Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry

  Collins, Derek. 2004. Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry. Hellenic Studies Series 7. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Appendix I. Ritual ΑΙΣΧΡΟΛΟΓΙΑ

There are numerous ritual contexts in ancient Greece that call for joking and abuse, generally termed αἰσχρολογία ‘obscenity’. We may think immediately here of ἴαμβος ‘iambic verse’, but this category of joking must be extended to include several terms that are not altogether clearly distinguishable in meaning (the translations are therefore approximate): χλεύη ‘jest’, σκῶμμα ‘joke’, λοιδορία ‘offensive abuse’, γεφυρισμός ‘abuse’, τωθασμός ‘scoffing’, and αἰσχρολογία ‘obscenity’. Because some of these terms are used in descriptions of festivals or other ritual contexts, many experts have argued for a connection between the ritual use of abusive speech and its appearance in Old Comedy. [1] More specifically, a connection between abusive speech in ritual contexts and varieties of capping phenomena such as stichomythia or the contests of shepherds in Theocritus has been postulated. [2] The usual assumption is that there must be a prima facie connection between these—and accordingly because the abusive speech in ritual contexts involves “ritual,’’ it must be older—but when considered as a whole the evidence is more elusive than has been realized. It will repay us to review the primary evidence carefully before we conclude how it may or may not bear on capping phenomena in Greek poetic performance.

Joking, initiation, and contestation in the context of dramatic performance are also all brought together in the famous passage from the chorus of initiates in Aristophanes’ Frogs. They ask Demeter to save her own chorus (391–95):

καὶ πολλὰ μὲν γέλοιά μ᾽ εἰ-
πεῖν, πολλὰ δὲ σπουδαῖα, καὶ
τῆς σῆς ἑορτῆς ἀξίως
παίσαντα καὶ σκώψαντα νι-
κήσαντα ταινιοῦσθαι.

and may I say many funny things,
and many serious things, and
worthily of your festival
play and mock and be crowned as victor.

Other Demeter festivals and related rites show similar patterns, except that the abusive speech occurs primarily between women. In the Thesmophoria, for example, during which both Demeter and Dionysus are celebrated, a comparable kind of αἰσχρολογία takes place and the emphasis is placed on its exclusively female orientation. According to a late and often-cited scholion on Lucian, there was a certain rite among the women that was introduced from the women at Eleusis (Scholion ad Lucian, Dialogues on Courtesans 7.4.13–20 Rabe p. 280):

καὶ παιδιαὶ λέγονται πολλαὶ καὶ σκώμματα. μόναι δὲ γυναῖκες εἰσπορευόμεναι ἐπ᾽ ἀδείας ἔχουσιν ἃ βούλονται λέγειν· καὶ δὴ τὰ αἴσχιστα ἀλλήλαις λέγουσι τότε, αἱ δὲ ἱέρειαι λάθρᾳ προσιοῦσαι ταῖς γυναιξὶ κλεψιγαμίας πρὸς τὸ οὖς ὡς ἀπόρρητόν τι συμβουλεύουσιν. ἀναφωνοῦσι δὲ πρὸς ἀλλήλας πᾶσαι αἱ γυναῖκες αἰσχρὰ καὶ ἄσεμνα βαστάζουσαι εἴδη σωμάτων ἀπρεπῆ ἀνδρεῖά τε καὶ γυναικεῖα.

Both many games and jokes are spoken. The women alone entering an amnesty are able to say whatever they want. And in fact they then speak the most shameful things to one another. The priestesses, secretly approaching the women, advise something unspeakable in their ear about illicit love. All the women proclaim shameful and indecorous things to each other, holding up indecent male and female images.

Beyond the general characterization of the jokes and speech as shameful or indecent, we are further told that the priestesses secretly whisper matters of an illicit, sexual nature, suggesting that the joking generally has this character. Both the secretive element and the sexual nature of the joking may have parallels at Eleusis. [
8] However, unlike the Eleusinian initiates on the Cephisus bridge, we now see that the joking at the Thesmophoria is mutual between the women celebrating the rites. On the whole, other evidence for the Thesmophoria supports the conclusion that women target women with their humor. [9]

The exclusivity of ridicule between women can be paralleled from other Demeter rites even when men are involved. Both the Epidaurians and the Aeginetans honored their local variants of Demeter and Kore, Damia and Auxesia, with choruses performed in honor of the goddesses and their images. The amusing saga of how the olive-wood images of Damia and Auxesia were fashioned by the Epidaurians and then later stolen by the Aeginetans, who revolted from them, need not concern us in detail here. But according to Herodotus, the Aeginetans had stolen the images and (5.83.3):

ἱδρυσάμενοι δὲ ἐν τούτῳ τῷ χώρῳ [Οἴη] θυσίῃσί τέ σφεα καὶ χοροῖσι γυναικηίοισι κερτόμοισι ἱλάσκοντο, χορηγῶν ἀποδεικνυμένων ἑκατέρῃ τῶν δαιμόνων δέκα ἀνδρῶν. κακῶς δὲ ἠγόρευον οἱ χοροὶ ἄνδρα μὲν οὐδένα, τὰς δὲ ἐπιχωρίας γυναῖκας.

After setting them up in this place [Oea] they propitiated them with sacrifices and with ridiculing women’s choruses, with ten men appointed for each of the goddesses as choregoi. The choruses denounced no man, but the local women.

We explored the meaning of κέρτομος and related terms in Part II. Here we need only mention that these women’s choruses must involve some kind of incitement to ridicule (perhaps also between the choruses themselves?), where there is an expectation of provocation. The more significant point is that these women’s choruses explicitly aim their jokes at other women within the community, not men. As in the Thesmophoric rites, once again we are dealing with an exclusively female audience for the humor. [

Although we have noted several points of contact between these traditions, the differences are equally striking. First, only the rites of Damia and Auxesia celebrated by the Epidaurians and the Aeginetans incorporate abuse through the performance of (choral) poetry. This tradition must stand apart from the other spoken forms of abuse because it suggests, for one thing, that the degree of spontaneity and improvisation were probably less than what we find elsewhere. The jokes, for example, would have been composed beforehand in choral lyrics. These jokes denounced the local women but were meant to propitiate the images of Damia and Auxesia. We do not know whether the goddesses were included in the joking, but I think it plausible that the embarrassment of the local women was used as a measure of the choruses’ success.

After sifting the testimonia in this way, what emerges is a less than satisfactory picture of how any of this ritual joking actually worked. Clearly there are important differences in the “rules” for the joking and abuse involved in these festivals and rites. Some, for example, sanction the ridicule of men and women while others expressly involve only women. Some involve mutual joking, others do not. Nor is it easy to discern the relationship between joking of this type and what we have surveyed in this study. If we knew that the mutual mockery, for example, at the Thesmophoria involved capping, with the women besting one another through their jokes as they head toward some final resolution of a “winner,” we would have a sound basis for comparison. And while the emphasis on the mutual nature of the joking there may point in this direction, it distorts both types of gaming to conclude that it definitely does so.


[ back ] 1. Henderson 1975:13–17, Riu 1999:237–42. Halliwell 1991a:294–96 rightly stresses the festival nature of the occasions of ritual abuse and Old Comedy, but does not explore the details of ritual abuse.

[ back ] 2. Merkelbach 1956:127–31, Wallochny 1992:19–20.

[ back ] 3. See Richardson 1974:213–17. For the earlier and undemonstrated view that such ritual joking is apotropaic in nature, see Fluck 1931:31–2. Fluck discusses the Homeric Hymn to Demeter on p. 24.

[ back ] 4. Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 2.20.1.

[ back ] 5. Brumfield 1996:68.

[ back ] 6. Graf 1974:42, 45–6.

[ back ] 7. Both versions at Hesychius, s.v. γεφυρίς, γεφυρισταί.

[ back ] 8. Cf. Hesychius, s.v. γεφυρίς, with Rusten 1977:159–60, where it is reported that the γεφυρίς is a prostitute (πόρνη); we are further told that some maintain that the joker is a woman, others claim he is a man, who is in any case disguised (συγκαλυπτόμενον) while he ridicules the citizens by name. The one-sided nature of the joking here is then doubly emphasized: not only is the ridiculer disguised, he/she singles out each initiate by name for ridicule.

[ back ] 9. Apollodorus, Library 1.5.1; Diodorus Siculus 5.4.7 notes that the αἰσχρολογία in the Thesmophoric rites in Sicily is directed κατὰ τὰς πρὸς ἀλλήλους ὁμιλίας “against one another group by group,” which suggests a further level of stratification between groups of women.

[ back ] 10. This point tells against arguments that have been put forward by some (e.g. Brumfield 1996) that these rites are fundamentally concerned with contradicting or subverting a dominant male ideology that enjoins public silence on the part of women. I fail to see how abusive speech between women can be taken as an ironic counterpoint to male society, particularly in this case where the evidence is so scant.

[ back ] 11. Scholia ad Lucian, Dialogues on Courtesans 7.4 (Rabe p. 281). Further discussion of this festival in Parke 1977:98–100.

[ back ] 12. Pausanias 7.27.10.

[ back ] 13. See Part II. Hesychius, s.v. Στήνια; cf. s.v. στηνιῶσαι· βλασφημῆσαι, λοιδορῆσαι.

[ back ] 14. Photius, s.v. Σήνια (sic), … ἐλοιδοροῦντο δ᾽ ἐν αὐτῇ νυκτὸς αἱ γυναῖκες ἀλλήλαις “The women abused one another offensively in it during the night.”

[ back ] 15. Athenaeus 622d.

[ back ] 16. Richardson 1974:213–16.

[ back ] 17. Most famously illustrated in the legend of Archilochus and Lycambes, on which see Carey 1986 and the recent collection of essays in Carvarzere et al. 2001.

[ back ] 18. For weddings: Catullus 61.119–48; triumphs: Pliny, Natural History 28.39; harvest festivals: Horace, Epistles 2.1.145–6; satire: Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.4.21, on Augustus’ usage of them against Asinius Pollio.