Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Reasoning: The Iconography of Greek Theater #5, Barbara Kowalzig

Barbara Kowalzig is a historian and anthropologist who is currently a visiting associate professor at NYU. She appears to work primarily on Greek religion and its relationship to music and ritual. Kowalzig received her PhD from St. John's College, Oxford, and speaks with a fabulous Oxford accent that drifts easily between English and French. She is quite a striking woman of average height with a mane of curly flaxen hair and this strange combination of stance and gesture that makes her seem at once both extremely persuasive and rather meek. Her general air is charming, but with a surprising frankness and without any trace whatsoever of the superficiality that often accompanies charm. She comes off as having a brilliance that is neither easy nor labored but clearly demonstrates an engaged thought process working behind it.

Her talk focuses on the imagery of chorality (i.e. choruses and chorus dancing) on archaic and classical Greek vases. Specifically, she discusses the interaction between the dolphins, choruses, and hoplites. Through these images, she illustrates the relationship between the development of the chorus and chorus rituals and the evolution of Greek political institutions.

Generally, classicists and historians consider theater to be a specifically and uniquely Athenian institution. However, evidence highlighted at this conference demonstrates that theater, although it might have started in Athens, began to spread out through magna Graeca. Kowalzig expands the importance of theater and specifically chorality as part of a Hellenic rather than simply an Athenian identity.

Barbara explains that the social transformation in the 7th and 6th century coincided with a transformation and upsurge in the importance of chorality. Consequently, chorality becomes a part of the Hellenic identity and a connective medium through the expanse of the Greek world. Choral dancing existed throughout Indoeuropean and other cultures in the Mediteranean including in Mycenean, Cypriot, Hittite, Egyptian civilizations, as well as other eastern cultures. She explains that the Greeks considered there to be something unique about choruses, which is probably why they figure so heavily into treatises of the political imaginary such as Plato's Laws.

In her talk, Kowalzig employs a number of different surviving cultural instances to demonstrate the importance of chorality and its ties to politics and culture. The first image is the red figure pyskter below from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Barbara explains that this image comes at the end of a long process of the development of images, language, and chorality.

This picture comes from The Met's website
One of the stories that she uses demonstrates the link between language, images, and chorality is the Story of Arion from Herodotus' Histories. In the story, merchants turn pirates who threaten Arion, a wealthy man who needed passage back to Tarentum, and tell him either he can jump over the side of the ship (leaving his money behind) or they will kill him. Arion asks if he can sing before he jumps over the side. As he sings, dolphins gather around the ship and he jumps on the back of one of them and rides to safety. He later named the song he composed and sang the dithyramb, and taught it at Corinth (Herodotus 1.23-24). She explained that this story took the shape of a traditional "Dionysiac resistance myth" because a Dionysian practice is first rejected and then accepted. it also demonstrates the traditional understanding of the seas where merchants become pirates. The dolphin is also linked to Dionysus as far back as the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, where sailors leap overboard into the sea and become dolphins. Kowalzig explains that the riding on dolphins and the transformation into dolphins is turning into a dancing chorus in the cultural imaginary of dithyramb.

Many other vases show the morphing of people and sailors into dolphins or have patterns of humans with equivalent patterns of dolphins on opposite sides of the vase. This evokes chorality and the idea of dithyramb. In the picture above, as in many of the other vases, the dolphin-riders or dolphin-men are armed, using imagery to invoke civic duty and the hoplite phalanx. This is because, as Barbara Kowalzig argues, the quintessential citizen not only in Athens but in Greece, includes both the civic duty of war and that of dancing and Dionysian celebration. Choruses were made up, so far as can be discerned, of ephebes, men right on the brink of military age. Plato's Laws effectively demonstrates this though the emphasis laid on the dual nature of education: the physical military training and the musical chorus training.
The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories The Laws (Penguin Classics eBook)
Kowalzig argues that the transition from sailor to dolphin corresponds to the transition from pirate to hoplite whereas in other traditions pirates/sailors became satyrs on shore. She also emphasizes that this is a Hellenic rather than Athenian piece of imagery.

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