Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, Athenian Myths and Festivals: Aglauros, Erechtheus, Plynteria, Panathenaia, Dionysia (edited by Robert Parker). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 377. ISBN 9780199592074. $150.00.

Reviewed by Jenifer Neils, Case Western Reserve University (

Version at BMCR home site

This posthumous study by the renowned scholar of Greek religion Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood is no less than a re- writing of the myth-history of early Athens and its related cults. Expanding out from an initial consideration of gentilicial involvement in the City Dionysia, she examines in intricate detail the role of these religious societies in other festivals (Plynteria, Kallynteria, Panathenaia) as well as the complex web of mythology underlying them. We have Robert Parker to thank for much: the title, editing the text down by one-sixth, eliminating polemic, consigning subsidiary details to the footnotes (which are extensive), and clarifying textual arguments by translating the relevant Greek texts. Not an easy read, this book nonetheless offers numerous new and thought-provoking explanations for the oddities, inconsistencies and conundra of myths dealing specifically with the genealogy of the Athenian royal family, the festivals of Athena Polias, the various versions of the Palladion, and the related roles of Attic gene.

The first chapter entitled "Festivals and Gene: Reconstructions, Problematik, Methodolgies," lays out Sourvinou-Inwood's approach to her study. After background on the constitution and ritual and managerial roles of gene, it is here that the reader is introduced to some of the terminology (ritual logic, ritual schemata) and neologisms (mytheme, mythicoritual) that are used throughout the book and which underlie Sourvinou-Inwood's method. I can hardly venture to define this, except to say that those familiar with her many earlier books will recognize her mode of argumentation, which is based on a deep understanding of Greek myth and its related religious practices, and which tries to avoid culturally determined arguments and a priori assumptions.

In the second chapter Sourvinou-Inwood outlines her scheme for the development of the persona of Erechtheus. In short, she posits two phases: 1) the 'complex' Erechtheus who is the primordial earthborn nursling of Athena and the first king of Athens; and 2) the 'post-split' Erechtheus who is defined by his military victory over the Eleusinians and is placed later in the king list. The latter coincides with the appearance of Erichthonios, who in turn inherits some of the characteristics (earth-born) and deeds (inventor of the Panathenaia) originally associated with Erechtheus. The first Erechtheus is attested early (Homer) while Erichthonios is a fifth-century invention, as evidenced in part by his appearance in Athenian art. This naturally leads Sourvinou-Inwood to a consideration of Aglauros, who was a daughter of the supposed first king Kekrops (invented later according to Sourvinou-Inwood to strengthen the mytheme of autochthony) and one of three care-takers of baby Erichthonios. Sourvinou-Inwood. suggests that Aglauros was originally a daughter of the 'complex' Erechtheus, the first priestess of Athena Polias, and a heroine who gave her life to save the city in the time of war. Only in the fifth century was her genealogy changed, and she lost some of her earlier mythical importance, but her roles in important rituals of Athens were undiminished.

These associations of Aglauros with certain festivals (Plynteria, Kallynteria) are the topic of the third and longest (nearly 100 pages) chapter. After reviewing what she terms the 'stable points' of the festival, she attempts a reconstruction of its 'ritual skeleton'. A surprising conclusion of her analysis is the ritual washing of the statue of Athena Polias in the sea near the sanctuary of Athena Skiras at Phaleron (contra Burkert and others who argue that the statue washed here was the Palladion). She reaches this conclusion based on the fact that the priestess of Aglauros was provided by the genos of the Salaminioi and this priestess received loaves in the sanctuary at Phaleron. The statue was escorted by ephebes, and Aglauros was a kourotrophic heroine of ephebes since she died in war (the myth of her suicide being a later construct). Her scenario of the undressing of the statue, having the Plyntrides wash the 'dirty' peplos, processing the statue in a chariot to Phaleron, washing it in the sea by the Loutrides, and dressing in the newly laundered peplos by the Praxiergidai is somewhat reminiscent of a modern-day Greek Orthodox baptism. One consideration that Sourvinou-Inwood does not take into account in her ritual scheme is the practical problem of a woolen peplos drying overnight.

The fourth chapter deals with the complex problem of the Palladion at Athens. Were there originally two at Troy? Which one was authentic, that at Athens or the one Aeneas took to Italy? Sourvinou-Inwood is more focused on arguing against the Patmos scholion that refers to Demophon, the son of Theseus who fought at Troy, bringing the Palladion down to the sea and washing it, as the one correct reflection of cultic reality which is nowhere else recorded. She states: "On the contrary, I would suggest, the fact that transformations of cultic elements located at Phaleron and belonging to different cults were deployed in other versions of the mytheme 'Palladion court and sanctuary founded at Phaleron' opens up the possibility that the narrative reflected in the Patmos scholion may also have included a cultic element taken over from another nexus and incorporated into myth by later mythography; in other words that the story that Demophon took the statue down to the sea and washed it may have been a transformation of an element, also located at Phaleron, taken over from the Plynteria nexus, the bath of the statue of Athena Polias, and attached to the myth of the Palldion." (p. 251) As I said, it is often not an easy read, but her constructed scenarios are 'logical' as far as any cult or ritual is.

The Panathenaia is the subject of the fifth chapter. Sourvinou-Inwood surveys the three aitia associated with the festival: its foundation by Erichthonios, its re-foundation after the synoecism by Theseus, and as a celebration of the slaying of the giant Asterios. The last involves a long digression on the Gigantomachy and Athena's role in it. In another section of this chapter Sourvinou-Inwood deals with many of the issues relating to the representation of the peplos ritual on the east frieze of the Parthenon: the seating arrangement of the gods with their backs to the main event, the identity of the priest (she suggests that of Zeus Polieus), and the identification of the two girls interacting with the priestess of Athena Polias (arrhephoroi according to Sourvinou-Inwood).

In the penultimate chapter Sourvinou-Inwood looks at the City Dionysia in an effort to refute Lambert's claim that the genos of the Bakchidai provided the priest of Zeus Eleuthereus (Historia 1998). After a digression (or what the author terms a 'parenthesis') on the genos of the Euneidai, she concludes that the City Dionysia, as an important arena for elite competition and as a 'whole polis' cult like the Panathenaia, had no gentilicial priesthood.

The final, concluding chapter is brief (13 pages) and obviously unfinished. It returns to the subject of the gene and their various levels of involvement with Attic rituals. The author contrasts those of 'dense' involvement such as the Eleusinian mysteries with those of little or no gentilicial involvement, namely the City Dionysia and the Panathenaia. She believes that the various degrees of participation are related to factors of exclusivity and secret knowledge. The Kallynteria and the Plynteia fall somewhere in between with the Praxiergidai performing the dirty work and thus insulating thepriestess of Athena for a specific period of time in the month of Thargelion.

The meager illustrations seem almost like an afterthought. There are only three black and white details of Attic red- figure vase paintings. Although the famous Eleusis skyphos by Makron in London is described at some length, only the figure of Eumolpos under the handle is illustrated. Likewise the kylix by Makron in St. Petersburg that shows Odysseus and Diomedes each holding a Palladion is reproduced as a detail of Odysseus only, although all the heroes in the scene are mentioned. It is a pity that there is no illustration of the Parthenon east frieze as it is discussed extensively in the chapter on the Panathenaia. This lack of adequate illustrative material and the conclusion of the book that breaks off mid-sentence are just two signs of the difficulties of dealing with a posthumous manuscript.

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