Pipes, instruments, singulars or the plural?

Over the years, I have repeatedly been confronted with this question: when talking about our ancient double pipes, should we not use the plural (Greek: auloi; Latin: tibiae), instead of the singular (aulos/tibia) – isn’t it two pipes, after all?

My general answer would be, if we use ancient terms, we ought to stick as closely to ancient usage as possible. Anything else is horribly confusing for non-specialists, who inevitably become entangled between ancient and modern acceptations, mistaking the latter for the former and consequently reading wrong meanings into the sources. Ancient usage, please, or non-ancient words!

So that should be easy enough, right? Well, a close look at the texts shows that it’s a bit more complex… but still… As far as I see (I give only Latin examples, but Greek usage is close enough),

  • the plural auloi and tibiae may denote several instruments as well as a pair of pipes. The latter, I think, is more colloquial (eripe ex ore tibias “pull the pipes out of your mouth”: Plautus, Stichus 718).
  • singular aulos and tibia generally refers to a pair of pipes (biforem dat tibia cantum “the tibia sends forth its double-bore music”: Vergil, Aeneis 9.618),
  • unless one explicitly distinguishes the members of the pair (dextra tibia alia quam sinistra “the right pipe is different from the left”: Varro, Res Rusticae 1.2.15).

Therefore, I think, in order to denote a pair of pipes, using the singular makes the most sense, because this clarifies it is a pair of pipes. If we say “auloi” or “tibiae”, one would more naturally understand we are talking about more than one instrument. On the other hand, whenever I talk about a single extant pipe I prefer saying “pipe”, not aulos or tibia – also to emphasise that this is not a complete instrument: “Pompeii Pipe 3”, but “the Louvre aulos”.

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14 Responses to Pipes, instruments, singulars or the plural?

  1. Jeff says:

    Recently, I was lucky enough to talk to a delightful young lady who was a Greek Classics Tutor, named Argyroula Bell BA, (London), MA Classics (London) who was a mine of information about Ancient Greece. She was Greek born, and had married a Englishman. Ancient Greece was not only her subject, but was also her passion. In answer to my question about the Aulos she stated that Auloi is the plural and Aulos is the singular. She stated that both Aulos and Auloi meant “pipes”. My facebook page [Auloi Players Group] is therefore correctly named – (big sigh of relief…).

    I think that it is gramatically similar to the word “sheep” which means one or more sheep, the plural of sheep being sheep, not as one would expect in English – sheeps.

    (is that the same in German?)

    Confusing? You bet it is…


  2. Stefan Hagel says:

    German happily allows for the individual Schaf as well as for any number of Schafe. However, English “sheep” and Greek “aulos” work very differently, as “aulós” is a perfectly regular noun in having a standard plural besides its singular: “auloí, aulôn, auloîs, auloús”.
    The confusion is not grammatical; it arises from the fact that a couple of bodily separate items work as a functional whole in most relevant contexts.
    As Martin West remarks, something else might be regarded as remarkable: although the (soon dominant) Attic dialect of Greek has retained forms for the ancient grammatical category referring to exactly two items (as opposed to either only one or more than two), we never find it used for the double pipe.
    Again, I don’t find this very surprising, since the standard mode of perceiving the double pipe is that of a functional unit, hence calling for the singular. Just as we say in English: the “double pipe”, not the “two-pipes”. Conversely, where the Athenians used a ‘dual’, we normally use a kind of plural: (a pair of) eyes, feet…

  3. Ronald Huggins says:

    Thanks so much for this and your work generally on auloi. Question? Do you happen to have clear examples of the singular being used for the two pipe aulos from Greek as you do from Latin?

    • Stefan Hagel says:

      That’s ubiquitous. Only this site does not allow pasting Ancient Greek very well.
      What about Herodotus 2.28: προηγέεται δὲ αὐλός, αἱ δὲ ἕπονται ἀείδουσαι τὸν Διόνυσον. Xenophon, Symp. 6.3: ὅταν γὰρ ὁ αὐλὸς φθέγγηται, παντάπασι σιωπῶμεν. ………

      • Ronald Huggins says:

        To follow up, I don’t see how it is clear from those two passages that the aulos in question is a double pipe. Or am I mistaken? Can take for granted that because the double-pipe aulos is so ubiquitous on Greek vases that when we see the singular used in texts we may safely assume that it is referring to a double-pipe intrument?


        • Stefan Hagel says:

          Ah, I see. No, I would not know a passage where this is so clear as in these very few Latin examples – but I did not look through the many hundreds of passages with that question in mind.
          The main argument is indeed the one you have given: depictions invariably show doubelpipes, while the texts have so often the singular for what is obviously to be taken the standard instrument played in the same contexts as we find in the iconography. Therefore the assumption of a different instrument found only in the texts is desperately unlikely.
          On the other hand, whenever an author would want to talk about the two pipes of an instrument, (s)he would naturally refer to it in the plural from the start; hence we need to be quite lucky to find the kind of unequivocal text we’d like so see.

  4. Ronald Huggins says:

    I have wondered whether we might have such a text in Homer Od. 22:18, where Odysseus shoots an arrow through someone’s throat with the result that an “aulos ana rinas (“nose” plural, hence “nostrils”) paxus elthen haimatos andromeoio” (“up through his nostrils there came a thick jet [should be jets?] of the blood of man”).

    Any thoughts?

    On another subject, if you don’t mind, have you ever heard of aulos being used in reference to the membrum virile? This was the view of Carl Jung in interpreting a text (Mythras Liturgy), but I have been doubtful of it precisely because the aulos is usually double piped (which he was not apparently aware of).


    • Stefan Hagel says:

      The Od. passage has been discussed in relation to the musical instrument as well as an underlying “pipe” (of any kind). I don’t know whether it’s possible to have two seperate streams of blood, one gushing out of each nostril. This would need research, but most grant applications now require an ethics statement. Of course, Homer might just imagine it would be possible.
      Regarding your second question, I agree that a phallic interpretation makes little sense for doublepipes. I have always wondered whether the quasi-restriction to doublepipes might be due also to the requirement of avoiding phallic connotations (which does not apply to the transverse flute, plagiaulos). After all, one of the very few texts on the monaulos, Martial Ep. 63 (64), famously exploits precisely that association.

      • Ronald Huggins says:

        Thank. Good heavens! I didn’t mean two streams out of each nostril, only one out of each, two total. My idea was that although aulos was singular in the passage we probably shouldn’t think of a single stream of blood out of one nostril, but rather, on the analogy of a double piped aulos, blood pouring out of both.

        As for the other, thanks so much for your input, and especially the reference to the martial passage!

  5. Ronald Huggins says:

    Now strangely I do not fined the reference in Martial Ep. 64.

  6. Ronald Huggins says:

    Ah never mind. It 63 in the collection I’m looking at.

  7. Ronald Huggins says:

    I apologize for so many questions, but one more if I may. I have seen the two-pipe aulos described as a diaulos in some recent literature. I know that term had some currency in reference to other things in ancient Greek. But have you found that it was used very much at all as an alternative to aulos or auloi?


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