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Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Book Reviews

Ritual and Poetry

The Ritual Lament In Greek Tradition by Margaret Alexiou. Second edition revised by Dimitrios Yatromanolakis and Panagiotis Roilos. Rowman and Littlefield, Maryland, 2002, 293 pages. $69.

Margaret Alexiou, a principal founder of the discipline of modern Greek studies, first published The Ritual Lament In Greek Tradition in 1974. This is a book that has until recently been out of print, but will now — with the excellent and up-to-date revisions of Yatromanolakis and Roilos — resume its place as a key text. Alexiou traces the poetry of lamentation, a song tradition that has belonged essentially to women, from Homer to its modern manifestations. The richness of continuity, “from the second millennium to the present,” begins with “the oldest recorded types of song,” as given by the female kin-group of Hector in The Iliad. The author supplements her textual studies with data from her own fieldwork in Thessaly and western Macedonia during the Sixties. “The vital unity of poetry and ritual…essential to the continuity of many features of the lament since antiquity, in spite of the historical and religious changes, will ensure its survival in a different form in the future.” Ritual and poetry form the two main conceptual threads of the book.

“Part of the artistic economy in the language of folk tradition is the allusive method, by which a fact or an idea is expressed indirectly but concretely, through symbols.” Thus, explicit reference to death is avoided, and the song takes on the form of great poetic beauty: “His tongue a swallow, his voice a nightingale….” Here, great reference is made to the natural world, a world of trees, stars, birds, to all the elements of landscape, that is, both marine and terrestrial. “The jasmine has gone and has taken the root/where we hung our clothes to take its scent.” In antiquity, as evinced in the Homeric poems, lamentation and burial were “carefully controlled in accordance with the ritual at every stage.” To weep for someone while they still lived was a bad omen. The laying out of the body, the próthesis, occurred when the ritual took formal shape — as depicted on geometric and black-figure vases. The ekphorá, the procession of the body toward internment or cremation, occurred soon after; later, on certain days, there were the offerings at the tomb. The poetry of lamentation accompanied each step.

Funerals were moments for exhibitions of community and kinship, and the laments sung on these occasions were instances in which the deceased was praised. This functioned as the point where kléos — the fame of the dead one — received its inception. Alexiou distinguishes between the góos, individual lamenting accompanied by keening, and the more structurally complex thrénos, the antiphonal mourning that sometimes, later, became professionalized. “Antithetical style is a fundamental and integral part of the structure and thought of the lament,” and Alexiou cites the antiphonal exchange between Antigone and her sister Ismene after the fall of their city, Thebes. “Antiphony, dialogue and refrain, among the oldest structural features of the Greek lament, are still vital and dynamic elements of the modern moirológia.” Alexiou tracks not only the stability, through time, of the components of a tradition, but also the resistance that that tradition often came up against, because of its emotional excesses and provocation. In classical times, for example, funeral processions had often become highly politicized events that were so violently charged in their lamentation that legislators were forced to inhibit the practice.

Alexiou also examines lament that was offered not to a deceased mortal but to a deity or hero; this is perhaps the real — although hypothetical — antecedent to the tradition under study. Adonis or Linos, for instance, supplied a paradigm that was to be included later in the Christian liturgy, “The death of Adonis symbolised the cutting of the fruit and crops, his sojourn in Acheron their ripening underground.” These were “seasonal cults for the death and return of the spirit of nature.” Translated to the polis, choral lamentation in tragic drama — itself a source for the Western operatic genre — was a stylization of this sorrow and a commentary on the ruin and demise of a theatrical hero. One could argue that the tragic theater was a public medium for civic lamentation designed to replace private expressions of grief. With urbanization, nature became civil. It was this model that was to become incorporated into Christian liturgy, expressed either through the voice of the Virgin or via the singing of the community.

Wedding songs in honor of a young bride were, in folk ritual, often similarly couched in the form of lamentation because of the patrilocal nature of marriage in the rural Greek ethos, of course. This is one aspect of ritual moirológia, which could be translated as “songs to fate.” As an extension of this idea, there are also the laments offered to the fallen city: Troy, Jerusalem, Constantinople in 1453, and even Crete in 1669. “Lamentation, weeping and wailing, tears and grief,/inconsolable sorrow has befallen the Romaioi.” Often allied to the act of lamentation is the act of cursing. This is especially so in communities where vendetta occurred; the deceased spouse and female kin would sing at the husband’s demise. Insofar as the lamentation is a speech act, acclaiming the name of a deceased man, so, too, is the curse an outright speech act, condemning his assailants. This kind of lament ideally possessed efficacy in the material world of the present. “A curse upon you, Germans, ten times an hour!/Why did you drag us into your country?” Often the pattern of such formulation took the form of a rhyming couplet.

Alexiou makes great use of folk songs and ballads collected during the last century to illustrate her discussion: her study is not simply applied to elite texts, but runs the full gamut of Greek vernacular culture. For example, one of her items records a response to deaths caused by the Italian and German occupation during the Second World War. “These formulaic survivals reflect a continuity of consciousness as well as of form. The villagers who sang the laments for the last war also recorded for me several laments in Kleftic style for heroes of the Greek struggle for independence….The memory of recent events keeping alive and merging with the memory of older calamities.” One can only wonder if, with the modern media of communication and the fragmenting of traditional society by bodies like the EU, such formulations will persist in their reoccurrence, and the genre become frozen rather than being constantly reinvented.

It is an important question as to why Greek culture — from archaic and classical times right through the medieval Byzantine period, and continuously on through the era of Ottoman hegemony — should maintain such a complex and sophisticated ritual formation of song, at all levels of society. This is not the case in other cultures. This sustained tradition of the genre is also well-attested in vase painting and fresco, still photography and cinema. It is curious that such a strongly formalized and refined pattern of human behavior should persist over time in a particular physical locale. What is it that disposes a community toward such convention, that disposes a habit of song culture toward a form of symbolized loss in the repetition of certain metaphors? Perhaps, if topography and climate are the primary genetrix of metaphor in a language, this would answer the question, particularly as agricultural custom in the eastern Mediterranean changed little, qualitatively, over 3,000 years until the coming of modernity.

It is a moot point, but perhaps landscape and terrain are the original sources of imagery for society. The social context being only a secondary — or, in a synchronic sense, another — level of meaning and reticulation. In this latter significance, it would be the laments offered to the deceased immortal — Linos and Hyacinthus or Adonis — which typically supplied the ground for the practice of this ritual. Certainly, in terms of method, it is more pragmatic to look for continuities of style and words than to seek temporal paradigms — especially when one is dealing with material from culture far removed in time — which are more hypothetical. As Alexiou says, “continuity, both in form and content, rests not so much in the static conservation of ancient poetic forms as in the constant rehandling of traditional beliefs and practices.”

The sheer extent of Alexiou’s scholarship leaves the reader completely satisfied by the demonstrations, arguments, and enormous range of material summoned by her research. The Ritual Lament is now itself a critical part of the contemporary canon of classical studies. Yatromanolakis and Roilos have provided a fine supplement to the original bibliography and also an additional index of motifs, both of which amplify this book’s authoritative position as an instrument for scholars across the breadth of many and various fields. It is a fitting tribute to Margaret Alexiou’s life of distinguished scholarship that this book has been re-released simultaneously with her retirement from the Seferis Chair at Harvard University. “Throughout its history, the contrast between mourner and dead in the Greek lament is inseparable from the contrast between past and present, so that in spite of the changes in form the function has remained the same.”

Kevin McGrath is an associate of the Sanskrit department and poet in residence at Lowell House, Harvard University. His books include Fame, Lioness, and Maleas; The Sanskrit Hero will be published next year.
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