Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.09.25

Barbara Kowalzig, Singing for the Gods. Performances of Myth and Ritual in Archaic and Classical Greece. Oxford Classical Monographs.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. xviii, 508.  ISBN 978-0-19-921996-4.  $170.00.  

Reviewed by Richard Seaford, The University of Exeter (
Word count: 1914 words

This is a remarkable attempt to reconstruct Greek history of the archaic and classical periods through choral performance. Its basis is an insight into the cultural and political importance, hitherto neglected, of aetiological myth. Cultic choral songs in specific ritual contexts narrate myths of how the rituals came into being. It is by looking at these concrete situations, in which myth and ritual closely interact, that we can best understand the old (and often abstractly formulated) problem of the relationship between myth and ritual. Although K. does describe the long history of this controversy, it is not her primary concern, which is rather with the social and political effects of this interaction of myth and ritual, in choral performances that lend themselves to the definition, negotiation, and redefinition of group identity and of power relations.

Such performances are traditional, and 'guarantee stability' (p.5). And yet they 'can take on an active share in social and historical developments of their time and effect cultural change'. The former function may, paradoxically, contribute to the latter. The implication of unchangeability in the choral performance of myth and ritual, say in a performance in the Heraion by its new Argive masters, may contribute to the establishment of their control by implying that their sacred authority was long-standing. K.'s position is that ritual and myth, rather than saying the same thing, say more if related to each other, and thereby play a fundamental part in historical processes. They do so by, in a sense, abolishing history. A cultic aition 'seems to establish a timeless continuity between the moment of origins and the present day' p.27). Ritual too transcends historical time, implying by its archaism and repetition that it has always been the same. But these implicit claims to continuity belong in fact to a constant attempt to recreate the relationship between the past and a constantly changing present.

Ritual is therefore creative not conservative. K. opts also for the view, associated with Geertz, that ritual is not a reflection of social power but itself a (unique) form of social power, as well as for the analogous view, associated with Tambiah, that ritual is a unique form of performative communication, 'about things that cannot be expressed in any other way'. And ritual performance (especially song and dance) is an especially forceful form of communicative power because it combines reduced content with persuasive formalisation (Maurice Bloch). All this may in fact suggest that ritual is essentially static and conservative, reinforcing acceptance of authority. But K. thinks she can rescue her view of ritual as creative and constantly changing by imagining participants 'who constantly move between resistance and consent'. What for instance was the attitude of hostile allies participating in the Athenian Greater Panathenaia? Moreover, the power structures of the Greek polis-world are fragmented, and rituals do not seem to be comprehensively organised by central authority. Though 'Greek ritual performances embrace some kind of power, it is not always clear whose power it is and who exerts it on whom' (p.54).

These principles, set out in the opening chapter, inform the case studies in the remaining chapters. The ritual performance of aetiological myth often transcends historical time by being bound to a particular place, which it nevertheless ties to other places, notably by the itinerant individual (divine, heroic, or human) who founds cults. Aetiology creates not just particular religious places but religious spaces. Chapters 2-8 concern a series of such spaces: the Ionian cities that sent choruses to Delos (2), the Argolid (3), Aegina in its relation to Panhellenism (4), Rhodes (5), southern Italy (6), and Boiotia (7). The intricacy and wealth of the argument is best indicated not by trying to summarise the whole book but by focusing on a single chapter. I choose the Argolid.

The mysterious people known as Dryopians were said to have been chased by Herakles from their home in the Parnassos area and to have settled in various places, notably in the cities on the south coast of the Argolid. One of these cities was Asine, to which -- it is reported by Pausanias -- Herakles, under instructions from Apollo, took the Dryopians from Delphi. Other late texts give a motive for Herakles' hostility, the impiety of the Dryopians to the god at Delphi. At this point there enters a crucial witness from the fifth century BC: a long fragment (4) of a paean by Bacchylides narrates this transfer performed by Herakles, as well as an aetiological myth of the cult of Apollo Pythaieus at Asine, as well as seeming to allude to harm done by the Dryopians at Delphi. But Pausanias also reports the Asinaians' own version: they were indeed conquered by Herakles, but went to the Peloponnese voluntarily, where they were given Asine by Eurystheus. There was no impiety towards Apollo. Quite the reverse: at Asine they built a temple of Apollo in memory of their old one on Parnassos.

The widespread activities of Herakles are the Greek way of remembering the major social change associated with the 'Dorian' conquest. The two opposing versions of the founding of Asine, express justification of, and resistance to, this conquest. Whereas most Dryopians were assimilated, the Dryopians in the Argolid preserved their identity, and this survival of conflict is a key to understanding the workings of the cult of Apollo Pythaieus.

According to Pausanias the Argives destroyed Asine, except for the sanctuary of Apollo Pythaieus. Archaeology reveals a temple built no earlier than the middle of the eighth century BC, nearby signs of violent destruction around 720 BC, and the replacement of the temple about twenty tears later. The related finds suggest a transition in the god's clientele from a local elite to a wider community. Thucydides (5.53) reveals that in his time the Epidaurians were obliged to contribute to the cult of Apollo Pythaieus 'over whose temple the Argives had the chief authority'. K. infers that this temple was the one at Asine, and that other local cities were under the same obligation.

Apollo Pythaieus received cult in the Argolid also at Hermione and at Argos itself, and in two cities in Kynouria (along the east coast of the Peloponnese, between Lakonia and the Argolid), to say nothing of other cults of Apollo in the Argolid. Among these cities K. infers a 'cult community' that 'did not in any way correspond to political allegiances around 420BC' (p.147). She also finds evidence (some of it epigraphic) that the cult of Apollo in the Argolid was an instrument for controlling the division of land. This Apollo sorts out conflict because, she suggests, his cult centre mediated between amphiktiones of diverse ethnic origin, another symptom of which is the preservation of the history of conflict in our conflicting stories of the founding of Apollo Pythaieus at Asine. This integrative role of the cult was enacted -- it is inferred -- in its choral performances, in which conflict surrounding the establishment of the cult was continuously renewed and resolved in ritual.

The cult of Apollo Pythaieus at Asine was older, archaeology tells us, than the one at Argos. But the Argives claimed that his other cults in the Argolid derived from theirs: e.g. in Bacchylides' paean Melampous established the Asine cult from Argos, which suggests the importance of this cult to Argos. The Spartans too had an Apollo Pythaieus, associated with the festival called Gymnopaedia, in which paeans were performed to commemorate the Spartan victory over Argos in c.560 BC over possession of Kynouria. Crucial is that the area of long-lasting conflict between Sparta and Argos was the 'catchment area' of the Asinaian Apollo, with the result that control of the cult is part of this conflict.

This returns us to Bacchylides' paean. The passage cited ends with a description of the festivities and songs in the sanctuary whose foundation has just been narrated, and is followed by a prayer for prosperity and a detailed description of the benefits of peace, when boys sing hymns and armour is covered by cobwebs and rust. Here the distant past merges into the here and now of celebration in the timeless continuity of aetiology, with a political dimension: the performance of the paean recreates the foundation of the cult, and so reaffirms both Argive predominance and the negotiation of ethnic diversity and territorial divisions that was a traditional function of the cult. The surrounding community of the eastern Argolid is not a political or military alliance, but is held together by being gathered at Asine for choral performance in the face of the constant close presence of the Spartan military threat.

But this Bacchylidean performance is merely 'the most accessible of a series of similar myth-ritual scenarios' operating at this time in the larger context of the conflict between Argos and Sparta, in which the synoikism of the Argive plain in the first half of the fifth century helped the Argives against Spartan pressures. Six songs of Pindar, when taken together, attest a reconfiguration of the myths and rituals of the localities of the Argive plain that illuminates their integration into the Argive polis, a fuller and quite different picture from the mere crushing of weak neighbours found in the narrative sources.

The fragments of dithyrambs 1 and 4 of Pindar both seem to have featured the conflict between Perseus and Dionysos that was the aetiological myth of the cult of Dionysos at Argos. Given the connection of dithyramb with mystery-cult, and the variety of those who initially resist Dionysos (Perseus, the Proitids, the 'women of Argos'), K. detects the redefinition of the cultic community based on the exclusivity of broadly based mystery-cult.

'Paeans' 18, 20, and 21 (more likely prosodia) are all taken to be Argive commissions (only 18 is certain). Praise of Elektryon (in 18), it is argued, with his associations with the eastern plain, integrates the traditions and associated claims of Argives and non-Argives. The associations of Herakles with Argos are weak, but he had cult early at Tiryns, and if 20 was an Argive prosodion to or from his shrine at Tiryns, this would link his traditional lordship over the plain with Argos. 21, a prosodion for Hera, may have accompanied her image (taken by the Argives from Tiryns) from the Heraion to the mythically prestigious harbour of Nauplia, where the Greeks came and went in the Trojan war. The Heraion too, connected to Mykenai and its Atreid monuments and tombs by a bronze age sacred way, was a crucial location in the Argive fifth-century challenge to the sixth-century Spartan appropriation of the Akhaian past. Finally, Nemean 10 associates the whole range of the heroic deeds of the plain with the (now Argive) Heraion.

In this and the other chapters K. combines her understanding of the dynamics of choral performance with narrative history, a profusion of myth, archaeology and epigraphy to produce an important new synthesis. It is written with such brilliance and love that one can easily overlook the weakness of many links in the chain of argument. To take a single instance at random, there is no good reason to believe ('one imagines') that Peloponnesian cities sent regular maritime theoriai to Asine (p. 147). And we should be on our guard against such seductive theoretical statements as 'religion is a form of power, but a power that lies in the medium itself' (p.55). But the book is a monument to the possibility and desirability of understanding Greek choral performance historically and Greek history as influenced by choral performance.

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