Appendix A: Poetry, Aggression, Ritual

Walter Burkert has pioneered an analysis of ancient Greek ritual that sees its roots in aggression, in biological impulses than can be observed in animals—Konrad Lorenz was especially fascinated by geese. [1] In the survey of poets in previous chapters, themes and poetic phenomena that related to ritualized aggression have formed a background for archaic poetry (in particular, Archilochus, our first lyric poet; Homer and Hesiod are shadowy, probably non-historical or quasi-historical figures). A key passage from Burkert deserves full quotation:
Aggressive behavior evokes a highly attentive, excited response. Pretended aggression thus plays a special role in ritual communication. Raising one’s hands, waving branches, wielding weapons and torches, stamping the feet while turning from attack to flight, folding the hands or lifting them in supplication, kneeling and prostration: all these are repeated and exaggerated as a demonstration whereby the individual proclaims his membership and place in the community. A rhythm develops from repetition, and auditory signals accompanying the gestures give rise to music and dance. These, too, are primordial forms of human solidarity, but they cannot hide the fact that they grew out of aggressive tensions, with their noise and beating, attack and flight . . . in ethology, even laughter is thought to originate in an aggressive display of teeth. Gestures of disgust or “purification” are not far removed from the impulses of aggression and destruction. Some of these ritual gestures can be traced with certainty to the primates, from waving branches and rhythmic drumming to phallic display and raising the hand in supplication. [2]
Parallels with poets and poems we have examined will be obvious:
  • Satire and laughter are obviously related; and laughter, perhaps, originated in “aggressive display of teeth.” Satire is, in a way, such a display; and we remember numerous comparisons of satirical poetry to fangs. Pindar, in his reference to Archilochus, writes that he, Pindar, on the other hand, will “flee the violent bite of evil speech.” [3] Horace speaks of satirical victims “wounded by this blood-drawing fang.” [4] In his sixth Epode, the same poet warns that if attacked, he will “bite back.” [5] The poet Nede describes his profession as “piercing flesh.” Meroney describes the curse/satire glám dícind as “an action of fangs.” [6]
  • “A rhythm develops from repetition, and auditory signals accompanying the gestures give rise to music and dance.” Greek poetry was originally closely connected with music and dance: Homer was sung, and in Sappho’s day, lyric was still tightly connected with music. Of course, the chorus tradition, extending from the choral lyric to dramatic chorus, never lost its musical and dancing aspects. Even poetry that lost its musical adjunct kept its metrical, rhythmic nature.
  • “Aggressive tensions, with their noise and beating, attack and flight.” Once again, one thinks of the haunting rhythmic nature of poetry. [7]
  • “Attack and flight.” Satirical poetry was often explicitly attack, but more often the poet portrayed it as counterattack. [8]
  • “Phallic display.” One thinks immediately of Archilochus, who offended through his obscene, probably phallic poetry. When he is punished, his tormentors “[became weak] in the genitals.” The closest parallel to this story is a myth in which the Athenians, after dishonoring Dionysus, suffer a plague “in the genitals.” They institute phallic cult to Dionysus to gain an alleviation of the curse. [9] Comedy, of course, possibly originated in phallic cult. Aristotle writes that comedy “originated in improvisation … from the prelude to the phallic songs which still survive as institutions in many cities.” [10] Semus describes a procession of hymn-singing phallophoroi ‘phallus bearers’ into the theater; there, they would “run forward and jeer [etōthazon] at any one they picked out.” [11]
  • “Gestures of disgust. ” Satirical poetry can often be a verbal “gesture of disgust.”
  • “Gestures of … purification. ” We think of the association of pharmakos and purification. Expelling the scapegoat purifies the city. The poet, when he expels an enemy through poetry, is a purifier; and his enemy, expelling the poet, thinks of himself as purifier. There is ambiguity, depending on whom one considers just, the poet or his enemy. And there is ambiguity in the purifying nature of the expelled dirt; in human terms, the human “dirt” can be heroic in his or her departure. But in any event, these phenomena are “not far removed from the impulses of aggression and destruction.”
In addition, as we have seen, Greco-Roman ritual included overtly satirical elements. The cult of Demeter in particular was connected with ritual abuse. A famous example is the gephurismos in the Eleusinian mysteries, the mockery of prominent citizens in a procession as they passed over a bridge. [12] Another Eleusinian connection to ritual abuse is Iambe, who coaxes the grieving Demeter into laughter through her jests. Demeter grieves for her stolen daughter,
πρίν γ’ ὅτε δὴ χλεύῃς μιν Ἰάμβη κέδν’ εἰδυῖα
πολλὰ παρασκώπτουσ’ ἐτρέψατο πότνιαν ἁγνὴν
μειδῆσαι γελάσαι τε καὶ ἵλαον σχεῖν θυμόν.
Until when with jokes, the wise Iambe, greatly mocking, turned the holy mistress to smile and laugh and have a cheerful soul.
Hymn to Demeter 202–204 [13]
One immediately thinks of the word iambos, the meter of satirical poets, a word often used with the meaning ‘satire’. In the case of Iambe’s kind mockery, laughter may be a symbol of death and rebirth.
Archaic Greek poetry was, in turn, often closely connected with cult. We remember that Paros is listed immediately after Eleusis as a cult center for Demeter in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (491), and that Archilochus’ family had a connection with the cult of Demeter. [14] The Etymologicum Magnum tells us that comedy [kōmōidia] received its name from the fact that it was first performed among the villages [kōmas] in the festivals of Dionysus and of Demeter. [15] It is striking that Archilochus had ties with both cults. West notes that the etymology of iambos is uncertain, but the word has obvious ties to dithurambos, thriambos, and ithumbos, all associated with Dionysian cult. “Dithurambos and thriambos are titles of Dionysus and also songs in his honor,” writes West. The ithumbos was a “dance performed at a Dionysiac festival” (Pollux 4.104) and also a poem “for joking and laughter” or “a long and somewhat sinister song” (Hesychius). [16]
The scholiastic accounts of the origins of comedy link it with farmers, those who would be involved with agricultural work, the cultivation of Demeter’s gifts. Carlos Miralles and Jaume Pòrtulas link the tendency for poetic initiations to take place in agricultural or pastoral settings (Hesiod, Archilochus; compare Aeschylus, Epimenides) with agricultural ritual. [17]
Fescennine abuse offers a Roman parallel. Once again, farmers are involved, and there is ritual offered to a Demeter-like figure, “Earth-mother Tellus”; there is also a sacrifice of a pig, which reminds us again of Demeter and Eleusis. [18] Horace wrote:
The farmers of old, a sturdy folk with simple wealth, when, after harvesting the grain, they sought relief at holiday time for the body, as well as for the soul, which bore its toils in hope of the end, together with slaves and faithful wife, partners of their labors, used to propitiate Earth with swine, Silvanus with milk, and the Genius who is ever mindful of the shortness of life with flowers and wine. Through this custom came into use Fescennine licence [Fescennina licentia], [19] which in alternate verse poured forth rustic taunts [opprobria rustica]; and the freedom, welcomed each returning year, was innocently gay, till jest, now growing cruel [saevus], turned to open frenzy [apertam in rabiem] and stalked amid the homes of honest folk, fearless in its threatening [impune minax]. [20] They who were bitten by tooth that drew blood [cruento dente lacessiti] were stung to the quick, and even those untouched felt concern for the common cause; and at last a law was carried with a penalty, forbidding the portayal of any abusive strain [malo carmine]. Men changed their tune, and terror of the cudgel [formidine fustis] led them back to good and gracious forms of speech.
Horace Epistles 2.1.139–155, translation by Fairclough, adapted [21]
Fescennine abuse is “discovered through this festival”; as one wonders why, some possibilities come to mind. Perhaps there was a celebratory atmosphere and the abuse was meant in the spirit of pure fun, which seems to be Horace’s view. Another explanation could be that festivals offered a sacred time in which one could criticize openly because there would be extreme religious sanctions on violence during the festival (impune minax). [22] This would allow the lower classes to criticize the upper classes without being punished, as Horace suggests, for it is the “respectable houses” who are upset at the satirical, ritual attack (presumably from those involved in agricultural ritual), and who have the power to pass a law against it. Thus, the feasts of Dionysus and Demeter might have become tools for the more “democratic” movements (including small farmers) as opposed to the ascendant oligarchies (in the cities). There is some evidence that Dionysiac cult did have democratic connections. Dodds writes that the Dionysiac religion “probably made its original appeal mainly to people who had no citizen rights in the aristocratic ‘gentile state’ and were excluded from the older cults associated with the great families.” [23]
Perhaps controlled aggression is brought into a happy, relaxed harvest festival so as to neutralize aggression. Or perhaps this controlled aggression helped participants “let off steam” before the new beginning of a new time period, such as a new year, as in Carnival. [24]
The Nonae Capratinae offers an example of ritualized abuse shading into ritualized fighting. “The handmaidens, in gay attire, run about jesting and joking with the men they meet. They have a mock battle, too, with one another, implying that they once took a hand in the struggle with the Latins.” [25] Another detail in the Horace passage that suggests the aggressive, fighting aspect of this ritual abuse is the alternation of verses, which, as we have seen, are often competitive in nature. [26] One would expect friendly insults, one capping the other.
Thus, satire, the cult of Demeter/Dionysus, and ritualized elements of aggression formed a shadowy backdrop to the cult history of Archilochus that included a verbal phallic offense connected with Dionysiac cult, a trial and punishment of the poet, possibly exile, and punishment of society (impotence), ending in cult honors to Archilochus as favorite of Dionysus. The narrative mechanism that is the central focus of this book, which excludes the just poet unjustly, has important connections with this archaic nexus. Archilochus, the poet-scapegoat, is something of a priest, and a specialist in aggression. Perhaps the sin of the Parian burghers was to disallow the controlled aggression found in ritual abuse.


[ back ] 1. Burkert 1983:23–24; Lorenz 1966. A most interesting essay is Gerard Neuman’s “How We Became (In)human” (1987). Critiques of Lorenz can be found in Montagu 1973, introductory essays in Maple and Matheson 1973.
[ back ] 2. Burkert 1983:24.
[ back ] 3. Pythian Odes 2.53: δάκος ἀδινὸν κακαγοριᾶν.
[ back ] 4. Epistles II 1.150–151: cruento dente lacessiti.
[ back ] 5. me remorsurum. See below, app. B.
[ back ] 6. See above, chapter 17.
[ back ] 7. On drumming, see Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1971:27.
[ back ] 8. See especially appendix B below; also, above, chapter 3 (Archilochus); chapter 4 (Hipponax); chapter 22 (Cicero).
[ back ] 9. See above, chapter 3 (Archilochus); Fehling 1974:7–18.
[ back ] 10. Aristotle Poetics 4.14 (1449a10), translation by Fyfe. For the phallus in Old Comedy, see Pickard-Cambridge 1988:220–223 and 1962:133, 137, 147, cf. 228–240. Even if comedy did not derive from phallic cult, as in Aristotle’s view, it certainly had a close connection with phallic cult. Cf. Giangrande 1963. F. M. Cornford (1968:110–111) proposes that only the abusive aspect of comedy derived from phallic cult (not its structure), because this was always connected with ritual abuse (which sometimes functions as a good luck, fertility charm). According to Herodotus (2.49), Melampus, the seer who died in the riddle contest, introduced to Greece “the name of Dionysus and his sacrifice and the procession of the phallus.” Cf. above, chapter 16, on Melampus. G. Else prefers the manuscripts’ phaul(l)iká to phalliká, which is found in most editions (1957:163). However, undoubted phallic processions in Aristophanes Acharnians 241–279 and Semus (see next note) incline one toward the phallic reading; and cf. Giangrande 1963:4n1. See above, chapter 14 (Aristophanes); Adrados 1975:2.
[ back ] 11. Semus at Athenaeus 14.621f–622d: εἶτα προτρέχοντες ἐτώθαζον οὓς προέλοιντο.
[ back ] 12. Hesychius s.v. gephuris—gephuristai; Strabo 9.400; Mylonas 1961:256; Rosen 1988c:25.
[ back ] 13. My trans. Cf. Richardson 1974 ad loc., 213–217, with numerous examples, and, for aischrologia, p. 213; Conon Narratives 49, cf. parallels in Henrichs 1987:258n11; 270n20. See also Rusten 1977:157–161; Cornford 1968:276; Adams 1982:4–5; Olender 1985; O’Higgins 2001; Collins 2004:225–230. See above, chapter 3, for Iambe, hanged women, and for Charila at Delphi.
[ back ] 14. See above, chapter 3; cf. Richardson 1974, at Hymn to Demeter 491.
[ back ] 15. See Koster 1975:68. This is admittedly only one of several explanations for the name. Cf. the Dionysian phallic element in the origins of comedy, see above, this chapter.
[ back ] 16. West 1974:23, 36–37. Hesychius s.v. ithumbos: ποιήματα ἦν ἐπὶ χλεύῃ καὶ γέλωτι συγκείμενα. καὶ ᾠδὴ μακρὰ καὶ ὑπόσκαιος.
[ back ] 17. Koster 1975:11–12, cf. 70, 86. Miralles and Pòrtulas 1988:36; 1983:61–80.
[ back ] 18. Cf. Burkert 1983:256–264. On Tellus, the Earth, and a close associate of Ceres, Growth, see Ovid Fasti 1.671–674; Altheim 1931:108–129. Lydus On the Months 4.49 translates Tellus with Dēmētēr.
[ back ] 19. See Brink 1982:191, for Fescennine abuse.
[ back ] 20. For the sense of honestas … domos, see Brink 1982:194.
[ back ] 21. Latin text above, in chapter 20.
[ back ] 22. Cf. Lysias fragment 53 Thalheim; Isocrates 8.14; Plato Laws 934d–6b; Aristotle Politics 1336b3–23; Halliwell 1991a and 1991b:292–296.
[ back ] 23. Dodds 1953:128. Cf. Aristotle Politics 6.4 1319b; Plutarch On Love of Wealth 8 (527d); Herodotus 1.23–24; Burkert 1985:291; Thomson 1968:141; 1946:120, 151–154; How and Wells 1928 2:344. Cf. the tradition that Aesop was a slave who used fables so as to escape punishment from his masters when he criticized them, see above, chapter 3, chapter 24 (Phaedrus) and the scholiastic account of the origins of comedy, above, this chapter; according to these texts, farmers sang with faces disguised so that they could criticize city dwellers freely.
[ back ] 24. For Carnival, see Burke 1978:178–204. “Perhaps the mocking of outsiders (Jews at the Roman Carnival, peasants in that of Nuremberg) was, among other things, a dramatic expression of community solidarity” (200). Jews were pelted with mud and stones at Carnival as they raced through Rome (187), cf. Mamurius, chapter 27—on the last day of the old year, he is led in a procession through Rome, is beaten by the priests of Mars, the Salii, and then driven from the city. Violent death was common during Carnival (188), and public execution was ritualized (197). Ritual is used as social control, and even anti-hierarchical ritual preserves hierarchy (201). But sometimes “the wine barrel blew its top” (203). One thinks of Aristophanes brought to trial by Cleon, even though freedom of verbal attack was protected by festival license. “It may well have been that some of those excluded from power saw Carnival as an opportunity to make their views known and so to bring about change” (203). Cf. Bremmer and Horsfall 1987:82n29.
[ back ] 25. Plutarch Camillus 33.6 (translation by Perrin): ἔπειτα κεκοσμημέναι λαμπρῶς αἱ θεραπαινίδες περιΐασι παίζουσαι διὰ σκωμμάτων εἰς τοὺς ἀπαντῶντας. γίνεται δὲ καὶ μάχη τις αὐταῖς πρὸς ἀλλήλας, ὡς καὶ τότε τοῦ πρὸς τοὺς Λατίνους ἀγῶνος συνεπιλαμβανομέναις. See Bremmer and Horsfall 1987:76 (bibliography). Cf. Graf 1985:310.
[ back ] 26. Clearchus, at Athenaeus 10.457c–e; Collins 2004:225–235. Griffith 1990:188 writes that “it is hardly an exaggeration to say that most Greek poetry, from the time of Homer and Hesiod to that of Euripides, was composed for performance in an explicitly or implicitly agonistic context.” See above, chapter 2 (Aesop as riddle warrior); chapter 6 (Hesiod); chapter 17 (the poetic agōn in Ireland).