BMCR 2007.04.46

The Dance of the Muses: Choral Theory and Ancient Greek Poetics

, The dance of the muses : choral theory and ancient Greek poetics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. viii, 284 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 019929240X $85.00.

1 Responses

In his study, David (D.) aims to show that the structure of both the Homeric hexameter and the Homeric narrative are in accordance with the corporeally bound rhythm of dance. Principles of choral theory that are applicable to the choral passages of tragedy, or the lyric of, for example, Pindar, are applied to the Iliad and the Odyssey. D. provides two different pieces of evidence to support his thesis. First, he develops a new accentual theory concerning the relation of pitch and stress in classical Greek poetry. In addition to this new theory, he finds a parallel in the syrtós, a dactylic dance found in modern day Greece. The basic unit of this dance, and hence the Homeric hexameter and the Homeric narrative as a whole, is described as a ‘physical curve that, somewhere just after half-way in its motion, doubles back on itself, hesitates, and resumes’. Both D.’s assumptions and his conclusions are unorthodox. Unfortunately, his methodology does not make a clear distinction between assumptions and conclusions. The result is a circular argument.

Chapter 1 explains why dance must be taken into account when studying the structure of Homeric verse: meter is about feet, and hence about the movement of feet in dance. D. regrets that meter has become a mere footnote in contemporary poetry analysis. The comparison of poetry with dance is hardly present in modern criticism: Parry’s comparison of Homer with South Slavic poetry is incomplete as South Slavic poetry has no connection with dance. Homer is dance music, and, as such, identical to Plato’s χορεία (654b/665a), described as the combination of harmony (= accent) and rhythm (= ictus). D.’s starting point is the agreement of pitch and stress at verse end as analyzed by Allen.1 His aim is to make this agreement visible at the third foot caesura and the verse-end by means of a new accent theory.

In chapter 2, D. turns to meter. Meter is the pattern formed by the recurrence of ictus. Ictus can be made prominent by accentuation; the pattern of recurrent prominent ictus is what we call rhythm. As meter is a bodily movement, the ictus is the beat of the dancers’ feet. The circular movement of the dancer can be seen in the colometry of the period: the two hemistichs of the hexameter represent the two stages of the circular dance, the caesura the turning point. D. interprets Plato’s remarks concerning χορεία as the theoretical proof for harmonization of ictus (the dancer’s beat) and accent (phonological prominence). In other words, Plato explains how ‘to get the words under the foot’. For D., this leads to an all new Homeric question: how did Homer create a sequential story with the aid of a choral medium?

Chapter 3 is dedicated to a new accent theory. A new theory is required when the ictus in the hexameter, especially in the third and the sixth foot, is to receive prominence due to accentuation. Current accentuation of the Homeric text disregards the ictus on the thesis, the long first element of the dactyl. D. argues that not only the acute and the grave are signs of syllabic prominence: the svarita, the down-glide known from Vedic, is prominent as well if it falls on a long or prepausal syllable, following an acute. Such prominence is indicated as βαρύς, as opposed to ὀξύς. The terminology βαρύς indicates an accent: the ictus is thus more often phonetically prominent. And logically so, as stress and accent must be related in dance accompanied by words. This new theory contributes to a much higher level of agreement of pitch and stress in the third and the sixth foot of the hexameter.

The higher level of agreement is in accordance with Aristotle’s description of the hexameter as two hemistichs ( Rhet. 1093a29), as D. argues in chapter 4. In dance, the first hemistich starts from the left foot, the second from the right. This shape of the period, with a cadence indicating the third foot caesura (both the masculine and the feminine caesura) and the period end, is also found in the modern Greek syrtós, a dactylic dance with a slow step followed by two quick steps. The movement of the syrtos also offers a parallel for the bucolic dieresis: between the caesura and the fifth slow step (fifth ictus) the movement starts from the alternate foot, only to resume the original pattern from the fifth slow step.

Chapter 5 expands the circular movement of the verse to larger scale units. As the circular dance is accredited with summoning power, so the recurring formulas are summons. D. calls this cyclic evocation the ‘choral signifier’. Evocative connections awake musical association: memorizing the Homeric epic is not supported by meter, but by music.

In chapter 6 and 7, D. follows Georgiades2 in comparing hexametric poetry to the modern syrtós. The original form of the hexameter is the one with third foot caesura and bucolic dieresis: like the syrtós, such a verse ‘doubles back on itself, hesitates, and resumes’. The Homeric narrative as a whole resembles this structures. It grew out of mere catalogue: the original catalogue, still recognizable in the Odyssey’s predominant motive of ‘counting’ and ‘numbers’, doubles back on itself, and resumes by means of the episode (the μῦθος), the actual hesitation. The movement of the syrtós is seen in the chiastic patterns of the Homeric narrative: epic digression, ring composition, and hysteron proteron. These phenomena are strictly epic, as they are related to the specific circular ‘dance of the Muses’ (Plato 991b) that is the dactylic hexameter. The Homeric epic is a summoning catalogue, and thus a ritual epiphany. The inserted static phases, the episodes, turn the epic into an ‘intemporizing catalogue’.

Chapter 8 is meant as a foretaste of the fruits to be harvested in lyric by applying the new theory of the accent. In Homer, the accent was determined by ictus, in lyric poetry it is the other way around: ictus is determined by accent. D. analyses poetry of Pindar and Sappho as epiphany by means of the choral dance that is the traditional epic movement.

There are many small steps in D.’s argument that deserve critical attention, as well as his translations of crucial passages in Plato. Here, however, I will concentrate on my main point of criticism, the confusion of assumptions and conclusions leading to circular argument. Especially when the assumption is still object of debate, reappearance of the assumption as conclusion is tricky. The most problematic assumptions that are simultaneously presented as conclusions: rhythm is bodily movement; the caesura is an audible pause; a modern ‘dactylic’ dance is to put on a par with the Homeric hexameter; ictus is an audible beat; pitch equals stress in the foot’s thesis (as in Latin); Aristotle’s remarks concerning the hexameter deal with the rhythmical pause and the division of the period in hemistichs; all early Greek poetry took the shape of a catalogue; every syllable in (lyric) poetry represents one step of the dancer; as a result of tradition (still visible in the syrtós), the dactyl is the fundamental element of all lyric rhythm; dactylic rhythm is strictly isochronal. Hardly any of these assumptions (and they are not more than that) is generally regarded as acceptable. Personally, I do not accept a single one of them. A few assumption (not presented as conclusions elsewhere in the study) are unacceptable at this point: D. states that the epic bodily movement resembles the movement of the planets, and that the focus on rhapsodic presentation (rather than dance) of Homer can be seen in the staff of Athene/Mentes and Chryses. Some conclusions are equally unacceptable: Without counter argument, Aristotle and Dionysius of Halicarnassus are said to err on matters of prosody; Demodocus (in the Odyssey) is repeatedly seen as a performer who adapts his words to the dance performed to his music. D.’s enthusiasm for his newly found accentual theory is genuine, but must give way to methodological shortcomings. Especially in the final chapter, D. shows that the assumptions in the preceding chapters had already been accepted as conclusions in the chapter that is supposed to be the foretaste of more results when expanding the scope of analysis. D.’s study as a whole appears to be circular.

A final note concerning the general index. In a technical study as D.’s the technical terminology must be in the index. Unfortunately, terminology like ‘descendant’ and ‘ascendant’, among others, is missing.

[For a response to this review by A.P. David, please see BMCR 2007.05.12.]


1. Allen, W.S. 1973. Accent and Rhythm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Allen, W.S. 1987. Vox Graeca, 3rd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. Georgiades, T.G. 1956. Greek Music, Verse and Dance, tr. Erwin Benedikt and Marie Louise Gümllner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.