, while the spirit of another might go to a community of deer spirits. The former will return with fish songs, the latter with deer songs. According to Anthony Seeger, an anthropologist and author of Why Suyá Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People, about thirty percent of Suyá men and women in a generation claim to have spirits that acquire new songs.

However fantastical this and other beliefs about musical creativity may be, they do illustrate the enigma of the process. Musical inspiration is difficult to pinpoint, as it is often spontaneous and rarely perceptible by sight or other senses. Cultural factors naturally shape the details of the musical stories. A monotheistic group places its deity at the inspirational center, animistic tribes locate music with animals, polytheistic societies assign the role of muse to a god or two, and so on.

Whatever form a myth takes, its impetus is the mysteriousness of musical creation. While a painter begins with paints and a sculptor starts with stone, the composer commences with seemingly nothing but air. Of course, on a technical level, all of the available notes, durations and articulations are already present in nature, and the organization of these sounds can be distilled, mapped and analyzed with precision. But music-making may be as close to creatio ex nihilo as we can approach.

The materials of music differ from materials in the physical sense. Most creative activities involve selecting, arranging and shaping pre-existing external matter, or creatio ex materio. But music, while played on instruments and within mechanical parameters, seems to reside in a spiritual or otherwise inexplicable realm. As a result, musical creativity lends itself to supernatural storytelling.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.


Mythic Melodies

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In the summer of 1953, Cantor Reuben Rinder of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco submitted a composition to Julius Freudenthal, his trusty publisher at Transcontinental Music Corporation. It was a setting of Adon Olam (“Master of the Universe”), a closing doxology of Jewish prayer services. Rinder received a letter of rejection from Freudenthal, who explained, “Time and again we encountered great reluctance on the part of the synagogues to change the music for the final hymns of the service.” Adon Olam exists in hundreds, if not thousands, of renditions, and fresh ones are being written all the time. Despite this, most congregations settle on a few versions and have little desire to try something different from the array of alternatives.

What accounts for this hesitation? There are a few simple explanations: the comfort of the familiar, the fulfillment of expectations and the old maxim of complacency, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But these only go so far. Familiar prayer melodies are tightly woven into the fabric of the service and etched into the identity of the congregation. Replacing the music is tantamount to a desecration. The service and all of its repetitive parts are felt as holy, and musical departures threaten the sacred flow.

The reasons for this are rooted in what mythologists call “strong time.” We live in a complex, unstable and rapidly changing world. The only certain thing is uncertainty. Myths offer a remedy for this fluctuating and unpredictable reality. They give a perception of strong time:  prodigious moments when something foundational, unparalleled and inflexible was made fully manifest. These are episodes removed from the laws of nature and the ambiguities of the day to day. They include creation narratives, hero tales, miraculous interventions and other legends. They are the unshakable and unhistorical stories that people gather to commemorate, and around which identities and ideologies are constructed.

For strong time to remain strong, it must be periodically recounted in rituals, recitations and song. These scheduled reminders, which punctuate the calendars of devotees, provide a sense of steadiness amidst the randomness of existence. If these observances were neglected, the world would fall into chaos—or at least the turmoil of reality would become more apparent. Repetition imparts stability.

It is largely because of this that prayer-songs resist change. Worship services are devised to harness and project strong time. Repeated scripts, regulated rituals and predictable choreographies transmit a sensation of security. The musical score to which the liturgical drama is set likewise demands consistency. Certain melodies become attached to certain occasions. Their specific sounds encompass the essence of the events themselves. Deviations from the expected music are experienced as more than just novelty or harmless variety. They are, quite often, unwelcome reminders of life’s fragility.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

After the Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The biblical account of the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt concludes with the fabled crossing of the Red Sea. As the story goes, Moses held out his arm over the sea and split the waters, revealing a path of dry ground leading to freedom’s shore. When the sea march was complete, Moses raised his arm again, this time causing the waters to fall upon the pursuing Egyptians. The unlikely victory filled the Israelites with a mixture of elation and awe. Mere words could not express the magnitude of their feelings or do justice to the spectacle they had witnessed. Without hesitation and without rehearsal, they burst forth in a spontaneous yet poetically elaborate song of gratitude (Exod. 15:1-21).

Though clearly legendary, this episode is musically significant. It is the first prayer-song we encounter in the Bible and the first example of what might be called congregational singing. It shows music performance as a natural response to momentous events and overwhelming emotions. It presents song as a means of proclaiming group affiliation and expressing national pride.

These and other aspects of the musical occasion are repeated elsewhere in the Bible and are common to human societies throughout the ages. The depiction of the Red Sea song is memorable in large part because it resonates with our own experiences. Most of us have, at one time or another, felt the camaraderie of communal singing, turned to music as an emotional outlet, or used songs to assert our identities. These universal musical functions are readily ascertained from the climactic song of the exodus. There is, however, a less obvious but similarly important role the song plays in the biblical narrative: the return to normalcy.

A characteristic remark appears in the verses leading up to the Red Sea crossing. Catching sight of the advancing Egyptian army, the frightened Israelites ask Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?’” (14:11-12). This sort of complaint—and the lack of trust underlying it—recurs throughout the Israelites’ desert sojourn. They were unmitigated complainers, constantly pressing Moses to satisfy their physical and psychological needs, and prove the alleged might and compassion of their deity.

We can, then, classify as anomalous the exuberant words of thanksgiving the Israelites sang while gazing at the sea. Although springing organically from their lips, the lyrics were a departure from their ordinary disposition. Indeed, the scene’s immensity is accentuated by the fact that the song was so atypical of this grumbling lot. The Israelites were stunned  both by the remarkable chain of events and by the unusual feelings it excited. The rush of sentiments and sensations was unlike anything they had experienced before, and singing was the best they could do to deal with it. The song’s success in this regard is demonstrated shortly after the music stopped: “the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (15:24).

This normalizing effect should be added to the more familiar musical elements of Exodus 15 (e.g., congregational singing, emotional outlet and identity assertion). When the course of life is interrupted by dramatic incidents—big or small, good or bad—music can help ease the transition back to a comfortable and ordinary state. If the exodus legend is any indication, this effect was as well appreciated by the ancients as it is today.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Eternal Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of the Animal Man comic book published in 1990 includes a surreal sequence of panels showing a group of second-rate superheroes in an unusual state of self-reflection. On the brink of being discontinued, these now-irrelevant heroes descend into panicThe story’s enigmatic and sometimes-psychedelic writer, Grant Morrison, depicts the anxiety as these characters become aware that their storylines are in peril. One of them shouts forlornly, “If they write me out man, I ain’t gonna be seen again!” A more introspective figure consoles the crowd of hapless crusaders: “We can all still be seen. Our lives are replayed every time someone reads us. We can never die. We outlive our creators.”

The notion of eternality through revisitation resembles the “eternal return,” a theory popularized by religious historian Mircea Eliade. Ritual practices, explained Eliade, return participants to the mythic time in which the events commemorated purportedly took place. A ceremony marking the creation of the world or defeat of an existential enemy, for instance, brings a congregation into that extraordinary moment. In more than just a symbolic sense, each ritual repetition relives the sacred past. Like soon-to-be canceled heroes who achieve immortality on the re-read comic book page, periodic rituals enable myths to outlive the civilizations that produced them. They procure an eternal life transcending the constraints of linear time.

It is debated whether this cyclical idea of time should be viewed literally or as an inflated conception of nostalgia. Bernard Lewis, for one, has warned us of the human tendency to creatively remember, recover and reinvent our cultural heritages. Whatever the case, there is a powerful “as if” in play during ritual repetition, perhaps best articulated in the Passover seder when Jews of every era proclaim, “We were slaves in the land of Egypt.”

This phenomenon occurs as well in (non-improvised) music, especially when replayed on recordings or replicated with reasonable precision in live performances. Songs often transport us to where we first heard them or to a phase of life when they held an important place. Old feelings, old relationships, old situations are resurrected and made present through sound. As long as we continue to hear those songs—and each time we do—that bygone period is restored to vibrant immediacy.

Time-tested music also serves as an intergenerational pathway, promoting a real or imagined sense of continuity between past and present. Songs known (or thought) to be deeply woven into the societal fabric bring us face to face with long-dead ancestors and with a world we did not inhabit but feel viscerally connected to.

This is not the extent of how music connects us to eternal time. Further reflection would yield further indications of this effect. And it bears reiterating that these musical sensations are not experienced simply as emotional memories, but as the past made present once more. On a practical level, this explains the regularity with which recurring repertoires are affixed to communal rituals, both religious and secular. Such music helps tie participants to the activity itself and to the flow of history in which similar activities have already occurred and will occur again. Succinctly put, eternal myths are made eternal in part through eternal tones.

Although this discussion of return implies endlessness, it is not a static process. As we have learned from countless time travel tales of popular fiction, inserting ourselves into events that have already taken place invariably introduces new elements and causes new variations, subtle and not-so-subtle. So it is with time relived on the pages of comic books, retold in rituals and contained in repeated songs. Each of us is a constantly changing accumulation of thoughts, feelings and experiences, and every time we return to the familiar—the eternal—we approach it from a different vantage point.

Far from discrediting the notion of timelessness, the changes precipitated when our current selves encounter the perpetual past can be understood as the dynamic anatomy of eternity. Without this potential for freshness, the eternal return would hardly be longed for.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Bad Vibrations

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The destruction of Jericho is the most powerful sonic event in the Bible (Josh. 6:1-27). Told as the first Israelite battle during the conquest of Canaan, the story depicts deafening sounds shaking the walls of Jericho to the point of collapse. Sound waves alone, the story tells us, were enough to topple the thick fortification and assure a swift and victorious invasion.

The opening verses of the narrative set the dramatic scene. Joshua is given a divine command to send his troops marching around the walled city for six days. They are to circle Jericho one time per day, accompanied by the Ark of the Covenant and seven priests carrying shofars. On the seventh day, they are to complete the circuit seven times as the priests violently blast their horns. The march is to climax with a sustained blast accompanied by screams and shouts. “Thereupon the city wall will collapse,” the Bible tells us, “and the people shall advance, every man straight ahead” (Josh. 6:5).

In the excessive attack that follows, Joshua’s soldiers exterminate the inhabitants of Jericho, slaughter their livestock, and burn the city to the ground, sparing only the family of Rahab, a harlot who hid two Israelite spies during a reconnaissance mission to the city. The Israelites also pilfer gold and silver and objects made of copper and iron, which “go into the treasury of the Lord” (Josh. 6:19).

In the first decade of the twentieth century two German archaeologists, Carl Watzinger and Ernst Sellin, conducted a scientific investigation of the Jericho site, expecting to validate the historicity of the biblical account. They determined instead that the city had been unoccupied during the purported period of Joshua (c. 1400 BCE). Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon confirmed their findings in the 1950s, and radiocarbon tests done in 1995 dated samples from the site to 1562 BCE (plus/minus 38 years).

This does not mean that the myth is without basis. Jericho is an earthquake-prone location. In fact, a fault line runs through the area, known as the Jericho Fault. Most researchers agree that a massive earthquake struck the region and demolished the city’s ancient walls. Legend of the cataclysmic event grew as the story passed from person to person and generation to generation. The Israelites inserted themselves into the retelling, distorting and embellishing the details to include their tribal hero Joshua and the noisy people under his charge.

Clothing earthquakes in mythological images is fairly common. Seismic events have given rise to several Japanese myths, including the story of a gigantic catfish named Namazu, upon whose back the land floats. When the fish flips its tale, the ground trembles. A West African myth has the Earth resting atop a giant’s head. Earthquakes occur whenever he sneezes. The Maoris of New Zealand tell a story of Mother Earth, who is pregnant with the god Ru. When Ru kicks in the womb, the world shakes.

These and other earthquake myths are rooted in observable phenomena. Trying to explain the Earth’s random and ruinous power, they draw on imagery from ordinary experience: fish, pregnancy, people, etc. And since the audiences are familiar with these elements, the stories seem like reasonable depictions of cause and effect. Mystery solved.

The plausibility factor is important when considering the biblical story of Jericho. The people of Israel were intimate with the audible force of the shofar, a utilitarian instrument with civic, ceremonial and military uses. They heard its ear-splitting tones and felt its bone-rattling vibrations—the impact of which was amplified when more horns were added to the cacophonous mix. With a little imagination and exaggeration—and the added roars of Israelite troops—the sound was amplified to destructive levels.

The collapse of Jericho is a uniquely Israelite take on earthquake mythology. It projects human responses to sound onto the Earth, and incorporates Israel’s favorite instrument into one of its most important stories.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.