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How Musicians Invented the Law
Songs are far more powerful than you think
Today I’m sharing a section from my new book Music to Raise the Dead.
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Music to Raise the Dead describes a secret musicology, which underpins the most powerful institutions in human society. In this installment, I reveal how legal codes actually originated as songs.
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Were the First Laws Sung? (Part 2 of 2)
(For part one of this chapter, click here. But you can also read this as a stand alone essay.)
The oldest written body of law in classical antiquity, known as the Locrian Code, was attributed to Zaleucus, a lowly shepherd who was born a slave in a Greek colony in southern Italy. This individual received his guiding precepts from the goddess Athena in a dream—an account that is strikingly congruent with shamanistic and Orphic accounts about how magical songs originate.
This whole story is bizarre. Why would a slave give laws to a community? Don’t the rulers make the rules?
That seems obvious to us, but in ancient Greek society, the exact opposite happened. I note that slaves also ranked among the most prominent and popular musicians in antiquity (and later)—is this mere coincidence?
Even stranger, there is both a Locrian code—the oldest laws of antiquity—and a Locrian mode, mentioned by music theorists going back to the 3rd century BC.
The Locrian harmonia shows up even earlier in the poetry of Pindar, where it refers to music composed for the auloi, a Greek reed instrument with dark, magical associations, by a Locrian musician. Pindar treats this music, according to scholar Edward Nowacki, as “a paean fit for Apollo and the Graces, suggesting a noble and dignified style.”
In other words, both the Locrian legal code and Locrian mode boasted a connection to divine sources, and demanded respect for that very reason.
Is this, too, total coincidence?
It has to be, no? There’s no obvious connection between slaves, songs, and the foundation of Western legal codes. But we keep running into these unusual lawgivers everywhere we look in antiquity. We’ve already encountered musical origins of laws in our previous encounters with ancient lawgivers Thales and Lycurgus, and that forces us to ask whether Zaleucus sang the laws he learned in dreams?
That’s quite likely, although hard to prove when we have so few details about the larger context in which these laws originated. But it’s indisputable that ancient communities frequently turned to people outside of the ruling class for their laws.
“In a time of civil strife a city would call for a special person, not currently a member of the ruling class,” writes Michael Gagarin in his seminal study Early Greek Law. Gagarin struggles with an explanation for this, eventually deciding that the people in power “would presumably be too partisan”—and hence lacked the balance that only an outsider could give.
Yet Gagarin’s explanation makes no sense. Not only does it run in the face of all current practice, where the ruling powers who control the legislature make the legislation, but it fails to explain why so many cities brought in foreigners to write their laws—not just impartial outsiders, but total strangers. That was actually a common practice at the time.
A look at the lawgivers actually enlisted tells us the real story: these figures were honored not for their lack of party affiliation but for their special authority. We have already met one of them in the previous chapter, namely Empedocles—the same composer of metered philosophical pronouncements who claimed he could control the weather and bring a soul back from the dead with his musical magic. And the same is true of Pythagoras, Parmenides, Epimenides and other ancient music-obsessed philosopher-shamans.
They were revered as lawgivers, not because of any reputation for impartiality, but due to their visionary wisdom. And this wisdom was embedded in songs.
If you go back to the origin of these practices in the Western world, namely the ancient myth of Orpheus—that earliest shaman-musician in the classical tradition, whose journey to the Underworld is the ideal type of our hero’s journey—the connection is unmistakable. Vases depicting Orpheus in Southern Italy show him consulting with the goddess Justice in the Underworld.
“It is clear that the poet who sings about gods is often considered to be singing as one, or as an instrument of one,” literary critic Northrop Frye wisely reminds us in his influential work Anatomy of Criticism. “This usually means that he reveals the god’s will.” To the ancient mind, the notion that Orpheus would return from the other world with wise dictates of justice was an obvious conclusion.
Legal historian Michael Gagarin specifically cites the case of one of these esteemed outsiders, a man named Charondas, who was enlisted as lawgiver for Catania in Sicily, probably circa 500 BC. His precepts, composed in verse, were adopted by various communities in Italy.
Gagarin relates in a footnote a surviving anecdote about Charondas’s laws being “sung at parties.” But he is quick to add: “Certainly it is hard to imagine any true law, no matter how gracefully versified, being sung at a party.” Gagarin thus decides that this story must be incorrect—at best, someone might sing a parody of a law, but not the actual law itself.
Could this possibly be true? The King of Rome ruled by dancing?
Yet he’s clearly missing the main point of these ancient accounts. Singing the law was the exact opposite of parody. It expressed in the clearest possible terms that these precepts possessed the highest authority.
And what about the Romans? Today they are revered as the greatest exponents of written law in the history of the Western world. Yet according to Plutarch, the esteemed Roman lawgiver Numa drew on the same unusual techniques pursued by the Greek shamans. Plutarch explains that this virtuous ruler presided over the city “for the most part by sacrifices, processions and religious dances, which he himself appointed and conducted.”
Could this possibly be true? The King of Rome ruled by dancing?
And the same source tells us that Numa had direct contact with the Muses, and held “secret meetings” with a “goddess or mountain nymph.” Once again, all this sounds more like a shamanic ritual, eerily reminiscent of the dream quest described in previous chapters, than standard legal and administrative procedure. And maybe it was precisely that.
Perhaps all this is a mere smokescreen, a kind of propaganda effort of tyrannical rulers to use the persuasive power of music to oppress the populace. But the fact that “songs” in this setting—as well as in the traditions associated with Orpheus and the mystery rites—were linked to democratizing tendencies suggests that, at least to some extent, this convergence between the political structure and musical culture was empowering to many individuals who weren’t part of the ruling class.
In other words, it’s likely that songs helped create democracy. In fact, we’re almost forced to reach that conclusion, if we pay close attention to the evidence.
I’ve suggested elsewhere that music has, throughout history, frequently served as a important force in the expansion of personal autonomy and human rights. Certainly that seems to be the case in all the instances noted here—not just in Greece and Rome, but also in the time of Hammurabi, whose Code (discussed below) contains a number of provisions protecting individuals from predatory and violent practices. These include laws defending children, promoting public safety, limiting demands on debtors, and preserving the property rights of divorced women and widows. In aggregate, these perhaps fall short of our modern standards, but must have represented a significant advance at the time. And, as we shall see, songs and oral tradition laid the groundwork for these protections in every instance.
The very same word the Greeks gave to their law, nomos, can also refer to a song. Those who would like to dismiss this as another coincidence or perhaps some kind of metaphor need to confront the awkward fact that laws from this period were often preserved in the meter of songs. Yet that hasn’t prevented scholars from ignoring these obvious connections, or even trying to disprove them.
It’s likely that songs helped create democracy. We’re almost forced to reach that conclusion, if we pay close attention to the evidence.
The esteemed classicist Ivan Linforth, for example, worked hard to dismiss Plutarch’s story of the laws of Solon, the great Athenian lawgiver, being sung. Linforth smugly asserted that any legal code of this sort “would have gone into the wastebasket”—an ironic claim given the fact that only written texts can be discarded in such an expeditious way. Even the Code of Hammurabi, often cited as the decisive example of the permanence of written legal codes, had at least thirty laws scraped off it by a revisionist successor to the throne.
In contrast, a vibrant musical and oral tradition can’t be eliminated quite so easily. So it makes perfect sense that a law preserved in song would have more impact and permanence than a written one—and especially so in societies where few people read or write. Even at the height of ancient Greek culture, two-thirds or more of the adult population were probably illiterate, but virtually everyone in the community had access to songs and poems. They were the cloud storage of antiquity and traditional societies, ensuring both the preservation and dissemination of important information.
Yet Linforth concludes that Solon’s songs couldn’t have been influential, otherwise they would have survived in writing. That’s an absurd way of establishing the primacy of written law—a logical flaw known as begging the question—but it’s repeated again and again in scholarship on the subject. In essence, Linforth is asserting that songs are less influential than texts because…well, because they aren’t texts!
Or consider the opinion of current-day legal historian Russ VerSteeg who, when confronted by the story of Lycurgus of Sparta prohibiting the use of written law, can only surmise that this quirky decision was designed “to afford flexibility for change in the future.” The notion that the words to a song might be even less flexible than a written text doesn’t even occur to him.
If your goal is stability, music is far superior to written law. If you doubt it, test it yourself. Launch a petition, and see if it’s simpler to amend a statute on the books or update the words to the “Star Spangled Banner” or even “American Pie” or some other banal pop hit. You could hire all the lobbyists in Washington and never change a word in those familiar and beloved song lyrics.
This legal scholar ought to understand that, if only because the longest surviving examples of Greek law, by his own admission, come from songs. Just a few pages earlier in his study of ancient law, VerSteeg admits that “our earliest evidence for law in ancient Greece comes from the poetry of Homer and Hesiod.” Of course, he doesn’t mention that these figures were actually singers whose authority was heightened due to the divine inspiration they announced as the source for their works. Those facts are irrelevant, he believes, to a legal study, and are thus ignored.
Legal scholars are clearly frustrated by the need to rely on these old songs, with all their crudeness, for glimpses into the origins of Western law. “It is not unusual for individuals to resolve their conflicts simply by fighting,” VerSteeg grumbles in response to the spectacle of Homer’s Iliad. How barbaric!
Yet when we consider all of the ingredients involved in this archaic approach to law, each one is familiar to the student of the hero’s musical quest described in this book. Not just the songs and muses, but even the fighting is inseparable from the hero’s journey, a divinely-guided undertaking marked by risks, obstacles, and actual battles in the face of ever-present dangers.
All this made perfect sense to the ancients, even if it confuses current-day legal scholars. For this reason, almost every venerable legal tradition begins with a musical or poetic invocation of divine inspiration—just as the Western poetic tradition starts with singers invoking their muse.
I have focused so far on Greek and Roman practices, given their tremendous impact on current-day jurisprudence, but the same lineage can be found in an impressively wide range of contexts and geographical settings. In the Psalms (119: 54), David proclaims: “Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.” And King Solomon, we are told in 1 Kings (4:32) “spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five.”
Or consider the case of early Irish law—which has such ancient roots that scholars have connected it with the oldest Hindu legal concepts via a shared origin in Proto-Indo-European traditions. These laws were preserved, according to the Senchas Már, an influential collection of legal texts from the Old Irish period, in the “joint memory of the ancients, transmission from ear to ear, [and] the chanting of poets.”
Everywhere we look, we see this same inspired overlap of music, divinity, and legal authority. This connection between law and song runs so deep that, in ancient Persian and Indian traditions, we find hymns to contracts, personified as angels or deities.
A hymn to a contract—could that really be a thing? But, once again, this was part of a coherent musical jurisprudence found in every region of the world. If you lacked this song-driven spiritual support to your binding agreements and regulations, their authority was undermined at the outset.
A hymn to a contract—could that really be a thing?
For this reason, Plutarch makes clear his opinion that every great lawgiver engaged in mystical communication with a divine source. He chastises those who “disbelieve that Zaleucus, Minos, Zoroaster, Numa and Lycurgus, who piloted kingdoms and formulate constitutions, had frequent audience of the Deity”—and he specifically compares this intercourse with the ways gods “use poets and warbling singers.” The only reasonable alternative, according to Plutarch, is that the great lawgivers “pretended to get a sanction from the god.” The notion that human reason produced these laws is insufficient to gain the respect and awe that such sanctions required.
Songs obviously possess more authority—at least that was obvious to Plutarch.
Proponents of the supremacy of written law will invariably cite as irrefutable evidence something far older than any of the individuals on Plutarch’s list, namely the Code of Hammurabi, preserved on an imposing 7-foot black diorite stele now in the Louvre. This compendium of Babylonian laws dates back to the 18th century BC but was not discovered until 1901. And, yes, this may be the most significant monument to written law in human history, but the most striking aspect of this extraordinary pillar—in the shape of an enormous finger pointing upwards—is the engraved image at the top, depicting Hammurabi receiving the laws directly from the god Shamash.
What is actually happening in this depicted scene? We know from other contexts that Hammurabi was willing to express his views in the form of a hymn, and both the prologue and epilogue to his laws are in meter, indicating that at least part of this text was intended to be sung or chanted. These details, which most legal scholars treat as irrelevant, should be of tremendous importance to cultural historians.
The implication is obvious: the god Shamash is singing these laws to Hammurabi.
In fact the whole engraving, which depicts Shamash extending a staff towards Hammurabi, inevitably reminds us of Hesiod (as described in chapter two) receiving the laurel staff, that forerunner of the conductor’s baton, from the Muses. This gift certified his authority as a singer of inspired poetry. But even if this is merely a spoken communication from Shamash, the prominent placement of this engraved image at the top and before the beginning of the text conveys nonetheless that the sound of the legal code, from the mouth of a deity, is what gives authority to the written word.
Not only is this a reversal of our current practice, where the words spoken by a judge rest on the authority of the written law—but it actually disrupts the entire narrative promulgated about this pillar. Rather than testifying to the power of written law, that massive black stone in the Louvre makes clear the exact opposite. For Hammurabi and the other early lawgivers, sound possessed more authority than written language. Text might hold some advantages as a means of preserving concepts, but could hardly match the imposing authority of a song from a god.
But there’s an even older legal code in ancient Mesopotamia, although it’s rarely mentioned—and certainly not with the hushed reverence accorded to that 7-foot pillar in Paris. This earlier collection of laws, the Code of Ur-Nammu, dates back to the period 2100-2050 BC, and specifically states the authority for its 57 precepts derives from the gods. The Code is attributed either to the Sumerian ruler Ur-Nammu, or his son Shulgi, both deified themselves. Shulgi, it’s worth noting, composed songs and performed purification rites, and in a surviving hymn boasts of his interactions with the gods—activities that make clear how similar he was to the practitioner of magical Orphic music who left us the Derveni papyrus.
In other words, the further we peer back into the origin of human law, the more legal history blends into the musical vision quest. A singer encounters a divine force in a visionary state, and returns with rules for a better way of living. It took thousands of years before law could separate itself from these musical origins.
And we should hardly be surprised by this. If you had an opportunity to consult a deity or spiritual helper in another realm—on the mountain top, or the Underworld, or in a visionary trance—what questions would you ask? The answer is obvious: you would want to know what rules to live by, and not just for yourself. You would also seek guidance for your entire community. If you didn’t ask for this kind of help, you would have wasted an extraordinary opportunity.
Who knows, perhaps we would be better off today if lawyers and judges were still singers. I note that, even now when written law is venerated around the world, we continue to acknowledge the primacy of sound over text in a court proceeding when each witness swears an oath before testifying. A signature on a written document could easily serve the same purpose, but the awe inspired by the verbal oath is so great that this remnant of the oral tradition has survived into an the digital age.
More than three thousand years may have elapsed since the time of Hammurabi, but we still invoke a deity with sound of our voice to give credence and sanction to legal proceedings. That’s a sobering thought, but perhaps also an inspiring one.
And even today, wise judges remind us to give priority to the spirit of the law over the mere word of the law. That’s an interesting word, spirit—and captures exactly where these musical laws originally came from it ancient times. Until the spirits were consulted now law had its proper jurisdiction.
Before leaving behind this inquiry into the musical origins of legal institutions it’s worth stressing that this chapter merely presents one case study of the role of music in social history. Many similar genealogies might be constructed by the perspicacious scholar.
An accurate history of education, for example, would need to grapple with the power and influence of the music-driven bardic schools of Celtic tradition, older than Oxford and Cambridge.
A true history of medicine would find its earliest sources in the musical shamans found in every region of the world.
An honest account of political traditions would discover that the warrior chieftains of tribal societies secured their authority by means of the pronouncements of musical seers—the Welsh court poet Phylip Brydydd wasn’t lying when he brashly told his patron Gwneuthum it glod: “I made fame for you.”
And elsewhere in this book, we have already probed into the musical underpinnings of literature, philosophy, and scripture.
In each of these instances, bards exercised power at the origin of a vital tradition, and for a simple, irrefutable reason: they were the repositories of knowledge and intermediaries with divine powers. So it would be a strange society, indeed, in which wisdom and authority didn’t come via their songs.
Let me put it differently: This is the secret musicology I’m sharing in this book—the one they don’t teach at Juilliard. But maybe they should.
We have learned some surprising things in this chapter. Let’s summarize them before proceeding.
(1) The notion of music as a visionary quest has no secure place in today’s society, where songs are considered commodities in a trillion-dollar entertainment business. Yet this conceptual approach has enormous explanatory power.
(2) Musicologists and music historians have been reluctant to explore this area of research because its metaphysical attributes seem to undermine the academic rigor of their profession. Treating songs as a type of magic is below the dignity of their vocation. And scholars in other fields have been even less interested in the role of music in their disciplines—despite clear evidence that all positions of authority (priest, healer, ruler, philosopher, etc.) were originally associated with music.
(3) As a case study, we explored the notion that laws were originally sung. The social philosopher Vico suggested this in his 1725 work The New Science, but his views on this have rarely been taken seriously, or even noticed by legal scholars.
(4) Yet a careful consideration of our earliest sources finds evidence of laws originating as songs in a wide range of cultures (Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, etc.).
(5) Even the Code of Hammurabi, preserved on a 7-foot diorite pillar in the Louvre and considered the most significant ancient monument to written law, testifies to the power of oral tradition. The prologue and epilogue to the Code are in poetic meter, and the image of Hammurabi at the top of the pillar can be plausibly interpreted as a recipient of sung laws from the god Shamash.
(6) Almost every aspect of the early legal traditions considered here corresponds to the musical hero’s quest studied in this work—to an uncanny extent. The lawgiver has a visionary encounter with a divine source of wisdom and returns with inspired rules for living, typically preserved in the form of a chanted poem or song.
(7) Even more striking, many of the most esteemed early lawgivers are the exact same individuals considered previously in this book as musical shaman-philosophers, including Parmenides, Empedocles, Pythagoras, and—going back to the point where history and myth merge—the shadowy figure of Orpheus, whose influence looms over this entire tradition, and is echoed in similar legendary figures all over the world.
(8) The accumulated evidence not only validates the theory that laws originated as songs, but testifies to the need to consider the musical quest as an explanatory tool in many other subjects. If something as hard-headed as law can turn out to have its roots in music, how many other institutions and practices might possess a similar hidden source?
a paean fit for Apollo and the Graces: Edward Nowacki, “On the Locrian Mode,” Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 41, No. 1, p. 37. Note that harmonia is a vague term in this context, and no specific scale is defined. But the Greeks clearly saw it as inextricably linked to, as Nowacki puts it, an “ethos” and “ethnic roots”—attributes which are also essential characteristics of early law.
In a time of civil strife: Michael Gagarin, Early Greek Law (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986) p. 60.
Northrop Frye wisely reminds us: Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 55.
Certainly it is hard to imagine: Michael Gagarin, Early Greek Law (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986) p. 54.
for the most part by sacrifices, processions and religious dances: This and below from Plutarch, Lives, Vol. 1, translated by Bernadotte Perrin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914), p. 331.
I’ve suggested elsewhere that music: See Ted Gioia, Music: A Subversive History (New York: Basic Books, 2019), esp. pp. 94-96, 100-101, 414; Ted Gioia, Love Songs: The Hidden History (New York: Oxford, 2015), esp. pp. xi-xii, 36-37, 52-53, 105-106
would have gone into the wastebasket: Ivan Linforth, Solon the Athenian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1919, p. 214.
to afford flexibility for change in the future: Russ VerSteeg, Law in the Ancient World (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2002, p. 194.
our earliest evidence for law in ancient Greece: This and below from Ibid., p. 190.
Thy statutes have been my songs: Psalms 119: 54, KJV.
spake three thousand proverbs: 1 Kings 4:32, KJV.
joint memory of the ancients: Paul Russell, “The Languages and Registers of Law in Medieval Ireland and Wales,” from Law and Language in the Middle Ages, edited by Jenny Benham, Matthew McHaffie and Helle Vogt (Leiden: Brill, 2018), p. 89.
Plutarch makes clear: Plutarch, Lives, Vol. 1, translated by Bernadotte Perrin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914), p. 321.
Welsh court poet Phylip Brydydd wasn’t lying: J.E. Caerwyn Williams, The Poets of the Welsh Princes (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978, pp. 19-20.