The purpose of this paper is, first, to argue that in the parodos of Euripides’ Phoenissae (ll. 202-60) the chorus is characterized as a chorus within the dramatic fiction; second, briefly to sketch the relevance of this characterization for their stance in the rest of the play.
The notion that the chorus of the Phoenissae and the odes it sings are unrelated to the plot goes back to antiquity (schol. Ar. Ach. 443 Wilson), and its role within the play has been the object of intense scrutiny in modern scholarship. Among other things, it has been remarked how the chorus’ songs constitute a continuous cycle on the mythical history of Thebes (Riemschneider) that bridges past and present from the foundation of the city to the time of the drama (Arthur); how the Phoenician maidens’ journey retraces Cadmus’ while they emphasize their kinship with Thebes (Nancy) and, through their very marginality, express their collective memory of Theban events (Gould), thus offering a more effective civic perspective (Foley 2003) and a broader viewpoint on the play’s events (Medda) than the other characters can have. The chorus’ envisaged status as a chorus in ll. 234-8 is noted by Foley 1985, but without examining the complexity of its characterization and its wider implications. Such examination, proceeding from a close reading of the parodos, is the main concern of this paper.
In the first strophic pair, the maidens describe themselves as an offering to Apollo at Delphi (ll. 202-7, 214f., 220-5), repeatedly emphasising their excellence and beauty (203, 214f., 223f.) and pointedly comparing themselves to statues (220f.). From the evidence of dedicatory inscriptions, where such discourse of attractiveness frequently refers to the objects whose gift the deity is invited to appreciate (Day 1994, 2010), I argue that these traits reinforce the chorus’ self-presentation as an offering. I then recall Depew’s remark (after Svenbro, Day 1994, Pulleyn) that both an emphasis on attractiveness and explicit or implicit (selfâ€‘)construction as an offering frequently occur in reference to ‘hymns’, songs that can be construed as a means of human-divine interaction functionally parallel to dedication and sacrifice. In order to offer further support to Depew’s conclusion and relate it to the Phoenissae I cite Pindar fr. *122.17-20 Snell-Maehler, where the offering of a (female) choral performance is depicted with language that overtly recalls a dedicatory epigram. Therefore I argue that that the established equation between choral performance and cult offering ostensibly underlies the first strophic pair, only to be confirmed by the chorus’ subsequent explicit projection as a Delphic χορÏŒς (ll. 234-8).
I further note that the chorus’ journey from Phoenicia to Thebes and Delphi closely recalls a theoria, that is, the ritual visitation of a place of worship retracing a mythologically significant route and often including a chorus (Rutherford, Kowalzig), one of whose preoccupations can be to express on the mythical level a link between sending community and receiving sanctuary (e.g. Pindar Pae. 5.35-48, Limenius CA p. 149 ll. 11-20). Thus, by way of conclusion I argue that reading the Phoenician maidens as a (quasiâ€‘)theoric chorus is instrumental to a fuller understanding of both their commitment to extended narrative in the stasima, after the fashion of late archaic choral lyric, and more importantly their involvement with the action: not quite the often-remarked distance or “estrangement” (Medda) from it, but engagement of an unusual (for tragedy) yet altogether profound sort, one which enriches the dramatic performance with a strong echo of the familiar traditions of cultic choral song-dance.