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Rivers of Sacred Sound



Solveig McIntosh

Rivers of Sacred Sound traces the flow of influences from East to West, from

BC to AD and from wordless jubilations to the setting of texts. It takes the

discussion about western chant beyond a European perspective.

The text of this book, preceded by an introduction, is presented in seven

chapters and covers a period of approximately five thousand years. There are

many references all over the world to praising the divine with sound. Thus

the starting point is the praise song, a fundamental impulse in mankind. The

Rg-Veda requests that our loudest-sounding hymn be accepted, as food most

delightful to the Gods. The Psalms request us to make a joyful noise unto God

and to sing forth the honour of His name. Spontaneous songs became ritual

events. In an aural culture what was the role of gesture and what is its role

now? There are many doors to open in pursuing these and other questions.

This book opens some of them.

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Chapter 7. The Hand: Mudrās and Cheironomy


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The Hand: Mudrās and Cheironomy

It would appear that the culture which existed around 3,000 years ago was predominantly aural rather than visual. This ‘aural’ culture was familiar with a system of cheironomy or gesture which was associated with melodic movement, for the language of gesture was a way of articulating symbolic ideas. The hands were, and still are, the most basic instruments of non-verbal expressive communication. Melody is inseparable from movement and the best and simplest way of expressing both melody and rhythm is through gesture.

The use of the hand in recitation is a very ancient one. It was a method used by Jewish peoples, Akkadians, Greeks and is shown in engravings found in regions such as Egypt, Babylon, Akkadia and Assyria.1 There are examples of this in the iconography of ancient Egypt and the reliefs of Babylonia and Akkadia show how the right hand was used in recitation of scriptural texts. Early melodic cantillation of the Bible text was accompanied by cheironomic movements as aids to memorization. Initially the hand worked in accordance with the accents of recitation: raised, lowered and inflected. ‘These primitive accents were known to Greeks, Romans, Hindus, Armenians, Syrians and Jews’.2 Indeed, it is said that ‘the hieroglyph for “singing” is a hand’.3 It was from the Greek culture that this use of the hand was called ‘cheironomy’.

The use of the hand in melody is a...

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