Editor’s note: BMCR has decided to commission two reviews, in the hope that providing contrasting perspectives would enable richer conversation in the field at large. The other review is written by F. G. Naerebout, BMCR 2019.07.44.
In her iconographical study of women’s dance on Greek pottery, Eleni Manakidou gathers for the first time a set of 35 Attic black-figure skyphoi (stemless cups), including six that are unpublished or neglected; most are attributed to the CHC group of painters, and all date to the first quarter of the fifth century BCE. They depict women dancing to the music of a female aulos-player, an uncommon choice of subject in vase-painting at this time, which leads Manakidou to suggest that it is taken from the contemporary social world. Using these skyphoi as a starting point and key for interpreting other images, she asks whether this iconography of female dance can have a specific meaning in a cultic setting and can tell us something about women’s participation in rites and festivals.
Depending on the kind of dance depicted and its context, these skyphoi fall into three subsets. The largest number (subset 1, with 21 examples) show a ring-dance (Reigentanz) in which four women (usually) join hands in hand-on-wrist style. They move in unison toward a female double-aulos player who stands at the right edge of the picture field facing the dancers. Sometimes a sphinx at each edge of the field leaves no room for the musician. This scene is repeated on the other side of the skyphos, the two fields being separated by the handles.
The second subset (with 13 examples) involves women performing “free dance,” i.e., dance without physical contact and with bodies and arms positioned according to individual impulse, although generally within a shared range of typical gestures. Now the aulos-player stands in the center with two women dancing on each side of her. Manakidou interprets this arrangement to mean that the dancers are circling around the player. Thus free dance could have an overall shape, within which the dancers make their individual moves. The overall effect is one of lively but coordinated movement.
The third subset (with three examples) shows a large Dionysus-mask hung in profile on a central column; an aulos-player stands on either side, and a woman dances in free style on the far side of each musician. These skyphoi belong to the known category of “Lenaia vases”; two of them are included in Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux’s major study of the subject, but the third, in the Archaeological Museum of Lamia, is a newer find.1 In all three subsets the women are barefoot and wear only a long chiton that leaves their arms free; they have no distinguishing attributes. The similarities among these scenes leads Mankidou to suggest that all three subsets in her study may be connected with the Dionysiac celebration seen on the Lenaia vases—although free dance is Manakidou’s main focus. She remarks that the women’s lack of attributes in these images strengthens the impression that they reflect real ritual activity.
Around the same time, images of women free-dancing without the aulos-player became popular on black-figure vases in general. On these the dance moves are similar, but the women may wear animal skins and/or carry thyrsoi, both “maenadic” attributes; satyrs often join them. Manakidou observes that vase-painting in general does not offer accurate depictions of real life but rather uses shared “code” to communicate, especially when the scenes (as on these skyphoi) are not standard ; moreover, they are created from a male perspective. Frustratingly, she does not elaborate, but she does describe painters as deliberately creating “ambivalent” or “mixed” images, which suggests that she sees free-dance as “code” for women’s ritual activity, even though the setting and attributes point to myth. In other words, by evoking “mixture” she can both acknowledge the standard distinction between mythic and genre scenes and also detect depictions of women’s ritual in images that are prima facie mythic. In this way she greatly expands the number of “ritual” scenes, which in turn allows her to deduce that free dance was a common mode of celebrating Dionysus and that the dancers were socially respectable. It is true, she adds, that some vases depict virtuoso female performers of free dance, probably professional entertainers.2 But she concludes (61): “Certainly the learning and performing of music and dance were not reserved for hetairai and professional entertainers; rather both belonged also to the education of upper-class women within the framework of their upbringing and socialization.”
Among these contemporary black-figure vases, the closest in iconography to the skyphoi are the black-figure Lenaia lekythoi (small pitchers), many from the large workshop of the Haimon Painter, with women performing free dance around the mask of Dionysus hung on a column. The aulos-player appears only on three of the lekythoi, and most of the women wear cloaks over their chitons. Nonetheless, the parallel with the Lenaia skyphoi is striking. Further parallels occur among the six black-figure stemmed cups (kylikes) next discussed. Noteworthy among them are two Boeotian (or “provincial Attic”) vases: one depicts a musician in the middle of dancing women, as on the skyphoi, and the other shows women dancing around the Dionysus-mask. About the more ambivalent scenes of females dancing—on some of which, along with Dionysiac accouterments, various animals (deer, panthers, etc) appear— Manakidou says that they allude to both the realm of women and the realm of Dionysus, often conjoining them; the painters consciously stress an elegant, closed female world. Very few of the vases discussed in this broader survey are illustrated.
Manakidou sums up by stressing that free dance seems especially Dionysiac but is not the wild, ecstatic action of the “maenads” seen on later red-figure vases. It could be spontaneous celebration of Dionysus rather than an established cult dance, perhaps performed in public spaces for all to see. Judging from such details as their clothing, the dancers are most likely married citizen women. Dionysiac dancing violates the decorum proper to their respectable status but only moderately, as these images show.
Manakidou then expands her reconstruction of women’s ritual to include wine-drinking. Skyphoi are usually seen as women’s cups, and they appear in scenes of women dancing on red-figure Lenaia stamnoi (large jugs) from the mid-fifth century. These have a different iconography from the black-figure Lenaia lekythoi: in the fullest version, the mask, now frontal, appears on one side of the vase together with a table holding a stamnos from which a woman ladles wine into a skyphos. Another woman plays the aulos, and on the reverse three women dance, one of them sometimes holding a skyphos. Therefore, to the assemblage of free-dance, aulos-music, and Dionysus-mask found in black-figure vases Manakidou adds the skyphos as a further element of the ritual. She argues that in the case of the black-figure skyphoi with which she began it is also present—in the vase-shape itself. Thus the skyphos was integral to this iconography, which means that women indulged in wine during their Dionysiac celebrations.
Finally, Manakidou discusses a group of four cups by the red-figure painter Makron, a contemporary of the skyphoi-painters, as an intermediary between the images on the skyphoi and those on the later stamnoi. Three of the cups show women dancing with an aulos-player in the middle (on one side). They resemble the skyphos-scenes—allowing for the very different artistic levels—but Makron’s women carry thyrsoi, a few have panther skins, and on two cups a woman holds a skyphos. The fourth cup has the Dionysus-mask, an aulos player and women dancing on one side, while on the other dancing women hold thyrsoi, a skyphos, and a fawn. The florid dance style puts this image beyond the hybrid “mixed” category, yet Manakidou takes the co-presence of dancing women, aulos-player, Dionysus mask, and skyphos as further confirmation that the full “code” for women’s actual ritual for Dionysus included all these items.
I find the parallels among the skyphoi, Lenaia lekythoi, and Boeotian black-figure cups significant, and I welcome the category of free dance. As Manakidou stresses, it is both Dionysiac and distinguished from “maenadic” dance (however one construes the latter), which restores sanity to women’s ordinary celebrations of the god. I am persuaded that this dance scene has roots in Athenian women’s practice, even if it does not give a faithful presentation of it. The fact that two different types of dance—ring-dance and free dance—appear as alternative styles on a related set of vases and share features like dress, aulos-player, and spacing, makes it plausible that circular free dance was an ordinary form, as ring-dance is known to have been. For bringing free dance into focus this book does a valuable service for anyone interested in dance performance or women’s ritual activities.
However, although Manakidou’s argument for including the red-figure vases is ingenious, I do not find it persuasive. In expanding her argument to these vessels she moves away from the relatively humble wares probably in common circulation toward more ambitious pots whose designated viewers would have been (Italian) male drinkers at symposia. For that market painters had every incentive to depict entertaining fantasy images of females Therefore, equating the meaning for the viewer of an actual skyphos in daily use with one in the hands of a female in a Dionysiac scene seems risky. Nor would women’s drinking wine from large cups represent merely moderate overstepping of the boundaries of respectable female behavior. Nonetheless, this section, like the book as a whole, is full of stimulating observations and connections among vases. Manakidou’s command of scholarship is wide-ranging. She concludes by saying that Dionysus was favored by the new democracy in the early fifth century, and that women’s ritual dance was probably part of that climate.
There follow two addenda, on representations of Dionysus’ festivals in vase-painting and on Makron’s cups; two appendices, on the skyphos in Lamia and on skyphos profiles; and three catalogues: of the skyphoi with female-dance scenes, the cups with similar scenes, and skyphoi held by females in a festive context on Attic vases. A museum register and photograph list are provided as well as a regular index. The black-and-white photographs, abundant for the skyphoi and cups and well-chosen to illustrate particular points in other cases, are large enough and sharp. There are multiple non-fatal errors in citations, for instance, a wrong plate-reference (20 for 16) in the catalogue, sk. 34; a wrong footnote number in the text (243 for 244); misspelling of J. B. Connelly’s name . In the appendix on the skyphos in Lamia, the sherd-letters on the plates do not match those in the catalogue.
1. Frontisi-Ducroux, F., Le dieu-masque: une figure du Dionysos d’Athènes. Paris: Éditions La Découverte. 1991.
2. See, for example, Manakidou 51, fig. 26, an oinochoe at the Folkwang Museum (A 22) in Essen, where the dancers are given “speaking names.”