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Whirling in Their Midst: Choral Intonations in the Iliad

Amy N Hendricks

University of Wisconsin-Madison

This paper focuses on representations of singing or dancing groups in Homer’s Iliad and argues that, even when the term χορός is not present, these groups can still be interpreted as “choral.” Recent works by Gagné and Hopman (2013) and Budelmann and MacIntosh (2013) highlight the importance of “chorality” and its numerous applications to the study of ancient Greek poetry. Building on several treatments of choral poetry and its performative significance (Calame 1977; Herington 1985; Nagy 1990; Stehle 1997), new approaches to the broader sociocultural role of the chorus and its complex symbolic range have enabled a deeper understanding of chorality. Carruesco (2016) defines chorality as a “symbolic construction . . . and a cultural paradigm which informed different fields of the community’s experience” (69), inviting further consideration of the way this concept might have operated separate from the performance of choral poetry itself. Scholars have nonetheless largely overlooked the representation of choral poetics within non-choral poetry, particularly early epic. By recognizing these representations of choral modalities as part of a developing literary motif, I argue that Homeric epic provides an early articulation of the relationship between literary analogue and cultural practice and further demonstrates the communal importance of the chorus.

Although the term χορός is infrequent in the Iliad, choral groups appear in a variety of contexts. Commentary on the chorus in the Iliad (Edwards 1991; Webster 1970; cf. Tsagalis 2008) has tended to focus on the three choral scenes contained in the “Shield of Achilles” (18.491-496; 18.567-572; 18.590-606), even though only the last of these contains the word χορός and it is used to indicate a physical space, not a group in performance. Building on these discussions, I demonstrate that even on the Shield, choruses are not consistently associated with a specific verbal signifier. The scenes on the Shield suggest that when a particular group consisting of individuals of the same age and/or sex participates in dancing and/or singing as a collective, these features signify chorality for the audience. While the choral scenes on the Shield are all associated with a sense of celebration and even reproduction, it is also possible to read the Iliad’s three major scenes of lament (the Nereids for Patroclus/Achilles, 18.35-69; the Achaeans for Patroclus, 18.316-24; Andromache/Hecuba/Helen for Hector, 24.718-24) as choral. The lament of the Nereids, for example, is not described as χορός, but several features convey this to the audience: the collective status suggested by their sisterhood and patronymic (Νηρηΐδες, 18.38; Murnaghan 2006), the gestures and movements performed in unison (αἳ δ᾽ ἅμα πᾶσαι / στήθεα πεπλήγοντο, 18.50-51), the prominent (if prototypical) choregos figure of Thetis, and the call and response structure (ἐξῆρχε γόοιο, 18.51; Alexiou 2002). Through the inclusion of these scenes, it becomes possible to trace a stronger choral motif in the Iliad, which illustrates its importance both within and outside of the text and its ability to resonate with the audience in a variety of contexts.

By engaging with the chorus both as a visual object in performance (especially through the descriptions on the Shield) and as a simple point of cultural reference (as at 3.392-4, 15.506-508, and 16.179-186), the poet draws on the rich symbolic significance of a communicative medium familiar to the audience from their own experiences as viewers of and participants in choral performance. Through a multi-level reading of the chorus as both a literary symbol and a significant social practice outside the text, I argue that the poet is at one time able to utilize the chorus as a simple idea and as a complex performative interaction in conversation with an audience personally familiar with the full visual and social potentials of choral performance.

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