The Ineffable Power of Syllable and Sound

‘Do not change the nomina barbara;’
that is, the names handed down by the gods to each people have ineffable power in the initiation rites.

Chaldean Oracles, Fragment 150, trans. Majercik, where it appears in context from Psellus

Nisha Ramayya’s States of the Body Produced By Love is the best experimental poetry book I have read in a long time, and it definitely sets the standard for my expectation for such poetry books moving forward. At one point, Ramayya — during a prose-poetic essay called “Her Voice as an Instrument of Thought” — refers to a linguistic hypothesis put forward by Frits Staal that mantras are prelinguistic, similar to birdsong, and that they were seeded before humans evolved how to speak.

Mantras, first of all, are not language-bound. Whereas languages can be translated into each other, mantras often cannot. In fact, when Vedic or Sanskrit is translated into another language, mantras remain invariant. Thus we find the same or similar mantras in India, southeast Asia, China, Korea and Japan. The only difference between such mantras is that their form is adapted to their new phonological environment, just as Sanskrit homa or dhjāna becomes Japanese goma or zen. Such transformations are akin not to translation but to transliteration. This applies equally to apparently “meaningless” mantras such as oṃ or huṃ phaṭ and to apparently “meaningful” mantras such as namo buddhāya or śivāya namaḥ. The evidence for the untranslatability of mantras is plentiful all over Asia.

Staal, F. (1985). Mantras and Bird Songs. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 105(3), 549–558.

Previously on this blog, I wrote a poem about destruction due to religious extremism that contained the stanza “a litany of lost books, so precious / a register of lost Gods, mere syllables / they will come to mourn, not you”; this presupposes the preservation of syllables, and it assumes that only names are important when they only represent one facet of the way sound is used to create meaning. What about chants and the cherished things that compose them?

Ramayya writes that monosyllabic mantras like om are bīja mantras; they are “seed, germ, element, primary cause or source […] bīja mantras are monosyllabic mantras considered to be sound without meaning; they have no etymological root and no semantic value” (p. 39, States of the Body Produced By Love). Staal posited a link between them and prelinguistic speech, and he explored similarities in the construction of mantras and birds’ songs. While he claims that such mantras are vestigial appendages that language supersedes, sounds that have changed a lot in content and context from their original pre-language uses in homo sapiens, it is possible to view such things differently — as the spark of fire from Prometheus or a link to the blessing of political organization from Zeus, to speak of Gods I am familiar with rather than Gods and a religious system that I am less familiar with (a religion that still, somehow, has me thinking comparatively in a way that leaves my heart filled with such sorrow about cultural loss instead of being able to engage directly with her words unfettered). Ramayya weaves this scholarship into feminist reflections on Goddesses, priests, and the divisions of language. It is hard to quote more from her because States of the Body Produced By Love is a lot like a prog rock composition in that jumping in during the middle ruins the buildup and experience of the composition. The volume of poetry feels like ritual. I highly recommend it.

The questions that follow next require a more thorough explanation, if we are to explain them with sufficient logic, and yet for these also we must set out the truths in our response with brevity. For you inquire, “what is the point of meaningless names?” But they are not “meaningless” in the way that you think. Rather, let us grant that they are unknowable to us — or even, in some cases, known, since we may receive their explanations from the gods — but to the gods they are all significant, not according to an effable mode, nor in such a way that is significant and indicative to the imaginations of human beings, but united to the gods either intellectually or rather ineffably, and in a manner superior and more simple than in accordance with intellect. It is essential, therefore, to remove all considerations of logic from the names of the gods, and to set aside the natural representations of the spoken word to the physical things that exist in nature. Thus, the symbolic character of divine similitude, which is intellectual and divine, has to be assumed in the names. And indeed, if it is unknowable to us, this very fact is its most sacred aspect: for it is too excellent to be divided into knowledge. But as for those names of which we have acquired a scientific analysis, through these we have knowledge of divine being, and power, and order, all in a name! And, moreover, we preserve in their entirety the mystical and arcane images of the gods in our soul; and we raise our soul up through these towards the gods and, as far as is possible, when it has been elevated, we experience union with the gods.

Iamblichus, On the Mysteries, VII.4, trans. Clarke et al.

Almost immediately after reading that section, I noticed that Sam Block, whose blog I subscribe to, had created a collection of PGM and Hermetic-based chants. (I haven’t read that post yet, but I’m sure it’s good.) It was an odd moment of synchronicity, as reading Ramayya had gotten me thinking about the PGM, the Chaldean Oracles, the rites mentioned in the philosophical works by Proclus and other authors whose brief mentions feel so tantalizingly close and far away. I wondered what words (or pre-meaning sounds?) were embedded in the rites themselves.

If, as Dieterich rightly says, the papyri are a depository of a great religious literature over many centuries, the recovery of the sources becomes a task of primary interest. In fact, throughout these sources we find citations of hymns, rituals, formulae from liturgies otherwise lost, and little bits of mythology called historolae.

Betz, H.D. “Introduction to the Greek Magical Papyri,” p. xlv, in The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation

Many cultures did not practice writing as readily. The implications of what was lost during Christianization brought sorrow to my heart when I realized the difference between societies where writing exists and where it either didn’t or hadn’t penetrated into widespread habitude. Even with transformations brought about by syncretizing an area’s traditional religion with Christianity (which always happens), the transfer of information is not lossless. In some cases, we have the barest details of what it was.

Galdr is chanting. There are no surviving sources to reveal what galdr was in the ancient times. In the old stories, Óðinn is the master of galdr and it is said that he can chant so that the ground and rocks open up. Modern heathens mostly use galdr in ritual, for instance at blót, where singing and chanting accompany the ritual acts.

Nordvig, M. (2020). Ásatrú for Beginners, Rockridge Press, p. 102

The sounds themselves — some? most? all? — could be seen as living beings bestowed in chains of teaching that faced disruptions unlike any previously seen. Their subtle bodies are nourished by memory, and they inhabit a forest of sound that expires shortly after the transmission is cut down, like a nymph perishing in anguish.

Creating new chants is a wholly different thing. I am reminded of the Reclaiming efforts that saturated my childhood and young adulthood with drumming, dancing, and songs like we all come from the Goddess / and to her we shall return / like a drop of rain / flowing to the ocean, which are translatable. For syllables and nonlexical sequences that arise, there is the issue of convincing a broader community that it does come from the Gods and that it does belong in a practice. The middle ground is sifting through surviving words in inscriptions, speeches, and other materials for things that feel raw and real, like bios bios apollon apollon helios helios kosmos kosmos phos phos, preserved from an association dedicated to a God, or stringing together a chant of epithets like Todd Jackson did in the chant “paian pythian apollon apollon apollon pythian paian.” Modern prayer beads used within new religious movement polytheisms often involve a combination of words and epithets recited in repetition, and they haven’t been used for enough generations in said NRMs to be wholly alive like those of unbroken traditions — they are nymphs in germination, a field awaiting spring-rain growth.

Regardless of whether or not some chanted sounds are prelinguistic — that linguistics paper is from 1985 — this underscores just how precious names, words, and non-word chants can be, and why they should be protected and treasured.


8 thoughts on “The Ineffable Power of Syllable and Sound

  1. I am new to your blog, and feel like I am kinda gleaning your gist… which is exciting! But I am not so “scholarly” any more, if I ever was. So your essays are challenging… as well as poetic. I am so happy to learn from you! I know I need to expand on/deepen my own understanding of languages and myths, and your posts are juicy… I was so bored by dry interpretations. But I was suffering thru them, never the less. You created a sudden brightness, as I am having a really difficult time with Ovid’s metamorphous due to all the rape. I like the writing but the content sags thru out. Zeus is pretty boring. But I am determined to get thru it so I can understand where “it” all begins… I was reading the Tempest by Shakespeare which led me to Ovid… I seem to be traveling backwards to understand going forward. Anyhow, thank you so much for your work and insights. I look forward to reading your new work, but also what you have posted in the past.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your comment, and I’m happy that you are enjoying the blog! I don’t like reading Ovid for some of the same reasons. Some of the quotations of ancient authors in this blog post may help you, as it shows that you’re not alone — people have spent millennia being frustrated about the rape stories in Greek and Roman mythology:

      I’m working my way through reading Tim Addey’s Seven Myths of the Soul right now, and that might be useful, too.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Many cultures did not practice writing as readily.

    Or, like the Egyptians, their script was not alphabetic, and hence does not encode phonetics completely or reliably. As a result, we have to reconstruct how even the very names of the Gods sounded from indications in other languages, or from Coptic, a very late and significantly modified state of the language.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. There are big advantages to a script that isn’t phonetic; Egyptian or Chinese pack in way more semantic content than an alphabetic script can. They also allow a level of regional variation in vocalization that approaches mutual unintelligibility, as between Mandarin and Cantonese; a similar situation may have existed between Upper and Lower Egypt. It’s kind of hard to say whether this is a virtue or not.

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      2. It’s a trade-off like any other. Alphabetical and syllabic systems are better at capturing regional variations in dialect unless spelling is standardized, but they sacrifice that mutual intelligibility once the dialects diverge into different languages, as you said. This honestly reminds me of map projections in that something will always be warped when putting a map on a page. People use the projection that works best for their use case(s).

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      3. Alphabetic scripts are also easier to learn quickly. But they privilege orality over writing. That’s the big trade-off.

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