The sistrum is an ancient Egyptian musical instrument that was used in religious ceremonies. The instrument was employed to both drive out evil spirits and get the attention of worshipers. The ancient Egyptians called the sistrum a "shesheset." It is still used in religious ceremonies in Africa and the Middle East.
The sistrum consists of a straight handle with a metal loop attached on one end. Four metal rods pass through large holes in the loop. The holes are large enough to allow the rods to slide back and forth. Each rod is bent to prevent it from slipping out of the holes. A decorate stop, such as a leaf, is sometimes attached to the ends of the rods. The sistrum may be decorated with images of the goddess Hathor.
The sistrum resembles the ankh, the symbol for life. Fertility and eroticism are also associated with the sistrum. The ancient Egyptians believed the sound of the sistrum was pleasing to the gods and goddesses. The instrument was originally used in ceremonies dedicated to the goddess Hathor and her son. The sistrum was also incorporated into religious ceremonies for other gods and goddesses, such as Isis and Amon. The four metal rods represent the elements water, air, fire and earth.
The Coptic Orthodox Church also employs the sistrum in musical worship. It is used in Orthodox liturgy during chanting and liturgical dance, especially by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. The sistrum was used mostly by women in ancient Egypt, but is played exclusively by male priests in Ethiopian churches. The sistrum is used to denote the four cardinal points that represent the power of God. Jewish groups in the Middle East and North Africa incorporated the sistrum in religious chants as well.
How to Play a Sistrum
The sistrum is usually played by shaking it in a rhythmic manner. It can also be played by holding it in one hand and striking it with a stick or metal rod. Metal rings are sometimes threaded on the rods to enhance the rattling sound of the rods in the metal loop when the instrument is played. Similar modern instruments are the Australian barcoo dog and the tambourine.
- Hill Museum and Manuscript Library: Ethiopian Sistrum
- The Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States; "A Cappella Music and The Coptic Orthodox Liturgical Chant"; Laurence Moftah; 2009
- Ethiopian Orthodox; "A History of Music"; Ashenafi Kebede
- The British Museum: Bronze Arched Sistrum with Hathor Head Decoration; R.D. Anderson; 1976
- Bush Music: Instruments
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