This book is less ribald than its title might suggest but every bit as exciting. “Exciting” in this context means that readers will certainly find here a lot that is admirable, and also a fair amount that is objectionable. But even those parts of the book that may raise some eyebrows (including this reviewer’s own) will nonetheless whet appetites and provide welcome food for thought.
J.C.B. Petropoulos (hereafter P.) sets out to study the persistence in time of erotic elements occurring in ancient, medieval and also (despite the book’s title) modern Greek folk poetry, or in literature that arguably exploits folk material. This book (which has grown out of the author’s Oxford D.Phil. thesis, carried out under the supervision of Sir Kenneth Dover) has therefore a diachronic intent. It aims at reconstructing what the author sees as a continuous tradition of Greek erotic poetry by comparatively examining literary manifestations of love motifs, themes, images or formal devices, and by attempting to extrapolate from these specimens a number of features which he identifies both as popular and as characteristically Hellenic. The time-scale of this study is a vast one, ranging from Homer and Sappho through classical, Hellenistic, late antique and medieval authors to modern Greek folk songs. The works or passages cited are chosen from a variety of literary, social or ritual contexts: nuptial songs, both popular and sophisticated; symposia; funerary themes both in literature and on inscriptions; rhetorical handbooks; etc. The book’s greatest merit lies in its author’s commendable industry: P. has meticulously assembled a vast array of primary material, sometimes from the most obscure sources, which he presents in English translation. He has even taken the considerable trouble of unearthing valuable material from unpublished collections of Modern Greek folk-songs in the Folklore Archives at the Academy of Athens. For this, above all else, he is to be warmly congratulated and thanked. In addition, despite occasional gaps, P. has an admirable knowledge of secondary literature. Whenever objections arise, it is mainly with regard to his sometimes inconsistent methodology and his occasional tendency to strain the evidence.
Despite the seemingly far-reaching title, P. wisely restricts himself to the treatment of four select topics, or case-studies, explored in an equal number of chapters: “Nuptial Praise” (pp. 10-48), “Nuptial Blame” (pp. 49-60), “Harvest Imagery and the Motif of the Apple” (pp. 61-73), and “Popular Amatory Wishes” (pp. 74-85). A prologue entitled “Problems, Sources and Strategies” (pp. 1-9) expounds briefly the theoretical problems attaching to any study of Hellenic literature that implies diachronic “continuity”. (Since “continuity” is a term admitting of multiple interpretations, it must be stressed here that for P. “‘continuity’ does not even remotely imply immutability, but instead continuous … re-handling and, in some cases, diversification of features through time” [p. 16].) A brief epilogue (pp. 86-88) presents conclusions. A large part of the book (pp. 89-177) is taken up by auxiliary material (testimonia, addenda, appendixes, notes). There is a twenty-page bibliography (pp. 179-198) and a fairly detailed index (pp. 199-206). There are also thirteen plates hors-texte, which in my view add very little to the argument.
Chapter I, entitled “Problems, Sources and Strategies”, duly presents the book’s aim and the methodological problems associated therewith. In the author’s words, the book aspires to trace “by means of diachronic comparison and analysis … the main historical connections between a number of putatively popular or sub-literary motifs, images and even formal devices which occur in ancient Greek poetry, and seemingly identical or analogous motifs, images and formal devices found in medieval and modern Greek popular poetry” (p. 1). The main problems inherent in such an enterprise are suggested by the use of “putatively” and “seemingly” in the above quotation. As P. demonstrates, our direct evidence for popular songs — at least until the 19th century, when systematic collection of folk-songs was attempted for the first time — is extremely sparse; in practically every case, popular material has come down to us through the intermediary of middle- or high-brow sources.1 Aside from the fact that literate intermediaries regularly attempt to ‘ennoble’ their popular material according to classicizing standards, rummaging through written sources of all periods in a quest for folk elements entails the risk of begging the question: namely, of treating such-and-such an element as “popular” simply because it conforms with the researcher’s pre-conceived notions of what “popular” is. Moreover, as P. well demonstrates (pp. 1-9), learned and popular literary forms mutually osmose in complex ways. Thus, typically middle-brow channels, such as the liturgical or homiletic tradition, have exerted an incalculable influence on folk literature, while (as P. is well aware, p. 140 n. 46) written sources may even give rise to new types of folk song or other forms of popular entertainment.2 Greek literature, especially in the Middle Ages, affords quite a few examples of this complex interaction: the Alexander ‘romance’, for instance, albeit drawing occasionally on popular material, started life as a purely literary composition; subsequently it ramified into a kaleidoscopic variety of redactions and translations, which were sometimes absorbed by folk legend (not only in Greece but also e.g. in Persia) and even by such forms of popular entertainment as shadow puppet-theater. An analogous process is probably to be posited for the medieval Greek narrative of “Dighenis Akrites”, and (as P. points out on p. 5) for V. Cornaros’ early 17th-century verse romance “Erotokritos”, which not only drew on popular material but also influenced folk poetry by means of its chap-book editions.
The above considerations, however, should not — and in P.’s case do not — lead to excessive pessimism as to the recoverability of folk material from literate sources. We are today possessed of a body of Modern Greek folk songs that is both large and diverse (geographically and chronologically), and in many cases has been collected and edited on sound methodological principles. Such songs may serve as a valuable control: when a given theme, motif, or formal feature occurs in the later tradition of “demotic” songs, this may in principle be taken as an indication that the occurrence of the same or a comparable feature in earlier high-brow literature is due to popular influence. In this respect, P.’s study would have been infinitely more useful if he had included an even larger sample of Modern Greek folk material than he already does — not only songs, but also folktales, proverbs, and suchlike (examples of such additional material are given below, as occasion arises). P. has also unaccountably omitted to consult standard collections of Modern Greek popular songs, such as those edited by Jannaris, Legrand, or Lüdeke.3
In Chapter II (“Nuptial Praise”), P. sets himself the task of demonstrating that hymeneal praise (often phrased in erotic terms) is a diachronic feature of the Greek wedding, and that the original (popular) nuclei of nuptial encomia can be retrieved by means of systematic comparison between literary and folk manifestations of the genre (given the aforementioned literary osmosis between plebs and clergy). Discussion of the relevant material is preceded by a methodological section in which P. rehearses with greater specificity and subtlety his warnings about the often inextricable web of interrelations between the learned and the popular: folk-song not only inspires high-brow literature but is equally subject to influence both from literary versions of wedding encomia and from the rhetorical collection and arrangement of nuptial laudatory topoi, especially as codified in manuals of preliminary rhetorical exercises (progymnasmata); the latter could seep down even to the illiterate mainly through Church hymnography and homiletic literature. This methodological section is followed by a morphological classification of hymeneal encomiastic forms (simile, metaphor, makarismos, salutatio, comparison to mythical exempla, antiphonal question and answer etc.); for each of these formal features P. tries to make a case for its origins from folk poetry or ritual and magical practices. This section, despite its occasional overfastidiousness (e.g. it is doubtful whether metaphor is to be sharply divorced from allusive address), cannot but command admiration for the author’s mastery of the most diverse material and is of obvious use as a collection of primary sources that are often hard to get by.
The chapter’s most engaging part is its final section, in which P. explores the diachronic persistence of select nuptial encomiastic themes in Greek literature (exclamation, nature imagery, gold and silver imagery, mythic exemplum, makarismos), and attempts to identify the often diverse modalities of their survival. Readers will find here a wealth of interesting, well-documented, lucidly presented remarks on e.g. the evolution of the semantics of bird-imagery as a symbol of the feminine in Hellenic literature; or on the Christian Church’s varying attitudes toward the use of wreaths in weddings — a practice bitterly contested by early apologists as a relic of sympotic revelry (P. omits what is perhaps the most virulent of those attacks, namely Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.8, esp. 71.1 [p. 112 Marcovich]), but accepted by later Church Fathers as a symbolic prize for the newlyweds’ quasi-athletic victory over temptation. Of special interest here is the section on the cypress motif as a persistent feature of Greek wedding praise. Here, P. ably demonstrates that from the time of Sappho onwards, comparing a youth (male or female) to a cypress has been an encomiastic topos with distinct erotic connotations. P. is aware that this comparison occurs in funeral contexts (cf. the passages he cites on p. 35), but misses what is perhaps the most characteristic and extensive of them all, namely Theodoros Prodromos’ epitaph for Theodora, Nicephorus Bryennius’ daughter-in-law, in which this remarkable 12th-century littérateur intertwines plant-imagery, nuptial motifs, and of course funerary themes.4 Given that the cypress motif features prominently also in modern Greek folk songs that combine nuptial and funeral themes (the most celebrated of which is the song known as “Slender Maid and Charon”,
As P. is aware, his major methodological challenge in this chapter is to establish that parallelisms between ancient and later wedding-songs are positive indications of continuity rather than universals likely to appear in practically any wedding-song in any culture. To this purpose, he proposes two methodological controls, namely (i) to detect undeniable traces of continuity in ancient and modern wedding rituals involving nuptial song of praise, and (ii) to map out the nexus (if any) of morphological features that distinguish popular Greek wedding-praise from its non-Greek counterparts. In employing control (i), P. rightly extends his enquiry to pictorial evidence rather than limiting himself to the written sources. Still, he is on occasion overly prone to rely entirely on iconography, even straining the evidence afforded thereby, while overlooking important literary testimonies. Thus, after giving a good picture of Modern Greek wedding songs that dwell on the bride’s physical beauty, her attire, her jewellery, or her rich dowry, P. is anxious to find comparable evidence amongst ancient Greek sources too. To this end, he makes decidedly too much of a 435/430 BCE Attic red-figure pyxis (reproduced as Plate 2),7 which depicts a mythologized scene of wedding preparations with Nereids as protagonists. In spite of P.’s assertions (p. 11), I can see no evidence whatsoever on this vase for song accompanying the ritualized action. P.’s straining of the pictorial evidence is all the more perplexing, since there is one item of ancient literary evidence that provides the crucial missing link that P.’s belaboured argumentation is at pains to establish. This is Sappho fr. 44 Voigt, which ostensibly narrates the legendary wedding of Hector and Andromache, but is likely to have come from a wedding song celebrating a real-life wedding by implicitly comparing the newlyweds to their mythical counterparts — a well-known feature of nuptial praise for which P. gives ample documentation (pp. 20-21).8 Sappho’s poem contains, inter alia, explicit mentions of the makarismos of the couple (“equal to the gods”, ll. 21, 34), of collective songs of praise for the newlyweds (ll. 24-34), and, most importantly for P.’s argument, an admiring description of Andromache’s sumptuous dowry (ll. 8-10).
P. is honest enough to admit that it is often impossible to designate a particular motif or theme as popular or literary. Time and again (e.g. pp. 29, 30, 33), we hear that such-and-such motif or formal feature or theme is just as likely to be due to popular influence as to rhetorical amplification. When all is said and done, a diachronic study of nuptial motifs reveals inextricable complexities in the interrelation between the popular and the learned, complexities suggesting that “a vicious circle of multiple ‘contamination'” (p. 16) and cross-contamination between the two levels has been at work for centuries.
In chapter III (“Nuptial Blame”), P. begins with an anthropological interpretation of ritualised nuptial blame — a quintessentially popular nuptial motif —, in which he mainly follows Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown, and (for the Greek world) Seaford. According to this convincing explanation, nuptial blame is one of the safety valves intended to release, in a safe and controlled manner, accumulated tension, even aggression, between the two parties brought in contact by means of the wedding. As such, nuptial blame appears to be the ritual flip-side of nuptial praise, which P. had interpreted in Chapter II as an acculturating device aimed at socially validating the crudely sexual basis of the wedding. The rest of the chapter is devoted to an examination of two prominent themes of nuptial skommata, namely “The bumbling bridegroom” and “Negative ecphrasis and the motif of the randy hag”. The complementary nature of these motifs is instantly apparent: the clumsy or ignorant bridegroom fails his social role by not being predatory enough, while the lecherous crone oversteps the boundaries of her own position by being exceedingly predatory. P. makes a good case for the persistence of both themes through time. The former he is able to trace (with a good deal of intelligent conjecture) from Sappho down to Choricius in the 6th century CE. He also adduces, hesitantly, a 12th-century satirical epithalamium by Theodoros Prodromos, in which the motif of the bumbling bridegroom is applied, mockingly, to an overaged, impotent husband, while his young bride is compared inter alia to a rose, “king of flowers”. As is evident, this song combines both encomiastic and skoptic elements, and is therefore examined both in Chapter II as testimonium TF1 (pp. 34-35) and in the present chapter as TF11 (pp. 52-54). In both instances, P. is uncertain about the degree of Prodromos’ indebtedness to folk motifs, although he does produce some arguments in favour of its closeness to vernacular song. He would have been more assured had he not missed two crucial pieces of relevant evidence. Prodromos’ comparison of the bride to a rose, with the specification that the rose “reigns among flowers”, does admittedly reek of learned influence, especially since this very motif’s locus classicus (missed by P.) is found in as sophisticated an author as Achilles Tatius 2.1.2-2.1.3 (Leucippe sings the praise of the rose as “king of flowers”, but she herself is just as lovely as a rose). However, the motif is in all likelihood a popular one: P. need have looked no further than N. Politis’ widely available edition of Modern Greek folk songs to find an erotically flavoured (self-) encomium of the rose as the best of flowers.9 What is more, as regards the motif of the bumbling bridegroom, Prodromos’ dialogue with folk tradition would have been better illuminated by a comparison to that anonymous, undatable but probably late Byzantine satire “That an Old Man Should not Marry a Young Girl”,10 in which the motif of the old and unresponsive bridegroom is self-evidently a central one. As for the latter of the motifs examined in this chapter (“negative ecphrasis/randy hag”), P. offers a persuasive, if necessarily fragmentary, reconstruction of its history, tracing relevant testimonies from modern folk songs through the Middle Ages back to Archilochus’ physically oriented invective and to Aristophanes’ sex-crazed beldames. One would wish to add here at least one important piece of evidence, namely the memorable image of the old hetaira as a decrepit ship in Anth. Pal. 5.204 (Meleager). Also, attestations of the inverse motif, namely of the aged woman who is both erotically available and still attractive, could have been used here as additional, e contrario evidence of continuity: cf. e.g. Anth. Pal. 5.13 (Philodemus), 5.62 (Rufinus). In conclusion, what this chapter has shown is not so much that a certain type of motif can be traced back to a common origin (few would nowadays uphold this all-too-restrictive concept of “continuity”), but rather that there is a finite corpus of traditional material, drawn upon both by popular and by learned literature.
In Chapter IV (“Harvest Imagery and the Motif of the Apple”), P. provides copious evidence for the stock comparison of young people to plants, flowers or fruits, which he convincingly traces to popular usage. He also examines in great detail the complementary motif of an “aorothanatos” youth as a flower or fruit withered or plucked by Death. As usual, P. offers here a wealth of literary and epigraphic evidence, which will be valued greatly by students of literature and ritual alike. He also has extremely interesting remarks on the ambidextrous nature of this motif, which is attested both in marital and in martial contexts: a ‘deflowered’ virgin may be actually likened to a plucked flower, but also Ares may be said to ‘reap’ or ‘shear’ the military youth as one might cut off a flower. Here, both phallic penetration and battlefield ravaging are viewed as essentially parallel acts of aggression: Aphrodite and Ares are not after all as odd bedfellows as one might have thought. Although P.’s argumentation is no doubt compelling, one feels that he would have had a much firmer documentary basis for his analyses had he used the indispensable study on the “aorothanatoi” by Vérilhac.11 Moreover, P.’s specific argument that
The chapter concludes with an attempt to trace the “unbroken pedigree” (p. 60) of yet another erotic motif, namely the comparison of a nubile girl to an apple. Predictably, P. starts his investigation with Sappho fr. 105a Voigt, and meticulously follows the motif, in its varied manifestations and transformations, through Hellenistic and middle-Byzantine down to Modern Greek sources. Little doubt will remain after P.’s persuasive exposition that the bride-as-apple motif is indeed a fundamentally popular one and that its learned treatments are but variations on a distinctly folk theme. The only thing which I find objectionable here — and this does not by any means affect the central argument — is that P.’s interpretation of the aforementioned Sappho fragment relies, like that of several editors, solely on Himerius’ Oration 9.16 (p. 82 Colonna). The Sapphic fragment runs, in effect, thus: “[the bride is] like a sweet-apple that is ripening/has grown ripe (
In Chapter V (“The Wings of Desire: Popular Amatory Wishes”), the book’s concluding chapter, P. sets out to examine examples of (mostly) fantastic, unrealizable amatory wishes, and to trace their survival from ancient sympotic poetry down to Modern Greek demotic songs. These wishes he subdivides into two main groups, namely the “would that I might become X” type and the “I wish I had X, Y and Z” type. The former type is nicely exemplified in a couple of archaic skolia (PMG 900, 901 Page), in which the male narrator wishes that he were a piece of golden jewellery so that he might be worn by a beautiful woman, or an ivory lyre so that he might be carried by chorus boys. With regard to these songs P. rightly insists, against e.g. Bowra, that they are “frankly amatory and unserious” (p. 75).13 Still, he befuddles his own argument when he compares these skolia to a wholly different type of wish, in which the desire expressed is, by contrast, entirely realistic and fulfillable. At any rate, the rest of the chapter contains much that is of value. I should single out for special mention P.’s minute analyses of the morphology of “would that I might become X” wishes both in ancient and in later and modern Greek (verbal modalities, syntactic patterns etc.), bringing out fascinating parallelisms which are too detailed and subtle to summarise here but will certainly repay close study. Still, I find rather hair-splitting the distinction that P. proposes between wishes conjoining two independent optative clauses on the one hand (“would that I might become X and would that I might Y”), and wishes consisting in a principal clause and a subordinate final one (“would that I might become X, so that I might Y”): what is the point of such a distinction? At the risk of being diagnosed by BMCR readers with terminal peevishness, I venture to make here yet another suggestion, one of a more general import: P. should not have shied away from drawing additional comparative material from contemporary Greek popular (and ‘pop’) songs, in which the male narrator variously wishes that he were a golden button on his beloved’s dress (a motif occurring already in a demotic song published in 1881, cf. P.’s testimonium TG66), or a breeze of air so that he could sneak into the woman’s bosom (an almost exact parallel for Anth. Pal. 5.83 which P. quotes as TB17!), or a vine so that he could lean over his belle as if over the balcony of a three-storey building.
One feature that makes this book less user-friendly than it could have been otherwise is its format. While, as pointed out more than once in this review, P.’s collection of primary sources is a stunningly rich one, he has decided to relegate his testimonia inconveniently to the last quarter of the book rather than incorporate them into his main text. These testimonia are not consecutively numbered, so as to facilitate localization, but rather designated by letters from A to G according to their approximate date (A is for archaic and classical, B for Hellenistic etc.), and then numbered consecutively within each letter. A generous amount of cross-referencing between testimonia certainly does little to alleviate the reader’s aggravation, not to mention the several pages of addenda, appendixes and, most exasperatingly, endnotes that are sandwiched between testimonia and bibliography. What is more, some testimonia (p. 96 TA35(b); p. 119 TF17) consist only of references to ancient authors, with no actual text quoted; worse still, in at least one case (p. 96 TA40), the testimonium consists of a mere bibliographical reference to “M. Alexiou (1974), 232 n. 16”! Things would have been simpler if P. had chosen the efficient format adopted by R. Hamilton in his Choes and Anthesteria :14 testimonia, consecutively numbered, are quoted in translation at the appropriate point in the relevant chapter, while an appendix groups together the testimonia (again, with consecutive numbering) in the original Greek.
Speaking of which, it should be emphasised that P. presents his Greek sources solely in English translations (with very few exceptions). Thus, readers who wish to form their own ideas of the original Greek or to check the accuracy of P.’s renditions will experience considerable inconvenience in doing so — and they will find this impossible when it comes to unpublished folk-songs stored in slip form at the Academy of Athens Folklore Archives. From a random sample I was able to spot a few instances of mistranslation, especially in Modern Greek dialect texts. Thus, in the skoptic song from Pontos that P. quotes as testimonium TG43 (p. 115), one finds lines 3-4 translated as: “Her teats (vulg.) [are] squash, they bang, take the [?]”. This gibberish results from misunderstanding the Pontic original:
There are unfortunately quite a few misprints. Some of them will hardly disrupt the flow of the text, but others (especially those involving cross-references) are likely to cause confusion. Here is a selection from both groups: ”
I have pointed out above, as occasion arose, that P., despite his meticulous research, has missed some important sources, both primary and secondary. Here I wish to add a book of the utmost importance, which P. has surprisingly overlooked, although it clearly constitutes by far the most exhaustively documented and judicious general study of the ancient Greek wedding: A.-M. Vérilhac & C. Vial, Le mariage grec du VIe siècle av. J.-C. à l’époque d’Auguste [BCH Suppl. 32], Athens 1998.
To conclude: this book’s foremost virtue lies in its impressive mastery of literary sources from all periods and all registers of Greek literature. It insightfully combines generally sound philology, literary appreciation, and anthropological arguments into a remarkable synthesis aimed at throwing fresh light on a field of study that is still worthy (and in need) of serious research. It is elegantly written, its arguments are generally presented with great lucidity, and its author is admirably explicit about his methodology and exceptionally honest about the problems involved in its application. Such shortcomings as have been pointed out in this review are certainly annoying, and it would be highly desirable to have them corrected in a second edition, but they do not substantially detract from the book’s overall value. If used with reasonable care, this work will make an essential guide for the understanding of Greek amatory and nuptial poetry, and will provide a very useful foundation for studies in related fields. For this reason I should recommend it to all students of Hellenic literature and culture.16
1. In this connection, it should be pointed out, however, that P. has missed at least one sample of medieval (12th cent. or earlier) popular song whose intent is probably erotic, perhaps coarsely so. This is the enigmatic line
2. A striking modern example is offered by the sensational newspaper reports of the gruesome murder of a certain D. Athanassopoulos in 1931, reports which gave rise to popular songs and shadow-theatre performances. See S. Spatharis,
3. A.N. Jannaris (Jeannaraki), Kretas Volkslieder nebst Distichen und Sprichwörter (Leipzig 1876); E. Legrand, Chansons populaires grecques publiées avec une traduction française (n.d.); H. Lüdeke,
4. Critical edition: P. Gautier (ed.), Nicéphore Bryennios: Histoire [Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae. Series Bruxellensis 9]. (Brussels 1975) 355-367, esp. lines 24-60 (pp. 358-59 Gautier).
5. See N. Politis,
6. See G. Saunier,
7. London, Brit. Mus. E 774 = J.D. Beazley, Attic Red-Figure Vase-Painters (2nd ed., Oxford 1963) 1250 no. 32 (Beazley Archive Database Record No. 216969). There are excellent reproductions of this vase both in the online Beazley archive and in J.H. Oakley & R.H. Sinos, The Wedding in Ancient Athens (Madison 1993) figs. 32-35, with detailed description on pp. 18-19.
8. For Sappho fr. 44 as an epithalamion see E. Contiades-Tsitsoni, Hymenaios und Epithalamion (Stuttgart 1990) 102-109, with full doxography and discussion. P. himself, in a different connection, accepts that fr. 44 “is likely to be hymenaeal” (p. 166 n. 2), or even more categorically that it is one of Sappho’s “wedding-poems in dactylic metre” (p. 61). P. should have also discussed this fragment in his sections on the “mythic exemplum” as a modality of wedding praise (pp. 20-21, 39-45).
9. Politis, op. cit. in above, n. 5, p. 237 no. 232.
11. A.-M. Vérilhac,
12. D.Ch. Settas,
13. I have myself argued in favor of an erotic interpretation of these and other skolia in Eranos 94 (1996) 111-122 (not cited by P.). Some further bibliographical additions with regard to skolia: K. Fabian, E. Pellizer & G. Tedeschi (eds.),
14. R. Hamilton, Choes and Anthesteria: Athenian Iconography and Ritual. Ann Arbor 1992.
15. Cf. N.G. Politis,
16. I wish to extend my warmest thanks to the Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati, for a Margo Tytus Summer Residency Fellowship, thanks to which I was able, among other things, to do the research necessary for this review. Thanks are also due to my colleague Professor Benjamin Victor for valuable remarks on an earlier draft.