BMCR 2000.03.17

La pirrica nell’ antichità greco romana: Studi sulla danza armata

, La pirrica nell' antichità greco romana: Studi sulla danza armata. Pisa and Rome: Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 1998. 274; 24 b/w pls.

This is a very impressive book. Paola Ceccarelli (hereafter C.) has examined an enormous amount of evidence spanning a large geographical and chronological range in her quest to uncover the cultural meanings of the pyrrhic dance. C. finds initiation ritual for young men the key to its original character but traces variations and mutations. So rich and thorough is this work that summary is difficult, but I will begin with an outline. In commenting on her approach I will indicate my disagreement with her attempt to find a context in institutionalized initiations, but I will end by highlighting both an alternative thesis that she puts forward in her discussion of myth and the overriding value of the book.

Dance, according to Greek thought, was educational and civilizing, as C. reminds us in her Introduction. Armed dances are attested early and continue throughout antiquity, but the names and types were legion. “Pyrrhiche” was (or became) both the name of a specific kind of dance and a general name for armed dance, which makes it difficult to isolate the distinctive character of the pyrrhiche proper. In an effort to do so, C. gives a geographical survey of the evidence in chapters 2-6. Chapters 7-9 then consider the pyrrhiche conceptually in terms of the meters associated with it, the mythic figures and themes that can be linked with it, and its genre and evolution over time. C. also includes a table of iconographic features on Attic vases, a catalog of iconographic documents with discussion, a chronology of ancient terminology, an index of passages cited, and a subject index.

C. begins the geographical survey with Athens. At Athens the pyrrhiche was associated specially with Athena, for she was said to have invented it after her victory over the Giants or the Gorgon. At the Panathenaia, choruses of boys, of youths, and of men competed in separate pyrrhic contests. C. believes that these contests predate the Kleisthenic tribes, for there is no indication that the contest pitted the ten tribes against one another. In investigating other possible Attic contexts C. constructs a tenuous argument for connecting the pyrrhiche with the Athenian Apatouria. The Suda lists two dramatists under the name of Phrynichos. The first, son of Polyphradmon, must be the famous tragedian who produced the Fall of Miletos. The second Phrynichos, son of Melanthas, is otherwise unknown, and there are reasons to think that his entry refers to the first Phrynichos. Aelian, meanwhile, preserves the item that Phrynichos was elected general because one of his tragedies contained bellicose songs appropriate for pyrrhic dancers. Thus we have a dramatist known for pyrrhic songs who (C. suggests) acquired the nickname “son of Melanthas.” C. sees in the nickname a hint of the subject of one of his pyrrhic songs: the duel of Xanthos and Melanthos on the border between Boiotia and Attica, which Melanthos, the Athenian hero, won by a trick. From Hellanikos on this story is given as the aition of the Apatouria. C. deduces that because the aition of the Apatouria was represented in a pyrrhiche, the pyrrhiche was associated with the Apatouria, the festival at which fathers registered their sons in the phratry. On this basis C. proposes her overall thesis that the pyrrhiche was originally connected with initiation into adulthood (something Angelo Brelich had suggested in connection with the Panathenaia).

C. next discusses Attic vases illustrated with armed dances, of which she provides good (if not large) photographs. Male dancers are identified wherever possible as ephebes, partly because the scene often shows a stool holding a piece of folded cloth, which C. interprets as the chlamys (ephebic cloak). Female pyrrhic dancers are depicted as dancing at symposia and occasionally in marriage contexts; the former may jokingly recall men’s valor to themselves (or reflect actual symposium entertainment) while the latter perhaps portray a girl at the threshold of marriage. A fascinating if enigmatic pyxis in Naples shows a woman dancing in armor before an altar and a statue of Artemis in a temple. Satyrs dancing assimilate the pyrrhic to the realm of Dionysus, while Amazons suggest Artemis. Dionysus and Artemis: these gods reveal the arc of significations over which pyrrhiche extends.

On the borders of Attica are signs of the pyrrhiche. An inscription from Halai Araphenides thanks a Philoxenos for sponsoring a chorus of pyrrhicists at an unnamed festival; C. suggests the Tauropolia for Artemis Tauropolis (a goddess who has been linked to initiations of young men), since the honor is to be announced at that festival. Close to Attica, the pyrrhiche was offered to Artemis Amarysia, recipient of an important cult in Euboia, and (by the first century BCE) to Artemis in Megara. Tracing the affinity of Artemis for the pyrrhiche is one of C.’s achievements.

In Lakonia no early evidence exists for the pyrrhiche under that name, although armed dances were practiced. The Cretan armed dance associated with the Kouretes (called “prylis” in a few sources) was different in origin — circular, danced with swords rather than spears and meant to induce fertility — but was later identified with the pyrrhiche. In the Hymn to the Kouros C. finds initiatory (as well as fertility) themes, including the leap (a pyrrhic movement) that the “Great Kouros” is called on to make. An inscription from Itanos requiring oath-taking of all the citizenry perhaps provides a context for initiatory performance.

In Asia Minor there is more evidence, but it is mainly Hellenistic and later. By then the variety of dances called pyrrhic had increased greatly. At Kos it was a circle-dance, like the dithyramb, at Rhodes apparently a military dance. At Aphrodisias it appears in a list of musical and theatrical events, while at Tripoli there is evidence of a professional pyrrhicist. C. does an excellent job of extracting information like this, and much more, from inscriptions. At Ephesos we find Artemis again: Kallimachos ( Hymn. Art. 237-47) says that the Amazons founded the cult of Artemis and danced the prylis; perhaps this was the aition for a girls’ dance.

Finally, the West. Armed dances were popular in Etruria, but seem to mix native elements with Greek. At Rome the Salii performed an armed dance from early on, which Greek authors linked to Greek dances. An important indication of the appearance of the pyrrhiche in imperial times comes from Dionysios of Halikarnassos ( Ant. Rom. 7.71-2), who compares it to a Roman procession inaugurated after the victory at Lake Regillus, of which he quotes a description from Fabius Pictor. In that procession choruses of men, youths, and boys dance with spears; a leader sets the dance movements, quick and bellicose, and the chorus follows. But then other dancers follow these, dancing the sikinnis (an undignified Dionysiac dance) and mocking the pyrrhic dancers. Here we see the ambiguous, Dionysiac aspect of the pyrrhiche.

A brief chapter on onomastics shows that no conclusions can be drawn from the distribution of names like Pyrrhichos.

At this point C. switches from a geographical inquiry to a thematic one. The first topic (Ch. 7) is music, including a technical discussion of meter. If the pyrrhiche utilized an anapestic meter, it was faster, with more resolutions, than the marching anapests of tragedy. Lines from Spartan military songs in anapests are known and may be the closest thing we have to pyrrhic songs.

Massive Chapter 8 takes up the “mythic complex.” Saying that she will seek the “potentialities” of the pyrrhiche, not always fully actualized, C. begins with “duels at the frontier” and Nestor’s tale in Iliad 7.132-57 of fighting Ereuthalion (“Red”); in another version of this tale Nestor makes a great leap after victory. Accepting from H. Mühlestein the idea that Nestor was originally the hero of the Ionian Apatouria, C. conjectures that the Peisistratids (who claimed kinship with Neleus) established the Neleid Melanthos at Athens in conjunction with the Apatouria.1 This is the Pylian-Messenian then Ionic-Attic tradition.

But the pyrrhiche was also tied to Achilles and Neoptolemos. Invention of the pyrrhiche was often attributed to Neoptolemos (with a pun on his other name, Pyrrhos). Achilles doing a pyrrhiche around Patroklos’ pyre or Neoptolemos “leaping” from the wooden horse or doing a victory dance after killing Eurypylos represent transition (back) to battle or to adulthood. Neoptolemos at Delphi can be linked to the pyrrhiche via an image in Euripides’ Andromache and a Delphic ritual described in Heliodoros’ Aithiopika. C. traces many other mythic links among these figures and fire, “red,” leaping, transitional moments, and other young men in myth. Violence and excess may lead to death, that is, failed initiation. As Homeric epic prevailed and Neoptolemos became the hero of Delphi, this “Trojan tradition” and the name “pyrrhiche” supervened on earlier versions of the initiatory armed dance (perhaps the prylis) over territory stretching from Euboia through Lakonia. Artemis, recipient of the pyrrhiche, is connected with the Trojan cycle via Iphigeneia. Prylis and pyrrhiche could be linked to funerals as well; they symbolize return to life.

The pyrrhiche is often linked in later writers to Dionysus as inventor or to the sikinnis. C. gives two explanations, generic and historical: the sikinnis is the inverse of the pyrrhiche, permitting adults to return to the abandon of childhood; or the Dionysiac pyrrhiche is traceable to Alexander’s expedition to India.

In the conclusion to the chapter C. mentions the problem that the pyrrhiche is described not as a dance of transition but as a triumphal dance, which she interprets as a mark of warrior integration. She then remarks (217), “The totality of narratives examined inspires one to think that the dance itself in its duration represented the moment of alterity, of liminality, but also that it symbolized the cohesion of the group of participants … with respect to the spectators, and that the conclusion [of the dance] marked the integration — or reintegration — of the group of dancers into the collective.” I will return to this. To the dominant meaning of reaffirming a collectivity of warriors a community may add themes such as renewal of nature, as the dance of the Kouretes does. The pyrriche, in sum, has the “predisposition” to transmit a thematic complex deeply linked with the schema of rites of passage (separation, liminality, reintegration), but its specific sense derives from the occasion. There is no pyrrhiche per se.

In Chapter 9 C. considers the genre and evolution of the pyrrhiche, including its relationship with Dionysiac dance and tragedy. As a choreographic style it could be incorporated into dithyramb. Over time, the pyrrhiche lost its ritual meaning in many places and became entertainment, even pantomime.

The Conclusion offers a reprise of C.’s main points. She scrupulously acknowledges that the connection between the pyrrhiche and rites of transition must have faded, for it cannot be found at the institutional level in the fifth century or later, but she believes that the evidence shows traces of an earlier stage in which the pyrrhiche was executed by a young warrior at a moment of initiation or at a funeral. C. thus follows a strong continental tradition in taking age-class initiation of the young as her frame of reference — a tradition established for the Greek world by Henri Jeanmaire, taken up by Angelo Brelich, and followed more recently by Claude Calame and Pierre Brulé, among others.2 These scholars assume that, like other pre-urban cultures, early Greek culture must have had rituals for moving young men and women to adult status, and they look for such rituals, or their traces, in Greek religious practice and myth. The model can be combined with structuralism, as C. does to some extent, for the liminality and inversion associated with the period of initiation can be detected by its being coded as a series of oppositions (visual, linguistic, culinary, sartorial, etc.) to standard practices or values.

There is, however, another school of thought that is sceptical of using initiation as an a priori framework. Simon Price, for instance, remarks in his recent book on Greek religion, “Initiation rituals or ‘rites de passage’ are held to underlie many if not all myths…. As a matter of fact classical Greece had very few initiation rituals and so the theory hypothesised that, while rituals had been lost or transformed, myths continued to be told in the classical and later periods. Compulsive detection of initiation rituals can be rather arbitrary and in the end casts little light on Greece of historic periods.”3 According to this approach, which I share, the (earlier) existence of a relevant initiation ritual is something one must demonstrate before interpreting myths or gestures as a reflection of it; not all pre-urban cultures practiced initiation.4 Greek myth reveals concern with the transition of the young to warrior status, certainly, but such concern exists whether ritualized or not. Indeed, myth may substitute for ritual in expressing a culture’s anxiety and interest in the process.

C. does not discuss the category “initiation ritual” but relies on earlier scholars’ interpretations of various festivals like the Apatouria as initiatory. She therefore gives the sceptic no new reason to accept the one-time presence of age-class initiation throughout Greece, necessary to her thesis. On the contrary, it seems to me that her effort to identify initiatory practices sometimes leads her to distortions. In discussing Athens, for instance, C. must weight evidence inappropriately, slighting the Panathenaia compared to the Apatouria, even though there is no real evidence for the pyrrhiche at the latter. Moreover, I have a different impression of the nature of these festivals. In a recent study of the Attic phratries Steven Lambert points out that the only connection ever drawn between the Apatouria and the myth of Xanthos and Melanthos is the punning false etymology of Apatouria from apate (deception). He thinks the connection is a scholar’s invention, perhaps Hellanikos’. If so, ephebic ideology was not germane to the festival. The Apatouria, in any event, was a festival of kinship that linked generations and involved children of various ages.5 Similarly, the Panathenaic pyrrhiche was danced by boys and adult men as well as youths. In both cases C. describes the festivals as concentrated on a single moment of discontinuity (change of status for youths), whereas the festivals seem to me to celebrate a continuum of involvement for male citizens from boyhood on.

Yet in spite of my resistance to claims that age-class initiation explains ritual or myth, I find C.’s discussion enormously valuable in ways that transcend this issue, for two reasons. First, she organizes a huge amount of evidence very skillfully and pursues many issues of interest; beyond those I have mentioned she discusses, e.g., pyrrhic and tragedy, Polybios on dance in Arcadia, maenads, the iconography of dance in Asia Minor. One of the best features of the book is that C. always provides the actual evidence for her conclusions and often discusses other possible interpretations. She has remarkable command of scholarship on a wide range of problems; for Americans the book is a goldmine of information on recent European scholarship on all these topics.

Second, in chapter 8 C. broadens her thesis; as the sentence quoted above reveals she switches to a psychological view of the pyrrhiche. When C. describes the dance itself as the state of alterity and its conclusion as reintegration in the community she turns from age-class initiation to the idea of transition from one state of mind to another: the pyrrhiche as inducing or miming the warrior’s shift into and out of intense battle-focus, “furious” yet coordinated with his fellow-soldiers. At this level the idea of transition is productive because it includes all dancers. It allows us to see dance and myth as complementary (as C. implies), for the dance represents successful negotiation of the transitions while myth warns of possible failures. In myth the outcome wavers between destructive violence and victory. C.’s discussion of Neoptolemos captures the problem of the “new warrior” — his emotional intensity and potential isolation and the need to integrate him into a military structure. In the dance the discipline of the rapid, weapon-brandishing choral dance controls the fervid psychological state that it also evokes. The pyrrhiche can thus “educate” especially young men in controlled and coordinated aggressiveness.

The psychological interpretation may explain the connection of Artemis with the pyrrhiche, for she oversees the wild and bounds it off from human culture. It accounts for the affinity of Dionysus and the pyrrhiche. Likewise, C.’s demonstration of the evolution of the dance in the Hellenistic period provides another way to glimpse the changed relationship of citizens to war.

C.’s book is dense; her argument is complicated and sometimes difficult to follow since she takes on so much. I have presented only some of her conclusions and those in brutally condensed form. It is nonetheless an engrossing book to read and very rewarding for anyone interested in Greek cultural performances and their mythic projections.


1. H. Mühlestein, Homerische Namenstudien, Frankfurt, 1987, 66-71.

2. H. Jeanmaire, Couroi et Courètes. Essai sur l’éducation spartiate et sur les rites d’adolescence dans l’antiquité hellénique, Lille, 1939; A. Brelich, Paides e Parthenoi, Rome, 1969; C. Calame, Les choeurs de jeunes filles en Grèce archaïque, Rome, 1977; P. Brulé, La fille d’Athènes. La religion des filles à Athènes à l’époque classique, Paris, 1987.

3. S. Price, Religions of the Ancient Greeks, Cambridge, 1999, 17.

4. See F. W. Young, Initiation Ceremonies: A Cross-Cultural Study of Status Dramatization, Indianapolis, 1965, on initiation, esp. 14-15 on the absence of such rituals in some societies. I thank Donna Kerner for this reference.

5. S. D. Lambert, The Phratries of Attica, 2nd ed., Ann Arbor, 1998, 144-52 on the myth, esp. 151-2 on the importance of kinship and the weakness of the connection between the ephebia and the Apatouria in the pre-Hellenistic period; 160-63 for children’s participation.