BMCR 2007.04.09

Mito e natura allo specchio: L’eco nel pensiero greco e latino. Pubblicazioni della Facoltà di lettere e filosofia dell’ Università di Pavia 103

, Mito e natura allo specchio : l'eco nel pensiero greco e latino. Pubblicazioni della Facoltà di lettere e filosofia dell'Università di Pavia ; 103. Pisa: ETS, 2003. 164 pages, 8 unnumbered leaves of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 8846708075. €13.00.

In this relatively short, highly readable, and fairly ambitious book, Alessia Bonadeo (hereafter B.) turns an attentive ear and a critical eye to phenomena of visual and acoustic reflection in Greek and Roman antiquity, in particular the echo: this is a study of sonorous reverberations, verbal resonances, and reflections of all kinds. Mito e natura allo specchio is the author’s 2003 doctoral thesis, examined at the University of Padova, with minor revisions and additions.1 It deploys a large array of evidence drawn from archaeological, textual, and iconographic sources. B.’s work thus offers a synthetic approach to the acoustic phenomenon of echo and its literary-artistic representation in the figure of the nymph Echo, providing a level of detail and focus on the classical world that is necessarily absent from a more general work, such as Gély-Ghedira’s,2 or from a study such as that of Hollander,3 whose focus on early-modern literature requires only brief discussion and footnoting of the classical antecedents.

The book comprises a brief introduction; five chapters discussing various aspects of the physical phenomenon of echo and the personification of the phenomenon in antiquity in the figure of the nymph, Echo; and a short concluding section titled ‘Riflessioni conclusive.’4 This last section of text follows the illustrations and is situated before a compact but wide-ranging bibliography and two indices, one of ancient authors and texts, the other of modern scholars.

B.’s introduction is intended only as the briefest of overviews of the contents and major themes of the book. The central thread of B.’s study of echo in Greek and Roman thought is the understanding of echo as a phenomenon of reflection and its consequent categorical assimilation to other physical phenomena held in antiquity to be of the same type, in particular visual reflection. The similarities between acoustic and visual reflection, that is to say between the acoustic and visual production of what is referred to in Roman literature as an imago, are fundamental to B.’s presentation of echo in Greek and Roman worlds. B.’s study explores both the philosophical questions and the expressive opportunities that this interrelation of the auditory and the visual created in the production of ancient cultural artefacts, especially in the fields of textual and artistic representation. Also central to B.’s account is the linguistic overlap between the technical terminology of acoustic reflection and the language of reply and response. Thus an echo, since it is a form of reflection, is both a repetition and a response, both a mimetic reproduction of the original sound and an antiphonal reply.

The scope of B.’s work is large and the author is disarmingly candid in the introductory section about the limitations that this places upon the provision of a uniformly extensive discussion of every aspect of the phenomenon of echo and the inclusion and interrogation of every scholarly contribution to a very disparate field of inquiry. In other words, I suspect that this book’s particular strength and weakness will turn out to be one and the same; its great range makes absolute completeness unattainable, especially in a work that is admirably concise (however, it should be remarked that B.’s extensive footnotes provide very generous coverage of the relevant ancient sources, quoting in full many passages of texts that will not be easily accessible or familiar to a great many readers, the present reviewer included). What will be lost to a reader who approaches it with an interest in only one specialized field of inquiry will be compensated by the breadth of this study’s scope and the fuller context of discussion that it provides.

Chapter 1 begins with a brief reprise of the basic understanding in modern physics of the mechanics of acoustic reflection, i.e. angles of incidence and reflection; the speed of sound; distance, time and the relationship between them. There follows a detailed discussion of the understanding of the reflection of sound in Aristotle and the Aristotelian corpus, a shorter analysis of Lucretius’ explanation of the phenomena, and a brief few pages on the ancient theories of the causes of echo, thunder, winds, and earthquakes, which assimilate these diverse phenomena, explaining them in terms of the movement of air.

Chapter 2 discusses the use of acoustics in architecture, focusing primarily on the Roman imperial period. The phenomenon of echo is discussed both with reference to certain buildings in which arguably the effect was deliberately created (e.g. the echoing stoas at Olympia and Hermione) and to spaces, such as theatres, where the effect was avoided and mitigated by the use of various damping techniques. B. also discusses the ways in which other acoustic phenomena of resonance were employed in the construction and furnishing of theatres in order to assist the projection of sound, arguing that an interest in acoustics is fundamental to the theory of theatre design presented in Vitruvius 5. The chapter concludes by underlining the evidence for the relatively widespread acknowledgement in the Second Sophistic of the importance of a systematic understanding of acoustics, demonstrated by Lucian’s concern with the reflection of sound and its implications for the orator ( De Domo 3).

Chapters 3 and 4 essentially combine to form a larger unit, within which the third chapter focuses on folklore and Hellenistic poetry, while the fourth, although primarily concerned with Ovid and the interpretative criticism of the Metamorphoses, also offers a thorough contextualization of the mythical variants that have accrued to the figure of Echo. Chapter 3 opens with a short section reviewing the place and presentation of echoes in folklore. B. has little difficulty in showing that the basic pattern is one of personification and aetiological explanation of the natural phenomenon of the echo. The folklore traditions are sufficiently diverse that it cannot be argued that echoes are universally regarded as either positive or negative, although those that give the echo an anthropomorphic incarnation do show a tendency to regard these personifications of the phenomenon as dangerous and deceptive (B. lists Russian, Germanic, Nordic and North American traditions among these). There are, however, traditions from Poland and Estonia to which B. points that characterize an echo as a prophetic voice portending good fortune or serving a beneficial predictive function. B.’s conclusion from this investigation is that there is no universal symbolic plot underlying all these folklore and mythic traditions. This ambivalence towards the phenomenon of echo is also present in our Greek and Roman sources, as B. demonstrates with a study of descriptions of echoing places and landscapes in various passages of Greek and Latin poetry. Echoes may be used to create a sense of menace, for example in scenes of battle and its preliminaries, but they are also one of the ingredients of the locus amoenus. B. now shifts the discussion to an examination of a range of poetic techniques that involve or produce an echo, beginning with the creation of mimetic auditory effects through simple vocalic repetition (Virg. Aen. 5.148, in which the repeated “u” sounds convey the impression of applause, is one among the examples discussed) and progressing to a range of alliterative techniques, some of which are consciously marked as inter- and intra-textual poetic echoes and are explored in the final section of the chapter (the echo of Virg. Ecl. 6.44 at Val. Fl. 3.596 is extensively discussed). Through its use as an intertextual marker, the echo (whether at the simple vocalic level, or as an echoing landscape or scene, or as a personification of the natural phenomenon), becomes itself a figure for the composition of poetry within a tradition and the guarantor of the poetic immortality of these echoing texts.5

The fourth chapter is the longest in the book and begins by arguing that, given the scant and inconclusive evidence for any cult worship of Echo, the nymph is in origin a creation of a self-consciously literary tradition, an aetiological personification of a natural phenomenon, rather than an original figure of cult worship appropriated by poets. B. proceeds to divide the myths surrounding the nymph Echo into two branches. One branch associates Echo and Pan, while the other is concerned with Echo and Narcissus. The first of these is itself divided into two, treating both the myths of Pan’s unrequited love for the nymph and the tradition that describes their union and the birth of their daughter Iynx. This second thread of the mythic tradition surrounding Echo, concerned as it is with divine anger and punishment (Iynx, according to some traditions, attracted Zeus’ amorous attentions and was punished by Hera), provides the bridge to the next section in which Ovid’s treatment of Echo and Narcissus is discussed and in which divine retribution is a central theme. The section on the myth of Echo and Narcissus is in a sense the focal point of the entire book and offers a long analysis of the well-known passage in book 3 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. B. begins by constructing a temporal division of the narrative charted by Echo’s progressive three-phase decline from an autonomous speaking subject, into a body with an echoic voice, and finally into a mere echo. Key to understanding this passage of Ovid, B. contends, are the basic pattern of revenge in the Metamorphoses, represented here in the anger of Juno, and the narrative doubling, in which the scene of Narcissus’ metamorphosis at the stream is complementary to, and in fact echoes, the earlier metamorphosis of Echo.

The close reading of the Echo and Narcissus episode in Ovid forms the basis for an overview in the next section of the treatment of Echo in later literature and literary criticism. This is not simply confined to the reception of Ovid, although Ovid’s importance in the tradition makes this the primary concern. Again, this is a vast subject and B. has evidently been forced to sacrifice much material in pursuit of a concise survey of this topic, in particular the transition from the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century interest in psychoanalytic readings of the myth to classical scholarship from the 1990s is quite abrupt. Nevertheless B. succeeds in revealing the extent to which interpretations of the myth have tended to focus on Narcissus to the detriment of Echo, to which B.’s study now offers a corrective counter-weight. B. is cordially hostile to psychoanalytic readings of Ovid’s scene and demonstrates very effectively how the emphasis on the Narcissus complex here has contributed to a lack of attention to the role played by Echo in the story and consequently to the underestimation of the importance of the theme of error in this episode of the Metamorphoses, manifested in the way in which Echo participates in the deception of Narcissus.

B. suggests that the focus of scholarship on the psychoanalytic interpretation of the scene has led to a lack of emphasis on the way that Roman readers would have understood and responded to this passage of the Metamorphoses. Firstly, they would have found comic touches in the scene, recalling (and echoing) the comic use of echoes in Hellenistic epigram (e.g. AP 12.43 = Call. 2 Page) and perhaps even in Attic Old Comedy (e.g. the parody of Euripides’ Andromeda in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae). Secondly, B. argues that there are evident analogies between the echoing of words in this scene and the ritual practice of antiphonal funeral lamentation. A number of passages are adduced to support this hypothesis, all of which associate the structured responses of funeral lamentation with the presence of an echo, both as a natural phenomenon and as its personification (e.g. Sophocles, Phil. 188-190; Seneca, Tr. 63ff, 96ff). Thus Ovid’s Echo could have been seen to be playing the part of the responsive role in antiphonal funeral lamentation, responding to the princeps planctuum.

The final chapter is a study of the iconography of Echo, beginning with the problem of depicting an acoustic effect in art. B. argues that Philostratus’ description ( Imagines 2.33.3) of a bronze statue of Echo at Dodona contains a key to the identification of the figure of Echo in Greek and Roman art in the nymph’s gesture of putting her hand to her mouth, thus directing and amplifying sound. Thus, for example, on the basis of this gesture B. suggests that a figure often taken to be Cassiopeia on a fourth-century red-figure hydria from Campania (attributed to the Painter of Cassandra), which depicts Andromeda and is thought to be inspired by Euripides’ play, can in fact be recognized as Echo (Berlin, Staatl. Mus. 3238). Having identified key iconographic characteristics of the nymph Echo in art, B. examines a number of other images. In the great majority of cases B. argues for a positive identification of Echo where other art historians have tended to be more hesitant. As throughout, B. neatly integrates this evidence from the field of visual / material culture with her study of the textual testimonia. Particularly important for the book’s central theme are those images which depict Echo actually pouring from a jar the water in which Narcissus catches sight of his reflection (e.g. a Vespasian-period mural from Pompeii, Napoli, Mus. Naz. 9388). B. suggests that such images attest to the powerful influence on visual art of Ovid’s conflation of visual and acoustic reflection in the Metamorphoses in describing the part that Echo plays in inculcating Narcissus’ belief in the independent existence of his own reflection.

The book is well produced: errors are very few and minor,6 the indices are meticulous and useful, and the plates are of high quality. As I have remarked, the book’s major strength in the view of one reader (i.e. its wide-ranging, synthetic study of a natural phenomenon, its scientific understanding, and its artistic and literary representations) might be deemed a weakness in the opinion of another. For example, scholars whose interest focuses specifically on, for example, Ovid’s use of intra- and intertextual echoes (especially in Met. 3) could selectively consult chapter 4 and, I suspect, not find a great deal that would surprise them. They would, however, find a useful overview of the subject and one that has the unusual virtue of integrating in a single study a highly impressive matrix of evidence drawn from, for example, philosophy and visual culture. The book’s neat subdivisions into different aspects of echo in the classical world may invite the selective consultation of individual chapters taken in isolation but the great value of this study is that it furnishes the reader from any given specialization or area of interest with a clear and direct route towards a far broader, and hence deeper, understanding of acoustic reflection in the Greek and Roman world.


1. Necessarily so, given the swiftness with which the thesis has appeared in print. Please note that BMCR only received this volume for review in September 2006.

2. V. Gély-Ghedira, La nostalgie du moi: écho dans la littérature européenne (Paris, 2000).

3. J. Hollander, The figure of echo: a mode of allusion in Milton and after (Berkeley, 1981).

4. B. makes a certain amount of play throughout with the sustained ambiguity in many Greek and Latin texts between the natural phenomenon of echo and Echo the nymph.

5. B.’s account is one among many in an area that has been the subject of a great deal of interest in recent years (see S. Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge, 1998)). The poetic technique that B. is exploring here and in ch.4 (with particular reference to Ovid, Met. 3) is succinctly explored and elucidated by P. Hardie, Ovid’s Poetics of Allusion (Cambridge, 2002), 152-56.

6. I have found only a handful of errors, mostly typographical. For example, “vino” for “trovino”, pp. 11-12; “cha” for “che” p. 44; erotikos pathos for erotikon pathos, p. 98; “Graff” for “Graf”, p. 152; “Voigt-Spira” for “Vogt-Spira”, p. 156. For a book that makes extensive use of quotation from Greek and Latin texts, errors are remarkably infrequent.