About the Systrum Page Two


About the Systrum Page Two

Here is the hieroglyph for the sistrum:  

The use of sistra may have originated in the practice of shaking bundles of papyrus flowers. The onomatopoeic ancient Egyptian name for the instrument is ssst ~ sesheshet ~ probably derived from the sounds the instrument makes: a soft jangle resembling a breeze blowing through papyrus reeds ~ a sound intended to placate the gods and goddesses.

Designed in the shape of the ankh hieroglyph, the instrument was representative of life and renewal.

Bring HERstory to your community:
TAHYA reveals the mystery and mystical music-making of the Systrum™
which holds a deep history/herstory dating back thousands of years.
Enjoy a presentation of ancient Egyptian Queens and Musician Chantresses/Priestesses depicted playing sistra 
as well as an interactive participatory component.
CLICK HERE for more details

Historically, this instrument may have been made of wood with a face resembling Hathor depicted at the top of the handle. Transverse bars were set horizontally into the hoop frame with a number of metal disks or squares, which produced a tinkling sound when the instrument was shaken. Most depictions of ancient hoop sistra reveal rods fashioned in a snake-like design, echoing the symbolism of the uraeus (Greek: cobra) ever-present in Ancient Egyptian artifacts ~ e.g., pharoahs' crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Exploration into the symbolic origins of the uraeus, the serpent goddess, leads researchers to the Old Kingdom (approx. 3,000 BCE). A Second Dynasty Pyramid Text proclaims, 'sky speaks and earth trembles' when the living 'uraeus of Re' feeds the risen King. (1)

Among other descriptions (e.g., Lady of the Sycamore Tree, Mistress of the stream who makes the river rise), Hathor is known as 'Eye of Re'. She can be the Wedjat eye - the 'whole eye' - meaning the eye as a bodily function, and, as agent of the god's activity, (she is) the instrument of divine energy and power projected out into the world. Although this serpent eye frequently manifests as a wild and destructive force, she also emanates radiant beauty and attraction.(2)

The Tahya Ceremonial Systrum™ resembles the sistrum held by ancient Egyptian queens ~ here for example is a depiction from the Abu Simbel tomb of Nefertari, whose name means 'Beautiful Companion'. Nefertari was wife of Ramses II (also referred to as Ramesses the Great, who was the third Egyptian pharaoh (reign: 1279 BC – 1213 BC) of the Nineteenth dynasty.



Nefertari depicted offering sistra to Hathor in smaller temple at Abu Simbel

Depicted on many temple and tomb bas-relief carvings and wall paintings dating as far back as the Old Kingdom (from the reign of Teti, 6th Dynasty c. 2323-2291 BCE), the sistrum (pl. sistra), aka systrum, was a sacred instrument used in dances and religious ceremonies, particularly in the worship of the goddess Hathor, [pronounced Hat h'or (from ancient Egyptian hieroglyph Hwt-Hr)], the cow-eared goddess of love, joy, motherhood, music and dance.  Used by devotees of the Goddesses Hathor, Isis and other dieties in ancient Egyptian culture, the effect produced by the sistrum - when shaken in short, sharp, rhythmic pulses - was to arouse movement and activity.

Hathor, one of the most important and popular deities throughout the history of Ancient Egypt, was worshiped by royalty and common people alike in whose tombs she is depicted as "Mistress of the West" welcoming the dead into the next life. In other roles she was a goddess of music, dance, foreign lands and fertility who helped women in childbirth.

The cult of Hathor pre-dates the historical period and the roots of devotion to her are, therefore, difficult to trace, though considered a development of predynastic cults who venerated fertility, and nature in general, represented by cows (thus, her "cow ears").  Isis in her role as mother and creator is also seen depicted holding a pail symbolizing the flooding of the Nile, in one hand and a sistrum in the other. The goddess Bast is also often depicted holding a sistrum, symbolizing her role as a goddess of dance, joy, and festivity.

I am the Mistress of Mirth, the Lady of Laughter, the Lady of Happiness!

I am the Joy coursing through your veins and the Blood dancing in your heart

In museums throughout the world housing artifacts from ancient Egyptian culture two basic types of sistrum are found on display; the hooped one and the naos type (click here to see photos). Both had close associations with the aforementioned cult of Hathor whose face is often depicted on the handle. Royal wives, priests and priestesses were often depicted shaking sistra in rituals and ceremonies.

Click HERE to open slide show of images depiciting the systrum throughout ancient Egyptian history
from July 2012 RCN Community Spotlight featuring Tahya, hosted by Dan Mowdy

Another example of a royal queen utilizing a sistrum lies among the treasures of Tutankhamun.  A wooden shrine was found covered in sheet gold. The right side has four scenes, all of an unusual kind. In the left of the top register the queen extends toward the king a sistrum and a necklace with an elaborate counterpoise. At the front of the counterpoise are the head and shoulders of a goddess, surmounted by cow's horns and the sun's disk and having the uraeus on her brow. Human hands project from beneath her collar, each hand holding a sign for "life" (ankh) toward the king. The identity of the goddess is revealed as the Great Enchantress in the inscription beneath the necklace. Addressing the king, the queen says:

"Adoration in peace, receive the Great Enchantress, O Ruler, beloved of Amun!"(3)

In open-air processions, the sistrum was used as rhythmical accompaniment. In ancient Egyptian culture, percussion instruments and rhythmic music were considered particularly imbued with spiritual or shamanistic power to influence and transform consciousness and therefore reality.(4)  The instrument's sound seems to have been regarded as protective and also symbolic of divine.(5) The effect produced by the sistrum was to arouse movement and activity, to clear and create sacred space, and to invoke or offer blessings.


Many temple scenes of processions of priestesses playing round and rectangular drums, sistra, cymbals and clappers, are still visible at the temple complex dedicated to Hathor at Dendera, Hatshepsut's Chapelle Rouge at Karnak and other ancient Egyptian temple sites.



Occasionally revived in 19th century Western orchestral music ~ for example, in Act 1 of the opera Les Troyens (1856–1858) by the French composer Hector Berlioz ~ use of the sistrum in the 20th century seems to slowly have been replaced by its close modern equivalent, the tambourine.

Rhythmic shaking of the sistrum, like the tambourine, is associated with religious or ecstatic events, for example shaken as a sacred rattle in the worship of Hathor of ancient Egypt.  It is also akin to the strident jangling of the tambourine in modern-day Romani song and dance.  Sistra may be used on stage at a rock concert, or to heighten a large-scale orchestral tutti (an orchestral passage in which every member of the orchestra is playing at once).

In the 21st century sistra are still used in the rites of Coptic and Ethopain churches; however, representations of the hoop-top instrument (click here to see photos) ~ with close associations to the aforementioned cult of Hathor whose face is often depicted on the handle as depicted in Egyptian art and as mentioned in Egyptian literature associated with dancing and expressions of joy ~ have been hard to find at best and quite simply unavailable.  That is why we are so very pleased to introduce you to the Tahya Ceremonial Systrum.

* * *

Recognized among the foremost instructors of North African, Middle and Far Eastern drumming and dance traditions,
Tahya programming*
builds cultural awareness, replacing misconceptions with informed concepts
and boosting a respect for art forms steeped in antiquity.

In addition, she co-facilitates
Women's Wisdom & Wellness with Helene B. Leonetti, MD.

*Visit Tahya's website for more information about her programming, including Drum & Dance events and
Egypt Beckoned ~ lecture with slide show and audience participation playing sistra!


Order your Tahya Ceremonial Systrum™ TODAY!




(1)Roberts, Alison, Hathor Rising: The Power of the Goddess in Ancient Egypt. Inner Traditions International, Rochester, VT, 1997, p. 8
(2) Ibid, p. 9
(3)Dunn, Jimmy. Golden Shrine
(4) Redmond, Layne ~ find more info about Layne's work by clicking on link:  Layne Redmond.com > Frame Drum history
(5) Dunn, Jimmy. Hathor's Sistrum

See also: