Desert sound as a shaper of religious identity

Eric Gasteiger
Interpreting auditory imagery in a text is as challenging as understanding visual references. Near Eastern studies professor Kim Haines-Eitzen explores how natural desert sounds influenced monastic texts, from tropes like the wind as God's voice to demons sounding like thunder.

Sitting at our desks trying to concentrate, we’re often distracted by phones ringing, trucks rumbling and beeps from the computer. A thousand years ago, monks in the desert striving to cultivate inner stillness had similar problems.

Near Eastern studies professor Kim Haines-Eitzen is intimately familiar with the monastic texts describing these monks’ problems, and she was struck that so many of the stories include mention of sounds. In one story, younger monks who were supposed to be concentrating on a Coptic bishop’s lecture are distracted by the sound of a raven. In other stories, monks complain about how hard it is to cultivate inner stillness when you hear the wind in the reeds.

Interpreting auditory imagery is as challenging as understanding visual references, says Haines-Eitzen. The wind-in-the-reeds trope is a frequent one, but Haines-Eitzen says that whether it’s pleasant – a seduction – or a hint of God’s voice is open to interpretation.

“We have to tune our ears to the sound of the environment if we want to understand what’s going on in the text and why a particular sound is singled out,” says Haines-Eitzen.

After participating in a Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds sound recording workshop, Haines-Eitzen set off to tune her ears with environmental field recordings in Israel’s Sin Wilderness Valley and the cliff-hanging monasteries of the Judaean Desert.

Haines-Eitzen is no stranger to the Middle East. She was born in Israel in 1967 and grew up in Nazareth, taking family camping trips and camel treks in the Sinai Peninsula. She emigrated to the U.S. at age 17. “Doing desert study is a return to my roots,” she says.

In the desert, Haines-Eitzen recorded bird calls, water, wind and tree sounds; at the monasteries, she recorded the hitting of the simatron, a wooden device that called the monks to prayer; and the monks chanting. One of her goals was to untangle the tension of the depiction of the desert as a silent wasteland that is empty with the lives and sounds she found within it.

“To my knowledge nobody has ever tried to put the field of bioacoustics and the study of late ancient desert monasticism together,” says Haines-Eitzen. “I hope to show how experienced and imagined acoustic landscapes shaped religious identity in late antiquity.”

One aspect of the monastic texts that Haines-Eitzen finds particularly fascinating are the descriptions of demons, who roar like lions, hiss like smoke, crash like thunder, and sing and chant like the monks.

 “It’s very striking that when you actually do recordings in the desert environment, you realize that the sounds in desert monastic texts are not random. They’re not talking about penguins,” says Haines-Eitzen. “There’s a connection between the environment and the sounds being written about.”

Her previous research focused on limited literacy in antiquity and she sees her current interest in sound as another aspect of literacy, since hearing and sight are significant ways in which people learn and experience the world. “The only way to understand sound in late antiquity was to do some environmental field recording,” she explains. “I use the recordings to illustrate something hard to capture solely in word and text.”

Because Cornell excels at cross-disciplinary research, says Haines-Eitzen, “this is a project that combines so many disparate fields and colleagues, I could only have undertaken it at Cornell.”

Haines-Eitzen’s research was co-sponsored by the Central New York Humanities Corridor from an award by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Cornell Society for the Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences. She also received a travel grant from the American Academy of Religion.

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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