The harp would appear to be an instrument embodied with heavenly powers.
Its notes have the ability to appease and reassure by prompting spiritual connections between people and with the divine, as described in myths, literature and movies (see our recent video The Harp in TV and Movies). Films covering a broad range of genres, from the Marx Brothers’ comedy A night in Casablanca to the profound The Burmese Harp, feature the harp as an instrument that would seem to be destined for a certain someone.
Such is the power of this connection that individuals find themselves prompted to teach themselves how to play the instrument, and the harp appears as if by magic, here and there, ready to be played by that chosen person.
But with great power comes great responsibility, and the harpist is but ‘an instrument of the musical instrument’, and as such, a channel for the emotions it prompts.
The Burmese Harp
In The Burmese Harp, a 1956 Japanese film about the country’s campaign in Burma during the Second World War, soldier Mizushima teaches himself to play the area’s traditional harp so that he can lift his unit’s spirits in battle. After Japan is defeated, there is no trace of Mizushima until his fellow soldiers come across a Buddhist monk playing the harp and believe it could be their missing friend.
Mizushima exemplifies the embodiment of those common experiences as his music is able to evoke those deep feelings, intensified through being shared with others. In fact, music plays a central role in the film’s passionate defence of spirituality and brotherhood.
Music does have the power to bring people together in sorrow and in joy and the harp, with its mellow chords, brings a spiritual dimension to that communion. Therefore, it is only natural for it to feature prominently in myths – stories which uniquely showcase a people’s common values, fears and aspirations. Irish thinking is particularly elegant at conveying the relationship between perception and real and imagined worlds (see our previous blog post on Dreaming in Irish).
A prominent Irish mythological character is Dagda, a protective and warrior god whose most precious possession is a harp, widely known as Ireland’s national symbol to date. This harp is said to be magical as it has the power to harness people’s emotions and, in that way, dominate their intentions.
This is not but another great example of the manner in which the real and the supernatural are intertwined in Irish culture and language; just as music can fill our souls with joy, move us to irrepressible tears or soothe our soul and thoughts, so did the magic harp have the power to make enemies laugh and cry uncontrollably, fall asleep and dream.
Indeed, emotions have the power of altering the pace of time, making it fly when we are having fun, dragging it along when we are weighed down by our own miseries. Thus, it is no surprise that the uaithne (the name given to Dagda’s harp, or to his harpist, depending on the source) can also control and put an order to seasons. The strong link between these time divisions and emotions has since been widely explored by musicians, with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons being a renowned example.
Music is the perfect orchestrator of time and of the flowing emotions that run parallel to it. As we have seen, no other instrument can take this reality to a magical level in the way the harp does.
Check out our other video where we mention Irish myths: