Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece: Their Morphology, Religious Roles, and Social Functions


{263|264} After defining the essential semantic features of the participants in choral performances by women, an examination of their morphology clarified the relations that unite the members of this type of lyric group. The hierarchical relations uniting each of the chorus-members to the choregos (male or female) is doubled in the ties of equality that link these same chorus-members. These relationships were realized in the activity of the chorus, an activity mainly musical, and they were therefore defined in musical terms. To direct the chorus meant that the choregos accompanied it on an instrument, coordinated the dance steps, thus imposing what could be called the choral order. The activity of the chorus-members was complementary to that of the choregos: according to varying modalities, they performed together the elements of Greek music—melody, rhythm, and song. Within this framework it is possible to qualify the modes of performance of the different songs, some of which belonged to specific poetic genres, sung by choruses of young girls or of women in Archaic Greece.

A study of the religious rites involving choral performances by women was the result of a question as to the use of the Archaic lyric chorus. Although these choruses were performed for secular occasions, they were used for the most part in the cults of specific deities. A general and necessarily partial analysis of Greek rites and the more detailed study of specifically Lacedaemonian cults showed that the rituals followed closely the path leading the young child from adolescence to marriage and to maternity. Even if they also had other functions, many of the cults at Sparta were associated with tribal initiation and gave a religious stamp to its various steps.

This comparison between Greek choral practice and tribal initiation led to a definition of the role played by the young girls’ choruses in the social system of the Archaic city. Similar to that found in tribal societies, this initiation system aspired to integrate adolescent boys and girls into adult society by preparing them for the role of the citizen and his wife; as future wife of the citizen-soldier, the Greek girl had to prepare for motherhood. This learning period took place in groups of adolescents under the leadership of an adult. The lyric chorus was one of the tangible modalities of this organization. In Sparta at any rate, its integral position in the political structure of the State confirms the institutional and therefore the sacred nature of the chorus. In addition, examples of ritual inversion in the chorus, such as homoeroticism or marginality, as well as the notable pedagogical function of the chorus in Greece, were also an integral part of the institution. {264|265}

Given the late use of writing, from the middle of the eighth century only, and the hazards of tradition, we have only a very small part of the songs and poems composed for the rites of Greek tribal initiation; these literary manifestations of the institution of initiation have only a limited place in Archaic lyric poetry. I must add that the social changes brought about, among other technological changes, by the adoption in Greece of the Phoenician alphabet had a decisive influence on this Archaic institution. The rites associated with it gradually changed or disappeared, to be replaced by a scholastic type of education system, as tradition became fixed by writing and, paradoxically, provoked a probable acceleration of history, a fact noted by anthropologists in all societies in which writing supplants the oral mode of transmission. It is definitely an institution in transition that appears in the few poetic fragments we are able to read. Later authors, from whom most of our information comes, can have realized only confusedly its function, and its meaning would have escaped us altogether without ethnographic comparisons. In conclusion, it is up to us not to forget it.