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Chapter 6 of The Cambridge Companion to Sappho ponders Sappho’s relationship with her other archaic poets and contemporary poetic traditions, including iambic poetry (Archilochus and Hipponax) and choral poetry (Alcman and Bacchylides).
On a Late Geometric krater from Argos (Fig. 3.0), two panels with lines of female dancers appear above a band of birds, likewise arranged in a linear and collective formation. Even as the birds’ design follows the conventions regularly used for portraying avians in Geometric art, their bent limbs simultaneously mirror the legs peeking out from the skirts of each dancer above, suggesting relations of equivalence between the flock and choral group, whose members also move from left to right around the body of the bowl. Among the abstract shapes used to depict the birds are the wavy lines that recur in the zigzag decorative motifs in the adjacent bands and panels. As stylized representations of bodies of water, these elements both position the choruses in the verdant landscape that, as noted in Chapter 2, typically supplies the backdrop for maiden dancers in the archaic visual and textual accounts and cohere with the artist’s portrayal of the birds: as their iconography makes clear, these are water birds, the ornithological species with whom our sources (as examples cited in this chapter illustrate) most regularly associate choral performers.
In a scene from the third book of Heliodorus’ Aethiopika, a work generally dated to the early third century C.E., Calasiris, a priest of Isis from Memphis, treats his youthful interlocutor Cnemon to a description of the grand procession of the Thessalian Ainianians to the tomb of Neoptolemos at Delphi.
A fragment of Pindar preserved and identified by Athenaeus as a hyporcheme (14.631c = fr. 112 S.-M.) describes a Spartan parthenaic troupe (if the text is sound) as an ἀγέλα or ‘herd’. The term recurs in a second Pindaric composition, fr. 122 S.-M., where it again refers to a troupe of maidens, these expressly figured as cows, who take part in a choral-style performance en route to a sacrifice. In a third usage of the expression in fr. 70b.22 S.-M., the Pindaric performers of this dithyramb apply it to the herd of wild beasts, their species undefined, whose collective dancing in a cacophonous chorus made up of gods, nymphs, animals and other sonorous objects is said to ‘enchant’ Dionysus (ὁ δὲ κηλεῖται χορευοίσαισι κα[ὶ θηρῶν ἀγέλαις); in this instance the scene imagined by the singers stands as the template and paradigm for their own more earth-bound choreia, similarly staged by way of tribute to the god as they participate in his signature choral genre.
Hesiod’s Theogony opens in a manner that sharply differentiates it from its Homeric counterparts: in place of the singular ‘goddess’ or ‘Muse’ whom the Iliad and Odyssey proems invoke, Hesiod’s divinities form a plurality. More than this, the opening vignette depicts the Muses engaged in a highly particularized and signature activity, performing a ring dance around a body of water and altar with the ‘tender feet’ distinctive of choral maidens in archaic epic and lyric poetry.
On the penultimate ring of Achilles’ shield, Hephaestus fashions an image of a chorus of youths and maidens, metallic bodies miraculously moving, whose appearance and dance figures the poet minutely describes (Il. 18.590–605, cited below). The making of the shield stands as the capstone in a concatenation of smaller episodes that begins with Thetis’ arrival at Hephaestus’ home at 18.369, and then moves from the reception room of the house to the god’s forge nearby. My primary purpose in singling out this segment of book 18 is to suggest a thematic logic and broader trajectory to its sequence of scenes, and more particularly to the triad of objects, tripods, golden girls and the armour for Achilles, selected by the poet for detailed description in each portion of Thetis’ visit.
Sometime in the late fifth century the comic poet Callias produced what would come to be known as the Letter Tragedy (Γραμματικὴ Τραγῳδία) or Letter Show (Γραμματικὴ Θεωρία). According to Athenaeus’ account of the drama at Deipn.
Among the artefacts distinct to Boeotia are a series of female terracotta figurines dressed in bell-shaped skirts, these fashioned on the potter’s wheel and flattened while still malleable; all are Late Geometric or sub-Geometric and were found in the graves of women and children from the tenth to the eighth century or in votive deposits associated with these. Designs evocative of weaving decorate many of their garments, and the most highly ornamented of the figurines, dated to the late eighth century, comes complete with locks of hair, a necklace, sandals and a frieze of dancing females circling around her richly patterned skirt; the dancers are similarly dressed in woven textiles (fig. 7.0).
On one of the four sides of an Attic red-figure astragalos of ca. 470–450 B.C.E. from the workshop of Sotades, a man stands positioned next to a rock-like structure or open-mouthed cave (fig. 0.1). With one arm raised up high and the other pointing forward, he looks towards a file of three maidens performing a ring dance while directing the girls’ (and external viewer’s) attention to the scene that fills the remaining three sides of the vessel: here ten maidens dance in mid-air, executing a variety of motions and steps (fig. 0.2). As Gloria Ferrari’s rich reading of the image confirms, the original publisher of the vase correctly identified that ethereal chorus: they are the constellations of the Pleiades and Hyades, both originally maiden collectives then catasterized, who form among the principal archetypal parthenaic choruses in the Greek sources; it was they, according to a scholion to Theocritus (Σ ad Theoc.
Setting up golden columns beneath the well-walled porch of our dwelling, we will fix in the ground, as it were, a hall to be gazed at with wonder; when a work is begun it is necessary to make its forefront far-shining. If someone should be an Olympic victor and a steward of the mantic altar of Zeus at Pisa and co-founder of famous Syracuse, what hymn could he escape, a man such as that, falling in with townsmen ungrudging in lovely song?
As Alex Hardie points out, the syntax of lines 5–6 can be construed in several ways. While most commentators assume that it is the sound of the fountain, its plashing waters, that lacks the accompaniment of the dance, a different sense emerges if we read ὕδατι with Castalia and ψόφον with ἀνδρῶν: ‘for having heard, at the bronze-gated water of Castalia, a noise – bereft of males – of dancing … ’. Read in this manner, the sound belongs not to the fountain, but to that made by the choral dancers as they perform.
A well-known Protoattic neck amphora from Eleusis by the Polyphemus Painter dated to ca. 670–650 preserves the largest extant vase painting (fig. 2.0). On its central field, two Gorgons, presented frontally as they move away from the headless body of their sister who seemingly floats horizontal in mid-air, pursue Perseus fleeing around the damaged curve of the vase. The vessel fascinates scholars for any number of reasons: not only do its dimensions outstrip those of other amphoras for the period (it measures some 1.42 m in height), while its decoration offers ‘the most complete example known of the Black and White style’; it also features our earliest visual representation of Perseus’ flight and among the first depictions of the Polyphemus episode on its neck. On this pot too Athena makes her début in Attic vase painting.
Why did the Greeks of the archaic and early Classical period join in choruses that sang and danced on public and private occasions? This book offers a wide-ranging exploration of representations of chorality in the poetry, art and material remains of early Greece in order to demonstrate the centrality of the activity in the social, religious and technological practices of individuals and communities. Moving from a consideration of choral archetypes, among them cauldrons, columns, Gorgons, ships and halcyons, the discussion then turns to an investigation of how participation in choral song and dance shaped communal experience and interacted with a variety of disparate spheres that include weaving, cataloguing, temple architecture and inscribing. The study ends with a treatment of the role of choral activity in generating epiphanies and allowing viewers and participants access to realms that typically lie beyond their perception.