Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond

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Chapter 4

Mimesis in Lyric: Sappho’s Aphrodite and the Changing Woman of the Apache

We turn to a striking example of the equation between a ritual “this” and a mythical “that,” as postulated in Aristotle’s formulation of mimesis. This example of dramatic re-enactment, taken from a culture that is definitely unrelated to the Greek, is explicitly a case of initiation—a concept that we have seen only implicitly in the semantics of the epithet for the Homeric nightingale, poludeukḗs ‘patterning in many different ways’. As a re-enactment that serves the explicit social purpose of initiation, this example gives us a valuable point of comparison with examples of ancient Greek dramatic re-enactment, as brought to life in performance.

To make sure that the comparison about to be made serves its intended purpose of allowing us to see the ancient Greek evidence in a new light, it is important to stress that ancient Greek dramatic re-enactment could in fact take place not only in theater, not only in choral performance, but even in monody, the conventions of which are replete with stylized choral roles. [1] Such monody could be performed not only at public “recitals” but also at symposia. [2] An outstanding case in point is the ostensibly monodic poetry of Sappho, whose songs “presuppose or represent an interaction, offstage, as it were, with a choral aggregate.” [3]

The focal point of the Navajo myth and ritual is the goddess Changing Woman, also known as White Shell Woman, who is to become the mother of the Divine Twins. More literally, her name means “the woman who is transformed time and again” (p. 25). The Apache analogue is likewise known as Changing Woman, or White Painted Woman (p. 135). In the case of the Navajo kinaaldá ritual, most of the proceedings take place in the family hogan (the Navajo word for a type of earth-covered edifice) of the girl to be initiated. On the final night of the kinaaldá, the ritual program features the performance of what are called the hogan songs, claimed to be originally composed for the kinaaldá of Changing Woman herself (pp. 18–19). There are two kinds of hogan songs, corresponding to the girl’s first and second menstruations: the Chief Hogan Songs and the Talking God Hogan Songs (p. 22). According to Navajo myth, the power of these same hogan songs enabled the prototypical figures First Man and First Woman to sing the prototypical hogan into existence (p. 18). In the here and now of the ritual, these hogan songs are thought to have the power of re-enacting the prototypical event. The words of the singer’s songs, by identifying the family hogan with the first hogan, claim to rebuild and thus renew the identified edifice, as the words themselves say explicitly (p. 18).

In the whole Navajo ritual, the chief purpose “is the identification of the girl initiand with Changing Woman” (p. 24). This identification is explicit in the following Twelve Word Song (p. 24):

I am here; I am White Shell Woman, I am here.
Now on the top of Gobernador Knob [a local mountain], I am here.
In the center of my white shell hogan I am here.
Right on the white shell spread I am here.
Right on the fabric spread I am here.
Right at the end of the rainbow I am here. {91|92}

We may note the immediacy of this epiphany, comparable with the epiphany of Aphrodite in Song 1 of Sappho (F 1 V). Even more important, it seems that the “I” here stands for a composite of the girl initiand and Changing Woman herself, though the actual performer is the chief singer.

In the corresponding Apache girls’ initiation ritual, there are similar distributions in roles, though we can expect many variations in the hierarchy of participants in the ritual. In our survey of the Navajo ritual, we noted in particular the role of the chief singer. In the corresponding Apache ritual, there is likewise a chief singer, but in this instance let us shift our attention to a ritual figure who functions as a correlate of the chief singer. She is an attendant, an older and more experienced woman whose task it is to take charge of the girl initiand during the period of the ritual. It has been observed that “some attendants could claim supernatural experience with [White Painted Woman] herself,” so that the girl’s attendant is placed “more in the role of priestess than true shaman” (p. 136). We may compare Pausanias’ description of the Leukippides, historical analogues to the main choral figures of Alcman’s Partheneion, as hiéreiai ‘priestesses’ (3.16.1). [15] In the Apache girls’ initiation ritual, once the attendant is matched with the initiand, the woman and the girl are expected, from that point on, to address each other as mother and daughter respectively for the rest of their lives (p. 136). This relationship seems comparable to the dramatized interactions of heroines and nurses in Greek tragedy, especially the case of Phaedra and her nurse in Euripides’ Hippolytus; just as the attendant in the Apache ritual is well versed in women’s lore, so also is the nurse in Greek tragedy. [16] Despite the importance of the attendant, the overall ritual itself is directed by the chief singer. We are told that “the most sought after singers were old men who, by community observation, had presided over ceremonies that produced a high percentage of healthy, strong, good-natured, industrious women” (p. 136).

Besides the attendant and the chief singer, there is a third key participant in the Apache girls’ puberty ritual. This is the shaman {92|93} or diyin, whom the girl’s family has to select and who has the power, through supernatural beings called the ganhs, to select and prepare dancers for the ritual (p. 136). The diyin is asked to miss the puberty ritual himself, since “the one who dressed and painted the ganhs had to stay in a little camp well removed from the festivity” (p. 136). This phase of the ritual complex is pervaded by a deeply felt sense of danger, in that the dancers are to re-enact the powerful ganhs (p. 136), and the diyin is well paid for his troubles in recruiting and training them (p. 136).

On the day that the Apache girls’ puberty ritual begins, before dawn, the girl initiand is entrusted to the attendant, who washes her hair; as the sun rises, the initiand faces the East as the attendant prays while adorning her and dressing her in her ritual costume. “From this instant she was a woman, and for the next four days she was [White Painted Woman] and had to be addressed so” (p. 137). As for the ritual edifice to be built for the occasion, there is a great deal of variation from tribe to tribe. A key feature is an alignment with the four directions and a runway to the East. The chief singer is in charge of the Dwelling Songs, which accompany the building of the ritual edifice (p. 138). In response to the mention of the key supernatural figures in the singing, the attendant utters the same ululation with which White Painted Woman had once upon a time greeted the deaths of the monsters that threatened the universal order (p. 138). In fact the attendant is known as She Who Makes the Cry (p. 138). Later, as the crowd gathers, the attendant pushes White Painted Woman out of the East entrance to run clockwise around a basket of offerings placed outside, with other women and men who want good fortune trotting after the girl initiand (p. 139). Meanwhile, the diyin is getting the dancers ready. Morris Opler has collected the ganhmaking songs that are performed at this part of the ritual, including the following: [17]

I have highlighted the last line in order to draw attention to its remarkable metaphor concerning the relationship of song and dance. To ponder the image of song as encircling and thereby containing dance is a fitting way to bring to a close our consideration of this extended example of re-enactment as initiation.

We may try to sidestep the central idea of mimesis by telling ourselves that the pronoun “I” used by the one who re-enacts a given god or hero is at that moment merely an “actor,” no matter who the speaker may be—a member of a chorus, or a chorus-leader, or even the one whom we identify as the composer. But I must insist that this kind of “acting” in the context of {96|97} archaic Greek poetry is not a matter of pretending: it is rather a merger of the performer’s identity with an identity patterned on an archetype—a merger repeated every time the ritual occasion recurs.

According to this argument, then, mimesis in the older sense of the word requires that the speaker’s identity merge with that of his role as speaker, just as the identities of those who are spoken to and spoken about must merge with their respective roles. If the merger is successful, then the model has not been merely copied, that is, imitated. It has been remodeled, that is, re-enacted. What is remodeled can continue to be a model. What is merely copied cannot. The paradox here is that a model implies no change, whereas whatever is remodeled does indeed imply change. That is to say, an explicit idea of unchangeability through time subsumes an implicit idea of change in the here-and-now of the occasion of performance.

The premier metaphor for this paradox of re-enactment is repetition, as ideally expressed by adverbs or preverbs meaning ‘again’, such as Greek dēûte in Song 1 of Sappho: [33]

          ποικιλόθρον’ ἀθανάτἈφρόδιτα,
          παῖ Δίος δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,
          μή μ’ ἄσαισι μηδ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
          πότνια, θῦμον,
5        ἀλλὰ τυίδ’ ἔλθ’, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα
          τὰς ἔμας αὔδας ἀίοισα πήλοι
          ἔκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
          χρύσιον ἦλθες
          ἄρμ’ ὐπασδεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ’ ἆγον
10      ὤκεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας
          πύκνα δίννεντες πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνωἴθε-
          ρος διὰ μέσσω·
          αἶψα δ’ ἐξίκοντο· σὺ δ’, ὦ μάκαιρα,
          μειδιαίσαισ’ ἀθανάτωι προσώπωι
15      ἤρε’ ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι
          δηὖτε κάλημμι {97|98}
          κὤττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι
          μαινόλαι θύμωι· τίνα δηὖτε πείθω
          βαῖσ᾿ [
34] ἄγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα; τίς σ’, ὦ
20      Ψάπφ’, ἀδικήει;
          καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
          αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’, ἀλλὰ δώσει,
          αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει
          κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.
25      ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον
          ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι
          θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον· σὺ δ᾿ αὔτα
          σύμμαχος ἔσσο

          You with varied pattern-woven flowers, [35] immortal Aphrodite,
          child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I implore you,
          do not devastate with aches and sorrows,
          Mistress, my heart!
5        But come here, if ever at any other time 5
          hearing my voice from afar,
          you heeded me, and leaving the palace of your father,
          golden, you came,
          having harnessed the chariot; and you were carried along by beautiful
10      swift sparrows over the dark earth
          swirling with their dense plumage from the sky through the
          midst of the aether,
          and straightaway they arrived. But you, O holy one,
          smiling with your immortal looks,
          kept asking what is it once again this time [dēûte] that has happened to me and
15      for what reason
          once again this time [dēûte] do I invoke you, {98|99}
          and what is it that I want more than anything to happen
          to my frenzied spirit? “Whom am I once again this time [dēûte] to persuade,
          setting out to bring her to your love? Who is doing you,
20      Sappho, wrong?
          For if she is fleeing now, soon she will give chase.
          If she is not taking gifts, soon she will be giving them.
          If she does not love, soon she will love
          against her will.”
25      Come to me even now, and free me from harsh
          anxieties, and however many things
          my spirit yearns to get done, you do for me. You
          become my ally in war.


[ back ] 1. PH 370–371.

[ back ] 2. PH 107, 340–342, 368, 371, 375, 409, 435–437.

[ back ] 3. PH 371.

[ back ] 4. Lincoln 1981 ch. 3: “Kinaaldá: Becoming the Goddess,” pp. 17–33. Unless otherwise indicated, page-numbers in the text proper concerning Navajo rituals refer to Lincoln’s work.

[ back ] 5. For an introduction to the Apache nahihes, see Haley 1981. Unless otherwise indicated, page-numbers in the text proper concerning Apache rituals refer to Haley’s work.

[ back ] 6. We may compare the element of assensiō ‘assent’ in the mental process of induction as analyzed in ch. 2.

[ back ] 7. The etymology of authority is pertinent to my choice of this word in denoting the initiand’s power: Latin auctor, the founding form of auctoritas, is attested in the sense of ‘he who makes things grow/flourish’ (cf. Virgil Georgics 1.27; from augēre, conveying the idea of vegetal fertility) and ‘he who is first to speak with authority’ (cf. Cicero in Pisonem 35 and the comments of Ernout / Meillet DELL 57).

[ back ] 8. On the correlation of female athletic events, especially footraces, with female choral participation, see Calame 1977 I 335–350 and II 125–131 (with reference to what seems to be a prescribed footrace between Hagesikhora and Agido in Alcman’s Partheneion); also PH 367 and Clay 1991:60–62 In the previous note, we noted the semantics of authority as applied to the power of a girl initiand within the sacred space of a ritual. We may also note the semantics of authorship implied by the usage of the word khorēgós ‘chorus-leader’; cf. PH 339–381, where it is argued that the chorus is the ultimate mimesis of authority in early Greek society, and that the very concept of authorship is ultimately defined by choral authority.

[ back ] 9. The Divine Twins whom Changing Woman mothers are both connected with this event, though the sun fathers only one of the Twins, the Monster Slayer, while the other, Born for Water, is in different versions fathered by different elements: see Lincoln 1981:29–30. The concept of Born for Water is comparable to the Indo-Iranian concept of Apām Napāt, on which god see GM 99–102.

[ back ] 10. For an extensive discussion of this theme in Sappho’s poetics, see GM 261.

[ back ] 11. GM 235, 255.

[ back ] 12. Cf. Clay 1991:54–58, who argues that Orthria and Aōtis are epithets of Artemis.

[ back ] 13. For more on the puberty ritual of the Apache, see Golston 1996.

[ back ] 14. The full text of Song 1 of Sappho is provided later on in this chapter, with further discussion.

[ back ] 15. PH 346.

[ back ] 16. Karydas 1998 studies the influence of the tradition of women’s choral poetics on the figure of the nurse in Greek tragedy.

[ back ] 17. Opler 1941:108.

[ back ] 18. For comparative perspectives on the semantics connecting flashes of fire or light with dancing, see BA 331–332.

[ back ] 19. The following discussion of Euripides’ Hippolytus recapitulates N 1995:51–52.

[ back ] 20. In Bacchylides 19.11, the same noun mérimna, which I translate here as ‘a troubled thought’, refers to the thought-processes of the poet himself as he is pictured composing his song.

[ back ] 21. See Propp 1961 [1975:13].

[ back ] 22. Propp 1961 [1975:17–23].

[ back ] 23. Propp 1961 [1975:19–20]. We may also note in general the important performative distinction, which affects the process of composition / recomposition in Russian folk lyric, between singing that is combined and singing that is not combined with dance (Propp p. 14); also important, for purposes of comparison with archaic Greek choral traditions, is the traditional presupposition in certain forms of songanddance that one girl in a given performance will be selected, through the performance, as better in beauty or skill than the other girls, so that the song becomes in effect her praise-song by virtue of formally making an admission or acknowledgment of her poeticized superiority (p. 15).

[ back ] 24. Propp 1961 [1975:18].

[ back ] 25. Propp 1961 [1975:18].

[ back ] 26. Propp 1961 [1975:23].

[ back ] 27. Barrett 1964:412.

[ back ] 28. Further discussion in N 1994/5:50–52.

[ back ] 29. Zeitlin 1985:195n41 and 199n72. {She refers in the first note to the work of Ruth Padel. She refers at p. 190n4 to the identification of Artemis with Phaedra in the context of bride and bridegroom rituals.She refers in the first note to the work of Ruth Padel. She refers at p. 190n4 to the identification of Artemis with Phaedra in the context of bride and bridegroom rituals.}

[ back ] 30. Zeitlin 1985:96. {She refers also to Reckford 1972:421. Fauth 1959 has something to say on the ritual. The work of Nicole Loraux is also surely relevant.She refers also to Reckford 1972:421. Fauth 1959 has something to say on the ritual. The work of Nicole Loraux is also surely relevant.}

[ back ] 31. PH 387–388.

[ back ] 32. Cf. HQ 137: “Homeric poetry makes no overt reference to its own social context, the occasions of its own potential performability.” Following Martin 1989, the argument continues (HQ 137): “still, if Homeric narrative itself gives us ‘texts’ within its own ‘text’, with appropriate contexts to which these ‘texts’ refer, then the outer context, out there in the ‘real world’, is at least indirectly recoverable.”

[ back ] 33. The discussion that follows is expanded in N 1994, with reference to Horace Odes 4.1 and 4.2.

[ back ] 34. See Petropoulos 1993:51, who adduces evidence from the diction of magical formulae to support the restoration first proposed Parca 1982:47–48; I agree with Petropoulos that the wording in Sappho 1.18–19 is based on the language of love spells, not on “Homeric allusion,” as Parca pp. 49–50 claims. Translation: ‘whom am I, this time once again, to persuade, setting out to bring her to your love?’

[ back ] 35. The imagery of weaving, as conveyed by my translation of poikilóthronos, will be explained in the discussion that follows.

[ back ] 36. Travis 1990 has written a perceptive study of the poetics of prayer in Song 1 of Sappho.

[ back ] 37. On the poetic contrast between active télessai and passive telésthēn in Sappho’s poetics, see GM 259–260.

[ back ] 38. Kierkegaard 1983 (=1843) 149.

[ back ] 39. Carson 1986:118–119. {Carson here relies on the criteria of Denniston.Carson here relies on the criteria of Denniston.}

[ back ] 40. Putnam 1960/1, with further bibliography. A decisive passage is Iliad XXII 441, where thróna poikíla (θρόνα ποικίλ᾿) refers to ‘varied flower patterns’ woven into the fabric. On the magical properties of the thróna, see Petropoulos 1993:53.

[ back ] 41. Basso 1966:151.

[ back ] 42. Basso 1966:151.

[ back ] 43. Basso 1966:151.

[ back ] 44. Basso 1966:151.

[ back ] 45. Kierkegaard 1843 [1983]:149.

[ back ] 46. GM 262.

[ back ] 47. GM 262.

[ back ] 48. I am building here on the argumentation presented in ch. 3 above.

[ back ] 49. Eliot 1941 [1963]:199.

[ back ] 50. Antisthenes (F 51 ed. Caizzi) connects the epithet of the nightingale, trōpôsa in Odyssey xix 521, with the epithet of Odysseus, polútropos ‘of many turns’ in Odyssey i 1, reasoning that the hero deserves this epithet in part because he is skillful with words. We may compare also the poetic implications atropíē in Theognis 218, as analyzed in PH 425.