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A Russian monk playing a semantron A01 5873.JPG
A Russian monk playing a semantron

The semantron or semandron (Greek : σήμαντρον), or semanterion (σημαντήριον), also called a xylon (ξύλον) (Romanian : toacă; Russian: било, bilo; Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian: клепало, klepalo; Arabic: ناقوس, nāqūs) is a percussion instrument used in monasteries to summon the monastics to prayer or at the start of a procession.

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

Romanian language Romance language

Romanian is an Eastern Romance language spoken by approximately 24–26 million people as a native language, primarily in Romania and Moldova, and by another 4 million people as a second language. It is an official and national language of each of Romania and Moldova. In addition, it is also one of the official languages of the European Union.

Russian language East Slavic language

Russian is an East Slavic language, which is official in the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as being widely used throughout Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was the de facto language of the Soviet Union until its dissolution on 25 December 1991. Although nearly three decades have passed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian is used in official capacity or in public life in all the post-Soviet nation-states, as well as in Israel and Mongolia.

Origins and use

A wooden semantron Bilo SR musei.jpg
A wooden semantron
A metal semantron hanging at Neamt Monastery, Romania Toaca Manastirii Neamt.jpg
A metal semantron hanging at Neamţ Monastery, Romania

The instrument comes in three chief varieties: a long wooden plank held in the player's left hand and struck with a wooden mallet in the right; a larger, heavier, fixed timber block suspended by chains and struck by one or two mallets; and a fixed metal variety, often horseshoe-shaped and struck by a metal mallet. [1]

The portable semantron is made of a long, well-planed piece of timber, usually heart of maple (but also beech), from 12 feet (3.7 m) and upwards in length, by 1 12 feet (46 cm) broad, and 9 inches (23 cm) in thickness. [2] Of Levantine and Egyptian origin, its use flourished in Greece and on Mount Athos before spreading among Eastern Orthodox in what are now Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Macedonia. It both predates and substitutes for bells (first introduced to the East in 865 by the Venetians, who gave a dozen to Michael III), [3] being used to call worshipers to prayer. The metal variety is made of iron or brass (ἁγιοσίδηρα, hagiosidera / клепало, klepalo); [4] formed of slightly curved metal plates, these give out a sound not unlike that of a gong. [2]

Maple genus of plants

Acer is a genus of trees and shrubs commonly known as maple. The genus is placed in the family Sapindaceae. There are approximately 128 species, most of which are native to Asia, with a number also appearing in Europe, northern Africa, and North America. Only one species, Acer laurinum, extends to the Southern Hemisphere. The type species of the genus is the sycamore maple, Acer pseudoplatanus, the most common maple species in Europe. The maples have easily recognizable palmate leaves and distinctive winged fruits. The closest relatives of the maples are the horse chestnuts.

Beech genus of plants

Beech (Fagus) is a genus of deciduous trees in the family Fagaceae, native to temperate Europe, Asia, and North America.

Levant Region in the eastern Mediterranean

The Levant is an approximate historical geographical term referring to a large area in the Eastern Mediterranean, primarily in Western Asia. In its narrowest sense, it is equivalent to the historical region of Syria. In its widest historical sense, the Levant included all of the eastern Mediterranean with its islands; that is, it included all of the countries along the Eastern Mediterranean shores, extending from Greece to Cyrenaica.

In the portable wooden form, at the centre of the instrument's length, each edge is slightly scooped out to allow the player to grasp it by the left hand, while he or she holds a small wooden (or sometimes iron) mallet in the right, with which to strike it in various parts and at various angles, eliciting loud, somewhat musical sounds (κροῦσμα, krousma). [2] Although simple, the instrument nonetheless produces a strong resonance and a variety of different intonations, depending on the thickness of the place struck and the intensity of the force used, so that quite subtle results can be obtained. [5] A metal semantron, smaller than those of wood, is usually hung near the entrance of the catholicon (the monastery's main church). [6] In the traditional monastic ritual, before each service the assigned player takes a wooden semantron and, standing before the west end of the catholicon, strikes on it three hard and distinct blows with the mallet. He then proceeds round the outside of the church, turning to the four quarters and playing on the instrument by striking blows of varying force on different parts of the wood at uneven intervals, always winding up the "tune" with three blows similar to those at the beginning. [3] Where there is a metal semantron, it is customary to strike it after the wooden one has been played. [7] The semantron is sounded every midnight for night offices (Midnight Office and Matins); [3] this is done by the candle-lighter (κανδηλάπτης, kandilaptis). The semantra are usually suspended by chains from a peg in the proaulion (porch of the catholicon) or perhaps outside the refectory door, or on a tree in the courtyard. [2]

Mallet Tool for striking the workpiece or another tool with a relatively large head

A mallet is a kind of hammer, often made of rubber or sometimes wood, that is smaller than a maul or beetle, and usually has a relatively large head. The term is descriptive of the overall size and proportions of the tool, and not the materials it may be made of, though most mallets have striking faces that are softer than steel.

Katholikon primary church in an Orthodox or Eastern Catholic monastery

A katholikon or catholicon or sobor refers to one of three things in the Eastern Orthodox Church:

Byzantine Rite liturgical rite of most Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches

The Byzantine Rite, also known as the Greek Rite or Constantinopolitan Rite, is the liturgical rite used by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Greek/Byzantine Catholic churches, and in a modified form, Byzantine Rite Lutheranism. Its development began during the fourth century in Constantinople and it is now the second most-used ecclesiastical rite in Christendom after the Roman Rite.


A portable wooden semantron standing in the catholicon of Djurdjevi Monastery, Serbia Djurdjevi stupovi12.JPG
A portable wooden semantron standing in the catholicon of Djurdjevi Monastery, Serbia
A fixed wooden semantron beneath bells at Capusneni church, Romania Clopotnita1.JPG
A fixed wooden semantron beneath bells at Căpuşneni church, Romania
Another fixed wooden semantron at Lupsa Monastery, Romania Manastirea Lupsa,Alba-Cruce si Toaca-IMG 29.JPG
Another fixed wooden semantron at Lupșa Monastery, Romania

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 Palestine and Egypt, including Saint Catherine's in the 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. [8] 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 John 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." [2]

Christian burial Funeral in Christian traditions

A Christian burial is the burial of a deceased person with specifically Christian ecclesiastical rites; typically, in consecrated ground. Until recent times Christians generally objected to cremation because it interfered with the concept of the resurrection of the body, and practiced inhumation almost exclusively. Today this opposition has all but vanished among Protestants. Catholics are now able to be cremated also, and this is rapidly becoming more common, but the Eastern Orthodox Churches still mostly forbid it.

Trumpet musical instrument with the highest register in the brass family

A trumpet is a brass instrument commonly used in classical and jazz ensembles. The trumpet group contains the instruments with the highest register in the brass family. Trumpet-like instruments have historically been used as signaling devices in battle or hunting, with examples dating back to at least 1500 BC; they began to be used as musical instruments only in the late 14th or early 15th century. Trumpets are used in art music styles, for instance in orchestras, concert bands, and jazz ensembles, as well as in popular music. They are played by blowing air through nearly-closed lips, producing a "buzzing" sound that starts a standing wave vibration in the air column inside the instrument. Since the late 15th century they have primarily been constructed of brass tubing, usually bent twice into a rounded rectangular shape.

Palestine (region) geographical region in the Middle East

Palestine is a geographic region in Western Asia usually considered to include Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in some definitions, parts of western Jordan.

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. [2] 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, [9] and at the Fall of Constantinople semantra still outnumbered bells by a five-to-one ratio. [10] Semantra, from their size and shape, furnished formidable weapons, and were sometimes so used with fatal effect in a church brawl. [2] [8] [11] One reason why semantra continue to be used in southeastern Europe in particular is that the ringing of bells was outlawed during Ottoman times under Islamic rule, forcing monasteries to use the semantron instead; the practice then became customary, [11] [12] though in Bulgaria it largely fell into disuse after independence.

Theodore Balsamon was a canonist of the Eastern Orthodox Church and 12th-century Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch.

Torah First five books of the Hebrew Bible

Torah has a range of meanings. It can most specifically mean the first five books of the 24 books of the Tanakh. It can also mean the continued narrative from all the 24 books, from the Book of Genesis to the end of the Tanakh (Chronicles), and it can even mean the totality of Jewish teaching, culture and practice, whether derived from biblical texts or later rabbinic writings. Common to all these meanings, Torah consists of the origin of Jewish peoplehood: their call into being by God, their trials and tribulations, and their covenant with their God, which involves following a way of life embodied in a set of moral and religious obligations and civil laws.

Four Evangelists authors of the four canonical gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)

In Christian tradition, the Four Evangelists are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authors attributed with the creation of the four Gospel accounts in the New Testament that bear the following titles: Gospel according to Matthew; Gospel according to Mark; Gospel according to Luke and Gospel according to John.

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. [5] 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 ). [13] [14] Also, a semantron may be in use because the monastery cannot afford a bell. [14]

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 Syriacs 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. [15]

Related Research Articles

Cymbal common percussion instrument

A cymbal is a common percussion instrument. Often used in pairs, cymbals consist of thin, normally round plates of various alloys. The majority of cymbals are of indefinite pitch, although small disc-shaped cymbals based on ancient designs sound a definite note. Cymbals are used in many ensembles ranging from the orchestra, percussion ensembles, jazz bands, heavy metal bands, and marching groups. Drum kits usually incorporate at least a crash, ride, or crash/ride, and a pair of hi-hat cymbals. A player of cymbals is known as a cymbalist.

Percussion instrument Type of musical instrument that produces a sound by being hit

A percussion instrument is a musical instrument that is sounded by being struck or scraped by a beater including attached or enclosed beaters or rattles struck, scraped or rubbed by hand or struck against another similar instrument. The percussion family is believed to include the oldest musical instruments, following the human voice.

Xylophone musical instrument of the family of mallets

The xylophone is a musical instrument in the percussion family that consists of wooden bars struck by mallets. Each bar is an idiophone tuned to a pitch of a musical scale, whether pentatonic or heptatonic in the case of many African and Asian instruments, diatonic in many western children's instruments, or chromatic for orchestral use.

Glockenspiel percussion instrument composed of a set of tuned keys arranged in the fashion of the keyboard of a piano

A glockenspiel is a percussion instrument composed of a set of tuned keys arranged in the fashion of the keyboard of a piano. In this way, it is similar to the xylophone; however, the xylophone's bars are made of wood, while the glockenspiel's are metal plates or tubes, thus making it a metallophone. The glockenspiel, moreover, is usually smaller and higher in pitch.

Idiophone class of musical instruments

An idiophone is any musical instrument that creates sound primarily by the instrument as a whole vibrating—without the use of strings or membranes. It is the first of the four main divisions in the original Hornbostel–Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification. The early classification of Victor-Charles Mahillon called this group of instruments autophones. The most common are struck idiophones, or concussion idiophones, which are made to vibrate by being struck, either directly with a stick or hand or indirectly, by way of a scraping or shaking motion. Various types of bells fall into both categories. A common plucked idiophone is the Jew's harp.

Wooden fish

A wooden fish, also known as a Chinese temple block. is a wooden percussion instrument. The wooden fish is used by monks and lay people in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. It is often used during rituals usually involving the recitation of sutras, mantras, or other Buddhist texts. The wooden fish is mainly used by Buddhist disciples in China, Japan, Korea, and other East Asian countries where the practice of Mahayana, such as the ceremonious reciting of sutras, is prevalent. In most Zen/Ch'an Buddhist traditions, the wooden fish serves to keep the rhythm during sutra chanting. In Pure Land Buddhism, it is used when chanting the name of Amitabha.

Bell Percussion instrument

A bell is a directly struck idiophone percussion instrument. Most bells have the shape of a hollow cup that when struck vibrates in a single strong strike tone, with its sides forming an efficient resonator. The strike may be made by an internal "clapper" or "uvula", an external hammer, or—in small bells—by a small loose sphere enclosed within the body of the bell.

Church bell bell in a church

A church bell in the Christian tradition is a bell which is rung in a church for a variety of ceremonial purposes, and can be heard outside the building. Traditionally they are used to call worshippers to the church for a communal service, and to announce times of daily prayer, called the canonical hours. They are also rung on special occasions such as a wedding, or a funeral service. In some religious traditions they are used within the liturgy of the church service to signify to people that a particular part of the service has been reached. The ringing of church bells, in the Christian tradition, is also believed to drive out demons.

Bell metal

Bell metal is a hard alloy used for making bells and related instruments, such as cymbals. It is a form of bronze with a higher tin content, usually in approximately a 4:1 ratio of copper to tin. The higher tin content increases the rigidity of the metal, and increases the resonance. It also has industrial uses, being specified for valve bodies, piston rings, bearings, and bushings.

Striking clock

A striking clock is a clock that sounds the hours audibly on a bell or gong. In 12-hour striking, used most commonly in striking clocks today, the clock strikes once at 1:00 A.M., twice at 2:00 A.M., continuing in this way up to twelve times at 12:00 P.M., then starts again, striking once at 1:00 P.M., twice at 2:00 P.M., up to twelve times at 12:00 A.M.

Esphigmenou monastery

Esphigmenou monastery is an Eastern Orthodox monastery in the monastic state of Mount Athos in Greece, dedicated to the Ascension of Christ. It is built next to the sea at the northern part of the Athonite peninsula. Located near the Hilandar monastery, it is the northernmost of all Athonite monasteries. The current monastery dates back to the 10th century, while tradition holds that the site had been used as a monastery since as early as the 5th century. Esphigmenou ranks eighteenth in the hierarchy of the Athonite monasteries and since the early 1970s has been embroiled in legal and ecclesiastical disputes. It is considered amongst the most conservative of the monastic houses on Mount Athos.

Russian Orthodox bell ringing

Russian Orthodox bell ringing has a history starting from the baptism of Rus in 988 and plays an important role in the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Stavronikita monastery

Stavronikita Monastery is an Eastern Orthodox monastery at the monastic state of Mount Athos in Greece, dedicated to Saint Nicholas. It is built on top of a rock near the sea near the middle of the eastern shore of the Athonite Peninsula, located between the monasteries of Iviron and Pantokratoros. The site where the monastery is built was first used by Athonite monks as early as the 10th century. Stavronikita was the last to be officially consecrated as an Athonite monastery in 1536 and ranks fifteenth in the hierarchy of the Athonite monasteries and currently has 30 to 40 monks.

Electronic carillon is a blanket term used to refer to an automated system which imitates the sound of a carillon. These systems simulate and amplify bell sounds which are then played from loudspeakers housed in a bell tower.

Bell plate

A bell plate is a percussion instrument consisting of a flat and fairly thick sheet of metal, producing a sound similar to a bell. They are most often used in orchestral and theater music.

Ogene is a style of Igbo music consisting of, and taking its name from, the ogene instrument, which is a large metal bell. The Ogene instrument has historically been made by the Igbo people of Nigeria. It is one of the most important metal instruments of the people.

Lazar the Serb Serbian Orthodox monk and inventor

Lazar, also known as Lazar the Serb or Lazar the Hilandarian, was a Serbian Orthodox monk and horologist who invented and built the first known mechanical public clock in Russia in 1404. The clock, which also struck the hours, was built at the request of Grand Prince Vasily I of Moscow. Prior to his arrival in Moscow, Lazar had served as a monk in the Serbian Hilandar monastery at Mount Athos. The clock tower was located in the palace behind the Cathedral of the Annunciation. However, the clock and the church in which it was located have not survived.

Simantra is an Eastern Orthodox percussion instrument used in liturgical service and is either a wooden or metal slab or bar that is mounted or suspended and struck with a mallet. The Simantra has been used by classical composers including Iannis Xenakis (Persephassa) and in Michael Gordon's Timber (2011). A Simantra is rich in overtones compared to the bars of percussion instruments such as a marimba or xylophone, where the fundamental is primary. The tone changes based on how near or far from the nodes the mallets strike the board.


  1. Dimitri Conomos, "Semandron", p. 559, in The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, John Anthony McGuckin, ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2010, ISBN   1-444-39254-9.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Smith and Cheetham, p. 1879.
  3. 1 2 3 Riley, Athelstan. Athos: or, The Mountain of the Monks, pp. 90-91. London, Longmans, Green, 1887. However, some doubt has been cast on the veracity of this account, but Greek resistance to bells certainly lasted some centuries; for details see Williams, E.V. The Bells of Russia: History and Technology, pp. 21-24, 31ff. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1985.
  4. The root of било (approx. "hitting/striking thing") is бит ("to hit/strike); that of клепало is клеп via клепать ("to hit", but more precisely, "to strike upon something"). In Middle Russian, the term клепило meant "the bell". Dal', V. I., The Interpreted Dictionary of the Living Great-Russian Language.
  5. 1 2 Hiller, Paul. Arvo Pärt, p. 21. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997, ISBN   0-19-816616-8.
  6. Pennington, M. Basil. The Monks of Mount Athos, p. 303. SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2003, ISBN   1-893361-78-0.
  7. Robinson, N.F. Monasticism in the Orthodox Churches, p. 147. London, Cope and Fenwick, 1916
  8. 1 2 Edward V. Williams, "Aural Icons of Orthodoxy: The Sonic Typology of Russian Bells", pp. 3-5, in Christianity and the Arts in Russia, William C. Brumfield and Miloš M. Velimirović, eds. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, ISBN   0-521-41310-9.
  9. Except in the city's Latin churches, which featured them as early as the 10th century.
  10. Burnett, John. Overview of the Origin and History of Russian Bell-Founding
  11. 1 2 Hall, John Manley. Greek Life: An Account of Past and Contemporary Conditions and Projects, p. 147. Bay View Reading Club, Detroit, Michigan, 1908.
  12. Denton, William. Servia and the Servians, p. 209. Bell and Daldy, London, 1862.
  13. Pylyaev, M. I. "Historical Bells"
  14. 1 2 Smolensky, S. V. On Bell Ringing in Russia
  15. O'Brien, John. A History of the Mass and Its Ceremonies in the Eastern and Western Church, pp. 148-149. Benziger Brothers, New York, 1879.