BMCR 2017.07.14

Du récit au rituel par la forme esthétique: poèmes, images et pragmatique cultuelle en Grèce ancienne

, , Du récit au rituel par la forme esthétique: poèmes, images et pragmatique cultuelle en Grèce ancienne. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2017. 342. ISBN 9782251446158. €35.00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

According to the introduction authored by the two editors of this volume, the classicists Claude Calame and Pierre Ellinger, the volume is the result of a conference, titled Du récit au rituel par la forme esthétique: pragmatique cultuelle des formes discursives et des images en Grèce ancienne, held on 28-29 February 2012, at the Centre AnHiMA in Paris, an event that was preceded by three meetings in 2010-2011, organised in connection with the research programme, Champs du religieux: comportements, représentations, identités (8-9).

Their introduction opens by highlighting that the heroic tales that are usually called myths primarily find their existence in various poetical and iconographic artistic manifestations made by specialists. By way of their aesthetical, emotional and intellectual influences, recited poems along with images realise the actual tales by staging divinities and heroes, thus actualising the myths, to make these effective in specific social, cultural, cultic and ritual, often political, circumstances, by addressing them to a specific audience. This is especially the case regarding the tales of traditional societies, including the Greek myths (7). The two editors have published extensively on the topic of Greek myths, in the wake of the French “Paris School”, led for many years by Jean-Pierre Vernant. In the present volume, they emphasise the complex relations between myth, rite and belief, and also the constant movements or changes within the history, religion and ideology of a single city-state, in which the myths are central through poetical or visual manifestations (7-8). They also bring in the importance of the cultic and gestural manifestations, but the latter is, unfortunately, not very present in the volume. Myths are indeed very important in present-day scholarship, both dealing with in ancient and contemporary circumstances.1

The following pages (9-15) highlight the different contributions, most of them taking their subject matters from poetical works from the archaic and classical periods, while two especially rely on pictorial sources, and the three final articles mainly take material from the imperial period as their starting points. Each essay is followed by a bibliography, but there is no index to the volume. While space does not permit a full discussion of each chapter, the following review will discuss some of the contributions, I found most representative for the above-mentioned tripartite division. The first three (Calame, Brillante, Bowie) belong to the first category, the next two (Bouvier, Lissarrague) to the second, while the last (Woodard) belong to the third.

The first chapter is authored by Claude Calame, “La forme poétique pour transformer le récit héroïque en pratique rituelle: la pragmatique du Péan 6 de Pindare”, arguing that the poetical form of the musical performance makes the recitation of the myth; that is, a former heroic event, into a rite; that is, a cultic act which is operative in the present. The rituality (or ritual quality) is, in other words, inscribed into the phrasing and enunciation, through singing—and often dancing—in the present cultic context. This description is done by an artist or poet, who is divinely inspired in the process of creating, in this instance, the poem (20). Based on this definition, he continues by identifying particular poems situated between foundation legend and ritual celebration, choral song and ritual, illustrating the heroic foundation tale and the relationship between the island of Aegina and Delphi. Pindar’s Paean 6 was composed to be performed during the Delphic Theoxenia festival, and a chorus of young Aeginetans made a ritual intervention during the festival. In addition to being a tale regarding Apollo’s murder of Neoptolemos next to the omphalos at Delphi, we realise how the celebration and singing of Pindar’s poem actually might be seen as a kind of ritual rain magic in order to prevent the drought and thereby the famine recalled in the performed poem. The poem’s relation to the cult dedicated to Zeus Hellanios on Aegina (38), has relevance for preventing further droughts threatening Greece in general (39-41).

Carlo Brillante’s contribution, “Du côte des Muses: les gardiennes de la parole poétique entre mythe et culte”, focusing on the importance of Muses and Nymphs in the traditional poetic compositions, gives an especially interesting presentation of the practical relation between poet, inspiration or possession, epiphany,2 environment and ritual in the archaic period from the traditional localities of the Boeotian city-states around the sanctuary on Mount Helikon where the springs of the Muses were also situated. We learn about the similarities between these deities whose sanctuary, situated on the margin of society, thus reflected their (according to some interpretations) Thracian origins in relation to the Greek world (201, 211-13). There is not much to debate in this excellent contribution, but what the author finds remarkable on page 198 could perhaps be normal in a context of migration.

The second chapter, authored by Ewen Bowie, “Un contexte rituel pour le Télèphe d’Archiloque?”, refers inter alia to colonists from the island of Paros, established on the island of Thasos, fighting against the people of Naxos, by a tale which assumes an elegiac form in connection with a cult dedicated to Herakles on Thasos. In Bowie’s study, we learn how a poem dedicated to Deianira illustrates the violent relations between the colonising groups in the northern part of the Aegean Sea and the former inhabitants of which the female part of the societies were the victims (57).

The cruelty and brutality of invading people is further documented by pictures; this concern is addressed by one of the two articles relying on pictorial sources. David Bouvier’s study, “Comment chanter Néoptolème? La Néméenne 7 de Pindare entre rituel et poésie ou les limites d’une analyse intertextuelle”, uses pictures to support his idea regarding the possible variations among representations of the aforementioned Neoptolemos and his murder of Priamos in Troy. Among the warrior scenes from Troy, one may mention the one in which Neoptolemos kills Priamos in front of the corpse of his grandchild, Astyanax (Fig. 2). The cruelty of the invading forces is also illustrated by several scenes in which the invading forces pursue the Trojan women (Fig. 3), and agitating their swords while tearing the children from their mothers’ arms (Fig. 1).

In his contribution, “Image, signe, récit: le cas des armes de Thésée”, François Lissarrague argues for re-presentation and not narration, using an iconography rich in heroic descriptions that often are different from those revealed in the texts. Through an examination of the traditional scenes illustrating the armament of Theseus, his use of iconography also employs as sources the objects containing wine that were used by those brought together during the Athenian “social ritual” of the symposion. Since they were accustomed to looking at these objects, the participants at such symposia were well-informed of the meaning of the actual pictures (221-222).

Roger Woodard’s article, “Bellérophon et l’agressivité féminine: diachronie et synchronie dans les mythes et la pratique rituelle”, gives a rich and well documented analysis of the dysfunctional warrior, who suffers from the traumatic experiences from the battle. Starting with a passage from Plutarch’s Moralia where the Greek hero, Bellerophon, is scared away by the women who lift up their garments, exposing their private parts,3 we are taken on a journey from India to Ulster where similar cases are recorded. The journey ends up in the only Greek sanctuary or cultic place associated with the actual hero, namely in Corinth where the grove of cypresses, the Kraneion, is found. Here Bellerophon has a temenos (sacred space) containing his tomb, which is situated next to that of the famous classical courtesan, Lais, and between these two is found a temple dedicated to Aphrodite Melainis (Black). Accordingly, in the Kraneion, or conservatory of the archaic tradition, the temple of the latter, Aphrodite, constitutes the mediation between the site of the dysfunctional warrior and the burial monument of the incarnation of female eroticism (329). Following the dysfunctional warrior along the way to the Kraneion, we also learn about related literary cases such as Joseph and the wife of Potiphar, Phaedra and Hippolytos, and others. However, the stories are always seen from a male perspective, which might perhaps be normal since men produced most of the ancient sources. On the other hand, a gyno-inclusive perspective might have provided a different interpretation.4

All in all, this book is rich and well documented and will repay careful reading by classicists and other academics. As already indicated, the final part of Calame’s discussion and the contribution of Brillante, might be especially interesting for scholars working on Water History, a growing field within historical and environmental research. The latter article is also relevant within Shamanistic Research as well as agriculture. On the other hand, several of the contributions written by philologists, with the exception of Lucia Athanassaki’s study, generally do not move easily away from the written texts. Therefore one might wonder if it is as easy to arrive at the rituals as such contributions suggest. This reviewer would therefore suggest that the contributors might have profited from the wealth of research that is found within ritual studies, much of which is written by anthropologists working on traditional societies that have many similarities to those of ancient Greece. There is no doubt that the two fields might benefit from a closer collaboration.

Table of Contents

Du récit au rituel par la forme esthétique : une introduction, Claude Calame, Pierre Ellinger (7-15)
1. Claude Calame—“La forme poétique pour transformer le récit héroïque en pratique rituelle: la pragmatique du Péan 6 de Pindare” (17-45)
2. Ewen Bowie—“Un contexte rituel pour le Télèphe d’Archiloque?” (47-71)
3. Lucia Athanassaki—“Poésie mélique, récit et rituel: une relation simple? Sur les Olympiques 4 et 5 de Pindare” (73-96)
4. David Bouvier—“Comment chanter Néoptolème? La Néméenne 7 de Pindare entre rituel et poésie ou les limites d’une analyse intertextuelle” (97-129)
5. Pierre Ellinger—“La seconde chance: Artémis et Héra dans la 11e Épinicie de Bacchylide” (131-160)
6. Louise Bruit Zaidman—“L’ Iphigénie en Tauride d’Euripide: Artémis entre deux sacrifices humains” (161-183)
7. Carlo Brillante—“Du côte des Muses: les gardiennes de la parole poétique entre mythe et culte” (185-218)
8. François Lissarrague—“Image, signe, récit: le cas des armes de Thésée” (219-240)
9. Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge et Gabriella Pironti—“ Humnétriai, choeur de jeunes filles…: un rite mis en image chez Philostrate” (241-268)
10. Jan Bremmer—“Mythe et rituel dans l’initiation d’Héraclès” (269-304)
11. Roger Woodard—“Bellérophon et l’agressivité féminine: diachronie et synchronie dans les mythes et la pratique rituelle” (305-336)
List of authors/Auteurs (337-340)
Table des matières (341-342)


1. Among the wealth of scholarship on the topic of myths, one may single out, for example, E. J. W. and Paul T. Barber. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004.

2. It might be relevant to refer to one of the many recent books dealing with epiphany, e.g., G. Petridou. Divine Epiphany in Greek Literature and Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

3. The statement (14-15, cf. 322, 332), that women who lift up their garments, exposing their private parts to ward off enemies, tsunami, etc., is not found in contemporary societies is incorrect. To Woodard’s record of similar traditions from India to Ulster (318-319) one may therefore add a contemporary example as well, see, inter alia, E. J. Håland. Women, Death and the Body in some of Plutarch’s writings from the Greco-Roman world, a comparative approach. Mediterranean Review (South Korea), Vol. 4, No. 2 (December) 2011: 1-48, especially note 19; cf. also E. J. Håland. Greek Festivals, Modern and Ancient: A Comparison of Female and Male Values. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017, Ch. 6-7 on anasyrmene (“exposure”), which emphasise women’s sexual and reproductive role, has a strong apotropaic function, and had great importance in ancient societies.

4. Woodard argues (331) that the Mycenaean ritual source was almost certainly not an ancestor (or tomb) cult that served as a source for the heroic cults that appeared after the Dark Ages, as previous scholarship has argued, but rather a specific Mycenaean ritual practice diachronically engrained in the problem of the society and the scared warrior. One may nonetheless refer to the interesting findings of the Greek scholar E. Psychogiou who argues for the continuity of the cult of Helen down to the present day, see Elenē Psychogiou. “Maurēgē” kai Elenē: Teletourgies Thanatou kai Anagennēsēs. Dēmosieumata tou Kentrou Ereunēs tēs Ellēnikēs Laographias 24. Athens: Academy of Athens, 2008.