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2.3: Symbolic ‘Lived Spaces’ in Ancient Greek Lyric and the Heterotopia of the Symposium

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    Jo Heirman

    Introduction This paper looks at the presentation of space in ancient Greek lyric poetry of the seventh through the fifth century BCE and its ideological function in the cultural-historical context. This poetry, by authors including Sappho, Solon and Pindar, comes after the Homeric epics about Troy and Odysseus (eighth century BCE) and precedes the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (fifth century BCE). The first part of this paper, based on theories of ‘lived space’, will argue that space is foremost symbolically presented in the lyric poems. The second part will then explain the symbolism of space by embedding the poems in the cultural-historical performance context of the symposium, which will be defined in terms of Foucault’s heterotopia [1].

    The Symbolic Presentation of ‘Lived Space’ in Ancient Greek Lyric

    In literary theory, the role of space has often been confined to that of narrative setting, of a scenic backdrop against which the narrated events take place [2]. Setting is, of course, a basic role of space that can also be observed in ancient Greek lyric poetry, especially in mythological narratives of poems by the lyric poets Pindar and Bacchylides of the fifth century BCE. In these mythological narratives space often serves as the background setting against which the heroic deeds of the mythological heroes are recounted. These deeds in turn serve to glorify the addressee of their praising odes, that is to say the victor at an athletic contest. Examples include the city or plain of Troy as setting in stories related to the Trojan saga and the sea as setting in mythological stories about Theseus or the Argonauts [3]. However, space does not function only as setting in ancient lyric poems, but is above all symbolic, as this paper seeks to set out.

    To discuss the symbolism of space in ancient Greek lyric I will draw on theories of ‘lived space’, in particular those by Herman Meyer (1975), Bruno Hillebrand (1971) and Gerard Hoffmann (1978) [4], which address the question how literary space is experienced and valued by the narrator or a character. In ancient Greek lyric, two types of space, in particular, are symbolically presented as ‘lived spaces’: the sea and the countryside.

    The Sea as Space of Danger and Fear

    The sea is above all a symbol of danger.  This is illustrated by a fragment (105) of Archilochus, a poet from the seventh century BCE [5]:



    Look, Glaucus! Waves are already disturbing the deep sea, and a cloud stands straight round about the heights of Gyrae, a sign of a storm. From the unexpected arises fear. (text and translation from Gerber 1999)

    Through the imperative ‘Look!’ the speaker immediately urges a man called Glaucus to draw attention to the stormy sea scene. By bringing forth an image of the sea before an imminent storm the speaker evokes an atmosphere of impending danger. That the storm seems to be perceived from the ship rather than the coast is suggested by the contrast between the deep sea beneath and the clouds round over the heights of Gyrae above. The location reminds of the mythological story of Ajax, who was crushed by rocks from the heights of Gyrae on his return to Greece following the Trojan War, as told in the Odyssey (4.500-511) [6]. That a storm arises precisely around these heights strengthens its danger and explains why the speaker says that it causes fear. The connection between danger and fear makes relevant the theories of ‘lived space’: through its associations with danger the sea turns into a ‘lived space’, as it correlates with the emotions of fear by the human subjects at sea.

    In some ancient lyric poems, a ship in a storm at sea is metaphorical for a particular group or a whole city troubled because of certain socio-political upheavals. A good example is a poem by Theognis of the fifth century BCE (lines 667-682), famous for his homoerotic and aristocratic-political poetry:



    If I had wealth, Simonides, such as I once had, I would not feel distressed in the company of the noble. But now I am aware that it passes me by, and I am voiceless because of need, although I may know still better than many that we are now being carried along with white sails lowered beyond the Melian sea through the dark night, and they refuse to bail, but the sea is washing over both sides. In very truth, anyone has much difficulty saving oneself, because they are doing such things: they have deposed the noble helmsman who skillfully kept watch; they seize possessions by force, and discipline is lost, no longer is there an equal distribution in the common interest; the merchants rule, and the base are above the noble. I am afraid that perhaps a wave will swallow the ship. Let these be my riddling words with hidden meaning for the noble; but even a base man, if he is wise, can recognise (their meaning). (text and translation from Gerber 1999)

    The metaphorical nature of the image of the ship is made manifest in the final two lines, where the poem is said to be a riddle for the ‘noble’, the aristocrats to whom the speaker addresses his poems [7]. The socio-political overtones of the metaphor are brought to the foreground in the second part of the metaphor, i.e. the situation on board ship (lines 675- 679). The speaker, who is in the company of his fellow aristocrats (see line 668), is distressed because his companions have made an end to the orderly rule of the helmsman, who was probably some sort of tyrant [8]: this has provoked chaos and injustice on the ship, that is to say in the city, and has enabled the merchants, presumably the nouveaux riches, to gain power. The image of a ship in a storm in the first part of the metaphor (lines 671- 674) is then the result of the shift in power narrated in the second part. This reversed order reveals the socio-political content gradually and emphasises the immediate danger of the situation. A sense of danger is evoked by the particular way the storm is perceived by the speaker at the moment it takes place. Firstly, in lines 671-672 an image is evoked of sailors as passive victims of a storm, lacking control over their ship. The danger is reinforced by the time (the dark night makes it impossible for the sailors to view what is happening) and the place (out of the Melian Sea, around the treacherous Cape Malea with its high cliffs and powerful storms) [9]. Secondly, in lines 673-675 an image of bilge-water in the ship points to the mortal danger of a sinking ship. This is particularly poignant because it results from the sailors’ unwillingness to bail it out, who represent the speaker’s aristocratic companions, to whom the poem is directed. Finally, in line 680 another reference is made to the imminent risk of sinking with a description of a wave that is about to swallow the ship. At this point, the dangerous sea turns into a ‘lived space’, as it is connected to the emotions of fear the speaker experiences. These are, however, not shared by his companions: distancing himself from the other aristocrats, the speaker criticizes their behaviour and hopes that the metaphor he offers them will lead them to understand the calamity of the situation for which they are held responsible.

    The Countryside as Erotic Space

    The countryside has a symbolic-erotic value in ancient Greek lyric. Meadows and gardens have erotic associations, for instance in the literary motif of the ‘meadow of love’, which usually involves a young and innocent virgin being seduced by a man, and the locus amoenus, where a meadow or garden sometimes alongside with water, trees and shade forms the erotic place par excellence [10]. Fields, too, have erotic associations, as is clear from a fragmentary poem by Sappho (fragment 96), a poetess of the sixth century BCE, famous for her homo-erotic poetry for a circle of girls:



    Sardis…often turning her thoughts in this direction…(she honoured) you as being like a goddess for all to see, and she took most delight in your song. Now she stands out among the Lydian women like the rosy-fingered moon after sunset, surpassing all stars; and its light spreads out over the salty sea and the flowery fields alike. The dew is shed in beauty, and roses bloom and tender chervil and flowery melilot. Often as she goes to and fro, when remembering gentle Atthis doubtless her tender heart is consumed by strong desire… [11] (text and translation from Campbell 1982)

    In this poem Sappho speaks to a girl called Atthis about a woman who has moved away from their circle to Lydia, but who deeply misses Atthis. A simile in which the beauty of the Lydian woman is compared with the brightness of the moon turns into a description of fields covered with dew and rich in flowers. 

    That these fields have erotic associations is suggested by the reference to dew and flowers. In Sappho’s poetry, flowers are associated with female desire. This applies especially to roses because they are connected to the goddess of love Aphrodite. An example is Sappho 94, in which the speaker reminds a girl of the good times they spent together, putting garlands of flowers, roses included, around their necks and satisfying their desire. The sweet, seductive smell of the melilot, a subspecies of the lotus, might underscore the erotic associations the lotus has in early Greek poetry. These symbolic overtones are suggested by a scene in Homer’s Iliad (14.348) in which lotus and other flowers spring up as a result of the erotic encounter between Zeus and Hera. Chervil is described by the adjective ‘tender’, which elsewhere in Sappho’s poetry refers to (body parts of) women in an erotic atmosphere: in fragment 94 it describes a girl’s neck around which garlands are placed, while desire is satisfied; in 82 a girl called Gyrinno, who is compared to the more shapely Mnasidica; in 126 the bosom of a female companion. Besides the flowers, dew, too, is erotically charged [12]: in Hesiod fragment 26 the virginal daughters of Porthaon find themselves amid dew and flowers that reflect their latent sexuality; in Iliad 14 dew appears as a result of the erotic activities of Zeus and Hera; in some (badly preserved) fragments of Sappho (23, 71 and 73) dew is mentioned in connection with love and female beauty.

    The erotic symbolism of the flowers and dew indicate that the fields are presented as a place symbolic for the fulfilling of erotic desire, to the extent that the fields turn into a ‘lived space’, as they reflect female longing. The intriguing question is: whose desire? In the first place, it seems to be that of the Lydian woman for the girl Atthis, as the Lydian woman’s heart is said to be consumed by strong desire in the stanza that follows the description of the fields. However, it could also be that of Atthis for the Lydian woman: since Sappho is the speaker who addresses the girl and describes the woman in erotic terms, she might project erotic desire for the woman onto the addressee. In any case, a sense of pain is established by their separation because it is impossible to fulfill the desire. This sense of painfulness ultimately shows that the poem is based on a tension between proximity and intimacy on the one hand and separation and distance on the other, which is reinforced by the combination between second person and third person of Atthis [13]: while Atthis is consoled by the thought that the Lydian woman still remembers her and longs for her, at the same time an erotic union in the fields is impossible.

    Another poem which demonstrates that fields are ‘lived spaces’ reflecting the erotic desire of females is a fragment by Anacreon (346) of the sixth century BCE, in which the speaker addresses a girl called Herotime throughout [14]:



    …nor…but you have a timid heart as well, lovely-faced girl. And (your mother) thinks that she tends you (at home), keeping a firm hold on you. But you (long for?) the fields of hyacinth, where the Cyprian tethered her mares with yoke straps. And you darted down in the midst (of the throng?), so that many citizens find their hearts excited by passion; Herotime, public highway, public highway. (text and translation from Campbell 1988)

    From line 6 onwards the scene shifts from the indoor space of the house, in which the girl’s mother believes that she keeps a firm hold on her, to the outdoors space of the ‘fields of hyacinths’. The reference to the hyacinth flowers endows the fields with erotic associations, for in early Greek poetry hyacinths are linked with Aphrodite, probably because of their seductive colour and smell: in Cypria fragment 4, Aphrodite is clothed in perfumed garments of flowers, including hyacinths; in Iliad 14.348 hyacinths spring up together with other flowers due to the erotic encounter between Zeus and Hera; in Alcaeus 196b, Aphrodite is present with youths garlanded with hyacinth; in Sappho 194, girls are led into the bridal room together with Aphrodite, whose hair is bound with hyacinths. In Anacreon’s fragment, too, the hyacinths are connected with Aphrodite, who ‘tethered the mares with yoke straps’. In lyric and tragic poetry similar images of taming and yoking mares are used as metaphors for the loss of virginity of girls: in another poem by Anacreon (417), the wish of a charioteer to put the bit on a filly, that is to say to tame her, represents the desire of the male speaker to deflower the girl; in Euripides’ Hippolytus, 546-554 Aphrodite ‘yokes’ a girl called Iole, who was previously an ‘unyoked filly’, before her marriage with Herakles. In Anacreon 346, the image of tethering mares with yoke straps by Aphrodite seems to be metaphorical for the girls’ loss of virginity [15] and might turn the hyacinth fields into a ‘lived space’, rendering it as as an imaginary space for Herotime’s own desire of defloration; this would be further underscored if the verb lost in line 6b expressed her longing for the fields. In this way, the outdoors scene of the fields is paralleled to that in the city in the following stanza (lines 10-14), which conveys the outer, erotic effect of the girl on the citizens, many of whom are excited by passion as she darts in their midst. This leads the speaker to hyperbolically mock the girl by the use of the double vocative ‘public highway’ in juxtaposition to her lofty first name Hero-time (‘honoured by the hero’ or ‘honour of the hero’), as it renders an image of a whore [16].

    The Ideological Functions of ‘Lived Space’ and the Heterotopia of the Symposium

    In the second part of my paper I wish to explain why space is most often presented as symbolic ‘lived space’ in ancient Greek lyric poetry, that is to say as a space of danger (sea) or an erotic space (countryside). The explanation I wish to suggest resides in the cultural-historical performance context of the lyric poems, which has received considerable attention in lyric scholarship since the past few decades [17].

    Unlike modern lyric poetry, which is silently read, ancient Greek lyric poems were orally performed for various audiences of listeners and in different modes, from recitation to song with music and dance. The poems discussed in this paper were most likely performed in the symposium [18], an intimate and convivial after-dinner drinking party involving discussions, performances of lyric poetry, verbal and physical games and erotic activities [19]. To better understand the position of the symposium in ancient Greek society, we may consider it an ‘other space’ or heterotopia as defined by Michel Foucault in his famous essay ‘Of Other Spaces’, as it was a real space that formed part of society but was at the same time distinct from it, with its own norms of entertainment and its own rituals and drinking codes that were meant to reinforce the cohesion of the social group. In other words, the symposium constituted a micro-universe with its own norms of entertainment and its own rituals and drinking codes that were meant to reinforce the cohesion of the social group [20].

    Considering the symposium a heterotopia may also give us a better understanding of the reason why symbolic ‘lived spaces’ are evoked in ancient lyric poems performed at symposia. As Foucault states, a heterotopia is particularly able to create other spaces (the so-called ‘third principle’): applied to the symposium, this would mean that the drinking group disengages from the physical location of performance and imagines other worlds, created by the performance of lyric poetry and stimulated by the consumption of wine. This might explain why worlds of danger at sea and of love in the countryside are evoked in ancient lyric poems performed in the symposium. To begin with the sea, it is noteworthy that in ancient Greek literature, including lyric poetry, an image of a ship at sea was sometimes metaphorical for the sympotic group (see, e.g., Pindar fragment 124a and Dionysius Chalcus fragment 5). As Sean Corner (2010) argues, the metaphor served to reinforce the internal cohesion of the group, whose gathering and drinking together is represented as a collective ‘sea journey’ [21]. Sometimes the metaphor is playful, namely when the drunkenness of the sympotic group is represented as a shipwreck (see Choerilus fragment 9 and the story of Timaeus 566F149, told in Athenaeus 2.37b-d). This also applies to archaic Greek vase paintings that connect sympotic drinking with sailing at sea. For instance, the sixth-century Exekias vase (Munich 2044) depicts Dionysus reclining on board ship as if on a couch at the symposium, with dolphins beneath him and grape-vines around the ship’s mast above him, and a sixth-century Attic vase (Boston 03.783) shows the kottabos game being played on a ship [22]. In other cases, the metaphor of the sympotic group as a ship at sea is politically charged, as is clear from its use in sympotic lyric poems of Theognis (lines 667-682, discussed above) and Alcaeus (fragments 6 and 208). Here the image of a ship in a storm at sea stands for the unity of the aristocratic, sympotic group being threatened by socio-political upheavals such as the rise of tyrants. The metaphor may shed light on the frequent evocation of danger at sea in sympotic lyric poetry: by imagining itself as a group of sailors at sea, facing danger on their journey, the sympotic group attempts to strengthen its internal cohesion in opposition to external forces that threaten it [23].

    The erotic world in the countryside can also be explained by the heterotopic performance context of the symposium. In this respect, we need to bring in Foucault’s opening definition of a heterotopia as a space in which ‘all the other real sites that can be found within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted’ (1984: 24). To connect this definition with the symposium, we need to take into account that the symposium was an erotic space: symposiasts were involved in all sorts of erotic activities and erotic games, such as the kottabos, i.e. the flinging of wine lees at targets while calling the name of the beloved and receiving a kiss of the beloved when successful [24]. Thus, the symposium had its own erotic mores which revealed a high degree of sexual permissiveness. This might explain why, as Eva Stehle (1997: 250-257) observed, lyric poetry performed in symposia often depicts erotic activities other than those related to marriage or the begetting of children, i.e. beyond the communal interests of the polis (city-community): while the communal interests of the city are marriage and procreation, the symposium creates a space where erotic actions which go against the normative demands of the city-community are envisaged. If we relate this to my observation that these erotic situations are envisaged in the countryside, we may say that erotic activities beyond the communal interests are projected on a space outside the polis, i.e. on fields, meadows, and gardens.


    In this paper, I looked at the presentation of space in ancient Greek lyric poetry. I showed that space is above all symbolically presented, based on literary theories of ‘lived space’. While the sea is a symbol of danger, reflecting the fear of the human subjects at sea, the countryside is an erotic symbol, often mirroring someone’s desire. In the next step, I tried to explain the symbolism of space by drawing a connection with the performance context of the poems, i.e. the symposium. Defining the symposium in terms of Foucault’s heterotopia, I argued that the world of danger at sea could serve to reinforce the cohesion of the sympotic group, while the erotic world in the countryside could reflect the erotic fantasies of the sympotic group, which went beyond the norms of the city.


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    1. This paper is a modified version of that published in Comparative Literature and Culture Web (Heirman 2012), which also focuses on space in ancient Greek lyric in relation to the heterotopia of the symposium, but discusses other poems and does not make use of theories of ‘lived space’. I would like to thank Jacqueline Klooster, Irene de Jong and the anonymous reviewers for valuable comments on the content of this paper.

    2. E.g. Chatman (1978: 138-139); Bal (1997: 133-141); Ronen (1986); Buchholz-Jahn (2005).

    3. See, for instance, Bacchylides 13 (Trojan War), Bacchylides 17 (Theseus), Pindar’s Pythian 4 (Argonauts). All these poems are discussed in Heirman (2012).

    4. See also the introduction to this volume.

    5. The poem has been cited by Heraclitus (Homeric Allegories 5.2, first century AD) as an allegory for war, but nothing in the fragment we possess refers to war. It could be that there was a sequel to the fragment that dealt with war, but this is mere conjecture.

    6. See Clay (1986).

    7. For metaphor as riddle see Aristotle’s Rhetorica 1405b4-5 (and 1458a26).

    8. I owe this interpretation to André Lardinois. It goes counter to the common opinion (e.g. Van Groningen 1966: ad loc.) that considers the helmsman to represent the aristocrats. The problems with this opinion are that the aristocrats are already represented by the ‘noble men’ who accompany the speaker on board ship and that is implausible that one helmsman would represent a group of aristocrats.

    9. See Odyssey 3.286-90; 4.514-8; 9.79-81; 19.186-7.

    10. For the meadow of love see Anacreon 417 and Archilochus’ Cologne Epode (the motif is discussed in detail in Motte (1971: 38-48 and 208-213), Calame (1999: 165-74)). For the locus amoenus, see Ibycus 286, Sappho 2 and Theognis 1249-52 (discussed in Heirman [forthcoming]). For the motif in general see Schönbeck (1962) and Hass (1998).

    11. The fragment continues for another ten lines, but these scattered remains are hardly legible.

    12. See Boedeker (1994: 54-60).

    13. Cf. Sappho 94, with the discussion in Greene (1994: 44-50).

    14. Cf. e.g. Serrao (1968: 43-51) and Rosenmeyer (2003: 173-177). Some scholars (e.g. Campbell 1988: ad loc.) believe that the speaker addresses a boy in line 3 and that the address to Herotime in line 13 marks the beginning of a new poem. This belief has been rejected because the noun in line 3 does not necessarily refer to a boy. In epic poetry (e.g. Iliad 1.20 and 443; 3.175) and archaic lyric poetry (e.g. Anacreon 348.2, of Artemis; Sappho 132.1, of Cleïs) the noun refers to a girl, and the only other time the noun is combined with the epithet ‘lovely-faced’ is in reference to a girl (Philoxenus 8, of Galatea).

    15. Most scholars, e.g. Serrao (1968: 43) and Calame (1999: 165) believe that lines 8-9 are about horses ranging free, conveying a sense of promiscuity. However, this does not explain the tethering of the horse.

    16. The image of the whore seems to contradict the statement at the beginning of the fragment that the girl has a timid heart. Two suggestions have been put forward to solve this problem: one holds that the fragment presents a sequence of events in the life of Herotime in which she changes from timid girl to public whore (Serrao 1968: 43-51; Rosenmeyer 2003: 173- 177), and the other that two girls, a timid girl (tentatively called Smerdeis, a girl mentioned in Anacreon 366) and a whore (Gentili 1958: 181 and 193-194), are set in opposition to each other. The former is unlikely in light of the use of present tenses at the beginning and end of the fragment, and the latter because there is no clear indication of an addressee shift. In my view, the contradiction can only be solved if we consider the beginning ironic in light of what follows and the end hyperbolic.

    17. For the performative turn cf. Budelmann (2009: 15); for performance of ancient Greek lyric see especially Gentili (1988); Herington (1985); Stehle (1997).

    18. Sappho’s poetry was probably performed in a female variant of the predominantly male symposium: see e.g. Stigers (1981) and Stehle (1997: 262-318). The latter refutes the hypothesis of Lardinois (1994) and (1996) that Sappho’s erotic poetry was performed for a larger audience than that of her circle.

    19. The symposium in ancient Greece has been amply discussed (on the basis of ancient Greek lyric poetry and vase paintings); among the most important contributions are the papers collected in Vetta (1983) and in Murray (1990).

    20. For the symposium as a micro-universe see, for instance, Murray (1990) (introduction) and Pellizer (1990).

    21. Slater (1976) and Davies (1978), on the other hand, interpret the image in terms of an escape of the sympotic group from everyday life.

    22. On the vase paintings see especially Lissarrague (1987: 104-118).

    23. Lesky (1947: 188-214) suggested that the danger of the sea reflects the poets’ fear that they or their relatives would suffer misfortune at sea because many of them were islanders (e.g., Archilochus of Paros, Semonides of Amorgos, Alcaeus of Lesbos). However, lyric poems do not necessarily or directly render the poet’s own emotions or thoughts. Moreover, his hypothesis is undermined by the remarkable progress in technological innovations in shipping in archaic Greece, as faster and safer ships were produced which enabled Greeks to sail across the Mediterranean Sea and build up commercial contacts with East and West (Morris 2000: 259).

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