Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.08.11

Claude Calame, The Poetics of Eros in Ancient Greece. Trans. Janet Lloyd.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1999.  Pp. xiii, 213.  ISBN 0-691-04341-8.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Christina Clark, Center for Hellenic Studies (
Word count: 4806 words

Interest in and research on the body and sexuality in ancient Greece has grown tremendously in the past twenty years. Different theoretical camps range from those adopting a Foucauldian, feminist, and anthropological approaches, to attempts to "directly access" ancient thought through the ancient sources alone. The anthropological approach is well illustrated by Claude Calame's The Poetics of Eros in Ancient Greece (a supplemented translation of I Greci l'eros: Simboli, pratiche e luoghi, Roma-Bari, 1992), with a foreword by Froma Zeitlin.

Overall this is a clearly written and easy to read book, and one that should be read by all those interested in the conception and function of erôs in Greek society. Advertised as an investigation of erôs as seen in Greek poetry and iconography from the archaic through the classical periods, what Calame (henceforth C.) really presents is a distillation of his thoughts on erôs over a long period of time, rather than a comprehensive work. C. calls his approach both discursive and anthropological, and states his intent to view the symbolic manifestations of the powers of erôs from this twofold, synchronic perspective (p. 3). C.'s introduction, "Tragic Prelude: The Yoke of Eros," sets out the plan and organization of his book. His text is divided into five parts with eleven chapters in all. In comparing the original Italian version with this introduction, it is clear that C. has expanded his investigation for this new edition by adding the discussion of gender. On p. 9 C. states that "in the present study, sexuality, like "gender," will be considered an operative concept ... not so much as an "experience" as a modern construct by which we try to incorporate a whole body of psychosocial practices with a genital basis." As symbolic practices, archaic and classical poetry and iconography reflect social institutions and relations as much as "sexual subjects." C. acknowledges that some may object that this idealizes Greek erôs and produces a "purely academic and scholarly view of 'sexuality,'" and labels his study an "inevitably euro- and androcentric" reading of the ancient evidence (p. 9).

Part 1 has two chapters, "The Eros of the Melic Poets" and "The Eros of Epic," which seemed to me the strongest of the book. At the start C. expresses his reaction to ideas of erôs in modern scholarship: "Prone as it is to an incoherence fostered by its excessive practice of criticism, our civilization has fragmented the notion of amorous feeling into the most contradictory representations of it" (p. 13). C. wants to integrate this fragmented picture of desire. He studies erôs as a semiotic agent acting upon "beneficiaries" in different arenas and social relations. This will involve, necessarily, looking at "any sexual roles and gender functions that it institutes in situations of contrast and conflict" (p. 13). In the end, however, C. declares that modern categories of gender and sexuality are not pertinent to the dynamic interplay he sees in "relational" erôs, and he warns us "to look with a reflective eye at our own academic and eurocentric erudition" (p. 199).

In 1.1 C. examines the literary and symbolic manifestations of erôs' social and semiotic means of action as seen in archaic poetry and iconography. C. finds the narrative structure of archaic poetry especially useful for understanding the social practice of love in Greece, since the narrator-locutor of the songs sings in the first person. C. examines the corpus of melic poetry carefully, tracing the various characterizations of erôs as a bittersweet sensory assault. Erôs strikes organs of emotion and perception and emanates from the gaze of the person, arousing desire into the eyes of the one who desires (1.1.2). Erôs involves the lover in a relationship with the object of his/her desire. While it can be intensely sweet, the archaic poets focus more on the violent, cruel aspects of love. To the one placed under the yoke of desire, erôs can seem a madness, an altered state (C. does not spend much time on the related metaphor of love as a sickness). The lover is not, C. argues, an entirely passive victim, but rather can actively strategize to win his/her beloved or to escape the bonds of passion. In 1.1.3, C. examines the strategies of love employed by lovers in melic poetry. The relationship between the adult lover and the adolescent beloved is essentially asymmetrical. The lover wants a relationship of trust with the beloved, a commitment -- expressed in the verb paidophilein and in the institutional nature of the relationship of philotês. C. argues that no reciprocity is expected in the melic poets, who are doomed to disappointment in this type of love. There is only the hope that one day, when they have matured, the beloveds will in turn become subject to the yoke of desire. In 1.1.4 C. examines the metaphorical expressions used by the poets to indicate erotic union and the meanings of words such as epithumia, hêdonê, pothos, and himeros. This discussion is valuable for delineating the different types of desire specified by the speakers and how they act upon the human body. C. is especially good here in bringing in the iconography that makes these concepts concrete.

Section 1.1.5 examines the wide range of metaphorical expressions used to express the fulfilment of erotic desire. The archaic poets refer to the sexual act itself indirectly, which contrasts sharply with the practices of contemporary vase-painters and the later conventions of Old Comedy (p. 34). C. finds two common and significant metaphorical expressions for sexual congress: the bed (eunê: site of the consummation of desire) on which the act is indicated by the verb meignusthai. This bed and joining imagery, C. argues, leads us away from the asymmetrical love found between adult and youth to conjugal love with a procreative function usually associated with the love affairs of divinities and heroes, or legendary figures (p. 35). In 1.1.6 C. investigates the representations of various states which complement and are associated with the state of desire: sleep, death, poetic inspiration. Love debilitates, but it also gives the poet the power to express him/herself in song. Music seduces and spellbinds the listener. This effect, or power of music, leads C. to examine the function of the melic poetry he has been examining for representations of erôs, moving from a semantic analysis to a pragmatic one.

Chapter 2, "The Eros of Epic Poetry" extends the investigation of the poetic and symbolic representations of erôs to epic poetry. These texts use the same vocabulary of love we have seen in the melic poets but in contrast present scenes of mutual love, the topic of 1.2.1. These conjugal relationships arise out of seduction, of course, which is the topic of 1.2.2. Seduction is accomplished many times with beguiling words, the subject of 2.3. Erotic discourse has the power to produce enchanting pleasure, similar to the effect of the performance of epic poetry on its audience.

In Part 2, "The Symbolic Practices of Eros," C. takes great pains "to avoid the illusion of realism." Melic and epic representations of love are literary and symbolic creations which can "help us to reconstruct a particular representation of love; however, they certainly do not provide a basis for any reconstruction of real sexual practices" (p. 51). It would be better to say, perhaps, that in archaic poetry we are given conventional type scenes which may or may not accurately reflect actual practices. In order to break out of the circle of internal reference and gain access to what C. calls "the institutional aspects of Greek sexual practices," C. examines the different modes of utterance used in the two different kinds of texts. Epic mode is a narrative type of representation, whereas melic mode is close to dramatic representation. In the melic mode, the narrator-locutor is using his/her words to try to seduce the beloved. This is the erotic function of melic poetry. In 2.3.1 C. notes that whether or not the love is realized is the difference between epic and melic poetry (p. 52). Epic represents a love that is realized in a reciprocal relationship on a soft bed, usually generating progeny, whereas melic represents thwarted desire because of the asymmetrical nature of the love relationship depicted. Further, the actors are different. Lovers in epic tend to be either gods or heroes, whereas in melic lovers are mortals. Denied amorous fulfilment, the melic speaker substitutes the delight of poetry, which soothes and enchants both him/herself and the audience (p. 56). The poem is a substitute for sexual union. The language used in both genres and both situations is the same. On p. 55 C. sums up his position based on his linguistic analysis of epic and melic poetry: "It is clearly pointless to seek to draw a decisive distinction, in the erotic language of poetry in archaic Greece, between heterosexual and homosexual relations; and similarly, still at the linguistic and poetic level, differences of gender seem obscured to the extent that men and women adopt exactly the same language when confronted with the effects of Eros. Any attempt to draw a firm distinction would smack of anachronism and Eurocentricity." I would observe that while men and women may use the same words, there is always room for subversion and irony beneath the surface of the words, in the way the words are manipulated: C.'s statement is too sweeping. Further, I miss any reference to B. H. Fowler's article "The Archaic Aesthetic," (AJP 105 [1984]: 119-149) in which she shows that the melic poets were fascinated by ta poikila: "the variegated nature of the objects of their senses." This, as much as anything else, shapes their poetry, and seems to be the way both genders perceived their world. C.'s discussion of the metaphorical spaces of love and the incantatory power of Greek poetry would have been enriched by Fowler's insights. The rest of section 2 is devoted to a discussion of the representation of love in Hellenistic epigram and in the Greek novel.

In 2.4 C. introduces the modern concept of sexuality to examine iconography that provides information about sexual approaches, contacts, and relations. Contrary to textual representations of love, in the iconography it is mortals who make love, not the divinities. The images C. examines range in date from circa 570-470 BC. In poetry, we see the divinities or heroes enjoying symmetrical, reciprocal love with another adult on beds. In pottery we see gods, goddesses, or heroes pursuing young boys or girls. While this seems at first to represent an asymmetrical union such as that seen in archaic melic poetry, these pursuits in many cases lead to productive unions. In art, the painters depict the preliminary phases to the sexual unions of the gods and heroes, instead of graphically depicting them in the act of sex. Here C. notes a distinctive variation: erôs, in archaic melic poetry, is made manifest to mortals only by unfulfilled love. In contrast to this, in both archaic and classical pottery, human sexual activity is graphically depicted (p. 67). examines the iconograpy of both heterosexual and homophile couples. C. distinguishes three different categories of erotic images in archaic and classical art: 1) preliminaries in which divinities engage, 2) imaginative human sexual relations, and 3) the excessive and explicit sexual activities of satyrs (p. 70). These are general trends and there are many exceptions or blends, as C. notes. Next, in, C. looks at the role of Eros in these representations, and observes that Eros often (but not always) appears in the pursuit scene (1), hovering near the lover, thus emphasizing the asymmetry of the relationship. In contrast, Eros is missing from bed scenes and those involving satyrs, probably because desire has been fulfilled. In 2.4.2 C. asks what the function was of such images, and examines them from a spatial point of view. These images appear on objects located within a framework of the gymnasium, the symposium, or the kômos following the banquet. As utensils for mixing, serving, and drinking wine, the painted vessels function like an erotic poem -- a tool of seduction to be presented to the beloved (p. 83). Other paintings could be said to correspond to iambic poetry, in that they expose the addressee to sexual derision with scenes of sexual bestiality (p. 87).

In Part 3, C. examines the role played by Eros and Aphrodite in social institutions by looking at the role of desire in the gendered spaces of the polis. C. makes use of anthropological theories of initiation within an educational system to provide for transitions to adulthood. Acknowledging that there is no documentary evidence for rites of tribal initiation in early Greece, C. asserts that these rites can only be used as a formal tool (p. 92). In 3.5.1 C. studies the propaedeutic practices of the symposium, limiting his discussion to the 6th c. cities such as Mytilene, Megara, and Athens in which poets such as Alkaios and Theognis sang their songs. C. discusses the practice of Greek homophilia as part of educational procedures originating from tribal rites of initiation, designed to create a lasting bond of philia, and integrating the youth into the social fabric. begins with a discussion of Sappho's poetry to show that the mutual bond of trust formed in an asymmetrical, paedeutic erotic relationship between adults and adolescents was not for men only. Here C. argues against feminist studies of Sappho's poetry, maintaining that the "gendered dimension of Sappho's poems in truth depends rather on the social and pedagogical function of the poems sung and danced on ritual and communal occasions," instead of on "the erotic sensibility and sexuality of the author" (p. 99). Thus, allusions to politics and male civic virtues are replaced with beauty and an invitation to intimacy with the goddess of love. C. argues that the transitory philia established in such an initiatory, paedeutic, asymmetrical relationship between woman and girl led to a stable relationship of philotês, the basis of marriage. C. takes care to argue that such an aymmetrical relationship between adult and adolescent is not to be seen in terms of active and passive roles and argues for a much more complex and actively transformative relationship (p. 100). Next, C. looks at the erotic practices of the palaestra, a space in which many homophile contacts between men and boys take place. C. uses evidence of cult objects, law texts, myth, and vase-paintings.

In 3.6, C. turns his attention to the feminine space of the oikos. Not unpredictably, the nature of the sources forces C. to shift chronologically from the late archaic period to classical Athens. While every daughter of an Athenian citizen was ideally bound for marriage, C. points out that there were a number of possible statuses for women in the oikos, among them, the concubine, who sometimes emerged from the intermediate status of the hetaira. After examining the place of the hetaira in banquets, C. focuses on the transition from girl to wife as seen in texts and iconography. Much of the erotic language C. cites seems to revolve around the about-to-be-married and the just-married, so that one wonders how long erôs was thought to remain in a Greek marriage. C. argues that marriage was analogous to the propaedeutic erotic relationship with boys, in that they were both relationships of mutual trust, established by erôs. In a chapter on shared love, violence, and reproduction, C. acknowledges that violence was always present in legendary representations of marriage, often functioning as a motivating force of the narrative. Pursuit leads to rape and violence, but C. argues that this leads in turn to union on a bed and a couple joined in a bond of philotês. This language of violence should not be taken too literally, C. warns, for in his view, based on Gorgias' Encomium of Helen, "the will of the gods, the violence of rape, the effect of bewitching words, and the interventions of Eros are all by and large equivalent" (p. 123). Marriage is centered on the female because it is only through this ritual that the girl completes her rite of passage into womanhood. Erôs intervenes to bring this rite about, and the woman's initiation is fulfilled when a child results from the union.

In 3.7 C. turns his attention to the negative aspects of erôs and argues that we see people resisting the force of implacable desire in tragedy and comedy. Comedy developed the critical nature of iambic poetry while tragedy developed epic eulogy "into a challenge that was directed -- through the masks of Dionysus -- against the power of the gods and the legendary and ethical values upon which life in the city was founded" (p. 132). In comedy, actors use the same vocabulary of love used by the archaic poets, but the comic poets exaggerate it. Comic relationships are symmetrical and mutual, contrasting with the situations in melic poetry and showing similarity with certain iconographical representations. C. argues that comedy presented a parody of transgressions normally tolerated to some extent in society. Chapter examines erotic relationships not tolerated by society. C. asserts that while homophilia is only lightly satirized, "any homosexual relationship that involves two adults is severely criticized" (p. 135-6). It was considered contrary to nature for adult men to be penetrated anally, for one is thereby rejecting one's condition as a man and status as a citizen. Thus, charges of sodomy were used as political insults and expressed moral judgments (p. 141). In tragedy, too, the archaic descriptions of the physiology of love remain. The institution of marriage figures strongly in tragedy, but often to serve only to represent what is lost. C. sees two themes prevailing in tragedy: 1) "girls fated to be sacrificed before reaching maturity", and 2) "beautiful wives whose second marriages lead them to a tragic end" (p. 142). The tragedians attack not marriage as an institution, C. finds, but instead the implacable sexual force personified in Eros and Aphrodite.

In Part 4, C. maps out the spaces in which the powers of desire are deployed. Previously C. has discussed the places within the city in which erôs acts -- in Greek initiatory, paedeutic institutions such as symposia, gymnasia, and in the girl's preparations and transitions to marriage. C. now turns his attention to the flowery meadow (leimôn) and the cultivated garden (kêpos), turning gradually away from rituals and institutions to the poetic world. This is one of the most interesting sections of the book, but also one of the most problematic. Flowery erotic meadows in Greek myth are often the sites of the rape of young girls. But C. argues that rarely is erôs fulfilled here -- meadows are but a way-station on the road to sexual intercourse elsewhere. C. sees a movement from wild flowers growing in meadows, to fruits tended in an orchard, to cereal products of agriculture symbolizing the civilization process (p. 163). This progression is accompanied by the spatial progression from nomadic activities of herdsmen in border areas to enclosed gardens to the central oikos. C. constructs the following schematic representation:

Social StatusLegendary SpaceActivityGeographical Space
parthenosmeadowherdingoutdoors, quasi wild
numphêgardentree cultivationtransition
gunêbedagricultureindoors, oikos

Although C. allows that there are "distortions" that mar such schematic representations, he thinks it helpful to use this table to "convey the various ways in which the Greeks of the classical period represented the three successive statuses that were assigned to women" (p. 164). Still, there appear some significant difficulties with this representation. For example, the meadow/garden separation he makes is not so clear-cut in Greek literature. A. Motte, Prairies et jardins de la Grèce antique; de la religion à la philosophie. Brussels: Palais des Académies, 1971 (a book which C. cites) 45-8, 85 shows that kêpos, leimôn, delta, and pedion can all refer to female genitalia. As C. himself notes, Empedocles (frag. 31 B66 Diels-Kranz) refers to female genitalia as "the cleft meadow of Aphrodite." The myth of Zeus and Europa which C. uses to make his argument that girls are not sexually initiated in meadows but are rather taken elsewhere for that, is at heart an aetion -- C. ignores the other functions of myth such as this. Zeus takes Europa away from the meadow and to a new land to have sex not simply because it would be unthinkable for a god and mortal to have sex in a meadow but because she is to be the founder of a new people in a new land. It could be that the physical carrying off of rape is conceptually equivalent to sexual intercourse. For a man not of her family to touch a girl like this is necessarily a sexual act. Furthermore, the original mortal woman, Pandora, herself conflates the statuses of parthenos and gunê. As H. King (Hippocrates' Woman, London and New York, 1998: 24-25) notes, in Hesiod's Works and Days 80-81 Pandora is represented as a gunê disguised as a parthenos, and in Theogony 513-14, the two statuses are merged in her description as plastên gynaika parthenon.

In 4.9 C. returns to the world of the melic speaker showing that mythical meadows and gardens remain the metaphorical spaces of erôs. By examining the metaphorical language the poets use to describe their beloveds, C. argues that in terms of metaphor, gender roles in adolescence are somewhat merged for boys and girls. "The fact that a boy is sometimes represented in the fresh pastureland that is usually the scene of a prelude to love involving a girl is an indication of the purely metaphorical nature assumed by the flowering meadow in these poems, which may be directly addressed to either adolescent girls or adolescent boys" (p. 166). On the other hand, using metaphorical transposition the poet can replace mythological actions with his own experiences (real or fictional) using the flowering meadow to provide a framework within which adolescent girls may be prepared for and initiated into love (p. 167). In the rest of this section C. examines the poetic and institutional uses of gardens, from the poems of Sappho to the archaeological and literary evidence for the Gardens of Aphrodite in Athens.

In Part 5, C. discusses the complementary propaedeutic and reproductive roles of erôs as they are found in theogonic and philosophical texts. C. notes that from the Homeric Hymns to the Greek novel, erôs' power extends to the entire universe. The cosmic dimension to erôs and Aphrodite's power is constructive -- in the origin and nature of the universe, erôs creates and maintains the physical fabric, just as, C. argues, erôs creates social links through its institutional role in education and marriage. In fact, C. asserts that "it was no doubt on the basis of the institutional role played by Eros in practices relating to education of an initiatory nature and in the rite of passage leading to feminine maturity that a deified Eros acquired a place and a function in first theogonic, then philosophical representations of the cosmos" (p. 177-78). In early texts such as Hesiod's Theogony, for example, Eros unites Gaia and Ouranos creating a bond of philotês which enables them to produce offspring. 10.2 is an examination of Plato's Symposium, in which the characters review narrative, poetic, and philosophical traditions about Eros. 10.3 examines Plato's Phaedrus, a dialogue about the function of the state of being in love. Both the Symposium and Phaedrus propose initiatory ways of progressing toward Beauty or Truth through erôs' mediation. 5.11 looks at the mystics of Eleusis and Orphism.

An "Elegiac Coda: Eros the Educator" ends the book. Here C. sums up his findings of the many functions of erôs in Greek society from the archaic through the classical period. Erôs is, he concludes, "first and foremost a force of reproduction, above all of social reproduction" (p. 198). After reviewing his arguments about the process of initiatory education for both adolescent girls and boys, C. argues that "the different statuses of the two genders are, on both sides, produced by the action of the deities of love, but the relations between them are bound to be conflictual" (p. 198). He argues further that twentieth century anthropological categories of sexuality are not pertinent to archaic and classical Greece. In a way he is setting up a straw man, because the definitions of gender that he claims to be working with on p. 7 are not limited to the structuralist oppositions of "active/passive" and "public/private" that he attacks as inadequate. Further, I am bewildered by C.'s statement that "... it is very hard to assess to what extent Greek women were regarded as "sexual objects," given that virtually all the documents that refer to them were the work of men!" (p. 199). It seems to me that the objectifiers would be men, so I fail to see his point here. C. says that "only the notion of 'gender,' understood as a social representation constructed on the basis of the relations between the sexes, is of help to us as we try to understand the various social statuses that became defined in relationships inspired by Eros and Aphrodite" (p. 199). In this book C. leaves out any significant discussion of medical ideas of the body and the differences between the sexes, although he occasionally refers to research on the medical writers in his notes, and acknowledges the fact that the body itself is a symbolic, cultural artifact (p.7-8). In Greek thought the body of a woman reacted differently to outside influences such as erôs than the body of a man did, and this reaction was feared as a threat to individuals and to society itself. L. Dean Jones, for example, analyzes Hesiod's creation myth and the scientific Greek views about women's bodies and sexuality (Women's Bodies in Classical Greek Science, Oxford 1994). C. cites A. Carson's "Putting Her in Her Place: Women, Dirt, and Desire," in Halperin et al, Before Sexuality (Princeton, 1990) but does not examine the ideas further. Both Carson and Zeitlin 1982 ("Cultic Models of the Female: Rites of Dionysus and Demeter," Arethusa 15: 129-58) discuss the danger of female sexuality and the interior of the female body. I also missed any discussion of the dangers of erôs as seen in law cases. C. neglects evidence of the disruptive, destructive power of erôs as seen in speeches such as Lysias 1, Against Eratosthenes, in which we see a young wife committing adultery in her own oikos while her husband sleeps upstairs. Erôs is hardly "integrative" here. While both Zeitlin in her foreword and C. himself acknowledge that his study focuses on the "functional, not the dysfunctional, aspects of a system of desire" (p. xvi), I think that C. lessens the power of his book by emphasizing one over the other to this extent.

This new edition, like the original Italian one, does not quote Greek texts for the most part, and occasional Greek words are transliterated. It is a shame that C., in writing about the incantatory power of Greek poetry, does not provide the Greek itself. English translations usually fail to suggest this quality, and I found C.'s (or his translator's) occasional use of antiquated Loeb translations distracting. The actual Greek is usually far from the register implied by "thee," "thou," "shalt," and "fain,", let alone "calloo, callay" (an unfortunate translation by D. Kovaks, Euripides I (Loeb) of Eur. Cycl. 576, of the Greek ἰοὺ ἰού). The book is marred by a variety of errata, for the most part typographical. The following list is gleaned from the text and a cursory look at the bibliography: read βασιλεὺς for βασιχεὺς in the Plutarch quote on the page before the Table of Contents; p. 24 line 2 read Aphrodite for Aprhodite; p. 57 line 28 read deaf for blind; p. 97 line 14 read late for last; p. 100 line 13 read distaste for distate; p. 105 n. 28 line 12 read Six for Sex; p. 124 line 27 read fulfilment for fullfilment, p. 143 line 26 read than for then; p. 158 n. 10 line 10 read link for linke; p. 174 line 17 read propaedeutic for propaeudeutic. The bibliographic citation on p. 205 for Eva Stehle's book is conflated with that of Deborah Lyons: for Performance and Immortality. Heroines in Ancient Greek Nondramatic Poetry in Its Setting, read Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece. Nondramatic Poetry in Its Setting On p. 85 n. 22 C. refers to an article by N. W. Slater in A. Mackay (ed.), forthcoming, but no title is given for the book, keeping readers in suspense. Overall, despite its diminution of the negative, destructive aspects of desire, its neglect of sources such as the medical writers, and the selective nature of C.'s use of law cases, this is an important study which will undoubtedly be very influential in further studies of Greek sexuality.

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