Drones, Bulls and Bees

“Rich Gallaecia sent its youths, wise in the knowledge of divination by the entrails of beasts, by feathers and flames who, now crying out the barbarian song of their native tongue, now alternately stamping the ground in their rhythmic dances until the ground rang, and accompanying the playing with sonorous caetras” (bagpipes). – Punica of Silius Italicus on the First Punic War, 200 BC

There is a bit of referential evidence that in addition to or instead of the fiddle (actually, a Lyre), Nero was fond of an instrument described as a pipe played with the armpit that buzzed like wasps.

A loud directional pipe similar to a shawm or rauschpfeife was also used to signal Roman infantry movements.

At my first lesson with him, Michael of Wolgemut asked me,  “Why do you like the bagpipe?”  This was analogous to the question I would be asked quite often in the subsequent years, “How did you come to playing this type of music?”

My immediate reply was, “it has a presence.”
This was the short answer.
It has evolved significantly since.

The bagpipe evokes something very old and speaks of the wild.  The sound is eerily organic.

When listening to pipes, people often think they hear the sounds of animals, voices, other instruments.

Either through nostalgia or a deeper, primal mechanism the pipes bring listeners to a place that is both base and familiar.  The interplay of melody and drone is nearly subconsciously processed, but is very important in creating the space that and tonal rhythms that define bagpipe music.

There is a lot of speculation as to where drone music began, and specifically how a drone became affixed to an animal-skin bladder bag. … That likely was already attached to a reed instrument or an animal horn (functioning as what we now call the chanter).

Drone instruments: the didgeridoo, lur, flint flute, hurdy gurdy, Indian Tanpura (a stringed drone instrument) are among the oldest known.  It appears the purpose of the drone is to harmonize with a melody instrument and provide a background sound (usually the bass).  Musical theory aside it can be supposed that the concept of drone as background texture originated in the subconscious of the first music makers.

If you get to an area far away from your computer, television, cellphone, and even the hum of the refrigerator you can tune into nature’s songs.

Even in rural quiet there is a constant hum, a frequency and cycle of audible pitches which swell and lulls.  These sounds come from the wind breezing over and through reeds, branches, and rocks. Drones come from the murmur of water, from the cyclical shuffling of animal feet and bird wings.  Drones were implicit sonic elements in the earliest human creative psyche.  It is only supposed – but not outlandish to assume – that incorporating a drone into music stemmed from some desire (conscious or otherwise) to become part of this natural soundscape.  We also know that music and ritual have only relatively recently become separate expressions.

Horns and Honey

There are certain sounds that most closely match drone instruments in terms of pitch and tone. These are the sounds created by the rapid buzzing of insect wings.  Particularly that of the bee.  Bees also amplify buzzing by spiracles: small breathing holes located on the bee’s body.  Their buzz is a communication method.

In addition to the traditional buzzing of a bee in flight, Queen bees emit a sound called “piping” when communicating with other bees. This piping usually sounds in variations of G and A.  Many ‘folk pipes’ also drone in that range.

Bees are sometimes attracted to the vibrations of the drone while playing the bagpipe, much to the chagrin of many pipers.

Some of the earliest bagpipe references from Greece and Rome are directly related to the sounds of insects. In the The Acharnians (425 BC) by Aristophanes there is reference to instruments that emulate bees or hornets played by a “bee piper” during social and ritual occasions.  Furthermore Suetonius Tranquillus mentions the instruments of Nero and other Roman pipers as buzzing like a wasp.

My own excursions into mead making research, and discussion with meaderies tuned into the drink’s historic importance always reminded of both the bee and the honey as components of our cultural evolution.

Around the same time that bagpipes seemed to spread across the old known world, there was a prominent cult of honey and bee.

An entirely superficial search on bees in mythology yields telling wiki results:

The Homeric Hymn to Apollo acknowledges that Apollo’s gift of prophecy first came to him from three bee maidens, usually identified with the Thriae. The Thriae were a trinity of pre-Hellenic Aegean Nymphs,  or in some versions bee goddesses…

Mycenaean priests believed that bees and their honeycombs represented the underworld. Both the Egyptians and native Central Americans had significant legend and symbolism associated with bees and placed religious importance on honey.  The bee was thought to especially govern prophecy and the land of spirits.  The Bee had particular significance to cults in Potniae.

The connection of honey to song and poetry has a history in Greece. Plato and Virgil both reference anointment of the lips with it or the consumption of honeycomb (often steeped in herbs of various kinds) to induce both prophecy and eloquence.  Honey was sacred to the Delphic oracle and it is suspected that the Minoans were among the first mead brewers. While consumed as a regular beverage, it is suggestive that there was some deeper supernatural importance placed upon the honey wine.

And it likely goes without noting that mead plays an important role in the myths of the northern Europeans. It is referenced as the chosen drink of the Gods: supplying Odin the sustenance of pork.  And it was mead that granted Bragi the gift of song and poetry.  There is also a much later proverb that became popular in the British Isles (particularly Scotland) paraphrased to ‘Mead gives the strength of Meat’.  In Ireland mead in particular among liquors has associations with Fianna poetry and Fae Folk.

Perhaps only The Bull has as long of a history of ritualized veneration as The Bee. The worship of the bull and bee do overlap in terms of time frame, culture and intent.  And there appears to be some musical development based upon the rituals surrounding these two sacred animals.

The Greeks used a bull-roarer in Dionysian rites.  Bull horns and hooves were used to emulate the sound of a bull during Greek, Minoan, Babylonian and Egyptian Sun ritual.  And it is worth noting that while mead represents the spiritual nourishment; bull meat (after ritual sacrifice) is often representative of divinely gifted physical sustenance and fertility.  Soul and Body nourished: two halves of a whole.

The Apis Bull of Egypt represented Osiris… the risen God-king. And statues of this holy animal often had a small triangle motif between its horns. This is thought to represent both the sun and a bee: the honey of the latter being equated with the sun and indicative of life and rebirth. Apis is also the genus name for the honey bee. There is also an old Egyptian belief that if you kill a bull, a thousand bees will emerge from the body. This is but one of many symbolic connections between the cult of the Bull and that of the Bee.

Drinking horns filled with mead are a common concept (most definitely Norse, and most likely Minoan as well).  And it is known that these early drinking horns (perhaps with a skin reservoir that also served as air-bladder attached) were blown for distance communication and ritual and likely could have served as early instruments.

Music: Mead and Meat for the Soul

With all of this reference in mind it would not be stretch to conceive that there is a totemic origin in drone music. And that may have eventually guided the construction of the bagpipe and focused the design to create the instrument’s signature sound.

It becomes clear upon playing the pipe that you are not simply playing a horn with auxiliary sound effects.  The drone is an entirely separate instrument that provides the underpinning and harmonizing sound for the melody.  And it is this element that often evokes some ancestral reflex from listeners.

It seems to bring to life a very ancient place along with very ancient inhabitants.