You are here

The Songs of the Deliades: Multilingualism in Ritual Contexts

Annette Teffeteller

What exactly constitutes the wondrous ability of the Delian Maidens, as reported by the author of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, turns on a disputed reading. Do they know how to ‘mimic all people’s voices and their rhythms’ (Richardson: krembaliastus, retained by Nagy; cf. Peponi) or their babble (West: bambaliastus), the balbutiements des Barbares (Humbert)?

   Richardson takes krembaliastus to refer to the sound produced by castanets or some similar rhythmical instrument and understands the passage to mean ‘And they know how to imitate the voices and rhythms (?) of all men’. The reading bambaliastus – which, like krembaliastus, is also a hapax – would refer, Richardson notes, to "some aspect of the various types of speech imitated, whether speech-patterns in general, or dialects, or different languages", a reading he rejects on the ground that “it is hard to see how a word which would most naturally denote inarticulate or confused sounds can be used in this context, where the Delian girls’ songs are so highly praised.”

   More compelling is the view of Humbert, who points out that the lines immediately following 162, in which the hymnist claims that ‘anyone might think it was he himself speaking, so well is their singing constructed’, are inexplicable if the reference in the disputed reading is to the sound of castanets («Je comprends mal les vv. 163-164 si les Déliades s’accompagnent simplement de castagnettes»).

   It has been observed that “choral song in ancient Greece is never sung in any language other than Greek” (Rutherford 2008) and on the available evidence that is an accurate assessment, with, it seems, this one exception. It has also been observed by the same author that “in Iron Age Greece, it is unusual for a chorus to be permanently attached to a temple. The only well-documented exception is that of the ‘Delian Maidens’ who seem to have been a chorus permanently attached to the temple of Apollo on Delos.”

   Both these features – a standing chorus and multilingualism in cultic contexts – are characteristic of Anatolian cultic practices, as detailed by Rutherford in his study of the Zintuhis and elsewhere. From the Hittite archives we have accounts of Bronze Age festivals containing references to song; texts of the songs themselves; and library catalogues that mention texts of songs performed in ritual contexts in a number of languages, including Luwian, Palaic, Hattic, Hurrian, and Nesite (Hittite). We have accounts of performance in ritual and festival contexts, where singers are said to process or stand, sometimes to dance; and indications that performers are sometimes affiliated with certain towns. And we have accounts of interaction between Anatolians and Greeks in ritual contexts, a Hittite king sending for the Deity of Ahhiyawa (Mycenaean Greece) and the Deity of Lazpa (Lesbos), and Anatolian cult personnel making dedications to a deity on Lesbos in the 13th century BCE.

   Against this background we have rapidly increasing evidence of cultural homogeneity in the Aegeo-Anatolian region, an areal koine from the Late Bronze Age well into the first millennium BCE. This includes choruses of women and girls, from the Zintuhis of the Hittite period down to the Lydian Maidens at Epheus and others, including the Delian Maidens.

   It requires no stretch of the imagination to see Anatolian practices established on Delos, whether this was begun in the second millennium by Anatolian speakers or by Greeks importing Anatolian practices or, perhaps more likely, by Anatolian Greeks importing their blended Aegeo-Anatolian culture in the early first millennium.

   Many modern parallels of multilingualism in ritual contexts may be adduced; the Sung Eucharist of the Church of England, to cite just one example, includes hymns in English, Latin, and Greek. Religious practice, a universally conservative cultural domain, is perhaps particularly open to retaining the music and song of its cherished heritage.

Session/Panel Title

The Performance of Greek Poetry

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy