The Irish Timpan: Predecessor to the Harp?
There are many tales to be found under the blanket category of “Celtic Mythology” whereby magical instruments are played with the intent of enchanting an audience. It was during studying one such story that I came across an instrument that I had not heard of before, the timpan.
Aillen Mac Midhna, a character of the Aos Sí (the People of the Mounds), was bent on driving trespassers from his land, and would set out each year, armed with a pipe, a timpan, and magical powers. Known as “The Burner”, he would arrive at Tara, and bathe the halls with his sweet melodies to send everyone to sleep, before breathing fire and turning the place to ash.
Whilst researching this character, I came across this account by acclaimed folklorist, Katherine Briggs, in her : Dictionary of Fairies
“Aillen mac Midhna. A fairy musician of the Tuatha De Danann who came every year at Samhain Eve (All-Hallow Eve) out of Sidhe Finnachaid to Tara, the Royal Palace of the High King, playing so marvellously on his timpan (a kind of belled tambourine) that all who heard him were lulled asleep, and while they slept he blew three blasts of fire out of his nostrils and burnt up the Hall of Tara.”
Briggs describes this instrument as being a belled tambourine. The timpan is also frequently described as a kind of drum. However, this didn’t settle well with me, for how could a drum or tambourine be played so marvellously, that all who heard it would fall into a deep slumber? These hardly seem the tools of fairy enchantment.
It was during my search for images of this instrument that I stumbled across another description; that a timpan is also the name for a stringed instrument – an tiompán. Things were starting to get a little confusing.
"Well done for picking one of the most ambiguous instruments in history, exacerbated by a frustratingly ambiguous language!" declared my friend and folklorist, Shane Broderick, a native Irishman.
I had approached him to seek his thoughts on the matter, on both the description of the instrument and some translations from Irish.
He had of course heard of the drum, but the rest of the information that I had gathered seemed to be unclear.
Initially we both had wondered if there was an error in a translation of records of this instrument somewhere. Yet the more we looked into this, the more evidence we discovered that indeed the Irish timpan described in this tale was a stringed instrument.
I needed to look back through records that might be found, of which the main sources are the various Annals of Ireland. Many accounts are poor, with some large chunks absent from historical records entirely – this was going to be a difficult task.
The first point of enquiry for me would be with musicologists and experts in ancient instruments. Keith Sanger had looked thoroughly through the Annals of Ireland to produce his “Historic Irish Harper Essay” , from which it seemed apparent that the transition from tiompan to harp appeared with the arrival of the Normans to Ireland’s shores.
Sanger’s “Timeline of Early Harpers in Ireland" gives detail of famed Tiompan Masters, in parallel with the Harpists, and separates the Gaelic harpers from the Anglo-Norman musicians. I was disturbed to learn that the Irish harp was not as Irish as I had believed!
So what then did an tiompán look like, and how was it played?
With regards to modern Irish traditional music, Derek Bell, a famed musician of the 20th Century who performed at times with The Chieftains, shared the opinion of antiquarian musicologist Francis William Galperin, in that the tiompan was a kind of hammered dulcimer.
A metal stringed instrument with two bridges, this instrument is usually a trapezoidal shape and is played by striking each sting with a small spoon-shaped mallet hammer. The name of the instrument itself, “dulcimer” derives from Latin “dulcis”, meaning sweet, and Greek “melos”, meaning song.
The sound itself of this instrument certainly is haunting and beautiful, but it does not tie in with the description of a musician being able to carry such an instrument and play it on the move.
Dulcimers originated from an instrument named a psaltery, which originated in ancient Greece. They were widely seen in manuscripts from the 12th to the 15th Centuries, varying widely in shape and number of strings.
The psaltery of ancient Greece was known as an epigonion; a harp-like winged instrument, was played by plucking the strings with the fingers. The main difference between the harp and the psaltery being that the harp had strings made from gut strings, the psaltery having strings made of metal.
By the 12th Century, psalteries were depicted as being a board backed stringed instrument, very similar to the dulcimer, but were carried by the musician and plucked by the fingers.
By the 19th Century, these instruments had largely died out in Europe, to be replaced by the hammered dulcimer and zither.
It should be noted that the epigonion was introduced to the Greeks by Epigonus of Ambracia in around the 6th Century BC from his home in Alexandria, and would be played with the fingers of both hands, to accompany the voice, and also introduce chromatic passages.
This instrument was reconstructed by the Lutheiros Ancient & Modern Music Instruments of Thessaloniki, played here by Michael Levy. The sound is certainly more coarse than the harp, so it can be seen how if derived from this, the tiompán was replaced by the more serene-sounding harp that would be more pleasing to the ear.
Ambracia was a region of Greece now known as Arta, and is located in the north-west of the country.
According to Lebor Gabála Érenn, better known as The Book of Invasions, Ireland was settled by six groups of people; the people of Cessair, the people of Partholón, the people of Nemed, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Dannan, and finally the Milesians. Largely accepted as conventional history by people of the Medieval era, we now view these accounts as myth, inspired by Christian Biblical histories of the Medieval mind and Greek Mythology.
According to the stories contained within, the Fir Bolg who had been enslaved by the Greeks, sailed to Ireland. Perhaps if there is any truth in this, it could be possible that they brought with them items of their culture, including musical instruments?
A speculation, for sure, but with migration across Europe being fairly common through the ages, it is not unreasonable to look farther afield for origins of this enigmatic musical instrument.
The Library of Ireland describes the timpan as being a small stringed instrument with only a few strings, “... from three to eight. The body was a small flat drum or tympanum (whence the name) with a short neck added; the strings were stretched across the flat face and along the neck, and were tuned and regulated by pins or keys and a bridge, something like the modern guitar, or banjo, but with the neck much shorter. It was played with a bow, or with both a bow and plectrum, or with the finger-nail; and the strings were probably stopped with the fingers of the left hand, like those of a violin.”
This account would describe an instrument like this called the Kabak Kemane, which originates in modern-day Turkey. It cannot be denied that the sound is haunting and enchanting in nature, especially when combined with the voice.
Related to the Kemençe, it was mainly used by Greek immigrants to Persia, which was one of the ancestors of the modern-day violin.
Karen Ralls-MacLeod describes in “” how: Music and the Celtic Otherworld: From Ireland to Iona
“The timpan is believed to have been a stringed instrument similar to a harp with metal strings. Some musicologists believe that it might also have been bowed, unlike any references to the crott or cruitt. According to Cormac’s Glossary, the timpan (or, properly, what is referred to as a timpan) had a frame of willow wood with brass strings; it is also described in the Achallam na Senorach as having treble strings of silver, brass strings of white bronze and tuning pins of gold. In Ireland, the timpan is often described as hand-held and rather small, and seems to have had few strings, perhaps up to eight. In other instances, it appears to be a small harp plucked with the fingers. It is often described as being a ‘sweet –sounding’ stringed instrument."
We have to consider that the word tympan is derived from Latin tympanum, meaning “drum”. It is sometimes also applied to a tambourine or psaltery. However Ralls-MacLeod explains how the Irish Timpan clearly described a stringed instrument, and believes that it referred to a quadrangular lyre-shaped instrument that had metal strings.
One description of this instrument that I found particularly interesting, is from an Irish Medieval tale called Forbhais Droma Damhghaire, or in English, The Siege of Knocklong.
"Tarfas dámh, ar bru Temrach
óclach aluinn ildealbach
caeime ina gach caem acruth
timthugach oir na eoguth
Timpan aircit ana laimh
fa hor dearg teta an timpain
binne ina gach ceol fo nímh
fogur tet a timpan sin.
Fleas gucairche .c. ceol cain
uasa chinn foda nenaib
ocus na heoin, nir mhodh mer
bitis oca airpheitedh."
"There appeared to me, upon the brow of Temair
A splendid youth of noble mien
More beautiful than all beauty was his form
And his dress ornamented with gold.
He held a silver Timpan in his hand
Of red gold were the strings of that Timpan
Sweeter than all music under heaven
Were the sounds of the strings of that Timpan.
A wand with melody of music sweet an hundred fold
Over it were two birds
And the birds, no silly mode,
Used to be playing upon it."
There is clear mention here of a wand - could this be the bow drawn across the instrument to bring such sweet music, in the way that would be seen with the Welsh Crwth? Or was he using it to strike the strings?
It seems that pinning down the Irish Timpan precisely would be like trying to nail down the wind. There are so many theories available, yet nothing precise enough to give definitive information for us to recreate this instrument as a replica of the type played in Ireland of antiquity. Images of how it looked do not seem to have been recorded, so we can only guess how it may have been.
I personally, would disagree with the idea that Aillen mac Midhna enchanted Tara with a tambourine, as there is plenty of existing lore about that describes magical fairy harps casting a spell over all who would hear it, often sending people to sleep in the same way that mac Midhna did with his timpan.
In conclusion, it would seem that "timpan" is a name used for both a drum and a small lyre-like instrument that pre-dates the harp, which could be plucked by the fingers or played with a bow. The last recorded player of an tiompán, Finn Ó Haughluinn, died in 1490. Described in his obituary as the Chief Tympanist of Ireland, no further details of his life are known to survive. And sadly, the wealth and most of the knowledge of this magical instrument died with him.
© 2020 Pollyanna Jones