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by Archaeology Newsroom

Music in the marriage ceremony in ancient Greece.Texts and pictures

Ancient texts of historians, poets, philosophers etc. give us much information about marriage and its celebration in ancient Greece. But we know little about wedding songs and music. Homer gives the first description of a marriage celebration in a village, where people played the music of “Hymenaios” on flutes and guitars and danced in a ring. Such wedding dances with flute players were perhaps the subjects of scenes on 7th century BC vases. During the same period, Sappho composed wedding songs which spoke about love or the beauty of the bride and groom, and we can compare them to popular modern songs. Some were sung in front of the nuptial bedroom, and these are called “epithalamia”. On Attic pottery of the Archaic period there are many nuptial processions with chariots showing mythical weddings. That of Peleus and Thetis was the most popular at the time, but also the weddings of Heracles and Hebe, Menelaus and Helen or contemporary weddings. At mythical ceremonies, Apollo and the Muses played music. At human marriages, a musician, man or woman was often present. In the 6th and 5th centuries BC , wedding scenes were represented on specially shaped vases, hydriae, loutrophoroi and nuptial lebetes. During this period, the representation of “loutrophoria” appeared on pottery with the bride and her friends or parents returning from the fountain. Between them, a girl carried the loutrophoros, a vase of special shape containing the water for the nuptial bath. All these scenes are accompanied by music, perhaps the “γαμήλιο αύλημα” of the text. In the 5th century on Attic vases, especially on hydriae or nuptial lebetes, there were scenes with the dressing and preparation of the bride, while young girls played music on harps and sang wedding songs, as they do today in Greek villages. Perhaps the “epithalamia” were sang then. Dances shown on these vases could also have a relationship with marriage. Another subject portrayed on pottery was the departure of the newly married couple, sometimes in a chariot but often on foot. Frequently a musician played the flute and sometimes the god of love, Eros, played the nuptial march. Later in Greek Mythology, Hymenaios became the incarnation of marriage. He was the son of Apollo and a Muse, a famous singer and musician. People invited him to weddings to sing and play music. But during the marriage of Dionysus and Ariadne, suddenly he lost his voice or – in some versions – he died. From then on, the song of “Hymenaios” was sung on all wedding occasions in ancient Greece to commemorate him.