Timeline: Galas, Sumerian Musicians

Aug 19, 2019

Let’s begin this episode with the text of a song from ancient Sumeria, sung over 4,000 years ago.

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The gala sings a song for him

The gala sings a song of lordship for him

The gala sings a song with the harp for him

They play the holy tom-tom and bass drum

They play the cymbal, the sistrum and the lyre for him

Notice the repetition, the parallelism, in this ancient hymn. We’ve updated the language quite a bit, giving our best guess as to what kind of musical instruments it evokes, mostly percussion and strings.

The hymn would have been performed by the galas, ancient musicians of Sumeria, the civilization that invented written language. Sumerian myth tells how the god Enki created all of humanity out of clay. Later, Enki crafted galas from the remnants left under his fingernails to serve the goddess Inanna, after she was trapped in the underworld. Inanna was the god of sexuality and war. She had both male and female attributes. Therefore, her servants, the galas, were sexually ambiguous. They were called a “third-gender.” This transgender identity helped to establish the galas as boundary-crossing, both in human society and between humanity and the gods.

The galas were active starting around 2600 BCE, associated with funeral rites. Later writings state that they performed hymns of mourning and praise meant to keep the gods happy and hold off adversity. The term is “heart pacification.” If there was a natural disaster, drought or plague, or a military defeat then the gods must be angry and must be appeased. If everything is calm and peaceful then it was necessary to keep the gods happy and pacified. As the text of another hymn demonstrates…

Lord Enlil, may heaven and earth calm you!

Hero Asarluhi, may heaven and earth calm you!

Lord of the nation, may your majestic heart be calmed!

May the Anunna-gods stand before you in prayer to calm your heart!

The galas lived as outsiders, most were affiliated with temples but some were directly attached to palaces, cities or states. They served as boundary-crossers for centuries, using their instruments, voices and hymns as a bridge between humanity and the gods.

Learn more about the galas in Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.