BMCR 1994.02.17

1994.02.17, MacLachlan, The Age of Grace

, The age of grace : charis in early Greek poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. xxi, 192 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780691069746. $29.95.

Reciprocity lies at the heart of human relationships and societies. The ancient Greeks were well aware of this, as many of their cultural ideas and practices attest. Philia, for example, which underlies the fundamental ethical code of “help friends and hurt enemies”, refers to reciprocal obligations more than affective states. Sacrifice, the most direct way of communicating with the gods, operates on the premise of do ut des; both parties receive (or at least expect to receive) something. The care owed to one’s parents, tropheia, derives from the acknowledgment of a debt owed. Similarly, charis, commonly translated as “grace”, is built around notions of reciprocity. In her book, Bonnie MacLachlan explores the semantics and uses of charis in archaic Greek poetry. Owing to its wide and varied use, no one translation can capture the totality of the word. It was, as M. explains, not a passive state, but referred, in essence, to pleasure that mandated a return. Although typically found in positive contexts, it could also, like philia, produce conflicts, since it was “by nature partisan and active and would naturally generate competing loyalties” (31). It appeared in a very wide variety of contexts. It was, in M.’s words, “the moral glue of their society, linking such other ideas as time, dike, themis, xenia, and aidos” (147), or, to use another of M.’s metaphors, “the icing on the cake” (149) of social relationships. M.’s study, although interested in the sociological aspects of charis, is more properly an “attempt to grasp how the poets from Homer to Bacchylides understood the experience of charis, hence how they used it in their poetry” (11).

The book is laid out in eight chapters (“Introduction”, “The Charis of Achilles”, “The Charites”, “Erotic Charis“, “Social Charis“, “Epinician Charis“, “The Charis of the Oresteia“, and “Conclusion”), the chapter on epinician being the fullest, followed by two appendices (“Euripidean Charis” and “The Prepositional Use of χάριν“), Bibliography, Index Locorum Antiquorum and General Index. In exposition the book is clear, in style smooth.

A look at M.’s first example illustrates both strengths and weaknesses of the book. After a brief survey of her topic and of previous work on it, M. takes as her starting point Achilles’ refusal of the embassy’s gifts in Iliad 9, in particular his explanation that he will not return to the fighting since there was no charis for fighting against the enemy (9.315-7). From charis, M. goes on, appropriately enough, to a consideration of time, since it is his perceived lack of time that caused Achilles originally to withdraw from the fighting. As M. observes, here and in many instances, charis is combined with other words of social obligation to express their emotive value. Her analysis in terms of charis of Achilles’ refusal to accept the gift offering and return to the fighting is interesting and adds another dimension to the discussion of this well-known and studied issue. But she exaggerates, it seems to me, the role of charis in his refusal and ignores other aspects of his decision-making. Clearly Achilles finds the compensation offered inadequate, but not simply because the “offer does not constitute charis” (14). Complicating any view of time and charis is Achilles’ emerging sense of his own mortality, about which M. is silent but Homer is not (see esp. 1.414-18, and 9.406-16). When he does return to battle, it is neither gifts nor charis that leads him to do so, nor is it even Agamemnon’s humiliation ( pace M., 21, interpreting 9.386-7), but the fierce desire for avenging the death of Patroclus. (It is puzzling that in discussing Achilles’ famous and syntactically striking lines on not being persuaded until Agamemnon has “given back outrage”, 9.386-7, M. refers to none of the previous, and well-known, studies, although A. Parry’s “The Language of Achilles” is at least in the Bibliography.)

In the course of the chapter on Achilles’charis, M. discusses other examples of charis in Homer and Hesiod, including those which involve light and beauty. This leads into the next chapter on the Charites themselves, goddesses of grace and beauty, a discussion which takes the form of selective commentary on Pindar’s Ol. 14, where these goddesses figure prominently. Just as the common noun charis had multiple associations, so too did the Charites, frequently found in connection with Aphrodite, Eros and Peitho, but also occasionally with Persephone and Hermes. They were associated with dancing and benefaction. The common iconographic representation of the Charites—the three linked together in dancing—came to represent for the Stoics reciprocal charis.

Unsurprisingly the erotic, in which also reciprocity (actual or desired) played a fundamental role, was often described in terms of charis. In particular charis was linked with the beauty of the young, of those in their prime ( hora, hebe) whose flower, to use the common image, had not yet faded. Charis, as already noted, was associated with light; similarly, eyes were the locus of passion, since they were imagined to both emit and receive passion’s rays. Book Two of Theognis offers many poems which illustrate very clearly the reciprocal nature of erotic charis, often conjoined with aidos, and with this material M. concludes this chapter. The following chapter looks at charis from a wider, more general social perspective.

The heart of the book is the chapter on epinician charis. Working with ideas familiar to all students of praise poetry, M. explores the matrix of victor, polis, poet, song and fame from the perspective of charis. The charis of poetry “transforms the ugly into the beautiful, the dying into the living” (98; on Isth. 4). The charm of the song could “soften the audience” (114), allowing them to respond more readily to the success of the victor, drawing them into the celebration. It is the poet’s power to confer the charis of his song on the victor (and his polis) and satisfy mutual desires for glory. The poet is involved in a reciprocal relationship, literally in being commissioned to compose the ode, but also with the victor whose deeds he repays with an appropriate and “needed” (what Bundy named the “XRE/OS-motif”), reward, the song.

M. considers charis in the Oresteia and in Euripides at the end of the book (Chapter Seven and Appendix 1), arguing, in essence, for a change in its use, in particular its “secularization” (124) amid the rise of the city state. M. here reflects current orthodoxy on tragedy’s reflection and questioning of social change, but the general contention of the secularization of charis is not convincingly made. Was the gulf imagined between the religiously sanctioned, immutable charis of archaic Greece, and the secular, inconstant charis of the later fifth century really so wide? The fleeting analyses of Alcestis, Helen, and Hecuba, are too short to satisfy.

M.’s book is helpful—in culling the relevant passages, in offering thoughtful and interesting comments on them, and perhaps especially in reminding all who read it of the importance and pervasiveness of charis in Greek society. It is particularly successful in its treatment of epinician charis, where the thesis works best. It offers, as it were, the “icing on the cake” of our understanding of several notions of reciprocity in the ancient Greek world. At times the role of charis seems exaggerated, and this material and its basic thesis might have been presented effectively in a long article, but we all owe M. charis for producing this useful study.