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Noise is all around us. So it has been, ever since we swapped our hunter-gatherer lifestyle for city-living ...
2020-04-09 09:00:00

Oh Silence, Oh Deathly Silent Uproar!*
Silence in Antiquity

Oh Silence, Oh Deathly Silent Uproar!*
Oh Silence, Oh Deathly Silent Uproar!*

The ancients condemned us to live in constant noise, abandoning the hunter-gatherer existence and then establishing cities. We are similar to them: on the one hand we miss silence, on the other we’re terrified of it.

Read in 11 minutes

Man is an extremely noisy being. The transition from migratory hunter-gatherer communities to living in permanent settlements was a particularly noisy episode in the history of our species. However, the uprising of the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt at the turn of the 4th and 3rd millennia BC, and then of Syria and Palestine, and the construction of the first large urban centres, meant a transition to living in constant chaos. There are many quite obvious factors behind this: the concentration of the population in a small, closed area; multi-generational families with a large number of young children; co-living with animals (poultry, pigs, dogs, donkeys, mules, etc.); and the numerous marketplaces, shops and craftsman’s workshops operating in the cities. Added to this are the palaces and shrines of the gods with their loud celebrations and processions combined with music and dance. In other words: the denser and larger settlements and cities were, the louder they became. Athens, Corinth, Argos, Thebes – the classical Greek poleis were not oases of peace and quiet. And life in the great metropolises of the Roman Empire was a total nightmare. At close to a million inhabitants, Rome was a never-quieting monster. A Roman poet wrote that even at night, it was hard to sleep a wink there, because when darkness fell, the numerous witches and sorceresses of the empire’s capital would perform sombre rituals, pounding relentlessly on bronze pitchers and platters. Genuinely nightmarish.

As a result, those who were able tried to buy even the most modest property outside Rome, and would spend their free time there. The emperor and the elite competed in building villas in various corners of Italy, as well as beyond its borders. Key to these wonderful architectural establishments were the quiet, secluded spots located in shady parks, caverns, and even on islands, natural or artificially built on ponds and lakes. All to escape from the terrifying city tumult and hullabaloo. The most interesting thing is that people felt something was wrong, and they transferred this fear onto the sphere of religious notions. It’s no coincidence that the Mesopotamian gods decided to eradicate humanity because of noise. The Babylonian Story of the Flood [trans. W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard] contains the lines:

“When the land extended and the peoples multiplied […]
The god got disturbed with their uproar.
Enlil heard their noise
And addressed the great gods,
‘The noise of mankind has become too intense for me,
With their uproar I am deprived of sleep...’”

But we will stop here, because this is not an article about our noisiness, but about its contrast, that longed-for silence, about its great and somewhat forgotten meaning in ancient civilization, which condemned us to the agony of life in constant pandemonium.

Keep in silence whatever gifts the gods give

At the roots of European civilization are two fundamental works that emerge from the darkness of the times preceding them: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Their authorship is attributed to the genius Greek poet Homer, a mysterious figure about whom the ancients knew nothing for certain. There are many indications that the first of these poems was written in the second half of the 8th century BC, and the second a generation or two later. Most likely, these works did not come from the hands of one man, but to make it easier they are usually still called Homer’s to this day. While the Iliad is a poem about war, battles and sieges, and the Odyssey is about roving the distant foaming and stormy seas, silence occupies a special place in both.

The hubbub of the battlefield permeates every page of the Iliad. The clanging of weapons, battle cries, the rattle of chariot wheels, the moans and screams of the dying. And suddenly, the deafening silence that appears in certain situations. First of all, in the most difficult moments of fighting, when the fate of the war is hanging in the balance, the poet writes [Iliad, trans. A. S. Kline]: “The Achaeans, however, breathing fury, firm in resolve to aid each other, came on in silence.” At the same time, the Trojans strike with a terrifying scream, compared by the author to the honking of a flock of cranes. Because for the Greeks, the Trojans became synonymous with the people of the East – so here is the source of the topos of quiet, subdued Europe and noisy, unbridled Asia. This motif was to make a huge career for itself, taking on various forms, which all have one thing in common: ‘we’ are quiet and calm, ‘they’ are noisy and demonstrative. For centuries, barbarians, Christians, Jews, heretics and pagans have been ‘them’, the enemies with their din… Now, there are the dark forces of LGBT with their terrible, noisy equality parades that aim to destroy the peaceful, quiet Polish family. Oh, the horror!

The Sumerian god Ninurta, 883–859 BCE, fragment of a relief from the Temple of Ninurta in Kalhu (northern Iraq)
The Sumerian god Ninurta, 883–859 BCE, fragment of a relief from the Temple of Ninurta in Kalhu (northern Iraq)

In Homer, silence is reserved for one other domain: the special points of the relationship between people and the gods. For example, during the duels between Menelaus and Paris or Achilles and Hector (to decide the fate of the war), the pandemonium suddenly stops, the troops watch the scuffle, and everyone prays to the gods not out loud – as the poet emphasizes – but in haunting silence. The Odyssey even develops the concept of ‘divine silence’: at some point, its hero says [trans. A. T. Murray]: “keep in silence whatever gifts the gods give.” Even more important is the scene where Odysseus and his son Telemachus are getting ready to murder the suitors who are increasingly persistently trying to force Penelope to remarry. Athena herself takes part in the murder preparations. At night, invisible to the human eye, the goddess casts a wonderful glow to illuminate the room in the palace on Ithaca in which father and son are preparing for the bloody slaughter of their enemies. Surprised by this light, Telemachus notes that this is probably the work of one of the immortals, then Odysseus says [trans. A. T. Murray]: “Hush, check thy thought, and ask no question; this, I tell thee, is the way of the gods that hold Olympus.” So here is the source of the idea of silence in which divinity is secretly revealed to man.

Loving silence

The silence of antiquity is a state of emergency – it is the first sign of a situation in which man stands on the border between the impossible and the unknown. It can have a normal human dimension. It appears, for example, when someone experiences such terrible suffering that the senses cease to register it. Significantly, this is mental pain much more than physical pain. Ovid showed this brilliantly in Metamorphoses. Here we have the character of an ill-fated mother, Hecuba – wife of Priam, King of Troy. It was her fate to experience the worst of everything. Once a proud queen, the mother of many children, she had seen the destruction of Troy, the death of her husband and sons, and the shame of her daughters and daughters-in-law, who were brutally captured, raped and taken away as captives by the victorious Greeks. She saw the death of her little grandson Astyanax, who was thrown from the walls of the conquered city. She saw her daughter Polyxena sacrificed at Achilles’ grave. She lived in hope that at least one of her children had survived the extermination, because before the war she had sent the young Polydorus to their friend the King of Thrace. This son was also treacherously murdered, his body thrown into the sea. The moment when Hecuba finds out about this is described by Ovid as follows [trans. A. S. Kline]: “There, she saw Polydorus’s body, thrown on the beach, covered with open wounds made by Thracian spears. The Trojan women cried out, but she was dumb with grief. The grief itself obliterated both her powers of speech and the tears welling inside, and she stood unmoving like solid rock, at one moment with her gaze fixed on the ground, the next lifting her face grimly towards the sky. Now she looked at her dead son’s face, now at his wounds...” The poet contrasts the desperate screams of the Trojan women with the silence in which the mother watches the dead body of her last child. For people raised in constant noise, this silence is a sign of suffering beyond all boundaries. No wonder that silence has also been transported beyond the boundaries of human reality, to the world of the gods.

The divine dimension of silence appeared in embryonic form in Homer’s poems, where – as we have seen – people appeal to the deities in silent prayer at critical times; where in that same silence, the immortals descend among the people. Later, however, this concept was elaborated upon. This is charmingly demonstrated by one of the idylls of the great Hellenistic poet Theocritus. The idyll’s heroine is Simaetha, a woman madly in love with Delphi. This handsome and vain young man spends his days training at the gymnasium and then – washed, anointed with oil and smartly dressed – he parades around the city, proudly exhibiting his big muscles. He looks around, from side to side, to check whether he is making an impression on passers-by. Nowadays he’d be called a gym buff. After a brief affair with Simaetha, Delphi disappears without a trace. The desperate woman decides to reinstate his love using magical practices. At night, together with her maid Thestylis, she goes outside the city, to the seashore, where a cemetery is located at a crossroads. This bleak place is the scene of her secret ritual. First, she calls on the help of the goddess of the moon Selene and the gloomy deity of magic Hecate. The fact that the spells have the desired effect, and that both goddesses respond to the call, points to the first symptom of theophany – a deafening silence that suddenly envelops the earth. Theocritus describes the state of Simaetha’s world and soul through the words spoken by his heroine [trans. R. C. Trevelyan]: “the sea is silent, and silent are the winds; / But never silent is the anguish here within my breast...” The soul of a woman in love suffers in the torment of noisy desires, but the deities come to her in complete silence. Selene and Hecate even bear the characteristic appellations: ‘loving silence’ (fileremos in Greek).

The ancient world had another unusual god whose uniqueness was described by a contrast between pandemonium and silence: Dionysus. On the one hand, he was nicknamed Bromios (‘Noisy’) and Eriboas (‘Loud’). He travelled the world in a retinue of satyrs and crazy worshippers, among the deafening tumult of drums, flutes and dulcimer. The noise was terrifying and so unbearable that it could lead to insanity and death. And suddenly, at the point of climax, it turned into a deafening silence. Walter F. Otto captures its meaning most distinctly and beautifully in the classic Dionysus: Myth and Cult [trans. R. B. Palmer], writing that, along with this mystical silence, “The Dreadful suddenly springs into being.”

Silence, therefore, has a primarily metaphysical dimension in antiquity. It is a necessary condition and also a symptom of ecstasy. Plotinus, a great philosopher and mystic active in the 3rd century AD, harnessed all his deliberations and aspirations towards the desire for mystical union with the Absolute, which he called the One (Hen in Greek). He perceived man as a being that the senses literally ‘pull out’ into the open: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste mean that we are constantly absorbed in the outside world. In particular, the images and the sounds that accompany them divert our attention from what is most important and should be the goal of the sage’s life. The man who becomes aware of this must detach himself from sensory impressions, turn away from the physical world and look inwards to get in touch with his own mind and thereby connect with the Universal Mind (Nous in Greek). However, this is not the end of the mystical path. In a state of contemplation of the mind, in the deep divine silence of the elect, an ecstatic union with the One awaits.

Noiseless world

But let us come back down to Earth. Only the intellectual elites were interested in the speculations of philosophers, mystics and creators of religion. Most people of antiquity situated silence in three domains. First, in the land of death, ruled by the god Hades. This is the grim underground kingdom in which darkness and silence reign. The shadows of the dead float around, devoid of feeling and awareness. It is a real land of imperturbable silence. Only once was it disturbed, when the divine musician Orpheus voluntarily descended into the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice. The sound of his lute, which resounded in the spirit world, was so surprising that Hades himself agreed to release Eurydice. As we know, it didn’t work out due to the foolish impatience of Orpheus. This story shows the extent to which any sound seemed strange and inappropriate in the land of death. Nevertheless, people still tried to smuggle it into this dark world. For example, it was said that the chosen ones – privy to cleansing rituals – would lead a joyful life even after death, dancing to the beat of wonderful music. This was, however, a marginal view, showing only how much a reality shrouded in eternal deadly silence was feared, how attempts were made to fill the hushed and empty domain of death with sound.

For the people of antiquity, the second kingdom of silence after the underworld was night, and its associated dreams. Two Latin poets created wonderful descriptions of the palace of the god of sleep – Hypnos for the Greeks and Somnus for the Romans. In the 11th book of Metamorphoses, Ovid described the residence of this deity, a dark cave with poppies growing at the entrance. There is absolute silence there [trans. A. S. Kline]: “No waking cockerel summons Aurora with his crowing: no dog disturbs the silence with its anxious barking, or goose, cackling, more alert than a dog. No beasts, or cattle, or branches in the breeze, no clamour of human tongues. There still silence dwells.” In the house of Sleep there are no doors, so that no squeak of hinges disturbs the silence. In the middle of the cave is a bed on which Somnus himself sleeps, and around him are the ghosts of his dreams. Even the gods avoid this place, because if you spend a moment there, you are at risk of falling into endless sleep and plunging into eternal silence. In the 10th book of the Thebaid, the slightly later poet Statius similarly described the residence of the god of sleep, adding one characteristic motif. Here at the entrance to Somnus’ cave are two silent, winged goddesses, Otia (‘Idleness’) and Silentia (‘Silence’), who [trans. J. H. Mozley]: “drive the blustering winds from the roof-top, and forbid the branches to sway, and take away their warblings from the birds.” In this world, even the sea and rivers make no sound. The kingdoms of night and sleep are a silent world similar to the land of death.

There is also a third domain of silence: the North and its cold winters. Man of antiquity lived in an agricultural world, dependent on the cycle of nature, which also happened to be the warm and pleasant Mediterranean Basin. No wonder, then, that the northern lands seemed to the Greeks and Romans a terrifying sphere of cold and darkness. That was where civilization ended. The deep forests were full of grim creatures that merely looked like humans. In fact, they were – according to popular imagination – barbarians existing outside of civilization and humanity. Their appearance and customs were monstrous, they lived in dugouts and practised cannibalism. And all this in a world that was eternally covered in cloud. It was terribly cold there, and the trees remained leafless for most of the year, standing bare and bent like hideous skeletons. For many months, these lands were buried in snow and ice. And over all this hung a terrifying, deafening, deadly silence.

It is impossible not to notice that the man of antiquity, who lived in a reality of noise and commotion, had a unique attitude towards silence. On the one hand, he desired it, he associated it with the gods and domains of the most elevated metaphysics. On the other hand, silence frightened him, because it was related to night, sleep, death and the dark North. Hence the Greeks and Romans – like the heroes of Homer – liked to be on the side of silence, peace and dignity, while the barbarians were associated with noisiness, disorder and contemptible spontaneity. At the same time, however, these same barbarians were situated in a world of dark northern silence. There is quite a twisted logic here, showing only that silence caused anxiety and a multitude of contradictory thoughts in the people of the ancient world, who condemned us to live in the constant racket of urban civilization.

* In the original: “Oh Schweigen, oh todtenstiller Lärm!” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Dithyrambs of Dionysus.


Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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