The κύκνειον ᾆσμα

An Approach to Its Musical Contents

in Greek and Roman Musical Studies
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In Greek Literature the characteristics of swans are used as a metaphor for a variety of human values. Their colour, their bravery and their singing are the three main characteristics we usually find in Greek texts as synonyms for beauty, courage and musical dexterity. In this paper, I try to go a step further, to explore whether it is possible to discover how ancient writers imagined the κύκνειον ᾆσµα might have sounded. I analyse the type of sound the relevant texts represent as their singing and even the use of their bodies as instruments in certain texts. I then show how ancient writers illustrated the swan song, the κύκνειον ᾆσµα, in musical contexts beyond the image of swans as animals capable of singing their dirge of death.

The κύκνειον ᾆσμα

An Approach to Its Musical Contents

in Greek and Roman Musical Studies


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Some examples can be seen in Toufexis 2003267.


Castrucci (2014) isolates several examples of the Delian swans according to the literary evolution of the threnos towards the paian.


Cf. Bignardi 2013; Castrucci 2013.


Beekes (2010) and Chantraine (1968 s.v.) relate it to an onomatopoeic reduplicated formation with the same ending as in ἰύζω βαΰζω γογγύζω κοκκύζω etc. As an onomatopoeic element it is normal to find similar examples in other languages as likely roots or parallel creations. Thus they are in clear connection with Lat. ululare ‘to howl’ ulula ‘the owl’ Skt. ululí- ‘crying loudly’ and uluka ‘the owl’ and Lith. ulula ‘the howling of the waves’. Besides these stands ὀλολύζω with dissimilation ο-υ or perhaps ablauting to ἐλελεῦ. It is interesting to note that Heliodorus makes a gender distinction in the use of the verb in Aethiopica as he uses the regular ὠλόλυξαν for women whereas he prefers ἠλάλαξαν for men.

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