“Music does not come to terms with matter” (Goethe), but about this prehistoric man knew a lot more.


The oldest forms of art are documented in Europe by paintings preserved in the decorated caves of the Franco-Cantabrian area (Upper Palaeolithic, about 40000 years ago) The images and artefacts found in those caves inform us of the existence of special men specifically trained to paint, sculpt, lead dance and make music. In certain environmental conditions, such as those of the caves, the images have been preserved up to our time, and the discoverers found these environments in the same condition in which they were left by the last prehistoric visitor. While a rock painting can be seen in its original conditions even after thousands of years, the same thing can not happen for a dance or a musical sound that live only when they are performed. The only elements that provide evidence of prehistoric musical experience are the artifacts used to produce sounds found in archaeological excavations: flutes, pipes or whistles, bullroarers, drums. We can not completely reconstruct the nature of sound, the rhythm, the melody of prehistoric music. It is however possible, at least in part, to make sense of those sounds never heard by following four lines of inquiry: 1- the study of the musical forms and beliefs of primitive peoples who lived in an archaic dimension until a few decades ago; 2 – the study of the western traditional music, whose basic elements are part of a only archaic musical model; 3 – The sound instruments found in archaeological excavations; 4 – the identification of cognitive aspects that allow us to distinguish the knowledge of modern man from the archaic one.

stalatt caverne

Prehistoric man has been able to take advantage of the resonance properties of the cavities of the painted caves. In fact, the stalactites and stalagmites of many caves show the signs of repeated percussions probably occurred in order to produce sounds. Even today, the advantage offered by these limestone columns is that many of them, if beaten, produce the same extraordinary sounds, the same powerful bass gongs, the same subtle and crystalline sounds, performed 15,000 years ago.


When Cocopelli, god of happiness and fertility, walks on the land of the Navajo people playing his flute, the sun rises in the sky, the snow melts, the earth is covered with green, the birds sing songs of joy and all living creatures gather to hear his stories. (Anazasi rock engraving, New Mexico)

Suna de Mars

“Sunà de Mars” is a  very common archaic ritual  performed by the communities of the Alps. At the beginning of March, the inhabitants of many Alpine valleys go in procession through the pastures and ring horns and bells to awaken the grass. The inhabitants of Ardesio (upper Seriana Valley, Lombardy) on January 31st turn winter away with a ritual (“Scasada del Zenerù”) during which cowbells, horns and everything with which you can make a row produce a big noise to awaken nature from long winter sleep .


The magic jump

At the end of the 1800s, when Crete was under Ottoman rule, three friends Stratis, Patasmos and Fanourios, are in front of the corpse of Manousakas, the deceased friend, and toast the health of living and dead, as tradition dictates.
“- What do you say – tells Fanourios showing the deceased – we jump him?
– Why not? – Stratis and Patasmos say as one man. They arrange the kilt to the belt so as not to stumble with their feet, raise the coffin and carry the dead man in front of the courtyard door to get more space.
“I’m the first to jump,” said Fanourios. “I’m his brother.” He ran to the front door and got up and jumped. He jumped so hard that his head hit the door lintel. But he did not notice and ended the race in the middle of the common room.
-” I skipped it” – he said fiercely – “It ‘s your turn Stratis”. Stratis took the momentum and his thin body overcame the obstacle lightly, without touching it; then he fell easily on his toes. “To you, Patasmos,” he said. But Patasmos suddenly lost his courage. He looked at the scaffolding. Where had they recovered such tall trepieces? “No, I do not jump,” he said, trembling.
– “Are not you ashamed of Captain Patasmos”? – said Fanourios – “are you Cretan or not? jump”. -” I tell you I do not jump. I play the lyre”.
– “You do not respect death then, miserable? It is a real offense. Is this your friendship for Manousakas here? Jump!” Patasmos scratched his bald head, remembered the great affection he felt for Manousakas, and regained his pride. So he decided to jump and started hop-making hop to be brave. He took the momentum and rushed to the dead, but as he was jumping, the obstacle seemed to him as high as the ceiling. His knees buckled, he stumbled over the coffin, the coffin turned, the body of the dead man rolled on the ground and Patasmos fell on him.
“You have dishonored us,” said Fanourios. “Go fuck yourself”. And kicked him away.
– “Come Stratis, help me”.
They lifted the body, wrapped it in his shroud, put it back in the coffin and placed the image of Christ in his hands.
“It matters nothing, old brother, you did not feel bad because you died,” said Fanourios, stroking Manousakas’s hair and beard. He lowered himself, took the bottle and divided the last drops of raki. Then they sat down again around the dead man and started to look at him. And as they looked at him, they closed their eyes, their heads slipped on their chests and fell asleep.” (N. Kazantzakis, Freedom or Death, 1958, pp. 224-226).

ballo delle vedove argia1
Two widows jump the sick in order to heal him. The Danza delle vedove, the widows’ dance is a therapeutic ritual of Barbagia (Sardinia), built on the idea that dance and some particular actions performed by women will induce in the patient a positive reaction in order to free him from the pain and anguish of the disease. In the ritual we can clearly distinguish three significant acts: the circular dance accompanied by the singing of a solo voice and the choir of women; the exit from the circle of the dance of some women in order to provoke a smile to the patient; a jump made by a woman or several women together that bypasses the sick (from the film “La danza delle vedove”, directed by Giuseppe Ferrara, 1962).
salto mave 3
Sotetorp, Sweden (6th century BC). The image represents three anthropomorphs that leap over a ship with all its occupants. K. Sachs states that in the ritual jump “liberation from the bonds of matter is achieved by force” (SACHS, 1966, 44). 

A Cretan anthem of the III century B.C. addresses to a young “very powerful” boy, who is the personification of Zeus, the prayer to appear every year and jump vigorously and repeatedly on the herds, on the fruits, on the city community, on ships. This ritual leap had the purpose of transmitting the divine energy to men in order to produce the conditions of procreation and fertilization.

The Bullroarer and the sound of the origins


Bullroarers used by kids of Friuli, northern Italy (from Battaglia, 1921).

The bullroarer is a small wooden board, shaped flat, of various size, often decorated with abstract marks, with a hole to which a short rope (made of vegetable fibres or animal hairs) is fastened. The whirling movement that the hand, through the rope, transmits to the bullroarer, produces a deep, dull and intermittent sound. In the primitive cultures this instrument has a magical and initiatory function. For this reason it is not accessible to women or young boys until the moment of the initiation rites. The Maori bullroarer (purerehua) is traditionally used during the healing rituals or with the aim of getting rain and to direct the evil spirits towards other worlds. So it is the “most ancient, most widespread and most sacred known religious instrument” (Haddon).

In 1893 Giuseppe Pitré, in his essay on Sicilian games, describes a toy shaped like a rhomb called lapuni (big bee). A study of 1921 carried out by Battaglia points out the presence of the bullroarer among the ancient games of Friulan children. Its presence is attested in the Alpine culture through the late ’60s. In many parts of Scotland the bullroarer was thought to protect from spells and from lightning.


The rotation produced by the arm on the rope that holds the bullroarer, makes it circle around itself until it makes a very grave humming.

The bullroarer is widespread in ancient Egypt and in Mesopotamia. In classical Greece bullroarer is used in the rituals performed by the Thracians and mentioned by Aeschylus. In the primitive world the Bullroarer is a ceremonial instrument whose sound is the voice of a spirit, a deity or an ancestor. For this reason it is considered a symbol of fertility. Still today it has an important role in the rites of passage in many parts of the world. In the cultures of south-eastern Australia, the sound of the bullroarer is the voice of the god Daramulan. An effective bullroarer can be cut only from a tree that contains its spirit. Bullroarers are used in the initiation ceremonies of men, and the sound they produce is used in some indigenous cultures to repeat the sound of the Rainbow Snake, a creature of the Time of Dreams, linked to the Earth, to Water, to Life, to social relationships and to fertility.


Bullroarers of Australian aborigines. The sound produced by this instrument according to the aborigines is “the voice of the ancestors”.


Caption. Paleolithic bullroarer of La Roche Lalinde (Dordogne, 15,000 bce).

The meaningful gestures of archaic man

In western tradition communication takes place mainly through acts of speech, with respect to which mimicry assumes an increasingly secondary importance. The oldest attestation of this fact is provided by Aristotle who states that there is a close correspondence between the ten categories of thought, ie the supreme ontological principles used by man to classify the knowable reality, and the rules of the grammar,  that are necessary for the construction of sentences, phrases and words of a given language. In other words, our culture is closely linked to the phonetic model, to the world of words, to the point that one could not formulate an argument without first activating a kind of discourse in which words are mentally formulated. So the way we think is like talking without using the voice.

On the contrary, the data provided by primitive and prehistoric cultures confirm that there is an inseparable link between the thought and the way of expressing oneself directly with body. In the archaic tradition body is considered the main communication tool, to the point that the spiritual element itself is able to act only if it is supported by  a gestural tool. In his research, the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, has shown that for primitive man every gesture is endowed with an intrinsic ability to interact with the world and to produce positive or negative effects on it.  For Mauss “technical action, physical action, magic-religious action are confused for the actor” (MAUSS, 1935).

In 1938 the philologist Tchhang Tcheng Ming  has also shown how the most archaic stages of Chinese writing derive from the language of gestures. In fact, many of the signs used in it do not directly represent natural objects, but are schematic reproductions of the corresponding descriptive gestures. The position of the praying man with raised arms, for example, that in conventional mimics designate the “tree” object, is used by writing to represent the word “tree”.

In the oldest forms of Chinese writing the presence of the human figure is fundamental to determine the meaning of each sentence. The versatility of the hieroglyphics would make them incomprehensible if their meaning was not fixed by the presence of gestural signs. In Chinese writing the contribution of the gesture is fundamental.


In the image above the element A (shown in the three forms of Chinese writing: ancient, middle and modern) is composed by three elements (added in the parenthesis) whose set determines the meaning: hand + flesh + divinity = sacrifice. The element B consists of two elements: foot + wild boar = to chase. >In the element C  the gesture of the raised arms designates the tree: C1 = tree; C2 = grass; C3: grass + soil = grow (Tchang Tcheng Ming, cit. p. 62). It should be noted that the Dakota Indians make the same gesture of growth slowly raising the right hand placed in front of the body, with the back facing forward and the fingers separate; to indicate the growth of the grass they do the same gesture near the ground (Mallery, cit., p. 343)

scritt egizia

Even Egyptian writing was not entirely phonetic and the polyvalence of the hieroglyphics would make them incomprehensible if their meaning was not better specified by the addition of some gestural determinative signs. The phonetic sign is always accompanied by male or female figurines; an official is made by an anthropomorph who walks by holding the rod, a symbol of authority; an elder, from a curved figure leaning on a stick; a cult scene is identifiable by the presence of an anthropomorph in the pose of the worshiper, and so on. In addition to the whole human figure, single parts of the body are used: a nose is the determinative to “smell” or “breathe”; an ear to “listen”; the head indicates command, precedence, superiority. Every reference to the act of walking is accompanied by a pair of legs; if the return is indicated, the direction of the feet is reversed. In the book of the dead, where it is written that the virtuous soul has the privilege of entering and leaving Hades, the sentence is concluded with both determinatives, two pairs of legs, one facing right and the other on the left.

At the end of the nineteenth century the anthropologist F. H. Cushing, studying the culture of the Zuni Indians of New Mexico, was the first to understand that the psychological formation of the concepts of that people, like other primitive peoples in the world, is in close relationship with their way of expressing themselves in gestures, to the point that Cushing talk about “manual concepts”.

Also the mnemonic songs reported by G. Mallery (Picture-writing of the American Indians, 1893) document the central function that the body and gesture play in the language of the Ojibwa Indians. If we take into consideration the Ojibwa  “mnemonic songs” , we can see that most of these pictographs deal in particular with the  human figure, caught in particular and significant gestural poses or dances, or some parts of the human body (arms, hands, head, legs, etc.) to which a meaning related to a particular function is entrusted. The image reactivates a specific mnemonic sequence so that the message, which must be recited or sung in the canonical form, is remembered at the appropriate time.

fig 1

The mnemonic song above is the visual representation of a ritual song. Each of the 8 images is a mnemonic craze to remember a verse of the song: A) A hand is inserted into the earth in search of the remedy (the cure); B) the headless body that emerges out of the circle is a mysterious entity: it expresses the positive and healing energy of the earth, which the singer makes available to the young and inexperienced shaman; the vertical line indicates the moment of the song in which the dance begins; C) the outer circle is the meeting point of the medicine men, the inner circle is the heart of the singer; the lines on the circle indicate the shamans participating in the meeting; D) The head with the zig-zag lines coming out of the eyes indicates the intensity of the shaman’s gaze; the importance of his participation in the ceremony is thus recognized; E) the body of the bear crossed by the line indicates the presence of a spiritual entity endowed with great power; F) The zig-zag lines that come out and enter the ears express knowledge about the things of the higher realm and the secrets of the earth; G) The otter, symbol of the god Manitù, the one who sends precious information to men, comes out of a sacred space; H) the arm on the circle indicates the power to receive a mysterious power from God. (Mallery, 1972, pl. 17, p. 233).

Il guerriero, di fronte e profilo

naquane r50

Sulla roccia nr. 50 di Naquane (Capodiponte, Parco Nazionale delle Incisioni Rupestri, rilievo CCSP) due guerrieri armati di spada corta e piccolo scudo, adornati con gonnellino rituale ed elmo frangiato, danzano intorno (o combattono di fronte) ad un altro guerriero che tiene le braccia sollevate ed impugna una lunga spada da battaglia e uno scudo rotondo in atteggiamento di tripudio. Nell’arte rupestre dell’Età del Ferro (VII- IV/III sec. a.C.) sono migliaia le coppie di guerrieri che si affrontano in duello, ma solo in un numero limitato di casi tra i due guerrieri, o nei loro pressi, è rappresentato un ulteriore elemento (antropomorfo, uccello acquatico, coppella o altro) che, come abbiamo già visto, indica in termini figurativi la relazione cosmologica esistente tra l’immagine e il supporto che la ospita. Il comportamento ritmato e incruento dei guerrieri conferma che non è in corso  uno scontro bellico, tant’è che nell’intero repertorio camuno solo un numero davvero esiguo di guerrieri risulta raggiunto da colpi di spada. La scena della roccia 50 offre spunti di riflessione di notevole interesse. In primo luogo troviamo qui la conferma di una regola generale: in ogni fase dell’Età del Ferro (VII-III sec. a. C.) i guerrieri che si fronteggiano sono senza eccezione ritratti di profilo. Al contrario, il personaggio centrale risulta sollevato (come sospeso in aria) rispetto al piano di appoggio dei danzatori e ogni dettaglio corporeo (la testa, le  braccia, il busto, gli arti inferiori) esprime una visione frontale, fatto che inserisce questa figura in una diversa categoria di esseri, quella super umana. Seguendo un’intuizione del grande Silvio Ferri (Ferri 1972),  alcuni anni fa ho presentato un’ipotesi (G. Ragazzi, 1994), secondo la quale il guerriero al centro della scena è l’eroe ucciso in battaglia che  assiste ai rituali in suo onore. Siamo di fronte a quella che Berard chiama scena di “Anodos“,  la risalita dal mondo inferiore attraverso un “passaggio ctonio” (C. Bérard, Anodoi. Essai sur l’imagerie des passages chthoniens, 1974) che mette in  collegamento il “sotto” e il “sopra”.


uomo ctonio
Naquane, Capodiponte.  Antropomorfo con il busto tronco e le braccia rivolte verso il basso. Applicando al repertorio camuno l’ipotesi di Claude Berard,  l’antropomorfo mancante della parte inferiore è uno spirito della terra colto in un attimo del suo movimento verticale di risalita sulla terra (anodos) o di discesa nel mondo infero (cathodos) .

Nella Preistoria la roccia rappresenta uno dei più diffusi “passaggi ctonii” e le incisioni rupestri costituiscono il corpus formalizzato del relativo sapere cosmologico. Nel caso della roccia 50 il guerriero non solo ha completato il passaggio, ma volteggia nell’aria. Altri casi mostrano invece come l’attimo in cui avviene il passaggio è di poco anticipato e il confine tra il sopra e il sotto non è stato ancora varcato per intero. E’ il caso dei molti antropomorfi incompleti che sono ancora oggi denominati busti di antropomorfo.

Dos del Mirichì, Valcamonica, media-tarda Età del Ferro (da Anati). Due guerrieri si affrontano in un duello rituale, non cruento. Sono infatti armati di spade corte e piccoli scudi (peltès) che, come per i sacerdoti Salii, venivano probabilmente cozzati l’uno contro l’altro per produrre suoni o rumori. Tra i due guerrieri è inserito un piccolo antropomorfo con le braccia piegate ad angolo retto e rivolte verso il basso nel gesto dell’Uomo Ctonio, luogo in cui si depongono i semi e i morti.

Importanti studi iconografici (in particolare Vernant, La morte negli occhi, 1985) hanno rimarcato come anche nell’immaginario della Grecia antica esprimere la frontalità significa porre l’umano faccia a faccia con una entità di natura divina – si pensi allo sguardo mortale della Medusa – e rendere tangibile “l’alterità radicale della morte”. In questo senso “la frontalità esprime in modo sorprendente questa posizione di trapasso e forse anche l’ambivalenza tragica della morte gloriosa che sottrae il combattente all’umanità” (Frontisi-Ducroux in La città delle immagini, 1986, 137). In base a queste premesse il guerriero rappresentato in posizione frontale è l’eroe ucciso in battaglia, eternato nell’istante in cui, dopo essere risalito dal mondo dei morti, assiste ai giochi funebri organizzati in suo onore.
Se le scene di danza armata incise sulle rocce camune sono espressione del profondo legame con la terra, ciò non dipende però solo dal contesto del rituale funebre, come documentato dalle immagini incise sulla roccia 50 di Naquane. Altre scene camune mostrano infatti come nell’iconografia protostorica la terra non sia considerata esclusivamente come il luogo dove si depongono i morti, ma anche quello in cui si inseriscono i semi. Su una roccia di Seradina (Capodiponte) alla scena di aratura compiuta dall’aratro e completata dagli zappatori, partecipano due antropomorfi resi frontalmente: un guerriero armato di lancia e di scudo in posa “di guardia” ed un antropomorfo nella posa dell’Uomo Ctonio con le braccia piegate ad angolo retto che rivolge una preghiera alla terra. Poiché entrambi sono posti frontalmente, dobbiamo concludere che la loro funzione all’interno della scena sia interamente “metafisica”, volta  a proteggere le conseguenze dell’atto in corso sia militarmente (funzione guerriera) che attraverso la preghiera (funzione sacerdotale).

aratura e uomo cosmico
Seradina, (Capodiponte) scena di aratura di , in cui l’aratro trainato da cavalli e seguito da un gruppo di zappatori, è integrata da due azioni simboliche: quella del guerriero che esercita la sua funzione di difensore della terra da possibili incursioni di spiriti (molto vicina alla danza romana dei sacerdoti Salii) e quella dell’antropomorfo nella posa dell’Uomo Ctonio che con il suo gesto invita gli spiriti della terra a essere favorevoli al futuro raccolto.

Anche la danza armata dei Cureti, descritta nel mito cretese della nascita di Zeus, esprime un legame con la terra molto simile a quello degli antichi camuni. Il mito narra infatti che dopo la nascita di Giove i Cureti, spiriti guerrieri al servizio di Era moglie di Crono, inscenarono una danza armata, nel corso della quale il battito degli scudi risultò determinante per coprire il pianto di Giove e salvare il neonato dalla furia omicida del padre. Ciò che colpisce di questo mito è la sorprendente analogia con il racconto trasmesso dalla tradizione popolare, secondo il quale il neonato figlio di Rea e di Crono, i cui vagiti vengono coperti dal rumore prodotto dagli scudi, incarna lo spirito della vegetazione nel suo stadio di germoglio che deve essere protetto dall’inclemenza degli eventi naturali.

Danza armata dei Cureti, (terracotta campana rinvenuta a Cerveteri, II-I sec. a.C., British Museum, Londra).

Poichè anche nelle scene camune lo scudo si contrappone quasi sempre ad un altro scudo, il loro battito ed il conseguente rumore potrebbe aver avuto la medesima funzione di spaventare e tenere gli spiriti  lontani dal campo, in modo da rimuovere ogni  impedimento alla crescita della vegetazione ed alla maturazione dei frutti. In questo senso la danza armata dei Cureti mostra una singolare analogia con la danza dei Salii (dal latino salire, cioè saltare), sacerdoti di un’antichissima congregazione romana, i quali nel mese di marzo sfilavano danzando e portavano in processione i dodici scudi sacri (gli ancilia) intonando il loro canto (carmen) accompagnati dal solo battito ritmico degli scudi. Nell’originario significato agrario del rituale saliare,  l’invocazione a Marte, presente anche nel canto a sfondo agrario dei Fratelli Arvali, è intesa come richiesta al Dio della guerra di un’azione specifica in difesa dei campi e delle messi dagli spiriti della terra nei momenti in cui era sufficiente un evento negativo per pregiudicare l’intera stagione agricola.

Attis e il suono del tamburo

tamburo di gau

Il caro amico Vittorio Volpi,  grande esperto della civiltà greca ed autore del famoso Dizionario delle Opere Classiche (Editrice Bibliografica, 3 voll., 1994), mi informa di essersi imbattuto in un epigramma dell’Antologia Palatina (VI 220)  nel quale Attis, figlio della dea Cibele, dopo essersi rifugiato di notte in una grotta, viene inseguito e assalito da un leone e riesce a spaventarlo percuotendo il suo tamburo.
«Mentre, muto, rimaneva in preda all’orrore,
un impulso divino mosse il braccio sul suo tamburo .
Ecco che al cupo muggito, più svelta del cerbiatto
la fiera più ardita di tutte non sostenne
quel grave rimbombo e volse in fuga.
Quell’altro gridava: «Madre, qui, sulle rive del Sangario,
una cappella per questa salvezza ti dedico, e questo
rombo sonoro che fugò la belva».

The dance that imitates the animal world.

A dance is the formal result of a certain kind of symbolic transformation of reality. The instinct that moves the dancer is that of measuring and forming the space with his own body. In the archaic conception life is certified by the presence of movement. A primary characteristic of every living being is that of having a shape and a movement. So, the imitation of those shapes and movements is for the archaic man the most adequate way to catch its force and magic. The animals themselves are keepers of magical powers; imitating them means to seize this power and control it. The imitation is attained by a continuous and precise observation of nature and by its exact application to the real.

trois freres 2

 Trois Frères cave (Ariège, France, from Breuil). Scene “of charm”. The masked human figure follows with a hopping gait a group of animals playing the musical bow, a one-string instrument whose sound is amplified by the mouth, which acts as a sound box. The action of the famous “sorcerer” is magic and addressed to the animal world. The dance which imitates the animal movements also wants to reach the magical effect of subjecting them to the power of the hunters, to propitiate their breeding or appease their spirit after the killing.

arco musicale

 The Bushman of Namibia still plays the musical bow today.

boscimani 2

At the center of the ceremonial space a group of Bushman shamans is engaged in the dance of the mantis (Kaggen), god of life and Supreme Being of the San. All around the men and the women close the circle accompanying rhythmically the dance with hand clapping. The events mimed in the dance belong to a cycle of myths on the creation of the world that the Bushmen hand down from generation to generation. (Kalahari desert, State of Orange, South Africa, from Lewis Williams).

danza navajo
Cheyenne Sun Dance. “When you are able to play inside the eagle bone, then a new world will open before you and you will see with the eyes of the eagle.” (Nepalese Shaman)