You are here

Choral Whispers

Timothy Power

Whispering and related vocalizations (murmuring, low/breathy voice) carried many of the same sociocultural connotations in early Greece as they do in other societies. (See Li 2011 for a cross-cultural assessment.) There are the expected associations with secrecy, privacy, and maternal or erotic intimacy, collectively exemplified in Plutarch’s story about Timaea, wife of the Spartan king Agis: her illegitimate child by Alcibiades was publicly called Leotychides, but at home the name that was “whispered” (psithurizomenon) by his mother to her “intimates” (philai) was ‘Alcibiades’ (Vit. Alc. 23.7). This story hints too at whispering’s less savory associations with rumor and slander—the promiscuous corruption of whispered intimacy. Exemplary is Odysseus’ “whisper campaign” against the eponymous hero of Sophocles’ Ajax (“fashioning these whispered (psithurous) tales Odysseus brings them to the ears of all,” 138–39).

Indeed, whispering is more often than not negatively represented as the “other” to forthright public speech. Plato has Callicles conjure up the pathetic image of an elderly philosopher, whispering (psithurizonta) in some remote corner of the city, “never giving voice (phthenxesthai) to anything free, important, and efficacious.” The rhetor, by contrast, speaks openly in the civic centers, where real men win fame (Gorgias 485d).

This tendency is especially evident in the epinician poetry of Pindar, for whom the whisperer is a loser, a slanderer of the victor (Pyth. 2.75, 11.28–30; cf. Ol. 2.95–98, with discussion in Montiglio 2000:88). The victor rather merits praise voiced openly and audibly, and that is just how Pindar routinely figures his own virtual poetic “voice”—as sonically resonant, even clamorous (e.g. Nem. 4.86, 8.46–50). And, as the many musical self-references in the epinicians and fragmentary cult songs suggest, Pindar valued choral musical performance that was “noisy and loud” (Porter 2010:378). Porter is commenting on the opening of the second Dithyramb, where Pindar contrasts his high-volume mousikê with that of older dithyrambic choral performance, in which “the ‘s’ came out of [singers’] mouths, [sounding] base-born (kibdêlon) to men.” As I briefly argue (building on D’Angour 1997), Pindar is not merely criticizing his antecedents for being too quiet; he is hyperbolically claiming that old-fashioned choruses actually whispered their songs, making a psithuristic hiss.

It is surprising, then, to find among the epinikia several references to musico-poetic performance that emphasize the softness not only of the poet’s “voice,” but of the sounding choral voice as well. At Nem. 7.81–83, for instance, the chorus directs itself to sing “softly” (ἡσυχᾷ) and with a “quiet voice” (ἁμέρᾳ ὀπί). Still more striking are references to choral song as oaros (Pyth. 1.98; Nem. 3.11, 7.69). This speech genre, also called oaristus, is characterized by low talk and whispering, typically of an amatory nature (Levaniouk 2011:82–92; Nagy 2011). Thus Theocritus 27, entitled Oaristus, is a dialogue whispered—as psithurizein in line 68 indicates—between two lovers (cf. Iliad 14.216–17), while Posidippus imagines the love songs of Sappho as a series of oaroi (55.2 A-B; Sappho 31.1-5 seems in fact to describe an oaros).

I first examine the figurative and rhetorical point of these Pindaric performative self-references, arguing that they bring to epinician choral performance positive, pleasurable associations of intimacy and trust on the one hand, erotic seduction and stimulation on the other. An eroticized ambience of intimacy and mutual pleasure thus notionally subsumes chorus, victor, and audience. Here whispering plays against type, implying closeness and trust rather than division and suspicion.

I next consider whether Pindar’s choral whispers might be more than a purely rhetorical conceit. Could his choruses have occasionally approximated, at least, actual whispering or breathy talk? Truly whispered singing (in a pitch-accented language, no less) is impossible (e.g. Nicholson and Teig 2003), but stylized imitations are certainly conceivable. I compare relevant choral texts, primarily the parodos of Euripides’ Orestes, which features an ostensibly “whispering” chorus (140–210).

Session/Panel Title

Voice and Sound in Classical Greece

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy