BMCR 2021.10.20

Laughter for the gods: ritual in old comedy

, Laughter for the gods: ritual in old comedy. Kernos. Supplement, 35. Liège: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2020. Pp. 230. ISBN 9782875622365 €31,65.

Ritual activities of various sorts are represented in Old Comedy, including hymns, prayers, oracular pronouncements, processions, festivals, and sacrifices. Clearly, these performances are not, strictly speaking, ritual enactments. They are often parodic, in at least some respects, and adapted to the comic plot and circumstances. Yet they had to be recognizable as proper rituals, if only in the breach. After all, the Greek theater itself had a religious dimension. Comic rituals, then, occupy a middle ground between cult and drama. As Elena Chepel puts it in this engaging book, “Greek comedy imitates ritual, pretends to be a ritual, and intentionally blurs the boundary between real ritual practices and comic representations of them” (19). Audiences were well aware of the distinction. “Comic representations restructure models which they imitate while incorporating them into the world of fiction” (30). When read with this function in mind, they can nevertheless provide information about actual rites, and supplement what we know from other sources.

After reviewing, in the first chapter, earlier approaches to ritual in drama, beginning with the theories of the so-called Cambridge ritualists, in the following four chapters Chepel explores various verbal manifestations of ritual, including prayers and oracles but also shouts and exegesis (Chapter 2: “How to do rituals with words”); ritual spaces in comedy, such as altars and sanctuaries (Chapter 3: “Sacred space on stage”); ritual time, in connection with the seasonal nature of festivals (Chapter 4: “Comedy and the Athenian calendar”); and, finally, sacrifice (Chapter 5: “Performing comic sacrifice”). The argument is rounded out and summarized in a final “Epilogue.”

Chepel notes that ritual speech is performative: it is an act, not just words or text. When the chorus sang or recited a hymn, especially in the parabasis, it was simultaneously playing a role within the comedy and acting, to one degree or another, as worshippers of Dionysus. Building on the work of Thomas Hubbard and Anton Bierl, Chepel argues that the chorus, as a chorus, “present their own performance as a form of worship pleasing to the gods and, therefore, beneficial to the city” (43). The chorus thus has a “double identity,” which “permeates all parabatic hymns” (44), and their self-representation can be termed a kind of “meta-chorality.” If some of this seems familiar, Chepel’s further observation, that “in non-parabatic contexts the choral performance highlights the ritual aspect of the dance” (50), rather than ritual song, is striking, and is a result of her careful attention to context and function. Prayers, in turn, are less formalized than hymns, and, Chepel argues, “the evidence of comedy can be used to reconstruct the function of prayers in actual Greek rituals” (53). When they occur in comedy, they are regularly interrupted by irrelevant remarks by some straight man, like Trygaeus’ slave in Peace (1016-20). Though this was not likely to happen in real rituals, Chepel suggests that “comic representations express human concern about correctness of speech” (55), no doubt a genuine issue. Still, it seems to me that these interjections may be a way of distinguishing prayers in comedy from real ones, and making sure that the spectators realize it’s all in fun. Shouts or inarticulate cries could also serve ritual purposes. Squawking birds were omens, and Chepel suggests that the croaking of the frogs in Frogs might play a part in constituting their song as a hymn to Dionysus. And then there are oracles. Oracle mongers are mercilessly ridiculed in comedy; nevertheless, “Generally, oracles are represented in comedy as sacred messages … that come from the gods” (77). Oracles need unpacking and interpretation, and skill at doing so was prized – and failures were good to make fun of.

Rituals are commonly marked by special times and places, and the theater itself was such a space. As Chepel observes, “A comic playwright uses the elements of real ritual practices to reflect the notion of ritual space in comedies” (91). She suggests that theaters, even in the demes, were deliberately located near sanctuaries, especially those associated with Dionysus and Asclepius (think of Epidaurus). The juxtaposition, she argues, testifies both to their interrelationship and to the difference, for real sacrifices did not take place in the theater. Apostrophes to a location can evoke a ritual space, even if only an imaginary one. Altars too can be invested with ritual significance, if the plot so requires. Paratragic references to altars, however, introduce anomalies, like the shield which the women in Lysistrata treat as though it were an altar, or Dicaeopolis’ chopping block in Acharnians. The poets can exploit intertextuality in a spirit of parody, counting on the audience to recognize the playfulness of such allusions. Sometimes, it is enough to hint at a special space, even if it cannot be identified with any real ritual location. Thus, “the space of the Thesmophorion … is imaginary” (106), and could refer to any temple rather than a particular place. I do wonder, though, whether locating most of the dramatic action of Lysistrata on the acropolis “contributes to the portrayal of the sex-strike as sacred rites performed by the women” (108). No doubt, it is a charged space, but where else were the women to gather if they wanted to block access to the treasury? Space may also involve movement, and Chepel observes that “While in tragedy journeys are usually narrated, comedy tends to enact space visibly” (112), what with its pilgrimages and processions performed right on stage. My guess is that such motion would have been out of place in the more staid genre, but added brillo to the livelier action in comedy.

Chepel remarks that, “While ritual space is configured in comedy mainly through sanctuaries, ritual time is represented through festivals” (123). Now, festivals are indeed enacted in comedy, but is time as such the marked feature of these scenes? The version of the Great Mysteries in Frogs is described as “a generic depiction of a festival,” and Chepel notes that “The temporal aspect of the festival is represented in the parodos as night-time” (129), but it is not clear to me that this is relevant to the ritual calendar. As Chepel scrupulously notes, there are chronological problems in supposing that the women were celebrating the Adonia at the very moment when the decision to send an armada to Syracuse was made on the Pnyx. Chepel speculates that there might rather be an allusion to a “hypothetical comic play on Adonis/Adonia … produced between 414 and 411” (135), and offers some possible titles. But she also notes that festivals “can be detached from their usual place in the calendar” (137), and perhaps the timing as such was of less moment in the genre. Chepel remarks that “Old Comedy tends to make its personifications of festival, concepts, and activities related to them female” (138). Partly, no doubt, this is due to a characteristic of Greek grammar, but it does allow for some gendered horseplay, as with Reconciliation in Lysistrata. I am not entirely persuaded that this feature “shows that days were important time-units for the representation of the festivals” (140). The business in Clouds, where Phidippides uses a sophistical trick to prove that the “old and new day,” when payments were due, is a contradiction in terms, certainly involves both time and the moon, but I am not sure that this pertains to the ritual calendar, even if elsewhere in the play, as Chepel shows, there is expressed a concern with the right days for celebrations (615-23; cf. Peace 406-16). But perhaps there is, in Phidippides’ rhetorical shenanigans, a hint that such an abuse of the calendar is somehow sacrilegious. It seems to me, however, that mention of seasons per se, a time for sowing and time for reaping, as at Clouds 1115-25, may not necessarily be associated with the cultic cycle.

In the final chapter, Chepel notes that sacrifice in comedy involves much more than feasting. What is more, depictions of sacrifice mostly focus on the preliminary or “pre-kill” phase of the ritual, rather than on the follow-up. “The only play in which the post-kill phase of the preparation of the sacrificial meat is staged before the audience is Peace” (162), and even here the emphasis in on the technical details of apportioning the meat rather than on the communal feast. Sacrifice, like all other aspects of ritual, is not an autonomous element in the comedies but is adapted to the plot. It is above all “performed as part of the protagonists’ private initiative of creating a new utopian order” (167). What is more, whereas sacrifice in epic is interpreted as a free gift to the gods, “Comedy removes the misrecognition and exaggerates the economic aspect in the most literal and material way possible” (173). Hence the notion, found only in comedy, that the gods depend for their sustenance on sacrificial meat or smoke. As a result, “In comedy the fear of divine rejection is removed because the comic hero is more powerful than the gods” (180). Whereas sacrifices in tragedy tend to be perverted (sphagia is a word reserved for paratragic sacrifices), in comedy they are harbingers of the new. I imagine that if examples of non-utopian Old Comedy had survived, sacrifices might have assumed a somewhat different role. As it is, of course, we cannot know.

Ritual, as Chepel insists, is performative, and a mimetic enactment of a ritual may be efficacious not only within the fiction of the play but also in reality, whether as petitions to Dionysus or in more general and amorphous ways. Chepel’s book explores these dramatic and metadramatic functions and possibilities with learning, good judgment, and tact. It is a fine contribution to what is still a largely neglected dimension of Old Comedy.