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.

Part III. Epic Competition in Performance: Homer and Rhapsodes

amant alterna Camenae
Muses love singing by turns

Vergil, Eclogue 3.59

16. The Amoebaean Muses

Now, it is altogether possible that Homeric poetry was not performed rhapsodically at all before the sixth century. [5] But I do not think so. For one, the evidence for the Παναθήναια itself—a major venue for rhapsodic performances—which was said to have been instituted by the mythical Erichthonius, and which had earlier been called the ᾽Αθηναῖα, makes clear that this festival’s earlier stages were already opaque to the Athenians themselves. [6] Nor is the relationship between the local Panathenaia and the quadrennial, greater Panathenaia all that clear, especially in terms of whether there might have been any kind of rhapsodic or proto-rhapsodic contests. [7] Furthermore, Hipparchus’ role in structuring the rhapsodic contests at the greater Panathenaia amounted to a reorganization of earlier contests rather than an introduction of new ones. [8] It is impossible to know for certain exactly how and to what extent Hipparchus reorganized competitive rhapsodic performance. As we shall see, because the techniques of rhapsodic performance share features with other types of Greek poetic performance, some of which are traceable to the seventh century or earlier, it is possible that rhapsodic competitions similarly date from an earlier period. Homeric poetry, I will argue, has not left us empty-handed in this regard, and here is where the brunt of the research on speech genres and discourse strategies can be most relevantly felt. For if, as that research shows, Homeric poetry can give us clues as to how archaic Greeks prayed and argued, it could also contain clues to its own competitive performance. We can never exclude the possibility that Greeks of the sixth century and later took performance cues from the poetry itself, making any retrojection of performance techniques into the archaic period anachronistic. But we also cannot exclude the possibility that, if we find similarities of technique between “performers” within the Iliad or Odyssey to later rhapsodic performance, we may have good evidence for dating those techniques to a period earlier than the fixation of the Homeric texts themselves.

Death and feasting are the two most propitious occasions in Homeric poetry for the performance of song. When the Muses are involved in such activities, however, the depiction of their performance, notwithstanding the context, remains curiously fixed. The nuances are lost to us but what remains is a formulaic, participial expression: ἀμειβόμεναι ὀπὶ καλῇ. In this context the participle is usually translated as ‘antiphonal’ or ‘alternating’—hence Vergil’s epigraph at the beginning of this Part—but the verb ἀμείβεσθαι in archaic poetry has a more complex range of meaning than such translations suggest. Before we look more closely at it, I want to consider a few key passages involving the Muses as our point of entry, while refraining for the moment from translating the phrase ameibomenai opi kalêi. At the end of Iliad 1, while the Olympians are feasting and Apollo is playing the lyre (604):

Μουσάων θ᾽, αἳ ἄειδον ἀμειβόμεναι ὀπὶ καλῇ
And the Muses, who sang ameibomenai opi kalêi.

As these examples show, this is a familiar representation of how the Muses sing, but what exactly does it mean to sing ameibomenai opi kalê i? To answer this question, let us start with a later clue and then work our way back to archaic poetry. We shall have occasion in a few moments to delve more fully into the Alexandrian conception of how rhapsodes performed Homeric poetry, both in the Alexandrian and earlier periods. However, it is of great value to my argument that an A scholiast on Iliad 1.603, in reference to what is described there and in verse 604 (given above), drew this conclusion as to how the Muses were performing.:

αἵτινες καὶ αὔταὶ ᾽Απόλλωνος κιθαρίζοντος ἐκ διαδοχῆς καὶ παρὰ μέρος ᾖδον.
[The Muses] themselves while Apollo played the cithara were singing by relay and by turns.

To penetrate this idea further we must look in closer detail at the meaning of ἀμείβεσθαι and its archaic compounds (e.g. ἐπαμείβεσθαι, ἀνταμείβεσθαι), including its ο- grade congeners (e.g. ἀμοιβή, ἀμοιβηδίς, ἐπαμοιβαδίς). The basic middle meaning of ἀμείβεσθαι is ‘to exchange’ or ‘to take turns doing something’, [12] and several Homeric instances of this word employ this notion in a neutral sense. Thus a charioteer who has yoked four horses can gallop over a plain taking a turn (ἀμείβεσθαι) on the back of each horse (Iliad 15.684), or guards can take turns (ἀμείβεσθαι) keeping watch during a vigil that spans several nights (Iliad 9.471). In this sense the Muses in the expression ameibomenai opi kalê i would then be “exchanging/taking turns with a beautiful voice,” and there would be no distinction among their individual contributions. But turn-taking or exchange does not always mean that each contributed part is equivalent: implicitly there can be a notion of competition at work. Such a competitive overtone means that successive parts are meant to outdo preceding ones. This sense is brought out most clearly in overtly competitive contexts, such as jurisprudence or warfare. So for example in the judgment scene on the shield of Achilles, the elders are first seated on polished stones in a sacred circle (Iliad 18.506):

τοῖσιν ἔπειτ᾽ ἤϊσσον, ἀμοιβηδὶς δὲ δίκαζον
Then to them [the judges] leapt forth, and by turns made a judgment

Each judge is given an opportunity before the elders to state what he believes to be the straightest judgment for the plaintiff (18.508). But it is crucial to see that the turn-taking involved (ἀμοιβηδίς) is not “neutral”: with two talents of gold lying nearby for the victor, it is clear that the judges are in competition with one another to make the best case. Although we are not privy to the details of what each judge says, the use of the adverb suggests that each judgment will be cast with a view both toward the judgments to follow and against the background of the preceding ones. On this interpretation, the straightest judgment will be the one that successfully subsumes or anticipates the arguments of the other judges most effectively to determine liability. Accordingly, the fairest judgment (δίκην ἰθύντατα εἰπεῖν, 18.508) must not be seen to emerge out of a vacuum, but against the overall set of judgments given. We do not have to broaden this juridical context very much to understand why ἀμείβεσθαι, in the sense of ‘reply’, whether in participial or finite form is one of the most common verbs used in the context of heroic speeches, especially in the Iliad. As others have shown, [13] whether it is effective, every heroic speech in the Iliad is a competitive vaunt against an adversary. In this atmosphere to speak is to compete for prestige, authority, and so on, and this implies turn-taking or exchange since no one speaks without intending a response or without obviating the need for one. This basic notion of competitive exchange, which is fundamentally comparative, is contained in ἀμείβεσθαι. For this reason, it is not without interest that when Pindar wishes to express that a man’s sweet spirit in company with symposiasts surpasses the toil of bees, he does so by means of ἀμείβεσθαι. [14] In this Pindaric passage ἀμείβεσθαι is more correctly translated as ‘to excel’. This translation draws out the implications of the Homeric usage of ἀμείβεσθαι in the sense of ‘exchange’.

It is this same competitive sense that underlies the usage of ἀμείβεσθαι and related forms in “compensatory” contexts where either gift-giving, warfare, or restitution is at issue. So Laertes tells the disguised Odysseus that if he had returned to Ithaca and found “Odysseus” still alive (Odyssey 24.285–6),

τῷ κέν σ᾽ εὖ δώροισιν ἀμειψάμενος ἀπέπεμψε
καὶ ξενίῃ ἀγαθῇ· ἡ γὰρ θέμις, ὅς τις ὑπάρξῃ.

After repaying you well with gifts he would have sent you away
also with good hospitality; for this is right for whoever has first given.

Gift-giving in Homeric poetry, even as compensation for initial hospitality, is never a matter of “equality,” but of the establishment of mutually recognized obligation. By repaying the disguised Odysseus well, Laertes hypothetically emphasizes the largesse of the real Odysseus. Similarly, in the context of warfare when Hector urges Alexander to join the battle, Alexander replies that νίκη δ᾽ ἐπαμείβεται ἄνδρας “victory comes in turn to men (Iliad 6.339).” His point is that victory requites men successively, and now that he has been cajoled by his wife, it seems better to him to stop grieving and arm for battle (6.338–9). Victory, however, at any one moment is an absolute value in Homeric poetry. [
15] As a consequence, the notion of turn-taking or exchange in ἐπαμείβεσθαι extends beyond compensation—that is, it is not a matter of returning to a state of equilibrium, but of tipping the scales back in favor of the victor against his adversary. We find this sense especially in the compound ἀνταμείβεσθαι, which is not Homeric, but appears in other archaic poets specifically in the context of repayment for injustice. [16] In this way restitution actually demands overcompensation that subordinates one party to another. This meaning is detectable in a form such as ἀμοιβή ‘requital’, which is not found in the Iliad but only in the Odyssey in the context of gift-exchange (1.318) and sacrificial compensation (3.58). In Hesiod the juridical sense of ἀμοιβή is already brought out clearly when we are told that for a series of infractions, such as mistreating suppliants, orphans, the elderly, or sleeping with a brother’s wife, “in return for unjust deeds [Zeus] imposes a harsh compensation” (ἔργων ἀντ᾽ ἀδίκων χαλεπῆν ἐπέθηκεν ἀμοιβήν, Works and Days 334). In Hesiod’s view, Zeus’ punishment is not an equivalent recompense worked out in economic terms for a wrong committed, like the Old High German concept of Wergild, but a continual reminder that men remain subordinate to the judgment of Zeus. The harshness of Zeus’ punishment must therefore surpass the initial offense. A similarly punitive sense of ἀμοιβή, though not expressly in the context of theodicy, can be found in other archaic poets as well. [17]

At times the use of ἀμείβεσθαι can also highlight the collective outcome produced by individual contributions, which themselves exceed one another. After Demodocus has sung the lay of Ares and Aphrodite to the delight of the Pheacians and Odysseus, King Alcinous calls forth two of his sons, who are the best dancers, Halius and Laodamas. We are told that they will dance alone, ἐπεί σφισιν οὔ τις ἔριζεν “since no one challenged them (Odyssey 8.371),” a statement that already sets the competitive mood. In a rather unusual performance, [18] they first challenge each other with a red ball; one of them throws it in the air while the other catches it before it lands (Odyssey 8.377–80):

αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ σφαίρῃ ἀν᾽ ἰθὺν πειρήσαντο,
ὀρχείσθην δὴ ἔπειτα ποτὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ
ταρφέ᾽ άμειβουένω· κοῦροι δ᾽ ἐπελήκεον ἄλλοι
ἑσταότες κατ᾽ ἀγῶνα, πολὺς δ᾽ ὑπὸ κόμπος ὀρώρει.

But when they had made trial of the ball up in the air,
the two then danced on the much-nourishing earth
rapidly taking turns: the other young men standing about
the gathering place stamped out the time, and a great noise rose up.

The precise details of this performance elude us, as does the aspect of ἀμειβομένω, which can be both temporal and instrumental. This ambiguity means that the turn-taking involved refers on the one hand to the opportunity each has quickly to dance his part (temporal). Although we are given no further information about the performance, each brother’s dance is aimed at outdoing the other, and we can expect that they are judged individually, as is usual for participants in Homeric contests. On the other hand the rapid turn-taking is also a basis for their competitive dancing (instrumental), and it is the contest in general for which everyone is gathered and tapping out a rhythm. We have, then, a situation in which the use of ἀμείβεσθαι highlights both Halius and Laodamas’ individual contributions to the dance contest, while at the same time hinting at the collective product that their competitive performance creates. Odysseus acknowledges the brothers’ collective talent, in fact, when he praises them as the best dancers (βητάρμονας … ἀρίστους, 8.383).

We are in a better position now to understand what it means for the Muses to sing ameibomenai opi kalê i. The sense that ought to be given to the participle is ‘competitive exchange’. The turn-taking involved in singing highlights each Muse’s successive contribution vis-à-vis her predecessor’s, yet at the same time acknowledges a process in which the individual contributions produce a whole. In a nutshell, as we shall see in what follows, this description resembles the sixth-century rules for how rhapsodes had to perform Homeric poetry at the Panathenaia and elsewhere, and it is also the basic idea that underlies Alexandrian conceptions of how rhapsodes performed, as our scholiast on Iliad 1.603 recognizes. What I have dubbed the amoebaean Muses are Muses involved in competitive singing in which each song part has to take account of what precedes it, while in a sense anticipating what will follow it. Together the Muses ameibomenai opi kalê i produce a whole song; but this is not a whole that can be analyzed into its parts, because no part exists independently of the others. Each part derives its form and meaning from where it occurs in the sequence of performance, and it is in the ongoing sequence of exchange where an appreciation of meaning is to be found.


[ back ] 1. Martin’s 1989 book is the most important contribution to this trend. Also noteworthy are the studies of Bakker 1997 esp. 1–17, Garcia 2002:41–50 on ritual speech, and Minchin 2002b on questioning strategies.

[ back ] 2. Criticism of Martin 1989 on this point by Minchin 2002a:73–4, although by the end of her study (viz. of the rebuke) she too concludes that speech formats are drawn from Homer’s “everyday world (87, 94).”

[ back ] 3. Schadewaldt 1944:61 had already argued that the Odyssey presented details about ἀοιδοί ‘singers’ that were one hundred years younger or more than the Iliad, but this assertion is unproven. The more insistent problem is that none of these details exactly resembles rhapsodic performances as they are historically attested.

[ back ] 4. The case of Odysseus comes closest in this respect to historically attested rhapsodic performances; cf. Schadewaldt 1944:71, 81.

[ back ] 5. Our earliest testimony for competitive rhapsodic performances is in Sicyon, concerning the contests banned by Cleisthenes, who ruled c. 600–570 (Herodotus 5.67). Davison 1958:39, based on the appearance of “Iliadic” scenes on vase paintings in the mid-sixth century, posits that period for the institution of rhapsodic contests. But this can only be true for Athens. In Hesychius (s.v. Βραυρωνίοις) the date of the evidence for rhapsodic performance of the Iliad at Brauron is unknown: τὴν Ἰλιάδα ᾖδον ῥαψῳδοὶ ἐν Βραυρῶνι τῆς ᾽Αττικῆς “Rhapsodes sang the Iliad in Attic Brauron.” See Davison 1958:29.

[ back ] 6. For the Panathenaia see Harpocration, s.v. Παναθήναια. On Erichthonius, see Hellanicus, FGH 323a F 2. On the Athenaia, see Istros, FGH 334 F 4.

[ back ] 7. Cyclical choruses (κύκλιοι χοροί) and pyrrhic dancers (πυρριχισταί), however, are attested for the fifth century (Lysias 21.2 and 4, respectively). On these and later event attestations, see Davison 1958:25–6. Davison (26) acknowledges that we are prevented from knowing whether certain events were first instituted or were taken over into the later, greater Panathenaia because of the lack of official records.

[ back ] 8. On this I agree with Davison 1958:39.

[ back ] 9. Collins 2001a and 2001b.

[ back ] 10. Schol. T Iliad 24.720. For more on the Homeric representation ofantiphonal lament, see Alexiou 1974:4–14.

[ back ] 11. Scholia to Pindar, Nemean 2.1–3, which are discussed in detail below.

[ back ] 12. LSJ s.v.

[ back ] 13. Martin 1989:89–145.

[ back ] 14. Pythian 6.54.

[ back ] 15. For a broader treatment of this idea, cf. my earlier work on Homeric ἀλκή in Collins 1998.

[ back ] 16. Archilochus 126.2 West, Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 1049, Prometheus Bound 223 (West).

[ back ] 17. Theognis 1263, Pindar, Pythian 2.24.

[ back ] 18. So Heubeck et al. 1988 ad 8.370–80 with further examples.