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

Editor’s Foreword

{v|vi} Building on the foundations of scholarship within the disciplines of philology, philosophy, history, and archaeology, this series spans the continuum of Greek traditions extending from the second millennium B.C.E. to the present, not just the Archaic and Classical periods. The aim is to enhance perspectives by applying various disciplines to problems that have in the past been treated as the exclusive concern of a single given discipline. Besides the crossing-over of the older disciplines, as in the case of historical and literary studies, the series encourages the application of such newer ones as linguistics, sociology, anthropology, and comparative literature. It also encourages encounters with current trends in methodology, especially in the realm of literary theory.

Les choeurs de jeunes filles en Grèce archaïque, by Claude Calame, was originally published in 1977. Over the succeeding years, it gradually became recognized as a major breakthrough in the study of ancient Greek society and literature. It awakened the world of Classical scholarship to something of central importance in the cultural life of ancient Greece. This is the chorus, a singing and dancing ensemble of non-professionals who perform ad hoc, at public occasions like festivals, on behalf of the whole community. An accomplished anthropologist as well as Classicist, Calame elucidated the traditional custom of communal choral performance as a social institution that was basic to the emotional, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic formation of all who participated.

Calame’s historical overview concentrates on choruses comprised of young women, but the implications of his insights extend to choruses of boys and men as well. Further, Calame’s analysis casts new light on the essence of the Classical form that we know as choral lyric poetry—not only the grand old-fashioned choral productions of Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides, but also the newer and more experimental ones that grew out of Athenian State Theater, as represented by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Just as important, the picture that emerges from Calame’s systematic survey of evidence about Archaic and Classical Greek choruses of young women forces a reassessment of Classicists’ perspectives on Sappho and her poetics. Calame has made it possible to broaden scholarly discussion, to move beyond the tired old reductionism of earlier generations of scholars who had read their own preconceptions into ancient texts, seeking facile answers to simplistic questions about Sappho’s “monodic poetry”—or even about her “lesbianism.” As Calame’s book makes clear, the poetics of Sappho can be traced back to a choral tradition, and the institutions of the chorus in turn help us reconstruct a historical context for the conventions of homoerotic self-expression.

Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece is a revised version of the 1977 French original (the “young women” in the title is meant to include “girls” as a sub-category). Thanks to the active collaboration of Claude Calame, who has also added new details and further bibliography, this book is the equivalent of a second edition. The series editor wishes to thank, besides those already thanked {vi|vii} by Calame in the author’s preface to this new edition, the following scholars who generously helped proofread the near-final version of the text: Tamara Chin, Marian Demos, Fred Porta, and Timothy Power.

Special thanks are due to a senior Hellenist who generously read through the text and helped make numerous improvements. He modestly gave the series editor explicit instructions not to list him in the acknowledgments; his request is hereby honored, reluctantly, but his selfless contribution will always be remembered and cherished by those who know how much of his time and effort went into making this book a worthy successor to the original. {vii|viii}

Author’s Foreword I (1975)

Given the endless controversies over the meaning of Alcman’s poems known as the Partheneia, I may seem to be taking quite a risk by trying to interpret them in my own way. Besides the methodological reasons that underlie this work, a description of which is given in the introduction, I have a more circumstantial motive for trying. The work would not have seen the light of day were it not for Bruno Gentili, who suggested that I edit Alcman’s fragments as part of the complete edition of archaic Greek poets undertaken by the Gruppo di ricerca sulla lirica greca at the University of Urbino. Following this suggestion, André Rivier proposed that I present the commentary on the two most important fragments as a thesis. If this commentary is no longer central to the plan of the work, it is because the extent of my preliminary research towards an understanding of Alcman’s poems, and their results, seemed to me to compensate for the often hypothetical character of the interpretation I had proposed.

The form of this work is, on the whole, the result of discussions infused with André Rivier’s sensitivity and perspicacity. He was no longer alive at the conclusion of the work. I dearly hope that these pages are sufficiently marked by the influence of those privileged moments to constitute a respectful and grateful homage. François Lasserre has shown great understanding in taking over André Rivier’s role. I owe to him my interest in things Greek; his patience and encouragement have accompanied me throughout my journey.

The thoughts that follow were enriched by numerous visits abroad, each of which has helped in some way to enlarge my philological horizon. I spent a year in Hamburg collaborating on the Lexikon des frühgriechischen Epos. Applying the rigorous method of analysis proposed by Eva-Maria Voigt was a stimulating experience; I had the additional pleasure of attending the seminars of Winfried Bühler and Bruno Snell. A grant from the Lausanne Commission of the Fonds national de la recherche scientifique allowed me to spend two years in Paris and in London. At the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, seminars by Marcel Detienne, Georges Devereux, Algirdas Julien Greimas, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet provided me with the incentive to rethink and reformulate the methodological problems, and at University College the counsels of John P. Barron, Giuseppe Giangrande and Eric W. Handley widened my use of philological analysis. It was in London that I read Roger Crowhurst’s thesis, unfortunately not yet published; the author allowed me to use the valuable material that he had collected and studied. In Switzerland, a colloquium under the auspices of the Association suisse des études anciennes, chaired by André Hurst and Walter Burkert, and an advanced course organized by Olivier Reverdin, produced some very fruitful exchanges. This latter course also allowed me to complete my acquaintance with the region of Laconia. Discussions with Jean Béranger introduced me to the complex problems of Spartan history.

But this work would not have been begun without numerous lengthy intervals with the Gruppo di ricerca sulla lirica greca of Urbino, first as scientific collaborator with grants from the Italian Centro nazionale delle ricerche, then as {viii|ix} a lecturer at the University of Urbino. I would like to thank most warmly the Director of the Group, Bruno Gentili, from whose experience in the area of archaic lyric and from whose openness to problems of method I greatly profited. During several periods as visitor at the Swiss Institute in Rome I made the acquaintance of Angelo Brelich, who allowed me to read his work, since published, on tribal initiation in ancient Greece, and Vittorio Maconi, whose ethnological expertise proved very valuable. I am equally obliged to the Centro internazionale di semiotica at Urbino for several useful events, and to the Italian CNR for a subsidy for the publication of the research, a process that lasted longer than two years!

I would like to express my gratitude to all those with whom I came into contact during those rich years; they may be assured they contributed to my experience even though they may not have been mentioned. {ix|x}

Author’s Foreword II (1995)

To read the results of my own research again after twenty years is not, initially, a very encouraging experience. My awareness of its lacunas would require the rewriting of the whole. Therefore, this English edition of the first volume of my doctoral thesis would have been impossible without the determinant impulse and the continuous confidence of Gregory Nagy, or without the excellent collaboration with the translators. Finally I have limited myself to correcting some errors, taking into account the criticisms formulated at the occasion of its publication in French twenty years ago, but I tried also to keep track of the main areas of research done in this field in the meantime, and to that extent this volume has to be considered a second edition of Les choeurs de jeunes filles I. The Commission des publications of the University of Lausanne and the Société Académique Vaudoise have greatly contributed in covering the expenses of the translation. To both these institutions and to the translators, Derek Collins and Janice Orion, my warmest thanks. Also to Victor Bers and Brian Fuchs, who have kindly proofread the whole text and made many improvements. {x|xi}

Author’s Preface (2001)

Since the (re)discovery of rites of passage and of their relevance for ancient Greek culture in the late 1960s, there has been a widespread use and abuse of this notion taken from the field of social and cultural anthropology. The polymorphism of the concept developed by its founder, Arnold van Gennep, has been almost completely forgotten. This oversight has been partly provoked by the focus on a particular (modern) category called rite of tribal initiation. From an anthropological point of view it is certainly possible to classify into this category all of the intricate and symbolic ritual sequences that serve the social function of bringing adolescent males and females from their state as children to become a full member of the community as an adult man or as an adult woman. Of course gender distinction is particularly relevant here!

The abuse I am addressing can be noticed on two different levels. First we can observe an oversimplification of the (dynamic) scheme proposed by van Gennep. The French specialist of folklore has insisted on the fact that ‘rites of passage’ have to be analytically split into ‘rites of separation,’ ‘rites of transition’ (or ‘liminal rites’), and ‘rites of incorporation.’ Each of these particular ritual stages can often be broken down into a particular threefold sequence with its own phases of dividing, segregating, and integrating. That statement is extremely important if one intends for instance to understand the particular position and function that the marriage ceremony assumes in classical Greece within the whole ‘initiatory’ curriculum of the girl, which is of course quite different from the initiation to which the boy is subjected. Secondly, the pattern attributed to any initiatory rite of transition has been reduced to a kind of universal, ‘basic level’ category, half empirical and half abstract, integrated into our encyclopedic knowledge. As such, it has been largely used as a hermeneutical tool for reading in initiatory terms the set of ‘myths’ presenting female or male figures of adolescence. Ignorance of the fundamental difference between the structural organization of a ritual and the narrative logic of a mûthos (which is never reduced in classical Greece to a mere mythographical plot) has provoked many overinterpretations—for instance, an initiatory reading of Philoctetes’ stay on his savage island, when the young man in the story is obviously Neoptolemos. [1] Given this consideration, the present book is actually not free from any suspicion.

Such sudden and enthusiastic interest is certainly not merely historical chance and, from the epistemological point of view, it has to be replaced in the broader context of the recent renewal of different syncretistic religious movements tending toward forms of mysticism. Consciously or not, indirectly or not, historians {xi|xii} of (Greek) religion cannot help but be influenced by contemporary trends in their own cultural context.

One can, however, suppose that if it is true that the operation of culture and life in society plays a decisive role in restricting the almost unlimited creative capacities offered by the neuronal system of the human brain, the various social processes of anthropopoiesis compensate for the apparent loss with the possibility of exchange and the reciprocal construction of one’s identity as a human being in a social and cultural group. In the context of a social construct of humans who aim to integrate themselves into the course of a cultural identity and to remarkably enrich the practical and symbolic life of the individual, the rites of tribal initiation—with their educational function—remain an essential part of social and cultural anthropopoiesis. {xii|xiii}

Gender as social representation of each sex as it determines a set of social functions and symbolic practices consecrated in various institutions is, of course, a fundamental factor of any process of anthropopoiesis. In the recent and necessary trend of a militant feminist activism centered on the defense of women’s rights, the attention of anthropologists of the ancient world has been focused on the contrast and on the power relationships between men and women with their completely asymmetrical gender status. However, recent research, specifically on the various forms of initiation for boys and girls in the changing historical context of some tribes living along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea has led to more qualified results. It looks as if either the rituals of tribal initiation (mainly for the male adolescents) or the puberty rites (for the young women) tend to give symbolically to each sex the specific procreative qualities of which they are physiologically deprived. [5] It is exactly from the perspective of the complementarity of gender-specific roles through a system of symbolic balance that one could understand the evidence displayed in the present book about the social and poetic peculiarities of Alcman’s female choruses at Sparta or of Sappho’s group of very young women at Lesbos—not a mere copy of male institutions and symbolic manifestations. Sappho’s poems could not possibly be compared in their semantic development and their social and ritual functions to Alcaeus’s compositions intended for the active audience of a sympotic hetaireia of adult citizens. [6] But, avoiding any attempt at idealization on our part, we face a choral mode of education with an initiatory component, striving toward the development of the specific cultural and gender qualities attributed to women in the first poleis of the Archaic period.

The constituent asymmetry existing between the sexes and the related social system of symbolic compensatory fabrication of human identity are also found in the relationships between age groups of the same sex. The process of becoming an adult has too often been sociologically interpreted in terms of passivity and activity, particularly in relation to the education role of ‘homosexual’ relationships—which is so important in understanding the practical functions of Greek melic poetry. Even Michel Foucault met some difficulties in grasping the institutional aspects of the erotic relationship between a young Greek man and an adult man or woman, generally integrated in a social, if not a ritual, group.


[ back ] 1. From the collection of initiatory readings proposed by A. Moreau (ed.), L’initiation: Actes du Colloque international de Montpellier, 2 vol., Montpellier 1992, to the one proposed by M. W. Padilla (ed.), Rites of Passage in Ancient Greece: Literature, Religion, Society, Lewisburg, Pa. 1999, the critical stance is now to be perceived. See for instance the critical remarks formulated, among others, by K. Dowden, Death and the Maiden: Girls’ Initiation Rites in Greek Mythology, London 1989, pp. 6–12.

[ back ] 2. On the recent concept of anthropopoiesis, see the collections of essays in F. Remotti (ed.), Le antropologie degli altri: Saggi di etno-antropologia, Torino 1997, and in C. Calame and M. Kilani (eds.), La fabrication de l’humain dans les cultures et en anthropologie, Lausanne 1999.

[ back ] 3. See particularly the contribution by A. Favole and S. Allovio, “Plasticità e incompletezza tra etnografia e neuroscienze,” in F. Remotti (ed.), Forme di umanità: Progetti incompleti e cantieri sempre aperti, Torino 1999, pp. 169–208.

[ back ] 4. One can refer to the consequences foreseen by J. Testart, L’homme probable: De la procréation aléatoire à la reproduction normative, Paris 1999, or in the collection of contrasted studies by H. Atlan, M. Augé, M. Delmas-Marty, R.-P. Droit, and N. Fresco, Le clonage humain, Paris 1999; for an anthropological study of the work in a laboratory on the human genome, see the enquiry by P. Rabinow, Essays on the Anthropology of Reason, Princeton 1996, pp. 91ff.

[ back ] 5. See the essays published in N. C. Lutkehaus and P. B. Ruscoe (eds.), Gender Rituals: Female Initiation in Melanesia, New York 1995 (with introduction by N. C. Lutkehaus, “Feminist Anthropology and Female Initiation in Melanesia,” pp. 3–29), or the references given by F. Weiss, “Die Unterdrückung der Fraueninitiation: Zum Wandel des Ritualsystems bei den Iatmul,” in B. Hauser-Schäublin (ed.), Geschichte und mündliche Überlieferung in Ozeanien, Basel 1994, pp. 237–259.

[ back ] 6. That as an allusion to the recent controversy about the nature of Sappho’s ‘thiasos’—see the reference given, p. 250 n. 156.

[ back ] 7. I have tried to show the role of poetry in this process of initiatory achievement in The Poetics of Eros in Ancient Greece, Princeton 1999, pp. 13ff. and 89ff.; for a critique of the concept of ‘homosexuality’ see, among others, D. M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love, New York 1990, pp. 155ff. and 41ff.

Abbreviations used in the References [NaN]

Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Mainz, Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Klasse
Antike und Abendland
Annual of the British School at Athens
L’Antiquité Classique
Ἀρχαιολογικὸν Δελτίον
Annali della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia della Università di Napoli
Annali della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia dell’Università degli Studi di Perugia
American Journal of Archaeology
American Journal of Philology
Antike Kunst
Abhandlungen der königlichen Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften
Archiv für Religionswissenschaft
Archives suisses des traditions populaires
The Ancient World
Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique
Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies of the University of London
Boletín del Instituto de Estudios Helénicos
Bonner Jahrbücher des Rheinischen Landesmuseums in Bonn und des Vereins von Altertumsfreunden in Rheinland
Beiträge zur Kunde der Indogermanischen Sprachen
Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
Cultura e Scuola
The Classical Journal
Classical Philology
Classical Quarterly
Classical Review
Dialogues d’histoire ancienne
Ἐπιστημονικὴ Ἐπετηρὶς τῆς Φιλοσοφικῆς Σχολῆς τοῦ Ἀριστοτελείου Πανεπιστημίου Θεσσαλονίκης
Etudes de Lettres
Fragmente der griechischen Historiker
Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen
Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies
History of Religions
Harvard Studies in Classical Philology
Harvard Theological Review
Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts {xv|xvi}
Journal of Hellenic Studies
Jahreshefte des Oesterreichischen Archäologischen Instituts
Jahrbuch des Vereins von Altertumsfreunden im Rheinlande (Bonner Jahrbücher)
Der kleine Pauly: Lexikon der Antike
Lexikon der alten Welt
Lexikon des frühgriechischen Epos
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae
Museum Criticum
Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts (Athenische Abteilung)
Museum Helveticum
Museum Philologicum Londiniense
Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society
Philologische Wochenschrift
La Parola del Passato
Quaderni di Storia
Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica
Revue Archéologique
Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft
Revue des Etudes Anciennes
Revue des Etudes Grecques
Rivista di Filologia e di Istruzione Classica
Rheinisches Museum
Revue de l’Histoire des Religions
Rivista dell’Istituto Nazionale di Archeologia e Storia dell’Arte
Rendiconti dell’Istituto Lombardo, Classe di Lettere, Scienze morali e storiche
Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie
Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Philosophisch-historische Klasse
Studi Classici e Orientali
Studi micenei ed egeo-anatolici
Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni
Symbolae Osloenses
Sitzungsberichte des Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften
Studi Storico Religiosi
Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association
Würzburger Jahrbücher für die Altertumswissenschaft
Wiener Studien
Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik {xvi|1}


[ back ] NaN. * The concluding bibliography lists only the monographs and the articles cited in the notes, which are relevant to the problems addressed in this study.