Bulbing a reed stem: troubles with bulbs and cups in Hellenic auloi

In my recent experiments making aulos reeds and pipes based on Hellenic finds, I have encountered some problems which I’d like to share in the hope of sparking a discussion.

First, some useful terminology:

At the time of Martin West’s seminal work, Ancient Greek Music, it was commonly believed that some Hellenic auloi had two bulbs between the main body of the instrument and the reed (West 1992: 85; Landels 2000: 27, 32). This assertion was based on many 5th-century iconographic representations that appear to depict the instrument in this way (e.g. Figures 1 and 2).

Fig. 1. Met NY 25.78.66, Photo: KW
Fig. 2. BrM London E68, Photo: KW

However, none of the excavated instruments dated to the Classical period seems to have been constructed according to such a design, which has led some researchers to question the existence of a second bulb. Admittedly, most of the surviving aulos pipes have deteriorated at the reed end, but the loss of an entire bulb section in all known finds is highly unlikely, especially in the case of finds which appear to have lost little material.

Approaching the problem of these instruments’ design, Stefan Hagel proposed some time ago that they required a long reed (see his forthcoming article ‘Understanding early auloi: instruments from Paestum, Pydna and elsewhere’; cf. Sutkowska 2010, 80-1). Ever since, reed-makers have been following his suggestion when producing reeds for Pydna and Poseidonia auloi (Figure 3; see blogposts on reed-making).

Fig. 3. Reconstruction of a Poseidonia aulos pipe (upstream end) with a long reed

While this method yields results that perfectly match some ancient depictions (e.g. the famous BrM E271, or the kylix from Tarquinia reproduced in Figure 4), it does not explain the hourglass-like double bulge visible in Figures 1 and 2. 

Fig. 4. Tarquinia Museo Nazionale, RC 6848. Photo: KW

Was it just an iconographic convention or were the stems of some long reeds bulbous in reality? I decided to explore this question by trying to force cylindrical reed stems into more curvaceous forms. In my quest I was inspired by a YouTube film on making duduk reeds https://youtu.be/QocUPXY5zpI, as these have a bulbous profile (Figure 5).

Fig. 5. Duduk reed profile

Applying a similar procedure, I was able to narrow the downstream end of a long reed (Figure 6). The result, produced from an Arundo donax tube of 13mm diameter, resembles a bulb only vaguely. A larger diameter of tube, a softer piece of cane, or another species of cane, would perhaps produce more of a bulge below the constriction. This result made me wonder about the shape of the cup, or upstream end of the pipe, where a slightly conical flaring receives the reed.

Fig. 6. Long aulos reed

From a practical perspective, the design of the reed seat is very important. In order to avoid air leaks, the reed must be firmly seated in the socket. I learned this the hard way, initially producing too conical a reed seat for my Pydna (Figure 7). Although none of the ‘early’ reeds survive, the way the internal walls of the reed seat are shaped could tell us a lot about the shape and the diameter of the downstream end of the reed.

Fig. 7. My first attempt at reconstructing the Pydna aulos

Stelios Psaroudakēs suggests that ‘early’ auloi often had a conical inlet for the reed (Psaroudakēs 2014, 119; cf. Psaroudakēs 2013), in which they differed from later finds (such as the Louvre pipes) that have a cylindrical socket in the reed cup. Unfortunately, the part receiving the reed has disintegrated at the rim in most of the ‘early’ aulos finds. With regard to the aulos of Pydna, Stelios Psaroudakēs suggests a flaring conical shape of both the external and internal profile of the reed seat (Psaroudakēs 2008, 209). The internal profile is what matters for reed makers. If it was indeed conical, it would most likely require a conical stem end. Another feature which is found in the early period (beginning from the 4th century BC) is a joint between cup and bulb: a two-piece construction, with a spigot on the cup entering a socket in the bulb (Psaroudakēs 2013, 111-13). The aulos of Pydna is an example (Figure 8).

Fig. 8. Aulos of Pydna, Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki, Photo: KW

Interestingly, 5th-century iconography does not provide many examples of a flared cup between the reed and the pipe (cf. Psaroudakēs 1994, 347). Are the artists depicting a type of cup and bulb made in one piece, which is known from the Perachora (Figure 9) and Ialyssos fragments and perhaps the aulos of Poseidonia? Was this whole piece called a holmos (ὅλμος – Greek for a drinking cup possibly with a foot and stem)?

Fig. 9. Section A 482 of Perachora aulos. Neck, bulb and cup in one piece. Image from Perachora: the sanctuaries of Hera Akraia and Limenia: excavations of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, 1930-1933, 1962, Plate 190.

This makes me wonder about the variety of designs of reeds and pipes in the Classical period. If some reed stems really bulged below the constriction (like an asymmetric hourglass), was it possibly because a player was using reeds made from tubes of greater diameter than the reed seat of the instrument allowed? Did the one-piece upper end (e.g. Perachora and Ialyssos) which is often depicted in Greek vase painting develop into a two piece structure (e.g. Pydna) with a flaring cup?

Just as I was pondering these questions, I came across an image of unequal pipes, comparable in their relative length to the auloi of Pydna and Poseidonia, and with a similar design of reed seat and reed to my experiments. In this depiction, the reed cups appear to form one piece with the bulbs and necks. The combined shape looks like a champagne glass: is this the shape that gave rise to the term holmos? Furthermore, the reeds (which seem to be differentiated from the rest of the instrument by a lighter shade of ochre) have the familiar asymmetrical hourglass shape. Our confidence in the truth-to-reality of this depiction is increased by the detail of the reed blades, which are represented at slightly different angles (Figure 10).

Fig. 10. Detail of Met NY 96.9.36 Public domain

I am still curious as to whether the marriage of reed and pipe represented here is effectively the same as that in Figures 1 and 2, or whether the deviations I have been discussing reflect deviations in reality. Moreover, I would like to know which parts of an aulos upper end were called holmos and hypholmion (cf. Psaroudakēs 1994, 346-7). It would also be interesting to investigate why Aristoteles (Hist. an. 6.10) compares a dogfish egg-case to aulos reeds (cf. Psaroudakēs 1994, 504). Could it be because of the bulbous shape of the long reed stem?’ As an aspiring aulos reed-maker, I hope for a publication that focuses closely on the internal profile of ‘early’ aulos reed seats.

Many thanks to April and Barnaby for helping me with my English, to Stefan for kindly sharing his unpublished research with me, and to Barnaby for helping me clarify my thinking.

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