Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The antiquity of the castanet


The national dances of Spain and the merry-sounding castanet so universally accompany each other, that they both are generally considered of Spanish invention; but the castanet is of a far remoter origin.

The original name given to that sonorous instrument in Europe was crótalo, from the Greek word krŏtĕo, equivalent, according to Plutarch, to pulso or verbero in Latin. The word castañuela, one of the many names given to the castanet in Spain, may have its origin from the custom of keeping time to the national dances and music by cracking the fingers, which is called a castañeta, a word easily transformed into castañuela, to express the instrument used for the same purpose. Amongst the ancient Romans dances with the crótalo were introduced after feasts (when the wine had freely circulated), even in the houses of the grave and learned, and Virgil testifies to this custom in some lines addressed to a celebrated dancer of that time

Copa Syrisca caput Graiâ redimita mitellâ
Crispum sub Crotalo docta movere latus,
Ebria famosâ saltat lasciva tabernâ
Ad cubitum raucos excutiens calamos.

Propertius assures us, that amongst those who accompanied Thales of Miletus when he went from Greece to Egypt to study philosophy and geometry, about 600 years before Christ, was one Phyllis, who beguiled his leisure hours by dancing before him with the crótalo: and that she taught the Egyptians how to play them, and that they were introduced by the priests of Isis in their ceremonies and processions dedicated to Isis on the banks of the Nile.

Propertius describes them as two small round plates, rattled in the hand, and adds that they are engraved on the obelisk of Oriental granite in the Plaza del Populo in Rome.

In Italy we hear of them in the time of Trajan (a Spaniard by birth, and who seems to have been as much admired by the fair sex as he was a devoted lover of theirs). For Pliny says, in speaking of the Roman ladies of that time, “that they vied with each other which should be the most lavish in her expenditure: and also, that they selected amongst their most precious pearls, not only the largest, but those particularly of an almond shape, through which they bored a hole in the upper part, and stringing two or three together, they tied them on their hands and rattled them as crótalos to please Trajan.” He may have introduced them into Spain; or perhaps they were brought later by a race of Getanos, who pretend to be lineally descended from an Egyptian king, who, flying from his country, settled in Spain. I accosted a fortune-teller once, and asked her if she was a gipsy (a Jitana). She drew herself up, and her beautiful eye flashed, and her lip curled half in triumph, half in scorn:

I a Jitana? No—I do not belong to that scum of the earth; I am a Getana, a descendant of the Egyptian kings.”

There were three distinct races of the followers of Mahomet who overran Spain. The first invaders were Arabs from the desert, who held dominion for 400 years; then came the Moorish kings, who, after many battles, supplanted without exterminating their predecessors, and held sway for 300 years; but not without continual outbreaks and skirmishes between them. These last came w ith Abderhaman, the first King of Cordova, from the wilds of Yeman, included in the Caliphat of Egypt, and were called Egipeios (Egyptians), to distinguish them from the Arabs, and from the barbarous hordes from Fez and Morocco, who came subsequently, headed by the Princes Almozados, and were called Moros, or Moors. After the conquest by the Christians, a great distinction was made in favour of the Egyptians, as the aristocratic, educated, and civilised, race; but subsequently, one after one, their privileges were curtailed; they were harshly and cruelly treated, and at last in 1611 an edict was issued confounding all the tribes under one head as Egipeios or Getanos, forbidding them to speak their own language, which for the future was to be called gibberish. This must be the race alluded to by the gipsy woman. The word moro is still used by the lower classes in Andalusia as an epithet of extreme contempt.

The most ancient crótalo was round, and made of metal; later, they were made concave, and of the wood of the pomegranate, cherry, or of ebony, and in the shape of an almond; but for the last 200 years an oreja (or ear) was substituted for the pointed almond shape.

They are paired male and female;[1] the latter (hembra) has a shriller and sharper tone than her mate, and is played in the right hand and more quickly than the macho, or male. After the conquest of the New World, ivory castanets became the fashion amongst the élite, as being more expensive, but their tone is never so mellow or musical; they have not as much vibration. The older castanets are, and the more they are used, the better is the sound they emit. The various names of the castanet in Spanish are crotalos, castañuelos, palillos (from palo, Lat. palus, wood), and sonajas (from sonar, Lat. sonare, to sound).

Soy yo.

  1. See page 610.