Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry Part III: Combinations of competition in athletics and competition in the performance of epic – Essay 8

2022.12.12 | By Gregory Nagy

Essay 8. Combinations of competition in athletics and competition in the performance of epic

8§0. Ever since Essay 1, we have considered the meaning of the word agōn as ‘competition’ in contexts of athletics. And, ever since Essay 2, we have considered the same meaning of this word in contexts of warfare. But now we will also consider the same meaning of agōn in contexts of performing poetry at festivals. A shining example, as we will see in what follows, is the festival of the Great Panathenaia. At this festival, which was the grandest of all the festivals of Athens, there were competitions in poetic performance—known as agōnes—that were coordinated with athletic competitions that also took place at the same grand festival.

8§1. In my book Pindar’s Homer (Nagy 1990a:137 with n7 at 5§2 and 386 with n25 at 13§11), I noted a direct reference in Homeric Hymn 6.19–20, by way of this word agōn, to the competitive performances of poetry. In the same context, I also noted three grammatical subjects of the verb agōnizesthai ‘compete, engage in an agōn’ in the diction of Herodotus: athletes (as at 2.160.3-4), warriors (as at 1.76.4), and rhapsōidoi ‘rhapsodes’ (5.67.1). Here for the first time in this book, we have encountered the word rhapsōidoi ‘rhapsodes’, which refers to professional performers of poetry, especially of epic poetry. I will have more to say presently about rhapsodes, but for now I will concentrate on poetry in general, including all forms of songmaking—even were dance is a component of song. And I will concentrate on contexts of agōn linked with athletes and with performers of any kind of poetry or song, leaving aside for now contexts linked with warfare.

8§2. I find a striking example of such coordination in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (146-155), which is a passage describing the Delia, a seasonally recurring festival of Ionians who come from all over the Ionian world to gather together on the island of Delos. I highlight the fact that the occasion of this Delian festival is described as an agōn ‘competition’ (149). The competitive events at this festival include athletics—boxing is the example that is highlighted—as well as singing and dancing (149). In this case, the poetry that underlies the dancing as part of the singing is overtly coordinated with athletics. There is a comparable occasion described in the Hesiodic Works and Days (654-659), where the figure of Hesiod himself claims to have won a victory in a competition for aethla ‘prizes’ (454, 456); the form of this competition is said to be a humnos ‘song’, whereas the other forms of competition on this occasion appear to be athletic events (Roller 1981b:1-6).

8§3. Thucydides (3.104.2-6) quotes and analyzes the passage in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (146-150) that describes the seasonally recurring festival of the Delia. In his analysis, he refers to this festival as an agōn ‘competition’ that combines athletic and ‘musical’ events: ἀγὼν ἐποιεῖτο αὐτόθι καὶ γυμνικὸς καὶ μουσικός, χορούς τε ἀνῆγον αἱ πόλεις ‘a competition [agōn] was held there [= at Delos] that was both athletic [gumnikos] and musical [mousikos]; also, the cities brought ensembles-of-singers/dancers [khoroi]’ (3.104.3). Having said this, Thucydides now shows what he means where he says that ‘musical’ competitions took place along with athletic competitions at the seasonally recurring festival of the Delia: he goes on to say that the ‘musical’ competitions involved the ‘art of the Muses [mousikē]’ (3.104.5), and he makes it clear that he has in mind primarily the art of Homer, that is, the art of performing, by way of competing rhapsodes, the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey as well as the Homeric Hymns (Nagy 2010|2009:15-18).

8§4. During the fifth and the fourth centuries BCE, the most important context for  competitions in performing the poetry of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey was the seasonally recurring festival of the Great Panathenaia in Athens, featuring a grand agōn ‘competition’ in mousikē tekhnē, ‘the art of the Muses’ (Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 60.1). At the Great Panathenaia, there were separate sets of competitions in performing separate kinds of mousikē, and those who competed with each other in performing the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey were called rhapsōidoi ‘rhapsodes’ (Plato Ion 530a-b, 533b-c; Isocrates Panegyricus 159; and Plutarch Life of Pericles 13.9-11). It can be argued that these rhapsodic competitions in performing Homeric poetry at the festival of the Great Panathenaia in Athens stemmed ultimately from earlier performance traditions that evolved at the festival of the Panionia as celebrated in the late eighth and early seventh centuries BCE at the Panionion of the Ionian Dodecapolis in Asia Minor (Nagy 2010|2009:22, following Frame 2009:551-620).

8§5. As we consider further the coordination of competitions in athletics and in the performance of song or poetry—especially of epic poetry by rhapsodes, I find it instructive to take a second look at the epic narrative of Odyssey 8 about the athletic competitions or aethloi (100) held in the public gathering space of the Phaeacians, where the word agōn applies to the setting of the competitions (259). As we saw earlier, the athletic events are the footrace (120-125), followed by wrestling (126-127), jumping (128), discus throwing (129), and, finally, boxing (130). But the events are not only athletic: as I emphasized in the book Homer the Preclassic (Nagy 2010|2009:91), there is also dancing together with, I think, singing (370-380), and the context of performance is described as an agōn ‘competition’ (380). In the extended narrative of Odyssey 8, the same word agōn occurs at an earlier point as well, where it refers to the setting for the singing of the court poet Demodokos when he performs his second song (259, 260). Still earlier, there are further occurrences of agōn with reference to the athletic competition (200, 238). And, in general, as I argue in the book Homer the Preclassic (Nagy 2010|2009 Chapter 4), the performances of the first and the third songs of Demodokos can aptly be described as old-fashioned forms of competitive rhapsodic performance at festivals.

8§6. So by now we have seen that the one-time athletic events as described in the epics of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey were transformed into seasonally recurring events by virtue of being retold year after year at the seasonally recurring rhapsodic competitions that were held at festivals like the Great Panathenaia in Athens.

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