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Ritual Katábasis and the Comic

Bonnie MacLachlan
p. 83-111

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Index de mots-clés :

ritual, comic, laughter
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  • 1 A preliminary study of this subject was published in B. MacLachlan, « The Grave’s a Fine and Funny (...)

1In the Greek West participants in a ritual katábasis frequently engaged in behaviour with comic overtones. In the following discussion I view these rituals of descent more broadly than as a visit to the Underworld or a rehearsal of death. I understand these catabatic rites to offer an « otherworld » experience through contact with chthonic divinities. Moreover, material and textual evidence indicates that for this population a katábasis could create the disposition to laugh, and I explore some possible explanations for this apparent paradox. I focus on the conceptual underpinnings of the paradox, and speculate upon what effect the catabatic experience may have had on the ritual participants1.

I - The Theogamy of Kore / Persephone in Sicily

  • 2 L. Bernabò-Brea, « Coroplastica ispirata alle Koreia siracusane », PP 152 (1973), p. 376-384. In t (...)

2In 1964 during excavations conducted by Luigi Bernabò-Brea in Syracuse, Sicily, a striking artifact emerged. Found in a sanctuary of Kore / Persephone2, it is now in the Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi in Syracuse. This terracotta figurine dates from the second half of the 5th century a. C. and represents a male-female couple locked in an embrace. The male is the better preserved of the two, an old man with wrinkles and sagging skin. He has large lips, huge floppy ears and a snub nose, with an enormous stomach, a prominent phallus and thin arms and legs. His left arm is draped around the female figure, who also has large lips and a snub nose. Both figures are nude, and wear the polos of divinity. L. Bernabò-Brea argued persuasively for the identification of this couple as Hades and Persephone, caricatured in this votive that survived from a Syracusan festival marking their marriage.

  • 3 Plutarch in his biography of Dion (56, 4) describes the celebration even 200 years later as a myst (...)
  • 4 Pollux V, 37, records the Sicilian practice of bringing flowers to the Kore-bride at her festival  (...)
  • 5 L. Bernabò-Brea, op. cit. n. 2, p. 382.
  • 6 Τῆς μὲν γὰρ Κορῆς τὴν καταγωγὴν ἐποιήσαντο περὶ τὸν καιρὸν ἐν τὸν τοῦ σίτου καρπὸν τελεσιουργεῖσ (...)

3Why would this figurine render in playful form a marriage that was clouded by grief and anger in the narrative familiar to us from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter3 ? There are several indications that in the Greek West, particularly in Sicily, the accent was on the theogamy, not the abduction of Persephone4. L. Bernabò-Brea suggested that the humorous representation of the pair reflected features of the Syracusan summer harvest festival for Kore / Persephone, the Καταγωγ Κόρης5, a festival described by Diodorus Siculus (V, 4, 3-5, 3) as characterized by ἁγνεία and σπουδ, « reverence and enthusiasm »6. L. Bernabò-Brea also suggested that there was a likely connection between the figurine and a female mask that came to the museum through the antique trade in the mid-20th century. Like the terracotta figurine the mask is crowned with a polos and smiling, and possesses comically distorted features. Considered together the artifacts connect the ritual to a comic performance of some sort.

  • 7 To Theatron (June 5-September 27, 2014), an exhibition of theatrical material from the 6th-2nd cen (...)

4The figurine was featured recently in an exhibition at the museum in Syracuse highlighting the many items found in the region that reflected theatre, particularly comic drama7. A large number of these artifacts came from ritual contexts associated with the Underworld, funerals and festivals honouring Dionysos and / or Demeter / Kore. In Sicily and elsewhere in the Greek West there was a puzzling but undeniable link between the dark side of life reflected in chthonic rituals and the type of parody that dominated the comic performance. How this might be explained is the subject of this paper.

II - The Theogamy of Kore / Persephone in Epizephyrian Locri

  • 8 The excavations were carried out and published by P. Orsi, « Resoconto sulla terza campagna di sca (...)
  • 9 The Locrian pinakes were found in a deposit between the hills of Mannella and Abbadessa. A compreh (...)
  • 10 G. Zuntz situated the erotic symbolism found in the pinakes within a « Lokrian mythical theology ; (...)
  • 11 H. Prückner, op. cit., p. 17-19. The pair wear nuptial wreaths and face the temple with raised han (...)
  • 12  N. Marinatos (« Striding Across Boundaries : Hermes and Aphrodite as Gods of Initiation », in D. B (...)

5Another votive artifact with surprising features comes from Epizephyrian Locri in Southern Italy, an object also connected to the theogamy of Persephone. The ritual behind the votive was celebrated in an ex-urban sanctuary during a prenuptial festival for Locrian young women8. This votive belongs to a series of pinakes (terracotta relief plaques) that date to the third quarter of the 5th century a. C.9, and several of these depict Persephone and Hades enthroned in the Underworld or Persephone alone receiving gifts as Queen. The chthonic couple Aphrodite and Hermes appear on some of the pinakes, adding an erotic dimension to the underworld marriage10. On the pinax in question we see a bride and groom offering libations on an altar outside a temple in which Aphrodite and Hermes are standing11. The tone of the scene is serious and the piety of the couple dominates, but it is dramatically undercut by a relief scene carved on the altar, where a satyr is having sex with a deer12.

  • 13 On the importance of paradox in religion see, inter alia, E. Leach, « Two Essays Concerning the Sy (...)
  • 14 K. S. Rothwell, Nature, Culture, and the Origins of Greek Comedy : A Study of Animal Choruses, Cam (...)

6In both the pinax and the caricatured couple of the Syracusan terracotta we are presented with the unexpected, the incongruous — an experience παρὰ προσδοκίαν. Paradox is characteristic of many religions, and in fact can carry epistemic authority13. It is also the hallmark of successful comic performance14.

III - Nymphai and katábasis

  • 15 P. W. Arias, « Locri. Scavi archeologici in contrada Caruso-Polisà (aprile-maggio 1940) », Notizie (...)

7Not far from Mannella and also outside the walls of Locri was another site for ritual performances of nubile Locrian young women. These took place at a cave of the Nymphs known as the Grotta Caruso15. Although some votive material from the site dates back to the 6th century the flowering of the cult was in the 4th century. That these future brides undertook a physical katábasis was demonstrated when Paolo Arias excavated the cave and published photographs of the interior, which included stairs leading down to a spring-filled basin in which there was a submerged rock — presumably a seat for ritual bathing. Set just above the water was an altar, and in the walls were niches for votives. These included figurines of naked seated women, triple heads of nymphs, busts of Persephone, but also terracotta figurines of comic actors, and models of the cave itself with curtains, suggesting a performance space that was active during the ritual. That Greek brides, nymphai, would honour nymphs is not surprising ; that the celebration involved some sort of comic drama is, however.

IV - Chthonic divinities and comic performance at Morgantina and elsewhere

  • 16 Among the many ancient references to Enna’s location for the abduction are Diodorus Siculus V, 4, (...)
  • 17 M. Bell, Morgantina Studies, vol. 1 : The Terracottas, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1981 (...)
  • 18 I. Nielsen, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama : A Study in Regional Development and Religious Inter (...)
  • 19 This same collocation of the chthonic and the comic has been found at ritual sites elsewhere in Si (...)

8In the Sicilian interior at Enna (modern Aidone), which was the main (but not the only) site that the ancients identified as the location of Persephone’s abduction16, were found busts of Persephone together with masks and figurines of comic actors. These are located today in the small museum in nearby Morgantina, where there was a large sanctuary complex of underworld gods, dominated by Demeter and Persephone17. Right next to this sanctuary the Greeks of Morgantina built their theatre, dating from the last quarter of the 4th century a. C., a theatre that could accommodate at its height 1500 spectators. Inge Nielsen has argued for cult dramas taking place at the site18, and if so it would seem that the narratives being staged had a comic dimension19.

  • 20 On the fratricide see scholia to Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica I, 917 (78 Wendel), Clemens Alexa (...)
  • 21 A. Schachter, « Evolutions of a Mystery Cult : The Theban Kabeiroi », in M. B. Cosmopoulos (ed.), (...)
  • 22 Pausanias IX, 22, 5 ; 25, 5-X, 16, 5 and 23, 2. The Kabeiroi were also connected in Antiquity with (...)
  • 23 A. Schachter, Cults of Boeotia, vol. 2 : Herakles to Poseidon, London, Institute of Classical Stud (...)

9That mystery cults could engage in playful buffoonery of chthonic divinities was not a practice exclusive to Sicily and Southern Italy. In Boeotian Thebes the mythical Kabeiroi, male figures assimilated to Kouretes and Korybantes, had a reputation for murder and the performance of terrifying dances in honour of the Mother Goddess20. Their sanctuary was near that of Demeter Kabeira and Kore, where an open-air amphitheatre served as a telesterion for mysteries21. According to Pausanias these mysteries were a gift from Demeter, and conducted from the 6th until the 4th century a. C.22. The dark and chthonic aspect of the cult clearly had a lighter side, however. The well-known « Kabeirion ware » consisted of vases and cups with depictions of playful figures representing mythical parody, and some have argued that the theatron in the Kabeirion’s later period served as a performance space for Middle Comedy. Several masks have been found at the site23.

V - Aeschylus and Sicilian comic writers

10Aeschylus, a native of Eleusis who spent time in Sicily and would have been no stranger to the mysteries, composed a play called Kabeiroi. The title is drawn from the play’s chorus, in this case Kabeiroi from Lemnos, where the cult had features in common with the Theban. The dramatic narrative belongs to the saga of the Argonauts, and Athenaeus (X, 428-429) mentions that in this play Jason and his companions became drunk while visiting Lemnos. Although Athenaeus considered the play a tragedy it contains the type of mythical parody we expect in a satyr play. In one of the surviving fragments, the chorus of Kabeiroi boast of a generous supply of wine :

μήποτε κρωσσοὺς

μήτ ὀινηροὺς μήθ᾽ ὑδατηροὺς

λείπειν ἀφνεοῖσι δόμοισι

(that) there will never be jars

for wine or water

lacking in the homes of the rich (Aeschylus fr. 96).

  • 24 Plato also had high regard for the plays of Epicharmos. In the Theaetetus (152e) Socrates calls th (...)
  • 25 A scholiast on Aeschylus’ Eumenides (ad 626) refers to Epicharmos mocking Aeschylus for his over-u (...)

11Athenaeus comments that while Aeschylus had the reputation of being the first to introduce drunken characters on the stage the credit should go to his older Sicilian contemporary, the comic writer Epicharmos (floruit 480 a. C.). Formal Greek comedy may indeed have originated in Sicily with Epicharmos. Aristotle credited him, together with his contemporary Phormis (or Phormos), with the invention of comic plots (Poetics 1449b 5)24. Aeschylus would have been aware of Epicharmos’ plays from his time in Sicily. Whether Epicharmos watched the Sicilian production of Aeschylus’ Women of Aetna or Persians in 470 we don’t know, but the two clearly were aware of one another’s work25. The two produced plays with identical titles : Epicharmos produced a comic Persai (one can only wonder about that plot !) ; Aeschylus composed a satyr play called Theoroi, and Epicharmos a comedy in Doric named Thearoi. Epicharmos was famous for presenting the unexpected, παρὰ προσδοκίαν, and inversions. These were features (noted above) of votive artifacts from festivals honouring Persephone as underworld Queen. The anonymous Byzantine author of De Comoedia (3, 14 Koster) claimed that Epicharmos was the first to « restore the comedy that had been dispersed, adding a great deal of artistic skill » (Ἐπίχαρμος Συρακόσιος. οὕτος πρῶτος τὴν κωμδίαν διερριμμένην ἀνεκτήσατο πολλὰ προσφιλοτεχνήσας). While we cannot recover details about the type of comedy that the Byzantine writer understood as « restored » by a playwright many centuries earlier, it is plausible to suppose that West Greek festivals for underworld divinities created a climate in which comic theatre could flourish.

  • 26 Diogenes Laertius (III, 18) claimed that Plato brought the texts back to Athens and kept them unde (...)
  • 27 These were identified as distinct by the historian Apollodorus (FGrH 244 F214).

12Another Sicilian comic writer and near-contemporary of Epicharmos was Sophron, whose mimes apparently made an impact on Plato when he saw them in Sicily26. Sophron may have had female actors, since mime actors performed without masks and his « feminine » and « masculine » mimes27 apparently reflected the gender of the principal character. Among the fragments that survive we possess various names for shellfish from a feminine mime entitled Nymphoponos (« Busy-work for the Bride »), thinly-veiled references to female genitalia : ταί γα μὰν κόγχαι, ὥσπερ αἴ κ᾽ ἐξ ἑνὸς κελεύματος / κεχάναντι μν πσαι, τ δε κρς κάστας ξέχει (« indeed the conches, just as if at one command / gape open for us, all of them, and the flesh of each one sticks out », fr. 24 Hordern). The following dialogue from the same play contains a conversation between two of the women :

[A] τίνες δ᾽ ἐντί ποκα, φίλα, τοίδε τοὶ μακροὶ κόγχοι ;

[B] σωλῆνές θην τοῦτοί γα, γλυκύκρεον κογχύλιον, χηρᾶν γυναικῶν λίχνευμα

[A] « Whatever are these, dear woman, these long shellfish ? »

[B] « Why, these are razor-fish, you see, a sweet-fleshed little shellfish, a dainty for widow-women » (fr. 23 Hordern).

VI - Demeter festivals

  • 28 ναφέρονται δ κνταθα ρρητα ερ κ στέατος το σίτου κατεσκευασμένα, μιμήματα δρακόντων κα ν (...)
  • 29 ναφωνοσι δ πρς λλήλας πσαι α γυνακες ασχρ κα σεμνα βαστάζουσαι εδη σωμάτων πρεπ νδ (...)

13Here we are on a continuum with the raw sexual humour later employed by Aristophanes, but also with women’s ritual performances in Attic festivals for Demeter such as the Thesmophoria and the Haloa. According to our best source for the women’s activities during these festivals, the scholia to Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans, the women engaged in transgressive behaviour, not only calling out obscenities but handling models of male and female genitalia that they fashioned from bread-dough. At the Thesmophoria they carried these pastry replicas of male organs around (together with models of snakes)28, and at the Haloa (a wine-festival celebrating Dionysos as well as Demeter and Kore) they drank wine and held the pastries up in the air29. In Sicily, however, we are told by Diodorus that both men and women participated in the festive celebration of Demeter, which took place at the time of planting the grain. Diodorus describes it as a ten-day festival, magnificent in preparation, one in which the participants reverted to a primitive way of life while engaging in obscene speech (V, 4, 7). Athenaeus (citing the Syracusan Heracleides) adds the detail that in this city during the Thesmophoria honey-sesame cakes called μυλλοί were shaped like female pubes and carried around in honour of the two goddesses (XIV, 647a).

  • 30 A doublet of Iambe is Baubo, described in an Orphic fragment as showing the « hollow cleft » of he (...)

14Diodorus attempts an explanation for this ritual behaviour, claiming that with their aischrologia the participants were recalling obscene actions (in the Homeric Hymn of Iambe30) that provoked the angry and grieving Demeter to laugh — a transformation that would end the famine in the myth and justify a celebration of the rich resource enjoyed by grain-bearing Sicily. But this is only an aition at the narrative level. Why is Iambe in the Hymn in the first place, and what is there in transgressive action that appears to characterize ritual performances for chthonic divinities ? Evidence for the connection is abundant in the Greek West, in places like Locri, Syracuse and Morgantina, establishing, I would argue, an environment that would foster outlandish behaviour on the comic stage — with great success.

VII - Performance and rituals of transformation

  • 31 Much theoretical work is now being done on performance. See, for example, as an introduction, M. C (...)
  • 32 E. Stehle, « Thesmophoria and Eleusinian Mysteries : The Fascination of Women’s Secret Ritual », i (...)

15What comedy and ritual jesting have in common, in addition to unconventional behaviour is a mode of conduct, performance31. In both staged dramatic performances and the physical re-enactment of ritual narratives (no doubt often informal) the participants became someone else : in festivals for Demeter and Kore such as the Athenian Thesmophoria the mimesis of the mother-daughter story involved role-playing Demeter’s grief and her joy at the reunion with Persephone. Both experiences, as Eva Stehle noted, made it possible for the participants to lose self-consciousness as performers and feel divinity made present through the performance32. This type of displacement had the potential, she argues, to free up space for dialogue with the circumstances of the performers’ day-to-day reality. This will be discussed below, but at this point it is important to note that the transforming effects of this role-playing would be intensified by behaviour unacceptable in ordinary life — such as engaging in scurrility or handling mylloi.

  • 33 A. Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1960 (1909). In his wor (...)
  • 34 This is reflected in Pindar’s threnos for an Athenian who had been initiated into the Mysteries : (...)
  • 35 The interchangeability of what is signified in such circumstances was pointed out by E. Leach, Cul (...)

16Rituals for chthonic divinities involved an « otherworldly » experience, a katábasis considered broadly. In her theoretical work on performance in Demeter rituals E. Stehle invoked the contributions of Victor Turner, who expanded upon Arnold Van Gennep’s discussion of the liminal stage of rites of initiation / transformation, in which he observed a temporary dismantling of selfhood (often described as a ritual death) and an inversion of the categories of quotidian life33. In the initiatory experience death appears as the beginning of life and time is cyclical, not linear34. Cultural anthropologists have exposed the fact that a common structure underpins major human transitions in many cultures — transitions like puberty, marriage and death that are at once social and metaphysical. Rituals are put in place to ensure that the transition happens smoothly. Dying to one state, the individual enters a phase of « social timelessness » before rebirth into a new state. Because of the structural homology, the symbolic projections of any of these transitions — through images or in dramatic enactments, for example — are interchangeable. Depicting the god Eros on a Greek vase can stand symbolically for the loss of self that occurs with sexual activity in death or during an epiphany of a god35. This invites us to read the wide array of nuptial imagery on Apulian vases as symbolic of much more than Kore’s underworld marriage or Ariadne’s to Dionysos.

  • 36 Here we recall the Kabeiroi ceramics. The Sam Wide pottery, found in the sanctuary of Demeter / Ko (...)
  • 37 H. Hoffmann, Sotades : Symbols of Immortality on Greek Vases, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1997, p. 10 (...)

17Herbert Hoffmann pioneered this multi-dimensional approach in his reading of the Sotades Painter (5th century a. C.), whose images have been found on vases throughout the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and as far away as the Crimea and Sudan. Sotades’ images were extremely popular in Southern Italy. A large number of these were found on vases produced in Apulian workshops, and copied for 100 years after the originals first arrived — 50 years after they ceased being copied in Athens. Rhytons were frequently found with Sotades’ paintings featuring the parodic reversal of myths, such as the portrayal of Heracles as a pot-bellied pygmy challenging an elegant crane. H. Hoffmann argues that the visual confrontation of the sublime and the ridiculous would have had the effect on the viewer of intensifying the sense of a deeper reality that could be projected through the incongruous and through the laughter that would thereby be provoked36. In the first decades of their production the rhytons were buried in tombs or deposited in temples, the result of their original design for funneling libations, and H. Hoffmann argues that even later when used as drinking vessels they were likely part of the perideipnon, the meal shared between the living and the dead at the tomb37.

VIII - Lipari : comic artifacts and the perideipnon

  • 38 Of these, 1200 graves were published in Meligunìs Lipára. Material relevant to the discussion that (...)
  • 39 These constitute the largest collection of theatrical artifacts, figurines and masks, so far disco (...)
  • 40 A. Schwarzmaier, Die Masken aus der Nekropole von Lipari, Wiesbaden, Dr. Ludwig Reichert, 2011, p. (...)
  • 41 A. Schwarzmaier, Ibid., is not alone in pointing out that the Onomasticon is a summary (whose manu (...)
  • 42 Figurines of musicians, dancers, acrobats, hetairai, and banqueters were found throughout the necr (...)

18Dishes, including drinking cups, were found throughout the necropolis on the Aeolian island of Lipari, where excavations by Luigi Bernabò-Brea and Madeleine Cavalier began in 1948 and continued for 50 years, uncovering more than 2600 graves38. The large necropolis was placed close to the living quarters in the city, and embedded within it was Lipari’s Koreion. Terracotta figurines of Demeter and Kore were found here, but also masks and figurines of comic actors39. In an important recent study of the masks and figurines by Agnes Schwarzmaier the collocation of these with eating and drinking vessels in tomb contexts led her to challenge the assumption made by L. Bernabò-Brea and M. Cavalier (and followed almost universally by scholars since their publications) that the comic masks represented the types worn by actors from Middle and New Comedy that were identified in the Onomasticon of Pollux. Instead, she argues that they belonged to the perideipnon, one that included a symposium40. This ritual event, she contends, connected the mourners not only with the dead but also with Dionysos. The masks constitute a greater variety of types than those recorded by Pollux41, and frequently were embellished with convivial crowns, further suggesting a type of symposium. Among the figurines found in both the Koreion and the necropolis were models of silens and other Dionysiac followers, connecting rituals for Kore and those for the dead with the playfulness of a thiasos. In both contexts these could serve as symbols of the promise of a blissful afterlife42.

IX - Dionysos

  • 43 The gold lamellae found in Magna Graecia, like those elsewhere in Greece, reflect the overlap in P (...)

19The polyvalence of Dionysos is well known. Vested with vital force, particularly that borne by liquids (wine, blood, semen), his regenerative powers extended beyond the grave. This was reflected mythically in his multiple births — from Semele then (after her death) from Zeus, and once again when reconstituted by the gods after his dismemberment by the Titans. This no doubt was the mythical underpinning of his role as mystagoge for the living, and for the dead a chthonic god whose role was shared with Persephone. They were divinities to whom one could appeal for safe passage to a privileged life after death, an aspiration for which there is good evidence in the Greek West43.

  • 44 T. Carpenter, « Dionysos and the Blessed on Apulian Red-Figure Vases », in R. Schlesier (ed.), A D (...)

20On Sicilian Red Figure vase paintings the iconography of the polyvalent Dionysos often mixed the theatrical with the komastic, the symposiastic, the erotic-nuptial and the funerary. A large number of these multi-faceted Dionysiac vase-paintings are found on craters, which functioned both as vessels for mixing wine at the symposium and as cinerary urns. The largest school of vase-painting in South Italy flourished in Apulia, chiefly in Tarentum, during the last quarter of the 5th a. C. (more than a thousand vases, mainly craters, have been found). The majority of these possess Dionysiac imagery, and were both designed and produced for tombs. On at least one-quarter of these the god appears, often in sympotic scenes, as a semi-naked youth, holding a kantharos and thyrsus and flanked by satyrs and maenads. On several he holds a mask. Thomas Carpenter argues that on these craters the semi-naked god is assimilated to the deceased for whose tomb the crater was destined, and the image was intended to console the living44. The mask, representing the shifting natures of the god and his inspiration for staged performances, is an important component of this complex, however.

  • 45 That there were agones chytrinoi during the Chytroi, where petitions were made to Hermes on behalf (...)
  • 46 R. Hamilton, Choes & Anthesteria. Athenian Iconography and Ritual, Ann Arbor, The University of Mi (...)

21Dionysos’ patronage of wine, death and the afterlife is clear from what we know of the Athenian festival of the Anthesteria. But here too there may have been a connection to comic theatre. In an environment where the dead mingled with the living, there appears to have been a competition among comic actors45. According to Plutarch (Lives of the Ten Orators 841f) Lycourgos instituted a contest in the (refurbished) Athenian theatre in which comic actors competed during the Chytroi, and the winner competed « in the city » (presumably at the City Dionysia). Evidence for celebration of the Anthesteria in some form in the Greek West is found in Timaeus (FGrH 566 F158), who refers to the Choes in Syracuse. More evidence comes from some of the more than 700 choes found in South Italy, on which were painted comic actors together with satyrs, women and crawling toddlers46.

X - The serio-comic in the Greek West

  • 47 The number 40 is given by the Suda, and the dramatic fragments are found in G. Kaibel, Poetarum Co (...)
  • 48 On the philosophical side of Epicharmos, and its reflection in the Pseudepicharmeia published unde (...)
  • 49 See the discussion of Busiris (fr. 18 Rodriguez-Noriega Guillén) in B. MacLachlan, op. cit. n. 1, (...)
  • 50 Suda, s. u. Φόρμος. Fragments of Phormos are found in R. Kassel & C. Austin, op. cit., p. 174-176.
  • 51 R. Kassel & C. Austin, Ibid., p. 179.
  • 52 T3 Kaibel = Suda, s. u. Ῥίνθων.
  • 53 Τὰ τράγικα μεταρρυθμίζων ἐς τὸ γελοῖον (p. 603 Meineke = T2 Kaibel). The testimonia and fragments (...)
  • 54 Nossis, Anthologia Palatina VII, 414. The term « phlyakes » until recently was applied to scenes w (...)
  • 55 Pollux (Onomasticon IV, 3) declared that Euripides was unique among tragic playwrights in borrowin (...)

22The dark side of the comic / chthonic connection in the Greek West may have left its mark on the type of taste for comic theatre found in the region. Epicharmos’ choice of Persai for the title of a comedy has been mentioned, and among his ca 40 attested titles47 are Philoctetes and Bacchae. The serious side of this comic playwright is reflected in the fact that he earned the reputation as a philosopher after his death48. In fragments from his plays that engaged in mythical parody (over half of his titles suggest this approach) he was not averse to provoking laughter in the face of death, such as is found in an excerpt from his Busiris49. Other Sicilian comic writers engaged in the spoudaiogeloion. Among the titles of Phormis / Phormos, a near contemporary of Epicharmos, were Admetus, Ilioupersis and Perseus50. Dionolochos, referred to as a son or pupil of Epicharmos, composed a Komoidotragoidia51. Rhinthon, a Syracusan poet who moved to Tarentum from Syracuse and flourished in the late 4th century a. C., was said to have composed hilarotragoidia, « merry tragedies »52, and Stephanus of Byzantium described him as « remodeling the tragic into the comic »53. In a funerary epigram for Rhinthon Nossis referred to his celebrated reputation for composing « tragic phlyakes », a term that refers to a type of West-Greek Dorian comedy54. Rhinthon was clearly familiar with the plays of Euripides, for among his phlyax titles are Heracles, Medeia, Orestas, Telephos, Iphigeneia ha en Aulidi and Iphigeneia ha en Taurois. Euripides himself was capable of injecting comic moments into his tragedies (we think of the Teiresias / Cadmus scene in Bacchae, or the humour in Alcestis. Cratinas coined the verb « Euripidaristophanize » (fr. 342 Kassel-Austin)55. The West-Greek taste for the serio-comic found in Euripides is probably reflected in the remarks found in Plutarch’s Life of Nicias (29, 2-3) that some prisoners who were thrown into the Syracusan quarry after the devastating defeat of the Athenians in 413 a. C. were set free because of their ability to delight the Sicilians with recitations from Euripides.

XI - Laughter and comic inversion

  • 56 The transgressive behaviour in Demeter / Kore rituals in the West reflected the erotic component o (...)
  • 57 At the Plataean festival Hera’s anger at Zeus’ infidelities led her to hide herself until a ruse w (...)
  • 58 M. Douglas, « The Social Control of Cognition : Some Factors in Joke Perception », Man n. s. 3 (19 (...)
  • 59 W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. A Study in Human Nature, London / Bombay, Longman (...)

23The Western Greeks were clearly not inventors nor even the primary producers of mythical and literary parody, but there are many indications that in these colonies the practice began early. It had been flourishing on the Syracusan stage before comic drama was admitted to the Athenian City Dionysia in 487/6 a. C. Its popularity can be attributed, at least in part, to the presence of playful inversions and comic components in their chthonic rituals, including funerals56. Laughter played a part in Greek rituals elsewhere, of course. In the Boeotian festival of Daedala at Plataea or in the (catabatic) initiation ceremonies in the cave of Trophonios at Lebadea, both mythical narratives and ritual activities produced laughter that signaled a restoration of equilibrium, a renewal of life57. Mary Douglas, in her classic article on joking, referred to the ways in which joking participates in a dynamic reconstruction of reality, providing an opportunity for subverting one pattern by substituting another that was actually hidden in the first58. When laughter erupts from the coincidentia oppositorum those opposites are exposed both as polarities and as belonging to one whole. (This is the truth that can only be formulated paradoxically59.) With the Syracusan figurine the powerful King and Queen of the Underworld are converted to benign entertainers ; in Lipari the mourners and the dead could be comforted by little comic figures representing Dionysos’ invitation to party in the afterlife.

XII - Comic reversal and the status quo

  • 60 M. Douglas, op. cit.
  • 61 V. Turner, op. cit. n. 13, p. 22. In other cultures « ludic play » has engaged the chiaroscuro of (...)
  • 62 B. Kowalzig, Singing for the Gods. Performances of Myth and Ritual in Archaic and Classical Greece(...)
  • 63 For M. Bakhtin (Rabelais and his World, Cambridge, Harvard University Press (English translation b (...)

24Comic inversion produces excitement, according to M. Douglas, when participants realize that « any particular ordering of experience may be arbitrary or subjective »60. A performative genre — in this case (chthonic) ritual or comic theatre — does not merely reflect or express a social system ; instead, it is reciprocal and reflexive ; « ludic play » recombines familiar elements in unfamiliar and often arbitrary patterns, permitting reflection in the subjunctive mood61. But what happened when the ritual participants re-entered normal life ? In the post-liminal phase was the status quo confirmed, thanks to the vision of what it was not, or did the experience of the subjunctive mood provide the potential for social change ? Scholars are divided on this point. Barbara Kowalzig62, in opposition to the functionalist approach taken by many63, cites Marshall Sahlins and others who saw ritual as embedding and integrating new situations drawn from the performative tradition, where anthropology highlights the fact that ritual is a dynamic and creative force in the reconstruction of society.

  • 64 J. Carrière, Le Carnaval et la Politique. Une introduction à la comédie grecque suivie d’un choix (...)

25Where the mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous was projected on the comic stage what would be the effect on the audience ? Aristophanes steered a course between carnivalesque fantasy and political critique64. Were there actual consequences arising from his attacks on Kleon ? Was the audience dislocated by their experience in the subjunctive mood when women took over the acropolis or engaged in a sex strike to force a (theatrical) change in public policy ? When the audience left a performance of Lysistrata were they content to see the naked body of Διαλλαγή divided and distributed to men as a comforting return to the conventional view of women, or were there some questions left in their minds about the status quo ?

  • 65 Homo ludens. A Study of the Play-element in Culture, London, Routledge & Keagan Paul, 1949 (1938).
  • 66 Cf. supra p. 87 n. 13. Participants who experience the absurdity in this inversion in chthonic rit (...)

26Combining humour with play, with performance, helps us to transcend the banal, as Johan Huizinga pointed out65. Play can be at the same time non-serious and deadly serious, as anyone who watches children can attest. Laughter, whether from joking over sex, excrement or from a parody of something serious, is good for us. The Athenians knew its benefits : tragedy, Aristotle tells us (Poetics 1449a 9-25), was an outgrowth of to satyrikon, and the three tragedies at the City Dionysia were capped with a satyr play. Aeschylus composed a satyr play called Psychagogoi, Leaders of Souls, and his tragic Kabeiroi had satyric elements. Everyone who has explored Athenian comedies or satyr plays will acknowledge that the laughter they provoke is not frivolous. M. Bakhtin, in arguing for the importance of carnival, pointed out that laughter dissipates fear. In so doing, it frees us up to inquire more deeply about life, and is therefore an important vehicle for learning, for wisdom. During chthonic rituals the coincidentia oppositorum may have led participants to question seriously the formal constraints of their daily life when, through the ritual performance the arrangement of the polarities was temporarily inverted but seen as belonging to a larger cosmic whole66. Women and others disenfranchised by the dominant social and political arrangements in ancient Greece would have had ritual experiences that exposed the arbitrary nature of these patterns and structures. When the rituals were completed, did the vision of another reality alter their lives ?

  • 67 M. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley, University of California Press (English tr (...)
  • 68 S. Mahood, Politics of Piety. The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Princeton, Princeton U (...)

27While at best the answer to this must remain speculative, some recent work drawing upon contemporary contexts suggests that survival mechanisms can operate even within an oppressive social structure, actions that preserve the integrity of individuals who do not have the opportunity to rebel against or revise the system that frames their daily lives. Michel de Certeau67 argues that, while organizational power structures impose strategies of control over groups, individuals can employ tactics that allow them to recover some autonomy in performing ordinary activities. The theoretical framework « habitation de la norme » is currently being explored by French scholars to study how individuals can exercise some agency despite the normative constraints imposed by oppressive regimes68.

28Perhaps we can leave open the question of to what degree the experience of another reality uncovered in catabatic rituals of the Greek West altered the daily behaviour of its participants. Reflecting on the words of Thomas Nagel in the New York Review of Books (January 9-February 5, 2014) may be salutary, however. Reviewing Samuel Scheffler’s Death and the Afterlife (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013) he wrote, « To reveal the place of the (collective) afterlife in the structure of our concerns, motives and values, Scheffler employs the classic philosophical method of counterfactual thought-experiments to understand the significance of something, imagine its absence and see what else changes ».

29Participants in catabatic rituals in the Greek West left us traces of their experience that were at odds with the solemnity and darkness we associate with the chthonic realm. Rituals for underworld divinities like Persephone and Hades or Aphrodite and Hermes invited parody. During the katábasis contraries could be inverted, explaining the serio-comic features of surviving texts and artifacts. This inversion could offer new insights for the ritual performers when their ludic play exposed them to the arbitrary nature of constraints placed upon their everyday life. Whether these insights enabled them to live with a greater degree of autonomy we cannot know, but — like other rituals of transformation — their katábasis could permit them to see contradictions resolved in a cosmic whole. Laughter was key to this vision, as was outrageous performance. This is why in the Greek West the psychopomp and shape-shifter Dionysos held a mask.

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Notes

1 A preliminary study of this subject was published in B. MacLachlan, « The Grave’s a Fine and Funny Place : Chthonic Rituals and the Comic Theater in the Greek West », in ΚBosher (ed.), Theater Outside Athens. Drama in Greek Sicily and South Italy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 343-364.

2 L. Bernabò-Brea, « Coroplastica ispirata alle Koreia siracusane », PP 152 (1973), p. 376-384. In the museum it is catalogued as inv. 68134.

3 Plutarch in his biography of Dion (56, 4) describes the celebration even 200 years later as a mystery cult, and this could explain why we don’t have more information from ancient sources that could shed light on the caricatured features.

4 Pollux V, 37, records the Sicilian practice of bringing flowers to the Kore-bride at her festival : (ἑορτή) Κόρης παρὰ Σικελιώταις, Θεογάμια καὶ Ἀνθεσφόρια. L. R. Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States, New Rochelle, Caratzas Brothers Publishers, 1977 (1906), vol. 3, p. 124, suggests that celebrations of the theogamia included mimetic performances. Ancient sources attest to the prominent role played by Demeter and Kore in Sicily, e. g. Bacchylides III, 102 ; Pindar, Olympian VI, 93-96 ; Pythian XII, 2-3 ; Nemean I, 13-14 ; Diodorus Siculus V, 4, 3-5, 3, and Cicero, Against Verres II, 4, 48 : insulam Siciliam totam esse Cereri et Liberae consecratam. Herodotus VII, 153, records the fact that the Deinomenids were hereditary priests of Demeter and Kore.

5 L. Bernabò-Brea, op. cit. n. 2, p. 382.

6 Τῆς μὲν γὰρ Κορῆς τὴν καταγωγὴν ἐποιήσαντο περὶ τὸν καιρὸν ἐν τὸν τοῦ σίτου καρπὸν τελεσιουργεῖσθαι συνέβαινε, καὶ ταύτην τὴν θυσίαν καὶ πανήγυριν μετὰ τοσαύτης ἁγνείας καὶ σπουδῆς ἐπιτελοῦσιν. Diodorus’ source may have been Timaeus, which would give us an account recorded just a century after the date of the figurine. The enthusiasm may explain its playful rendition of the bride and groom. The festival would have been in celebration of Persephone’s seasonal restoration to the earth (her καταγωγή) as bride, not as daughter reunited with her mother.

7 To Theatron (June 5-September 27, 2014), an exhibition of theatrical material from the 6th-2nd centuries a. C., featuring figures of Dionysos and actors, cult votives and funerary artifacts. The exhibition catalogue, Dionysos. Μito, imagine, teatro, was published by the museum in 2012.

8 The excavations were carried out and published by P. Orsi, « Resoconto sulla terza campagna di scavi Locresi (I) », Bollettino d’Arte 3, 11 (1909), p. 406-428.

9 The Locrian pinakes were found in a deposit between the hills of Mannella and Abbadessa. A comprehensive study of the pinakes can be found in H. Prückner, Die lokrischen Tonreliefs, Mainz, Philipp von Zabern, 1968. For a study of the ritual context see C. Sourvinou-Inwood, « Persephone and Aphrodite at Locri : A Model for Personality Definitions in Greek Religion », JHS 98 (1978), p. 101‑121, and B. MacLachlan, « Love, War and the Goddess in Fifth Century Locri », AncW 26 (1995), p. 205‑223. The pinakes have been found elsewhere in Magna Graecia, including the Locrian colonies of Medma and Hipponion. Since P. Orsi’s publication in 1909 there has been a wide range of interpretations. P. Orsi read the scenes of Kore’s abduction as symbolic of the transport of the soul to the Underworld at death. P. Zancani-Montuoro (« Tabella fittile locrese con scena di culto », RIA 7 (1950), p. 205-224) highlighted their nuptial significance, but H. Prückner saw in them a reflection of the record of the Locrian vow taken in 477/6 a. C. to prostitute their virgins in the temple of Aphrodite in order to avert a war. C. Sourvinou-Inwood offers a broader interpretation that has been generally accepted, that the pinakes represent the erotic expectations of Locrian women as they move from girlhood to becoming wives and mothers. See B. MacLachlan, Ibid., p. 215 n. 5.

10 G. Zuntz situated the erotic symbolism found in the pinakes within a « Lokrian mythical theology ; namely the triumph of Life over Death though Eros » (Persephone. Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 170).

11 H. Prückner, op. cit., p. 17-19. The pair wear nuptial wreaths and face the temple with raised hands (apart from the groom’s hand that pours the libation).

12  N. Marinatos (« Striding Across Boundaries : Hermes and Aphrodite as Gods of Initiation », in D. B. Dodd & C. A. Faraone (eds), Initiation in Ancient Greek Rituals and Narratives. New Critical Perspectives, London, Routledge, 2003, p. 145) highlights the fact that the emphasis here is on sexuality not marriage : for her Hermes and Aphrodite represent « eloping lovers » not a married couple, and are patrons of sexual activity.

13 On the importance of paradox in religion see, inter alia, E. Leach, « Two Essays Concerning the Symbolic Representation of Time », in E. Leach (ed.), Rethinking Anthropology, London / Toronto, The Athlone Press, 1961, p. 124-136 ; B. A. Babcock (ed.), The Reversible World. Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1978, and M. Barratt, The Uses of Paradox. Religion, Self-Transformation, and the Absurd, New York, Columbia University Press, 2007, who claim in various ways that paradox is an essential, universal and compelling aspect of religion that triggers cognitive buttons and provides an open plane for cognition. V. Turner (The Anthropology of Performance, New York, PAJ Publications, 1986, p. 167) speaks of paradox as activating two modes of the autonomic nervous system, the « ergotropic » (responsible for functioning) and the « trophotropic » (less focused, diffuse, nourishing, endorsing play) ; equilibrium is maintained by the inter-relationship of the two. Logical paradoxes that appear in myth as polar opposites become unified wholes in the ritual experience. M. Barratt (Ibid., p. 1-2 and 6) quotes Max Müller’s definition of religion as a « mental faculty that yearns for something that neither sense nor reason can supply ». W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. A Study in Human Nature, London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1902, p. 39, in a discussion of the mystic St John of the Cross, referred to the « vertigo of self-contradiction which is so dear to mysticism » and observed that « mystics regard human intellectual faculties as capable of grasping (however obscurely) truths that can only be formulated paradoxically ».

14 K. S. Rothwell, Nature, Culture, and the Origins of Greek Comedy : A Study of Animal Choruses, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 20, refers to a « festive inversion » that involves role-reversals and the carnivalesque as « among the most powerful engines driving the genre of comedy ». Paradox, in both comedy and ritual, has the potential to reveal a deeper reality for participants / viewers. Further discussion follows below.

15 P. W. Arias, « Locri. Scavi archeologici in contrada Caruso-Polisà (aprile-maggio 1940) », Notizie degli scavi di antichità fasc. 7 (1946), p. 136-161. Unfortunately, the cave collapsed shortly after the excavation. A more recent publication of the site and the finds, together with a fuller discussion can be found in F. Costabile, I Ninfei di Locri Epizefiri, Catanzaro, Rubbettino, 1991. See also B. MacLachlan, « Women and Nymphs at the Grotta Caruso », in G. Casadio & P. A. Johnston (eds), Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2009, p. 204-216.

16 Among the many ancient references to Enna’s location for the abduction are Diodorus Siculus V, 4, 1 and Cicero, Against Verres II, 4, 106-107. That this was widely believed in Antiquity to be the site of Kore’s katábasis is reflected supra in J. S. Burgess, p. 34.

17 M. Bell, Morgantina Studies, vol. 1 : The Terracottas, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1981, p. 30, with figures 106 a-b, 97, and n. 186.

18 I. Nielsen, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama : A Study in Regional Development and Religious Interchange Between East and West in Antiquity, Aarhus, Aarhus University Press, 2002, p. 147-148. J. B. Connelly (Portrait of a Priestess. Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 106-107) provides inscriptional evidence for the impersonation of divinities during religious rites that developed into ritual drama. S. Halliwell (Greek Laughter. A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008, p. 183) refers to the seamless connection between ritual and (choral) performance, with the example of the Aeginetans cited by Herodotus (V, 83), who honoured the fertility divinities Damia and Auxesia with jeering and abuse by female choruses under the supervision of male choregoi.

19 This same collocation of the chthonic and the comic has been found at ritual sites elsewhere in Sicily. The finds from the Demeter / Kore sanctuary at the museum in Akrai include busts of Demeter / Persephone but also a silen mask dating from the second half of the 5th century. From Agrigento, where there were chthonic cults on the fortified hill next to the lush Kolymbetre gardens, in a votive deposit from the first quarter of the 6th century, came a Corinthian vase with a padded dancer (arguably one of the genres that led to the development of Attic comedy). Padded dancers are also depicted on an Atttic skyphos found in the Agrigento necropolis called Contrada Callimeddi. Together with this cup were found female masks (in caricature). Such female masks were also found in a Demeter sanctuary in Catania. From the chthonic sanctuary of Demeter Malophoros in Selinunte came terracotta figurines of silens, comic actors and masks, along with the votive figurines of Demeter / Kore.

20 On the fratricide see scholia to Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica I, 917 (78 Wendel), Clemens Alexandrinus, Protrepticus II, 19, 1. On the terrifying dancing see Strabo X, 3, 7. The dark narratives include a tale in which two of the Kabeiroi / Korybantic brothers tear apart the body of the third, after which the remains became the object of cult (R. G. Edmonds, Redefining Ancient Orphism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 186).

21 A. Schachter, « Evolutions of a Mystery Cult : The Theban Kabeiroi », in M. B. Cosmopoulos (ed.), Greek Mysteries. The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults, London, Routledge, 2003, p. 115‑116.

22 Pausanias IX, 22, 5 ; 25, 5-X, 16, 5 and 23, 2. The Kabeiroi were also connected in Antiquity with the Idaean Dactyls of Phrygia, góetes who conducted spells, initiations and mysteries (Diodorus Siculus V, 64, 4). See F. Graf & S. I. Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife. Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets, London, Routledge, 2007, p. 170.

23 A. Schachter, Cults of Boeotia, vol. 2 : Herakles to Poseidon, London, Institute of Classical Studies, 1986, p. 99, with n. 2 ; N. Demand, Thebes in the Fifth Century : Heracles Resurgent, London, Routledge, 1982, p. 62.

24 Plato also had high regard for the plays of Epicharmos. In the Theaetetus (152e) Socrates calls the playwright the « King of Comedy ». Diogenes Laertius (III, 9) claimed that Plato actually copied from Epicharmos. See D. Olson (ed.), Broken Laughter. Select Fragments of Greek Comedy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 52.

25 A scholiast on Aeschylus’ Eumenides (ad 626) refers to Epicharmos mocking Aeschylus for his over-use of the word τιμαλφούμενον (fr. 221 Rusten).

26 Diogenes Laertius (III, 18) claimed that Plato brought the texts back to Athens and kept them under his pillow.

27 These were identified as distinct by the historian Apollodorus (FGrH 244 F214).

28 ναφέρονται δ κνταθα ρρητα ερ κ στέατος το σίτου κατεσκευασμένα, μιμήματα δρακόντων κα νδρείων σχημάτων (276, 15-17 Rabe).

29 ναφωνοσι δ πρς λλήλας πσαι α γυνακες ασχρ κα σεμνα βαστάζουσαι εδη σωμάτων πρεπ νδρεά τε κα γυναικεα (280, 18-20 Rabe).

30 A doublet of Iambe is Baubo, described in an Orphic fragment as showing the « hollow cleft » of her body (OF 52 Kern) and delighting Demeter (Clemens Alexandrinus, Protrepticus II, 29, 1). Parallel figures appear in other cultures, associated with obscene performances through words and gestures, e. g., Loki’s performance in Scandinavian mythology, Egyptian Hathor’s anasyrma that provokes her father to resume work, the same action that was performed by women in the cult of Bubastis (Herodotus II, 60). Anasyrma was performed by the Japanese Uzume to appease the anger of the sun-goddess Amaterasu, arousing laughter in her and in the other gods. The goddess’ outburst relieved the darkness caused by her angry withdrawal. Ritual dances were performed annually at the winter solstice and at the burial of royalty by Uzume’s descendants, intended to cheer the souls of the dead. See N. J. Richardson, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 217, ad v. 195.

31 Much theoretical work is now being done on performance. See, for example, as an introduction, M. Carlson, Performance. A Critical Introduction, London, Routledge, 1996 ; for performance theory applied to the classical world, cf. A. Duncan, Performance and Identity in the Classical World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006, and E. Stehle, Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece. Nondramatic Poetry in its Setting, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997 ; for anthropological work on performance see V. Turner, op. cit. n. 13, and R. Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985 ; for a study of the role of performance in ritual see R. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

32 E. Stehle, « Thesmophoria and Eleusinian Mysteries : The Fascination of Women’s Secret Ritual », in M. Parca & A. Tzanetou (eds), Finding Persephone, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2007, p. 166.

33 A. Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1960 (1909). In his work with the Ndembu tribe in Zambia V. Turner (The Forest of Symbols. Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1967) identified this loss of selfhood during rites of transition. In the liminal phase initiands were sometimes treated as invisible, as neither male nor female, bereft of normal identification markers, and would undergo, as he observed, a « promiscuous intermingling of the categories of event, experience and knowledge » that left them open for processes of growth and transformation, for the reformulation of old elements in new patterns. V. Turner saw this as the moment for revelation, for speculation and reflection among ritual participants — an experience for which he coined his now famous phrase communitas. V. Turner (op. cit. n. 13) worked with Richard Schechner, a professor of performance studies at New York University, on the points of contact between anthropology and the theatre. V. Turner also turned to the work of cognitive scientists to argue that the ritual experience of communitas, which could be heightened by sonic, visual, and / or rhythmic activity such as singing and dancing, simultaneously stimulated both hemispheres of the cerebral cortex, producing in the participants a feeling of the fusion of categories normally kept distinct by the binary operation of the left hemisphere. On the reversals of ordinary life experienced by the initiate see also H. S. Versnel, Inconsistencies in Greek & Roman Religion, vol. 2 : Transition & Reversal in Myth and Ritual, Leiden, Brill, 1990, p. 55.

34 This is reflected in Pindar’s threnos for an Athenian who had been initiated into the Mysteries : ὄλβιος ὅστις ἰδὼν κεῖν᾽ εἶσ᾽ ὑπὸ χθόν᾽· / οἶδε μὲν βίου τελευτάν, / οἶδεν δὲ διόσδοτον ἀρχάν (fr. 137 Snell-Maehler). F. Graf, commenting on the fragment (Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens in vorhellenistischer Zeit, Berlin, de Gruyter, 1974, p. 80), writes : « die Einweihung ist der wahre Tod, sie ist aber dadurch auch der gottgegebene Anfang des wirklichen Lebens ». Compare the bone tablet (A) from Olbia : βίος θάνατος βίός / ἀλήθεια / Διό(νυσος) Ὀρφικοί (or Ὀρφικόν), F. Graf & S. I. Johnston, op. cit. n. 22, p. 185.

35 The interchangeability of what is signified in such circumstances was pointed out by E. Leach, Culture and Communication : The Logic by which Symbols are Connected, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1976. See also B. MacLachlan, op. cit. n. 1, p. 363.

36 Here we recall the Kabeiroi ceramics. The Sam Wide pottery, found in the sanctuary of Demeter / Kore on Acrocorinth (last half 5th century a. C.) is another parallel. One depicts a masturbating sphinx under which Oedipus cowers (D. Walsh, Distorted Ideals in Greek Vase-Painting : The World of Mythological Burlesque, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 16).

37 H. Hoffmann, Sotades : Symbols of Immortality on Greek Vases, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1997, p. 10-11, argues that in tombs or temples they opened up communication with the world of spirits — the dead or divinity.

38 Of these, 1200 graves were published in Meligunìs Lipára. Material relevant to the discussion that follows is found in the volumes published from 1965 to 2000 by L. Bernabò-Brea, La Necropolis greca e romana nella Contrada Diana. Meligunìs Lipára II, Palermo, Flaccovio, 1965 ; Scavi nella necropolis greca di Lipari. Meligunìs Lipára V, Rome, L’Erma di Brettschneider, 1991 ; Lipari. Contrada Diana. Scavo XXXVI in proprietà Zagami (1975-84). Meligunìs Lipára VII, Palermo, Accademia Nazionale di Scienze, Lettere e Arti di Palermo, 1994 ; L. Bernabò-Brea, M. Cavalier & F. Villard, Topografia di Lipari in età greca e romana. Meligunìs Lipára IX, 1 : L’Acropoli, Lipari, Museo Archeologico Regionale Eoliano, 1998, and L. Bernabò‑Brea, Scoperte e scavi archeologici nell’area urbana e suburbana di Lipari. Meligunìs Lipára X, Rome, L’Erma di Brettschneider, 2000.

39 These constitute the largest collection of theatrical artifacts, figurines and masks, so far discovered in the Greek world. Comic masks and figurines greatly outnumber the tragic.

40 A. Schwarzmaier, Die Masken aus der Nekropole von Lipari, Wiesbaden, Dr. Ludwig Reichert, 2011, p. 46 and passim.

41 A. Schwarzmaier, Ibid., is not alone in pointing out that the Onomasticon is a summary (whose manuscript is in different hands) derived from several sources, and has some textual difficulties (p. 101). She also points out (p. 78‑79) that several masks have poloi and closed mouths, precluding their representation of actors (she proposes instead that they represent divinities). The mask types also differ from those found in Attica, although doubtless the original matrices were made from Attic imports (p. 56 and 223).

42 Figurines of musicians, dancers, acrobats, hetairai, and banqueters were found throughout the necropolis with the masks and models of actors. No evidence for a theatre on Locri has yet been found, challenging the assumption that the theatrical objects found in graves could be explained by a particular fondness for the stage and particular dramatic productions on the part of the Liparese. Wine cups and symposium utensils were found in children’s graves as well as in those of adults, ruling out the argument that these were objects favoured by the deceased when alive (A. Schwarzmaier, op. cit., p. 158-159). An indication that Lipari was familiar with the Orphic / Dionysiac currents that were circulating in South Italy by the 4th century a. C. is found in the Pseudo-Aristotelian Mirabilia 101, where we find an account of a shaman-like voyage (and return) taken by a man from Lipari after his death.

43 The gold lamellae found in Magna Graecia, like those elsewhere in Greece, reflect the overlap in Persephone’s and Dionysos’ patronage of initiates, who thereby receive this special status. A gold tablet from Hipponion, a colony of Western Locri, that was found in a woman’s grave and dates to ca 400 a. C., promises the deceased that she will travel along the sacred road with other Bacchoi (A. Bernabé, Poetae Epici Graeci II. Orphicorum et Orphiciis similium testimonia et fragmenta, Fasc. 1 and 2, Munich, Saur, 2003-2004, fr. 474). Another from a tumulus in Thurii, on the Tarentine Gulf (4th century a. C.) instructs the deceased to « take the road on the right to sacred meadows and groves of Persephone » (Ibid., fr. 487).

44 T. Carpenter, « Dionysos and the Blessed on Apulian Red-Figure Vases », in R. Schlesier (ed.), A Different God ? Dionysos and Ancient Polytheism, Berlin, de Gruyter, 2011, p. 260. This divine symposium with Dionysos recalls A. Schwarzmaier’s (op. cit. n. 40) reading of the sympotic / komastic / theatrical artifacts in the necropolis on Lipari.

45 That there were agones chytrinoi during the Chytroi, where petitions were made to Hermes on behalf of the dead, is mentioned by Theopompus, FGrH 115 F347, and Philochorus, FGrH 328 F84 = schol. Frogs ad 218.

46 R. Hamilton, Choes & Anthesteria. Athenian Iconography and Ritual, Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1992, p. 96.

47 The number 40 is given by the Suda, and the dramatic fragments are found in G. Kaibel, Poetarum Comicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, vol. VI fasc. 1 : Doriensium Comoedia, Mimi, Phlyakes, Berlin, Weidemann, 1899, p. 91-132 ; testimonia and fragments are found in R. Kassel & C. Austin, Poetae Comici Graeci, vol. 1 : Comoedia Dorica, Mimi, Phlyakes, Berlin, de Gruyter, 2001, p. 8-137.

48 On the philosophical side of Epicharmos, and its reflection in the Pseudepicharmeia published under his name see L. Rodriguez-Noriega Guillén, « On Epicharmus’ Literary and Philosophical Background », in ΚBosher (ed.), op. cit. n. 1, p. 76-96.

49 See the discussion of Busiris (fr. 18 Rodriguez-Noriega Guillén) in B. MacLachlan, op. cit. n. 1, p. 354-355.

50 Suda, s. u. Φόρμος. Fragments of Phormos are found in R. Kassel & C. Austin, op. cit., p. 174-176.

51 R. Kassel & C. Austin, Ibid., p. 179.

52 T3 Kaibel = Suda, s. u. Ῥίνθων.

53 Τὰ τράγικα μεταρρυθμίζων ἐς τὸ γελοῖον (p. 603 Meineke = T2 Kaibel). The testimonia and fragments of Rhinthon are found in R. Kassel & C. Austin, op. cit., p. 260-270.

54 Nossis, Anthologia Palatina VII, 414. The term « phlyakes » until recently was applied to scenes with comic actors portrayed on South Italian vases dating between 400 and 330, two generations before Rhinthon. This was the term used by Athenaeus (XIV, 621d-f, quoting Sosibius) for improvised farces in South Italy. E. Csapo, « A Note on the Würzburg Bell-Crater H5697 (Telephus Travestius) », Phoenix 40 (1986), p. 379-392, and O. Taplin, Comic Angels and Other Approaches to Greek Drama through Vase-Paintings, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993, have identified some of the scenes on these comic vases as taken not from local informal performances but from formal Athenian drama such as the Thesmophoriazousae (a play filled with parody on many levels). Rhinthon’s phlyakes were in all probability a more formalized development from the improvised acting referred to by Sosibius.

55 Pollux (Onomasticon IV, 3) declared that Euripides was unique among tragic playwrights in borrowing techniques from Old Comedy, and his black humour at the end of Orestes has not gone unnoticed (e. g., E. Segal, The Death of Comedy, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 124).

56 The transgressive behaviour in Demeter / Kore rituals in the West reflected the erotic component of Persephone’s theogamy ; with Dionysos rites of transgression could be predicted, given his association with wine and ekstasis, but playfulness in these rites had a more serious side, belonging to the hope of participating in a divine symposium after death.

57 At the Plataean festival Hera’s anger at Zeus’ infidelities led her to hide herself until a ruse was designed (a wooden simulacrum of a bride for Zeus) that provoked her laughter (Plutarch cited by Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica III). Pausanias records the story of a man consulting the oracle of Trophonios, who descended into a crevice in the earth but was so terrified by the experience he was paralyzed with fear for some time after his return, until his ability to laugh was restored (IX, 39). On the initiation rituals at the Trophonios oracle see P. Bonnechere, « Trophonius of Lebadea : Mystery Aspects of an Oracular Cult in Boeotia », in M. B. Cosmopoulos (ed.), Greek Mysteries. The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults, London, Routledge, 2003, p. 169-192, who points out (177-178) that the Mysteries of Demeter could induce frenzied behaviour that was experienced as « an intense moment of privileged contact with the divinity » in an atmosphere in which the initiate would experience Truth (cf. E. Stehle, op. cit. n. 32). P. Bonnechere highlights the fact that the contrast of sadness and joy was central to certain chthonic experiences, such as that found in the Alcestis, as he points out. At the Trophonion the terror that caused the initiate to lose his ability to laugh, unaware of himself or others while he was being opened up to majestic visions, was followed by the gradual regaining of the power to laugh after this face-to-face encounter with divinity.

58 M. Douglas, « The Social Control of Cognition : Some Factors in Joke Perception », Man n. s. 3 (1968), p. 365.

59 W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. A Study in Human Nature, London / Bombay, Longmans, Green & Co., 1902, p. 40, writing of the mystical experience.

60 M. Douglas, op. cit.

61 V. Turner, op. cit. n. 13, p. 22. In other cultures « ludic play » has engaged the chiaroscuro of death and life. In the Medieval church in France the « Feast of Fools » was held between Christmas and New Year, involving outrageous behaviour on the part of junior clerics, although tolerated by the senior clergy. Priests and clerks wore monstrous masks, dressed as women, played dice at the altar, set alight the smelly soles of old shoes in the incense burners, drove around town in shabby carts engaging in « indecent gestures », according to the letter from the Theological Faculty of Paris that would ultimately close down the festival in 1445. The site of this parody was the suffering body of Christ, Corpus Christi, and the incarnation invited a playful rendition of the body that decays and dies. In 16th century Italy, Commedia dell’Arte, whose dialogue was largely improvised, arose as a reaction to Early Modern imitations of Classical Greek theatre. The focus in Commedia was on the actors, not the plots or text, and the emphasis was on gestures, actions, acrobatics, comic duels and the like. The actors took on the persona of the mask and became famous as Arlecchino or Pulcinella. While popular entertainment was certainly a factor here, its origin was much darker. Arlecchino was the heir of a lineage dating back to the Middle Ages : Familia Herlechini or maisnie Hellequin from Medieval Normandy were a shadowy host of figures who sometimes streamed along the ground or in the air. They were identified with the souls of the suffering or the damned, and their leader was a demon or the Devil. Both they and the Devil gradually took on comic and trickster dimensions, in proverbs, poems, plays and eventually in street theatre like the modern Commedia.

62 B. Kowalzig, Singing for the Gods. Performances of Myth and Ritual in Archaic and Classical Greece, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 34-39.

63 For M. Bakhtin (Rabelais and his World, Cambridge, Harvard University Press (English translation by H. Iswolsky), 1968, p. 33) carnivalesque reversals drawn from the folk tradition offered only a temporary renewal. G. Balandier (Political Anthropology, New York, Pantheon Books (English translation by A. M. S. Smith), 1970, p. 114‑116) cites anthropological reports of instances where sovereignty was reasserted after rituals of rebellion, serving to arouse a desire for the return of the reign of law. P. Bourdieu’s position (Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (English translation by R. Nice), 1977, p. 183-197) is similar, attributing to rituals of separation the general function of instituting social difference. So, H. S. Versnel, op. cit. n. 33, p. 112 with n. 91, who saw in the Kronia and the Feast of Fools an inversion of power allowing itself to be contested ritually in order to consolidate itself more effectively.

64 J. Carrière, Le Carnaval et la Politique. Une introduction à la comédie grecque suivie d’un choix de fragments, Besançon, Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 1979, p. 23-24. The civic crown was awarded to him for the advice he gave in the parabasis of Frogs. Cratinus used mythical parody to provide a critique of Pericles and Aspasia with his Dionysalexandros and Nemesis. Did it have an effect ?

65 Homo ludens. A Study of the Play-element in Culture, London, Routledge & Keagan Paul, 1949 (1938).

66 Cf. supra p. 87 n. 13. Participants who experience the absurdity in this inversion in chthonic rituals might agree with Heraclitus that two dissimilar gods are actually two aspects of an expanded cosmic view : « Dionysos, for whom they act mad and celebrate the Lenaea, is the same as Hades » (ὡυτὸς δὲ Ἃιδης καὶ Διόνυσος, ὅτεῳ μαίνονται καὶ ληναΐζουσιν, 22 B 15 Diels-Kranz = 15 Robinson).

67 M. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley, University of California Press (English translation by S. Rendall), 1984.

68 S. Mahood, Politics of Piety. The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2005, adopts this approach in studying how Muslim women in Egypt navigate the Islamic cultural politics of their country by adhering to patriarchal norms but exerting moral agency.

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Bonnie MacLachlan, « Ritual Katábasis and the Comic », Cahiers des études anciennes, LIII | -1, 83-111.

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Bonnie MacLachlan, « Ritual Katábasis and the Comic », Cahiers des études anciennes [En ligne], LIII | 2016, mis en ligne le 10 avril 2016, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL : http://etudesanciennes.revues.org/909

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Bonnie MacLachlan

Western University

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