Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.10.20


Richard Seaford, Reciprocity and Ritual. Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. Pp. xix + 455. ISBN 0-19-814949-2.


Reviewed by Charles Segal, Harvard University.

Reacting against the Nietzschean view of Dionysus as a manifestation of disorder and "anti-structure," Seaford regards Dionysiac cult and mysteries as promoting civic unity in the polis. The culmination of this function in Athens is tragedy, whose origins and underlying mythic patterns, S. argues, are the very opposite of having "nothing to do with Dionysus." In his view, tragedy helps the emerging polis to eliminate the potential violence of death rituals, in the form of family vendettas, and to replace the loyalty to autonomous households with loyalty to the polis. Hero-cult plays a central role in S.'s scheme. It has many affinities with Dionysiac cult and the Dionysiac pattern of tragedy, and it serves to transfer the emotions of private death ritual to collective participation in the lament over a hero. Hence the Dionysiac pattern in tragedy includes the creation of such hero-cults. Dionysiac myth and cult also undermine the autonomy of the household by freeing women from male control, for it is often the women (like Antigone) who are the chief bearers of familial as opposed to civic loyalties. In the Dionysiac plot of tragedy the royal family (frequently the Theban royal family) destroys itself through a crisis of violence that manifests itself in a perversion of ritual, especially death and marriage ritual. The resultant destruction, however, brings a benefit to the polis in the foundation of a new cult, frequently a hero-cult, in which the whole polis participates.

Such is a bare outline of S.'s complex and richly elaborated thesis. The argument involves three major areas: the social function of ritual in the polis, Homer, and tragedy. The overlapping of these areas makes for a certain amount of repetition and sometimes confusion as S. recapitulates his argument at its various stages and moves back and forth between Homer and tragedy; but the writing is generally clear and forceful, and S. synthesizes a great deal of recent work (including much of his own work) on myth, ritual, and Greek social practice. The book is impressive for its global view of myth, cult, and literature, but S.'s attempt to include so much sometimes produces one-sided interpretations, especially of the tragedies. Nevertheless the book deserves careful attention even if one cannot accept all of S.'s views.

The first chapter sets up Homeric society as the foil to the polis. Homeric society is characterized by Adkins' "competitive" rather than cooperative virtues. Loyalties are to familial or personal ties rather than to the larger social unity and are cemented by ritualized forms of reciprocity such as gift-giving. The society of the Iliad confronts a "crisis of reciprocity" when this system breaks down, as it does in the poem's opening quarrel. Because of the importance of personal reciprocity and the autonomous family, Homer shows a greater inhibition of intrafamilial violence than tragedy; and sacrifice and marriage exhibit fewer of the perversions and negations than they have in tragedy. Agamemnon's account of his slaughter "like an ox at the trough" in the Nekyia, for example, depicts a sacrificial situation but avoids sacrificial vocabulary. S.'s developmental scheme, however, underplays episodes of intrafamilial violence that do not fit his thesis, e. g., the story of Meleager and of its narrator, Phoenix, and the murderous role that Agamemnon does, after all, assign his wife in Od. 11.421-30 and 24.199-202. Conversely, those elements in Homer that seem to anticipate polis values -- Hector's conflict between city and family in Iliad 6, the urban scenes on the Shield of Achilles, the coalescence of the city around Hector's funeral in Iliad 24, the Phaeacian society of the Odyssey -- all conveniently turn out to belong to the late stages of composition, developed under the direct influence of the polis.

Chapter 2 shows how a crisis of reciprocity combines with a crisis of ritual to depict a disordered society. In his extended analysis of the disorderly suitors of the Odyssey S. convincingly shows that a pattern of wedding ritual underlies the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope from book 18 on. Yet in his eagerness to establish this pattern he sometimes pushes the text too hard. Penelope's wish for death from Artemis, he argues, indicates her status as a new bride, for Artemis' role as the killer of nubile virgins expresses "the necessity for the girl to relinquish her girlhood at marriage" (34). S. is honest enough to acknowledge the inconvenient fact that Artemis regularly kills older, married women too. In the larger picture also S. is often unsatisfactory. His contrast of Homer and polis, for example, requires that the wedding pattern that he finds in Odyssey 18.1-23.196 be "a private affair" that does not take account of the "public" issue of vengeance in the threatened vendetta of the slain suitors' kinsmen. Hence book 24 must be a late addition evincing the collective, polis-oriented ethos of a post-Homeric period. The dating of Odyssey 24 will probably remain controversial, but the wedding theme cannot be studied in isolation from the rest of the poem (e. g. the Calypso, Nausicaa, and Circe episodes), nor is it so clear that the wedding is "a private affair," particularly as it seems (at times) to involve the kingship of Ithaca. Conversely, the resolution of the crisis of violence posed by the vendetta is not so clearly "public" an action as S. would have it. Laertes rejoices in the three generations of his patriarchal household (24.514-15), and it is Athena's direct, personal warning to Odysseus that finally ends the conflict (24.541-45). To take a very different area, S. argues that Homeric sacrifice shows less anxiety about death and bloodshed than sacrifice in tragedy. This is generally true, but S. does not mention the sacrificial practice of the sysplanchneuein which, in Burkert's view, does indeed express some measure of guilt or anxiety at the killing (44; see Burkert, Homo Necans [Eng. trans. 1983] 6-7).

In focusing so narrowly on ritual, S. seems sometimes to be looking into the wrong end of the telescope. The Iliad obviously describes a crisis in every aspect of the social and cosmic order; and these rifts and the violence they produce will inevitably be reflected in ritual or ritualized acts, like Agamemnon's rejection of Chryses' supplication or Achilles' rejection of Agamemnon's gifts. But it is anger, imperiousness, selfishness, and folly that produce the ritual responses and not the other way around. It is not unreasonable to view the Iliad as a succession of rituals, and S. does an excellent job of tracing the disruption of "ritual normality" and its restoration through the successful rites of supplication and funeral in book 24 (pp. 65-73). But it is, after all, the characters who produce the rituals, not the rituals that create the characters. The limitations of so narrow a ritual and sociological approach become evident when one compares it, for instance, to the study of supplication in Kevin Crotty's The Poetics of Supplication (Cornell U. P. 1994), which appeared at about the same time. For Crotty, the emotional and ethical implications of supplication are uppermost, as supplication is the area in which the human characters recognize their own fragility and gain insight into the tragic situation of their own and others' lives. S.'s monolithic view of ritual patterns also produces distortions of emphasis. Odysseus' rejection of the suitors' supplication in Odyssey 22, for instance, is hardly on the same scale, in the economy of the narrative, as Achilles's rejection of Agamemnon's gifts, nor is the resultant "crisis of reciprocity" of the same importance.

The third chapter concentrates on death rituals, and especially on the polis's restrictions of funerary ritual because family vendettas can so seriously disrupt civic unity. S.'s combination of comparative and historical approaches works very well here, and he offers an interesting historicization of Girard's theories of ritual crisis with the example of the Cylonian conspiracy. The Oresteia is obviously a paradigm case for S., with juridical process winning out over the uncontrolled, reciprocal violence of family revenge. Yet here too S.'s one-sided perspective excludes much of what is problematical in the trilogy: the nature of Apollo's and Athena's reasons for voting against the Furies, Athena's mode of winning them over, and the suddenness of their conversion, to mention the most notable and most discussed issues.

The mechanism by which the polis overcomes the divisive potential of funerary ritual is hero-cult, which in the name of the polis permits those very excesses that the polis restricts in private. More important for S.'s argument, the transformation of the hero from potential wrath and destructiveness to benefit for the community is the model for the way in which tragedy helps control reciprocal violence. Hence in plays like the Eumenides, Heracleidae, Heracles, and Oedipus at Colonus Athens transforms destructiveness to civic solidarity by receiving the killer of kin. This is a valuable and enlightening insight, which builds interestingly on Peter Burian's studies of hero-cult in Sophocles and on Froma Zeitlin's now classic essay on Thebes as an "anti-Athens," but it does not fit all the plays equally well. In the Ajax, for example, where hero-cult is firmly in the background (as Burian and more recently Henrichs have emphasized), civic solidarity is far from complete. The burial must be performed hastily, Odysseus is still excluded, and Teucer's invitation to "everyone who claims to be a philos" (1413f.) suggests the continuing rift between loyalty to Ajax and loyalty to the community (in this case, the Greek army at Troy). Although the Athenian audience is surely reminded of Ajax's eventual power as a hero (especially in 1171-81), the ending itself places no clear emphasis on "benefit to the polis." Similarly in the Hippolytus, to which S. alludes frequently, both here and in subsequent chapters, S. gives a disproportionate weight to the heroization of Hippolytus, as if the briefly told aetiological myth, instead of being a typically Euripidean coda by the deus ex machina, were the logical culmination of the love, hate, anger, errors, and problems of human and divine justice that constitute most of the action.

Chapter 5 takes us back to Homer and belongs to the historical part of S.'s argument. There is some circularity in his approach. Because the cohesive effect of hero-cult belongs to the polis, those aspects of the Iliad that seem to show the use of death ritual to promote solidarity, like the reintegration of Achilles to society in books 23-24, must date from the age of the polis, i. e., the sixth century. The ending of the poem, along with the "polis-sensitive" book 6, were added when the poem was fixed for recitation at the Panathenaic festival. This chapter will certainly prove the most controversial in the book, and it is not possible to enter into details here, but it should be noted that S. says nothing of the monumental Dipylon vases, which have been taken to indicate an eighth-century date for some of the Homeric funerary scenes. Even if one accepts the fixing of the text of an orally transmitted Iliad for the Panathenaia, there still remains an enormous difference between the limited introduction of a few contemporary details (Ajax in the Catalogue and the return of the bones in 7.334f.) and the reshaping of major segments of the narrative. It may be, as S. claims, that unitarians pay too little attention to the arguments of the analysts and neo-analysts, but S. pays very little attention to the arguments of the oralists.

Chapter 6 backtracks to a rather less extreme view of the Homeric poems and acknowledges that the seeds of polis development are already present in Homeric society, but with the growth of the polis the personalized forms of Homeric reciprocity (especially gift-giving and revenge) gradually give way to commodity exchange and law. The city's control of marriage also undermines the power of individual households, and the process is complete with Pericles' law of citizenship, which encourages the Athenians to view their city as a single household. This rather more familiar view of the development of Greek society stands in something of a contradiction to the previous chapter's sixth-century origins for Iliad 22-24 (or indeed 18-24), for if there is a gradual evolution toward the resolution of violence by collective funerary cult, it is equally possible that the Iliad stands at the beginning rather than the end of that process.

Chapter 7 introduces what for S. is the major catalyst in the birth of tragedy, Dionysiac myth and cult. Dionysiac ritual, S. suggests, unites the city's center and periphery in the procession to Eleutherae, involves the whole polis as a single unit, and is at the heart of a number of myths in which a sacrificial crisis involving the death of the young and a threatened collapse of civilization are averted by the establishment of a cult of the god from outside. The pattern resembles that of hero-cult in providing a collective solution to violence; but it also implicates the relation between polis and household by releasing women from male control and effecting the self-destruction of the royal family as kin turn murderously against kin. Here and in later chapters, S.'s model for this pattern is the Bacchae, where the destruction of the royal family, he argues, ultimately benefits the polis thanks to the introduction of Dionysus' worship to Thebes. The difficulty here, as in the case of Ajax and Hippolytus mentioned above, is emphasis and proportion. Even allowing for the lost portion of Dionysus' speech prophesying his future cult in Thebes, the play we have stresses neither the creation of order nor the benefit to the polis. The play in fact shows us very little of a polis other than what is associated with the royal family, and even that little is not positive (e. g. the clever talker from the town who makes the disastrous suggestion of attacking the maenads, 717-21). In the last scene Dionysus is notoriously harsh and remote, and he does not even allude to his Theban origins (see 1349). The mood of the ending is one of loss and desolation rather than regeneration or hope in some distant future.

S. ventures into still more speculative areas when he suggests that tragedy may have developed as males replaced females in the role of the maenads who accompanied the satyrs (i.e., worshipers dressed as satyrs) in the Dionysiac processions. The picture of sixth-century Athenian men going around dressed some as satyrs and others as maenads is fascinating, and it may be true, but it is hard to lift from the realm of conjecture. S. also harks back to some of his previous work on the Dionysiac mysteries to suggest that these too were a major constituent in the collective function of tragedy, especially with the resultant tension between secret and public.

The rest of the book is primarily concerned with tracing the Dionysiac motifs in tragedy, and space permits only a few comments. S. builds on Burkert's and Girard's work on the centrality of sacrifice but adds an emphasis on the specifically Dionysiac nature of tragic sacrifice. In tragedy sacrifice is perverted into the killing of kin, thereby creating an image of total disorder that is then resolved by the god's establishment of a civic cult. The model also includes the close identification of victim and celebrant and the initiatory pattern of the Dionysiac mysteries, in which the initiand undergoes an experience of disorientation and death in order to be brought to the realm of divinity and immortality. Like Vernant and Detienne, S. emphasizes Dionysus' confusion of beast, man, and god, but his concern is with the construction, not the questioning, of civic order. The argument is rich in interesting observations, especially in the analogy between sacrificial and initiatory ritual. Yet S.'s attempt to find the pattern fully realized in the Bacchae is problematical, not only because of his optimistic reading of the play as a whole but also because of questionable details like the supposed correspondence between the sacrificial pelting of the victim with barley and the maenads' hurling of missiles at Pentheus, or between their encircling him "just as people encircle the victim in a sacrifice" (290). There are difficulties of a more general nature too. Myths of Dionysus, for example, play a relatively minor role in tragedy (pace S., 276, n. 186); and Dionysus himself is not a major divinity of political unity (comparable, say, to Athena or Apollo), even though, as Henrichs has emphasized in a number of recent articles, he has important civic functions.

S. leaves it unclear, furthermore, how secret, private mysteries become so central to the public, highly political form of tragedy. And, granting that the transcending of the individual household is important for the polis, why use Dionysiac frenzy and maenadism as the major mechanism to detach women from male authority? This is a risky way to overcome the autonomy of the individual household, for it threatens the very structure of the polis, which, after all, is still built up of oikoi. If the ultimate aim of tragedy is to affirm civic identity and cohesion, why arouse such profound anxiety about female violence, divided loyalty, and the vulnerability of men and male children? S. has his own answers (e. g. 327), but it seems ultimately simpler and closer to the substance of the plays that we have to view tragedy as exploring and questioning at least as much as affirming and resolving. Tragedy enacts anti-social, violent, and disruptive forces but incorporates them into a civic, political institution and in this way enables the city to confront and examine the contradictions that it contains, including the institution of tragedy itself.

The paradoxes that S. finds in Dionysiac ritual and the polis, then, may equally well belong to tragedy as a public spectacle rather than to its specifically Dionysiac or cultic (or hero-cultic) nature, given the performance of these dramas in a state theater before the entire citizen population. The consolidating, cohesive function that S. claims for tragedy is perhaps more truly valid for the Dionysiac festival as a whole, within which tragedy (along with comedy) has a special place; and here tragedy's "benefit to the polis" may be less direct and less simple than S. envisions. S. himself acknowledges that his pattern works best for Aeschylus (see 344), but even within the extant corpus there are problems for his thesis, as we have noted above for the Oresteia.

Chapter 9 returns to Homer, largely to emphasize the contrast between his generally favorable view of both marriage and sacrifice by contrast to tragedy. Yet here too S. seems to me to exaggerate the importance of the maenadic (and so Dionysiac) pattern in Andromache's suffering at Hector's death. The contrasting term seem to be less a Dionysiac antithesis of male and female or of male control and female submission than the Iliad's characteristic contrast of peace and war, marriage and rape by enemies, the honored status of the wife and violation, degradation, and enslavement by the conquerors, as Nagler has shown in his study of the formulaic pattern of the krêdemnon.

The last chapter returns to tragedy and shows how it systematically perverts ritual (especially sacrifice, funeral or lament, and marriage) in order to effect an ultimate restoration of ritual normality at the end. S. offers interesting discussions of the Oresteia, Antigone, both Electras, Oedipus at Colonus, Ajax, and Bacchae. He restates some of the useful points of his valuable article on the "tragic wedding"; but his attempted demonstration of the "mystic" elements in the plays (especially in the Trugrede of Ajax), though intriguing, rests on no more solid evidence than did J.-P. Guépin's previous attempt in this direction (The Tragic Paradox, Amsterdam 1968). What S. regards as "mystic" vocabulary may equally well belong to tragedy's recurrent antitheses of truth and illusion, visible and hidden, light and darkness, life and death, which Sophocles above all exploits in his celebrated ironies.

In this book, as in his earlier work, S. demonstrates his remarkable flair for subtle and imaginative analysis of ritual patterns. This very skill, however, sometimes leads him to a misplacing of proportions, forced analogies, and oversimplified interpretations of individual plays. Despite its flaws and exaggerations, however, Reciprocity and Ritual is a learned and stimulating book. At a time of ever-narrowing specialization, S.'s wide sweep, bold hypotheses, and fresh syntheses of ritual, myth, and literature command respect and admiration. This is a book in which readers of Homer and tragedy will find much to think about and to argue with.