Performing Iambic Poetry:
Inscription and Female Choruses
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
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.
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