Alcaeus in Sacred Space

Gregory Nagy
[The printed version of this article was published in Tradizione e innovazione nella cultura greca da Omero all’ età ellenistica: Scritti in onore di Bruno Gentili (ed. R. Pretagostini) vol. 1, 221–225. Rome 1993. The original pagination of the printed version will be indicated in this electronic version by way of curly brackets (“{“ and “}”). For example, “{221|230}” indicates where p. 221 ends and p. 222 begins.]
This presentation brings together a set of heretofore unconnected or only partly connected observations concerning a sacred space mentioned in the poetry of Alcaeus.
It has been argued by Louis Robert that the temenos ‘precinct’ mentioned in Alcaeus fr. 129.2 V and in 130b.13 V, described in the language of the poet as a great federal sacred space common to all the people of the island of Lesbos, can be identified with a sanctuary by the name of Messon, mentioned in two inscriptions dated to the second century BCE, which Robert equates with the name of present-day Mesa, excavated by Robert Koldewey. [1] The meaning of this sanctuary site, ‘the middle space’, corresponds to its central location on the island. It also corresponds to the description of the sanctuary, in the words of Alcaeus himself, as xunon ‘common ground’ of the people of Lesbos (fr. 129.3). [2]
Reinforcing the arguments of Robert, Marcel Detienne connects the name of Messon with the political expression es meson, which conveys the agonistic convergence of divergent interests at the center of a symmetrically visualized civic space. [3] For comparison, he adduces a report by Herodotus 1.170.3 where we see Thales of Miletus offering to the Pan-Ionian general assembly a proposal to establish a single council for all Ionian cities, to be located centrally in Teos as the meson “middle” of the Ionian world. {221|222}
The perspective of archaeology, with help from the related discipline of epigraphy, makes it possible to locate the precinct mentioned by Alcaeus. The perspective of history sheds light on the political and religious reasons for the centralized location of this precinct on the island of Lesbos. What remains to be explained, however, is the actual reason for the reference to this precinct in the poetry of Alcaeus. Up to now it has generally been assumed that the reference is incidental: that Alcaeus refers to the precinct because he happens to be there as an exile. I propose, however, that this setting of a centralized sacred space is intrinsic to the message that is being delivered by the poetry.
Bruno Gentili has drawn attention to the ritual character of an event that is described in this poetry of Alcaeus as taking place in the precinct: the word [ὀ]λολύγας (130b.20), designating the ‘ululation’ of the women of Lesbos, is given the epithet ἴρα[ς] ‘sacred’ (130b.20). [4] Such an event has been identified with the native Lesbian tradition of a women’s beauty contest in the context of a sacred festival, as mentioned for example by Theophrastus fr. 112 W, by way of Athenaeus 13.610a (cf. Hesychius s.v. Πυλαιίδες); we get further details from the Scholia A for Iliad IX 129: παρὰ Λεσβίοις ἀγὼν ἄγεται κάλλους γυναικῶν ἐν τῷ τῆς Ἥρας τεμένει, λεγόμενος καλλιστεῖα ‘among the people of Lesbos there is a beauty contest of women held in the sacred precinct [temenos] of Hera, called the kallisteia’. [5] The other epithet describing the [ὀ]λολύγας “ululation” of the women of Lesbos, ἐνιαυσίας ‘seasonally recurring’ (Alcaeus fr. 130b.20), indicates an event that must have taken place at a yearly festival. That we are in fact dealing with a beauty contest is suggested by the wording κριννόμεναι φύαν ‘outstanding in beauty’ (Alcaeus fr. 130b.17).
This event is more than a beauty contest, however: it is also a choral event, as we see from the reference to ἴρα[ς ὀ]λολύγας ‘sacred {222|223} ululation’ (Alcaeus fr. 130b.20). There is reinforcement from Greek Anthology 9.189, where apparently the same festival, taking place in the temenos of Hera, is described explicitly in choral terms of song and dance, with Sappho herself pictured as the leader of the khoros ‘chorus’. [6]
I argue that the words of Alcaeus, envisioned in fr. 129 and fr. 130 as speaking from the central precinct of Lesbos on the occasion of a choral performance at a festival of the goddess Hera, presuppose a dramatized setting of authoritative speech intended for the community at large. [7]
Despite its authoritativeness, however, the poet’s voice assumes a tone of agonistic alienation from his community. Alcaeus is speaking as a wretched exile who longs for reintegration with civic life in his native city (fr. 130b.1-9). His nostalgia for the civic council and assembly (ἀγόρας … καὶ β[ό]λλας: fr. 130b lines 3 and 5) corresponds to the nostalgia of the alienated hero Achilles for the assembly of his warrior society (oὔτε ποτ᾽ εἰς ἀγορὴν πωλέσκετο κυδιάνειραν | οὔτε ποτ᾽ ἐς πόλεμον, ἀλλὰ φθινύθεσκε φίλον κῆρ | αὖθι μένων, ποθέεσκε δ᾽ ἀυτήν τε πτόλεμόν τε: Iliad I 490-492). [8]
I disagree with the idea that the description of Alcaeus’ life in exile as ἀγροιωτίκαν ‘rustic’ (fr. 130b.2) implied that his status has been made “ridiculous.” [9] Rather, I propose that the status of Alcaeus has been marginalized by his exile. I propose further that this marginalization of the living person from his city is converted by the poetry of {223|224} Alcaeus into the centralization of a dead person in a politically neutral space that is sacred to the whole island.
The key to this conversion of status, I submit, is the self-representation of Alcaeus as a cult-hero who is pictured as speaking from the dead and whose alienated voice holds forth a promise of social integration through an ultimate reckoning when finally the evildoers are punished and the noble are rewarded.
Such poetic self-representation is evident in the poetry of Theognis: at verses 1209-1210, for example, the voice of the poet announces that he is an exile from his native city and that he now has an abode in Thebes. The verb oikeō ‘have an abode’, as used in Theognis 1210, is attested with a similar sense in the Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles (27, 28, 92, 627, 637), with reference to the exiled and degraded hero’s intent to establish his own body after death in a place far away from his native city, in the Attic district of Colonus, within the sacred space of the Erinyes ‘Furies’ (we may note especially the context of oikeō at Oedipus at Colonus 39). [10] Elsewhere too, this verb oikeō ‘have an abode’ is a reference appropriate to a hero as a cult-figure. [11]
In the same poem of Theognis, after having declared that he has an abode in Thebes (1209: verb oikeō) and that he is an exile from his native city (1210), the speaker goes on to say that he now belongs to the edge of the Plain of Lethe (1215-1216) - clearly, the realm of the dead (cf. Aristophanes Frogs 186). [12] It would appear that the poet is represented as being heard speaking as a cult-hero from the grave. [13] His tomb, situated in a place remote from his native city, is visualized as a sacred space of hero-cult. [14]
I propose a similar situation for the poetry of Alcaeus fr. 129 and {224|225} fr. 130. [15] In fr. 129, the poet is represented as speaking from a sacred precinct or temenos (lines 1-2), praying that the gods of this precinct deliver him from painful exile (lines 11-12) and hear his curse (lines 10-11); the words of the curse adjure an Erinys ‘Fury’ to take vengeance against Pittakos, who broke the oath that served as foundation for society (lines 13- 20). [16] In fr. 130b, the poet again speaks of a temenos (line 13), apparently the same precinct as before, which is presented as what seems to be the actual abode of Alcaeus as lone exile (lines 13-16). The verb oikeō ‘have an abode’ at lines 10 (ἐοίκησα) and 16 (οἴκημμι) of Alcaeus fr. 130b is the same as in line 1210 (οἰκῶ) of Theognis. In this light, the nostalgia at Alcaeus fr. 130b, 1-5 may be compared with the sentiment expressed at Theognis 1197-1202, where the brooding soul of an exile contemplates a life that cannot any longer be his own. [17]


Burnett, A. P. 1983. Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho. Cambridge MA.
Detienne, M. 1973. Les maîtres de vérité dans la Grèce archaïque. 2nd ed. Paris.
Edmunds, L. 1981. “The Cults and the Legend of Oedipus.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85:221–238.
Gentili, B. 1985. Poesia e pubblico nella Grecia antica: da Omero al V secolo. Roma-Bari.
Gentili, B. 1988. Poetry and Its Public in Ancient Greece: From Homer to the Fifth Century. English-language version of Gentili 1985. Translated, with an introduction, by T. A. Cole. Baltimore-London.
Koldewey, R. 1890. Die antiken Baureste der Insel Lesbos. Berlin.
Loraux, N. 1987. “Le lien de la division.” Le Cahier du Collège International de Philosophie 4:101–124.
Miralles, C., and Pòrtulas, J. 1983. Archilochus and the Iambic Poetry. Rome.
Nagy, G. 1985. “Theognis and Megara: A Poet’s Vision of His City.” Theognis of Megara: Poetry and the Polis (ed. T. J. Figueira and G. Nagy) 22-81. Baltimore.
Nagy, G. 1990a. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore.
Nagy, G. 1990b. Greek Mythology and Poetics, Ithaca NY.
Page, D. L. 1955. Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry. Oxford.
Robert, L. 1960. “Recherches épigraphiques, V: Inscriptions de Lesbos.” Revue des études anciennes 73:285-315. Reprinted 1969 in his Opera Minora Selecta II 801-831. Amsterdam.
Svenbro, S. 1988. Phrasikleia: Anthropologie de la lecture en Grèce ancienne. Paris.


[ back ] 1. Robert 1960, with bibliography; Koldewey 1890.
[ back ] 2. The use of the word συνόδοισι “assemblies” at Alcaeus fr. 130b.15, in a fragmentary context, may be pertinent.
[ back ] 3. Detienne 1973:97. I add the qualification “agonistic” in light of the discussion by Loraux 1987, especially pp. 108-112.
[ back ] 4. Gentili 1988:220, 306n30.
[ back ] 5. Cf. Page 1955:168n4. We may compare the reference to a temenos of Hera in Dioscorides Greek Anthology 7.351. This temenos is the purported setting for the events taking place in the Cologne Epode of Archilochus, S 478 ed. Page: see Miralles and Pòrtulas 1983:136n16, with bibliography.
[ back ] 6. Cf. Page 1955:168. On the validity of traditional representations of Sappho as a choral personality, see Nagy 1990a:370.
[ back ] 7. This is not to say that the medium of Alcaeus, or of Sappho for that matter, is choral, not monodic. My point is simply that the monodic medium of Sappho and Alcaeus has a choral foundation - not only in form but also in content. See Nagy 1990a:371: “It should be clear then that I understand the monodic form to be not antithetical to the choral but rather predicated on in. A figure like Sappho speaks as a choral personality, even though the elements of dancing and the very presence of the choral group are evidently missing from her compositions. Still, these compositions presuppose or represent an interaction offstage, as it were, with a choral aggregate.”
[ back ] 8. Cf. Burnett 1983:178. In this passage from the Iliad, the assembly or ἀγορή is implicitly an integral aspect of the warfare that Achilles is described as sorely missing.
[ back ] 9. Burnett 1983:179.
[ back ] 10. See Nagy 1985, especially pp. 76-77.
[ back ] 11. See Edmunds 1981:223n8.
[ back ] 12. Nagy 1985:77.
[ back ] 13. Further argumentation in Nagy 1985:76-81.
[ back ] 14. See Nagy 1990b:222n62, with reference to Theognis 1209-1210. The poet seems to be saying that this poetry is his sēma ‘tomb’. Cf. Svenbro 1988, especially p. 96.
[ back ] 15. Cf. Nagy1985:81.
[ back ] 16. Cf. Theognis 337-350 and the commentary in Nagy 1985:68-74.
[ back ] 17. Cf. Nagy 1985:64-68.