Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.04


Jürgen Leonhardt, Phalloslied und Dithyrambos. Aristoteles uuml;ber den Ursprung des griechischen Dramas. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, Universitätsverlag, 1991. Abhandlungen der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, 4. Abhandlung. Pp. 76. DM 45. ISBN 3-533-04353-3.


Reviewed by Robert C. Schmiel.

This short monograph on the origin of Greek drama is concerned with Aristotle's Poetics 1449a9-24. L. first surveys the evidence, from Aristotle and other sources, and summarizes the scholarly positions, which have generally moved away from Aristotle without however having reached a consensus (9-15).

It is assumed that Aristotle was ascribing the origin of tragedy to the dithyramb, of comedy to the phallic songs (1449a9-15). L.'s modest but radical proposal is that H( ME\N need not refer to tragedy and H( DE\ to comedy, that a chiastic reference (comedy from the dithyramb, tragedy from the phallic songs) is just as likely syntactically and from the context. He also argues that there are more significant cultural and religious relationships between dithyramb and comedy, phallic songs and tragedy than the incidental relationships between dithyramb and tragedy, phallic songs and comedy, and that the proposed chiastic reference of H( ME\N and H( DE\ makes ancient testimonia intelligible and allows a more precise representation of what happened in Athens between Thespis' first attempts (c. 550) and the introduction of competition in comedy in 486 (16-17).

In Chap. 2 L. presents evidence that O( ME\N - O( DE\ as often refer back to the preceding substantives chiastically as in parallel: i.e. that X Y, y x is as common as X Y, x y, for example Poetics 1448a6: E)N TH=| AU)TH=| DE\ DIAFORA=| KAI\ H( TRAGW|DI/A (=X) PRO\S TH\N KWMW|DI/AN (=Y) DIE/STHKEN· H( ME\N (=y) GA\R XEI/ROUS H( DE\ (=x) BELTI/OUS MIMEI=SQAI BOU/LETAI TW=N NU=N. In the Poetics itself L. finds 11 examples of O( ME\N - O( DE\, four chiastic, seven parallel. But if one considers examples in which either or both references are specified by repetition, one finds seven which are chiastic, six parallel (18-20). Moreover, the sentence is more straightforward on the chiastic reading (21). L. also argues that it is far from obvious that dithyramb belongs with tragedy etc. under Aristotle's heading of SEMNO/TEROI (1448b24ff.), the phallic song with comedy etc. under EU)TELE/STEROI. The phallic song is, after all, a hymn to the phallus (22-25).

L. presents evidence for religious and cultural connections between tragedy and phallic song, comedy and dithyramb, in Chap. 3. Although tragedy would seem to have nothing to do with the phallus cult, the ithyphallic costume of the chorus of the satyr-play provides a connection. If the FALLIKA/ are taken, as is most natural, to mean songs at a formal phallic procession, then the two elements most inconvenient for the supposed relationship between tragedy and dithyramb, satyrs and the goat of TRAGW|DI/A, are easily accommodated: satyrs were a feature of the phallic procession, and goats are easily related to the phallic cult of fertility (29-30). The apparent problem of a relationship between the satyresque and obscene phallus cult and tragedy, which deals with the most serious concerns of human existence -- sorrow, suffering, death -- disappears if one thinks in ancient Greek, not Judaeo-Christian, terms, with regard to sexuality in particular. The phallus cult, however excessive and wanton, is deadly serious; fertility and death are closely related in ancient Greek religion (31-32). L. is less convincing in arguing away the main point of connection between tragedy and dithyramb -- heroic myth (33).

In the case of comedy, there seems an obvious connection between the phallus of comic costume and the phallus of the phallic procession at which FALLIKA/ were sung. But L. insists that there is a clear distinction between the ithyphallus of the procession and the normally hanging or bound phallus of comedy. Even apart from the fact that the comic phallus was erect as required (in Lysistrata, for example), I do not see how the relationship can be denied. As L. notes, the phallus belongs to the cult of Dionysus which includes both tragedy and comedy (33-38).

In support of a relationship between comedy and dithyramb L. suggests that the tone and character of a dithyramb must have been similar to that of the Dionysiac KW=MOS, whence comedy derives its name. Indeed, L. reads KW=MOS in Demosthenes In Meidias 10 and IG II2 2318 as referring to the dithyrambic competition (39-41). Here the argument rests on evidence too slight to be convincing. (L. notes also that the newly compounded words characteristic of comedy were also a feature of dithyramb, at least after the fifth century.)

L. sketches the development of drama at Athens in Chap. 4. He notes that, since Aristotle mentions the addition of a second and a third actor, but not the first, for him tragedy and comedy required the presence of an actor by definition. In other words, A. did not regard the appearance of the first actor as a development but as the creation of tragedy and comedy (44). Furthermore, A. did not regard the development of tragedy as continuous but in two stages: the first from the origin of tragedy in the improvisations and leading to the point at which all the essential elements were present, the second including developments leading to the achievement of its final form. L. places strong punctuation after FANERO\N AU)TH=S (1449a14), arguing that the observation that comedy had no comparable history (AI( ME\N OU)=N TH=S TRAGW|DI/AS METABA/SEIS KAI\ DI' W(=N E)GE/NONTO OU) LELH/QASIN, H( DE\ KWMW|DI/A DIA\ TO\ MH\ SPOUDA/ZESQAI E)C A)RXH=S E)/LAQEN, 1449a37ff. which L. wrongly gives as 1448a37ff.) corresponds only to stage two of the development of tragedy, not to stage one, its origin (45).

L. distinguishes between vaguely dramatic developments (to which A. could refer as existing at some early time in Doric regions) and tragedy or comedy in the strict sense (whose creation A. localized in Athens, according to the testimony of Johannes Diakonos, T3 in L.'s list of testimonia). The dithyramb and phallic songs to which Aristotle refers are to be sought in sixth-century Athens; both were part of the Great Dionysia. If Poetics 1449a19ff. is read as ascribing the origin of tragedy to dithyramb, of comedy to the phallic songs, the dates will not work out. But if the chiastic reference for which L. has argued is accepted, there is a reasonable sequence of developments:

  • first half of the sixth century: city Dionysia with phallic procession
  • 538/28: tragic contests
  • c. 530-510 (?): Lasus of Hermione
  • 509/8: dithyrambic contests
  • 486: comic contests                   (46-52)
  • There are, of course, other testimonia which do not fit L.'s reading (regarding Arion, Epigenes of Sikyon, Thespis, Susarion, etc.) L. holds that "the phallic song and the dithyramb of the Poetics do not designate the genres out of which tragedy and comedy developed, but the historical circumstances under which the drama developed at the Great Dionysia in Athens. That leaves open the possibility that, in this development, older untheatrical forms were employed in which individual features of later tragedy and comedy were already prefigured, especially musical form, dance, costume, specific religious reference, etc. and that these forms perhaps even included the goat or the KW=MOS in their names." The Suda, for example, says that Arion created a TRAGIKO\S TRO/POS, not tragedy (53).

    Finally, some problematic testimonia become intelligible on L.'s reading including those which refer to wooden stands (I)/KRIA) in the Agora (since the procession would have passed that way) and to Thespis' cart (57-60). The monograph concludes with a summary, a collection of 54 testimonia, and a bibliography.

    The evidence L. has adduced in support of the possible chiastic reference of H( ME\N - H( DE\ seems secure. (Remember that L. is not claiming that the reference must be chiastic, but only that chiastic reference is as likely as parallel.) What effect this will have on the inertia characteristic of well-established assumptions remains to be seen.

    Some of the evidence for connections between the phallic songs and tragedy and so forth in Chap. 3 is not convincing. Some, however, is, and although I consider this L.'s weakest chapter, it is after all not incumbent upon him to prove that tragedy could only come from the phallic songs, not from dithyramb, comedy only from dithyramb, not from the phallic songs. He has, I think, succeeded in showing that his reading is at least plausible. (The detail and precision which characterize L.'s presentation of the evidence are inevitably lost in the ruthless selection and condensation of a review.)

    Finally, it seems to me that L.'s reading gives a less problematic history of the origin and development of drama. It will be very interesting to see how L.'s thesis is received.