BMCR 1997.09.27

Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece

, , , Choruses of young women in ancient Greece : their morphology, religious role, and social function. Greek studies. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997. xii, 282 pages. ISBN 9780822630623 $24.95.

There are few books that twenty years after their initial publication can still claim to be on the cutting edge of their profession, but Claude Calame’s Choruses of Young Women is definitely one of them. Originally published in 1977 as part of his doctoral thesis under the title Les choeurs de jeunes filles en Grèce archaïque I: Morphologie, fonction religieuse et sociale (Rome: Edizioni dell’ Ateneo & Bizarri), it was far ahead of its time. At the beginning of a new wave of studies on women in antiquity Calame identified an important female institution at the heart of the Greek polis; he was one of the first to apply modern anthropology and the burgeoning discipline of semiotics to the study of classical texts; and three years before Wolfgang Rösler would make a similar claim for archaic Greek monody in Dichter und Gruppe (Munich 1980) Calame insisted that Greek choral poetry be interpreted in its performance context. Women’s history, semiotics, anthropology and performance—these are still focal points of Classical studies. The new English translation is even more valuable, because Calame has corrected errors, expanded his arguments here and there, and updated the bibliography in the footnotes, so that, in the author’s own words, “this volume has to be considered a second edition of Les choeurs de jeunes filles I” (p. x).

Calame’s book was immediately well received when it first was published, although more so in Europe and among historians of Greek religion than among philologists in the U.S. It is curious, for example, that John Herrington does not mention the book in his Poetry into Drama (Berkeley 1985), and, until recently, it was largely ignored in American studies of Sappho, an author who is elaborately discussed in Calame’s book. 1 One can only hope that this new edition, which makes the book available not only in English but also for a reasonable price, will give it the attention it deserves.

Calame’s Choruses of Young Women was originally part of two volumes. It forms the very elaborate introduction to his interpretation of the two partheneia fragments of Alcman (frs. 1 + 3 Davies), which is contained in Les choeurs de jeunes filles en Grèce archaïque II: Alcman. 2 It is regrettable that the author did not take the opportunity to include at least a brief synopsis of his much acclaimed interpretation of Alcman’s partheneia in the present book, since Les choeurs de jeunes filles en Grèce archaïque II probably will never be translated into English. Although the present book can certainly be read independently of its accompanying volume on Alcman, Calame’s interpretation of the partheneia fragments helped shape his approach to the choruses of young women, and it is strange that in a single book devoted to female choral poetry the two most prominent examples are discussed only in passing and mostly through references to the French text of volume 2. The strength of the present book, however, lies precisely in the fact that it is not restricted to Alcman’s partheneia fragments, but surveys the whole of Greek literature, from Homer to the Byzantine lexicographers, as well as the iconographical material, and often reinterprets canonical texts, most importantly perhaps the poetry of Sappho, whose circle, Calame argues, functioned much like a chorus of young women.

Calame in his introduction (Chapter 1) poses three questions about the young women’s choruses of Ancient Greece: (1) who are their protagonists?, (2) in what kind of religious rituals did they participate?, and (3) what was their social function? These three questions, which are also reflected in the sub-title of the book, are taken up in the next three chapters, with a very brief conclusion (Chapter 5) closing the book. The publisher is to be commended for maintaining the original dissertation-style subdivisions in the chapters. Although these subdivisions are not always aesthetically pleasing (e.g. “ Apollo: The Myth”), and, horribile dictu, give the book a rather scholarly appearance, they make it very easy to follow Calame’s argument and to look up specific passages. The table of contents thus functions as a first index, to which a General Index is added in the back.

The Introduction (Ch. 1) discusses some of the interpretive problems of Alcman’s partheneia fragments 1 and 3, which lead to the three questions formulated above. It also discusses the nature of the sources (1.1.1), and Calame’s methodology (1.2). There are three types of sources that Calame considers: (a) the poetic fragments of Alcman (other than frs. 1 and 3); (b) passages by classical authors describing choral performances by women or girls, including fragments of poems written for adolescent choruses by authors other than Alcman; and (c) “evidence from authors on the fringes of the Alexandrian tradition, with its encyclopedic and critical tendency” (p. 2). The only glaring omission, as the author later acknowledged himself, is tragedy, whose representations of young women’s choruses, admittedly by male singers, provide valuable information about the kind of songs and performances associated with young women. 3 As methodology he uses a combination of Marxist literary criticism (1.2.1), comparative anthropology (1.2.2), and semiotics (1.2.3). The latter helps Calame to distinguish between signified and signifier in the myriad of terms used for the Greek chorus in the sources, and to interpret the different symbolic fields covered by his study, including literary texts, iconography, cult practices, and myths.

Chapter 2, “Morphology of the Lyric Chorus,” focuses on the composition and some of the activities of the Greek lyric chorus, in particular young women’s choruses. Within each chorus two main functions can be distinguished: that of the chorus-members (Ch. 2.1) and that of the chorus-leader (Ch. 2.3). Specifications of the number of chorus members in the sources can range from three to sixty, with the numbers ten to twelve being particularly well represented (e.g., Alcman’s first partheneion, Aeschylus’ tragic choruses, the chorus that sings the epithalamium to Helen in Theocr. 18). Their sex is usually female (for example, of the 109 plastic images of Greek choruses collected by Crowhurst only twenty-eight are male; quoted by Calame p. 25), and among the female choruses those of young women predominate. Calame therefore concludes, “that a chorus group is a form more frequently feminine than masculine” (p. 25), and “that choral activity was characteristic of young women” (p. 30). Other typical features of young women’s choruses are their collective character (frequently indicated by their names: Deliades, Lesbiades etc.), the camaraderie among their members (expressed by such terms as phile, hetaira, and helix), their circular form (in contrast to the rectangular shape of the tragic chorus), and their orderly arrangement.

The function of the chorus-leader (Ch. 2.3) is harder to define. Calame begins by quoting Hesychius’s definitions of the word choregos (p. 43), who distinguishes three activities: that of (1) the director who instructs the chorus (also known as the didaskalos), (2) the financier, and (3) the lead dancer. While the function of the financier is easy to distinguish from the other two, the director and the lead dancer can actually be one and the same, or their functions can be further subdivided into that of the instructor, the accompanying musician, a male chorus leader and a female lead dancer. The chorus-leader is sometimes older and/or of a different sex (with men or boys leading girls but not the other way around), but one of the girls can also “teach” ( didaskousa) the others how to dance (Luc. Salt. 12). Such examples not only show how hard it is to cull a consistent pattern from widely different historical and geographical sources, but also demonstrate that the young women’s choruses did not adhere to a Platonic ideal but were extremely flexible, and easily adapted to the different social and religious functions they had to fulfill. Other distinctive qualities of the female chorus-leader, especially when she is the lead dancer, are her higher social position and her alleged beauty. In the iconography such features are represented by a taller stature, richer clothes, and a more elaborate headdress (p. 73).

At the end of Chapter 2, a section on the musical activities of the young women’s choruses is added (Ch. 2.4). They can participate in the performance of hymns (2.4.1), paeans (2.4.2), dithyrambs (2.4.3), citharodic nomoi (2.4.4), threnodies (2.4.5), wedding songs (2.4.6), and “other choral performances,” such as simple dances on all manners of occasions (2.4.7). This section could just as well have been included in Chapter 3, which also discusses the activities of young women’s choruses, but in this chapter, entitled “Chorus and Ritual,” Calame focuses on the religious function of the choruses in an attempt to discover the ritual occasion of Alcman’s partheneia. He therefore singles out the Lacedaemonian rituals for special consideration (3.2). Useful as this arrangement will turn out to be for explaining the religious background of Alcman’s partheneia fragments, it may leave the inattentive reader with the impression that the sole purpose of young women’s choruses was the participation in religious festivals. Section 2.4, however, reveals that young Greek women danced and/or sang together on many different occasions, including at weddings, during the harvest, or just for fun.

In Chapter 3.1, Calame discusses non-Spartan rituals associated with the choral festivities of the gods (3.1.1), the rites of Artemis (3.1.2), Apollo (3.1.3), Hera (3.1.4), Aphrodite (3.1.5), Athena (3.1.6), Dionysus (3.1.7), and Demeter (3.1.8). Calame interprets the participation of young women’s choruses in the rituals of these gods almost exclusively in terms of their initiation into the community, and he even classifies the different gods with their rituals according to the stage they represent in the initiation of the young women. The rites dedicated to Artemis and Apollo, “were generally performed by young adolescents during rituals marking the stages of what I have described as a process of tribal initiation” (p. 140). Hera and Aphrodite take over when the girls become a little bit older and reach their marriageable age, with Athena, “overseeing the civic aspect of the transition to adulthood. And finally, Dionysus and Demeter, the gods who protect above all the period after marriage, are celebrated by choruses of women rather than of girls” (p. 141). Calame explains the Spartan rituals, to Artemis (3.2.1), Apollo (3.2.2), the Leukippides and Dionysiades (3.2.3), and Helen (3.2.4), in similar fashion.

In this preoccupation with initiation rituals the book reveals its origins in the mid-seventies, when the explanation of Greek myths and rituals in terms of initiation practices was much in vogue. 4 Calame in the original preface (p. viii-ix) acknowledges his debt to Angelo Brelich, who together with Walter Burkert was responsible for the renewed interest in Greek initiation practices in the seventies and early eighties. Although the importance of tribal initiation to the organization of young women’s choruses in Ancient Greece can hardly be denied and constitutes one of the greatest discoveries of Calame’s book, not every activity in which they participated has to be explained in this way. The ancient Greeks did not put on young women’s choruses solely so that the girls could go through their initiation phases, but also to entertain themselves and to honor or placate the gods with the best and most beautiful their communities could offer. Calame does not deny these aspects of the choral performances, but they receive little attention. Again it is worth noting that young women’s choruses did not perform at religious festivals only but also at weddings and other more secular occasions. Sometimes they were added to festivals that at least on the face of it have little to do with initiation, such as the Heraia festival in Olympia (pp. 114-16), or the Panathenaia (pp. 130-31). Nevertheless, Calame shows that initiation patterns can be detected in many of the myths and rituals associated with young women’s choruses.

In Chapter 4, “The Function of the Lyric Chorus,” Calame further explains the way in which the young women’s choruses contributed to the coming of age of the girls. First, Calame examines the institutional organization of the young women’s chorus, which leads to a first discussion of Sappho’s so-called circle (4.1.2). Calame argues that “[the evidence] shows structures in the Lesbos circle analogous to those characteristic of the female lyric chorus: young girls, bound to the one who leads them by ties expressed in the term hetaira, perform dances and songs together” (p. 212). Moreover, Sappho’s fragments suggest that other women on Lesbos possessed similar circles of young girls. Following A. Rivier and others, Calame argues for the institutional formality of these circles by pointing to the words adikein (“to commit an injustice”) and philotes (“friendship based on mutual confidence”) in Sappho fr. 1.19. Next, he compares the choruses of young women to the Spartan agele (4.1.3), the groups in which young Spartan boys were organized between the ages of seven and nineteen. The same word, agela, is actually used for a chorus of young Spartan women in a fragment of Pindar (fr. 112 M.). Like the lyric chorus, the Spartan agelai were under the charge of an older youth, who acted as its leader, and their internal relationships were marked by contemporality and companionship.

In Chapter 4.2, Calame examines the pedagogical function of the chorus. The educational value that the Greeks ascribed to music and the chorus is well known. Calame quotes Plato ( Leg. 654a), for whom to be achoreutos (“without chorus”) meant to be apaideutos (“without education”). The poet, in his or her capacity of didaskalos, seems to have been mainly responsible for the education of the young women in the choruses (pp. 226-28), but what exactly he would teach the girls is harder to say. Calame again draws an analogy with Sappho’s group, which, he argues, “looks like a sort of school for femininity destined to make the young pupils into accomplished women: through the performance of song, music, and cultic acts, they had lessons in comportment and elegance, reflected in the many descriptions of feminine adornment and attitudes in the fragments that we have by Sappho” (p. 231). Although I believe that Calame may be exaggerating the amount of formal teaching that went on in Sappho’s group, and the word “school” is not very well chosen, 5 I tend to agree with his reading of Sappho’s poetry, but other critics, who recognize a feminist voice in Sappho’s lyrics or do not believe that she addresses young women at all, have taken issue with this interpretation of Sappho’s circle (see the studies on Sappho listed in my footnote 1).

The purpose of the choral education was to prepare the young women for the gender role they had to play as adults (p. 234). It is revealing in this regard that the infamous metaphor of the taming of women can refer both to a girl’s education and to her marriage: “The metaphor therefore unites two connected processes: it shows that one opens into the other. Indeed, the whole educational process of the Hellenic girl, especially under its gender aspect, tends towards marriage” (p. 244). The education that the young women received in their choruses was thus markedly different from that of the boys in their agelai, which may account for some of the differences that have been noted in particular between Sappho’s poetry and that of her male counterparts. 6

The most controversial part of Calame’s book is probably the section on the “homoerotic relationships in the lyric chorus,” which he discusses in Ch. 4.3. Again he meticulously sets out the evidence, starting with the role of “so-called male homosexuality” in Sparta (4.3.1). In many Greek communities young boys when they reached a certain age were expected to have a male lover, who was either a young adolescent ( neos) or an adult. These relationships were universally recognized as erotic but at the same time educational: the beloved was supposed to model himself on his lover and assimilate the virtues of the perfect citizen by imitation (p. 246). While Calame always recognized the difference between these relationships and modern homosexual couples, it is interesting that in this new translation he decided not to apply the term “homosexual” to them anymore at all: “The concept implied by its use does not correspond to relationships which played an educational and thus a transitional role for adolescents becoming adult men. From a pathological point of view, it occupied a very different place in Greek society from the one it occupies in ours; its psychological and sociological implications were profoundly different” (p. 248). In this he was clearly influenced by the recent studies of David Halperin and Froma Zeitlin, whom he cites in the footnotes, as well as the French ethnopsychologist George Devereux. Calame now prefers the term “homophily,” because “if the man tries to introduce the adolescent to a relation of philia, of reciprocal esteem and confidence, he is alone to feel for his eromenos a real erotic and sexual desire” (p. 249; one of the few awkward sentences in an otherwise excellent translation).

Calame believes that in Sparta similar relationships existed between girls and older women. His best piece of evidence is a passage in Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus 18.9, where Plutarch reports that the Spartans were so impressed by the beneficial effects of the male pederastic relationships that they encouraged “noble women” ( kalas kai agathas gunaikas) to have erotic relations with girls ( parthenon eran). The question is, however, how reliable this report is. In the French original Calame adduced as evidence another passage by the fourth century B.C.E. philosopher Hagnon, who maintains that it was the custom in Sparta to have intercourse with girls before their marriage as with paidika, but Calame now admits that this passage most likely refers to intercourse by men with young women (p. 254 n. 169). It is not impossible that Plutarch, or his source, misread such statements by Hagnon or others in the same way, and inferred that the Spartans had instituted pederastic relationships between older women and girls similar to those of the men.

Plutarch’s report, however, seems to gain some support from the fragments of Alcman. Calame quotes a scholion to Theocritus 12 (= Alcman fr. 34 Davies), which states that Alcman used the term aitis for beloved girls ( tas eperastous koras). According to the same scholion the masculine equivalent, aitas, was used for beloved boys ( tous eromenous). The scholiast therefore already equates the two terms, but he does not say explicitly that the girls are the beloved of other women. Next, there is the erotic language with which the chorus members describe their chorus leaders, Hagesichora and Astymeloisa respectively, in Alcman’s partheneia fragments 1 and 3. These fragments, which are riddled with textual and interpretive problems, are not discussed in this book, but Calame does cite frs. 59 a and b (Davies), in which the speaker declares his or her love for a certain Megalostrata, who displays “a gift of the Muses” and is “blessed among young women.” Athenaeus, who preserved the fragments, believes that they refer to the poet’s love for the woman, but Calame argues plausibly that they were in fact spoken by a chorus to their chorus-leader, as in Alcman’s fragments 1 and 3. However, this interpretation of Alcman’s partheneia creates some new problems. Plutarch speaks of noble women ( gunaikes) who had erotic relationships with girls ( parthenoi), but the chorus leaders in these songs, according to Calame’s own analysis, are themselves parthenoi and cannot be much older than the other chorus members. Secondly, in the male pederastic relationships the eromenos was supposed to be passive, but here it would be the eromenai who would express their desire for the woman taking the place of the erastes. Interestingly, this desire of the beloved girl would be consistent with the mutual feelings of love that recent scholars have read into Sappho’s poetry (see the studies listed in note 6), but it undermines the analogy with the male pederastic relationships. I may be overly skeptical, but I am still not convinced that the erotic feelings that the chorus members in Alcman’s partheneia express for the leading girl cannot be read as praise of her outstanding beauty, without the notion that the girls expected these feelings to be reciprocated or consummated.

The myths of “female homophily” that Calame discusses in Ch. 4.3.3, are not without their problems either. First, there is the story of Leukippos, the son of Oinomaos, who fell in love with Daphne (p. 252). In order to overcome the young virgin’s aversion to men, Leukippos disguises himself as a girl and mingles with the nymph’s companions when they are hunting. In this guise he manages to forge with Daphne an “unshakable friendship” ( philian ischuran). Similar friendships are reported between Artemis and her attendants (p. 253), but there is no reason to assume that these friendships were sexual. In one version of the myth of Kallisto, Zeus is said to have taken the form of Artemis in order to rape and impregnate the girl, but this version goes back to the comic (!) poet Amphis, and “is of marginal interest for the study of the myth in its more serious form.”7 If young women in ancient Greece engaged in homoerotic affairs with other women, they lacked, or we lack, the mythical examples of couples like Zeus and Ganymedes or Poseidon and Pelops.

Finally, there is Sappho’s poetry (Ch. 4.3.2). Calame joins the modern consensus that “the fragments evoking the power of Eros, to mention only those, refer to a real love that was physically consummated” (p. 250). What is particularly interesting for Calame’s thesis is that Sappho seems to combine these homoerotic relationships with her stewardship of a choral group. Calame admits that there seems to be a contradiction between her individual expressions of love, which are always directed at one girl, and the collective character of Sappho’s circle, but he suggests that “only some of the girls had a homoerotic relationship with the poetess, while the other adolescents only participated by reciting the passionate poems addressed to the young beloved” (p. 250). As parallel, he points to the groups of boys that formed around one aristocratic youth and his adult lover in Crete, as reported by Ephorus (FGrH 70F.149). These groups follow the youth into the wilderness and go through the same initiation rituals except for the sexual contact with the erastes. In his interpretation of Alcman’s first partheneia fragment, he argues for a similar paradigmatic relationship between Hagesichora and Agido, in which the chorus is somehow meant to share ( Les Choeurs de jeunes filles II, p. 86ff.).

Calame further argues for the viability of such paradigmatic relationships by pointing to the interchangeability of first person singular and plural expressions in choral poetry, and the formulaic character of the language in which Sappho’s homoerotic feelings are expressed (Ch. 4.3.5). At the same time, he recognizes in Sappho’s poetry “an internal vibration that goes beyond the expression in traditional form of a homoeroticism entirely conforming to its educational function… : for Sappho, the ritual and initiatory ‘pseudo-homosexuality’ could simply become an example of what we call homosexuality” (p. 251). I find Calame’s explanation of the way Sappho’s circle and her beloved girls interacted plausible and very illuminating. Most importantly, it puts Sappho and her poetry back into the public domain by giving her relationships a visible, social function and by allowing her songs to be performed in the community, after centuries of critics, ever since the Renaissance (but not before!), shut her up in a salon, school, thiasos, or private women’s group. I would only like to point out that it is far from certain that all of Sappho’s erotic poetry is spoken in her own voice, and that some of it, like Sappho frs. 16 and 96, was probably spoken and performed by a chorus. 8 This would make her poetry correspond even more closely to Alcman’s partheneia.

In the last section of Chapter 4 (Ch. 4.4), Calame returns to the connection between the female lyric chorus and tribal initiation, which lies at the heart of the book. His analysis is an example of how to integrate modern anthropological studies into the study of antiquity. Although anthropological studies of tribal initiation rites guided his research from the beginning, he first demonstrates the individual initiatory elements in the Greek sources before comparing them to those of other cultures. In this final section, Calame amasses an impressive list of anthropological studies that document in female initiation groups the same features that he found in the Greek choruses of young women, such as their collective character, hierarchies within the group of initiates, homoerotic practices, the importance of song, dance and music, especially in the presentation of the group, the emphasis on beauty, and, of course, the tripartite division between rites of separation, rites of transition, and rites of reintegration. Although, as Calame admits on page 261, not all the activities of the Greek choruses of young women can be reduced to initiation rituals, he demonstrates convincingly that one of their main functions was the preparation of young women for adult life.

I have discussed the book in some detail, in part because it was only in the details that I could find anything to criticize, but also to show to the reader how rich and well argued it is. This book is an absolute must for anyone working in women’s history, Greek literature or Greek religion. It should be put on permanent reserve in every library, because of the wide range of topics it discusses and the exemplary quality of its research. I finally would like to commend the translators for an outstanding achievement. Compared with Calame’s rather difficult French, the translation, while still no easy read, is very lucid, and even French speakers may now and then want to consult the translation, which was checked by the author, to find out what he exactly means. I found one typo (the reference to Alcman fr. 3, line 56, on page 5 should be to line 65), and the cross-referencing is not always exact, but these are small blemishes in what surely ranks as one of the masterpieces of late-twentieth century Classical scholarship.

1. Calame’s study is, for example, not mentioned in J. P. Hallett’s article, “Sappho and her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality,”Signs 3 (1979) 447-64 (although they agree on many points), nor in J. J. Winkler, “Double Consciousness in Sappho’s Lyrics,” in The Constraints of Desire (New York 1990) 162-87, nor in J. M. Snyder, “Public Occasion and Private Passion in the Lyrics of Sappho,” in S. B. Pomeroy (ed.), Women’s History and Ancient History (Chapel Hill 1991) 1-19. It has received critical attention in M. B. Skinner, “Woman and Language in Archaic Greece,” in N. S. Rabinowitz & A. Richlin (eds.), Feminist Theory and the Classics (New York 1993) 125-44, 133, H. N. Parker, “Sappho Schoolmistress,”TAPA 123 (1993) 309-51, esp. 331-33 (who largely seems to misunderstand Calame’s argument, however), and E. Stehle, Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece (Princeton 1997) esp. 270-74. Among historians of Greek religion, Calame is quoted favorably for example in J. N. Bremmer, “An Enigmatic Indo-European Rite: Paederasty,”Arethusa 13 (1980) 279-98, 292-93, and W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge MA 1985) passim.

2. See also Calame’s text and commentary of Alcman’s fragments: Alcman. Introduction, texte critique, témoignages et commentaire, Rome 1983.

3. Calame discusses some of this evidence in “From Choral Poetry to Tragic Stasimon: The Enactment of Women’s Song,”Arion, Third Series, 3.1 (1994/95) 136-54.

4. See H. S. Versnel, “What’s Sauce for the Goose is Sauce for the Gander: Myth and Ritual, Old and New,” in L. Edmunds (ed.), Approaches to Greek Myth (Baltimore 1990) 25-90, reprinted in H. S. Versnel, Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion II (Leiden 1993) 15-88; also cited by Calame p. 11 n. 26.

5. Calame of course rejects Wilamowitz’s characterization of Sappho’s group as a “Mädchenpensionat” or “finishing school” (p. 233).

6. See the studies of Skinner and Stehle, listed in note 1, and L. H. Wilson, Sappho’s Sweetbitter Songs: Configurations of Male and Female in Ancient Greek Lyric (London-New York 1996).

7. A. Henrichs, “Three Approaches to Greek Mythography,” in J. N. Bremmer (ed.), Interpretations of Greek Mythology (London-Sydney 1987) 242-277, 262, who in note 82 also rejects the idea that Amphis’ version reflects initiation rituals involving female homosexuality.

8. See my “Who Sang Sappho’s Songs?” in E. Greene (ed.), Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches (Berkeley 1997) 150-72.