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 p381  Cymbalum

Article by Benjamin Jowett, M.A., Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford
on pp381‑382 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

[image ALT: An engraving depicting a woman dancing with one arm bent over her head, and the other down towards her side, and in each hand a pair of more or less flat paddles that appear to be hinged together. It is a dancer accompanying herself on the smaller form of the cymbalum, a Graeco-Roman musical instrument similar to the modern castanets.]

This variety of cymbalum is very similar to modern Spanish castanets.

CY′MBALUM (κύμβαλον), a musical instrument, in the shape of two half globes, which were held one in each hand by the performer, and played by being struck against each other. The word is originally Greek, being derived from κύμβος, a hollow, with which the Latin cymba, cymbium, &c. seem to be connected. Several kinds of cymbals are found on ancient monuments, and on the other hand a great many names have been preserved by the grammarians and lexicographers; but the descriptions of the latter are so vague, that it is impossible to identify one with the other. A large class of cymbals was termed κρούματα, which, if they were really distinct from the κρόταλα, as Spohn and Lampe suppose, cannot now be exactly described. [Crotalum.] The annexed drawing → of a κροῦμα is taken from an ancient marble, and inserted on the authority of Spohn (Miscell. sec. 1 art. 6 fig. 44).

The κρέμβαλα mentioned in the Homeric poem to Apollo (161‑164), were of this kind, played on by a chorus of Delians. The scabilla or κρουπέζια were also on the same principle, only played with the foot, and inserted in the shoe of the performer; they were used by flute-players, perhaps to beat time to their music (Pollux, X.33).

[image ALT: An engraving depicting a woman dancing with a pair of small cymbals; her shawl floats behind her head. It is a dancer accompanying herself on the Graeco-Roman cymbalum.]
Other kinds of cymbals were, the πλαταγή, an invention of Archytas, mentioned by Aristotle (Pol. VIII.6), and its diminutive πλαταγώνιον, which, from the description of Julius Pollux (IX.122, 127) and Hesychius (s.v.), appears to have been a child's rattle: ὀξύβαρα, the two parts of which Suidas tells us (s.v.) were made of different materials for the sake of variety of sound: κοτύλαι, mentioned in the fragments of Aeschylus, with several others, noted by Lampe in his work De Cymbalis, but perhaps without sufficient authority. The cymbal was usually made in the form of two half globes, either running off towards a point so as to be grasped by the whole hand, or with a handle. It was commonly of bronze, but sometimes of baser material, to which Aristophanes alludes (Ranae, 1305). The preceding woodcut ←  p382 of a cymbalistria is taken from an ancient marble, and given on the authority of Lampe.

The cymbal was a very ancient instrument, being used in the worship of Cybele, Bacchus, Juno, and all the earlier deities of the Grecian and Roman mythology. It probably came from the East, from whence, through the Phoenicians, it was conveyed to Spain (compare Martial's Baetica Crumata). Among the Jews it appears (from 2 Chron. v.12, 13; Nehem. xii.27) to have been an instrument in common use. At Rome we first hear of it in Livy's account of the Bacchic orgies, which were introduced from Etruria (XXXIX.9).

For sistrum, which some have referred to the class of cymbala, see Sistrum.

[image ALT: A photograph of a fragment of a stone frieze depicting on the left a woman in wildly flowing robes playing the cymbals, and on the right a naked man, holding a staff topped with a finial and some ribbons: he has the skin of an animal hanging over his back.]

Fragment of a frieze with a Bacchic scene.

The maenad to the left is playing the cymbals; the male figure holds a thyrsus and "wears" a nebris.

(Foligno, Museo di Palazzo Trinci. 413 × 363 mm: the blue pen is exactly 14 cm long.)

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Page updated: 1 Jul 13