There be dragons!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


I’m reading a book on music by Jocelyn Godwin in which the author examines ancient musical charms. These charms consisted of a series of six or seven vowels that each represented a god. Godwin claims that such charms were throughout the ancient world as wards or guards against evil and existed in amulets as well as chanted songs in religious rites. One such example, Godwin points out, exists in the Bacchic exclamation EVOHE! Another is in the name of the Jewish God, YHVH, whose power was so great as to necessitate a ban on the pronunciation of his name. Thus the Jews added the other name of the god, Adonai, or Lord to YHVH to create YaHoVaH, or Jehovah. This seven syllable chant of vowels constituted one of the greatest religious music charms available in the Jewish world. My question is, driven by intuitive insight, is the Christian Euouae at the end of a chant a similar charm? I know that the Euouae is a shortened bit for Seculorum, Amen, but why choose that phrase, unless the amulet phrase existed prior? In other words, is there a vestigial remnant of this ancient musical magic embedded in the Gregorian “Seculorum, Amen” phrase of Euouae? By extension, is Gregorian chant itself an extended form of this same type of musical magic, the words being fitted to conjure certain metaphysical powers?


  1. Sometimes the answers are far simpler than we want them to be. In the middle ages, the boys and novices in monasteries were drilled on their psalm tones as part of their training for chanting during the Office. The "euouae" are an abbreviation for the last words of the "doxology," which was sung at the end of every psalm (with a couple notable exceptions). In other words, it was a way for the boys to quickly see how the last syllables of each psalm tone lined up with the music, so they could practice it for choir. It took much less time than writing out "saeculorum, amen" every time. The other portions of the psalm tone were intoned (more or less) on the same note, and thus they did not require a similar attention and illustration for the boys' benefit. It is purely a mnemonic device.

    There were eight general tones, and then several specific possible sub-tonal endings in both simple and solemn forms - coming out to about 70 different possible musical endings to psalm tones - which is why the final syllables were always illustrated with the musical notation like this; it helped the boys to learn which note went with which syllable in the many different possible endings of the psalm tones.

    So, again, "euouae" was never chanted on its own, as a charm or otherwise. It was an abbreviated way of indicating the phrase "saeculorum, amen," which was sung in full each time. As was often the case with frequent, repetitive formulae in the middle ages, a hand copyist did not want to write the same thing over and over when an abbreviation was handy. It does not reflect a choice to preserve a "sacred invocation" in a senseless syllabic form; "euouae" was never sung as a series of vowel sounds... it was merely an abbreviation for the last syllables of the doxology, which was sung in full every time. The copyist was just saving his hand the trouble of writing the full phrase out again and again.

    Incidentally, the full doxology is: "Gloria Patri et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto; sicut erat in principio, et nunc et semper, et in saecula saeculorum, amen." It would have been considered blasphemous to sing up to "saecula" and then blabber a bunch of vowels for the ending! They sang the whole thing out, every time, as monasteries all over the world still do today (and I know, because I'm a monk in one of them!).

  2. Thanks for your very erudite reminder of this origin, Monk Augustine. Indeed I am aware of this postulation from my musical training days and don't discredit it at all. The truth is normally the simplest explanation, so Ockham was right about that at least. No, my question here was more about whether or not the music that we have in Gregorian chant might have found its origins in the same Classical World invocations and charms which Godwin claims formed the basis of pre-Christian music. Certainly other elements of the Classical World carried over into the Christian (architecture, Mass structure, certain rites) so why not music as well? Even if the Euouae was a shorthand (which I don't doubt at all) isn't it possible that the vowel choice was not entirely accidental? Even if they would never have sung it as such, as you suggest they did not, wouldn't such a possible connection be intriguing if extended to longer bits of music such as, say, the Pange Lingua, or the Panis Angelicus, or the Sicut Cervus, or the Ave Maris Stella, or the Rosa Vernans?