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A sistrum.
A sistrum (plural: sistrums, sistra) is a musical instrument of the percussion family, chiefly associated with ancient Iraqmarker and Egyptmarker. It consists of a handle and a U-shaped metal frame, made of brass or bronze and between 76 and 30 cm in width. When shaken the small rings or loops of thin metal on its movable crossbars produce a sound that can be a from a soft CLANK to a loud jangling. The name derives from the Greek verb σείω, seio, to shake, and σείστρον, seistron, is that which is being shaken.

The Egyptian sistrum

The sistrum was a sacred instrument in ancient Egypt. Perhaps originating in the worship of Bast, it was used in dances and religious ceremonies, particularly in the worship of the goddess Hathor, with the U-shape of the sistrum's handle and frame seen as resembling the face and horns of the cow goddess. It was also shaken to avert the flooding of the Nile and to frighten away Set. Isis in her role as mother and creator was depicted holding a pail symbolizing the flooding of the Nile, in one hand and a sistrum in the other. The goddess Bast too is often depicted holding a sistrum, symbolizing her role as a goddess of dance, joy, and festivity.

Sistra are still used in the rites of the Coptic and Ethiopianmarker churches. Besides the depiction in Egyptian art with dancing and expressions of joy, the sistrum was also mentioned in Egyptian literature. The hieroglyph for the sistrum is shown, but there are other varieties (sistrum and castanets).

The sistrum today

The sistrum was occasionally revived in 19th century Western orchestral music, appearing most prominently in Act 1 of the opera Les Troyens (1856-1858) by the French composer Hector Berlioz. Nowadays, however, it is replaced by its close modern equivalent, the tambourine. The effect produced by the sistrum in music - when shaken in short, sharp, rhythmic pulses - is to arouse movement and activity. The rhythmical shaking of the sistrum, like the tambourine, is associated with religious or ecstatic events, whether shaken as a sacred rattle in the worship of Hathor of ancient Egypt, or, in the strident jangling of the tambourine in modern-day Evangelism, in Gypsy song and dance, on stage at a rock concert, or to heighten a large-scale orchestral tutti.

The "barcoo dog," a sheep herding tool used in Australian bush band music, is a type of sistrum.[42659]


Image:As-Hadrian-Aegyptus-RIC 0839,As.jpg|Hadrian coin, showing seated woman with Sistrum.Image:Louvres-antiquites-egyptiennes-p1010937.jpg|Collection of sistrums(sistra) at the Louvremarker


  • George Hart, The Routledge Dictionary Of Egyptian Gods And Goddesses, Routledge 2005
  • Carolyn Merchant, Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World, Routledge 1992
  • Plutarch, Isis and Osiris , Vol. V of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1936
  • Edith Borroff, Music in Europe and the United States: A History, Prentice-Hall 1971
  • Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2,


  1. Hart, op.cit., p.65
  2. Plutarch, op.cit., cap.63
  3. Merchant, op.cit., p.115
  4. Hart, op.cit., p.47
  5. Borroff, op.cit., p.9
  6. The Instruction of Amenemope in Lichtheim, op.cit., p.149

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