Performing Iambic Poetry:
The Mnesiepes Inscription and Female Choruses

Andromache Karanika

Temple University

In this paper, I investigate the narrative of the Mnesiepes inscription (SEG 15.517, Gerber Testimonia fr. 3) and its relation to female choruses.  Recent scholarship has explored the performative character of iambic poetry as well as its association with comedy (Rosen 1988).  By looking at both the discourse presented within the Mnesiepes Inscription as well as other literary and iconographic evidence, I suggest that the inscribed text reflects traditions of choral performances and a mixing of poetic genres.

 The Mnesiepes Inscription preserves a valuable narrative of a poetic initiation scene that relates the encounter of Archilochus with the Muses; the Muses appear to him as disguised women returning from work.  This encounter takes place in the countryside, in a district called leimones (line 24).  The word leimones that signifies the meadow, is associated metaphorically with the Muses in Aristophanes (Frogs 1300).  The meadow also has erotic overtones (Calame 1999:156).  The poet teases the women, and they react with jesting and laughter, so there is an overt erotic flavor in this scene. The meadow (leimon) is a topos  in ancient literature that marks the transition of one phase into another, usually associated with young girls and often with female choruses (e.g. Hymn to Demeter 417).  The transformation is a triple one, as we have the epiphany of the disguised Muses, the cow is transformed into a lyre, and the young 'merchant' into a poet.  The reference in the inscription to the disguised Muses appearing as a group brings forth the relation between viewers and performers as reflected in the Hymn to Apollo (152).  The inscription mobilizes a tradition of poetic initiation scenes in a comic atmosphere. 

The language of the inscription is deeply contrasted with two epigrams of the Palatine Anthology (A.P. Book VII, 351, 352).  In the epigram attributed to Dioscorides, the poetic We of the daughters of Lycambes reproach Archilochus who had accused them of disgraceful conduct.  Sharp contrast is drawn to the emphasis on the public space in the epigram, with the more private sphere of the Mnesiepes Inscription.  In the epigram attributed to Meleager, the daughters of Lycambes reproach the Pierian Muses for showing favor to an impious man who turned insulting iambics upon young girls.

Evidence from Athenaeus (14.620C) and Aristotle's Politics (1449b7-9) suggest that iambic poetry was performed as theatrical performance that involved viewers (theatas).  By juxtaposing the tradition of the Mnesiepes inscription with the tradition reflected in the funerary literary epigrams of the Palatine Anthology, I seek to reappraise the presence of the female chorus in the performance of iambic poetry and argue that this scene is not simply another form of dichterweihe scene but draws material from a repertoire of choral performances.   

Selected references

Bartol, K.  1992.  "Where Was Iambic Poetry Performed? Some Evidence from the Fourth Century B.C"  Classical Quarterly 42:65-71.

Calame, C.  [1992] 1999.  The Poetics of Eros in Ancient Greece, translated by Janet   

Lloyd.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dillery, J. 1999.  "Aesop, Isis and the Heliconian Muses" Classical Philology 94: 268-280.

Gentili, B.  1988 Poetry and its Public in Ancient Greece, translated by A.T. Cole.  Baltimore and London.

Gerber, D.  1999.  Greek Iambic Poetry: From the Seventh to Fifth Centuries BC.

Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Irwin, E.  1998.  "Biography, Fiction and the Archilochean Ainos" The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 118: 177-183.

Murray, P. 1981.  "Poetic Inspiration in Early Greece."  Journal of Hellenic Studies, 101: 87-100.

Nagy, G. 1976.  "Iambos: Typologies of Invective and Praise" Arethusa 9:191-205.

Rosen, R.M.  1988.  Old Comedy and the Iambographic Tradition.  Atlanta.

Rosen, R.M.  1992.  "Mixing of Genres and Literary Program in Herodas 8" Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 94: 205-216.

West, M.L.  1974.  Studies in Greek Elegy and Iambus.  Berlin-New York.

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