Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.06.10


H.S. Versnel, Transition and Reversal in Myth and Ritual. Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion II. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993. Pp. xv + 354. ISBN 90-04-09267-6.


Reviewed by Donald Lateiner, Ohio Wesleyan University.

Hendrik Versnel (b. 1936), professor of ancient history at Leiden University, has published on many topics in Greek and Roman folklore and religion including Triumphus (1970), Ter Unus. Isis, Dionysos, Hermes (1990), Satricum e Roma: L'iscrizione di Satricum... (1990) as well as editing Faith, Hope and Worship (1981), a rich volume of five essays contributed by Dutch scholars. He edits the Brill series "Studies in Greek & Roman Religion" in which this volume and its predecessor, Inconsistencies I: Ter Unus, appear.

Versnel's erudition is overwhelming, however naive or supervacaneous it may seem to compliment colleagues on breadth of reading. Studies in anthropology, sociology, and linguistics as well as the expectable philology, ancient history, and mythology are liberally quoted in the text and more liberally in the copious, bibliophiliac footnotes -- the generous words of which probably equal those of the text proper. If the prerequisite for a conscientious reviewer of a learned tome is to know more about the scholarly subjects than the author, caveat lector. Dear reader, you may stop here. The following notes summarize and briefly comment on this volume's varied contents; they do not criticize it authoritatively, for your reporter controls little Greek and less Latin religion.

The book's five chapters share a concern with the long disputed connection between myth and ritual (an inquiry by now somewhat exiguous in palatable results, but I guess that's not a professional response). Some chapters previously appeared in Dutch, a language not to be mastered by reading it aloud and pretending it is Deutsch (unless someone is born German, as was the scholar who recommended this desperate approach to me). Their presentation in English, therefore, is to be welcomed, at least by Anglophones and probably by others. The English rarely misses a beat, and not the last surprise is an epigraph from The House at Pooh Corner. Versnel is interested in "virtuoso winking," the way in which one may preserve two conflicting realities, ambiguous beings and events such as one finds in festivals of licence (carnivals) and rituals of initiation. Both involve transitions -- what doesn't anymore? -- and reversals. In the data studied by Versnel, "the stark contradictions ... reveal the very essence of their [myths and rituals'] function and message." The examination of these rituals includes thorough review of scholarly literature back to W.H. Roscher, Sir James Frazer, and Jane Ellen Harrison. This aspect of Literatur-Forschungsbericht is a welcome, sometimes amusing feature, especially for colleagues fearfully treading in others' somewhat exclusive vineyards. Versnel is eclectic (p.11), heeding Kirk's extreme (one exception invalidates a theory) if salutary cautions against "monolithic" theories, all-embracing explanations not often reciprocally embraced in our sceptical age. A "polyparadigmatic" approach hopes to avoid "risks of monopolisation" that dying and rising gods or initiation paradigms might produce.

Chapter One reviews the relatively modern, even recent "myth vs. ritual" genetic debate -- like chickens and eggs, of unclear priority. Essayistic footnotes, condensed evaluations, and nearly heroic epithets herald the appearances of scholarly luminaries such as Nilsson and Nock, Eliade and Harrison, Darwin and Robertson Smith, Frazer and even Margaret Murray. Quaint terms like Urdummheit (21n.12) receive their own doxography or reference. Versnel ponders meanwhile whether myths are invented so that man can comprehend and thereby manipulate his ritual reality, or rituals are invented so man can be comfortably manipulated in his collectivities, can participate in his inherited myth.

One escape is to argue, after a hint of Harrison's, that myth and rite arise together; Bronislaw Malinowski and Edmund Leach endorse this approach. Versnel examines several temporary deviants, marginal situations, reversal of food and dress habits, periods of physical and temporal removal from normality: marginal persons in transitional periods or situations. Excesses of initiationism are faithfully reported among interpreters of the Odyssey. The chapter rambles occasionally as it arranges, describes, and sometimes evaluates. Archaeological and art historical data are unfortunately not included, but so much else is -- like a bibliography on cannibalism (81n.166) -- that the stunned, occasionally surfeited reader does not complain.

Chapter Two examines "Kronos and the Kronia." The myth is not well preserved beyond Hesiod's version, one that I think has been distorted by his peculiar and paranoid theological agenda. The contradictory picture of Aurea Aetas, abundant ease and utopic content, on the one hand, and anarchic cruelty and lawless bestiality on the other, is not to be resolved, Versnel opines, by appeals to conflation, distortion, or random anomalies (an answer which is no answer, obviously). Such attempts "fatefully veil" essential meanings. Rather the key lies in a structural approach that recognizes meaningful ambivalences and even internal contradiction for certain rituals (here: transitional). Thus joyous and frightening qualities, oppositions, are structural characteristics of the god himself (132). The Age of Kronos signifies a period both before and after the time and world that we live in. The Kronia is celebrated in a "betwixt and between" period of the year in Athens, perhaps when grain-production activities enter a state of suspended animation, certainly in Hekatombaion, formerly Kronion (Plut. Thes. 12), just before the start of the new calendar year. Roles are reversed, hierarchy inverted, conflicts momentarily emphasized but by rituals that (127) "channel and neutralise any excessive inclinations." Versnel here is somewhat contradictory himself on the important issue of whether such reversals legitimate or threaten existing distributions of power and the social order. He notes that Aristophanes is reluctant to portray slave and citizen power-reversals (but what about Xanthias in the Wasps or Frogs?). Kronos is uncultic, precultic, and, therefore, as exemplar of precultural chaos at the frontiers of civilization, belongs with his little myth and less cult in an "incision festival." At these annual moments, the impossibilities of both Utopia and Dystopia simultaneously become clear (at some subconscious level) through phantasies realized in both myth and rite.

The central chapter and longest (over 90 pages) studies "Saturnus and the Saturnalia." The god is both (p.139) "arch-Roman and the prototypical foreigner." Paradoxes abound (primeval sanctuary but worship ritu graeco, sickle of agricultural plenty yet also a bloody weapon, god of a peaceful age but also perhaps of the gladiatorial munera -- underwritten uncoincidentally by the aerarium Saturni. Versnel argues that "less agreeable sides of the god" should not be explained by conflation or later confusion. "It is methodically preferable to explore whether the ambiguous nature of the god cannot be explained by his authentic nature and function" (153). In other words, may he not, like Kronos be a god of reversals, of eccentric and exceptional times and places? His outrageously alien purple pallium suggests the answer "yes." The license (orgy, freedom to gamble) and role reversals of slave and master of the Saturnalian holy days and their comic stage-performances provide a mundus alter, a millennial fantasist's dream. "Temporary liberty of the subdued ... simply belongs to the fixed taxonomy of crisis festivals" (188). The "historical" myth of Rome's founding, civic order out of violent chaos, itself includes freed slaves, removal of debts, and freedom from criminal prosecution. The opening of the stored produce in December, at winter's approach, important and ubiquitous rite in pre-industrial societies, offers a typical crisis ceremony, a recurring moment of anxiety and hope. The interstitial ceremonies of 17 December thus provide a primitiae or first fruits festival, an agrarian kernel (but genetic explanations -- especially fertility aetiologies -- are throughout the book criticized as never sufficient to explain the rich associations and exaggerated expressions of developed public ritual). Recent archaeological evidence for the mundus pit is here lucidly presented and combined with the literary evidence for the in-between rites in order to conclude that "the festival originated as the ceremony through which the hidden corn supply was made accessible for inspection and consumption" (176). The sequence of combinations and speculative inferences requires closer study. A sub-chapter on Vergil's redeunt Saturnia regna identifies the unique Augustan element as the here and now manifestations of the (typically) future realm of bliss. The ambiguous Saturnalian myth, like many others, was laid under service first to pro-Augustan and later to anti-Neronian propaganda (190-210). Versnel correctly argues against ancient and modern Roman apologists who try to dissociate our cultural ancestors, the ancient Romans, from human sacrifices, not only murderous celebratory contests or one-sided holiday savagery in the arena but also judicial mutilations or delightful executions, sometimes theatrical and always presented publicly whether as sanguinary entertainment or threat (cf. Du châtiment dans la cité: supplices corporels et peine de mort dan le monde antique, [Ecole française de Rome: Rome 1984]; K.M. Coleman, "Fatal Charades," JRS 80 [1990] 44-73). More easily might one maintain that no non-Roman, so-called barbaric civilization matched Roman ritualized bloodshed and killing.

Versnel turns to comparison of Bona Dea and Thesmophoria. Fertility cult aspects are given their due, but Versnel questions whether fertility ("the magical code word") functions should be assumed to be the original ones. He points out how "this origin would still not explain the meaning of various surprising aspects" (233), such as the bizarre if (male-)licensed female behaviors permitted in both Athens and Rome (temetum wine-drinking: sign of female political and religious inferiority; pp.265-66). A profitable discussion of Thesmophoria as a "festival of exception" accounts for the unimaginable privileges that Athenian women briefly enjoyed each year. Enigmatic rights and rites gain explanation from the anthropological concept of "temporary liberation," reversal of the normal order, (anomia, iustitium). Such limited liberty allows the chains of the oppressed to be subsequently refastened with more nearly universal cooperation. In Athenian Thesmophoric ritual for Demeter, as in Tegean Gynaikothoina, or even Euripides' mythic version of Dionysiac Ur-ceremony with filicide and cannibalism, we encounter female subversion, aggression, and self-assertion. These women are warriors, are bawdy tongues with sexual toys, independent political forces, or sacrificers not sacrificed. Female limited license "celebrated" and somehow simultaneously defused or channeled sexual tensions on the public level. Contemporary anthropological parallels may provide our only window into this alien process, one at least not easily conceptualized by modern parallels. Disruption, wrongness (for the sex in power), and re-enacted threat to society are central; the topsy-turviness reinforces official male morality and political control (251, n.80). These rites interrupt normal life, but they do not definitively change it or permanently alter the status of participants (as rites du passage do). French and American structuralist interpretations aid Versnel's argument here. Logically incompatible but psychologically supportable male wish-fulfillments of women as both virgins and mothers gain expression through cult. The theatrical rituals themselves embody a contradiction that expresses something essential for Greek men's ideology of women's sexual difference: biological necessity (fertility) and socio-cultural violation of The Norm (choiro/kusthocracy?). Otherwise expressed, domesticated matrons briefly escape the jail-cells of reality but only for the prison's temporary playground (the Pnyx or the Pontifex's house).

Finally, the iconographies of beardless, young Apollo and mature Mars are hardly similar, yet Roscher in 1873 demonstrated similarities in these gods' nature and functions. His own method and solar underpinnings have long since been rejected, but perhaps his conclusion (even his original intuition, I might add) was right. Versnel combines historical and structural approaches to elucidate this mystery: Can gods received and perceived in very different images have kindred functions? Both gods have been considered "der Exponent der unheimlichen, unvertrauten Welt draussen" (Latte, 1960), both are connected with outcasts, Jungmannschaften, and both perform cathartic functions for the community. They arrive from elsewhere, they are often worshipped outside the city, they lead forth colonies of young men. These purificatory parallels reflect communal desire for order, boundaries, and pure-impure, we-they clarifications. They also share initiatory functions for young men passing through an excluded, wild and wolfish looting-stage (rites de marge), and then entering the Mannerbund (rite d'aggregation) -- the integration into the community of an essential group -- as a group and not as individuals (unlike other rites de passage such as birth, marriage, and death). This is not to say that Apollo and Mars do not have complicated natures, utterly unlike functions as well, but the similarities should not be passed over. Versnel does not argue that the two gods are but one divine figure at any point in history, or even earlier a common Indo-European deity (an unprovable hypothesis for an historian, and, to my mind, a dead-end, even if it were provable), but that they, regardless of origin, personify "closely related social rites and ... the people who play the central role in these rites" (318). Where the Greeks emphasized Apollo's civic nature and social roles (although his ephebic and warrior elements are well attested), the Romans emphasized military training. Iconography here can hinder as well as aid interpretations of religious significance.

Misprints and typographical errors are more common than one expects in a book from academic publishers like Brill (let's hope that BMCR prints this review right). Eleven lines of one footnote are repeated (p.174, n.158); more frequent errors passed in the last chapter, pointless to list here in all their specifics (okay, e.g., p.334, n.144 tautologously reads "o.c. above n.144" where n.142 must be meant). A bibliography and three indices conclude the book (n.b.: "function =/ meaning" and "origin =/ meaning"). The level of English is excellent and the occasional joke amidst the shards of the eniautos daimon is welcome except to the severi (e.g., see about "aunt Louise" in dreams with subtitles on p.334).

To sum up a very varied book. Each essay could have been separately published, but they do exhibit unities: the relation of myth to ritual studied, as it should be, through detailed case-histories that include literary, epigraphical, and archaeological sources handled by a philologist acquainted with recent work in anthropology (Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, as well as older war-horses); the need to explain inconsistencies by more than ad hoc invocations of accretions, interpretatio Graeca, or Christian malice; and the importance of the re-presentation of ambiguity and reversal in Greek and Roman ritual and religious thoughts. The first essay introduces the issues; the last somewhat awkwardly attaches a case of palpably different gods who have deep-seated affinities. Most readers will consult the tome for the individual problems, but Versnel identifies a coherent set of problems and applies a sober mind to solve them.