Sound controls

Historian Adrienne Mayor looks at the use of sound as a weapon from ancient Greece to the present day

As if the tumultuous din of battle wasn’t gruesome enough, over the ages humans have discovered many ways to harness sound in warfare. I found a variety of ancient acoustic weapons while researching my book Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Unconventional Warfare in the Ancient World. The deployment of sound in warfare has evolved over millennia, from the sounds of natural animals and music to today’s advanced sound devices.

Call a jig during battle

In ancient times, cavalry horses were trained to endure the piercing pipe music that carried armies into battle. But a clever reversal of this formation could spell victory.

In the 7th century BCE, the Kardians of Thrace, who lived in what is now northwestern Turkey, were renowned for their cavalry. For entertainment, mounted soldiers taught their horses to dance to pipes played at drinking parties. Rearing up and thrashing the air, the horses kept pace with the upbeat music.

Captured as a child in Bisaltia, northeastern Greece, a prisoner named Naris heard about the wonderful dancing horses from the Kardian barbershop where he worked. According to the story told by the ancient Greek writer Athenaeus, Naris escaped, returned to Bisaltia and prepared to wage war on Kardia.

He had a secret weapon: a piper girl who had also escaped from Kardia. She taught Bisaltian soldiers the songs of Kardian banquets. Naris led his army against the Kardian cavalry and signaled his pipers to play. Listening to the familiar tunes, the Kardian horses rose to dance, knocking their riders down. In the chaos, the Bisaltiens crushed the Kardiens.

When screams terrorize living tanks

The horsemen of classical antiquity accustomed their horses to the din of bronze weapons. But in the fourth century BCE, when the successors of Alexander the Great brought war elephants from India, the trumpeting of the animals sent the horses into a frenzy.

Alexander had learned from King Porus during his Indian campaign in 326 BC. that elephants have sensitive hearing and poor eyesight, which makes them reluctant to unexpected loud and harsh sounds. When Alexander’s scouts reported elephants approaching, Porus advised Alexander’s riders to seize pigs and trumpets and ride out to meet them. The shrill sound of the pigs combined with the booming trumpets scared the elephants away.

In 280 BCE, the Romans first encountered war elephants, brought to Italy by the Greek King Pyrrhus. The riders sitting on the back of the howdah created a deafening commotion with booming drums and spears, sending the Romans and their horses into a panic.

But the Romans noticed that the elephants of Pyrrhus were annoyed by the high-pitched cries of the pigs. Like Alexander, the Romans deployed pigs to divert Pyrrhus’ pachyderms, which contributed to his heavy casualties. Later, in 202 BC, blasts of Roman war trumpets panicked Carthaginian general Hannibal’s war elephants at the Battle of Zama, ending the Second Punic War.

Some commanders tried to get an elephant or two to condition their horses before battle. Perseus of Macedon prepared for a Roman attack with war elephants in 168 BCE by having craftsmen build wooden models of elephants on wheels. Bagpipe players hidden inside the huge models played harsh sounds, acclimatizing the Macedonian horses to the sight and sound of the elephants. But Perseus’ preparations came to naught. Even though the mountainous terrain of the Battle of Pydna got the better of the Romans’ 20 elephants, Rome was victorious.

War cries and wailing weapons

Bloody battle cries are a universal way to strike terror into enemies. Maori war songs, the Japanese war cry “Banzai!” (Long Live the Emperor) during World War II, the “Vur Ha!” of the Ottomans (Strike), the “Desperta Ferro! ” Spanish ! (Awaken the Iron) and the “Rebel Yell” of the Confederate soldiers are examples. In ancient times, the sound of Greek warriors bellowing “Alala!” while striking swords on bronze shields was likened to hooting owls or a flock of monstrous birds.

Roman historian Tacitus described the hair-raising effects of barritus, the war cry of the Germanic tribes. The Germans developed a simple technique to intensify the barrite, which began as a low murmur. The chant became a roar, then rose to a reverberating crescendo as the men held their shields to their mouths to amplify the thunderous sound.

Another early military sound technology was an arrow that created a frightening noise. “Whistling” or “howling” (shaojian) arrows made by steppe horse archers were described by the Chinese chronicler Sima Qian around 100 BC. the arrowhead. In battle, the shrill sound of thousands of whistling arrows terrified enemies and their horses. Howling arrows have been recovered from archaeological sites in Central Asia.

Many other technologies for producing boom bangs to disorient and frighten enemies have been described in ancient Chinese war manuals. These explosive devices used gunpowder, invented in China around 850 AD, reaching Europe around 1250.

Sound weapons in the modern era

Music was used during World War II to induce stress and anxiety: the Soviet army played Argentine tangos through loudspeakers all night to keep German soldiers awake. American loudspeaker teams played deafening rock music (The Doors, Alice Cooper and The Clash) day and night during the American siege of Panamanian General Manuel Noriega in 1989. In the 2000s, the Americans again deployed aggravating and incessant music in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sonic weapons also have their uses outside of the battlefield. Malls borrowed the idea, playing classical symphonies and frequencies recorded only by teenage ears to keep young strollers away. In 2022, Australian police bombarded COVID-19 vaccine protesters with tape recordings of Barry Manilow songs on loop to break up the crowd.

The recent development of weaponized sound energy is more disturbing, often aimed at civilian crowd control. Military scientists in the United States, Israel, China and Russia have unveiled high-decibel, high- and low-frequency pulsed “non-lethal” weaponry designed to attack the senses. Examples include portable or tank-mounted magnetic acoustic devices, sonic vibration cannons and long-range acoustic devices, first used by US forces in Iraq in 2004 and subsequently by police against citizen protests in Iraq. New York and Missouri.

Since 2016, American diplomats in Cuba, Russia, China and elsewhere have experienced “Havana Syndrome,” associated with mysterious neurological and brain damage believed to be inflicted by unknown high-power microwaves. or targeted sonic energy systems. Sound wave emitters are not only psychologically toxic but can cause pain and dizziness, burns, irreversible damage to the inner ear and possibly neurological and internal damage.

Since ancient times, human creativity in weaponizing devastating noise to confuse and overwhelm adversaries has evolved from intimidation to inflicting physical injury.

Adrienne Mayor is a folklorist and historian with an interest in ancient “popular science”. She was a Berggruen Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, 2018-2019. The report is excerpted from Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws, and Other Classical Myths, Historical Oddities, and Scientific Curiosities (Princeton University Press, 2022).