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Some Reminiscences and the Bagpipe
Chapter XXIII — Theocritus and the Bagpipe


WE shall now leave the flowery mazes of Mythland,—that realm of fancy and imagination— and descend to the safer, if more prosaic paths of written History, in our search after further information on the Bagpipe.

If I have not already wearied you with my idle excursions into the dim and misty past as we have it represented in Greek myth ? If you do not reckon me one of the people “who”—as the Psalmist says— —“imagine a vain thing?” I shall ask you once more to accompany me to the sunny South: to the land of romance, and song, and piping: “to the land which the old Greek has revealed to us: a land full of wonder and beauty, full of grandeur and majesty, haunted by the echoes of human laughter and tears: where truth and fiction still live in loving union together, and truth borrows grace from fiction, and fiction gathers dignity from truth.” And in this country I shall introduce you to a man who knew more of pipers and of piping than any other man of his day and generation. Some of you will immediately recognise in him an old friend: to others he will be a comparative stranger : while to a few he may be wholly unknown, as his writings—and how delightful these are! — have been too much neglected both at school and college.

It is of Theocritus the Greek poet that I would write. He is the great authority on the Piob or Shepherd’s Pipe : the great delineator of Greek pastoral life in the old days. What he did not know of the shepherd and his Pipe is not worth knowing. While his writings are worthy of being read for their own sake, the poet is at the same time the prince of good fellows, in whose charming company the cares and worries of daily life are forgotten.

Should it ever be your unhappy lot to suffer from brain-fag, while the needful holiday is still in the far distance, try what a study of the old Greek poet’s Idylls will do for you. If your Greek has gone musty, there are several good translations to choose from. Of these, I prefer the one by Lang, in the “Golden Treasury” series, for the sake of its scholarly introduction. There is also a metrical translation by Calverly: a delightful book in its way: a poet’s translation of a poet. And if you wish a more literal rendering of the Greek, you will find it in “Bohn’s Library.” But the charm of the original infects all three, and for us, in this way, Theocritus becomes thrice eloquent.

Here, without doubt, we have a writer who can describe for us things and men as he saw them two thousand years ago. In his Idylls, there is no stilted artificiality : naturalness overflows in every line : the laughter of bygone years still echoes through his pages ; the tears still wet them. With curtains drawn to shut out the slushy, sloppy streets, and feet made comfortable in well-toasted slippers, you can—with this little book in your hand—enjoy the pleasures of a country life while seated comfortably at your own fireside.

The poet, who makes the most fascinating of guides, will put back for you the hands of the clock of time two thousand years and more. In the twinkling of an eye he will transport you from this cold, bleak climate of ours, dark with winter fogs, or moist from dripping autumn skies, to a land of perpetual sunshine and blue ethers, and midsummer spice-laden airs and passionate flower-blossoming. Basking in the sunshine of his geniality, you will forget to shiver at the cold. The winter blast, rocking without and making the shuttered window creak and groan like some disembodied spirit in pain, will blow past unheeded, as you walk arm-in-arm with the poet through the streets of Syracuse, the city of his birth : the city he most loved—“sunniest of sunny cities, and Greekest of Greek.”

Or passing out through the city gates into the country beyond — that country which he knew and loved so well, and where he spent so many happy days — you will find your cares fall from your shoulders, like a cast-off garment, as you wander with him in the meadows, already brilliant with “bells and flowerets of a thousand hues,” where first he met the little girl piping to Hippocoon’s field-workers.

In these Idylls the poet has caught and made captive for us the warm spice-laden breezes that ever float up from the blue waters of the Mediterannean.

The sunshine of cloudless skies he has enticed into his pages, and it still warms the figures of Demeter and his love-feasters, of shepherd and shepherdess, of piper and singer, so that they, too, look out of the page at you with laughter in their eyes and smiles on their lips as real as when in life. So life-like, indeed, are this poet’s creations that, as Mrs Browning once said of those of another and greater poet, if you were to put real men and women beside them, the best stop-watch in the world could not detect the least difference in the beating of their hearts.

But—you may well ask the question!—what has all this got to do with the Bagpipe? Not much, perhaps, but I was led to study Theocritus because more than one writer—in a more or less vague sort of way, certainly—had referred to Theocritus as being the first author to mention the Bagpipe.

Well, I have searched for Sitmphoma, the Greek word for Bagpipe, in the original text, and again in the three different translations mentioned above, and I have completely failed to find it.

Pythaulos, and Bumbaulos, two other names given at a later date by the old Greeks to the Pipe, are also conspicuous by their absence. In short, Theocritus, who was born about 300 B.C., does not mention the Bagpipe at all.

But I learned two things from my research.

I learned anew, and with increasing emphasis, the beautiful truth which is embodied in the saying of the old philosopher, “If you offered me the choice of Truth in the one hand, or the Pursuit after Truth in the other, I should choose the latter.”

I did not find any reference to the Bagpipe in “Theocritus”—the truth which I was in pursuit of—but the pursuit itself was a delight and a treasure, and through it I spent many weeks of unadulterated happiness some years ago, wandering in the company of one of the world’s great masters, utterly indifferent to the sleet and snow and biting cruel winds that so often brought the short days of a particularly stormy winter to a close.

I learned also this important fact, that the Bagpipe was unknown to Theocritus and—by implication— to the Greeks of the third century B.C.

The Idylls are filled with descriptions of pipers and piping.

The first Idyll opens up with these words—

“Sweet are the whispers of yon pine that makes Low music o’er the spring-, and goatherd, sweet Thy piping; thou art matched by Pan alone.” While the last Idyll sings somewhat after this fashion—I have not the book before me!

“Oh that my father had taught me the care of sheep, that I might sit in the shade of the wide-spreading tree, or in the cool of the overhanging rock, and there pipe away my sorrows. ”

Every page, indeed, betrays an intimate acquaintance with the different instruments used by the shepherds or goatherds of his time. There are three different kinds of Pipe mentioned by the poet, and these are called Aulos, Aiilosceilamus, and Syrinx. We have a minute description given of these various forms, even to the number of holes in each, and to the kind of wax and thread used in binding the reeds together. We also find continual references tc piping contests in the Idylls, so that it is impossible to believe that the most important of the Pipe family could be overlooked, by the poet whose delight was in minute word-painting of pastoral scenes. This careful recorder of the old simple, kindly, country life—with those keen eyes of his that missed not the twittering of a single leaf on the tree : with those keen ears of his that heard voices in the murmur of the bratling stream, and in the whispering of the flowers, as they bent and nodded to the gentle breeze — could never have so completely overlooked the King of Pipes if it had been in existence in his day. Even against his will it would have forced itself upon his attention during those constant country rambles in which he so delighted. For, what does this poet write about? It is not of the city and its busy life— although occasionally he ruffled it at court with the best of the young bloods : luxury and wealth he rarely mentions. His theme is the country, with its simple joys and sorrows, where money counts for little, because there is so little of it to count. Nothing is too small for him to take notice of!

The grateful shade of the pine tree ; the singing of the lark in the blue ether ; the restless moaning of the sea by the lonely shore ; the cool sound of the waters falling over the face of the rock ; the sweet scent of verbena, and lily, and wild thyme ; the lowly goatherd contesting for the piper’s prize, dressed in a new goatskin, with the fresh smell of the rennet still clinging to it; the little girl piping in the field to encourage the harvesters in their work ; the midnight revel at the neatherd’s cabin ; the poor fisherman in his hut of wattles, dreaming golden dreams down by the marshes—almost the only gold he mentions. These are the subjects he delights to dwell upon: always, however, coming back to piping, piping, piping.

We may take it, then, that in Theocritus’ time, say 270 B.C., the Bagpipe was unknown to the Greek, whether of the town or country. This is something worth knowing, something worth remembering. When the Bagpipe was introduced into Greece the people had no name ready for it, and so they christened this instrument of many sounds Sumphonia, or the many-sounding one. The Romans came to know of it much later than the Greeks. They received it from two sources—a Celtic and a Greek source—as I hope immediately to prove. We must therefore look for the origin of the Piob-Mhor elsewhere than in Greece or Rome.


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