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 p1046  Sistrum

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p1046 of

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

[image ALT: An engraving. On the left: a standing man and a kneeling woman shaking some very curiously-shaped rattles. On the right: a close-up of a similar rattle: a metal frame shaped much like a keyhole, mounted on a thin handle, the opening traversed by four thin metal rods. The engraving represents the sistrum, an Egyptian musical instrument, and the manner in which it was used.]

SISTRUM (σεῖστρον), a mystical instrument of music, used by the ancient Egyptians in their ceremonies, and especially in the worship of Isis (Ovid. Met. IX.784, Amor. II.13.11, III.9.34, ex Ponto, I.1.38). It was held in the right hand (see woodcut), and shaken, from which circumstance it derived its name (aera repulsa manu, Tibull. I.3.24). Its most common form is seen in the right-hand figure of the annexed woodcut, which represents an ancient sistrum formerly belonging to the library of St. Genovefa at Paris.​a Plutarch (de Is. et Osir. pp670, 671, ed. Steph.) says, that the shaking of the four bars within the circular apsis represented the agitation of the four elements within the compass of the world, by which all things are continually destroyed and reproduced, and that the cat sculptured upon the apsis was an emblem of the moon. Apuleius (Met. XI. pp119, 121, ed. Aldi) describes the sistrum as a bronze rattle (aeneumº crepitaculum), consisting of a narrow plate curved like a sword-belt (balteus) through which passed a few rods, that rendered a loud shrill sound. He says that these instruments were sometimes made of silver or even of gold. He also seems to intimate, that the shakes were three together (tergeminos ictos), which would make a sort of rude music.

The introduction of the worship of Isis into Italy shortly before the commencement of the Christian aera made the Romans familiar with this instrument. The "linigeri calvi, sistrataque turba" (Mart. XII.29) are most exactly depicted in two paintings found at Portici (Ant. d'Ercolano, vol. II pp309‑320), and containing the two figures of a priest of Isis and a woman kneeling at her altar, which are introduced into the preceding woodcut. The use of the sistrum in Egypt as a military instrument to collect the troops is probably a fiction (Virg. Aen. VIII.696; Propert. III.11.43). The sistrum is used in Nubia and Abyssinia to the present day.

Sistrum, which is in fact, like Sceptrum, a Greek word with a Latin termination, the proper Latin term for it being crepitaculum, is sometimes used for a child's rattle (Martial, XIV.54; Pollux, IX.127).

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Left: Egyptian, bronze, 7c B.C.‑1c A.D. (!). This is the belt-type described by Apuleius. The cats symbolize the goddess Bastet, in fact.

Right: Egyptian, faience, bearing the cartouche of King Amasis, ca. 570‑524 B.C. Since faience is hardly a very good material for an object designed to be vigorously shaken, it appears to be not a working musical instrument but a model for ceremonial use.

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Both instruments currently (2006) in the Oriental Institute of Chicago.

My photographs by kind permission of the Oriental Institute.

Thayer's Note:

a This peculiar appellation disguises the library almost universally known as the Bibliothèque Ste. Geneviève.

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Page updated: 30 Jun 13