Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.07.24

Menelaos Christopoulos, Efimia D. Karakantza, Olga Levaniouk (ed.), Light and Darkness in Ancient Greek Myth and Religion. Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches.   Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books, 2010.  Pp. xx, 304.  ISBN 9780739138984.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Liza Cleland, University of Edinburgh (


This conference volume (Patras 2007) covers a wide range of topics. The organising categories work well, although an afterword (drawing together various themes and overlaps) would have been useful. Colour semantics is a natural place to start, but many essays touch on seeing and visuality, so a more physical section (e.g. ‘Cult’ or ‘Eye-sight/In-sight’) could also have worked. Overall, the volume fascinates most where it goes beyond obvious colour associations: several of the essays hint at more complex conceptions, certainly deserving further exploration.

After a concise introduction by Burkert and Marinatos, Buxton sets the tone with a welcome acknowledgement that dark need not always read negative, though context is always critical. Considering how sources provide evidence to locate – or not – the colour significance of such names as Melanthos, Melanion, Melampous, etc., he emphasises the importance of treating references as wholes in illuminating aspects beyond good/bad in black and white.

Karakantza discusses the complexity of darkness with reference to Aeschylus’ Suppliants, focussing on otherness, but also liminality: colour makes visible how specifically Greek “life finds its way through negation and otherness to establish itself” (19, themes of accommodation and negotiation re-surface in other essays). The essay concludes by linking the titular opposition to the Thesmophoria’s tensions of decay/fertility, purity/profanity, family/misandry, emphasising our opposition as similarly creative, not negating.

Tsitsibakou-Vasalos considers light/dark in Pindar, emphasising “deadly radiance” (19). “Koronis’ death is enveloped in a corrupted nuptial imagery: eros, bright torches and festivities collapse into the flame of her cremation” (38). Again, the theme of fire recurs often, and one hopes this collection, revealing a surprising degree of ambiguity about this (physically obviously bright) light source, will spur an overview. Otherwise, a welcome recognition of Greek chromatic ambiguity (39 n.74) and hence the importance of context to reception of interweavings of bright and dark in literature, myth and cult.

Syropoulos examines Medea’s ‘dark brightness’. This essay points out the play’s consistent association of gold with brightness and death, alongside a parallel (more common) confounding of whiteness (leukos). Deliberate contrasts are highlighted, as Medea “reminds us that every shadow is cast by a light, and this contraposition is the essence of life” (83). Both subject and treatment imply the complexity of the pairing in Greek culture: elaborated, confounded, manipulated and negotiated well beyond simple opposition.

Opening the ‘Appearance and Concealment’ section, Constantinidou shows the light of divinity extending beyond the ‘natural’ brightness of divine eyes and Olympian home to control other lights, and thus visibility and human vision. Again, brightness proves impossible to see as purely positive: Athena’s “eyes gleamed terribly”; “armour-gleaming-like-fire” brings destruction (98); “the sudden appearance of light itself creates ekplexis and fear… characteristic of divine appearances” (99, no 67). However, more might perhaps have been made here of light-as-presence (dull-as-mundane?), or explicit linkages of light and vision as revealing the importance of visuality beyond modern characterisation as ‘a culture of light’.

Dowden discusses night battles (nyktomachia), at Troy, in the Mahābhātara, and other sources, revealing interesting issues of light and identity; unreliable light of the moon; darkness and subterfuge; and light/dark equating to virtue/excess in heroism. Through no fault of the essay, sudden shifts from light/dark as qualities to physical conditions are somewhat jarring. Addressing the distinction would be a chapter in itself, yet its lack of discussion across the volume remains a deficiency (one that it should itself inspire moves to remedy).

Maggel considers allegorical qualities of light/dark in Sappho’s uses of Tithonous and Phaon (including the Köln edition of Poem 58) contending that light imagery reflects her aesthetic aims and uses of myth as social commentary. Her “life appears to spell out the same spirit of luminosity reflected in the ‘solar’ dimension of her poetry” (127).

Aguirre presents the Erinyes (Furies) as ‘creatures of darkness’, questioning whether they should be imagined as night-acting. Torches in myth and cult are also discussed, though one can challenge the statement “In Greek art, there is no painting of night” (137), since the visual quality of darkness being un-depicted cannot preclude night-scenes understood as such. One also notes that although the torch “allows people to see and be seen” it need not therefore transform “darkness into light” (137). Torchlight, like Dowden’s moonlight, is surely flickering, transient and uncertain: a presence within, not negation of, darkness, surely impacting its cultic significance (further discussed in later essays). The conclusion – a special connection between Erinyes and night – seems indisputable, but it would be interesting to see intermediate arguments more developed.

Such ideas are more fully explored in Anderson’s discussion of ordering, integrative aspects of journeys to and from light by such creatures of darkness, giving a nuanced impression of the balance of light/dark in Greek thought. Zeus “of bright sky and dark clouds” (Constantinidou 93) is a crucial mediator in such mythic processes. Notably, in conflicts with dark powers, Zeus recognises rather than rejects, appeases not opposes, to achieve productive outcomes. The conclusion “darkness and primal creatures… are not rejected… rather they are given a proper role” (148) is persuasive, and its implications deserve further consideration in more analyses of light/dark in Greek culture.

Ratinand-Lachkar considers Homeric Hephaestus, successfully remedying the partial nature of many previous treatments. In doing so, the special quality of the smithy is justly highlighted: this craft generally receives too little attention for its centrality to daily life and material culture. Hephaestus is lame, married, works – all mortal concerns – and is a “solicitous protector” (158) of humans. “This deformed god, wed to a beauty… [personifies] the creative power of life, starting with a shapeless mass of material… given… semblance of life through techne and metis… and the transforming power of fire” (157, n.78). That a metal-specialist we expect “to be associated with violence and dark destiny… turns out to be on the side of life and light” (158) is indeed a good lesson in Greek culture.

Beginning the short ‘Eye-sight/In-sight’ section, Létoublon discusses the cultural ambiguity of blindness, beginning with a worthwhile outline of past work. Although the initial focus on light-life and night-death might have been improved by more attention to the specific role of vision, nevertheless recognition as “testimony to the way life and death were thought of rather than a poetic way of speaking” (168) is valuable. The essay proceeds to consider typhlos and other terms for blindness, alongside the Palladion, and concepts of balance and limits, making a useful contribution to this well-known aspect of light/dark. Tatti-Gartzion writes of blindness as punishment, in connection with ideas of law. Going beyond the characterisation of blindness as “appropriate penalty for seeing what is not themis for mortals” (183), the essay considers how and by whom this penalty is enforced, using the organising example of Callimachus’ ‘Bath of Pallas’.

Marinatos opens the ‘Being and Beyond’ section by outlining the early cosmographic importance of light and darkness to the topography of the ‘underworlds’, using three concepts: “sunlight, night (…absence of sunlight), and darkness as a quality of the beyond” (193). Emphasis on horizontality makes ‘outerworlds’ seem more apt than more modern insistence on depth alone. Discussing the shape and location of Hades, Tartaros and Erebos/Zophos, the essay justifies its important distinction between night (Nyx, containing the potential for day) and dark (Erebos “primeval perpetual darkness”, 198). This has significant implications for the volume overall: suggesting that ‘darkness’ was readily conceived as colour (black), phenomenon (challenge to visibility) and state (externity, absence?) all of which having both qualitive and physical aspects. Neither black nor night needs then be expected to demand fully negative connotations (as most essays note) containing as they do the potential for their complements/opposites.

Seaford discusses mystic light and near-death experiences (NDE) – one of several essays on the Mysteries – using references to salvific light in allusions to these cults. Such “wonderful light that transforms ignorant anxiety into a sense of certainty and profound well-being” (204, n.17) is linked to cross-cultural NDEs, and regarded as an origin of Mysteries “dramatizing the NDE in a frightening ritual” (204). The observation that light can transform blind conflict into illuminated solidarity has interesting implications for the subjects of other essays, but one might have liked to see more connections with wider Greek ideas about the light of divine manifestations (e.g. Constantinidou) or indeed, the role of vision in knowing.

Christopoulous writes on contrasts of dark and bright in The Birds and Orphic cosmogony. The internal comic cosmogony of the play is examined in relation to ‘Oorphic’ ideas, their socio-political context, and Plato’s Symposium. Parallels are drawn to the wider themes of the play, justifying the treatment of this cosmogony as more than comic invention.

Edmonds considers the ambiguity of whiteness in the ‘Orphic’ gold tablets, emphasising that it may or may not be positive, but is pre-eminently visible, with implications for directionality and locating action, not outcome. These are important points, requiring recognition that the Greeks were sophisticated agents in symbolic manipulation, not passive transmitters of fixed associations. “Just as the bright cypress of the gold tablets confounds our expectation, based on the familiar dichotomy of light/dark … so too other elements familiar in the Greek mythological tradition may confound our … presuppositions” (230).

Introducing the final ‘Cult’ section, Paleothodoros discusses light/dark in depictions of Dionysiac ritual on Attic 5th- century pottery, highlighting the unique importance of fire rituals, considering the Diosphos amphora in its archaeological context, and surveying other images of Dionysiac torchbearing. “The range of cultic activities connected to torches is very broad: mythic and generic processions, initiations, mystic symbolism, night-long private festivities, and civic festivals” (251). However, the author again concludes that “torches appear because … part of the Dionysiac imagery, and not because the scenery is at night” (251). While the former is certainly so, and the reminder not to read images over-literally worthwhile, this seems to downplay the nocturnal associations of the cult, and the physical realities of both torch and fire light. Again, the subject overlaps with several other discussions in the volume, making an overview desirable.

Patera writes on symbolism and ritual use of lighting at Eleusis. Rejecting the Homeric Hymn to Demeter as an ‘official story’, she examines its lighting references in context, focussing on the use of lighting equipment to create specific effects and on the “most mystic air of torches” (267, n.89). Finally, in another essay on light-creation, Zografou states “Transposing the solemn piety of great sanctuaries into an everyday context, the lamp eventually finds its place… at the heart of solitary rituals considered ‘magic’” (277). The essay goes on to provide a broad and thoughtful survey of the various uses of these lights, closing the volume.

In short, this is a productive and welcome contribution to an underexplored field, particularly in bringing the work of Greek scholars to an English-speaking audience. It is something of a shame that translations of Greek words and passages are not always provided, since the discussions are otherwise accessible to students and non-specialists. The index is useful, while extensive endnoting renders references unobtrusive to the casual reader, but valuable to the researcher. Overall, it is a physically and intellectually solid volume, well worth its price, and of more general interest than the title perhaps suggests.

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