Semantron - History

History

While continuing in daily use at monasteries and sometimes featuring at funerals for their deep notes sounded at long intervals, as well as at other services, semantra have also played a part in Orthodox history. Their origin has been traced to at least the beginning of the 6th century, when the semantron had replaced the trumpet as the agent of convocation in the monasteries of Egypt, Palestine and Sinai; the rhythms struck on wood were soon vested with the aural memory of rhythmic blasts from earlier trumpets, an iconography of trumpeting that was eventually transferred to the zvon of Russian bells. The joy shown at Constantinople on the occasion of the translation of the relics of St. Anastasius was shown by the beating of xyla. In the Life of St. Theodosius the Archimandrite, by Moschus, one reads of some Eutychian monks of the party of Severus who, to disturb the saint at his devotion, "beat the wood" at an unwonted hour. St. Sabas rose for his devotions "before the hour of striking."

Larger and smaller semantra have been used, the smaller being sounded first, followed by the larger, then by those of iron. Theodore Balsamon, in a treatise on the subject, compares the sounding of the little, great and iron semantra to the preaching of the Law and of the Gospel, and the Last Trumpet. He also says that the congregations were summoned by three semantra in monasteries, and only by one large one in parish churches. Moreover, he emphasises the persistence of the semantron in the East as a symbolic manifestation of difference with the Latin West (it remains unclear if some isolated practices in the West such as the Basque txalaparta are associated with the pre-schism liturgy); in Byzantium, the use of bells did not really gather momentum until after the Fourth Crusade, and at the Fall of Constantinople semantra still outnumbered bells by a five-to-one ratio. Semantra, from their size and shape, furnished formidable weapons, and were sometimes so used with fatal effect in a church brawl. One reason why semantra continue to be used in southeastern Europe in particular is that the ringing of bells was outlawed during Ottoman times, forcing monasteries to use the semantron instead; the practice then became customary, though in Bulgaria it largely fell into disuse after independence.

In Russia, the techniques for playing the bilo were retained in bell-ringing rubrics, and it could still be heard in more remote, rural areas at the time of the Revolution. Today, its use is restricted to the Altai region and Siberia, as well as Old Believer sketes, the latter retaining the aloofness toward outsiders that has characterised the group since it broke away from the main body of the Russian Orthodox Church (see Raskol). Also, a semantron may be in use because the monastery cannot afford a bell.

The Syrian Orthodox hold the semantron in great veneration, based on an ancient tradition that Noah invented it. According to the story, God told him: "Make for yourself a bell of box-wood, which is not liable to corruption, three cubits long and one and a half wide, and also a mallet from the same wood. Strike this instrument three separate times every day: once in the morning to summon the hands to the ark, once at midday to call them to dinner, and once in the evening to invite them to rest". The Syrians strike their semantra when the liturgy is about to begin and when it is time to summon the people to public prayer. Their tradition also links the sound of the wood to the wood of the Garden of Eden that caused Adam to fall when he plucked its fruit, and to the nailing to the wood of the cross of Jesus Christ, come to atone for Adam's transgression.

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