BMCR 2001.09.09

Leaving Words to Remember: Greek Mourning and the Advent of Literacy. Mnemosyne Supplement 209

, Leaving words to remember : Greek mourning and the advent of literacy. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2001. 1 online resource (vi, 206 pages).. ISBN 1417590785 $95.00.

Derderian (D) sets out to answer two questions in this revised version of her dissertation: What were the effects of increasing literacy on Greek genres of mourning and what do these effects reveal about the development of literacy? To answer these questions D examines Greek genres of mourning (Homeric lament, archaic epigram, Pindaric threnoi, classical epigram, tragedy, and the epitaphios logos) as communicative genres during the shift in Greek society from an oral culture to a culture of “oralcy,” a stage where both oral and literate modes of expression exist in a society. D’s approach to ancient literacy through Greek death-ritual is inventive since previous scholarship on ancient literacy has focused on the intersection of literacy and law, education, and power,1 but her discussion of literacy and orality surfaces sporadically; the reader looking for the literacy theme has no Ariadne’s thread to pull him or her safely through the body of the text and to D’s gnomic conclusion on the development of literacy—that it was non-linear. The stress here is on the arrival of writing and its effect on and interaction with verbal expressions of mourning and memorialization. While D makes some insightful observations about the communication skills of individual mourning genres, especially the inscribed epigram and tragedy, and provides extensive word-studies on epic mourning language, she grants the genre of mourning that conveys collective memory and civic history—rather than personal grief and social crisis—more authority in her text and forces the genres of mourning to evolve into the public memorial for the dead (i.e., the epitaphios logos), which in the end she treats not as a written memorial but as an oral genre. According to D this evolution of different genres of mourning was greatly influenced, if not initiated, by the advent of writing, and there lies the connection between Greek mourning and literacy intimated by the title of this frequently difficult book.

In her introduction D defends her choice of mourning as the focus of her study by pointing out the multiple levels of communication that can be found in death-ritual: oral, written, iconographic, material, and gestured messages. Here she also points outs how her study will not examine genres of mourning in isolation, as previous studies have done,2 but as “thematically and structurally related media that interact synchronically and diachronically” (p.5). D briefly reviews the scholarship of orality/literacy, Greek ritual lament, and memorialization and then places her work in those contexts as she outlines the main arguments of the subsequent chapters.

D divides Chapter One, “The Unspeakable Lament: the Homeric γόος and the Heroes,” into three sections and in the first section examines the Homeric terms for verbalized grief ( ἄχνυσθαι, ὀδύρεσθαι), lament ( κλαίειν, γόος) and paralinguistic mourning ( ἰάχειν, κωκύειν, μινυρίζειν, μύρεσθαι). D’s analyses of Homeric terminology for mourning and grief are informative and extensive, and my brief summary below will not give full credit to all of D’s detailed observations. For example, D concludes that ἄχνυσθαι generally represents “personally motivated grief of individual men within the network of ἑταῖροι or kin” that motivates the hero to action and revenge (p.19); whereas ὀδύρεσθαι represents a more individual response to death and does not compel the hero to action. D then discusses κλαίειν, κλαυθμός, and the informal γόος as types of spontaneous lament (i.e., lament not in “the singular context of the death ritual” [p.24]) performed by both men and women: κλαίειν primarily represents “non-verbalized mourning performed by groups and verbalized or non-verbalized mourning performed by individuals in collective contexts, with group response” marked by στενάχειν (p.27); κλαυθμός represents nonverbal sounds, often accompanied by grasping the dead’s body, disfigurement, and shedding of tears, to which either another individual or group can respond with στενάχειν or μύρεσθαι. The two forms of lament differ in that κλαυθμός appears in funeral ritual and with the γόος (but it is unclear here whether D is referring to the informal, spontaneous γόος or the formal γόος since she briefly introduced both types at the start of this section).

In the chapter’s second section D turns specifically to the “cited formal ritual γόος,” which she defines as a lament in which “a female relative of the deceased initiates and leads the lament of a same-sex group within a domestic or public setting” (p.33) and which should presumably be performed in the context of a funeral—the ritual setting. While D mentions the other Greek genre of “formally performed ritual lament”, the θρῆνος, her discussion here focuses exclusively on the formal γόος and she identifies eight formal γόοι quoted in direct speech for analysis. D’s selection of formal γόοι is problematic since only four of these γόοι take place in a ritual context of a funeral; more significantly, one of the four is performed by a male (Achilles for Patroklos in Il. 23.19-23) and the remaining three (Andromache, Hekabe, and Helen for Hektor in Il. 24.723ff.) are part of a singular ritual context and are accompanied by hired singers ( Il. 24.720-22) suggesting that these γόοι, as I see them, are a component of a Homeric θρῆνος —a rite which should be discussed more fully than in a footnote (p.31, n.64). D’s group of formal γόοι is bound more by structure and content than ritual performance context—especially in the two examples for heroes still alive (e.g., Thetis for Achilles in Il. 18.51ff.). Supplementing her eight cited formal γόοι with four unlabeled laments (p.34, n.76), D analyzes the laments for formulaic and thematic similarities. She finds that the formal γόοι share themes (e.g., contrasts between life and death, wish and reality) to a much greater degree than they do formulaic language, which she observes consists mostly of male diction even though it is primarily a woman’s genre of speech. D concludes that the function of the formal γόος is to mediate the hero’s transition into stable death and the “social transition of the household between generations” (p.39). As D sees it, epic represents the formal γόος as passive, transitory, and ephemeral, and because it does not perpetuate heroic memory or κλέος of the dead, which is the function of epic, as D continually reminds the reader, it is a “negative genre” (p.40) and a kind of “inverse epic” (p.43). In contrast to the synchronic instability of the formal γόος D ends the section by identifying the “diachronic durability” of the (uninscribed) σῆμα or τύμβος of epic and its ability, as a material memorial, to generate κλέος and transmit memory, though it may lapse into ambiguity because of its “polysemous nature” (p.51).

In the final section of Chapter One D examines mourning associated with the Homeric protagonists Achilles and Odysseus. Each of these epic heroes at one time assumes the position of mourner (Achilles for Patroklos, Odysseus for his νόστος), but instead of remaining in a passive state of lament they revise the female lament and revert to heroic action to solve their dilemmas. D’s reading here illustrates well the mourning crises of both Homeric protagonists, but this reading and her interpretation of the formal γόος outlined above mislead the reader into thinking that there is something ‘wrong’ with women’s lament since it is not transferred into action and does not perform the same function as epic. If the Homeric world is a place of male action, then it is not so surprising that “its heroes’ active response to grief is privileged” (p.61) and, as I see it, that epic gives men the option to respond to grief through lament and/or action but limits women to the lament. But to claim, as D does, that “the poetry of memory diminishes the female lament” (p.61) and that it is a negative genre is to view lament as a failed genre of memory rather than of mourning. It is not such a bad thing for lament to function synchronically since it marks a liminal and transitory stage in the funeral ritual which, for the sake of the dead and his mourners, is to be brought to a conclusion as the visitation of Patroklos’ ghost to Achilles illustrates.

In Chapter Two, “The Archaic Epigram and the Advent of Writing,” D now examines the effects of writing on the genres of mourning and especially the function of the newly produced inscribed epigram. The first section analyzes the different formats of the grave epigram (e.g., first, second, and third person) and demonstrates that the archaic epigram shares rhetoric, formulaic diction, and themes with the oral tradition (as well as lyric and elegy); in particular the Homeric and lyric language of praise in the archaic epigram associates the present dead with the heroes of the past. Her second section then looks specifically at the warrior epigram which, according to D, also negotiates between the past death and the reader’s present but now places the individual death, especially the sacrifice of youth in martial activity, in a group effort and specifies the situation and cause of death. In the final section of the chapter D discusses the Persian War Epigrams (IG I2 503/504) of ca.480-470 BCE and concludes that they share features with the archaic warrior epigrams but also exhibit further developments: these epigrams are historically grounded, encomiastic, possess paradigmatic significance for the reader, suppress death and mourning as themes, and characterize death itself as active. In summary, D convincingly demonstrates that the introduction of writing enables the σῆμα of epic to fuse its visual/material communication skill with written/verbal skill thereby increasing communicative possibilities—especially the communication of memory: the potentially ambiguous σῆμα of epic has become a μνῆμα. The verbal and material memorial serves as an historical record both of completed ritual activity and the deceased’s new identity among the dead, creates access for a larger audience of mourners/readers (i.e., those outside of the kin-group) to the memory of the individual deceased and, in the case of the public monument, makes possible collective commemoration while signifying group values. The inscribed epigram does not replace the synchronic lament but acts as a diachronic supplement, though, as D sees it, problems still exist because of temporal and spatial limitations which will not be resolved until her evolution of the genres of mourning is complete.

Chapter Three, ” γράμματα λέγοντα τάδε : Case Studies in Classical Mourning,” offers three case studies of classical mourning: Pindaric threnoi, classical grave epigram, and tragedy. For the Pindaric threnoi D first outlines the position of the threnos as an independent and authoritative oral performance genre that does not subordinate itself (unlike lament in the Homeric poems) to other performance genres. Although the threnoi share linguistic features with the Homeric γόοι, they give new attention to the afterlife and memorialize the deceased not through individual commemoration but by emphasizing the analogical life and afterlife existence. In the next section D studies the Simonides’ Epigram on Megistias as found in Hdt. 7.228 and would like to argue that Herodotos’ citation of spoken and inscribed memorials of Thermopylai together with the tendency for classical epigrams to include greater individual detail (as the memorials of Thermopylai do) suggest an increasing acceptance of co-existing oral and written memorials in the classical culture of oralcy. Her discussion, however, reveals only Herodotos’ acceptance of different genres of mourning, the co-existence of oral and inscribed memorials (as well as private and public memorials) for the same event, and the autonomy of private lament despite civic controls. This theme of lament, now seen in tragedy as a definitive part of the oral exchange of the polis, is picked up in the next section on Sophokles’ Antigone which offers a fine essay on the play’s theme of communication and tensions between private and public interests. What effect the advent of writing had on these three types of mourning genres is not fully explored by D (e.g., did the ability to compose the Pindaric threnoi in writing affect their subject matter?) since she uses these studies only to illustrate classical oralcy.

One theme D carries throughout the text is the tension and agon between the various genres of mourning (e.g., epic vs. lament, threnoi vs. lyric poetry) and in Chapter Four, “The Epitaphios Logos and Mourning in the Athenian Polis,” she places the agonistic epitaphios logos in competition with lament and epigram. D argues that the epitaphios logos appropriates and displaces private lament in favor of public praise and historical narrative and engages in an agon with material monuments through the “oration’s reification of the warriors’ ἔργα” (p.173). The end result is a speech that not only praises the warriors’ accomplishments and represents them as a paradigm for future generations but also memorializes the collective history of the polis and honors the dead by associating them with Athenian history and memory. For D the epitaphios logos has overcome the temporal and spatial limitations of lament and epigram because it localizes the warriors’ memory within the polis“which extends temporally and spatially through the continuation of Athenian history and the martial successes of passing generations” (p.181). D additionally argues that the epitaphios logos, as an oral genre, fuses λόγος and ἔργον by commemorating the deeds of the warriors in the polis‘ characteristic communication, i.e., speech. What is most frustrating here is the lack of any discussion on whether the advent of writing had anything to do with the observations D has made.

The concluding chapter of the book briefly discusses the function of death-ritual as both communication with the dead and as a dialogue among the living and the roles the various genres of mourning assume (e.g., lament communicates with the dead; threnos communicates among the living) and reiterates the claim that simultaneous use of oral, written, and material genres demonstrates that the transition from orality to literacy did not develop in a linear fashion. This is the conclusion that D is content to make on the issue of what the study of Greek genres of mourning reveals about the development of literacy, but she does not offer a fully satisfying answer on the effects of literacy on genres of mourning apart from the increased diversity and communication skills. While I am not wholly persuaded regarding the agonistic character that D sees in all the genres of mourning discussed nor their need to repeatedly legitimize themselves, the tension between issues of private and public memorialization which she discusses throughout her text is credible—at least for the classical period when Athenian death-ritual had divided into private and public practices with the development of the patrios nomos. D imagines that the advent of writing set Greek mourning on a progression from lament and epigram as a component and record of ritual, respectively, to the epitaphios logos as collective and civic history—in other words an evolution from inaccurate memory to accurate memory. The main dangers associated with this view are the risk of privileging one genre of mourning over another and narrowing the function(s) of mourning in Greek death-ritual. Although D’s text falters along these lines and challenges the reader with circuitous discussions and theoretical language, insightful observations, especially in her word studies and structural analyses of ancient texts, can be found even without Ariadne’s help.


1. E.g., E. Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write (New Haven 1986); W. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge 1989); R. Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge 1992); K. Robb, Literacy and Paideia (Oxford 1994); A. Bowman and G. Woolf, Literacy and Power (Cambridge 1994).

2. E.g., M. Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge 1974); H. Monsacré, Les larmes d’Achille: Le héros, la femme et la souffrance dans la poésie d’Homère (Paris 1984); D. Arnould, Le rire et les larmes dans la littérature grecque d’Homère à Platon (Paris 1990); G. Holst-Warhaft, Dangerous Voices: Women’s Laments and Greek Literature (London 1992).