Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Laurialan Reitzammer, The Athenian Adonia in Context: The Adonis Festival as Cultural Practice. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison; London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016. Pp. xii, 261. ISBN 9780299308209. $65.00.

Reviewed by Jeremy McInerney, University of Pennsylvania (jmcinern@sas.upenn.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


The Adonia, a ritual celebration of the death of Adonis by the women of Athens, is one of those festivals that is traditionally classified as either a private festival or a women's festival. Among its distinctive features were the small potted gardens, so called "Gardens of Adonis", cultivated by Athenian women and used in a ritual lamentation on behalf of Aphodite's consort, conducted by women who moved the pots onto the roofs of their houses. Reitzammer's study of this festival represents the first detailed examination of the Adonia since Detienne's Les Jardins d'Adonis, and Reitzammer's work deserves to be recognized for extracting a good deal from the little evidence we have regarding the cult. Based on the literary and visual evidence, which is slim, Reitzammer argues that the central action of the festival, the transfer of the pots to the rooftops, suggests the movement between the underworld and heaven (20). Building on this, Reitzammer reads the Adonia's focus on the relationship of consort and goddess as a commentary on marriage, with the beautiful Adonis dying just as the bride dies in marriage. She links the mourning for the dead Adonis with social practices of mourning and funeral commemoration, emphasizing the notion that the female participants in the Adonia adopted the role of Aphrodite and thereby acquired a degree of agency otherwise denied them by most Athenian cults. Accordingly, Reitzammer's study of the Adonia is explicitly recuperative, designed to put women back into the fuller picture of Athenian religious practice. The aim of the book is entirely laudable, and as an example of subaltern studies it represents a very good example of what such an approach can accomplish as well as its shortcomings.

Chapter 1 surveys attitudes ancient and modern to the cult, the nature of these miniature gardens of Adonis, death and lamentation, and the possible eastern origins of the cult. The shadow of Detienne looms large here and no more than when Reitzammer deals with the basic question of what the miniature gardens at the heart of the Adonia were. Detienne showed how the Adonia could shed light on Athenian culture: his contrast between growing mint and lettuce, (the one a sterile plant, the other an anti-aphrodisiac), in a culture that dwelt at length on the much more important question of cereal cultivation, enriched our understanding of the Athenians. So what are these women doing hauling broken pots of dried-out shoots up to the roof? Is this a version of female cultivation that mocks and inverts plowing and threshing? This a central question, the answer to which will take us to the heart of the cult's function, but Reitzammer, careful not to push the evidence too far, gives nothing away, and does not develop an answer until returning to the question later (82).

Chapter 2 deals with weddings. That the Adonia relates to marriage practice is a plausible observation, since Adonis was Aphrodite's lover, but the central elements of the Adonia—a ladder and an ascent to the roof—represent a peculiar tangent to the usual components of the wedding ceremony. Accordingly, Reitzammer offers a detailed treatment of the iconography depicted on a series of vessels that show women climbing up or down ladders. It is here that the limitations of what can said with confidence about the Adonia begin to emerge. As Reitzammer acknowledges, the image of the woman on the ladder may refer to the Adonia or to the Epaulia, the ceremony held one day after the marriage celebration, when gifts were deposited upstairs in the women's quarters. The woman on the ladder is surely a reference to one or other of these two events, but which one? Reitzammer's conclusion is inconclusive: "To argue that the female figures are headed to the roof (Adonia) or to an upper story (epaulia) may be misguided." (31) As a note of caution this is justified, but it leaves the reader wondering whether we can legitimately hope to crack the cult's code when we can't even be sure if it is being represented.

It is important for Reitzammer to get the entire discussion of ladders and rooftops right, especially because she will develop the intriguing argument that in the Lysistrata the Akropolis functions as the rooftop of Athens, and that the action of the Lysistrata is designed to evoke (though not reenact) an Adonia. Ladders mean rooftops, rooftops mean Adonia, to put the argument crudely. But there is a very detailed and significant discussion of rooftops, households, and public space in John Graham's article, "The Woman at the Window,", in which the author argues for a powerful association between rooftops, households and prostitution.1 This is a very different recipe from the one Reitzammer is using, with its emphasis on marriage.

Reitzammer reads the Adonia as a commentary on marriage, with the beautiful young man dying just as the bride dies in marriage. In other words, the Adonia evokes an inversion of gender roles. Here the study is both on firmer ground and more convincing. Reitzammer explores the many occurrences of Aphrodite in mourning settings, as if the love of goddesses turns the table on heroes and threatens to unman them and put them in the place of a powerless bride. This is based on a view of Greek marriage, surely correct, that emphasizes marriage as a kind of abduction, resulting in symbolic death (39). Few will take issue with the broad backdrop against which Reitzammer locates the story of Adonis and Aphrodite's decision to secrete him away. Her close reading of the language of concealment, and her discussion of the trope of the young male consort hidden by the goddess is very convincing. Even so a very well written section is marred by a poorly worded final observation. Of Adonis, Reitzammer remarks, "Like a vulnerable kore picking flowers in a meadow, Adonis just might be abducted by a goddess." That 'just might' is oddly jarring. Was he or wasn't he? The phrase leaves one with the unfortunate impression that Reitzammer's reading is only tentative.

As part of her discussion of the Adonis/Aphrodite story Reitzammer offers some remarks on the iconography of Adonis and Phaon (another beautiful young lover of Aphrodite), whom Reitzammer sees as interchangeable with Adonis. Surely this begs for a further exploration of the two figures. Aelian's account (12.18; unmentioned by Reitzammer) suggests that there is a second tradition, distinct from the Adonis story, that associates myrrh with transformation: "One day Aphrodite arrived and wished to cross; [Phaon the Ferryman] welcomed her with pleasure, not knowing who she was, and guided her most attentively where she wished to go. In return the goddess gave him an alabaster pot. This contained myrrh, and when Phaon rubbed this on himself he became the most handsome of men. The women of Mytilene fell in love with him. But in the end he was caught in flagrante and executed." The transformative power of myrrh surely has something to tell us about the festival and the scenes on the vases showing women pouring it from alabastra. Reitzammer devotes a key section to Vessels and Myrrh (52-55); the omission of the Aelian passage is a serious oversight.

Reitzammer gets to the nub of the matter in a discussion of a red-figure lekythos from Karlsruhe depicting a naked woman climbing a ladder as a winged Eros passes her a garden of Adonis. This is neither an Epaulia scene nor a re-enactment of the Adonia but a depiction of the foundation myth behind the Adonia. Now begins a series of observations that reflect a growing assertiveness in the book's central argument: "… iconography associated with weddings resonates within the context of an Adonia" (56). But resonance quickly morphs into something more: "Perhaps…the Adonia festival offers the women who perform the ritual a different perspective on the traditional wedding." (59) Then, by p. 60 this is no longer a 'different perspective' but the assertion that the Adonia "critiques the wedding ceremony" (emphasis added).

In order to test her thesis Reitzammer identifies a second field in which the Adonis myth operates: mourning. Accordingly chapter 3 is entitled Funerals, although a more accurate title would be Aristophanes and the Adonia. The chapter is a stimulating close reading of the Lysistrata as an evocation of the Adonia (not an enactment, or re-enactment.) Taking a cue from a scholion that says the Lysistrata was subtitled the ' Woman at the Adonia' Reitzammer claims that the play evokes a performance of the festival, with the Acropolis evoked as the roof top to which the women would normally repair to celebrate the festival. The chapter has many sidetracks, including a somewhat labored treatment of foreign cults, which, along with a recent generation of scholars, Reitzammer sees as less genuinely foreign and more new-fangled. Reitzammer is less concerned with what happened than with Athenians ' fascination with supposed "foreignness ", by which they usually meant untraditional cults. Reitzammer reveals a set of associations— sex, drugs and kettledrums—that form a kind of nexus in which the Adonia finds itself.

Most of this discussion distils recent treatments by others and is cogent. Reitzammer's treatment of the relationship of Aphrodite and Athena, based on the archaeology of the Akropolis, is a little less satisfactory. Reitzammer claims a marginalization of Aphrodite on the North Slope compared to Athena on the Akropolis, which she takes as metaphorically equivalent to the roof of the city. This is a subordination of Aphrodite which the Lysistrata will reverse by bringing sex talk, seduction and the other attributes of Aphrodite to the Akropolis. But Reitzammer's choice of the Aphrodite and Eros cult on the North Slope as the proof for Aphrodite's subordination to Athena is frankly arbitrary. In the Agora, at Daphni and by the Ilissos we encounter Aphrodite Ourania, Aphrodite Pandemos and Hegemone, as well as "en kepois". The discussion of Athenian topography is selective, ignoring the rich body of evidence showing that Aphrodite was looked upon as an important goddess of the polis. In particular, it seems very odd to postpone to a footnote (104, n.61) a discussion of Aphrodite en kepois in a book centered on the gardens of Adonis, consort of Aphrodite. There is a lengthy discussion of this avatar of Aphrodite in Rachel Rosenzweig's 2004 study of Aphrodite (in Reitzammer's bibliography but not cited in her discussion ad loc. cit.)

In these passages Reitzammer has a tendency to overreach, as when she discusses the men of the Lysistrata taking on the "characteristics of mortal men in goddess-mortal pairings , as the women play the role of Aphrodite." But is this so? How closely does the ache of sex-starved Greek soldiers suggest the death of Aphrodite's young consort? And probably more important is the question, in what sense does the evocation of the Adonia, if it is being evoked, influence our reading of the play? I am not, of course, suggesting that a play like Lysistrata doesn't resonate in all sorts of interesting ways. Reitzammer notes Loraux's reading of Lysistrata's women as parthenoi and Stroup's reading of them as hetairai. But it is unclear what flavour the Adonia adds to the Lysistrata. Reitzammer develops the theme of subversion based on Foley's treatment of threnos as " a critique of the rhetoric of the epitaphios logos" (86), but one hardly needs veiled references to the Adonia to see the Lysistrata as a comic inversion of Perikles' vision of Athens, and for much of the chapter the elements of threnos and funeral no more than lurk on the margins.

The sense that the Adonia is more condiment than key ingredient in Athenian cultural life is particularly evident in chapter 4, entitled Philosophy. In reality this chapter is less about the Adonia as cultural practice and more about ludic elements in Socratic philosophical self-presentation. For Socrates flashy trite philosophy is like cultivating a garden of Adonis. The real philosopher is like the serious farmer. As a study of metaphorical language in Plato, the chapter offers some interesting results: writing, for example, is associated with the playful, the trivial, and the Gardens of Adonis. But the close readings amount to a series of interesting aper├žus, not a sustained argument, or at least not one about the Adonia. Socrates certainly likens noisy, playful but vacuous activity to the Adonia, but what does this amount to? It does not make the Adonia into a vehicle for social criticism. It's just a byword for noisiness, like a car with busted exhaust.

The danger for a study of a previously underestimated phenomenon is that the author will see its presence everywhere. Reitzammer falls into this trap. One notable example of this type of reductive fallacy is Reitzammer's treatment of bookishness (114). The Greeks tell lots of stories about writing, runs the syllogism, but the Greek alphabet was actually Phoenician. "[T]he Phoenician syllabary truly was an import from the East", whence also come the words biblion, byblion (book) and Byblos (papyrus). Byblos was also a centre of Adonis cult. Adonis was buried there. And there the syllogism stops. What are we to make of these observations? That the Adonia casts its shadow over every library in Athens? That reading was subversive? What exactly does Reitzammer intend us to make of these connections?

Reitzammer's study of the Adonia finishes with a five-page conclusion. The key theme here is dissent: 'the dissenting voice is one that advocates for the inclusion of a new portion of the population in communal discourse.' Really? Plato's use of the Adonia is hardly subversive and does little more than use it as an example of fatuous activity; the supposed funeral associations are really just another reading of the Lysistrata and the notion that an Aristophanic play represents a dissenting voice is pretty much telling us what the text already says. There is no definite theory of resistance or subversion, yet the concept of 'Everyday Resistance' is surely worth exploring if this is truly how Reitzammer reads the Adonia. Ambiguous language, double meanings, humour, especially of women at the expense of men, are all definite examples of everyday resistance. The approach, if applied to the Lysistrata, might raise the possibility of Aristophanes' references to the Adonia being a male appropriation of a subversive women's tradition. That's an interpretation worth considering.


1.   A. J. Graham. "The Woman at the Window: Observations on the 'Stele from the Harbour' of Thasos." The Journal of Hellenic Studies 118 (1998): 22-40.

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