BMCR 1994.05.16

1994.05.16, Lonsdale, Dance and Ritual Play

, Dance and ritual play in Greek religion. Ancient society and history. London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. xxi, 352 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780801845949. $39.95.

1 Responses

According to Lonsdale’s Preface (xv), “the purpose of the present work is to situate the fragmentary evidence for dance in the cults and festivals of Greece in the archaic and classical periods (c. 750-323 B.C.E.) in an appropriate context so as to relate the subject to contemporary Greek social and religious institutions.” After a brief introduction dealing with “Problems and Sources,” there are chapters on “Dance and Play in Plato’s Laws,” on “Dance as an Ordering Force,” on “Dance as a Disruptive Force” and on “the meeting of the divine and human on the dancing ground ( choros) in the polis” (xviii), the last involving an examination of the role of the dance in the Athenian festival of the Anthesteria. There follow chapters that are concerned with the role of dance in initiations, courtship and marriage rituals and funeral rites and, finally, a chapter on the dance-loving god Pan. The arrangement of material in the central chapters, which follow in chronological order the stages in the life-cycle of a citizen of a Greek polis, is reminiscent of the arrangement of material in Lonsdale’s earlier book, Animals and the Origins of Dance (1981). And there are other similarities as well between the two books. Indeed, they have very much the same strengths and weaknesses. Both reflect the author’s wide reading and both contain excellent and up-to-date bibliographies. Both give evidence of the author’s obvious love for and fascination with the dance. Both are well and carefully produced. (The more recent book is almost completely free from typographical errors, although the phrase “an impossibilium,” which occurs three times, and references to Maass’ “Analecta Eratosthenes” induce nostalgia for the days when a knowledge of Latin was considered a requisite for academic positions in the classics.) Both, however, are severely vitiated by the author’s conspicuous inability to handle evidence and to argue coherently.

The reader should be warned that the remainder of this review contains material that may not be found to be edifying. It would, however, be irresponsible of me to make a statement like the one with which I concluded the previous paragraph without giving a sampling, at least, of concrete instances. Let us begin with page one, where we read:

To worship often implied engaging in collective rites regulated by playful behavior. Among the most enduring and versatile forms of worshipful playfulness in a group were hymns and choral dances. Dances in particular could be of a playful nature, as one of the verbs for dance in ancient Greek ( paizo), with its ambiguous meanings “to dance” and “to play,” indicates. To dance is in a sense to become once again a child, as suggested by the derivation of paizo from pais (child). To play meant to represent the “other” mimetically in dance dramas.

Apart from the (characteristic) movement from assertion to assertion without regard for logical connection, what is said here raises important questions that are not adequately addressed in the course of Lonsdale’s treatment. What exactly is the relationship, for example, between dance and play? If dances “could be” of a playful nature, that implies that dances existed that were not of a playful nature. And yet a playful nature appears to be attributed to dance in general when Lonsdale refers to the connection between paizo and pais.

Another awkward question is raised with the introduction of the mimetic character of dance. What exactly is it that the dancer imitates? In his earlier book Lonsdale had been concerned with dances in which humans imitate animals, and he seemed to suggest there that the origins of dance are to be sought among such activities. Here too the mimetic character of dance seems to be central, but it is never clear what is being imitated. On p. 32, for example, we are told (without being given any evidence) that “the participants in archaic rituals … behave as if they were … gods or animals.” (Notice, incidentally, how “ritual” has assumed the attributes of one of its elements, namely dance, just as, above, dance itself had assumed the attributes of a sub-class of dance, namely playful dance.) Later (180) we read, “dance was essentially a mimetic activity, particularly among the young, who learn dances by imitation.” Following this reasoning we might say that tying a weaver’s hitch is essentially a mimetic activity, since one learns to tie a weaver’s hitch by imitation. But the most curious feature of Lonsdale’s insistence upon the mimetic character of dance is that, despite that insistence, he excludes from consideration dramatic choruses. The justification for this exclusion (6-7) seems to make no sense at all. Lonsdale distinguishes between “ritual” and “dramatic” choruses, as though dramatic performances were not part of ritual events. On the contrary, in Athens in the fifth century dramatic performances took place in precisely the same ritual context (the Dionysia) and presumably in the same ritual space (the Theater of Dionysus) as the performances of dithyrambic choruses, which Lonsdale discusses at some length (89-99). Lonsdale insists (7) on the importance of the mask in differentiating the “dramatic” from the “ritual” chorus, and yet he argues for the presence of masks in connection with certain “ritual” dances (102, 159, 172, 190-91). Nor is this surprising, given the importance accorded to animal masks and disguises in Lonsdale’s earlier book. What is surprising is the elimination of dramatic choruses (which include, after all, choruses of satyrs, birds, wasps, frogs, etc.) from consideration here. Still more surprising, after this exclusion of dramatic choruses, which sang and danced at a festival in honor of Dionysus, is Lonsdale’s willingness to discuss (206-210) the dancing of Nausicaa and her companions in Odyssey 6, which has no religious context and which, despite Lonsdale’s inclusion of it in a chapter concerned with “Dance in Courtship and Marriage,” was not intended to be witnessed by a man.

Elsewhere as well we find problematic use of Homeric evidence. In his chapter on dance in connection with funeral rites, Lonsdale first (243-44) notes those passages in Greek tragedy that suggest the inappropriateness of dance to funeral rites and then tries to discount this evidence by reference to the funeral of Hector in Iliad 24. A careful reading of Homer’s text, however, reveals that there is no reference to dance. Even the “ritual movement and gestures” by which “the lament over the corpse is accompanied” are not to be found in the text. And in any case, even if Lonsdale were correct in importing them here, what is the relationship between “ritual movement and gestures” and dance? At this point Lonsdale seems to regard them as identical, but elsewhere (258) he states, “Dance implies motion … expressed through the body, the whole body,” which is incompatible with the gestures of beating the breast and tearing the hair. Likewise, there is no dancing at the funeral for Patroclus in Iliad 23. Lonsdale seeks to get around this (249-50) by referring to circumambulation, which he characterizes as “an attenuated choral form.” Dancing is, of course, included in the entertainments provided for Odysseus by the Phaeacians, the relevance of which to funeral rites Lonsdale wishes to exploit on the grounds (250-51) that Odysseus has just returned from the Underworld!

Other types of evidence do not fare any better. For example, Lonsdale states as though it were a fact (164) that the Panathenaic amphoras represent Athena as dancing the pyrrhic. This is, rather, a hypothesis, which not everyone is prepared to accept; see most recently J. Neils, Goddess and Polis (Princeton 1992) 197 n. 43. In the same way, it is asserted (71) that the words τέρψις and τροφή are etymologically related. They are not. We are told (240-41) that the athletic contests described in Iliad 23 serve a function similar to that of the death dances of the Lugbara of Uganda. But what can that tell us about the function of Greek dances, particularly when, as we have seen, dances are not mentioned in Iliad 23? At one point (93-96) Lonsdale attempts to show that the Herodotean story of Arion and the dolphin is “a sort of foundation myth for the dithyramb.” He begins by assuming (unnecessarily, as it happens) that the narrative presents a progression from the choral dithyramb to the solo performance, which is the opposite of what one would expect for a foundation myth. Lonsdale’s solution takes the form of the remarkable assertion, “Retroactively, he shifts from being a solo performer to being a choral leader.” Following this reasoning we can prove that Strauss wrote “Four Last Songs” before he wrote “Don Juan,” since, retroactively, he shifted from being an old man to being a youth of twenty-five. Elsewhere (271), in discussing Menander’s Dyscolus, Lonsdale observes that the injury to Cnemon’s legs, suffered when he fell down the well, “made him deformed in the lower half of the body like the goat-god Pan.” Yet Pan’s “deformity” is what accounts for his proficiency as a dancer, whereas Cnemon’s immobilizes him. (I should note that the final chapter, “Change: Pan and Private Worship,” seems to have been added as an afterthought; it follows Lonsdale’s “conclusions” on pp. 258-60.)

In Chapter 5 Lonsdale seeks to show that the pyrrhic dance was a qualification rite for Athenian ephebes. Part of the evidence for this is the fact (163) that, according to Aristotle, the ephebes were led by lochagoi, and lochagoi have the same relationship to lochoi that choregoi have to choroi. Further, ephebes circulated about the borders of Attica, and “circular motion, of course, is the basic movement of the chorus.” Apart from the fact that none of this can be taken seriously as argument—Do we even know for certain, by the way, that the pyrrhic was a circular dance?—if the pyrrhic was a qualification rite for ephebes, why were there contests in pyrrhic dancing at the Panathenaic Games for males in three age categories (boys, ageneioi and men)? Why, in fact, were there pyrrhic dances for women? (On pp. 167-68 Lonsdale makes a valiant endeavor to address this last question, but his attempt at an argument is no more successful here than elsewhere.) In his discussion and visualization of scenes of dancing from both literary and artistic sources Lonsdale is confused and inconsistent. At one point (217), “The technique of linking arms by placing the hand over the wrist … suggests leading in a file.” At another (66), it is characteristic of “the classic ring dance.” This technique, which is employed by the young men and women portrayed on Achilles’ shield as engaged in a ring dance (211), is suggestive of control and domination (214). But in a ring dance, all the participants are leading, and all are being led. And in particular, in the dance on Achilles’ shield, which Lonsdale envisions as a ring dance in which men and women alternate, women necessarily lead men to the same degree that men lead women. Still more (?) characteristic of the ring dance is the joining of hands. So p. 217 (“the more equal method of clasping hands … suggests a circular formation”) and Fig. 23, whose caption reads, “Two girls forming a ring dance by joining hands.” But the object represented in Fig. 23, a fragment of a black-figure krateriskos related to the cult of Artemis Brauronia, appears to be interpreted (190) as representing flight. Apart from the inconsistency over the significance of the method of linking hands, a ring dance is a most unlikely way of representing terrified flight, just as it is an unlikely way of symbolizing the (linear) marriage procession (214).

Lonsdale discusses “the motif of abduction of the young girl from the dancing ground,” regarding it as a “challenge to the institution and social conventions surrounding marriage” (222). But this is inconsistent with Lonsdale’s view that dance is inherently erotic (“an erotic current underlies every dance” 211; “Dancing, of course, is by nature an erotic activity” 227). Further, Lonsdale regards these dances as courtship rituals. Surely, so far from representing a “challenge to the institution and social conventions surrounding marriage,” this motif in fact encodes Greek, or at least Athenian, views of young girls and marriage (so C. Sourvinou-Inwood, JHS 107 [1987] 145-46). According to Lonsdale’s reconstruction of the Arkteia, the bear represents both “the mother the girl will eventually become” (182) and “male sexual aggression” (183). Characteristic of Lonsdale’s book are statements such as, “the essential action of a choros is that of being led” (230), “the word agele may itself have a dance significance” (230-31) and “the Greek word for hero ( heros) is not always clearly distinguished from the word for god ( theos)” (254).

But enough has by now been said to indicate that this book must be used with extreme caution, if, indeed, it is to be used at all. Unfortunately, it remains true that, as Lonsdale says in his Preface (xv), “despite the widely recognized importance of the role of dance and related phenomena in Greek cults and festivals, we still lack a critical study in English of the function of dance.”