Savage Energies: Lessons of Myth and Ritual in Ancient Greeceby Walter Burkert, Peter Bing (Translator)
We often think of classical Greek society as a model of rationality and order. Yet as Walter Burkert demonstrates in these influential essays on the history of Greek religion, there were archaic, savage forces surging beneath the outwardly calm face of classical Greece, whose potentially violent and destructive energies, Burkert argues, were harnessed to
We often think of classical Greek society as a model of rationality and order. Yet as Walter Burkert demonstrates in these influential essays on the history of Greek religion, there were archaic, savage forces surging beneath the outwardly calm face of classical Greece, whose potentially violent and destructive energies, Burkert argues, were harnessed to constructive ends through the interlinked uses of myth and ritual.
For example, in a much-cited essay on the Athenian religious festival of the Arrephoria, Burkert uncovers deep connections between this strange nocturnal ritual, in which two virgin girls carried sacred offerings into a cave and later returned with something given to them there, and tribal puberty initiations by linking the festival with the myth of the daughters of Kekrops. Other chapters explore the origins of tragedy in blood sacrifice; the role of myth in the ritual of the new fire on Lemnos; the ties between violence, the Athenian courts, and the annual purification of the divine image; and how failed political propaganda entered the realm of myth at the time of the Persian Wars.
“The English-speaking world is now being invited, forty years after the original date of publication . . . to read or reread some of the seminal insights that Walter Burkert introduced to the austere tribunal of classical philology. These insights were the basis for an anthropological . . . hermeneutics that advanced an exemplary and resolutely bold thesis.”—Pier Giorgio Solinas, Journal of Religion
Pier Giorgio Solinas
“There can be no question that Walter Burkert is the preeminent historian of Greek religion of our time. In this book are five of his early essays . . . all of them dealing with aspects of the relationships between sacrificial ritual and myth in ancient Greece, in which brilliant new light is cast on obscure and enigmatic examples.”—Birger A. Pearson, Religion
Birger A. Pearson
“Throughout the collection Burkert displays mastery of his wide-ranging materials, considerable controlled insight, and the ability to see into the darker and more violent side of myth and ritual that the Greeks were increasingly reluctant to highlight.”
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Lessons of Myth and Ritual in Ancient Greece
By WALTER BURKERT, Peter Bing
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2001 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
GREEK TRAGEDY AND SACRIFICIAL RITUAL
The proliferation of theses and hypotheses, of reconstructions and constructions on the subject of the origin of tragedy leads to reflection on a basic problem of philological statements. Evidently we ought not to expect that we can reduce so complex a phenomenon as Greek tragedy to one single formula of origin. Every statement is necessarily one-sided. When we are dealing with an evolution, with pollai metabolai (numerous transformations; Aristotle Poetics 1449a14), there will be in each case persistence as well as differentiation, yet it is difficult to describe both pertinently at the same time. So, following his own inclinations, a scholar will be apt either to praise the creative achievement of a unique poet, be it Thespis or Aeschylus, or to insist on the primeval elements, with the ritual still preserved. We may collect exact information or formulate precise hypotheses as to the external organization of the Dionysia in the Polis Athens in the sixth century B.C.: temple and theater, chorus of citizens and choregos, poietes (poet), didaskalos (director), hupokrites (actor), masks and actors' dress, musical instruments, figures of dancing, musical and literary technique in the tradition of choral lyric and the iambos. But whoever tries to grasp the unique kairos, that "critical moment" in the history of the human mind which brought forth tragedy, to understand the intellectual, psychological, and social motives involved, enters a field of basic ambiguity. On the precarious balance and the conflict of tradition and emancipation, individual and society, religion and the profane, myth and reason, not even Thespis himself could have given final elucidation. It is left to us to attempt again and again to form a comprehensive picture of man and his world out of the testimonies of the past. In each individual case, we shall not be able to grasp more than some of the possible aspects, a few strands in a complicated pattern. But we ought to keep in mind just this to avoid the danger that traditional or contemporary prejudices may unduly narrow the possibilities of approach.
It is a single aspect that shall be considered here, the question why tragedy is called tragoidia—a word that seems to impose the animal on the development of high human civilization, the primitive and grotesque on sublime literary creations. If we seek an explanation of the word, we cannot avoid going back to earlier strata, to the religious basis of tragedy and indeed to Greek cult in general. Whether this has any bearing on fully developed Attic tragedy cannot be determined in advance. The theory most prevalent today, going back to Welcker and owing its popularity to Wilamowitz, who claimed Aristotle's authority for it, understands tragoidia to mean "song of goats," sc., of dancers dressed as goats. Scholars more concerned with the history of religion, however, still uphold the ancient etymology, "song at the sacrifice of a goat." It will be necessary to establish first that philological criticism of the sources does not lead to a decision. When, however, the essence of sacrificial ritual is studied, a new perspective seems to emerge in which, eventually, even plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides may reveal a ritual background.
There are so many learned, subtle, and exhaustive discussions of Wilamowitz's theory of the origin of tragedy that it may suffice here to point out the well-known difficulties involved. The only ancient evidence is a gloss in the Etymologicum Magnum, s.v. tragoidia (764.5), which says, after three other explanations, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (because the choruses mostly were composed of satyrs, whom they called goats). The statement that tragic choruses "mostly" consisted of satyrs is clearly wrong. Yet modern scholars have combined this with a passing remark of Aristotle's that tragedy developed ek saturikou (Poetics 1449a20, cf. 22); this may mean that tragedy originated "from the satyr play," as Chamaeleon, one of Aristotle's pupils, explained expressis verbis. The notice in the Etymologicum Magnum has therefore been regarded as a somewhat corrupt reproduction of the "Peripatetic theory of the origin of tragedy": that the proto-tragedy was the satyr-play—or, since Aristotle derives tragedy from the dithyramb, a "Satyrdithyrambos"—and this was called "song of the goats." The first difficulty arises from the tradition that names Pratinas of Phlius, the slightly older contemporary of Aeschylus, as the inventor of the satyr-play. This piece of information is supported in a remarkable way by the pictorial tradition: scenes that undoubtedly come from satyr-plays begin to appear in vase paintings after about 520 B.C., considerably after the first production of tragedy by Thespis. The scholar who has done the most fundamental work on the pictorial representations of satyr-plays, Frank Brommer, therefore concluded as long ago as 1937 that the satyr-play was "keine Vorform der Tragödie, sondem eine neue Erfindung" (no primitive form of tragedy, but a new invention). So in order to save the theory it becomes necessary to postulate a proto-satyr-play existing before Pratinas; this turns Pratinas's achievement into a mere reform of satyr-play. Insofar as the type of the satyr undoubtedly existed long before Pratinas, this is a possible way out of the difficulty; whether the Peripatetics could know anything about this proto-satyr-play is another question.
The other difficulty is more disturbing. The satyrs of the satyr-play and the even earlier satyrs that we know from vase paintings and sculpture are not "goats," but wild men with animal ears and horses' tails; only in the Hellenistic period did they acquire horns. A satyr may on occasion be called tragos, and when on vase paintings satyrs and goats are depicted together, their physiognomy becomes remarkably similar; but still they are not tragoi themselves, as a satyr-play never could be called tragoidia. The theory necessitates a further step backwards. It is argued that the home of the proto-satyr-play, or rather goat-play, was not Athens, but the Peloponnese; Pan belongs to Arcadia, and in Corinth, about 600 B.C., Arion developed the dithyramb that Aristotle connects with tragedy. Wilamowitz unhesitatingly assumed that Arion's chorus consisted of tragoi (86). Now Corinthian vases of this period offer countless variations on the retinue of Dionysus, but no singing goats. Most frequently one finds the grotesque padded dancers; it is possible that they were called saturoi, but surely they are much less tragoi than the satyrs of Attic satyr-play. There also appear shaggy creatures with hairy bodies, but they lack any characteristic that would allow us to assign them to a definite species. Only someone who is determined to produce tragoi at all costs for the sake of tragoidia will call them "goats." The expression mallotos chiton (coat of fleece) would rather suggest sheepskins. Only the same fixed prejudice in favor of goats explains why the tragikoi choroi in the cult of Adrastus at Sicyon (Herodotus 5.67) have so often been understood to be "choruses of goats."
There remains what has been thought to be the supreme piece of evidence for the singing goats, an archaic bronze from Methydrion in the Peloponnese, more than a century earlier than Arion. It is so primitive that experts doubted whether the four dancing figures were goats or rams until recently when Roland Hampe, referring to similar bronzes found at Olympia, established that neither goats nor rams are represented but quite simply men. What had been taken to be horns are a primitive attempt at ears. There are, of course, goatlike demons even beside Pan. Terracotta statuettes, mostly from Boeotia, represent an ithyphallic goatman with a cornucopia. His name is unknown, whereas the horned dancers on the so-called Anodos-scenes may with some probability be identified as Panes (gods Pan); they seem to be confined to this special occasion.
So still there is no evidence for choruses of singing goats from which tragoidia could have derived its name. And at any rate there would remain the deeper question—whatever could be the relation between satyr-like gaiety and the high seriousness of tragedy? Did tragoidia originally lack the "tragic" element (so Wilamowitz 93)?
We also have to consider a simple but decisive linguistic fact: the primary word formation is not tragoidia at all, but tragoidoi, or rather tragoidos. This word is used in official inscriptions as well as in colloquial speech until well into the fourth century, where we should expect to find tragoidia: en tois tragoidois (among the tragoidoi), theasasthai tragoidous (watch the tragoidoi), nikan tragoidois (to win a victory with tragoidoi). Tragoidoi—that is, the chorus with its strange masks and splendid robes, as it stood before the eyes of the Athenians. Now the laws of Greek word formation show that tragoidos cannot mean "singing goat"; nor indeed does the word komodoi imply "singing komoi" (revels), but "singers on occasion of the komos." To be exact, we are dealing with a determinative compound, in which regularly the first part determines in some way the area of operation of the second. It can be either purely nominal, like auloidos, kitharoidos: the "singer" who has something to do with a "goat," "flute," "cithara"; or -oidos can be verbal, "he who sings the goat," like linoidos (who sings the Linus song), meloidos (who sings the song), threnoidos (who sings the lament). At any rate, tragoidoi are "singers," one particular group out of different kinds of singers. There is at least one exact parallel: Dionysios of Argos, fourth or third century B.C., has preserved what he states to be an earlier name for rhapsodes, arnoidos, explaining the word unhesitatingly tou de athlou tois nikosin amos apodedeigmenou (from the prize offered the victors: a ram, arnos).
To this corresponds the explanation of the name tragoidia—the only one current in antiquity—as "song for the prize of a goat" or "song at the sacrifice of a goat"; the two interpretations are identical, for naturally the goat won as a prize was sacrificed to Dionysos. The earliest evidence for the tragos (goat) as athlon (prize) in the tragic agon is the Parian Marble, then an epigram of Dioskorides; Eratosthenes, in his Erigone, certainly treated Icarius's sacrifice of a goat as the aition of tragoidia: Ikarioi tothi prota peri tragon orchesanto (tragedy: the Ikarians then first danced for a goat). The most familiar descriptions are those in the Augustan poets. Particularly detailed are the accounts given in two late Latin writers, Diomedes—whose source is supposed to be Suetonius—and Euanthius; both use the same Greek material, which may come from Didymos, Peri poieton (On the poets). The same tradition survived in the Scholia to Dionysius Thrax, in the Johannes Diaconus published by Rabe, and in Tzetzes; the intermediate source appears to be the Chrestomathy of Proclus. A great deal was written in the Hellenistic period on matters of literary history, and what survives is absurdly scanty. Kaibel was nevertheless able to show in the case of the rather fuller literature peri komoidias (on comedy) that even in the Byzantine excerptors there are traces of a theory of the fourth century B.C., a theory that did not know the comedy of Menander. Even the latest sources may preserve excellent tradition. It is worth noting that some fragments of Aristotle, from the Peri poieton, have survived in this way.
Among modern scholars the derivation of tragoidia from the sacrifice of a goat has not enjoyed much success. "Spielend ersonnene [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]," "Konstruktionen, keine Überlieferung" (strikes the note of playing aitia, a fabrication, not a tradition)—this was the judgment of Wilamowitz (63), who maintained that the whole thing was a fabrication of Eratosthenes; incidentally, he had overlooked the Parian Marble. Pohlenz tried to correct this oversight while retaining the result: he argued that the theory was earlier than Eratosthenes, but still post-Aristotelian, early Alexandrian. The secondary fabrication, according to him, gives itself away by its bias: while Aristotle's evidence about dithyramb and saturikon points toward the Peloponnese, the autochthonous origin of tragedy in Attica is here defended. Pohlenz's argument has found wide acceptance. Yet it evidently depends on two assumptions: that Attic local patriotism did not start to consider tragedy until after Aristotle, and that it could contribute nothing but invention, no facts of any sort. But the Atthidographers were at work before Aristotle: Cleidemus wrote ca. 350, Phanodemus about a decade later. They were keenly interested in the Attic cults. A fragment of Cleidemus on the lesser Dionysia is extant (FGrHist 323 F 27). Phanodemus displays a marked Athenian bias (325 F 14, F 27). Are we to suppose that the earlier Atthidographers wrote nothing about the Great Dionysia? This festival was certainly treated by Philochorus (328 F 171; cf. F 5, F 206), who took special interest in sacrificial rites (F 178, F 194) and gave an explanation of the word rhapsoidos (F 212). In view of the general inflexibility of Greek cults, it is hard to maintain that even a post-Aristotelian Atthidographer would present sheer invention in matters of sacrifice.
Aristotle, however, says quite explicitly that the dispute between Athenians and Dorians for the glory of the "invention" of tragedy and comedy had been going on for some time: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ... [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ... (This is how the Dorians lay claim to tragedy and comedy ... taking the names of these for evidence. They assert that they use the name komai for outlying villages, whereas the Athenians call them demoi with the implication that they are not called komodoi, "comedians," from their reveling [komazein] but from their wanderings about to the villages [komai] because they were held in low esteem by the city (astu) ... Poet. 1448a29ff.). This presupposes two things: a derivation of komoidia from kome (village) in the form of an anecdote—some people, for lack of appreciation, leave the city and wander around in the villages; the song that they sing is the komoidia—and an inference from this derivation: the word kome is Doric, therefore komoidia itself must be of Doric, not Attic, origin. Now it is unlikely that both, etymology and inference from it, were produced at the same time. The word antipoiountai (make an opposing claim) presupposes two parties to the dispute, and therefore Athenian counter-claims. Polemic is most effective when it can take the arguments of an opponent and turn them against him. The derivation of komoidia from kome is so far-fetched, that from komos (revel) so obvious, that it would have been quite idiotic for the Doric partisans to introduce the kome-argument into the debate if it had not already been accepted by the Athenians themselves. This means that the etymology, together with the kome-anecdote, was first advanced at Athens; this is supported by the specifically Attic word astu; and indeed kome is an Attic word, too. So Aristotle's statement presupposes at least two stages in the discussion about the origin of comedy: an Attic etymology based on a "village" custom, and a counter-attack by the Dorian party.
The Attic etymology that Aristotle rejects lived on in Greek literature; though the anecdote varies, the derivation of comedy from kome is the prevailing explanation of the name in Diomedes and Euanthius, in the treatises Peri komoidias (On comedy), in the Scholia to Dionysius Thrax and in Tzetzes—in fact, in precisely those authors who offer "song over the goat" as the etymology of tragoidia. Thus in the case of komoidia we are dealing with a pre-Aristotelian Attic etymology that survives in the later tradition. If we may assume something analogous for tragoidia, this squares very well with the tradition about the tragos-prize. And whether this tradition really is contradicted by and incompatible with Aristotle's testimony is by no means certain. So it is quite possible, though it cannot be proved, that the tradition of the goat-sacrifice is pre-Aristotelian. Even this possibility, however, is enough to destroy Pohlenz's argument: he has not succeeded in proving by recensio of the evidence that the tradition of the goat-sacrifice is secondary and therefore to be rejected. The recentiores are not necessarily the deteriores. Before rejecting it, we ought to try at least to make sense of the tradition.
Excerpted from SAVAGE ENERGIES by WALTER BURKERT, Peter Bing. Copyright © 2001 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Walter Burkert is an emeritus professor of classics at the University of Zürich. He is the author of a number of books, most recently The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age and Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions. Peter Bing is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of the Classics at Emory University.
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