Epics and Ritual: Reconsidering Homeric Performance in Ancient Greece

Citation with persistent identifier: Brouillet, Manon. “Epics and Ritual: Reconsidering Homeric Performance in Ancient Greece.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:BrouilletM.Epics_and_Ritual.2019


My project on Homeric epics and ritual seeks to explore the link between the massive importance of Homeric epics in Greek polytheism, as stated by Herodotus himself, and their performance during religious festivals. Can the ritual setting of the epic performances be relevant to our understanding of their role in Greek society? My anthropological approach aims at characterizing the main social, ritual, and symbolic values of Homeric performances for the Greeks.

The first part of the project that I have conducted at the CHS focuses on sacrifice and its common features with epic performances in Archaic and Classical Greece, since the epics themselves and the Odyssey in particular state the religious dimension of the performance and the link between song and sacrifice. In studying the actual performances within festivals, and in particular the role of the singers during the sacrifice, I have shown that the epic songs and the sacrifice were arguably considered as two efficient and deeply social events in the construction of a relationship with the gods.

The CHS fellowship also gave me the opportunity to develop the comparatist dimension of my research on epics, notably through a work on Milman Parry Collection on Oral Literature.


1. The Odyssey stages various poetic performances, where the pleasure of the song is more than once associated with food and especially with meat (kreiôn). This close association between song and food has been explored by Bakker (Bakker 2013). I argue that what is at stake is not only the consumption of meat but the entire sacrificial process. Indeed, we know that the consumption of meat in Ancient Greece was, in its large majority, the consequence of a sacrifice (Schmitt-Pantel 1992). Among the Pheacians, the poetic performances take place either during or just after the feast that follows the sacrifice. In Ithaca, the link between song and sacrifice can be deduced from the structural correspondence between the lyre and the sacrificial skin in book 22, just after the killing of the suitors. Whereas the singer Phemius holds his lyre, the herald Medon hides under the skin of a recently sacrificed cow. In these two parallel passages, the poet focuses on the object that is finally left on the floor when each man decides to supplicate the hero. If the singer and the herald hold tightly these objects, it is because they can save them. Indeed, the lyre, like the skin, embodies the link that men want to have with the gods, which, here, is necessary for their protection. This link can be established either by the poetic performance or by the sacrifice.

We know that sacrifice was considered as a privileged channel of communication between gods and men. It is the best way to please the gods, to rejoice and honor them, and at the same time it is characterized by its social value, since the sharing of the meat within the community is essential. Men share the meat between them and with the gods. As such, sacrifice is both a social and a ritual event. The poetic performance has equivalent features. As I have already shown (Brouillet 2018), the song has a social and a ritual dimension that is expressed through the sharing of kharis both between men and gods and within the human community during the performance. The common pattern between the sacrifice and the song lies on the fact that the social and the ritual value are entangled and inseparable.

2. In another aspect of my research, I turned to the sources that we have on actual performances. There is now a scholarly convergence on the fact that the Homeric epics were performed during religious festivals. Panionian festivals first (Frame 2009), then the Panathenaia and others, such as the Asclepeia, as we can see in Plato’s Ion. The scope of those festivals was the worship of one or several divinities, by the way of offerings, processions, and both athletic and musical contests.

The climax was constituted by the sacrifice of a great number of animals, whose meat was then shared between the people. We know that these events were very popular, and that they gathered a great number of people and competitors. Epics were sung in front of a huge audience, and we can imagine that it took time. Arguably, compared to the athletic competitions, but also to other musical contests, the duration of epic performances must have been much longer (whether they were performed entirely or not). Given the cultural importance of the epics, I assume that among all the other musical performances, it should have had a specific importance. In the few inscriptions that remain, the rhapsodic performances are listed first in the list of the prizes for the winners, which could also reflect the order of performance.

How the audience was involved in such a long poetic performance, which was not a prayer (unlike the hymns), nor a praise, but was essentially narrative? I argue that it was a ritual involvement. I follow Jack Goody’s idea that a gathering of a great number of adults for a long poetic performance in a traditional society requires a ritual setting so that the attention of the audience is maintained (Goody 2010). For Homeric epics, their insertion in the festivals, the relationship with the Muse and the fact that the first lines are not narrative but emphasize the relationship between gods and men, can be interpreted as hints of such a ritual setting. As Goody states, it takes something particular to have male adults gathered in a same place for hours, listening, and participating in a song.

3. If epigraphical evidences never describe the poetic performances themselves, they give information on the organization of the entire festival that can provide indications for singers. Two inscriptions mention their involvement in the sacrificial process. In a IVth century BCE inscription from Eretria (IG II 9 189, quoted by Nagy 2002), the prizes of the different musical contests are described, beginning with the rhapsoidoi. It is then mentioned that, after all have competed, singers and musicians are asked to participate in procession. The musical competitors attend the procession, but also the sacrifice. Their presence is a condition for “a successful sacrifice for all”. Moreover, the singers and musicians have to join the procession and sacrifice in the same clothes (skeuè) that they had when they competed. We know that the singers wore remarkable clothes, full of poikilia (Plato, Ion). This kosmos, that we can also see on the iconographic representations of poets on vases, is not only pleasant to see: the garments echo the clothes of the gods, and of the heroes, as they are described in the epics, and they also embody and make visible the specific relationship that the poets have to the gods. Indeed, the poikilia itself contributes to the kharis of the song. It reinforces, on the visual level, the aesthetic pleasure that mostly depends on hearing. The mention of the clothes and ornaments at the moment of the sacrifice is an indication of the fact that, as singers, they participate to the creation of the specific atmosphere and relationship with the gods required for the sacrifice.

The second inscription is from Epidaurus (IG IV2 1 40), precisely where Ion won such a great success by performing Homer. It contains two very similar regulations, of two sacrificial offerings, one for Apollo, the other for Asclepius. What immediately kept my attention here is the presence of the word aoidos. So far, I have not found it in any other inscription (where we rather find rhapsoidos). The use of aoidos, which is typical of archaic hexametric poetry, can point out to a performance of the epics, even more clearly than rhapsoidos. The inscription states that the poets can have a special share of sacrificial meat, together with the gods, the priests, and the guards. The singers are the third in the list, which already places them in an important place. But I suggest that the singers have a very important status, almost equivalent to the one of the homonaoi (the gods who share the shrine with Apollo or Asclepius). Their share of meat is a divine one. The animal is sacrificed for the homonaoi but is not given to them. It rather goes to the singers who are put into position of sharing something with the gods. I read those inscriptions as statements on the sacrificial role of the singers, in the same way that the young Hermes, in the Homeric Hymn, goes out of his cave to eat meat, finds on his way a tortoise that he transforms into a lyre, sings a cosmogony, and then seeks the cows and kill them. In a ritual setting, song and sacrifice are part of the one and same movement of entering into contact with the gods, and eventually, sharing with them.

4. In Archaic and Classical periods, poetry is often considered as dedicated to gods, and, as such, as an offering (Svenbro 1984, Sfyroeras 1992, Calame 2012). Within the festivals, the particularity of the various offerings to the gods is that they are made collectively, as a community. I propose to reconsider the use of the word “offering”, that provides an etic perspective. Indeed, it implies that the thing is given, offered, and does not belong anymore to the one who has given it. A statue, a cloth, an armour, belongs to the god who receives it, and the one who offers it loses his rights to use it. But if we think about offering through the notion of kharis, we can rather put the emphasis not on the object but on the situation, the occasion of kharis (Day 2010). Pleasure circulates, it is shared, not given.

In the case of the song that rejoices the gods, it rejoices the men as well.  But the songs are not given to the gods. It is the gods who, in the first place, gave either the songs, or the ability to sing, to men. The epic performance comes from the gods, or, more precisely, it is the result of a collaboration between the singer and the gods, especially the Muse (Brouillet 2016). It is then shared, through the poet, with men and with gods.

Likely, the sacrificial animal is not as much offered to the gods than shared with them. And with good reason: it is not given because it does not belong to men. The cattle are divine property that is a part of the economy of the sanctuary (McInerney 2010). Just as the poet receives his song from the gods, makes it audible for men and transforms it into an occasion of shared kharis between men and gods, likewise the sacrificial animal is transformed (adorned, slaughtered and cut out) and then shared. The importance of sharing the meat is crucial and does not correspond to other kinds of offering, would it be clothes, armors, or even libations. There is a complex circulation that characterizes the epic performance like the sacrificial process.

5. Either in literary or epigraphical sources, we find very few descriptions on the precise setting and the audience of epic performances. A comparatist approach can be a way of dealing with the scarcity of Greek material. It stems in the tradition both of Homeric studies and of historical anthropology. Comparison is not a way of finding similarities but rather it can shed light on neglected aspects and introduce new questions by confronting different kinds of materials and cultures. Ethnographic fieldwork has shown the importance of the utterances that immediately precede the song and how the mention of god(s) is a way to involve the audience and make them react to the song. As such, epic is “a stage for social interaction” (Reynolds 1995) and this interaction relies on its religious dimension. In Homer, a close reading of the proems can give some hints about how the poet sets his stage.

The comparatist enterprise also led me to the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature. With the help of the curator David Elmer, whom I wish to thank here, I had a first occasion to work directly on Albert Lord’s notebooks. While Parry and Lord’s published works on Yugoslavian epics are mostly focused either on the content of the songs or on the question of their composition and transmission, the notebooks give evidence of a reflection on proems (pripjeva) and a list of collected proems, where we can find invocations to Allah. Some details also show that an audience was present (and reacting) even during the performances that were organized for purpose of registration. Starting from these documents, I intend to go further on the interaction between singers and audience in Yugoslavian epics, and the religious features within the performance, in order to broaden the comparatist evidence and show how we can infer information on the setting from the very content of the songs.


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Brouillet, Manon. 2016. Des chants en partage. L’épopée homérique comme expérience religieuse. PhD diss., Écoles des hautes études en sciences sociales. Paris.

———. 2018. “Faire événement: les épopées homériques comme performances rituelles.” Pallas, 107:155-74.

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