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Thrēnos (Gk.: ‘lamentation’)locked

  • Geoffrey Chew
  •  and Thomas J. Mathiesen

Ancient Greek lament for a dead person, analogous to the Roman Nenia (also, according to Maas, the leader of such a lament). The latinized plural form of the term (threni) is used in the title of the biblical book of Lamentations; it was so used by Stravinsky in his setting of texts from that book (Threni, 1958); it also occurs as the designation of a category of chant sung during Lent in the Mozarabic rite (see Mozarabic chant, §4, (vii)).

The music of lamentation was intended to praise the deceased and provide a release for the intense emotions of the bereaved; its power in dissipating grief is well attested in ancient culture. Plutarch (Table-Talk, 657a) observes that thrēnoidia (threnody) and the epikedeios aulos move the emotions and cause tears to flow, thus little by little consuming and removing distress; Aristides Quintilianus (On Music, ii.4) notes that music was employed in certain ‘funeral rites to break off the extreme of passion by means of melody’. Details about the type of music, performers and number of accompanying instruments appear in sources as diverse as the Talmud, Lucian and the Twelve Tables.

In ancient Greece the term thrēnos seems to have covered all different types of lament, but it was used particularly for that which accompanied the laying-out (prothesis) of the corpse, usually on the day after death. This lament was performed by a leader (exarchos) who was interrupted by choral refrains; although friends and relatives participated in the lamentation, it is apparent that mourners (normally women) were also hired to provide music and other services. Plato (Laws, vii, 800e) refers to the performance of ‘Karian music’ over the corpse by hired mourners; Josephus (Jewish War, iii.9.5) reports that hired auletes played threnodies during an extended period of mourning after the battle of Jotopata; and Cicero (Laws, ii.23.59) observes that the Twelve Tables limited the expense of funerals to ‘three veils, a purple tunic and ten auletes’.

The aulos was the normal accompanying instrument and was specially favoured during the ekphora (carrying-out); the Karian women, famous as professional mourners, used the aulos during thrēnoi. The Sirens are depicted on gravestones and elsewhere, from the 4th century bce, as mourners, tearing their hair, beating their breasts or playing the aulos like human mourners. Laments were also composed as aulos solos (nomoi thrēnētikoi) from an early period. Lydian and Mixolydian harmoniai were favoured (Plato, Republic, iii, 398e–399a).

The distinctions to be drawn between the term thrēnos and other words for laments are not always clear. The epikēdeion was claimed even in antiquity to have been sung only at a burial (kēdos), but may be a simple synonym for thrēnos. The terms goos and (less commonly) ialemos may have referred to less sophisticated and less literary laments than the thrēnos. The term kommos referred (though perhaps not exclusively) to the literary laments of Attic tragedy. According to Aristotle (Poetics, 1452b24–25), the kommos was the common lamentation of the chorus and the characters on the stage. The Byzantine treatise On Tragedy (4; ed. Browning) considered it to be one of the five parts of choral song: parodos, stasimon, emmeleia, kommos and exodos. Examples of the kommos can be identified, and these clearly illustrate the highly dramatic effect created by the antiphonal exchange between the actor and the chorus. The kommos between the chorus and Xerxes in Aeschylus’s Persians (1038–76), for example, is elided with the exodos and builds up to a tremendous climax through a group of seven strophes and antistrophes and an epode. Beginning with the sixth strophe, specific references are made to the action taking place on stage and in the orchestra.

Besides laments for the dead, Greek tradition included special laments for gods and heroes (e.g. Adonis and Linus), perhaps still reflected in medieval staurotheotokia (laments of the Virgin Mary at the cross) and other Byzantine chants such as the epitaphios thrēnos (lament for Christ in Holy Week), and laments for the fall of cities. The Hymenaios and the thrēnos represent two extremes of music in daily life: one marks the beginning of adult life, the other the end. Because they were both so closely tied to particular individuals and events, it is hardly surprising that so few fragments of these two types survive.


  • H.W. Smyth: Greek Melic Poets (London, 1904/R), p.cxx
  • E. Diehl: ‘Kommoi’, Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, 11 (Stuttgart, 1921), 1195–1207
  • J. Quasten: Musik und Gesang in den Kulten der heidnischen Antike und christlichen Frühzeit (Münster, 1930, 2/1973; Eng. trans., 1983), 195–211
  • C.M. Bowra: Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcman to Simonides (Oxford, 1936, 2/1961)
  • P. Maas: ‘Thrēnos’, Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, 2nd ser., 6 (Stuttgart, 1937), 596–608
  • E. Reiner: Die rituelle Totenklage der Griechen (Stuttgart and Berlin, 1938)
  • A. Pickard-Cambridge: The Dramatic Festivals of Athens (Oxford, 1953, rev. 2/1968 by J. Gould and D.M. Lewis)
  • R. Browning: ‘A Byzantine Treatise on Tragedy’, Geras: Studies Presented to George Thomson on the Occasion of his 60th Birthday, ed. L. Varcl and R.F. Willetts (Prague, 1963), 67–81
  • M. Alexiou: The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (London, 1974)

See also