Music and the Divine

Introductory Remarks (MOISA Panel at the SCS Meeting in January 2019)

In: Greek and Roman Musical Studies
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This paper serves to report on the MOISA Panel at the 150th Annual Meeting of the Society for Classical Studies dedicated to the theme ‘Music and the Divine’, and to introduce one of the papers presented at the panel.


This paper serves to report on the MOISA Panel at the 150th Annual Meeting of the Society for Classical Studies dedicated to the theme ‘Music and the Divine’, and to introduce one of the papers presented at the panel.

Many literary and philosophical sources throughout antiquity and beyond attest the view that music serves as a connection between human and supernatural realities. However, speaking of ‘music’ in the common meaning of vocal and instrumental performance, one would have reason to expect music rather to be an intrinsically human matter. For music presupposes both the human hearing apparatus and brain and a liquid medium such as air to transport sound waves. How could we imagine music to function or be relevant in a world beyond the earth, be it envisioned as supra-lunar sphere or as the Christian heaven with angels singing who, contrary to popular imagination, do not have bodies?1

The ancients were not plagued by such difficulties, in part because they are anachronistic and because mythology is not concerned too much with the physical implications of its narrative, but especially since µουσική, as is well known, is an equivocal term: it can mean the actual music performed, poetry in general, the theoretical structure of a composition or its analysis, the mathematical aspects of musical phenomena or philosophical studies about harmony and human ēthos.2 The term ‘divine’ is polysemic as well, for it might refer 1) to a divinity (god in a polytheistic context, and in Greek-Roman mythology a being that is super-human—immortal and bestowed with particular powers—but in many ways similar to humans or, in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic context of monotheism, God, ontologically and essentially distinct from the world he himself has created), 2) to something related to a divinity as proceeding or directed to it, or 3) to something human but of supreme quality (‘godlike’).3 ‘Divine’ is used here principally in the first two meanings.

Human musical production, despite its apparent belonging to earthly realities, seems to point higher. First, music is a prominent form or medium of worship in most if not all religions, either to offer a ‘sacrifice of praise’ to appeal to or please a divinity, or to experience the divine presence through musically performed ritual. Why is music particularly apt to convey religious experience? This might be explained by this mysterious power that music exerts especially on the emotions or, as the ancients would say, on the irrational part of the soul. The unfathomable nature of music, perceived as a supra-human power, appears to open channels in both directions: from the divine to the humans and vice-versa.

It has often been stated, even across cultures, that music as a whole is a ‘gift of the gods’.4 Not seldom do we find etiologies in literature that explain the divine origin of particular instruments and the association of specific divinities with instruments (such as the aulos with Dionysius, the kithara/lyre with Apollo, or the Pan-flute). Greek and Roman mythology is full of descriptions of the divinities engaged in musical celebrations.5 All this can be either seen as a projection of human music into the divine realm (which would be a more modern view but exists already in the agnostic criticism of pagan religion in Lucretius, as mentioned below), or there is indeed a divine prototype of what human music is meant to be. Human musicians are often described as ‘divine’ or ‘divinely inspired’ (in the second and third meaning of ‘divine’ above; e.g. Homer Il. 8.499, 17.359). The musical genius, similar to literary or artistic production, seems to have its origin in super-human powers, be they the very Muses or other divinities. Music appears to be something one receives, at times even in a state of a consciously uncontrollable frenzy or µανία, rather than a mere human skill (see Plato’s Ion).

On an even higher and more abstract level, from the Pythagoreans down to Aristides Quintilianus and beyond, music is described in mathematical terms and proportions that are reflective of realities of harmony present in the cosmos at large, such as planetary movements (the ‘Music of the Spheres’),6 to which the structure and dynamics of the human soul should be aligned by means of experiencing corresponding tonal music.7 Carried on to their last consequence, the supernatural musical (or harmonic) realities become the analogatum princeps for human music. Even though these cosmic speculations are usually not super-natural or transcendent in a strict metaphysical sense, they still suggest that music touches something bigger than the simple production and perception of some specific kind of sound.

This multifaceted relationship between music and the divine in Greco- Roman antiquity has not been the object of any major recent study and would be worth a more systematic discussion.8 As a step to instigate such reflection, MOISA sponsored a panel on ‘Music and the Divine’, which took place on January 5, 2019, at the celebratory Sesquicentennial Annual Meeting of the Society of Classical Studies. As to be expected, papers were submitted that approached the theme from quite different angles. Four papers were presented, which addressed various levels at which the ‘divine’ could be perceived: either as personal divinities to which music can be directed (first and fourth), or as an impersonal-cosmic or pantheistic harmonious order in the Platonic sense (second), or even in an ‘a-theistic’ sense, stating the absence of anything divine in music (the third).

The current issue of Greek and Roman Musical Studies includes only one of the four papers—the other contributions might be published at a later date. Therefore, I will now present a brief summary of the panel and thus provide context for the one paper contained in this issue, which was in fact the first one presented.

Since cultic ritual is one of the earliest and most consistent appearances of music, Pavlos Sfyroeras (Middlebury College, Vermont) opened the session by discussing the function music plays in the relationship between the Greek gods and human beings. He did so by contrasting music with the role of the sacrifice, which often appears in the context of music. Literary and artistic evidence documents the notion that sacrifice (such as slaughtering animals or libations) divides humans and gods: the gods neither perform sacrifices themselves—being the ones to whom they are offered—, nor do they participate in sacrificial banquets, after Prometheus brought about the end of human and divine commensality. Music, on the other hand, serves as a unitive factor, as it summons the divinity, elicits a shared pleasure, invites both divinities and humans to common performance, and thus blurs the separation between gods and humans by creating an ‘illusion of sameness’. In short, music and sacrifice become correlatives with opposite effects.

A different kind of correlation between divine (or cosmic) and human realities was introduced by Spencer Klavan (Magdalen and Exeter Colleges, Oxford, U.K.) in his paper entitled Movements Akin to the Soul’s: Human and Divine Mimēsis in Plato’s Music. In contrast to other commentators on the subject,9 Klavan suggested that the perfect abstract mathematical-harmonic structures of the universe and human musical ‘depictions’ of human ēthos are in fact not disjointed, but interconnected realities: the harmonic movements of the World-Soul (‘cosmic music’) is ideally reflected in similar movements of the human soul and gives them its ēthos, which finds expression in human language. The latter, for its part, is mimetically represented in human music. According to Klavan, we can gain an idea of these resemblances by reading what Plato’s Cratylus reveals about musical mimēsis together with what the Republic says about music resembling human speech. The objection that it may be hard to imagine how human music should practically achieve the resemblance of cosmic movements reflected in human speech as an expression of the soul’s ēthos that is attuned to the cosmic soul’s harmony should not detract from Plato’s intention to postulate such a connection.

A contribution from the opposite side of the ancient music-philosophical spectrum was offered by Noah Davies-Mason (Graduate Center of the City University of New York) with the Epicurean view on the origin and purpose of music. The apparent tension between Epicurus’ appreciation for theater and its music, and his rejection of deeper serious reflection on it, is resolved by the fact that the Epicurean ideal of quiet or pleasurable sound to attain eudaimonia detaches music from divine profundity—where only silence rules—and relegates music to mere human entertainment or βωµολοχία (buffoonery). In particular, the paper made the case that Lucretius corrects the traditional notion of rather noisy divinities and renders them silent, while the origin of music is to be found in the natural sphere without any divine involvement.

The last paper, presented by Francesca Modini (King’s College, London, U.K.), returned to the discussion of music within ritual, this time with Aelius Aristides and contemporary inscriptions attesting the liveliness of musical performances in Greek worship of the imperial period, during the second century AD. Aristides, a prominent member of the Second Sophistic, composed cultic hymns and paeans himself, as he tells in his Sacred Tales, and the god Asclepius recommended choral performances for Aristides’ health to recover. Modini suggested that the loss of almost all of the imperial sacred poetry, including Aristides’, could be explained by its frequent practical use in performance as opposed to the fixation of a literary tradition that occurred during Hellenistic times; the texts might simply not have been published at all. In the second part of her paper, Modini discussed Aristides’ Eleusinian Oration 22, which bemoans the destruction of the Eleusinian sanctuary in 170 AD, and explains the purpose of invoking three ancient musicians (Orpheus, Thamyris and Musaeus) and the mention of an ‘Argive dirge’ (i.e. the lament for Linus) as a reference to ‘communal lamentation’ and other mystery cults that included rituals of grief.

Thus, the panel offered insights into the role of music in Greek cultic traditions of early and later times, and also two very different conceptions of the role of music as such, either as a cosmic-divine power that may render the human soul harmonious with the whole universal order, or as a simple human activity to provide enjoyment, while the gods remain silent or even absent. It is hoped that this will only be the beginning of a renewed reflection on the interconnectedness between the Human and the Divine through music.


  • Divine. 2019. In: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved September 6, 2019, (

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  • Kramarz, A. (2016). The Power and Value of Music. Its Effect and Ethos in Classical Authors and Contemporary Music Theory. New York/Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

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  • Murray, P., and Wilson, P., eds (2004). Introduction. In: P. Murray and P. Wilson, eds, Music and the Muses. The Culture of ‘Mousikē’ in the Classical Athenian City, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-8.

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  • Quasten, J. (1983, or. ed. 1929). Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

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  • Sendrey, A. (1974). Music in the Social and Religious Life of Antiquity. Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press.


See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 50, a. 1.


There are multiple places that explore the various meanings of µουσική; among these, see e.g. Murray and Wilson 2004, 1-6; Kramarz 2016, 12-18.


These meanings are derived from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as provided by Britannica Academic, entry ‘divine’ (, last accessed September 6, 2019).


This is attested as early as in Homer (Il. 13.730f.). According to [Plut.] Mus. 14.1136b, “music is in all respects a noble thing, and the invention [εὕρηµα] of the gods”, and Augustine says that musica […] mortalibus rationales habentibus animas Dei largitate concessa est (ep. 166.5.13). See also Quasten 1983, 1.


I limit my reference here to one very early and one very late author: Homer’s Iliad—and with it essentially Western literature—begins famously with the phrase “Sing, goddess!” (see also Il. 1.603f.: Apollo and the Muses perform at a banquet of the gods); in the last quarter of the fifth century AD, a whole book of Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii deals with divine musical performance.


See, for instance, the famous Somnium Scipionis in Cicero’s De Re Publica book 6.


This conception appears notoriously in Plato’s dialogue Timaeus.


Among older publications, one may mention Sendrey 1974, and Quasten 1983 (first published in 1929).


In particular Andrew Barker, Edward Lippmann, and Séline Gülgönen.

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