Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.14


Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, 'Reading' Greek Culture: Texts and Images, Rituals and Myths. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. Pp. 315. $79.00. ISBN 0-19-814750-3.


Reviewed by Judith M. Barringer, Middlebury College.

Sourvinou-Inwood's latest book is a collection of essays, nearly all of which have been previously published, but have been updated and somewhat revised. All of these employ the structuralist anthopological method together with the dense prose and meticulous examination of evidence that Sourvinou-Inwood has become renowned for. These intelligent essays are grouped into four thematically related parts, and each part is prefaced by a brief introduction that previews what is to come and occasionally offers recommendations for the casual reader.

Part I: Reading Greek Texts and Images, Exploring Greek Religion and Myths sets out Sourvinou-Inwood's method for the uninitiated: a careful, painstaking attempt to study any aspect of the ancient Greek world within its context, and to free the study of the ancient Greek world from the cultural distortions of the modern scholar, although, as Sourvinou-Inwood herself acknowledges on p. 10, by its very nature, the study imposes a cultural bias.

Part II: Images of Athenian Maidens is comprised of three essays that are linked thematically and build successively upon each other methodologically. All three concern erotic pursuit or abduction scenes in fifth-century Attic vase painting. The first of these, "Menace and Pursuit: Differentiation and the Creation of Meaning" is a treatment of images of youths (with or without spears) pursuing girls and those of Theseus pursuing a woman with his sword drawn. Sourvinou-Inwood carefully amasses evidence to prove that heroic erotic pursuit (e.g., Theseus or youth with or without spears) is not synonymous with attack (e.g., Theseus with drawn sword). This essay was written as a response to a criticism and a suggestion made by Claude Berard in his review of Sourvinou-Inwood's 1979 publication, Theseus as Son and Stepson. Sourvinou-Inwood systematically disproves Berard's suggestion that images of Theseus with a drawn sword represent erotic pursuits, and in the process, makes several pointed (spearlike) references in the present essay to Berard's remarks. The author is careful to control her evidence, comparing the two types of erotic pursuit scenes (youth with spear, youth without spear), and comparing the erotic pursuits with the scenes of Theseus attacking with a sword, both within the oeuvre of a single vase painter.

The second essay in this part of the book, "A Series of Erotic Pursuits: Images and Meanings," builds on themes established in the first essay. Once again, Sourvinou-Inwood examines representations of youths with or without spears pursuing girls, and demonstrates that the theme of erotic pursuit itself carries connotations of muted violence. Such erotic pursuit scenes can be identified on the basis of their similarity to scenes of Peleus pursuing Thetis, which are distinguished from other pursuit scenes by the inclusion of a dolphin to indicate Thetis' aquatic nature. According to the author, when there are no other identifying attributes in a mythical scene with a single pursuer, the youth can always be assumed to be Theseus. Sourvinou-Inwood also examines variants of the basic theme including erotic pursuits with more than one pursuer and those with a different pursuer or quarry. In the course of this essay, she explores the relation between ephebe and wild virgin, and between marriage and civilized society. She takes careful note of the spatial indicators in these pursuit scenes, interpreting the relation of abduction and domestic or public space in a semiotic way. I take issue with Sourvinou-Inwood's interpretation of female gestures and movements in the pursuit scenes as decribed on p. 65 as "alarm" and "panic"; she does not explain why she interprets the movements of the figures in this way, and it seems to me that this is a strong example of just the kind of cultural bias that Sourvinou-Inwood decries. Additionally, the author claims that females being pursued and taken for marriage do not experience a severing of ties with their mother in the same traumatic ways as with their father (p. 74). While I agree with this generally, a citation should be included here to Margaret Alexiou's The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge 1974) regarding the lamentations sung by the mother when her daughter leaves home for her new husband's household. I was surprised not to find references to Richard Seaford's "The Tragic Wedding," JHS 107 (1987) on the idea of the virgin tamed by marriage, or to Seaford's "Wedding Ritual and Textual Criticism in Sophocles' 'Women of Trachis'," Hermes 114 (1986) 50-59 on the girl's reluctance to leave her father's home in n. 78. On p. 74, the author claims that the companions of the abducted girl run to the father for protection, but might there not be another meaning to their movement? Could they be simply delivering news of the attack? In the case of mythical abductions, such as that of Thetis, what 'danger' is it that the girls perceive?

The final essay in the first portion of the book, II.3 "Altars with Palm-Trees, Palm-Trees, and Parthenoi," is the most tractable of this first set, and picks up on the spatial indicators discussed in the previous essay. Here, Sourvinou-Inwood examines the meaning of the altar and/or palm-trees in pursuit and abduction scenes, and determines that the palm-tree is interchangeable with the dual sign of altar + palm-tree, and that these images refer to the realm of Artemis, "protector of parthenoi and of their preparation for marriage and transition to womanhood" (precisely the same phrase is used on pp. 101, 104, and a variant of this same language is used on pp. 99 and 120), from whom the maiden is wrenched away by her pursuer. The author establishes the meanings of these signs from the krateriskoi found at the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, where the arkteia was celebrated by young girls (there is argument as to just how young these girls were) to mark their move from childhood to eligibility for marriage. Sourvinou-Inwood extrapolates the meanings of the altar and palm-tree on the krateriskoi, and then demonstrates the applicability of the same interpretation to their appearance in erotic pursuit scenes, especially those on alabastra by the Syriskos Painter. Her consideration of alabastra is interesting, although the white-ground technique of many of the alabastra is not commented upon and more importantly, Sourvinou-Inwood does not explain why she chooses the examples that she does. I wonder if Sourvinou-Inwood has considered the possibility that the girls may not be fleeing to an altar in some instances, but dancing around one (see, e.g., the pursuit of Helen by Menelaos mentioned in n. 32, the Nereids noted in n. 49, and more generally on p. 113). There are a number of literary references to girls dancing in sanctuaries at the time of an abduction, such as H.Cer. 5-7, Pausanias 4.16.9, and Plutarch, Theseus 31 (see also Judith M. Barringer, Divine Escorts: Nereids in Archaic and Classical Greece [forthcoming, Ann Arbor 1993] chapter 3). The exception that qualifies the author's argument in n.160 should be expanded upon and brought into the text. The author's emblematic, rather than narrative, reading of Genoa 1155 on pp. 118-20 is intriguing, but it would be stronger were it supported by other examples. The section beginning on pp. 120-121 on "Palm-Trees and Parthenoi: Varia" seems excessive, especially since the footnotes accompanying this section could comprise a short article in and of themselves.

The third section of this book is devoted to a single essay, "Persephone and Aphrodite at Locri: A Model for Personality Definitions in Greek Religions." Sourvinou-Inwood begins by stating her method for defining a deity through an investigation of the society that forms the worshipping group and the pantheon to which a specific deity belongs. Moreover, she stresses the importance of examining the local, polis manifestation of a given deity in order to define it, rather than relying on a Panhellenic conception. There follows a brief discussion of the emergence of historical Greek religion in the eighth century B.C, and the concurrent development of individual local manifestations of deities. Finally, Sourvinou-Inwood focuses on the figure of Persephone at Locri Epizephyrii as her case study, using the terracotta pinakes of the first half of the fifth century B.C. dedicated to Persephone in her sanctuary at Locri as her primary evidence. The author sorts out those pinakes belonging to Persephone from those dedicated to Aphrodite at Locri, including scenes of Hades' abduction of Persephone, Hades and Persephone enthroned, deities paying homage to Hades and Persephone, worshippers bringing objects to Hades and Persephone, then meticulously examines the symbols and objects that appear on the pinakes. She concludes that the pinakes dedicated to Persephone show scenes related to Persephone's role as protectress of marriages and weddings at Locri, and claims that the pinakes were dedications of young girls who were about to be married. She then turns her attention to other pinakes that can be assigned to Persephone because they include the same attributes as those on the 'certain' Persephone pinakes. The intriguing question is raised as to whether the scenes on the pinakes represent actual events that took place during the Locrian rites or whether they are meant to be read as 'mythical'; the author claims that some are of one type, some of the other. The last section of this essay deals with Aphrodite at Locri, again using pinakes that "indisputably belong to Aphrodite" (p. 175), although the author does not explain what criteria were used in this determination. Like Persephone, Aphrodite is connected with the sphere of love, although on a cosmic scale, as opposed to Persephone, who is concerned with fertility and marriage at Locri.

There are some statements that are not clarified. For example, Sourvinou-Inwood states on several occasions that mirrors and alabastra "gravitated into Persephone's orbit" (p. 154, 171) from that of Aphrodite, although she does not explain what this means; how did this transferance took place and why? On p. 157, Sourvinou-Inwood claims that Zeus does not appear as a deity paying homage to Persephone and Hades because this would be inappropriate considering his supreme status, but this explanation is not entirely satisfactory when we recall that Zeus appears in the wedding procession in honor of Peleus and Thetis on the François Vase. I wonder about the soundness of extrapolating the meaning of various symbols that appear on the pinakes from their appearance elsewhere in the Greek world if one cannot do the same for deities, according to the author (cf. pp. 151, 159, 160, 161). Might it be that one goddess' symbol might belong to another in a local context? With regard to the last attribute (k) discussed on p. 162, the "sceptre ending in a figurine of a sphinx", Sourvinou-Inwood states that "the firm chthonic and funerary associations of this monster hardly need mentioning", but she does not clarify what time period or geographical region she is referring to, nor does she explain how the sphinx is "chthonic". There are a number of passages in Section III that I felt really belong in a footnote, for example, the discussion of a peculiar pinax on pp. 163-164; such extra material distracts the reader from the already complex and evolving argument. I think that the author's reading of gestures and attitudes often reflects cultural bias, such as her description of the attitude of a child depicted on a pinax (illustrated in figure 17) as an "aggressively female coquettish stance" (p. 170); and what are "gestures of adoration" (p. 173)? Admittedly, one can hypothesize about the meaning of gestures based on context, but Sourvinou-Inwood does not explain her reasoning here. I suspect that the author misreads the image on an altar dedicated to Hermes and Aphrodite in their temple at Locri discussed on pp. 178-179: a satyr copulating with a hind. Sourvinou-Inwood reads this as an image of bestiality, demonstrating that Aphrodite and Hermes "preside over love and sex in its entirety, as a cosmic principle, which includes manifestations that society may classify as perverse". This seems awfully abstract. A further example of a possible misreading appears on pp. 179-180 regarding a pinax adorned with a representation of a very young girl offering a ball and a warrior offering a cock to a seated Persephone. Sourvinou-Inwood interprets this as a dedication for Persephone at the time of the votum made by the Locrians to Aphrodite in 477/6, which included the prostitution of virgin Locrian maidens at the festival of Aphrodite; this dedication was designed to appease the protectress of marriage for ending the virginity of the girls before marriage. Could this pinax simply be an artist's variant on the usual type of worshippers bringing gifts to Persephone that were discussed earlier in connection with Persephone; in other words, is this pinax really so special?

Section IV, the last portion of the book, is also divided into three essays, each concerned with the relationship or lack thereof between myth and history, and more specifically with how myths are structured to reflect Greek beliefs and not facts. IV.1 "The Myth of the First Temples at Delphi" is an intriguing contribution, concerning the myths describing previous temples at Delphi that are recounted in Pindar, Pausanias, and other ancient writers. The myths claim that there were four temples at Delphi preceding the currently visible one: the first was made of laurel from the Tempe valley; the second was built by bees, who used wax and feathers; the third was of bronze, and according to Pindar, was made by Hephaistos and Athena; and the fourth was constructed of stone by Trophonios and Agamedes, according to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, and was burnt down in 548 B.C. Sourvinou-Inwood discusses each temple, concentrating on the building materials and their associations, and on the builders. The author argues that the myth demonstrates the move from nature (temples made of laurel, wax and feathers) to human craft (human sphere in the present-day temple), and the descent from divine (Hephaistos and Athena) to heroic (Trophonios and Agamedes) to human (who constructed the currently visible temple). Sourvinou-Inwood recognizes that the bronze temple may be modelled on Hesiod's generations, that is, that the materials used for the temples stand for stages of evolution. However, Sourvinou-Inwood tests the limits of credibility when she suggests that the animal portion of the myth (bees) was created to fill a 'space' in the mythical order between wild nature and human craft, with divine and heroic in between. She writes: "This as it stands is clearly unbalanced: the animal world is not represented and the transition from the laurel temple to the rest is abrupt: as an evolutionary model this would be incomplete, and as a narrative pattern unsatisfactory. Thus this mythological structure created the space for, demanded the gap be filled by, a temple involving the animal world" (p. 208). This seems to assume that there was conscious recognition of the mythical patterns that Sourvinou-Inwood has traced, and that the author(s) of this myth was aiming at a complete structuralist system. Here, it looks as if the author has tried to explain a feature of the myth that does not fit into her theory by claiming that the animal portion was a later addition to balance out the myth. As for the date of the creation of the myth, the author takes the Homeric Hymn to Apollo as a terminus post quem, and favors Pindar as the inventor or elaborator of the myths, rearranging and embellishing previous motifs. One central question is not addressed: why was this myth created and what purpose did it serve?

IV.2 "Myth as History: The Previous Owners of the Delphic Oracle" treats the myth that Apollo did not found the Delphic oracle, but took it over from an earlier goddess, usually Gaia or Themis. Sourvinou-Inwood, in contrast to other scholars, does not believe that there is any historical truth to this claim, but instead, believes that the myth reflects Greek conceptions about Apollo, the oracle, and the cosmic order. The author notes that the two earliest literary texts that mention the history of the oracle, the Homeric Hymn to Apollo and Alcaeus' Hymn to Apollo, offer Apollo as the founder and initial owner of the oracle, and thus, Sourvinou-Inwood claims that the myth about a previous owner was invented at some later stage. She dismisses the Mycenaean evidence for a cult of Gaia on two counts: first, the material remains do not suggest that the cult at the later shrine of Athena Pronaia had anything to do with Gaia, and second, there was no cult activity at Marmaria or at the later site of the temple of Apollo between the Mycenaean period and the ninth century B.C., so any posited link between a Mycenaean past and the historical period is untenable. Moreover, any aspect of Apollo cult that can be read as more appropriate to Gaia ("the chasm and pneuma, the laurel, the omphalos, and the altar of Poseidon" p. 225) is shown by the author to be perfectly compatible with Apollo. The earliest variants of the myth date to the fifth century B.C., and can be interpreted as the chthonic, dangerous aspects of the divine in the form of Gaia defeated by the celestial law giver, Apollo: "Apollo founded it [the oracle] in order to guide mankind, to give laws, and establish order" (p. 228). The figure of Themis, a goddess associated with order and justice, was created to once again fill a 'space' between Gaia and Apollo, the dark and bright sides of prophecy, male v. female, primordial goddess v. younger, Olympian god (p. 230). Thus, the myth is not historical, but instead presents Greek ideas about the cosmos, and the order and relation of deities (specifically, the triumph of Apollo). Although Sourvinou-Inwood carefully sets forth what she believes is incorrect about scholars' reading of myth as history on p. 218, she does not address how scholars have misread this particular myth, and tacitly makes the claim that myth cannot (ever) be read as accurate history: "Since myths are structured by, and express, the (religious, social and intellectual) realities and mental representations of the societies that produced or recast them, any echoes of cultic history that may have gone into the making of a particular myth are radically reshaped and adapted, by a process of bricolage, to fit the 'needs', the 'spaces', created by the mythological schemata structuring that myth, which express, and are shaped by, those realities and representations." Maps and plans of the sanctuary and the various structures discussed would have been useful. I wonder how "Nyx is more negative than Gaia..." (p. 242 n. 73), and "mythicoritual" (pp. 236, 249) is a bit much. Lastly, I find the inclusion of the appendix here somewhat baffling; why isn't this treated as a lengthy footnote?

The last essay, IV.3 "'Myth' and History: On Herodotos 3.48 and 3.50-53" is an exploration of the account of Periander's relationship with his son Lykophron as recounted in Herodotos. The myth, according to the author, concerns father-son hostility and the need for sons to 'destroy' their fathers in order to succeed them; this destruction can be actual or metaphorical, and in either case, constitutes a type of patricide. Indeed, Lykophron is treated as if polluted after he is turned out of his father's home; he is not allowed to be received by anyone, and eventually resorts to sleeping in the stoas. Sourvinou-Inwood associates this structure with initiatory myths and actual rites, and likens Lycophron to an unsuccessful ephebe, noting that even his name ("wolf-minded", p. 255) indicates his permanence in an ephebic state. After Lycophron and Periander make an uneasy peace, Lycophron was killed by the Corcyreans with whom he was staying. As punishment, Periander chose 300 Corcyrean boys to be sent to Lydia to become eunuchs. As it turned out, the Samians saved the boys and instituted a festival to commemorate this event. Sourvinou-Inwood links the salvation and the festival to initiation rites: the boy is removed from his community (like the Theseus and Minotaur myth), goes to a shrine abroad, snatches food, and is threatened with destruction. Thus, the dependence of this account on initiatory schemata, which are comparable to many other stories of father-son hostility (e.g., Hippolytos and Theseus), suggests that the myth is not historical, but another manifestation of this 'type'.

In spite of the meticulous and thorough argumentation, and impressive conclusions, this collection could have been improved in several respects. The dense, technical prose is often wearying to the reader; even enthusiastic supporters may find their attention flagging. This is in part due to the overuse of apposition and odd phrasing (e.g., "...this fundamental divergence is intensified through the motif of holding the spears in the left in erotic pursuit, which stresses the character of the spears as not weapons in use in attack" p. 42), and to the lack of analogies to elucidate abstract points. An example may serve to illustrate this point: "If the two coincide, if the analyses of the myths has (sic) produced 'messages' which express the significant perceptions of that society pertaining to the semantic area concerned as they are known from other sources, this constitutes some validation, some confirmation of the validity of the analyses" (p. 20). To be fair, Sourvinou-Inwood herself acknowledges the difficulty of II.1 on p. 27, and indeed, this essay is the most difficult to read. The text is also heavy on jargon, and a firm editorial hand would have been helpful to control repetition of vocabulary ("fallacious" seems to be a leitmotif) and run-on sentences: "First, no sign has a fixed meaning. Its value in any signifier (such as a text or image) is determined by a complex and dynamic movement of interaction: an interaction between on the one hand the element under consideration (for example 'spear' in an image of erotic pursuit) with its semantic field of functions, associations, connotations, and on the other, first, its syntactical relationships with the other signifying elements in the representation (the value of which is also determined by the same movement of interaction) in the context of the overall signifier (in this case image); and second, its relationships with the other (semantically related) elements which might have been selected in its place but were not; for example, the value of the spears in scenes of erotic pursuit is also determined by the fact that they are not a sword, or a spear being brandished." (p. 11).

The text is underillustrated; dozens and dozens of vase painting examples mentioned in the text and footnotes, often with detailed descriptions of their ornament and themes, are without illustration. This is unfortunate as key points of argumentation often rely on these images. Since the cost of this text (with seventeen figures) is already exhorbitant ($79.00), I can understand the press' reluctance to add more illustrations, but it is baffling that this book costs so much when others with far more illustrations cost far less. Charts would have been extremely useful to clarify comparisons between various types of vase painting scenes, e.g., the erotic pursuit/Theseus with a sword discussion, and would have enabled the author to simplify her remarks and the reader to absorb much intricate detail more easily.

The footnotes are exhaustive and also exhausting; many references are dramatically abbreviated, necessitating flipping back to the bibliography several times for each note, and so many of the references are to Sourvinou-Inwood's own work. This practice is commensurate with Sourvinou-Inwood's tone, especially when arguing with or refuting other scholar's work. For example, the author expresses disagreement with W. Deonna on p. 123 n.1: "Deonna's study is unsystematic and speculative", and she dismisses the work of G.W. Elderkin, "I should note that an extraordinarily bad study has been written on three-quarters of this myth" (p. 210 n.1). The author employs a defensive tone when explaining away a criticism of Metzger in an epilogue on pp. 122-23: "In a review of the original publication of this essay ... Metzger accuses me of assuming that iconographical signs had a fixed value -- for this is the only possible interpretation of his rhetorical exclamations that imply that I am imagining the vase-painters as using the iconographical signs as printing characters... But it must be obvious to the most casual reader that far from ascribing a fixed value to iconographical signs, on the contrary, I stress repeatedly and strongly ... that I take signs to be polysemic ..." and later "The only possible explanation of this serious misunderstanding by such a distinguished iconographer (for the hasty reading hypothesis which would have imposed itself in the case of a less conscientious scholar than Professor Metzger must be excluded in this case) is that the schemata of the more common reading models ... formed a perceptual screen through which my text was filtered." Sourvinou-Inwood spends much of section III disagreeing with Prückner's interpretations of the Locrian pinakes. For example, on p. 156, Sourvinou-Inwood writes: "Prückner, who has rejected this interpretation in favour of a much less convincing one of his own, has not produced any cogent arguments against it." And a footnote to this sentence reads: "He suggested that the scenes show the presentation of deities newly arrived at Locri ... I need hardly point out that this interpretation depends on a series of wholly unsupported assumptions." This is but a sampling, but I think these are illustrative. I strongly believe that scholarly disagreement is healthy and stimulating, and should be expressed, but there are more tactful and respectful ways of doing it.

In spite of these criticisms, the collection is a welcome addition to theoretical studies of Greek culture, and is a useful compendium of Sourvinou-Inwood's work. Even detractors will be stimulated by these scientific, painstaking analyses to be as rigorous and careful as possible in their analyses. Sourvinou-Inwood is to be thanked for inspiring scholars to look more carefully and with fresher eyes at familiar images and ideas.