The sacred and magical sistrum of ancient Egypt
The sistrum was one of the most sacred musical instruments in ancient Egypt and was believed to hold powerful magical properties. It was used in the worship of the goddess Hathor, mythological character of joy, festivity, fertility, eroticism and dance. It was also shaken to avert the flooding of the Nile and to frighten away Seth, the god of the desert, storms, disorder, and violence. Isis, in her role as mother and creator, was often depicted holding a pail symbolizing the inundation of the Nile in one hand, and the sistrum in the other hand. It was designed to produce the sound of the breeze hitting and blowing through papyrus reeds, but the symbolic value of the sistrum far exceeded its importance as a musical instrument.
Ancient Greek historian, Plutarch, speaks of the powerful role of the sistrum in his essay, “On Isis & Osiris”:
“The sistrum makes it clear that all things in existence need to be shaken, or rattled about, and never to cease from motion but, as it were, to be waked up and agitated when they grow drowsy and torpid. They say that they avert and repel Typhon by means of the sistrums, indicating thereby that when destruction constricts and checks Nature, generation releases and arouses it by means of motion.” (Plutarch, Moralia, Book 5, “On Isis & Osiris,” section 63)
The sistrum consists of a handle and frame made from brass, bronze, wood, or clay. When shaken the small rings or loops of thin metal on its movable crossbars produced a sound that ranged from a soft rattle to a loud jangling. Its basic shape resembled the ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, and carried that hieroglyph's meaning. Archaeological records have revealed two distinct types of sistrum.
The oldest variety of sistrum is naos-shaped (the inner chamber of a temple which houses a cult figure). The head of Hathor was often depicted on the handle and the horns of a cow were commonly incorporated into the design (Hathor is commonly depicted as a cow goddess). This sistrum, known as the ‘naos sistrum’ or ‘sesheshet’ (an onomatopoeic word), dates back to at least the Old Kingdom (3 rd millennium BC). In ancient Egyptian art, the sesheshet sistrum was often depicted being carried by a woman of high rank.
The Goddess Isis playing the naos sistrum (sesheshet ) of Hathor, from the "Great Temple" of Sethi I at Abydos. Image source .
During the Greco-Roman Period, a second type of sistrum became popular. Known as sekhem or sekham, this sistrum had a simple, hoop-like frame, usually made from metal. The sekhem resembled a closed horseshoe with a long handle and loose metal cross bars above the Hathor head.
A priestess with the sekhem sistrum. Image source .
In ancient Egypt, while the sistrum was used in the musical worship of several Egyptian deities, including Amon, Bastet, and Isis), it was especially associated with the worship of the great goddesses Hathor. The sistrum was used in rituals and ceremonies including dances, worship, and celebrations, that honoured Hathor. It also seems to have carried erotic or fertility connotations, which probably derives from Hathor’s mythological qualities. Because of its association with Hathor, the sistrum became a symbol of her son Ihy as well, who was often depicted as the archetypal sistrum player.
Artist’s impression of an Egyptian goddess holding a sistrum.
The sistrum continued to be used in Egypt well after the rule of the pharaohs. Rome's conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, following the death of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, helped spread the cult of the goddess throughout the Mediterranean and the rest of the Roman world. The Hathor heads were interpreted as Isis and Nephthys, who represented life and death respectively.
Worship of the goddess Isis became extremely popular in the Greco-Roman period and during this time, the sistrum became inextricably tied to Isis. Temples to Isis were built in every major city, perhaps the largest and most richly decorated being in Rome, near the Pantheon. The temple and its surrounding porticoes were decorated with beautiful wall paintings, some of which show priests or attendants of Isis holding a sistrum.
In Greek culture, not all sistrums were intended to be played. Rather, they took on a purely symbolic function in which they were used in sacrifices, festivals, and funerary contexts. Clay versions of sistrums may also have been used as children’s toys.
Today, sistra are still used in the rites of the Coptic and Ethiopian churches.