Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.09
Anton Bierl, Rebecca Lämmle, Katharina Wesselmann (ed.), Literatur und Religion 2. Wege zu einer mythisch-rituellen Poetik bei den Griechen. MythosEikonPoiesis, 1/2. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. Pp. xii, 436. ISBN 978-3-11-019485-2. €91.59.
Reviewed by Reyes Bertolín Cebrián, The University of Calgary (email@example.com)
Word count: 1811 words
The volume Literatur und Religion 1 comprises the first half of the papers presented at an international colloquium on the topic of mythic and ritual structures in literary texts. The colloquium took place in Basel in March 2005 and was organized by the editors. There are ten articles in the current volume: seven are in German, three in English. The first article, by Anton Bierl, discusses exclusively theoretical approaches. The remainder are a combination of theory and practical analysis of texts. These contributions attempt to come to terms with the concepts of ritual and literature and apply the theoretical bases to concrete texts familiar to any classicist. The texts analyzed range from the Homeric epics, to lyric (Bacchylides, Pindar, Alcman, Sappho and Alcaeus), to Presocratic philosophers (Heraclitus, Empedocles and Xenophanes) and to Greek drama (tragedy, satyr play and comedy). I appreciated that all contributions have their individual, detailed bibliography, as opposed to a common one at the end of the volume. The volume can be read by students and scholars alike, although perhaps it is intended more to an audience of graduate students.
In a volume that calls itself Ways to a Mythical/Ritual Poetics among the Greeks it is surprising that the first articles after the theoretical introduction are dedicated to Mesopotamia and Egypt. A comparative intention is only expressed (although not fulfilled) in the second of these two papers.
The first paper is Anton Bierl's "Literatur und Religion als Rito-und Mythopoetik". It is a survey article proposing a new theoretical stance in classical studies with the purpose of including religious aspects and themes as well as religious performances in the interpretation of literary texts. Bierl proceeds then with a survey of scholars and theories about ritual which were influential in the interpretation of texts. He starts with F.M. Müller and H. Usener, who united myth and ritual in Homer at the end of the 19th century. The next important school at the turn of the 20th century is, of course, that of the Cambridge ritualists, whose best-known scholars are G. Frazer, E. Harrison and G. Murray, and whose influence continued with scholars such as W. Burkert. In France, L. Gernet developed a structuralist-anthropologic school, followed by J.-P. Vernant, M. Detienne and P. Vidal-Naquet. Bierl develops in great detail what the different schools and positions signified especially for the interpretation of tragedy. Next, Bierl looks for a definition of myth, defined as a traditional performance or narrative (p. 41). At the end of the introduction, Bierl returns to the theme that both religion and literature are problematic terms in the context of ancient Greek culture, to which he had already alluded at the beginning of the introduction. In Bierl's new interpretation of texts, he seems to substitute the term 'myth' for 'literature' and 'ritual' for 'religion' as central modes of expression in an oral culture. Bierl also proposes the need to keep in mind the reception by the original addressees.
Gebhard Selz's "Zu Ritual und Literatur in frühen mesopotamischen Texten" starts by acknowledging the increased role of ritual analysis in current scholarship, yet at the same time warns us not to take the objective description of rituals in text as the rituals themselves and insists that the ritual context is fundamentally different in nature from the textual context, even if most rituals are known to us through texts. This seems to be a theoretical position accepted by all contributors to the volume. Selz divides his contribution into three parts. The first deals with the definition of ritual, the second deals with the connection between ritual and literature, and the third is a concrete analysis of Mesopotamian texts and images describing procession rituals. Unfortunately, my lack of expertise in the Near Eastern field does not allow me to comment on what seems to me a rather solid piece of scholarship, well founded in primary and secondary texts.
Antonio Loprieno's contribution is called "Das religiöse Zeichen und die Gefahr des Sakralen in ägyptischen Schriftum". Loprieno intends to disclose the strategies used in Egyptian culture to determine the relation between man and the sacred. He conceives of the process in three stages. The first is physical and characterized by a distance between man and the sacred, reflected in the untouchability of the sacred. The untouchability is followed by unspeakability, and in this way the physical distance becomes textual as well . The last stage corresponds to the access to the divine through precise ritual laws. Through these three stages, Loprieno explains the movement from sacred to ritual and he supports his theory through concrete examples in Egyptian culture.
In "Epic Narrative and Ritual. The Case of the Funeral Games in Iliad 23," Jonas Grethlein suggests that both rituals and oral poetry are based on repetitions and have at the same time denotative and traditional significance (p. 153). He further sees a parallelism between fiction and ritual since they create alternative worlds beyond everyday reality with their own rules and conventions (p. 154). With these reflections in mind, Grethlein analyzes the funeral games for Patroklos. In spite of the intended new perspective, there is little in his analysis that I have not read before about the role of the games in the Iliad, whether they are a substitute for the real war, an expression of social hierarchy, a way to resolve conflicts or a medium of memory. The next contribution is Claude Calame's "Mythos, musische Leistung und Ritual am Beispiel der melischen Dichtung". Calame focuses on the analysis of Greek poems in their cultic, i.e. performative, function. For his study, Calame uses linguistic methodology established by Benveniste and Bühler through the pragmatic analysis of discourse and deixis. Calame discusses the methodology that not only he but other contributors to the volume have used but failed to make evident. The performative function of Greek poetry is most obvious in the songs of Bacchylides and Pindar. It comes as no surprise then that Calame focuses on Bacchylides' 13th epinician. His analysis is careful and exhaustive and complemented by the examination of fragments of Sappho, Pindar and Alcman.
Gregory Nagy's sixty-page paper "Did Sappho and Alcaeus ever Meet? Symmetry of Myth and Ritual in Performing the Songs of Ancient Lesbos" is challenging as always, one more of the great pieces to which he has accustomed us. Although not free of some leaps in the internal logic and not always well-explained assumptions, the main argument is this: myth is an aspect of ritual that comes to life in performance. To develop this argument, Nagy studies the myths of Aphrodite and Dionysus in the songs of Sappho and Alcaeus in various ritual contexts. Nagy argues that Sappho and Alcaeus (or at least their poetry) met at the festivals where their poetry was performed by choruses of young men and women. Another place where their poetry coincided was in the context of the symposium. Here, Sappho's poetry was sung by men or women of questionable reputation. The lack of ritual protection tarnished Sappho's character . Nagy then turns to the poetry of Anacreon and its restaging in the symposium. He continues his argument that the shifting from the ritual performance to the symposium allows the poetry to go from the decorous to the indecorous.
The seventh contribution is Glenn Most's "Presocratic Philosophy and Traditional Greek Epic". According to Most, the traditional interpretation of the relation between Presocratic philosophy and religion is that the philosophers criticize myths and ritual which most of their contemporaries accepted as valid. Most's aim is to indicate that this is not the only possible relation or the only historically attested one (p. 298). This aim contravenes the model of a linear development from mythos to logos and revalidates the model proposed by Varro and probably stemming from Stoic philosophy. According to this model, there would be three different theologies, a mythical one used by the poets, a physical one used by the philosophers, and a civil one used by the people. This model allows for the identification of a variety of relations within the religious wisdom of the time. Most presents some of these relations in Parmenides, Empedocles, Zeno and the author of the Derveni papyrus.
Renate Schlesier in "Der göttliche Sohn einer menschlichen Mutter. Aspekte des Dionysos in der antiken griechischen Tragödie" denounces the two most common positions often held by classicists in regards to the relation between tragedy and religion. One position states that religion in Greek tragedy does not need to be accounted for. The other position is the opposite, namely that one can derive knowledge of specific myths and rituals directly from the tragedies. For Schlesier both these positions are methodological fallacies (p. 305). In order to establish a more correct understanding of the relation of religion and tragedy, Schlesier analyses the myth of Dionysus in Euripides' Bacchae. Schlesier comes to some very interesting observations during her excellent analysis of the myth and its literary expression, but at the end of her article there are still no new conclusions as to what the relation between religion and tragedy should be. Schlesier sides more with the first group of classicists by concluding that the Bacchae is a work of literature and fiction rather than a cultic one.
Rebecca Lämmle "Der eingeschlossene Dritte. Zur Funktion des Dionysos im Satyrspiel" is the second paper dedicated to Attic drama and its relation to ritual. In her contribution, Lämmle tries to explain the absence of Dionysus in the satyr play in spite of the presence of constitutive elements of his cult, such as wine, dancing, singing, the erotic, and, of course, satyrs. After a discussion of the ritual origins of tragedy, Lämmle concludes that the satyr play is the Dionysiac and comic memory of tragedy (p. 375). Satyr play is the comic evidence that Dionysus belongs to tragedy.
The last essay by Christoph Auffarth is called "Ritual, Performanz, Theater: Die Religion der Athener in Aristophanes' Komödien". The main hypothesis of this essay is that rituals are structuring principles of comedy because they direct expectations, since the evolving of the ritual is normally known. On the other hand, the "un-ritual" performance of the ritual is a source of innovation and fantasy. This hypothesis is exemplified in the analysis of Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae.
The contributors to this volume agree on the premises that both literature and religion as we understand them now are not the same as the ancient Greeks understood them. Although all of them seem to have in mind a concrete way of understanding these terms for the Greeks, there is never an explicit mention of what this could be. The volume would have been more cohesive had the terms been clearly defined and agreed upon at the beginning. As is the case with any collection of essays, some essays are more interesting than others. But certainly, all of them are worth reading and recommending to colleagues and students.