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Theocritus' 'Adoniazusae.'

`This sudden contrast between speed and eternity'

R. B. Moberly, Three Mozart Operas p. 208 (on the graveyard scene in Don Giovanni)

Theocritus' poem on the women celebrating the festival of Adonis (Idyll 15) has received surprisingly little attention over the years,(1) especially when compared with other Theocritean Idylls of like length. Matthew Arnold's notorious rhapsody(2) (`a page torn fresh out of the book of human life. What freedom! What animation! What gaiety! What naturalness! . . . When such is Greek poetry of the decadence, what must be Greek poetry of the prime?') has perhaps done more harm than good, by focusing attention too exclusively on the first hundred lines or so of the poem (and indeed Arnold himself was of the opinion that the hymn to Adonis at vv. 100ff. contains `of religious emotion, in our acceptation of the words, and of the comfort springing from religious emotion, not a particle'). And yet the poem is second only to Euripides' Bacchae as a document revealing the ways in which religion in the ancient Greek world could offer women an escape (however temporary) from the drab banalities of their everyday existence.(3) And the central contrast between the eternal and idealized glamour of the world of myth and the time-bound existence of Praxinoa and Gorgo (a contrast which is crucial for the above-mentioned role of religion) is absolutely characteristic of one essential aspect of Hellenistic poetry, an aspect that looks back to the world of Euripides and forward to that of Roman poets like Catullus or Propertius. In this paper I shall examine both these features of the Idyll. Also, inspired by those scholars who have illuminated facets of the Dionysiac religion by adducing comparable (if secular) twentieth-century material,(4) I shall try to achieve something similar for Theocritus' poem by drawing on comparative material from late twentieth-century Japan relating to a phenomenon that allows Japanese housewives temporary escape from a tedious and restricted way of life.

Like many Theocritean, indeed Hellenistic, compositions Idyll 15 is carefully structured, and a clear understanding of its unity depends upon the rehabilitation of the penultimate section (vv. 100-44) which embraces the Adonis song. We saw above how Matthew Arnold gave the cue for an essentially negative verdict on this portion of the poem. In 1938 A. S. F. Gow could still write(5) that `the hymn itself is a mediocre piece', and K.J. Dover in his small edition and commentary of 1971 was following a hint of Gow's(6) when he wrote:(7) `the hyperbolical effusion of 123 does raise .. . a suspicion [se. of a `sly parody' on Theocritus' part `of the songs characteristic of' festivals], and it is reinforced by the clumsy rampage through mythology in 137 ff. . . . I should have expected Theocritus to take the opportunity of showing how well he could write a hymn, not the opportunity of showing how badly most people wrote them; but this expectation founders on the hymn we have before us.'

More recent studies have taken a more sympathetic view of the hymn and have seen that its effect is one of climax not of anticlimax, and its tone one of `grandeur' and `noble and delicate pathos'.(8) Perhaps more important than any absolute evaluation of the hymn's style is the perception of a radical difference relative to the context. Dover, for instance,(9) observes the absence from the hymn of those cliches and colloquialisms that characterize the prattle of Gorgo and Praxinoa, and this contrast is crucial to the meaning of the poem as a whole, for the whole poem pivots upon a contrast between the hymn and its context.(10) This is nowhere clearer than at the end, where the hymn's closing couplet, with its emphasis upon the annual nature of the festival of Adonis and upon the yearly repetition of Adonis' return from the Underworld, is jarringly juxtaposed with Gorgo's prosaic `Ah well, time to go home; my man hasn't had his lunch!' (v. 147). The eternal process of Adonis' rebirth is contrasted with the time-bound existence of the two women, the glamorous world of myth with their extremely unglamorous way of life.

This contrast is perhaps clearest here, but it has been anticipated elsewhere in the poem and it takes different forms. Hutchinson has well pointed out(11) how `Gorgo's attitude to her husband stands in marked contrast to the sentiment she feels for the youthful god' Adonis, and how `the prosaic and cantankerous marriages of the two women' are designedly set off against `the romantic and erotic marriage of Aphrodite and Adonis . . . Adonis "loved even in death'" (v. 86). We now see the point of the earlier disparaging references to husbands, which may have seemed, when we first read them, merely a symptom of delightful realism (e.g. Praxinoa at 895.: `it's that husband of mine, bringing me to the ends of the earth, to a hole not a house, just so you and I shouldn't be neighbours, and all out of spite' or at 15 ff.: "`Daddy" yesterday brought back salt not soap, the great hulk of a thing'. (Gorgo): `Mine's just the same. . . .'). We also see why, as has been observed,(12) `Theocritus has given the festival a domestic context [instead of the alternative possibility of a garden setting] . . . because he is celebrating Aphrodite as goddess of marriage.'

At this point, I think it will be illuminating to bring in the promised comparative material from Japan.(13) The Takarazuka Revue in Tokyo presents on stage a stylized, romantic, and erotic world that contrasts widely with the prosaic and mundane world of its audience (consisting of women, both young, unmarried girls and older housewives). The striking feature is that all roles, both male and female, are played by younger women. The girls who portray men on stage (men regularly engaged in romantic and chivalrous relationships with young girls played by real girls) receive fantastic adulation (including gifts and love letters) from their female fans. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this (certainly the one most relevant to our purposes) is the reason cited by these fans for their devotion to the female stars who play male roles. They find them in many respects preferable to real men because they create the ideal man whom Japanese women really want,(14) an ideal man lacking the coarseness and crudity of real men (and in particular lacking the blind and narrow devotion to the work ethic which characterizes so many real husbands in late twentieth-century Japan).

The relevance of this for the song of Adonis as it affects Gorgo and Praxinoa should, I trust, be obvious. For a while the two women are able to forget their husbands of the real world, husbands who live in inconveniently remote places, who need to be fed regularly (though they never bring back the right shopping), in favour of the ideal man that Adonis represents, the ideal husband and lover(15) (`the eighteen- or nineteen-year-old bridegroom': v. 129), beloved by Aphrodite even in death (v. 86: cf. 136), who is fed miraculously by all the fruits that the tree bears (v. 112) and who lives in green bowers and reposes on a couch covered with scarlet coverlets (v. 125). To reach this magical world of fantasy the everyday concerns of domesticity must be symbolically set aside (the baby left at home(16) with the maid, the pets safely resting, the house locked up). If there is no exact equivalent of the Takarazuka Revue's playing of male parts by females there is a very close equivalent: for the song of Adonis is composed and performed by a woman, significantly anonymous but skilled (v. 97f.: [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Similar praise from Gorgo not only introduces but immediately rounds off the song itself (vv. 145f.: [GREEK TEXTS NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and our minds become focused upon a different type of female existence from that of Gorgo and Praxinoa, one comparable, perhaps, to the privileged but unreal careers of the female stars of the Takarazuka Revue.

Given this framework, most of the features of the poem will fall into place. Thus, the admiring description of the tapestries in the palace precinct at 78ff.(17) contrasts with 18 fF. on the inadequate fleeces purchased by Gorgo's husband at such an exorbitant price. Above, I coupled Theocritus' poem with Euripides' Bacchae as a testimony to how religion could make daily life more bearable (or at least less tedious) for Greek women. Theocritus' treatment of this subject is undoubtedly more bourgeois and realistic(18) and it might be observed, for instance, that the journey to the royal palace at Alexandria is considerably less dangerous and less of a wrench from everyday life than the long sojourn on a mountain side would have been for the female followers of Dionysus.(19) It is perhaps for this reason that Theocritus makes the journey to the palace (vv. 44-77) as dangerous and unpleasant as the setting allows, with jostling crowds and a crush that tears Praxinoa's scarf in two (69-70), to say nothing of the rearing horse (53 95.) that so terrifies the same figure.(20)

Finally, let us try to set in wider perspective Idyll 15's exploitation of the gap between the ideal and the mundane, the elevated and the trivial. This is an essentially Hellenistic device, but it has a precedent in Euripides, a poet who often foreshadows and anticipates Hellenistic themes and motifs. A common feature of his tragedies is' whet has been termed(21) the process of `deglamourizing myth', and of all his extant plays the Electra perhaps exemplifies this to perfection. Here the familiar heroic subject-matter of murderous strife within the house of Atreus is brought down to a mundane and bourgeois level. The heroine (in a characteristic Euripidean invention) has been married off by Aegisthus to a farmer (a good but poor individual) and is living with him in a hovel (we are already close to the homely world of Callimachus' Hecale). But at one point in the play Euripides deliberately engineers a contrast between the everyday and mundane world he has conjured up and the idealized and timeless world of myth. I refer to the play's first stasimon dealing with the Greek expedition to Troy (vv. 432ff.).(22) Denniston in his commentary(23) rightly talks of the chorus `plunging into the romantic past: [it] hymns the glories of the Trojan war with special emphasis on the divine armour of Achilles' (my italics). The evocation of the Nereids (vv. 442 ff.) also plays its part in establishing here a romantic contrast with the play's prevailing tone of realism by conjuring up a `gallant exploit of heroic times'.

This particular use of myth is rather different from anything in earlier Greek literature. If we had to generalize about previous uses of myth by Greek poets we might hazard the statement that the main aim was to achieve (often by artificial means) a similarity between the myth exploited and the context which it was designed to illuminate, and that the details of the myth were often changed by the poet himself to ensure this similarity. This is particularly the case with so-called paradigmatic uses of myths, and a recent perceptive study of this process(24) has commented on paradigmatic myths' `transformation of single events into variants of a timeless pattern' (my italics). In such instances the myth that is used to illustrate something is often revised by the poet himself to bring it into line with the situation that is being illustrated, and the illustrative myth suggests the timelessness of the actions or events it shares with the situation thus illustrated. In the Euripidean Electra, by contrast, myth is deglamourized and its consequent time-bound banality is contrasted with the timeless and still glamorous myth of the Greek expedition to Troy.

This device of contrast was taken up and taken further by Hellenistic poets. In Theocritus' fifteenth Idyll we have, not Euripides' deglamourized central myth contrasted with the still glamorous expedition to Troy, but the never glamorous everyday existence of Gorgo and Praxinoa contrasted with the idealized and romantic love of Adonis and Aphrodite. This sort of contrast was further exploited by those Roman poets who were variously influenced by Hellenistic poetry. It is well known(25) how, for instance, the longer of Catullus' wedding poems (61) has borrowed its device of the poet as a master of ceremonies from various hymns of Callimachus where the poet similarly posed as presiding over a religious ritual in order to supply his composition with a structural unity. In a more complex and allusive way, Catullus 68 derives from Idyll 15 its contrast(26) between the idealized world of myth, with its romantic picture of the legitimately married and devoted Protesilaus and Laodameia, and the illegitimate, illicit liaison between Catullus and his faithless Lesbia grounded in sordidly real contemporary life. And on a more light-hearted level Propertius 1.3 again exploits (to largely comic effect) a like contrast when the initial ideal heroines of romantic myth give way to the all-too-real and unidealized tantrums of the awakened Cynthia.


(1.) The best recent treatment is by G. O. Hutchinson, Hellenistic Poetry (Oxford, 1988), pp. 150-2. But perhaps it is still possible to place the poem in a slightly different (and wider) context, which is what I attempt here.

(2.) In his essay `Pagan and medieval religious sentiment' (Essays in Criticism, 1st series, (1900) p. 205). A serious shortcoming of this approach to the poem is that it overlooks the crucial contrast between reality and the ideal world of myth which gives the whole idyll its unity: thus 'Gorgo and Praxinoe, within the enchanted bounds of Theocritus' poem, never will be sick and sorry, never can be sick and sorry. The ideal, cheerful, sensuous, pagan life is not sick or sorry' (p. 206: italics mine).

(3.) See especially F. T. Griffiths, Theocritus at Gurt (Mnemos. Suppl. 55 (1979)), p. 116f.

(4.) I think, e.g., of J. N. Bremmer, `Greek Maenadism Reconsidered', ZPE 55 (1984), 267ff., who closes his article with a comparison (p. 286) between the maenadic ritual which helped woman to endure `their dull and isolated existence' and the `integrative' effect within modern social life of the Saturday night disco.

(5.) JHS 58 (1938), 202.

(6.) As cited in the previous note: `the hymn is professedly composed as well as performed by the singer, whose forte, we may suppose, is rather singing than composing . . . [Theocritus] may . . . have written it not by his standards, but by hers. . . . The extravagant commendations of =the incorrigible Gorgo", are more amusing . . . if they are bestowed upon a work which, to a more cultivated taste, does not deserve them.'

(7.) Theocritus, Select Poems (London, 1971), pp.209-10.

(8.) See A. Bulloch in Cambridge History of Classical Literature i (Greek), p.580, Hutchinson (op. cit. [n. 1], p. 151).

(9.) Op. cit. [n. 7], p. 198. We may perhaps compare the effect of Soph. Trach. 402ff. where the colloquial exchanges of Lichas and the herald set off by contrast the elevated and dignified tone of Deianeira's rhesis at 436ff. (see my note ad loc.).

(10.) Hutchinson (op. cit. [n. 1], pp. 152-3), who associates it (p. 150) with other passages in Theocritus where 'we find the juxtaposition of beauty with low or grotesque rustic elements'. Similar juxtapositions were taken over by the Roman poets (e.g. Vergil who in Ecl. 6 sets the poignant story of Pasiphae in the mouth of fat, old Silenus and achieves something similar in Georg. 4 with Proteus and the story of Orpheus).

(11.) Op. cit. [n.1], p. 153.

(12.) S. B. Pomeroy, Women in Hellenistic Egypt (New York, 1984) p. 36.

(13.) I owe my initial knowledge of the phenomenon in question to a remarkable television documentary first shown on BBC2 on June 26 1994.

(14.) That Adonis represents (like Daphnis in Idyll 1) a new kind of hero from popular sources, contrasting with Epic and Tragic counterparts, may explain the nature of vv. 137ff., a passage variously denounced as e.g. `clumsy and perfunctory' (Gow op. cit., n. 5), or ia clumsy rampage through mythology' (Dover op. cit., n. 7). The heroes in question, who are being unfavourably compared with Adonis since (unlike him) they did not conquer death, are also the traditional heroes of earlier literature (Agamemnon, Ajax, etc.) and one expects their perfunctory dismissal in order to emphasize their inadequacy (compare the effect of Ibycus S 151 with the comments of J. P. Barron, BICS 16 [1969], 119 ff.).

(15.) I may mention in passing (there is neither time nor space for a full treatment here) that the notorious effeminacy of Dionysus (see e.g. Dodds' commentary on Eur. Bacch. 453-9) may be partly explicable in terms of a similar androgynous attractiveness to female followers.

(16.) It is characteristic of Theocritus' more bourgeois treatment of the issue of women's participation in religious rites that the practical question of what to do with the children is specifically answered at vv. 40ff., whereas in Euripides' Bacchae it is not made clear that (as Bremmer op. Cit. [n. 4], 285 observes) `the maenads were upper-class women who undoubtedly had slaves to look after the children that were left behind'.

(17.) On the likelihood that `In Theocritus bride and bridegroom [i.e. Aphrodite and Adonis] are already united, but . . . the couch on which they recline is not at the moment their bridal couch, though when the spectators depart and the tables are cleared it will become so' see Gow (op. cit. [n.51, 200).

(18.) See above n. 16.

(19.) For the importance of the act of leaving home and moving on to the rigours of the mountain side in Bacchic worship see Bremmer (op. cit. [n. 4], 285f).

(20.) For the journey to the palace as representing a distinct threat to the individuality of Gorgo and Praxinoa see Griffiths (op. cit. [n 3]).

(21.) W. G. Arnott, G&R 28 (1981), 181.

(22.) Badly misunderstood by S. Barlow, The Imagery of Euripides (London, 1971), p. 20 as a `classic case of pictorial irrelevance'.

(23.) Oxford, 1939, p. xxxii.

(24.) By Oivind Andersen in Homer: Beyond Oral Poetry (Amsterdam, 1985), p.3 (cf. p. 11). His treatment is a useful introduction to the whole issue of paradigmatic myth, which cannot be gone into here.

(25.) See e.g. Wilamowitz, Hellenistische Dichtung ii. 282, and now W. Albert, Das mimetische Gedicht in der Antike (Beitr. zur kl. Phil. 190 [1988]),passim, esp. pp. 1 ff. and 105 ff.

(26.) On which see, for instance, C. Macleod, `A Use of Myth in Ancient Poetry', CQ 24 (1974), 82 ff. = Collected Essays, pp. 159 ff.


MATTHEW DILLON: Associate Professor of Classics, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.

MALCOLM DAVIES: Fellow and Tutor, St John's College, and Lecturer in Classics, University of Oxford.

JOHN MARR: Lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Exeter.

DEBRA HERSHKOWITZ: Junior Research Fellow, Christ Church, University of Oxford.

KATHRYN E. WELCH: Associate Lecturer in the School of Archaeology, Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney.

WALTER SCHEIDEL: Moses and Mary Finley Research Fellow in Ancient History, University of Sydney.
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Author:Davies, Malcolm
Publication:Greece & Rome
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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