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Male Lament and the Symposium

Gregory Jones

Independent Scholar

In ancient Greek literature, as in life, lamentation was not an exclusively female activity.  Men and women were, however, expected to mourn differently and their respective modes of lament were gendered in substantive ways (Suter 2008; 2009).  Scholars have long recognized the significance of elegy as a vehicle for men’s lament, especially in relation to the symposium; like professional thrênoi, threnodic elegy prioritized consolation for the living and praise of the dead, often by way of sympotic imagery (Nagy 1999; 2010; Derderian 2001; Alexiou 2002).  At the same time, literary representations of lament in sympotic contexts (e.g. Odyssey 4. 76-234, Archilochus fr. 13, etc.) are commonly read as negative examples of unusual or unwanted behavior at odds with male conviviality (e.g. Steiner 2012).  

This paper examines the symposium as a traditional, if sometimes contested, locus of male lament and seeks to demonstrate a continuity of form and function in different threnodic performances generated and uniquely shaped by symposia, where, after all, poetry thematizing death was routinely performed (Murray 1988).  The evidence presented indicates that men drinking together commonly performed various types of lament, usually involving other men and the wider community.

I begin with a brief discussion of Homer’s representation of men’s gooi in Odyssey 4 arguing that these lamentations are treated as a normal activity within the banqueting context.  Menelaus himself says that he often enjoys (τέρπομαι) lamenting in his halls and kindles desire for mourning among his guests, who, like their host, exhibit masculine restraint and stop themselves from overindulging in lament (100-3, 183-212; cf. Cairns 2009). Peisistratus’s counterclaim that he does not take pleasure in lamentation after dinner (though he approves of it and praises his dead brother with a lament of his own) and Helen’s administration of a pharmakon to ease their grief (193-202, 219-34) highlight the tensions between pleasure and pain inherent in sympotic male lament.  I suggest that we reconsider several elegiac works that echo the dynamics of this episode, including the song represented by Archilochus fr. 9, which was likely performed at a symposium and appears to have been explicitly threnodic; in citing it Plutarch (De aud. poet. 6.23b) plainly says the poet is lamenting (θρηνῶν) his brother-in-law, while the fragment itself concerns funeral rites.  Archilochus frr. 13 (thought to be a self-contained song) and 11, which call for an end to grief in favor of cheer, may therefore be read as commentaries on self-moderated “real lament” performed by men at symposia as exemplified by fr. 9 and Odyssey 4 (cf. Nagy 2010).  

At Theognis 825-30 we again find a juxtaposition of sympotic pleasure and grief, but in this case the singer commands his fellow symposiasts to stop reveling and start lamenting (“bewail the land that is being destroyed,” πένθει δ᾽ εὐώδη χῶρον ἀπολλύμενον). The kind of performance invoked here may be described as a city lament performed over wine, for which there is direct evidence in the form of a skolion (PMG 907) that laments the destruction of the Alcmaeonid fort at Leipsydrion (“aiai! Leipsydrion, betrayer of comrades…”) and praises the dead in an egalitarian manner comparable to that of the epitaphios logos.  Other skolia could be classified as laments, including some versions of the Harmodios song (PMG 894, 896), which offer consolatory praise of the dead and echo ritual cries of lamentation through repetition of the ai diphthong (see Nagy 2010; Jones 2014).   Theopompus’s (fr. 65) description of symposiasts “reclining softly upon couches singing in lament (οἰμώζοντες) the Telamon song to one another” also suggests that such skolia were indeed threnodic and were sung antiphonally in the ancient style of ritual lament.  Both sets of skolia were likely tied to Athenian state cults and ritual laments performed in honor of Ajax and the Tyrannicides.  Finally, I briefly suggest that sympotic spaces steeped in Dionysos, who was no stranger to death and heightened emotion, were naturally conducive to the performance of lament.  

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