Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.07.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.07.44

Eleni Manakidou, Frauentänze für Dionysos in der spätarchaischen Vasenmalerei Athens. Akanthiskos 2.   Kilchberg:  Akanthus Verlag für Archäologie, 2017.  Pp. 120.  ISBN 9783905083347.  €40,00.  

Reviewed by F.G. Naerebout, Leiden University (

Editor's note: BMCR has decided to commission two reviews, in the hope that providing contrasting perspectives would enable richer conversation in the field at large. The other review is written by Eva Stehle, BMCR 2019.07.43.

Table of Contents

This small monograph has been a long time in the making: skyphoi fragments found at Karaburnaki, an archaeological site where she has been involved since 1994, gave Eleni Manakidou of the University of Thessaloniki the idea to study female choruses in late archaic vase painting. In 2008/2009 she presented a number of papers, e.g. one at the Freie Universität Berlin, titled ‘Frauentänze für Dionysos in einer Gruppe attischer spätschwarzfiguriger Skyphoi’, which incidentally might have been a better and more precise title for the present book. The text was completed in 2010 and not much revised since, as Manakidou states in her preface, which is dated 2012; publication was apparently scheduled for 2013, and the book finally appeared in 2017. We are not told the reasons for this long delay—one should keep in mind that references to the relevant literature of the past five to seven years will be lacking.

The actual subject of this study is formed by a series of 35 skyphoi featuring dancing women (of which four are previously unpublished). These skyphoi are of a type that belongs to Beazley’s White-Heron Class: Attic black-figure vases from the period 510- 480 B.C., decorated by several different hands. In Ure’s categorization they are types B, C1 and C2 (see Anhang #2 for four profile views). The 35 skyphoi listed in Manakidou’s catalogue #1 all date from the first quarter of the 6th century, which she narrows down to 495- 480; 32 are ascribed to the CHC Group, two to the Krotala Group and a single one to the Theseus Painter. Of these 35 skyphoi 19 are decorated with a chain dance (a dance in which the dancers hold one another), three to five women on either side of the vase, usually accompanied by a female aulist. 12 carry an image of what Manakidou calls ‘freier Gruppentanz’: a collective dance, but without physical contact between the dancers; usually the dancers are arranged on either side of (probably to be interpreted as around) an aulist. The final three skyphoi show women dancing in front of or around a stake or column bearing the mask of the god Dionysos.

In support of Manakidou’s analysis of the skyphoi in the first catalogue, there is a second catalogue of 10 cup-skyphoi also decorated with dancing women, four Attic black-figure, four Attic red-figure and two Attic/Boeotian black-figure, and a third catalogue of 28 black-figure and red-figure vases of a very different kind, viz. vases carrying images of women who are handling skyphoi.

It is the recurring combination of a specific shape, the skyphos, and the specific decorative theme of dancing women accompanied by female aulists, that aroused the author’s interest. As to the aulist, Manakidou thinks that the musician is an essential element in the composition (as on the so-called Lenäen-Vasen, which are also adduced by Manakidou at different stages of her argument). When the musician is lacking, this is caused, supposedly, by the incompetence or carelessness of the vase painter, who ran out of space. In the same way Manakidou explains the variation in the number of dancers depicted. This seems incapable of proof, but I think we can certainly agree that the scenes on the vases are not to be read as an exact registration or transcript of some real-life dance event. This does not mean they cannot commemorate any such event. Manakidou considers these vases to be a product intended for a specific group of recipients: the number of vases is relatively small, so it is not a mere stock theme, endlessly repeated; on the other hand, there are not so few that the theme should be considered idiosyncratic. This seems a valid point.

Manakidou sets out to situate the 35 skyphoi, and eventually also the 10 thematically related cup-skyphoi, within the wider iconographies of women and of dance. This is done expertly, with very full references. Manakidou is at home in German, French and Italian as much as, or more than, in English, and this can be seen from the wide range of literature that she adduces. Her awareness of many scholarly traditions – because obviously this is not just a question of language – definitely invigorates her work in a way not open to those who restrict themselves largely to English-language publications.

The one criticism one might have, is that despite the wealth of detail, she leaves much to the reader: from a kaleidoscopic set of chapters one has to piece together the main argument, not every stage of which is made equally explicit. Manakidou argues that in these images we are dealing with mature, citizen-class women, who come out to dance at some event, accompanied by a female instrumentalist, usually playing the aulos; in only two instances in the present corpus of vases the instrument is the chelys. The performance by citizen women seems to be contradicted by Manakidou’s suggestion of ‘berufliche Ausübung’ (p. 50), professionalism, based on the names of dancers and aulist on a single vase, but she does not follow up on her own words—indeed, on p. 51 Manakidou argues for a non- professional aulist. So we stay with the idea that these are citizen-class women, and rightly so. She might have found some supporting arguments in several of my publications, but alas Naerebout seems to be one of the few authors in the field of ancient dance that she has missed.

If these are citizens’ wives who perform at some festive occasion, we have to ask what occasion. Only the three vases where the mask of Dionysos is present can be said with certainty to belong in the Dionysiac sphere. Manakidou, however, on the basis of counts by Fahlbusch, points to the strong growth of the number of dance scenes within Dionysiac imagery in the period between 530-480: exactly the timeframe within which our skyphoi have been situated. And not only is Dionysos intimately connected to the dance, he also seems to be a god that is associated above all with women. The women in the dance scenes on the skyphoi are not disambiguated by such typically Dionysiac elements as ivy wreaths, thyrsoi or nebris, but nevertheless some disambiguation seems to be going on: not so much because of the aulos that Manakidou claims, unjustifiably, as typically Dionysiac (p. 69), but because of the skyphoi that women handle on the vases listed in Manakidou’s third catalogue (and see her excurs #1 on other skyphoi, the decoration of which can be interpreted as Dionysiac, and excurs #2 on the famous maenad-scenes by Makron where some of the women are wielding skyphoi). That skyphoi figure in images of a Dionysiac nature, some of these of dancing or striding women, could be used as an argument to say that related images ON skyphoi, such as dancing women, also belong in the Dionysiac sphere. It is not a watertight argument, but an elegant one that may stand until something better should turn up.

On the basis of close analysis of a range of imagery Manakidou concludes, as others have done before her, that the frequent impossibility to distinguish between the maenads of myth and ordinary mortal women is in fact an intentional ambiguity. That, I think, is a defensible hypothesis—but one should distinguish three levels: the mythic world of maenads; women who for the duration of a ritual event become real-life maenads, i.e. bacchantes acting out the myth by dressing up as maenads; and thirdly, women who in some sense are also acting out the myth but without recourse to any impersonations or disguises. Manakidou might suggest as much when she seems to see the scenes on our skyphoi as documenting a transitional phase in women’s ritual towards the creation of the full-blown bacchante. Manakidou sees a direct link here with the evolving religious life of early democratic Athens. I wonder whether any such link with Athens can be substantiated: as Manakidou herself states, scenes of dancing women are also quite common in other black-figure traditions: Corinthian, Cycladic, Thasian, Samian and Clazomenaian (p. 23 n. 31). She also notes that the skyphoi with dance scenes were exported far and wide, and one might add that real-life maenadism is not at all specific for Athens.

Overall, the book has been produced to high standards. The catalogues, however, could have been edited a bit more carefully: one would expect descriptions of the individual items to be uniform, but, for instance, when we are dealing with fragmentary objects, this is indicated as ‘Fragment(e)’, ‘Scherbe(n)’, or ‘Fragm.’, and these occur either as a header or in the body of the description – or not at all. There are other such discrepancies. The illustrations, of excellent quality, do not always illustrate what one would like to have illustrated: there are 51 illustrations, but only 15 vases of the 73 in the catalogues are illustrated. To have all skyphoi fully illustrated would have greatly increased the value of the volume, but also its price, so this might not be a very realistic wish.

The vases listed in the present book and their discussion will interest both the ceramics specialist and the dance historian; the arguments concerning the Dionysiac context will interest anyone studying ancient religion. Whether we should now associate every female chorus in black-figure Attic vase painting with Dionysos? At least for the skyphoi dealt with in this volume Manakidou builds up a convincing case.

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