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The Chorus Leader in Early Hexameter Poetry

Emmanuel Aprilakis

Rutgers University

            This paper examines references to choral performances in early hexameter poetry in order to offer an analysis of the figure of chorus leader. It endeavors to highlight the prominence of this figure in what we can reconstruct of early choral performance. Ultimately, this analysis has serious implications for our understanding of the performance form of archaic lyric and classical drama.  

            It has long been recognized that ancient Greece was a song-dance culture rooted in a tradition of choral performance (articulated by e.g. Herington 1985, Bacon 1994/5, Rutherford 2001). Although the earliest extant texts intended for choruses are the seventh-century partheneia of Alcman, it is no surprise that mentions of group song and dance abound in even earlier literature. Indeed, the hexameters of Homer, Hesiod, and the Homeric Hymns feature a plethora of references to choral activity, which has been thoroughly investigated by Nicholas Richardson (2011). His focus was not specifically on the leader of these groups, though many of the passages he cites testify to the significance of this position. Thus, this paper takes the chorus leader as its focal point and aims to demonstrate the inherence of this figure to the chorus as far back as the literary evidence stretches.  

            A variety of genres of group song appear in early hexameter poetry, including victory-song, lament, and wedding-song (for the performance context of paianes, see Rutherford 2001; threnoi/gooi, Alexiou 2002; partheneia, Calame 2001; hymnoi generally, Furley/Bremer 2001). Here is not the place to provide an exhaustive compilation of references to choral song and dance, but this paper does seek to show that across the body of poems under examination, each of the works attributed to Homer and Hesiod and an array of the Homeric Hymns, the profusion of mentions of choral activity are rife with language of leading. And this prevalence is not restricted only to a certain type of occasion, but is apparent across the different genres of group song here featured.  

            As it presents the dynamism of the chorus leader in early hexameter, this paper offers three categories of roles assigned to this figure: ‘direct leader,’ ‘accompanist leader,’ and ‘antiphonal leader.’ Remarkably, a scene in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo displays each of these three roles simultaneously as the gods exult on Olympus (182-206). The passage begins and ends with Apollo, unsurprisingly, as he inaugurates the festivities by playing a charming song on his lyre. Apollo, assuming the role of ‘accompanist leader,’ incites a group of divinities to dance—the Muses, Graces, Seasons, Harmonia, Hebe, and Aphrodite all dance holding hands. And this chorus is not lacking its own internal, or ‘direct leader,’ as Artemis is recognized as standing out among the group. Finally, Ares and Hermes are a bit further removed, identified as sporting among them, yet clearly separately, practically in responsion to the group as ‘antiphonal leaders.’ This extravagant passage is the exception, and most passages dealt with feature a singular leader. For instance, as the maidens play the ball-game, Nausicaa ἤρχετο μολπῆς and is compared to Artemis, herself just noted as an archetypal ‘direct leader’ (Hom. Od. 6.100-9). Hesiod also presents Apollo as the archetypal ‘accompanist leader,’ as he plays his lyre and the Muses ἐξῆρχον ἀοιδῆς (Hes. Sc. 201-6). For ‘antiphonal leaders,’ the Iliad furnishes a wealth of examples, with its threnoi kicked off by an intimate, to whom a group of attendants responds with cries—for example, Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen all ἐξῆρχε γόοιο for Hector, after which their companions respond, ἐπὶ δὲ στενάχοντο γυναῖκες (Hom. Il. 24.719-76).

            Where the archaic lyric of Alcman spotlights a χοραγός, and classical drama puts onstage a κορυφαῖος, early hexameter characterizes its chorus leader with the verb ἐξάρχω or a semantically related variant, which appears across the three categories presented. Still, the scenes discussed herein can shed light on our understanding of later choral performance, especially as they exhibit the deep-rootedness of these leaders to their choruses.

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