Friday, October 17, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Ann Suter (ed.), Lament: Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. x, 288. ISBN 978-0-19-533692-4. £41.00; $74.00.
Reviewed by Maureen Alden, The Queen's University of Belfast

Table of Contents

Ann Suter, editor of Lament: Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond, has put together a volume of eleven essays from senior professors including Richard Martin, Alison Keith, and Ian Rutherford, as well as from a range of younger scholars, mostly in North America. Literary and iconographic evidence are used to reconstruct the order of funeral rituals in different societies, and the role that lamentation played in them. The volume is offered as an overview of critical thinking on the subject of lament over the 25 and more years since Alexiou's study of ritual lament in the Greek tradition concluded that lament is a female-gendered activity in which men are not supposed to engage, viewed in antiquity as a potential threat to male public and military activities: the various attempts to restrict and control lament are reflected in tragedy. This new collection will be useful to students of Near Eastern archaeology and texts, as well as students of Greek and Roman literature, iconography, and ritual. Although the most extensive section is that on Greek material, the essays expand the study of ritual lamentation to other genres of literature, other cultures, and other periods. Issues of status, pollution and gender are shown to be more complex and ambiguous than we had come to think. For a hardback from Oxford, this is pretty good value overall.

In the introduction, Ann Suter explains the layout of the collection and how it relates to previous scholarship on lament in the ancient world: she also summarizes the essays and the achievements of the collection, offering suggestions on how the groundwork of the essays might be developed in further studies on lament.

Chapters 2 and 3: Other Cultures

In chapter 2, Bachvarova considers the galas, cross-dressing priests whose ritual laments in a women's dialect of Sumerian, emesal, went beyond the mourning of the human dead, focussing the attention of the gods on human suffering to persuade them to relieve it. Other laments by the galas were intended to avert divine anger before it occurred. Mourning combines with invocation in songs to call back the dead and disappeared. (This sounds like the Persae.) Bachvarova compares the laments of these feminized men to those of the (male) actors who dressed as women and recited lamentations in the tragedies performed at the Festival of Dionysos. She proposes a route of influence through Anatolian material to Dionysiac ritual, suggesting that the similarities are more than typological.

In chapter 3, Rutherford discusses the Hittite texts that describe the procedure for the 14-day funeral ritual that follows the great loss (sallis wastais) experienced on the death of the king or queen and culminates in his or her deification. Specialised female wailers, taptara, perform group lamentation to accompany ritual action, or as an antiphonal response to individual lamentation. The death of the royal personage is represented as 'going to the meadow' (paradise?): the wailers ask him/her not to 'pull the summanza cord' (which might sever connection with the world of the living), and placate the deceased with the prayer 'May your will be done'. The taptara are experts in ritual, absorbing the pollution of death, and deflecting it from the community as a whole. They are banished from the community's royal cult, which symbolizes the continuing presence of the king.

Chapters 4-10: Greek Material

In Chapter 4 Brendan Burke suggests that Cycladic figurines, painted with red and blue pigment, possibly indicating scratches and tears, are our earliest representations of lament. However, he refuses to interpret iconographic evidence from the Greek Bronze Age in terms of later practice, choosing instead to focus on what Mycenaean funerary art can tell us directly. The larnakes from Tanagra show a procession of women with raised arms lamenting while others prepare the prothesis: Burke argues that the scenes of hunting and contests represented on the larnakes are also funerary. The processional scenes on the Agia Triadha sarcophagus are explained as funerary ritual, and compared to those described in contemporary Hittite ritual. Claiming a funerary context for the Warrior Vase at Mycenae, Burke reinterprets the woman's raised arms as a gesture of mourning, while the men engage in a funeral procession or funeral games.

Perkell, in Chapter 5, reads the three laments that close the Iliad as an invitation to the external audience to reflect on the poet's thematic purposes in giving such prominence to the dirges by Andromache, Hecuba and Helen in praise of Hector. She indicates the disparity between Hector's desire for memorialization in terms of heroic glory and the experience of the women, whose laments endorse moral values in conflict with his heroic ambitions. She infers that the laments for Hector, together with the words and deeds of Achilles, question the poem's dominant ideology. This may be the case with other epics ending in lament, such as Lucan's Bellum Civile and Beowulf.

Richard Martin in Chapter 6 studies Helen's lament for Hector in the context of all her speeches in the poem. Although not characterized as such, Helen's speeches often contain strategies or phrases of γόος or θρῆνος, so that the audience would have recognized her diction as that of a mourner long before she begins to lament for Hector. Comparanda from the modern tradition of lament are used to elucidate several of Helen's speeches. She performs both as soloist and chorus, and her dirge at the end of the Iliad counterbalances the invocation to the Muse at the start. Martin applies these insights to mediaeval and modern Irish poetry, where he detects traces of an interlocutionary style of lament.

In Chapter 7, Karen Stears provides a detailed summary of Archaic/Classical funeral ritual, describing women's activities at the time of death, at the funeral, and throughout the mourning period. Lament restates the ideology of male/public, female/private, but in reality the boundary was fluid, and the display of women's lament formed an essential part of the public face of the household. Full reference is made to iconographic evidence, but only one illustration accompanies the essay.

Suter, in Chapter 8, makes use of Elinor Wright's unpublished analysis of metre and stylistic features characteristic of "full" and "reduced" lament in tragedy. She challenges the assumption that lament is a female action in the genre, and argues that males lament freely in the plays, sometimes recovering moral authority in this way, and reintegrating themselves into their society. Her view that male lament was an integral part of tragedy from its origins in Dionysiac ritual and hero cult complements the arguments of Bachvarova on the origins, function, and gendering of lament.

In Chapter 9 Karanika illustrates how Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae employs the forms of ritual lament in parodies of the Telephus, the Helen, and the Andromeda. She also finds lament in the myth and rites of the Thesmophoria, and claims that lament is defined and explicated through parody in the Thesmophoriazusae.

Levaniouk discusses Erinna's poem, Distaff, a fragmentary text of the fourth century BC, in Chapter 10. She demonstrates that this hexameter poem in mixed dialect is so full of wedding diction and imagery from epic and popular song that it constitutes a wedding song performed as a lament for Erinna's companion, the dead Baucis. The poem is sung by one girl, who is waiting for her own marriage, over another girl, one whose attempt to negotiate the transition to marriage ended in death. Baucis may be an archetypal figure, like Adonis. Levaniouk compares the poem with the scenes, diction, and imagery of Odyssey 6 and Iphigenia's arrival in Aulis as the bride of Achilles in Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis.

Chapters 11 and 12: Lament in Rome

Alison Keith in Chapter 11 investigates the significance of lament in Lucan's Bellum Civile, where the death of Pompey heralds the death of the Republic. Homeric models influence Cornelia's laments for her husband, beginning with her anticipatory lament and swoon when she is dismissed from the battlefield. Lament is shown to be an obligation owed the dead man not only by his wife, but also by his social inferiors, as exemplified by Pompey's quaestor, Cordus, who performs funeral rites and lamentation for his murdered commanding officer. Cato quells the mutiny that follows his public laudatio for Pompey by appropriating the personal pleas for vengeance in Cornelia's final dirge. The closing books of the epic follow the narrative course Cornelia proposes, and thus affirm the power of women's lament in Rome.

Chapter 12 assembles the secondary evidence for the nenia, which in earliest times was an incantation of mourning following a eulogy of the deceased. The nenia was performed by praeficae, professional female mourners who marched in front of the coffin with the impersonators of the ancestors, urging the deceased to join the other dead members of the family. Dutsch attempts to reconstruct the form of the nenia from the parodies in Seneca's Apocolocyntosis and Catullus' mock dirge for Lesbia's sparrow. The nenia appears to be used in other contexts of transition and the crossing of boundaries.

Each essay is followed by its own notes and bibliography: there is no general bibliography at the end to assist the reader trying to acquaint himself with the previously published work on the subject. There is a general index, but no index locorum.

A couple of things appear to have gone wrong with Burke's translation of a passage from Schliemann's notebook 15A in the Gennadion Library in Athens. The images of the Agia Triadha sarcophagus, figs. 4.7 and 4.8, are small and difficult to discern: I had to use my own photographs to follow the argument. A memorably misplaced hyphen on p. 218 produced the term "cow-orker".

Different essays will appeal to different interests, and Suter's collection offers a valuable corrective to what have become almost ideological attitudes to lament in Greek tragedy. Perkell's reading of the laments of Iliad 24 is humane and beautifully written. Martin brilliantly suggests that Helen may be lamenting the occupants of the Horse in the voices their wives would use to lament them. The essays on Lucan and on the nenia should spark further work in the curiously neglected study of lament in Rome. The Hittite and Sumerian material invites profoundly important questions about influence between cultures in the ancient world, and the cross-cultural influences are underscored by the contributors' cross references within the volume.

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