Logos and Art:    

Apollo's Kithara and Poseidon's Crash Test: Ritual and Contest in the Evolution of Greek Aesthetics

Definitions and depictions of Greek aesthetics derive from competitions, rituals, and other social and religious contexts.


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Apollo’s Kithara and Poseidon’s Crash Test: Ritual and Contest in the Evolution of Greek Aesthetics

The title of our session unites two concepts of overwhelming importance in the history of Western culture: logos and tekhnê . As with so many other notions in the history of ideas, these owe their fundamental formulation to the work of ancient Greeks—not just to a few high-profile thinkers (although Heraclitus and Gorgias, Plato and Aristotle immediately come to mind), but to generations of anonymous men and women who practiced verbal and material crafts, from the humble arts of cloth-weaving to the intricate skills of rhetoric and poetry.

But even my choice of adjectives just now fails to do justice to the real situation, in a misapplication that may be instructive. “Humble” and “intricate” apply to weaving and wordcraft, respectively, only if we are adopting a modern perspective. To use them in this way is a post-Enlightenment distortion. Our perspective has to be adjusted if we are to see more clearly how the concepts of logos and tekhnê are related in the ancient Greek world, and how that relationship played a major role in subsequent history. It has, among other things, shaped the way in which we understand aesthetics and performance, as well as the aesthetics of performances. Some important features in the early Greek development of this intellectual matrix form the core of my paper.

In what follows I examine two specific examples in order to highlight the close relationship that binds together craft, art, ritual, and performances (verbal as well as other) in the ancient Greek imagination.What in turn unites the mythopoetic examples is the presence of the contest ( agôn ) and the crucial notion, arising from this quintessential Greek idea, of krisis , which we can translate “judgment under pressure.” [1] As an indication of their enduring importance as well as the high stakes involved in these concepts, we should take note of the semantic shading of their English derivatives: agony and crisis. It seems, in other words, that making an impact through logos and tekhnê is potentially fraught with dangers, rendering the outcomes—expressions and arts of all types—all the more precious. This attitude toward verbal and material craft, arising from a specific context of rituals and festivals, may be said to mark the classical tradition in literature and art for all of subsequent Western culture.

Starting from the modern prejudice—encapsulated in our ordinary usage of “humble” craft versus “intricate” art—how can we get around an attitude fostered by industrialization, technology (a word I will return to), elitist education, post-Enlightenment privileging of the “rational,” and the closely related Romantic equating of “traditional” with “primitive”? The philologist’s instinct is to delve into the earliest texts and pay attention to the nuances of usage and diction regarding logos and tekhnê . This is not the place for a full-scale book-length analysis.[2] Instead, let me observe that the most striking result of such investigations, in terms of the cultural attitudes they indicate, is that in the Greek tradition, material and verbal skills (those which we can tentatively assign, respectively, to tekhnê and logos ) are not in a relationship of subordination (one low and the other higher). Weaving, carpentry, metalworking, painting, sculpture, embroidery—all of these tekhnai (plural of tekhnê ) are by no means humble. They are quite literally divine.

From our earliest sources, in the archaic Greek of Mycenaean times, it is obvious that such crafts and their practitioners are not only of the highest value to the palace economies of Pylos, Knossos, Thebes, and Chania. They are also intimately tied to the religious rituals of the Mycenaea n kings. Weaving women and shining cloth; well-shaped chariots; their wheels, poles, and chassis, subject to collection and redistribution by the central palaces, are not only the prerogatives of the elite but are integral to the display of power and control. And that display, in turn, is crucial for the mediating role of Mycenaean kings between the gods and their subjects.[3] Of course, the bureaucratic texts written in Mycenaean Greek, such as we have them preserved on thousands of accidentally baked clay tablets in “Linear B” script, narrowly represent an entire culture that flourished between 1600 and 1200 BC. They offer evidence for the organization and transfer of people and objects, but can tell us nothing of what the elite and their subjects thought about crafts. For the latter, the historian of ideas must rely on the testimony of a later era: the hexameter poetry of the archaic period (c. 750–500 BC) which is attributed to Hesiod, along with the epics attributed to Homer (whom later ages supposed contemporary with Hesiod), and the “Homeric” hymns to various divinities. Once one focuses on notions of craft in this body of verse (something we tend to gloss over while reading for character and plot), an abundance of scenes and connections emerges. Let me mention just a few that can underscore the importance of craftwork to religion, and its “religious” status.

We can start with the most obvious, the employment of craftworkers to decorate and amplify the specific performances of worship. A bull to be sacrificed, for instance, could have its horns gilded. The Odyssey , describing how Telemachus is welcomed to a magnificent feast in Nestor’s city of Pylos, takes care to include mention of a khalkeus, or bronze-worker, named Laerkês, who also handles gold ( Odyssey 3.432–438):
            ...ἦλθε δὲ χαλκεὺς
            ὅπλ’ ἐν χερσὶν ἔχων χαλκήϊα, πείρατα τέχνης,
            ἄκμονά τε σφῦράν τ’εὐποίητόν τε πυράγρην,
435       οἷσίν τε χρυσὸν ἐργάζετο· ἦλθε δ’ Ἀθήνη
            ἱρῶν ἀντιόωσα. γέρων δ’ἱππηλάτα Νέστωρ
            χρυσὸν ἔδωχ’· ὁ δ’ ἔπειτα βοὸς κέρασιν περίχευεν
            ἀσκήσας, ἵν’ ἄγαλμα θεὰ κεχάροιτο ἰδοῦσα.
There came the bronze-worker, with bronze tools in his hands, the essentials of his craft ( tekhnê ), [4] anvil and hammer and well-made tongs, with which he worked gold. Athena came also to participate in the rites. The old horseman Nestor gave the gold. And the smith then working it, sheathed the bull’s horns, so that the goddess might take delight seeing the dedication.
As the language makes clear, the mediation of a craftsman transforms the natural object into an art-object, an attractive, pleasing dedication (like a cult statue: agalma can also mean this).[5] At the same time, the explicit transfer of the precious gold from the king’s palace to the craftsman makes clear that the success of a pleasing, beneficial ritual for the community depends on the intervention of the royal house.

The same passage, with its mention of Athena (who is disguised as Mentor, an older man guiding Telemachus on his journey), should remind us that crafts have divine patronage as well. Athena Erganê, the “worker,” is connected with the arts of cloth-production, especially as they relate to the making of fabrics that are dedicated to gods—like herself.[6] At the Panathenaia (depicted on the Parthenon frieze), one such woven article, the peplos for Athena’s great statue on the Acropolis, is carried in dedicatory procession.[7] Hephaistos, on the other hand, is connected with the working of metal. It is Athena who is linked further, by her very genealogy, with the kind of thinking characteristic of “craft”: her mother Mêtis, or ‘cunning intelligence’, was a goddess swallowed by Zeus to enable the chief god to control this potentially dangerous and deeply female “way of knowing.” Mêtis as a common noun denotes as well nonlinear, intuitive, on-the-spot, in-a-pinch capacities; the kind of peripheral mental vision and know-how that characterizes the helmsman of a ship and the driver of a chariot.[8] The latter is especially relevant to the scenario I shall examine shortly.

In all the employments of mêtis , what we discover is that “craft” is a totalizing and honorific concept, inclusive of “art” in the senses that the West has tended to use since the eighteenth century (as in “the fine arts”). “Craft” is at times closer to “craftiness,” at other times to “artfulness.” The key point is that tekhnê —one of our leading terms for this session—does not distinguish those ways of acting that will later be sorted out, contested, at times opposed to one another, as varied and divergent skills.

This is a good point at which to remind ourselves that the other term naming our session, logos , is equally rich and broad in ancient usage. Sometimes interpreted as an overarching concept that covers the range represented by the Latin pair of terms ratio and oratio , logos is both mental skill (reason, intelligence—even cunning intelligence ) and the product thereof (an account, verbal art). In the latter sense, as becomes clear, it will tend to overlap with tekhnê , rather than be its polar opposite. For the making of well-shaped, appropriate, reasonable speech is as much a craft (or art) as is the weaving of cloth or the fashioning of useful objects in wood. It is emblematic of this association that the art/craft of poetry is presented within Greek poetry metaphorically in terms of weaving ( huphanas humnon ‘having woven a song’ [Bacchylides 5.9–10] ) and carpentry ( tektones kômôn ‘shapers of celebration songs’ [Pindar Nemean Ode 3.4–5]).[9] In Modern Greek, the word for literature— logotekhnia ‘wordcraft’—perfectly encapsulates a point of view that can already be detected in Greek texts from two and a half millennia earlier.[10]

Time now to turn to the first of my case studies.

Poseidon’s Crash Test

In the ancient Hymn to Apollo (c. 500 BC?), which Thucydides, at least, attributed to Homer (3.104), the god is celebrated as the divine patron of two supremely important cult sites in Greece: the island of Delos and the mountain shrine at Delphi. The hymn narrates his birth in Delos, and then, in a very compressed Bildungsroman , his voyage to Delphi to establish the Pythian cult center there. I will concentrate in the second part of this paper on the “crafts” united in Apollo’s divine repertoire—specifically music and poetry (taken as a unitary pair) and archery. These he possesses from his birth onward. But there is a mysterious episode, on his foundational journey, that involves another god and another craft. While journeying through Boeotia in his progress toward Parnassus, the young god Apollo stops at Onchestos, about twenty-five kilometers northwest of Thebes (which, the hymn stresses, is not yet a city.) The grove of Poseidon appears to have occupied the narrow pass (at modern Stení) on the road overlooking the Teneric Plain to the east and the Kopaic basin to the west.[11] The poet of the hymn provides a brief and intriguing digression about the place:
230       Ὀγχηστὸν δ’ ἷξες Ποσιδήϊον ἀγλαὸν ἄλσος
            ἔνθα νεοδμὴς πῶλος ἀναπνέει ἀχθόμενός περ
            ἕλκων ἅρματα καλά, χαμαὶ δ’ ἐλατὴρ ἀγαθός περ
            ἐκ δίφροιο θορὼν ὁδὸν ἔρχεται· οἱ δὲ τέως μὲν
            κείν’ ὄχεα κροτ ουσιν ἀνακτορίην ἀφιέντες.
235       εἰ δέ κεν ἅρματ’ ἀγῇσιν ἐν ἄλσεϊ δενδρήεντι,
            ἵππους μὲν κομέουσι, τὰ δὲ κλίναντες ἐῶσιν·
            ὣς γὰρ τὰ πρώτισθ’ ὁσίη γένεθ’· οἱ δὲ ἄνακτι
            εὔχονται, δίφρον δὲ θεοῦ τότε μοῖρα φυλάσσει.
You reached Poseidon’s glorious grove, Onchestos,
Where the new-tamed colt takes a breather, burdened as it is
Pulling the beautiful chariot, and on the ground goes the driver, even a good one,
Having leapt from the chariot. Meanwhile, the horses
Casting off his lordship rattle the empty vehicle.
If the chariot breaks in the wooded grove,
They take care of the horses, but they leave the chariot tilted up.
For thus first of all was the sacred rite. And they pray to the lord,
But the god’s dispensation then guards the chariot.
What does this strange ritual mean?[12] Why is it even mentioned in the hymn? With religious rites, a linear interpretation is less persuasive—I would say, less possible—than an attempt to appreciate the multiple meanings, latent and overt, generated by a series of actions in the sacred sphere. The rite reaffirms and celebrates, surely, the commanding role of Poseidon when it comes to horses and horsemanship. Why the sea-god who is also the earthquake god (a scientific accuracy, tsunamis being no doubt known to the ancients) should be “Hippios”—Poseidon of Horses—has always been a matter for speculation. At an abstract level, the mystical association of sea-god with horse-god might well depend on the uncontrollable nature of both elements: in other words, horses are like the sea, and he who rules one can control the other. By extension chariots are like boats—and there is ancient evidence for this association.[13] A wonderful image bringing the two together is that of Poseidon guiding his gold chariot from his sea-cave at Aigai across the sea on his way to aid the Greeks in their battle at Troy ( Iliad 13.25–30):
… γέντο δ’ ἱμάσθλην
χρυσείην εὔτυκτον, ἑοῦ δ’ ἐπεβήσετο δίφρου,
βῆ δ’ ἐλάαν ἐπὶ κύματ’· ἄταλλε δὲ κήτε’ ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ
πάντοθεν ἐκ κευθμῶν, οὐδ’ ἠγνοίησεν ἄνακτα·
γηθοσύνῃ δὲ θάλασσα διίστατο· τοὶ δὲ πέτοντο
ῥίμφα μάλ’, οὐδ’ ὑπένερθε διαίνετο χάλκεος ἄξων·
… he took his golden whip, well-made, and mounted the platform of his chariot, and drove over the waves, and sea creatures played about beneath emerging from their lairs, nor did they fail to recognize their lord ( anakta ). In gladness the sea parted and the horses flew fast and beneath the chariot the bronze axle did not moisten.[14]

Compare the associations of this scene of godly ease and control with the ritual of Poseidon at Onchestos, in which a failure , a chariot crash, is commemorated. In the logic of divine-human relations that applies as well to the celebration of heroes in ancient Greece, the human element, even in failure, can stand as a signal token of the god’s superhuman power and success. There is a power, a mysterium tremendum in Poseidon’s grove. The ritual calls for a human to surrender contol: even one who is a good driver ( elatêr agathos , line 232) must leave his comfort zone, his place of special power and control. (Those with a West Coast, New-Age religious bent will see precisely this gesture as spiritual wisdom, abandonment to the divine—but that is probably not exactly what the Greek action signified.) The charioteer then goes on the ground like his opposite, the foot soldier, while his horses and chariot continue without him. It is important that he is said to “leap” out of the chariot (233) in what must itself be a conspicuous display of courage and skill, as well as a useful maneuver for battle. (To strike another Californian note, I would compare the similar, highly illegal display of manhood known in some Oakland neighborhoods as “ghost-riding,” in which souped-up street racers replace horse-drawn chariots, and drivers jump out of their moving cars.)

The loss of control by the charioteer who jumps from his moving vehicle has a different meaning for a second category of participants in the rite, the horses (or perhaps at least one horse, the newly trained colt).[15] This horse, no longer driven, gets to draw a breath ( anapneei ). The diction is that which is used in the Iliad to describe the rare moment of refreshment that occurs for fighters in the heat of battle (eg. Iliad 16.42, 18.200). Signficantly, such moments in the Iliad are provided by the heroic fighting of others or by the intervention of a god (like Poseidon himself in book 13). We could imagine this refreshing pause for the horse as a gift from its heroic human charioteer, as if from a fellow fighter. Or, in a more competitive spirit, we can think of this as something the horses wrest from their controlling human master. Slightly in favor of the latter interpretation is the language of release: the horses proceed into the grove “casting off their lordship” ( anaktoriên aphientes ). The moment is one of liberation. One of the interesting further features of the ritual, whether we think collaboration or competition, is what happens with the now driverless chariot. As the poem says, “they rattle the empty chariot along.” The verb kroteousin has the sense of hitting (cf. the derived noun krotala ‘cymbals’), as if the horses are aggressively trying to lose the last vestige of the human culture that has been attached to them. On the one hand, to wax more abstract for a moment (but still in a Greek mode, I hope): we have the phusis of the horses, as it were on cruise control, without a human at the reins, but under the superhuman observation (or even control) of Poseidon. The god, I would argue, like the horses, is both symbol and embodiment of phusis ‘nature’ as contrasted with human nomos ‘law, custom, habit’—that is to say, all the arts, crafts, and technology that make culture possible. The artifice of humans is here abandoned almost on an experimental basis, or as a gamble, an odd sort of horse race.[16] And the experiment, like the athletic event of leaping from the moving chariot, is in itself very modern-sounding. It is, in brief, the ultimate crash test (without dummies). That is to say, the rattling, jostled, driverless car is subjected, through this yielding of nomos to phusis , to all of the unpredictable shocks and bumps that a new Volvo is given in its Swedish torture chamber. As the poem continues “if the chariot breaks in the wooded grove, on the one hand they take care of the horses, but on the other hand they leave it (the chariot) having tilted it up. For this was the holy rite at the very first. And they pray to the lord and then the portion/lot of the god ( moira ) guards the chariot.” There is no doubt that what we witness in the Hymn to Apollo is a long-standing ritual practice, within the very terms of the poem. While we do not know about the relationship, in absolute terms, of the establishment of Poseidon’s cult versus that of Apollo, in narrative terms the brief digression places the one prominently before the other, just as Poseidon is older than his nephew Apollo. It is proper to note in this connection that chariot-rituals are crucial components of kingship inaugurations in both ancient India and medieval Ireland, a commonality that argues for an Indo-European cultural practice underlying the whole complex.[17] So the presentation (at least in poetic narrative) of the chariot-ritual along the young Apollo’s way to his new seat of power may have significance as a marker of his own inaugural moment. In the immediate context of the Onchestos ritual there is no explicit mention of kingship, it is true. And yet, as we noted, the poem’s language recalls something not far from it. “Lordship” ( anaktoriê ) is the quality of being an anax . From Mycenaean texts, it appears that this term (in the older form wanax ) in fact indicates a status higher than that of the “king” or basileus (appearing in Linear B as qa-si-re-u ).[18] Dictionally, the charioteer is a (w)anax ‘lord’ but so is the god—indicated, it appears, by (w)anakti (‘to the lord’) at line 237 (cf. Iliad 11.28 above, where anakta , also in line-final position, refers to Poseidon). The now abandoned chariot is in the god’s field of control ( moira ‘lot’ or ‘apportionment’). From the point of view of human culture, it has lost its usefulness and is left behind, but from the god’s point of view it is an acquisition, in the form of a dedication. The logic of sacrifice works the same way.[19]

The odd rite at Onchestos demands further unpacking, since we have not yet tackled the distinctive feature of this action sequence, the crash. What is signified in the dedication of the unsuccessful vehicle to the god? One might think of dedications as usually indicative of successful outcomes. For example, the small silver votive plaques clustered around almost every icon in a Greek Orthodox church are meant to show thanks to God, the Virgin, and the saints for timely intervention in cases of illness, trouble, or want. Exactly the same dedicatory habit was ubiquitous in ancient Greek and Roman temples. We can still see the amazing array of models of human body parts dedicated at Corinth, and read the testimonies of Epidaurian healings. In these cases, the dedication objects are visible expressions of needs met, or in some instances of wants to be addressed in the future. But the broken chariot (basket, pole, and other gear: I take diphron as metonymic for the whole vehicle) is not like that. Rather than comparing it to the wheelchairs and crutches that festoon the walls of Christian healing shrines from Lourdes to Knock, we can compare the chariot, leaning against the shrine wall, to notches on a gunslinger’s belt or crosses on a fighter pilot’s fuselage. They are victor’s trophies, commemorations of power. Here the commemoration would be of Poseidon’s power in contrast to human weakness. The logic of hero-cult applies, however. At the same time as the failure (in this case, of the driverless car) is displayed, the heroic leap may have been recalled (perhaps even in oral-traditional praises). A three-dimensional, dramatic rendition of a similar scene is available to us in the story of Hippolytos, the “horse-loosened,” a grandson of Poseidon, staged most memorably by Euripides. He dies, tangled in the reins of his chariot that Poseidon caused to crash (in obedience to the wish of his son Theseus, father of Hippolytos). He did not leap in time, if you will. Yet his death shows the power of the god, and his devotion to at least one human, his son. And so, in the Onchestos ritual as presented in the Hymn to Apollo , Poseidon is granted the ultimate visible recognition of his superior skills at chariot control, through the dedication of uncontrolled and broken human vehicles.

Do these vehicles, however, really signify an oppositional stance? Is it a case of Poseidon Hippios, master of driving, showing up the would-be human masters of his art who fail to control their chariots? Clearly not. Nor is it a story, like that of the young Pelops, of Poseidon protecting a driver and bringing him success in a race.[20] There are no drivers when it comes to the heart of this test. The Hymn to Apollo , I suggest, gives us a quite different scenario, involving a four-way multifaceted krisis or “judgment under pressure.” To recap the elements: we have first the presiding god to whom broken chariots will be dedicated (while presumably the unbroken vehicles escape being frozen in time as ritual objects in a shrine, instead continuing in human use). Second, we have a human driver who bails out leaving his horses (element #3) to rattle and jostle his chariot, dragging it along uncontrolled. The fourth element now deserves mention: the chariot itself. The Greek plurale tantum noun harmata means literally “joinings.” The very notion focuses on construction (as if one were to call a car “car-parts”). If the crash test of the ritual does not invoke successful driving, then what exactly is being tested, what is subject to the krisis ? My answer: craft. Put simply, on display when the chariot enters the wooded grove of he god, to crash or survive intact, is the skill of whatever “joiner” (for which the Greek is tektôn , sharing a root with tekhnê ) made the chariot, crafting its careful harmata . It is not impossible that the driver himself was that “joiner” (though he need not have been). He would thus not only race his own car, but show how good a car-maker he could be. Craftsmen—like the goldworker in Nestor’s Pylos—are perfectly able to achieve independent epic commemoration.[21]

The scenario I have sketched is not overt in the Hymn , which, we must admit, treats the whole rite in passing, as a sort of religiously inclined traveller’s tale based on learned local lore, like those found centuries later in Pausanias.[22] But it must have been obvious in the rite itself: the better-made chariot would not rattle into pieces. Preserved in the highly visible line of broken chariots is a sort of anti -victor list. One would like to know whether the dedications were anonymous or inscribed.[23] In any event, the string of damaged vehicles says silently to the god “you won,” even if it does not say overtly to the viewers “so-and-so lost.” Despite the somewhat unusual nature of the ritual, we must recognize in it a format that characterized Greek art and craft for centuries. The “performance” of the highly crafted chariot (in our own sense of vehicle “performance”) is done:

  • in a religious setting;
  • involving an explicit or implicit contrast and contest with other performers (here, other chariots, driver-leapers, and carpenters);
  • for the ultimate purpose of glorifying a divinity; and
  • in the process providing implicit or explicit criteria (kritêrion, that which enables the krisis) whereby one can judge further performances.

This four-part definition of a craft-contest, based on an archaic poetic description of an obscure Boeotian ritual, will easily be seen to apply to the best-known aesthetic events from classical Athens: the musical, dramatic, and rhapsodic contests of the Panathenaia and Dionysia festivals, the soil from which our texts of Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and hundreds of other (fragmentary) poets grew. Recitations of epic; the playing of pipe ( aulos ) and concert lyre ( kithara ); singing to these instruments; the staging of tragedy, comedy satyr-play, and dithyramb—all fit into this format of “craft-contest.” (We even hear of “art” contests—in painting for example—to which the format equally applies.) It may not be irrelevant, given this context, that the very medium of the Homeric hymn is known to be a contest-performance medium. The Hymn to Apollo , which preserves the fascinating Onchestos episode, may itself have been the result of a contest in rhapsodic hymn composition-in-performance. At the very least, as I have argued elsewhere, it can be interpreted as representing such a contest in a stylized way.[24] Ancient traditions about the life of Homer have him competing at Delos in the composition of a hymn to Apollo; some evidence even names Hesiod as his rival, or collaborator, in such a contest.

Now that we have uncovered in one small passage of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo the parameters and ideology of a small-scale, highly archaic contestation of aesthetic craft, it is time to turn to my second case study, which examines, as it were, the ideology surrounding the other end of the process: the criteria and attitudes arising from an event dedicated to Poseidon’s sometime rival, Athena—the festival of the Panathenaia.

Apollo’s Kithara

The field of their rivalry, their contestation-by-craft, is the art of the Muses, mousikê . A key component of the mythology surrounding Apollo is his involvement with singing, dancing, and playing stringed instruments. The lattermost, an extremely important aspect of Apolline musical culture, has most recently been meticulously explored and presented in the magnificent work of Timothy Power, The Culture of Kitharôidia , which covers just about everything connected to the art of singing to the kithara (forerunner in word and artifact of our “guitar”).[26] I want to examine just two moments in the ancient depiction of Apollo as a singer to this large stringed instrument.

Apollo the Citharode is more than just an incidental portrayal of the god with a proto-guitar. He is instead a mythic construction that benefited certain groups within archaic Greek culture. I consciously use these words, myth and mythic, with an awareness of their usage in the earliest surviving Greek poetic texts. Both derive from the Greek word muthos . As I discovered some years ago, the word muthos in Homer actually does not immediately refer to what we might call myths—that is stories about gods and heroes—but rather to a particular kind of speech-act. It signals the use of speech when making a command, or a rebuke, or a long act of remembrance. Put another way, a muthos is, in the earliest usage, an utterance seeking authority, an assertion of identity, and a strategic positioning.[27] I believe that these same characteristics actually do continue into later usages of the word to mean something more like our modern word “myth.” We should not be misled by the apparent anonymity of myths in this later meaning. Every myth started as a muthos by some person or persons—as a way to represent and manipulate the world. Today I would like to suggest that the muthos of Apollo the Player (and Singer) turns out to be a method of self-presentation by the very performers who themselves transmitted myths—that is to say, real human players. This mythic self-presentation, in turn, can be seen as regionally determined within Greek culture. That is to say the stories of Apollo the Citharode represent in large part a stylization of the type that is called “epichoric”—existing in a particular land. But the particular localization, as I shall argue, is that of a very specific festival , as opposed to the rites of other cult-centers. We shall see that the “criteria” for performance—the aesthetic notions that we might think universal—are in fact determined (and over-determined) by highly local conditions. Any genealogy of modern aesthetics has to start with the realia of such rites.

Let us start with verbal art. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo , which gave us our first example, the rite of Poseidon at Onchestos, spends much more of its narrative time and power in loudly proclaiming Apollo as the Citharode. After his mother, Leto, has convinced the island of Delos that acting as a divine maternity ward will be a good economic arrangement for it later on, Delos makes the pregnant Leto swear an oath that Apollo will indeed build a glorious temple on the small rocky island. Then, Leto goes into labor for nine days and nine nights. She grasps a palm tree, kneels on the ground, and surrounded by nymphs and goddesses produces the twins Apollo and Artemis. The young god is so powerful he bursts his swaddling bands. His first words in the poem proclaim his future areas of interest. “May the kithara be dear to me and the bent bow, and I will utter to mortals the unerring will of Zeus” (lines 131–132). He presents himself as one who can play a stringed instrument, called in the Greek of the poem the kitharis (a by-form of the more common noun kithara ). He will also be an archer and a prophet. I cannot enter here into the connection between the first two skills, music-making and archery, but I suspect it is very old. Philippe Montbrun has recently shown in detail that the hunting bow and one-stringed musical instrument are indeed one and the same physical object among many peoples of Africa, South America, and Oceania.[28] As for the connections between musical performance and prophecy, the work of Lisa Maurizio and others has demonstrated that oral poetics has a key role in the production of prophetic hexameters at the Delphic oracle. It may even be the case that the Pythia, the prophetess of Apollo, spoke in verse.[29] In short, the three skills Apollo proclaims might be thought of simply as three aspects of one powerful super-craft, a skill that boils down to unerringness—whether of getting the right note in musical performance, the right target in athletic and martial performance, or the right prediction in talk of the future. Such an abstract but unifying concept should right away make us withhold judgment about the exact criteria for any one of those performances. It opens a world of strange possibility (from an aesthetic view): is a string-player better when he is more athletic, “bowing” with a vengeance, “hitting” the right notes precisely? Or when the music seems to us sweeter, more expressive, more moving and sensitive? We cannot assume that there is one culturally transcendent right answer.

The instrumental aspect is just one part of this craft of citharody—that is, singing to the accompaniment of the kithara . We have to keep clear the distinction between kithara (or kitharis ), and on the other hand “lyre” (Greek lura ), which is often sloppily misapplied to the stringed instrument of Apollo. As a matter of fact, most translations of the passage I just read from the Hymn to Apollo write “lyre” for the Greek word kitharis . For a quick reminder on types of Greek stringed instruments, three images (figures 1 through 3) will suffice:

We shall return to these distinctions in a while. For now, it is enough to keep in mind that the kithara is both big and loud. It is a large seven-stringed instrument with a sizable wooden sound-box, providing great resonance, and making it difficult to play—even in terms of requiring physical strength to hold it up.[30] In classical times it was played by professional musicians, often in the competitive environment of musical contests, at major festivals. Those festivals included, most conspicuously, the Pythian games held at Apollo’s shrine at Delphi.

Let me first make some further observations on vocabulary, lest it be thought I am taking diction at face value in arguing that Apollo is, in the strictly technical sense, a citharode. Within the Homeric hymns, it must be conceded, the terms used for instrumental playing are a little ambiguous. That is, one could argue that the noun kitharis , just cited at line 131, might be used in an unmarked way to mean any stringed instrument. It might even be used, as it is in most of the few occurrences in Homeric poetry, as a nomen actionis to mean “instrument-playing” rather than an instrument. The noun kithara (rather than kitharis ) is not attested until the fifth century. The default noun for the instrument that is played by singers in the Homeric epics is yet another term: phorminx . In the Hymn to Apollo , this noun alternates with kitharis . Furthermore, the verbs derived from either noun, phormizein and kitharizein, appear to be interchangeable. All this means that the diction of hexameter poetry has a good deal of flexibility in describing instrumental performance. The words “to play the phorminx ” and “to play the kithara ” can be taken in their semantically broad, unmarked sense—and in this way even applied to the playing of the small tortoise-shell lyre—a completely different instrument. Or, the words can be taken in a semantically narrow , marked sense to mean precisely playing the larger, wooden-box instruments, the kithara and its forerunner, the phorminx . Such flexibility proves useful as poets engage in mythologizing their own art-forms.

Let me also suggest that we may be seeing in this flexible system of descriptive terms the strata of generations of actual performance practices. In this connection I am reminded of something once told to me by a man who had trained to be an Egyptian oral epic poet. The folklorist Dwight Reynolds observes that even when a bard of the contemporary Hilali oral epic is obviously playing on a twentieth-century fiddle, with several strings, he will say to his audience, in his verses “I sing to you as I play on my rabab ”—although the rabab is a much older, one-stringed instrument, clearly not what he is using in his act of performance. The text and the context, thus apparently dissonant, are seamlessly joined through the willing suspension of disbelief.[31] And in fact, the fiddle does function, for poet and audience, as the spiritual and practical descendant of the rabab . The ideology of performance remains the same despite the practical upgrade and shift in the form of accompanying instrumentation.

As we return to the Hymn to Apollo , therefore, we should keep in mind that the poem might be describing Apollo using a lyre, or Apollo using the professional contest instrument, the kithara . I shall contend that the Hymn to Apollo points to the latter scenario—in fact, the kithara, the big-box instrument—is for Apollo the default instrument. Another Homeric hymn, the Hymn to Hermes , as we shall see, insists on the latter scenario, his use of the lura . It is this primeval contrast that will lead us to some conclusions about the mythic meanings of kithara vs. lyre in terms of performance practices, social semiotics, and aesthetics.

In order to explore the further implications of Apollo as a player and singer, a citharode, let us start with the following lines ( Homeric Hymn to Apollo 156–164): [32]
And there is this great wonder besides—and its renown shall never perish—the girls of Delos, hand-maidens of the Far-shooter; for when they have praised Apollo first, and also Leto and Artemis who delights in arrows, they sing a strain-telling of men and women of past days, and charm the tribes of men. Also they can imitate the tongues of all men and their clattering speech: each would say that he himself were singing, so close to truth is their sweet song.

The immediate context is a description of the Ionian festival at Delos in honor of Apollo. Along with other events, it includes, in the poet’s rendition, a chorus of maidens of Delos who charm the assembled festival crowd on the sacred island with their astounding vocal performance. The speaker of the Homeric hymn at this point appears to introduce himself, as well as a second man, a foil figure. Bidding the Delian maidens farewell, just after these lines, the speaker says: “If a stranger should ask ‘Who for you is the sweetest of singers frequenting this place, in whom do you take most delight,’ tell him this: ‘A blind man, he lives in rocky Chios. That man’s songs, all of them, are best ever after’” (lines 168–173). This scripted response seems to be an artful if rather indirect self-advertisement on the part of the performing poet. In the form in which it is scripted for the Delian maidens, it resembles a contract: the parties are marked out by the contrasting line intial humeis and hemeis (‘you’ plural and ‘we’). You give this answer, says the anonymous speaker, and we in turn will spread your poetic fame ( kleos ) as far as we wander on earth to the well-peopled cities of men. “And I will never cease to praise far-shooting Apollo, god of the silver bow, whom rich-haired Leto bare” (lines 177–178).

Since the time of Thucydides, this passage from the Hymn to Apollo has been taken as evidence for the history of performance practices. Most often, the mysterious blind man of Chios has been interpreted as a reference to the figure of Homer. What is not always stressed is the open-ended wording of these lines: there is no direct assertion that the speaker of the Hymn to Apollo is in fact the same as the tuphlos anêr , the blind man. The identity of the hymn’s performer is instead elided—we are meant to associate him with Homeric traditions, with all who have ever wandered around performing songs of Homer, but it may or may not be “Homer” who speaks to the Delians.

I would add that the Homer figure here most closely resembles that of the wandering poet found in the Lives of Homer and in the Contest of Homer and Hesiod . These traditional stories appear to go back to the sixth century BC, a time when the texts of the poems of Homer and Hesiod were probably being crystallized and set down in some form or other. As we see Homer mythologized in those traditions, he represents a much more expansive repertoire than the composer of our Iliad and Odyssey . The Homer of the Lives of Homer stories composes curses, magical spells, epigrams, and hymns, as well as what we might call epic. He comes into town and gets himself advertised, stays at cobblers’ shops or men’s gathering spots, even makes up small-scale epics about the history of the city in which he finds himself. The Homer of the Lives traditions is an ornery character as well, who will curse a town if he feels that he has been disrespected—in good poetic fashion of course.[33] Now, if we acknowledge that the speaker of the ancient Hymn to Apollo associates himself with such an expansive, multigeneric repertory for the poetry of Homer—from curses, to praise poems, to epigrams and spells—the next claim in my argument becomes a bit more likely: namely, that the performer of the very Hymn to Apollo himself wants to pose as a citharode—or at least, to strongly suggest the possibility that he is one. This might be surprising since it is clear that the Homeric hymns as a group must have been rhapsodic compositions meant for competitive recitation, like the Iliad and Odyssey in their sixth-century formats. By rhapsodic, I mean recited, without musical accompaniment or melody. We have a picture of such recitation in the dialogue of Plato named Ion —after the wandering rhapsode or “song-stitcher” of that name. Ion the rhapsode goes from place to place competing as a reciter of the Iliad and Odyssey . Let me stress the difference once more. Our evidence for actual performance of Homeric poetry, and by extension Homeric hymns, tell us that they were recited in competitions, not sung . Yet the internal picture given us by the Hymn to Apollo suggests that the composer of such poetry is a singer, specifically a citharode , or singer to the kithara .

What are the signs of this hymnist’s imagined citharody? Most clearly, it comes in what I shall call “emblematic melding.” To explain this, I refer you to another passage. Several critics have noted that the transition in lines 177 and following is abrupt.[34] Most attribute this to an alleged gap or seam between the so-called Delian and Pythian parts of the Hymn . It is true that the first part of the Hymn to Apollo dwells on the career of the young god near the time of his birth on Delos, while the second highlights his acquisition of Delphi as a place for a temple from which to issue oracles. Since the eighteenth century, critics have insisted that the Hymn to Apollo is in fact two poems clumsily stuck together, one originally designed for performance on Delos, the other for performance at Delphi. I do not personally believe in this explanation.[35] At any rate, in the passage at hand, after promising to spread the fame of the Delian maidens, the speaker—who previously referred to himself with a plural pronoun hêmeis —says at line 177 “but I ( singular pronoun) I will not cease making a humnos about far-shooting Apollo.” He then makes good on his claim, breaking into what we can identify as high-style hymnic rhetoric in the Greek poetic tradition ( Homeric Hymn to Apollo 179–193):
O Lord, Lycia is yours and lovely Maeonia and Miletus, charming city by the sea, but over wave-girt Delos you greatly reign your own self. Leto’s all-glorious son goes to rocky Pytho, playing upon his hollow lyre, clad in divine, perfumed garments; and at the touch of the golden key his lyre sings sweet. Thence, swift as thought, he speeds from earth to Olympus, to the house of Zeus, to join the gathering of the other gods: then straightway the undying gods think only of the lyre and song, and all the Muses together, voice sweetly answering voice, hymn the unending gifts the gods enjoy and the sufferings of men, all that they endure at the hands of the deathless gods, and how they live witless and helpless and cannot find healing for death or defence against old age.

In this miniature praise section, the very first image the poet offers us is, significantly, of Apollo, seen in all his glory as citharode. Not only are both the mortal and divine hymnists juxtaposed in this manner. The description interconnects details as well. We see Apollo as he strides toward an assembly of the gods ( homêgurin ), surely a match for the picture we have just seen of the Homeric poet, the blind man of Chios, as travelling around. Both man and god are hymnists on the move. The epiphany of Apollo on Olympos prompts divine delight in kitharis and aoidê , instrumental playing and singing, and leads to further song and dance among the gods. That comes in a description that, as many have observed, closely replicates the features of the human musical events on Delos mentioned earlier in the poem.[36] In the earlier passage, the poem refers to the gathering of Greeks from all over the islands and adjacent coast, and speaks of how they are transfixed by the virtuoso performance of a set of human girls who can imitate the voices and movements of all.[37] Schematically, we have a chiasmus, that X-shape rhetorical figure that moves from A to B, B-prime to A-prime (Figure 4).

The emblematic melding here accomplishes in almost tactile fashion the sort of analogizing through which myth as a whole functions. The assertion embedded in this juxtaposition is: just as Apollo is musagetês , leader of the Muses , so the blind man of Chios—or his representative—is choral leader of the Delian chorus, the one who provides them with songs. This matching detail is further underlined by the line-final occurrence of the word for song, aoidê at 173 (referring to “Homer”) and at 188 (referring to Apollo). To repeat, no matter what its actual performance conditions were over the years—including recitation in performance, without music of any kind—the text itself insinuates that the Hymn to Apollo is exactly like Apollo’s own song. Let me put it more pointedly: the human singer worships the god by modeling himself on this divine patron of song.[38]

There is one further emblematic melding to examine in the Apollo hymn. As the poem proceeds, Apollo, realizing the need for priests for his newly founded temple in Delphi, goes out and hijacks a boat. Specifically, he takes the form of a dolphin, leaps into a ship manned by Cretan sailors, and proceeds to flop around and rock it. While Apollo the Dolphin lies there, the boat starts steering itself toward the place he desires. When it reaches his goal, Apollo resumes his divine form and tells the Cretans they will be his servants. He then leads them in a high-spirited but formal procession up the mountain to his shrine, playing his phorminx as he goes. The Cretans follow, singing a victory song or paian “just like the paians of the Cretans, for whom the Muse has placed in the heart honey-voiced song.” If the hymnist of this poem is being likened to Apollo, so the Cretan sailors—his newly found priests—are likened to Cretan paian singers. The victory song or thanksgiving song to Apollo called the paian was normally sung to the kithara . By mythic calculation, the hymnist of the Hymn to Apollo is like Apollo who in turn is like the leader of Cretan citharode singers. Hence once again, the Hymn performer comes out looking like a citharode. I shall return to the Cretans in a moment, in formulating my final thoughts about the role of ritual and contest in developing the aesthetics of performances.

For now, we should note that this very artful and careful merging of performers within the Hymn to Apollo gains even more resonance when placed next to the evidence from iconography and literary-historical traditions. A key to this broader complex is the lore passed down to us by the second-century (ad) travel writer Pausanias. In Pausanias’ section on the Pythian games, we must note several key points. Before the reorganization of the Pythian games in the sixth century BC, as we learn from other sources, the only contest was in citharody. Pausanias says this took the form of singing a hymn to Apollo. The first winner was Chrysothemis of Crete.The passage is worth quoting in full: [39]
The oldest contest and the one for which they first offered prizes was, according to tradition, the singing of a hymn to the god. The man who sang and won the prize was Chrysothemis of Crete, whose father Carmanor is said to have cleansed Apollo. After Chrysothemis, says tradition, Philammon won with a song, and after him his son Thamyris. But they say that Orpheus, a proud man and conceited about his mysteries, and Musaeus, who copied Orpheus in everything, refused to submit to the competition in musical skill.
They say too that Eleuther won a Pythian victory for his loud and sweet voice, for the song that he sang was not of his own composition. The story is that Hesiod too was debarred from competing because he had not learned to accompany his own singing on the harp. Homer too came to Delphi to inquire about his needs, but even though he had learned to play the harp, he would have found the skill useless owing to the loss of his eye-sight.

There are a number of fascinating and relevant aspects to Pausanias’ collection of observations on Delphic performance history. We can note, first, how the character and biography of various “authors” are obviously tied to the local traditions about whether or not they were fit to participate in a particular event. Thus Orpheus and Musaeus are too proud, Hesiod too unskilled in music, and Homer, paradoxically, skilled but unable to make use of his skill due to blindness—which sounds like a crudely manufactured excuse.

We should note further that Chrysothemis, the first victor, had a living connection with Apollo, since his father had performed katharsis for the god. The ritual context, therefore, is doubled—the citharode sings a hymn and is the son of one who provided ritual cleansing. By the way, the very name Chrysothemis or “Golden Rule” would make an appropriate epithet for the god himself. In the Hymn to Apollo , the baby god is resplendently dressed in gold, with gold belt and gold dagger. The very first divinity to feed the baby Apollo is not his mother Leto, but instead the goddess Themis —‘proper Rule’, or ‘Custom’. She gives him nektar and ambrosia—the perfect pablum for an immortal (lines 123–124). What I am suggesting is that calling oneself “Chrysothemis” in the context of Apolline cult and festival evokes images of the very origin of the god Apollo. I add to Pausanias’ information at this point a further piece of lore. According to a tradition passed down by the Byzantine scholar Photius ( Bibliotheca 320b), this mortal singer Chrysothemis was the first to wear expensive clothing and to take up the kithara to sing a solo nomos, or traditional song-pattern in imitation of Apollo ( eis mimêsin Apollōnos ). This anecdote is nothing less than an etiological story to explain the customary dress of both competitive citharists and their instruments (also by the way, elaborately clothed, as we shall see).[40]

The other points in Pausanias’ passage are all worth absorbing, but I have to pass quickly over them. Essentially, this lore retrojects a division of repertoires, perhaps stemming from the sixth century BC. The Pythian games tradition of competitive singing to the accompaniment of the kithara , interestingly, includes in its list of victors (and thus, in the contemporary repertoire) Philammon, Eleuther, and best of all the mythic performer Thamyris, who the Iliad tells us was once defeated by the Muses in a contest. But it excludes Orpheus, Musaeus, Homer, and Hesiod. These latter, it can be argued, are all to be associated with rhapsodic performance, although the passage does not state this. In stressing Homer’s skill at playing an instrument, and then veering away from this by excluding him, the Pythian lore seems to mirror inversely what the Hymn to Apollo presents: a citharodic, singing-and-playing Homer, in the actual context of a rhapsodic Hymn. It is as if the keepers of Pythian lore, perhaps the priests and operators of the games, acknowledged a tradition of Homeric citharody, but take pains to reject it. Within the terms of the Pythian lore reported by Pausanias, such a rejection would make most sense if citharodic ideology—collaborating with the rules of the games, as set by Apollo’s proponents— requires from its performers the ability to see the god in order to proclaim his glory—you do not acquire such details from what other people tell you. You must see for yourself.[41]

Let me return to the essential conclusion we can draw from the passages we have just seen. The origin myths and ideology of citharodic performance at the games in Delphi, the Pythian games, pivot around imitating the god in his role as citharode . The Homeric Hymn to Apollo , as I am suggesting, promotes that very ideology, although it seems the Pythian contests excluded Homeric epic from competition—yet another indication of how ritual events shaped the very canon of Greek literature. At this point, we could expatiate on the function of such divine mimesis. It seems to have a specific role within the broader area of male initiation. In this connection, we need to recall that Apollo is the god of clan membership, as attested especially in Dorian lands (like Crete), but also in Athens. As a young god, with characteristic long hair, he is the embodiment of that stage in a young man’s life when he is called ephebe—“on the verge of full youth.” Apollo does not get old—he is the eternal ephebe. To be a full man, the mortal Greek passes through the ephebic stage, learning the craft of the warrior, but also learning the other relevant skills of being an aristocratic male. These skills include the production of music and song—embodied in Apollo the citharode. This whole ancient Greek social-mythic complex can be characterized, in the anthropologist Michael Herzfeld’s phrase, as the “Poetics of Manhood”—the title of his wonderful book about late twentieth-century inhabitants of an upland village in Crete.

And now it’s time for us to talk further of Cretans. It is hardly an accident, I believe, that the first citharodic winner, a generation after the god himself, according to the ancient lore, was from Crete. I submit that the reason Apollo, in the mythic narrative preserved in the Hymn to Apollo, has to choose Cretan merchant pirates to be his priests is simply because the traditions of actual citharodic performance at Delphi have predetermined the ethnicity. The stories and practices of real performers, in other words, have moved quietly into the mythic representations, retrojecting a number of details from the present age of what singers really do (or their own stories about what they do) into a distant Golden Age. Nor should we be disturbed by the odd combination of priests and singers in this picture—the mythic Cretan sailors becoming sacrificial officiants at Apollo’s temple, while the Cretan performers are good at singing. At Delphi as at Athens, where the Eumolpidae or “good-singer” family had ritual functions, and further afield, in the cults and poetic traditions of Vedic India, priests and singers are quite often one and the same persons.[42]

Two semihistorical figures can help fill in the picture I have been drawing of the ideology of “emblematic melding.” Terpander, a citharode from Lesbos, who flourished around 680 BC, established the first citharodic contest at the Carneia in Sparta—and proceeded to win the contest.[43] Since the Carneia was a long-standing Apollo festival, we see once again the close relation between citharody and the god. But in the stories that tell us how Terpander invented the seven-stringed lyre, and the set of tunes to be sung to the kithara , we see also the melding of human musician with divine. For Apollo, too, is a first-founder, discoverer of institutions, and inventor of nomoi in several senses. (The word nomoi can mean both ‘tunes’ and ‘laws’.[44] ) The second figure is a sort of shamanic alternative to Terpander; the traditional dating puts him, too, in the seventh century BC. His name is Thaletas or Thales, and he is credited with founding another Spartan institution, the Gymnopaidia. (The name of the festival, if nothing else, is at least is familiar to the modern world in the music composition of Eric Satie, Les Gymnopédies). Thaletas or Thales is also said to have prevented war or cured plague with his songs, which included paians and a kind of processional song called huporkhêma .[45] If Terpander imitates the divine model Apollo in his innovations, Thaletas does so by his healing and harmonizing activities. Looked at another way, both of these historical citharodic biographies reflect the emblematic melding of performer and patron. And by the way, Thaletas comes from an interesting town, one that we associate with one of the earliest surviving Greek law codes on stone: Gortyn—in, of all places, southern Crete.

The literary evidence on Apollo as citharode is dwarfed by the visual, which would require a long book and more art-historical expertise than I can muster to analyze in full.[46] Let me summarize for the sake of brevity: from a sample data set comprising the 536 vases for which the online Beazely archive at Oxford provided images in a keyword search, as well as the Lexicon Iconographicum section on Apollo with kithara , I find that the kithara accompanies Apollo in a fairly restricted set of scenes—ones that are ritual, public, and celebratory. The god plays in processions, especially divine weddings, like that depicted on a well-known sixth-century dinos by Sophilos (figure 5).

Apollo also plays at altars flaming for sacrifice, or for libations; and Apollo leads the Muses in song. Such type-scene attestations capture the marked nature of public performance on this instrument, the very same marked and ritually grounded performance that one sees in the human citharodic contests at the Carneia and the Pythia. A related point is that Apollo himself in vase depictions looks like a human citharode contestant, and vice versa. Compare the views in figure 6 (on the left, red-figure pelike [Beazley ARV 2 250, LIMC Apollon 84]; on the right, Attic black-figure pelike [Kassel T 675]).

We have established the close “emblematic melding” of human citharodes and divine player. I have argued that this goes back to the actual practices and ideology of the citharodes, specifically in the contest situation at Delphi, in the Pythian Games. Now is the time to turn at last to a third place, triangulating as it were between Apollo’s sites of Delphi and Delos; and to the aesthetics of its contests, those honoring another divinity, Athena, in the Panathenaia. I will take a slight detour, however, reaching Athens through Arcadia, at least in mythic terms.

A companion poem to the Hymn to Apollo is the hymnic composition that celebrates the birth and adventures of his half-brother, the god Hermes. I cannot dwell on the Hymn to Hermes at the same length as Apollo’s hymn, but will mention it just long enough to sketch how it embodies a suggestive transgression into Apolline harmonies. This hymn is a comic masterpiece. It tells how Hermes’ mother Maia gives birth to him in a cave far distant from the house of his father Zeus. It’s a kind of rags-to-riches tale. Soon after being born, Hermes decides to go and steal the cattle of his brother Apollo. Cattle-raiding—like the skill at chariot-driving (and in Nestor’s case, as Iliad 11 shows, combined with that skill)—is a very ancient form of proving manhood, connected with initiation stories in Greek, Indic, and Irish traditions.[47] In the world of modern Crete—as Michael Herzfeld’s book shows in detail—it has been replaced as an initiatory experience by the stealing of sheep from one’s older male neighbors. But it still functions in the Poetics of Manhood.[48]

So the Hymn to Hermes , in its basic plot, enacts a transgression, with a baby doing the deed of a young man—not unlike the way Apollo himself is instantly matured in the hymn dedicated to him. But the Hymn to Hermes goes a step further. Not only is it about a legal, ritual transgression (Hermes in fact invents a new kind of sacrifice). It also encapsulates a musical transgression. After being caught and threatened with punishment by his older brother, Hermes charms Apollo with singing to his own invention, the tortoise-shell lyre ( Homeric Hymn to Hermes 418–447):
He took [the lyre] upon his left arm and tried each string in turn with the key, so that it sounded awesomely at his touch. And Phoebus Apollo laughed for joy; for the sweet throb of the marvellous music went to his heart, and a soft longing took hold on his soul as he listened. Then the son of Maia, harping sweetly [ kitharizōn ] upon his lyre , took courage and stood at the left hand of Phoebus Apollo; and soon, while he played shrilly on his lyre, he lifted up his voice and sang, and lovely was the sound of his voice that followed. He sang the story of the deathless gods and of the dark earth, how at the first they came to be, and how each one received his portion.…
But Apollo was seized with a longing not to be allayed, and he opened his mouth and spoke winged words to Hermes: “Slayer of oxen, trickster, busy one, comrade of the feast, this song of yours is worth fifty cows, and I believe that presently we shall settle our quarrel peacefully. But come now, tell me this, resourceful son of Maia: has this marvellous thing been with you from your birth, or did some god or mortal man give it you—a noble gift—and teach you heavenly song? For wonderful is this new-uttered sound I hear, the like of which I vow that no man nor god dwelling on Olympus ever yet has known but you, O thievish son of Maia. What skill is this? What song for desperate cares? What way of song?”

In the Hymn to Apollo , the god was clearly a citharode. The large concert instrument is his from birth. Yet the Hymn to Hermes conspicuously represents him as completely taken with the lyre and how one sings to it. It even seems as though Apollo has never heard stringed instrumental playing before, of any kind. Why does the Hymn to Hermes show Apollo getting from his thievish younger brother not a kithara —but a lyre ? Well, part of the story of the Hymn to Hermes is that the new baby god actually invented the lyre. He lures a tortoise into his baby cave, kills it, and makes its shell into a sound box. This myth, in other words, is an origin tale for an actual instrument that was in fact used in certain situations in ancient Greek life. But the images above, of lyre vs. kithara , should remind us once more: kithara s are to lyres as concert harps are to banjos. There is a big difference.

The tortoise-shell lyre represents a set of associations that is very much on the surface in the Hymn to Hermes , and these associations are the opposite of the kithara ’s. Take for example the passages that describe the first song of baby Hermes. He strikes up the instrument and then sings to it in accompaniment “trying things out on the basis of improvisation ( ex autoskhediês ).” We know that singing to the kithara in actual contests required the playing of set patterns or nomoi . You do not just pick up a kithara and improvise, not when praising the god or competing in contests or accompanying sacrifice. Furthermore, whereas Apollo’s followers sing paians in his hymn—the kind that Cretans are famous for—Hermes’ song resembles the improvised off-hand insult contests of young men at feasts. (I think of a modern Cretan parallel, the rhyming-couplet mandinadha duels that can erupt in any number of situations). Finally, the content of Hermes’ song is nothing less than autobiographical. The baby gives us a first-person view of his environment, including maids and pots ( Homeric Hymn to Hermes: 60–61). It makes us think of another sort of ancient Greek poetry, the sometimes obscene, always personal verse attributed to Archilochus, the soldier-poet from the island of Paros. Perhaps it is not accidental that Archilochus was said to have been initiated into poetry as a young man by some sarcastic Muses whom he met, and who gave him, in return for his cow, the gift of a lyre (note— not a kithara ).[49]

The lyre of Hermes, clearly described as the tortoise-shell instrument, is called a phorminx , for which I refer back to my earlier remarks on the flexibility of epic diction. More telling, it is also called a lura (line 423). At line 418, even more telling, the object noun is omitted altogether: some editors replace the transmitted reading labôn (“having taken”) with the name of an instrument, either lurēn or kitharin , but I think the text, as it stands with its direct object unexpressed and elided, is exactly right.[50] The poet of this hymn plays the same game; the instrument in question may be a lyre, but the audience knows that in order to be the appropriate accessory for the mature god Apollo it has to be a kithara . Therefore, the poet helps one suspend disbelief by refusing to foreground either in its marked form. From the long description of how it is made ( Homeric Hymn to Hermes 40–51), this is clearly a tortoise-shell lyre, no doubt about it. But the suggestive transgression has to copy reality to some extent. Hermes, for example, imitates real kithara -style situations. He plays his homemade lyre, in an agonistic legalistic, contest setting. He sings a theogony, a ritual style composition of the sort attributed to the primeval mortal singer Orpheus. And he thoroughly enchants his audience—the god Apollo, who has finally caught the little baby and wants to drag him before their father Zeus. The poet is subtle: Apollo does not say he never heard stringed music before. “What art, what music for cares hard to deal with is this?” he says—language again reminding us of themes in Archilochus’ verses. It relates, he goes on to say, to sympotic festivity ( euphrosunê ), love, and sleep. In other words, this music is private, nonritual, and consolatory—the opposite of kithara music on all three counts. Song, dance, and aulos (pipe) music are already around, says Apollo, and the Muses practice them. He does not mention whether kithara s already exist. He does allude once more to the way lyre-singing befits feasts of youths (line 454).[51] In sum, Apollo is like the producer who has stumbled on a new—perhaps dangerous but exciting—way of playing. He immediately sees the potential for it—from being the rival brother, he becomes the Colonel Parker to this new-found Elvis, the Dr. Dre to Snoop Dog.

The lines here encapsulate Hermes’ gift to Apollo of this music which he refers to as kitharizein —though we know it is technically not the playing of an actual kithara ; it is a lyre. The trade is expressed in reverse form if we compare it with the contract made by the Hymn to Apollo poet’s deal with the Delian maidens. “ I will give you this instrument; you give me glory,” says Hermes, whereas the Homer-figure, the blind man of Chios, said “ you use my words, I’ll give you fame.” And so Apollo ends up having a lyre—something like trading in a Stradivarius for a ukulele.

Mythologists must always ask: cui bono ? For whose good? That is to say, which tellers of tales would benefit from suggesting transgressively that Apollo’s instrumental art was in fact (a) the product of a plea-bargain, (b) the music of drinking parties, and (c) the result of playing on a loosely strung, lightly resonant instrument that probably could not be heard farther than the end of the table in someone’s house, let alone in a huge crowd at a concert competition? The answer is quite clear. This is the depiction desired by the non -musical, non -players—the rhapsodes.[52] In the social world of ancient performer culture, just as in the contemporary world of celebrity musicians (especially rappers), various groups must have characterized one another in an effort to distinguish themselves. Some might claim an affiliation with the genre of citharody: such a claim makes itself visible in the Hymn to Apollo . Others, however, belittle that very assertion, claiming (as does the Hymn to Hermes ) that Apollo prefers the sort of privatized, aristocratic, nonritualized, and—most important— non-agonistic music associated with the younger boys’ instrument, the lyre.

The undercutting of citharodic performance, by way of the assertion of the primacy of Hermes’ lyre over Apollo’s kithara , is on one level a kind of inversion joke, the younger initiate (Hermes) making fun of the older initiate model (Apollo). Just as Apollo is the eternal ephebe, Hermes is the eternal trickster, a figure of parody and adolescent play. But these are mythopoetic universals. At the actual historical level, I suggest that the context for this ideological musical competition is in fact that of the Panathenaiac games at Athens. One key fact distinguishes the Delphic Pythian (and probably the Spartan Carneia) musical contests from the Athenian, as the latter games were organized by the Peisistratid tyrants in the sixth century BC: the Panathenaia featured rhapsodic competitions. The Pythian festival did not . Even after their reorganization in 582 BC, the Pythian musical contests featured only citharody (the originating event), playing the kithara without singing, playing the aulos, and singing to the accompaniment of the aulos . That is to say there was no rhapsodic recitation. Gregory Nagy has shown in a magisterial series of works how the Panathenaic complex and its ideology shaped the rhapsodic treatment of Homer.[53] As he points out in his book, Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music , even in the fourth century rhapsodic competition, in terms of prize money, took second place in comparison to citharody, for which one could win, at least in 380 BC, 1000 drachmas.[54] What the prize scale was in the sixth century is hard to tell. At any rate, at some point the Homeric hymns, too, must have been in the orbit of the rhapsodic competitions, probably at Athens, and most likely at other cities as well. At the same time, singers would be competing, perhaps with similar material, in singing to the kithara . The testimonia about the citharode Terpander indicate that he sang his own material, but also set Homeric verse to music.[55] From the point of view of the evolution of poetic forms this is interesting; from the point of view of a rhapsode, it is downright dangerous . Walter Burkert suggested some years ago that the rhapsodic format was itself in a sort of competition with emerging poetry of the type we see in the choral poet Stesichorus.[56] For choral lyric, I would now substitute as the nemesis of the rhapsodes, at least in mythic terms and the manipulation of myth, the art of citharody. The Hymn to Hermes asserts that Apollo is no citharode . If this strategic move means the god is safely marginalized as a lyre-player, Apollo remains a musician, but the citharodes lose a patron—to the conspicuous public benefit of their rivals or descendants, the rhapsodes, reciters in public of hexameter verses without music. Since there is no standard contest in singing of lyric verse, elevating Hermes and his instrument does not pose a risk to the rhapsodes. They have simply, through compositions like the Hymn to Hermes , mythologized away the threat.

What is the more general point which we might take away for this study of the interrelations of craft and the rhetoric about it, as well as the craft of talk, the logos of tekhnê ? It is the pressure of Greek agonism, of contests, of judgment ( krisis ) within a ritual situation—the Pythian Games on the one hand, and the Panathenaia on the other—that have encouraged the growth of an entire body of myth, lore, and explanation to undergird a set of rules and regulations. Out of crisis come criteria . The aesthetics we innocently associate with both lyre- and kithara- playing, and naively, perhaps, fail to disambiguate when looking at representations of Apollo, are an expression of contestation, social and artistic clashes reaching back at least to the sixth century BC. But, by the same token, all aesthetic values in the classical tradition, I would assert, emerge from specific settings of parameters in taste, bound up with the realities of social practice, religious affiliations, class, and ethnic ties. Let us not be lured back into neoclassical assumptions that Greek aesthetics was the pure product of unfettered disinterested thought. In the same spirit, I would suggest that we should recognize and make use of such parallels or potential continuities as the modern Greek poetic and musical scene can offer, especially but not only in more traditional areas, in order to discover, in precise ethnographic terms, how the pressure of competition shapes authors and authority, contexts and content.

The fate of Apollo’s craft, then, is like the result of Poseidon’s crash test, writ large. Compared to the meager fragments of citharodic verse that we still possess, the rhapsodic epics attributed to Homer are massive monuments. They are the vehicles that got through the grove. Yet Apollo’s kithara , like the losers’ chariots, survives and is celebrated even when silent, suspended in dedication.



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Note 1
Fundamental for the discussion of agôn is Nagy 1990:385–387, also 118–122; for krisis 61–63; in relation to agôn 402–403.

Note 2
For debates concerning the developing notions of logos , see the essays in Buxton 1999.

Note 3
On Mycenaean palace economies and religious functions, see Lupack 2008. On the redistribution of luxury and other goods, see Killen 2008.

Note 4
Note that peirata tekhnês can also be honorific: the “ultimate limits” of craft—as if the tools embody his tekhnê . On the complex semantics of peirar see Bergren 1975.

Note 5
For agalma as cult statue see Nagy 1990:364.

Note 6
On the goddess under her Athenian cult title see Pausanias 1.24.3.

Note 7
For a full description of this event and perspectives thereon, see Neils 1992.

Note 8
On “cunning intelligence,” see Detienne and Vernant 1978.

Note 9
The metaphors are both of Indo-European date: see Durante 1976 and Nagy 1996:74–76.

Note 10
It is worth noting that another compound noun— tekhnologia —containing the same lexical elements, in reverse order, points to the importance of verbal expression in relation to material skill: successful “technology” requires giving a reasoned account of craft; the ability to persuade (through diagram, theory, and proof) is central even to fields that seem at the furthest remove from verbal art; or, to speak gnomically: tekhnologia needs logotekhnia .

Note 11
Schachter (1986:207-220) provides details of archaeological and inscriptional finds at the site, indicating a Bronze Age occupation and later cult activity dating to at least the sixth century BC. The age of the cult is uncertain; it may continue practices of the second millennium. Teffeteller points to similar Near Eastern chariot rites of that era.

Note 12
The latest assessment, with a good summary of previous scholarly attempts, is Teffeteller 2001. Opinions range from seeing it as soliciting an augury to considering it a test for horses and chariot-driving warriors.

Note 13
See Nestor’s “hymn” to mêtis in Iliad 23.313–318, which associates woodcutters, helmsmen, and charioteers as those who use this intelligence.

Note 14
On this scene and its congeners in epic, see Nagy 2009:1, §148.

Note 15
For the debate over the number of horses involved, see Teffeteller 2001. I assume that the colt can be metonymic for the paired horses involved.

Note 16
Pindar Isthmian Ode 1.32–33, 52–54 and Isthmian Ode 4.19–23 imply that real horse-races were conducted at the shrine of Poseidon in Onchestos.

Note 17
Teffeteller 2001 notes in addition Hittite and Babylonian analogues, one of which is quite specific in reference to an empty chariot in a god’s precinct.

Note 18
On the relative status of the two, see Shelmerdine 2008:127–129 and 135. It is of interest that the lower-ranked qa-si-re-u , as she notes, is several times associated with work-groups of craftsmen, such as bronze-workers at Pylos. Could the later basileus have evolved from the “master” of a guild? Further bibliography at Salis 1996:115–116.

Note 19
A more radical possibility here, that at least deserves consideration, is that we should interpret (w)anakti to mean the human charioteer, whose anaktoriê has been mentioned a few lines before. From the perspective of lat er worshippers at Onchestos, he would be prayed to in his role as heroic warrior or celebrated king of the past, who had once subjected himself and his vehicle to Poseidon’s rite. To say that “they pray” at the moment of dedication to a human would then blend the perspective of the heroic age with that of the later worshippers in hero-cult. For a similar pairing of god and human hero in worship, see Iliad 11.761 (the conclusion of Nestor’s initiatory raid): πάντες δ’ εὐχετόωντο θεῶν Διὶ Νέστορί τ’ ἀνδρῶν ‘They all prayed to Zeus, among gods, and Nestor among men’. Note that Nestor at the time is very much alive, having just completed a successful and spectacular feat in a chariot (jumping onto a vehicle and then taking fifty chariots of the enemy: Iliad 11.743–750). On Nestor’s tale see Martin 2000a. In regard to initiatory chariot events, we should also keep in mind the elaborate race in Iliad 23, at Patroclus’ funeral games, in which Antilokhos the son of Nestor is a featured driver. Klymenos, a mythical hero, is said to have died in a race at the grove (Pausanias 9.37.1); his heroic exemplum could be part of an unattested aition of the myth.

Note 20
The story is told in an explicit hero-cult context in the epincian ode Olympian 1 of Pindar, for Hieron’s chariot victory of 476 BC.

Note 21
This construction skill may itself be a part of the expected heroic repertoire: see the Iliad in its several mentions of heroes (like Lykaon: 21.35–38) who are captured while cutting wood for their vehicles. In Irish saga as well, the hero Cú Chulainn is thus represented, as are some of his enemies. We should also remember that Epeios, maker of the Wooden Horse, is an Iliadic hero, not just a carpenter.

Note 22
On Pausanias’ religious narratives see Pirenne-Delforge 2008.

Note 23
Worth closer attention in this connection is the dedication by Arkesilas of his winning chariot at Delphi (in a cypress-grove), as commemorated by Pindar, Pythian Ode 5.34–42, who stresses how the victor did not break the “daidalic” work of the craftsmen who made his vehicle. I intend to take up this point in a separate article.

Note 24
See Martin 2000b.

Note 26
Power 2010. The germ of this second portion of my paper originated in a talk at Delphi in the conference on Apolline Politics and Poetics in 2003. This was later expanded and modified in a talk at the International Symposium on Myth and Poetics in La Plata, Argentina in June 2009. My continued reflections on the problem, with significant changes from earlier versions, are reflected here.

Note 27
Martin 1989:10–88.

Note 28
Montbrun 2001.

Note 29
Maurizio 2001.

Note 30
On the instrument, see Comotti 1989:63 and Maas and Snyder 1989:53–78. On the endurance involved see Power 2010:52, 107, 121.

Note 31
On the Hilali performance tradition see Reynolds 1995.

Note 32
See most recently on the interpretation of these lines Peponi (2009), with further bibliography.

Note 33
On the Lives see Martin 2009 and Nagy 2008.

Note 34
Opinions given in Càssola 1975:498.

Note 35
For my alternative view, see Martin 2000b.

Note 36
Clay 1989:53–56. Cf. Power 2010:442–443.

Note 37
On the meaning of the “imitation” see now Peponi 2009.

Note 38
The late-antique lexicon of Hesychius yields some surprising and remarkably detailed information about what appear to be actual performance habits from an earlier period. The lexicon tells us that the phrase “But, lord …” ( all’anax ) was known to be a conventional closing phrase, or exodion , within the performances of actual citharodes . By contrast, the phrase “but now the gods” functioned as an exodion or signoff phrase for rhapsodes . I submit that we see exactly this closing strategy but in a split-up and expanded version at lines 177–179 of the Hymn to Apoll o. Here the poet says autar egō —(compare alla of the exodion ) and then says “O ana ” (compare anax of the exodion ). See Hesychius A 3113 (Latte), and cf. Gostoli 1990:54, 146–148. On the usage cf. Power 2010.

Note 39
Pausanias 10.7.3.

Note 40
See further Power 2010:28–29.

Note 41
An analogy might be made with the powerful force of darśan —pious religious viewing of the sites and images of gods—in Hinduism, on which see Eck 1981.

Note 42
Eumolpidae: Graf 1974:59–65, 93–100. Vedic India: Winternitz 1981:150–155.

Note 43
“Plutarch” On Music 1131a-1132e ; Gostoli 1990:84–85.

Note 44
Power 2010:215–223 has an extended discussion of the multiple meanings of nomos .

Note 45
Barker 1984:214–223.

Note 46
On statues of Apollo Citharode see Flashar 1992. On vase depictions, see now Power 2010:249, 286–287, 425–430. A slightly fuller version of the visual evidence is in Martin 2010, from which I have borrowed some material for this portion of the current essay.

Note 47
See Walcot 1979 and Melia 1979.

Note 48
Haft (1996) makes use of Herzfeld 1985 to illuminate the Hymn to Hermes .

Note 49
On the tale, see Clay 2004.

Note 50
Pace Càssola 1975:536 and others.

Note 51
Perhaps youths singing casual table-songs or skolia , if that is what endexia refers to—the habit of making songs go round the table in a certain direction, to the right. Cf. Càssola 1975:537 and Bowie and Pernot 1993:360–361.

Note 53
On the key importance of the Panathenaic context for Homeric recitation, see Nagy 2002 and Nagy 2010.

Note 54
Nagy 2002:38–40.

Note 55
Gostoli 1990:18–22. See Power 2010 passim for the most complete analysis of Terpander.

Note 56
Burkert 1987.