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Cantio (from Latin ‘cantus’, meaning song, charm, or incantation) is a song meant to delay the departure of the local gods. For the city’s gods have just built a ship, and are on the verge of leaving. These impatient gods are serenaded at length by cicadas, little creatures that were regarded as enchanted musicians in the ancient world. The cicadas hope that their song will charm the gods and keep them close by. As long as they continue, all is not lost.

Cantio is forged from certain myths and poems from ancient Greek literature, especially these two*:
The Cicada Myth

“A lover of music like yourself ought surely to have heard the story of the cicadas, who are said to have been human beings in an age before the Muses. And when the Muses came and song appeared they were ravished with delight; and singing always, never thought of eating and drinking, until at last in their forgetfulness they died. And now they live again in the cicadas; and this is the return which the Muses make to them - they neither hunger, nor thirst, but from the hour of their birth are always singing, and never eating or drinking; and when they die they go and inform the Muses in heaven who honours them on earth.”

Plato, the Phaedrus

The ‘Farewell’ Hymn
“Apopemptic hymns, as the name shows, are the opposite of hymns of invocation; the type is very rare, found only in the poets. They are performed at departures, imagined or real, of gods […] Hymns of this kind have as their basic material the land or cities which the god is leaving behind, and similarly the city or land to which he is going, descriptions of places and suchlike. The text must run pleasantly along, since one may dwell longer on the topics: in hymns of invocation one spends less time on them, since we want the gods to join us as quickly as possible; but in apopemptic hymns we want them to take as long as possible over their departure.”

Menander, Greek orator and poet.
* Both of these passages are critical for the audience to see or hear, if they are to have any understanding of Cantio, The simplest thing is to publish them, perhaps along with Psel’s main text, in the program at every performance.


In ancient times, the comings and goings of gods was marked by a hymn, performed by the city’s lead singers and poets. The ‘apopemptic hymn’, or farewell song, was sung at the departures of the gods, ‘whether imagined or real’. This song should entertain the gods with tales of the places and peoples they might encounter on their voyage. Although it should be pleasing and light, the singer could, by drawing the song out for a while, express reluctance to let the gods finally leave.


The cicada myth (from Plato’s Phaedrus) tells of the origins of song and of the very human desire to sing. The first people who were given the gift of song by the Muses were so enchanted with it that they did nothing else, forgetting even to eat or drink, withering away. But their enthusiasm was rewarded by the divine Muses, who revived these first singers and transformed them into cicadas. From then on, they needed no nourishment and could sing on and on, living only off the morning dew.

Cicadas sing endlessly… but to whom? And what about? In Cantio, the cicadas perform for the very gods that first enabled them to sing. They are now singing to keep the gods from leaving, for as long as they can.


The ‘gods’ are restless, capricious, multifarious. Recently afflicted with wanderlust, they are easily bored.

And the blessed gods have just built a ship, and are dragging it down to the sea. It is daybreak, they are ready to sail. No one knows how long they will be gone, where they will go, or what will happen if they disappear.

The gods should be not visible or audible. That is, they should be tangible in some fantastic and delicate way, always in a fragile dialogue with the singers and actors. Psel and other characters react in different ways to their ephemeral presence.

It is important that the gods in Cantio are free of any traditional religious overtones. Rather, they are whatever gives life its vitality and purpose.


The lead voice, is PSEL (any gender), once human, now a cicada. Over the centuries, Psel’s voice has grown frail, and his/her language has been mostly forgotten.

Psel’s voice emerges gradually, in fragments. She begins by praising her own beloved city, hoping to persuade the gods to stay. But the gods are not convinced, so she spins a longer tale. She warns of the strange dangers nearby, where all the customs are exactly the opposite, and where monsters lurk. The gods are not daunted, however, so Psel’s tale grows ever wilder. She repeats rumours of the lands beyond the mountains, lands shrouded in darkness and mystery, guarded by terrible and divided men. Beyond them, she says, there are rumours of men at the end of the earth, men who do nothing but sleep and dream. And they dream of a cicada who sings a song… to the departing gods… and so the narrative circles back on itself, in time and in space, forever.


Cantio is designed to be performed in two different ways.

First, it can be limited to the main speaker (Psel) and three singers: soprano, tenor and baritone.

The singers are not characters in a story in the traditional sense; rather, they echo Psel’s story on the emotional, acoustical, and visual levels. The exotic language they sing – ancient Greek – creates an important distance from the story-telling and puts the focus more on experiencing the story. The story told by Psel is brought to life through the musical and theatrical presence of the singers.

Alternatively, Cantio can be staged with the addition of actors who portray several lively and sceptical citizens situated in the present day. Locals of the town, they speak their own native language, overhear her song, and react to it in various ways.

What these actors do and say could be adapted to the different cultural or temporal context or even completely created anew. Although an English and a German text are included in the score, different texts, and even non-verbal media (dance, video, and theatre, etc.) could be used instead. The director should feel free to use any text, or any other media, that would best serve his or her vision of the piece.

Some thought should be given to the language of performance. Cantio was first written in ancient Greek and composed of Psel’s narrative alone. In any case, the piece works best when her words are clearly intelligible for the audience, either by using subtitles, or by means of the actors, who initially served to indirectly translate Psel’s song.


On a simple level, the singing of the cicadas (Psel) keeps the gods from leaving. On a deeper level, it is the cicadas’ very song that serves to create and sustain meaning. So perhaps it is we who bring the gods into being, by our mortal persistence in doing what we truly love.

Sharon Joyce, 2014