Greek Mythology and Poetics

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Chapter 11. Poetry and the Ideology of the Polis: The Symbolism of Apportioning Meat

Φιλόχορος δέ φησιν κρατήσαντας Λακεδαιμονίους Μεσσηνίων διὰ τὴν Τυρταίου στρατηγίαν ἐν ταῖς στρατείαις ἔθος ποιήσασθαι, ἂν δειπνοποιήσονται καὶ παιωνίσωσιν, ᾄδειν καθ’ ἕνα <τὰ> Τυρταίου· κρίνειν δὲ τὸν πολέμαρχον καὶ ἆθλον διδόναι τῷ νικῶντι κρέας

Philochorus FGH 328 F 216 from Athenaeus 630 f

Philochorus says that the Spartans, after having defeated the Messenians on account of the leadership of Tyrtaeus, instituted a custom in their military organization: whenever they would prepare dinner and perform раeans, they would each take turns singing the poems of Tyrtaeus. The polemarch would serve as judge and award a cut of meat to the winner.

This passage, if its testimony is to be believed, illustrates an ideology basic to the polis, namely, the notion of community through the participation of social equals. The ritual that is being described, the awarding of a cut of meat to the winner of a contest, dramatizes such an ideology. As the studies of Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Détienne have shown, the archaic Greek custom of competing for prizes in contests presupposes the communalization of property that is to be apportioned and distributed in a manner that is egalitarian in ideology—but without excluding the option of awarding special privileges. [1] Where the prize is a cut of meat, the communalization takes place through the central act that integrates the community, namely, the sacrifice of a victim and the apportioning of its meat. [2] {269|270}

These themes are strikingly analogous to what we find in the story of Lycurgus: the Spartan lawgiver is said to have introduced his, laws from a foreign source, in this case, Crete (Herodotus 1.65.4; Plutarch Lycurgus 4.1), which is where he returns in self-imposed exile and starves himself to death in order to make these laws permanent (Plutarch Lycurgus 29.8, 31; Ephorus FGH 70 F 175, from Aeliau Varia Historia 13.23). [22] The theme of Lycurgus’ death by hunger brings us hack to the name Aithōn assumed by Theognis as an exile speaking from his tomb (1209-1210). The adjective aithōn can mean ‘burning [with hunger]’ and is used as an epithet for characters known for their ravenous hunger, such as Erysikhthon (Hesiod F 43 MW). [23] Odysseus himself assumes the name Aithōn (Odyssey xix 183), and he does so in a context of assuming the stance of a would-be poet (xix 203, in conjunction with xiv 124-125 and vi 215-221). This poet-like stance of Odysseus is symbolized by the concept of the gastḗr ‘belly’ (as at Odyssey vii 216): hunger can impel a man to use ambiguous discourse in order to ingratiate himself with his audience—and thus feed his gastḗr. [24] But this ambiguous discourse of the poet, the technical word for which is aînos (as at Odyssey xiv 508), is not {274|275} just a negative concept. It can also he a positive social force: when the disguised king Odysseus is begging for food at the feasts of the impious suitors, he is actually speaking not only in the mode of an aînos [25] but also in the role of an exponent of díkē ‘justice’. [26] The role of Aesop, master of the aînos in both the general sense and in the specific sense of ‘fable’, [27] is analogous: he uses this discourse to indicate cryptically what is right and wrong, [28] and we must keep in mind the aítion ‘cause’ of his death, which was that he ridiculed the ritualized greed of a Delphic rite where meat is being apportioned in a disorderly and frenzied manner (Oxyrhynchus Papyri 1800). [29] In the praise poetry of Pindar, the technical word for which is likewise aînos (in the testimony of the poetry itself), [30] the concept of the gastḗr can again be seen as a positive social force (Isthmian 1.49).

In sum, the Spartan ritual practice involving the award of a cut of meat as reported by Philochorus is perfectly in accord with the ideology of the archaic polis as expressed in the elegiac poetry of Tyrtaeus. To perform the poetry of an exponent of díkē ‘justice’ is perfectly in accord with the prize of meat that is awarded to the winning performer. {275|276}


[ back ] 1. Vernant1985.202-260, esp. pp. 210-215; Détienne 1973.82-99.

[ back ] 2. Détienne and Vernant 1969, in particular the article by Détienne, “Pratiques culinaires et esprit de sacrifice,” pp. 10, 23-24; also the article by Détienne and Svenbro (1979), “Les loups au festin ou la Cité impossible,” esp. pp. 219-222. To repeat, the apportioning and distribution of meat, though conducted in an egalitarian manner, does not exclude the option of awarding special privileges. See also Svenbro 1982, esp. pp. 954-955. Cf. Luraux 1981.616-617.

[ back ] 3. Cerri 1969. For an analysis of Theognis 667-682, the poem in which this passage occurs: N 1985a.22-24.

[ back ] 4. The ísos ‘equal, equitable’ of ísos dasmós refers to the virtual equality of the participants; cf. Détienne 1973.96.

[ back ] 5. Cf. the paraphrase of es tò méson ‘directed at the center’ by Cerri 1969.103: ‘under the control of the community’. This expression es tò méson ‘directed at the center’ evidently refers to an agonistic communalization of possessions that are marked for orderly distribution by the community. I cite Cerri’s survey of parallel passages.

[ back ] 6. I disagree with West 1974.68 that the expression ‘leaders of the community [dêmos]’ (as here and at Solon F 6.1 W = F 8 GP) means ‘popular leaders’ i.e. champions of democracy: see N 1985a.43-44. On dêmos in the sense of ‘community’, see p. 3n7 above.

[ back ] 7. On the programmatic connotations of euphrosúnē ‘merriment’ as the occasion for poetry at a feast: N 1979a.19, 92 (with §39n7), 236 (with § 15n5).

[ back ] 8. Cf. N 1979a.127-128 et passim, with bibliography.

[ back ] 9. For documentation and bibliography: Cerri 1969.103-104.

[ back ] 10. For an illuminating note on the meaning of eunomíā in Solon (F 4.32 W) and in Aristotle (Politics 1294a4-7), see Svenbro 1982.962n27, who also discusses the differences in political nuance between eunomíā and īsonomíā.

[ back ] 11. Cf. Apollodorus 2.5.4: the Centaur Pholos offers roast meat to his guest Herakles, while he himself eats his own portions of meat raw (αὐτὸς δὲ ὠμοῖς ἐχρῆτο). Cf. also Theognis 54, with an implied description of debased aristocrats in language that suits the Cyclopes (cf. Odyssey ix 215); discussion in N 1985а.44 §29n4 (also p. 51 §39n2).

[ back ] 12. On the suitors’ violation of social norms through violation of the daís ‘feast’: Saïd 1979.

[ back ] 13. Aesop Fable 348 Реrrу, about the Wolf as Lawgiver and the Ass, is comparable to the story in Herodotus 3.142-143, where Maiandrios, successor to the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, declares to the assembly of citizens that he will place his political power es mesón ‘under the control of the community’, proclaiming īsonomíā (3.142.3). On es tò mesón ‘directed at the center’ in the sense of ‘under the control of the community’, see p. 270n5. As Détienne and Svenbro point out (1979.220-221,230), both the wolf as lawgiver and the tyrant commit the same perversion of the principles of community: just as the wolf as lawgiver reserves portions of meat for himself before the procedure of placing all seized meat es tò mesón (Aesop Fable 348.4), so also Maiandrios reserves special privileges for himself before placing his political power es mesón (Herodotus 3.142.3). On the wolf as the symbolic antithesis of the Law, see the bibliography assembled by Détienne and Svenbro 1979; also Davidson 1979 and Grottanelli 1981, esp. p. 5fi. On the possible etymology of Lukoûrgos (= Lycurgus), lawgiver of the Spartans, as ‘he who wards off the wolf’: Burkert 1979a.165-166n24.

[ back ] 14. Jacoby FGH IIIb vol. 1 pp. 583-584 and IIIb vol. 2 pp. 479-480. See also Jacoby 1918, esp. pp. 1-12.

[ back ] 15. Jacoby thought that Herodotus did not know of the poetry of Tyrtaeus, on the grounds that there is no mention of him in the discussion of how Sparta achieved eunomíā in Herodotus 1.65-66. And yet, what Herodotus says does leave room for the possibility that he did indeed know of Tyrtaeus. Herodotus rejects a version of the Lycurgus story according to which the lawgiver got his laws from the Delphic Oracle, preferring a version that he attributes to the contemporary Spartans themselves, to the effect that Lycurgus got his laws from Crete. In my opinion, this version leaves room for the notion that both Lycurgus and Tyrtaeus made contributions to the constitution of Sparta—Lycurgus with laws from Crete and Tyrtaeus with laws from the Delphic Oracle (see Tyrtaeus F 4.1-2 W).

[ back ] 16. References to the Athenian provenience of Tyrtaeus: Philochorus FGH 328 F 215 and Callisthenes FGH 124 F 24 from Strabo 8.4.10 C362.

[ back ] 17. From the standpoint of literary history as well, one can argue against Jacoby’s notion that there was a lacuna in the transmission of Tyrtaeus in the fifth century. There is reason to believe that the poetry of Tyrtaeus—and all archaic elegiac poetry, for that matter—was being continually recomposed in the process of transmission through performance (see N1985a.46-51). The factor of continual recomposition would account for the anachronistic accretions of given passages and testimonia.

[ back ] 18. Note the parallelisms of themes in the testimonia about the foreign proveniences of archaic Sparta’s poets, as collected by Fontenrose 1978: Q 18 (Tyrtaeus), Q53 (Terpander), and Q 54 (Thaletas); cf. also Q 118. For the testimonia on these and other poets of Sparta, including Alcman, see Calame 1977 2:34-36. As Calame emphasizes (p, 35), the poetry of all these poets is integral to the ritual complex of Spartan festivals (cf. Brelich 1969.186ff.). I would argue, therefore, that such traditions as the report about the Lydian provenience of Alcman (PMG 13a; also PMG 1 Schol. В., Velleius Paterculus 1.18.2, Aelian Varia Historia 12.50) must be correlated with the fact that there were Spartan rituals that centered on Lydian themes, such as τῶν Λυδῶν πομπή, the ‘Procession of the Lydians’ mentioned in Plutarch Aristeides 17.10 in connection with the cult of Artemis Orthia. We may compare an event known as the “Dance of the Lydian Maidens,” at a festival of Artemis at Ephesus(Autocrates F 1 Kock, from Aelian De natura animalium 12.9 and Aristophanes Clouds 599-600; see the discussion of Calame 1977 1:178-185). In this case, it seems clear to me that the term “Lydian Maidens” in fact designates a ritual role played by the local girls of Ephesus.

[ back ] 19. For a brief survey of examples, see Frister 1909 1:130-133: Verehrung des fremden Meros wegen seiner Verdienste.

[ back ] 20. For an analysis of this passage, see N 1985а.76-81. Note especially the parallel usages of oikéō ‘I have an abode’ in this passage of Theognis (1210) and in Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 27, 28, 92, 627, 637. In N pp. 76-77, I argue that oikéō in such contexts refers to the establishing of a corpse in a sacred precinct for the purposes of hero cult. On historical evidence for the cultural debt of pre-Dorian Megara to Thebes, see Hanell 1934.95-97.

[ back ] 21. On the poetic convention that pictures the poet who speaks as one who is already dead, with further discussion of Theognis 1209-1210 and related passages, see N pp. 68-81. On the convention of representing the poet’s poetry as his own sêma ‘tomb’, see p. 222n62. In this connection, we may note that elegiac poetry, as represented by the likes of Theognis and Tyrtaeus, is a reflex of the poetic traditions of lamentation as removed from the tribal context and as appropriated and reshaped by the polis. On this subject, see Edmunds 1985.

[ back ] 22. N pp. 31-32; cf. Szegedy-Maszak 1978.199-209, esp. p. 208.

[ back ] 23. For further elaboration: N pp. 76-91.

[ back ] 24. See p. 44. Cf. Svenbro 1976.50-59.

[ back ] 25. For documentation, see N 1979.1.231-242.

[ back ] 26. N pp. 231-242. On Odysseus as the quintessentially just king, see esp. Odyssey xix 109-114.

[ back ] 27. N p. 239 §18n2.

[ back ] 28. N pp. 281-284.

[ back ] 29. N pp. 284-288.

[ back ] 30. N pp. 222-223, following Detienne 1973.21.

[ back ] 31. Quoted, with commentary, in N 1985a.27-29.

[ back ] 32. Elaboration in N p. 28.