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“The Performance of Epic and the Practice
Gender Issues, and Theoretical and Methodological Approaches”
This exam is composed of five sections: 1) Genre in
The epic/lament polarity; 3) The performance of epic;
The practice of lament; and 5) Is epic derived from
1) Genre in folklore
Collecting, classifying, and analyzing are activities integral to the Western psyche. The first great practitioners in this tradition were Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers. They and their intellectual descendants developed categories, or genres, so that they could file in a systematic manner materials found in widely disparate environments (Bauman 1992).
The academic discipline of folklore has largely been based on developing genres of stories -- such as myths, legends, epics, and folktales -- and on collecting items which could be placed in these categories (Harris 1995). One problem with this approach was that the scholars took little or no note of the categorization systems of the cultures that produced the stories. The scholars often altered the stories in order to fit them into their preconceived genres (Briggs and Bauman 1992). As a result, the scholars tended to not notice many aspects of the stories, including the ways that they were used in their native environments.
Another limitation, or distortion, of this approach was that the scholars perceived the stories solely as objects, either as the written texts they themselves had helped to create, or as disembodied storylines.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, much of this changed. The performance-oriented folklorists, accompanied by like-minded sociologists, anthropologists, and linguists, called for close study of actual performances of stories: the “sociolinguistic moment” broadened the field of study, from “analytic category” (the “etic”), to also include “ethnic genre” (the “emic”) (Ben-Amos 1969); and from genre of story, to also include genre of performance (Paredes and Bauman 1972).
The new multidisciplinary field, the ethnography of speaking, proposed that one should survey the full range of a community’s speech communication resources; it was pointed out that each genre of performance needs to be viewed in relation to the others in the culture, as they complement each other (Hymes 1962, 1974a, 1974b). Attention was paid to types of situation, event, and gathering; and to the conventional behaviors of tellers and listeners in each case. In the words of one scholar, “the occasion is the genre” (Nagy 1999, p. 23). In the words of another, “Genres give names to traditional attitudes and strategies which may be utilized by the performer in his attempt to communicate with and affect the audience”; genres are “patterns of expression [and] expectation which both the artist and the audience carry into the aesthetic transaction” (Abrahams 1969, p. 104).
These process-oriented approaches have enabled scholars to discover many expressive activities that hitherto had gone unnoticed, especially those that occur in the contexts of everyday conversations, private or semi-private provider-client relationships, and female-centric activities not valued or permitted in the most visible public spheres.
It was found that a single story could be presented in a number of different genres of performance in a community, taking on very different meanings in each case. It was also found that the same story was often associated with one genre of performance in one community, and with a different genre in another community (Flueckiger 1996).
Whether in regard to genre of story or of performance, some
continue to engage in cross-cultural analysis. Such analysis is
with the danger of taking things out of context. The only defense
against this possible pitfall is to balance cross-cultural analysis
the study of individual cultures on their own terms, i.e., with
to individual cultural milieus and languages. One scholar alone
possibly have an intimate knowledge of many cultures, not to mention
the only answer is to work in teams of specialists, including native
2) The epic/lament polarity
As difficult as it is to meaningfully discuss one analytical category of performance in relation to the real world of one culture, or worse, cross-culturally, it is the very ambitious aim of this exam to compare and contrast two such analytical categories: epic and lament. In each case, I begin by presenting and discussing definitions of the activity, and then give examples of versions of the activity from various cultures. Throughout, analytical categories and ethnic genres are discussed, as are stories and the performances of stories. Examples are drawn from historical and ethnographic accounts, as well as from texts of events, and from literary texts. Although I have witnessed glimpses of both epic and lament in preliminary visits to my research area, Tamil Nadu, South India (please see below), this exam is not primarily based on my own fieldwork. Rather it is an investigatory exercise designed to acquaint me with possibilities and sensitize me to issues, i.e., to prepare me to witness and analyze verbal arts in the course of my projected upcoming year of doctoral fieldwork, which would involve a survey of communicative resources among elderly women in the mountains of southwest Tamil Nadu.
While studying performance of epic in the course of my Ph.D. coursework, I came across a collection of essays that included discussion of lament, an activity of which I had previously been almost completely unaware (Beissinger, Tylus, and Wofford 1999). Immediately lament arrested my attention, and I began to consider ways in which lament and epic are similar and different. Both involve telling the story of a dead member of the community; both can involve a combination of speaking, chanting, and singing; both can feature various types of participatory discrepancies; and both can involve spirit possession. But epic is celebratory, stressing the grandeur and autonomy of the hero or heroine and the competence, even mastery of the speaker; while lament is mournful, stressing the demise of the subject, and the vulnerability, misery, and dependency of the speaker. Epic suppresses, while lament expresses, the speaker’s sense of pain, fear, and loss. I suppose it is my hypothesis that these polar opposite types of presentation of self tend to take traditional forms of verbal expression in all human communities.
Scholars have generally considered epic-singing to be a man’s genre and lament to be a woman’s genre (Bendix, personal communication, 1999). My research to date confirms that while men sing funeral songs and deliver funeral speeches in many cultures, and while men may occasionally join in lament events, traditions of patterned verbal expression with weeping, or sung texted weeping (Feld 1982), do indeed seem to be the province of women alone. (Nonetheless, one must keep an open mind about this. For example, I would be interested to learn if groups of gay or transvestite men have such traditions). Performance of epic, on the other hand, most definitely is performed by woman as well as by men in various cultures, and the percentage of women performers seems to be increasing (Blackburn 1988; Flueckiger 1999; Naroditskaya 2000).
The dominant culture of Afghanistan, like so many others, for the most part confines women, and women’s narrative performance, to domestic realms, where women may perform for other woman and for children (Mills 1990). It has been posited that one reason for women’s seclusion is that, due to their biology and anatomy, women have tended to be busy at home with the messy “species life” aspects of existence: menstruation, child-birth, breast-feeding, and nurturing. Feminists and non-feminists alike have argued that due to the experience of the female body, the female personality tends to be involved with concrete feelings, things, and people; whereas men’s physiology frees them to take up projects of culture and prompts them to relate more in terms of abstract categories (Ortner 1972).
Another reason for the exclusion of women from public spheres, of course, is that a “woman’s seclusion, chastity, and fidelity have become the foundation stones underpinning all patriarchies: ever since human males realized that they could achieve a kind of immortality and could build up capital through their heirs, they have wherever possible imposed a menarche-to-menopause tyranny over females” (Montagu 1953).
An ancient Tamil poetic convention divides poetry into two realms, akam and puram. Akam concerns love between men and women, the domestic realm, the interior; whereas puram concerns matters of state (mostly battle), the public realm, the exterior. A. K. Ramanujen has applied these content categories to performance genres: to him, akam-type performance is typified by a grandmother telling folktales to her grandchildren while feeding them in the kitchen (Ramanujen 1990). As such, there is not a direct correlation between akam/puram and lament/epic, for, as we shall see, lament is a semi-public activity, often designed to be overheard; it is a moment in which women may at least partially speak in public.
And now, let us proceed to consider the performance of epic.
3) The performance of epic
Epic poetry now stands at the center of an intense debate concerning the relevance and cultural significance of the works that have helped to define Western culture (Beissinger, Tylus, and Wofford 1999, p. 1).
Traditionally, Western scholars have associated epic with the formation of nations: Western nations. It is only recently that their attention has turned to epic outside of Europe (Honko 1998). This has been through necessity in a sense, for epic it seems is no longer performed in Europe: the last living tradition seems to be in Yugoslavia, where it is dwindling (Foley 1995).
Once it was claimed that Africa does not have epic (Finnegan 1970, pp. 99-101). This perception was largely due to the fact that performance of epic in much of Africa (and Asia and Oceania) does not look like the fantasy of performance of epic that exists in the West: Homer chanting line after line at a feast, perhaps accompanying himself on a lyre. Non-European epic traditions may feature a secondary speaker acting as a respondent; musicians who periodically join in; alternation between various types of delivery; audience participation, such as the singing of choruses of songs; and delivery in ritual contexts that may involve possessed participants dancing, and speaking in the voice of the epic’s hero or heroine. In these contexts, performance of epic may be part of a “cult,” whose central figure is celebrated and propitiated at an annual festival at his/her special shrine, temple, or village.
Sections of epics, or songs related to epics, may be performed by people, especially women, while plucking or planting seedlings in paddy fields. In many traditions, only a particular episode is narrated in a given performance event, and parts of the story are never formally performed at all. Epic stories and characters are alluded to in everyday conversation: this is the heart of where epic traditions live and how they are communicated. These contextual conditions work against the proverbial Western scholar’s quest for a lengthy, polished masterpiece of a text (Flueckiger 1996).
A Mande (Central African) inspired definition of epic is that its performance is 1) poetic, 2) narrative, 3) heroic, 4) legendary, 5) of great length, 6) with multi-generic qualities, 7) contextually multi-functional, and 8) within cultural and traditional transmission (Johnson 1985, p. 31). As another Africanist puts it, epic is “an extended narrative on a historical topic delivered publicly, often with musical accompaniment, by a specialized performer” (Belcher 1999, p. xiv).
A South Indian inspired definition is that epic is 1) performed by professional bards, 2) extremely long, 3) its heroes are sacred figures worshiped at local temples, 4) it has links to wider mythological and civilizational traditions, and 5) its audiences and tellers both believe their epic depicts actual historical events (Beck 1982, p. 196). I would add, based on my own observations in the area, that there is frequent switching between numerous styles of speaking, chanting, and singing. It should be noted that “Prose has no real existence outside the written page” (Tedlock 1972, p. xix). In prose, or prosimetric, delivery of epic, “instead of a dominant metre, we find a mix of register-specific phonetic, morphological, lexical, syntactic, intonational, prosodic, rhythmic, tonal, and musical features” (Honko 1998, p. 27). In Tamil Nadu, South India, Subbu Arumugam, a performer of modernized villupaattu (please see below), calls a type of his exhortational chanting, “stage talk” -- this is a technique of breathing and sound production common to types of Tamil stage acting and political orating, and provides an example of how aspects of performance are shared by folklore, ritual, popular, and political levels of culture.
The term, epic, has come to refer to a genre that is an encyclopedic framing device, one that includes representations of all other genres in a culture’s repertoire. To satisfy the (Western) sense of epic-ness, the central character must travel from one end of the realm to the other, or from the home realm to the distant, or vice-versa. In an epic struggle, one uses every possible facility and resource. Epic figures are humans who tend to be larger than life: they are often related to magic, death, the divine, and the cosmic.
Epics may tell of major migrations, but, in any case, the genre -- as defined by Western scholars -- demands that epics should on some essential level be tales of a people’s origin. Epics “narrate the recovery of an originary identity of a group bound by linguistic ties, tribal bonds, religion, nationality, or empire...[epics] are canonized and rendered necessarily authentic over time” (Beissinger, Tylus, and Wofford 1999, p. 5). The canonized epic in turn serves to canonize its people and language.
Most of all, an epic is that which is perceived by the people of a culture to be ‘their’ story. A narrative that serves as an epic in one region may be performed in another region without the level of necessary self-identification to be categorized as epic: there it is perceived as someone else’s history, not “our story” (Flueckiger 1999). Epics “function as a source of identity representations in the traditional community or group receiving the epic” (Honko 1998, p. 28). Another community-related definition of epic is that “epic centers around deeds of significance to the community” (Beissinger, Tylus, and Wofford 1999, p. 2).
Stephen Belcher claims that in Africa the multi-sensory, multi-generic, audience-participation epic performance style is most highly-concentrated in Central Africa: 1) Ozidi epic (Ijo-speakers of Nigeria); 2) Jeki epic (Duala-speakers of Cameroon); 3) Mvet epic (Fang-speakers of Cameroon); 4) Lianja epic, Mongo- and Nkundo-speakers of the Congo; 5) Mwindo epic (BaNyanga-speakers of the Congo) (Belcher 1999). In these performance traditions, audience members play the roles of the hero’s growing entourage, forming a singing-dancing procession that mirrors and enacts the story entourage. Add-on (accumulation) songs occur frequently. The singers may improvise a verse, with audience members answering with memorized chorus lines.
Prose sections of performance often provide narrative development and explanation, helping the audience members to comprehend what is going on. Prose may used to interpret or recapitulate a song, or state who has been speaking or singing. Songs are often sung from a character’s point of view, expressing the character’s emotions; or they may be sung about a character, or to a character.
In a tradition of Karimpur, North India, a performer of epic can choose from between no less than twenty named song styles (Wadley 1991). The choice of a melody is also a choice of a genre of delivery, as each melody has its own textural -- rhythmic and metrical -- patterns. Many melodies and rhythms are sung only in certain contexts, and by specific character types. Thus, the choice of melody and delivery style conjures a personality type, an attitude, a perspective. For example, one melody and delivery style is associated with and is especially performed by women during the rainy season, when married women visit their parents’ homes and gather with their girlhood friends. Thus, time of year (and time of day), atmospheric conditions, and geographical locale are also conjured by one’s style of delivery. Other styles of speaking/chanting/singing in this tradition are more “masculine,” implying battle and argumentation.
Particular delivery styles in performance of epic are often accompanied by certain musical instruments: most common are drums and stringed instruments with one, two, or three strings. The delivery style also affects the performer’s breathing pattern, posture, and quality of movement.
An important development in the study of epic has been Stuart Blackburn’s delineation of the folk epic hero of traditional villupaattu, an ethnic genre which has been referred to as both epic-chanting and ballad-singing (Blackburn 1978). Blackburn points out how this folk epic hero differs from the essentially aristocratic epic hero as defined by the Chadwicks, Rank, Raglan, and Campbell, who based their work on literary sources (Campbell 1953; Chadwick 1912; Raglan 1949; Rank 1959). Actually, the Chadwicks claimed that epic poetry of the so-called Heroic Age of a culture represented that moment of transition in a culture in which heroes forsook kin and tribal alliances, shifting their allegiance to local kings. K. Kailasapathy, a Tamil literary scholar who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham, has presented ancient Tamil bardic poetry in this same light (Kailasapathy 1968).
Many of the stories originally told within the villupaattu
emphasize the hero/heroine’s human agency, as opposed to the roles of
reincarnation, and divine figures. These local figures rebel
oppression from upper classes and unjust laws. The central locale
in these stories the village, not the king’s court. The South
folk epic hero is at times accused of being a bandit, and is often
by the local king to fight against bandits. Blackburn draws
between these figures and the Mexican folk heroes identified by
Subbu Arumugam calls himself a villupaattu artist. He was raised in the far south of Tamil Nadu, in the heart of traditional villupaattu territory, but he has relocated to Madras/Chennai, the state capital at the north end of the state. He no longer limits himself to the telling of stories of violent local heroes; and spirit possession is most definitely not a part of his version of villupaattu, as it is traditionally. Arumugam is flexible: he can compose stories on commission and has performed villupaattus about business families at the inauguration of their amusement parks and factories, but he concentrates on the telling of pan-Indian stories like the Ramayana, which Hindu temples hire him to perform. Arumugam is a great orator, and in his hands the folk epic tradition has in ways moved closer to the orthodox Hindu religious discourse genre, harikatha (“god story”), or, as it is more commonly known in Tamil Nadu, katha kaalak chebam (“discussion of ancient stories”). Arumugam’s performances, depending on the sponsor and venue, often include educational and civic messages, sometimes directly from government pamphlets.
It must be remembered that traditional villupaattu is just one variant of a general Indian type of performance-ritual, in which narration is invocation. Villupaattu originated in a very specific territory in the far south of the Tamil language area (Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts), as a means of expression by two particular castes (Nadar and Pillai) (Blackburn 1988). Another variant of South Indian performance-ritual has been developed by the Pulluvan people of Kerala (Neff 1995). Troupes of Pulluvans travel about performing their ritual, which involves singing the story of and propitiating a particular goddess. Before the singing begins, members of the troupe draw an elaborate kolam design on the ground with powdered colored chalk, approximately four feet by four feet: a snake representing the goddess is the central figure. A local pre-menopausal girl sits on the design. When the goddess enters the girl, she writhes about on the design: the ways it is smudged is interpreted afterwards, to ascertain the goddess’ will. The goddess also enters and speaks through older females in the course of these events.
A villupaattu event I have witnessed in the far south of Tamil Nadu did not progress as Stuart Blackburn claims is the norm. He states that it is at the moment of the climax of the epic hero/heroine’s story, the moment of his/her violent death, that people experience possession and the narrative is interrupted. In a daytime event I attended on August 22, 1991, in the town of Itamoli, in a covered outdoor area adjacent to a temple, the lead performer, Mrs. S. Saraswathi, was still in the early stages of her story, when the temple priests began ringing a bell signaling the onset of possessed dancing (and eventually speaking) by both spontaneously-inspired members of the audience, and prearranged, costumed participants. In this case, the male priests (and their patrons) who had hired the female verbal artist and her troupe controlled the situation thoroughly and used the epic performance as they saw fit, according to their schedule.
Diffusion of epic form and content progresses from the local to the wider sphere, and vice-versa. For example, in India, “When a story spreads beyond its local base by attracting new patronage outside the small group that originally worshipped the dead hero, the predominance of the violent death motif wanes. Added are 1) the hero’s supernatural birth, and 2) identification of the local hero with a pan-Indian epic hero”: as this happens, “The spirit-possession aspect of the performance loses strength because the intimacy and sense of community that this ritual requires weakens” (Blackburn, Claus, Flueckiger, and Wadley 1989, p. 21, 31). Another general trend is that goddesses are relatively unimportant in the classic literary versions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (the two great pan-Indian epics), but they play major roles in many vernacular traditions of these epics (Blackburn, Claus, Flueckiger, and Wadley 1989, p. 16).
Trans-localization, or universalization, sometimes occurs within the performance itself. For example, in telling the story of the goddess Kannagi (in Chennai, July 2001), Subbu Arumugam ended one performance in the following way: he said that Kannagi should be worshipped not only in Tamil Nadu, not only in India, not only in Asia, but that she was the “mother of the whole world.” For this last phrase, he switched into English (perhaps for my benefit). Christopher Fuller has noted that worshippers typically chant the many names of a goddess, or the names of the many places where she is enshrined, often starting with the nearest and ending with the most distant (Fuller 1984, p. 38; Fuller 1992, p. 32).
Today, one of the most prominent champions of the study of performance of epic is Lauri Honko, who has founded the group, Folklore Fellows in Oral Epics. Approximately 70 scholars who work with living epic traditions worldwide are invited members (http://www.folklorefellows.org/netw/ffn9/FFoe.html). Honko is an example of a Western scholar converted to studying epic far afield:
Honko remains dedicated to documentation and analysis of lengthy, uninterrupted performances given in artificial contexts (few are present other than the performer, scholars, and audio-video technicians). He writes proudly of the “documentation of the Siri epic of the Tulu-speaking people in southern Karnataka by the present writer and a team of Finnish and Tulu scholars in December 1990, based on a single sung performance [over five days] by Mr. Gopala Naika, an illiterate agriculturalist and possession priest. The 15,683-line oral epic is the longest and textually most accurate version of the Siri epic published so far. It represents the fullest manifestation of the singer’s mental text” (Tulu, spoken by three million people, is a “minor” Dravidian language) (Honko 2000, p. 44). The local contexts of singing songs while planting seedlings in paddy fields, and ritual with possession, did not allow Naika to sing the story completely: it was actually Naika who sought out scholars to make the full-length recording.
Through a website newsletter, the Folklore Fellows in Oral
announces occurrences such as the 1999 formation of
A new international association for the preservation of the world’s heritage of epics, founded in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The founding conference was organized by the head of the Kyrgyz State Institute for the Preservation and Propagation of the epic Manas. The conference was attended by members of the Kyrgyz government, by the UNESCO representative for Central Asia, and by scholars from Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and various parts of the Russian Federation (Yakutia, Tatarstan, and Khakassia), Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Mongolia, China (including Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang), Iran, Turkey, and Germany.” (FFN 21, March 2001: http://www.folklorefellows.org/netw/ffn21/association.html)
One subject that does not seem to be discussed very much by contemporary scholars of performance of epic is the of the training of the new generation of performers. This may be due to the fact that in many cases, epic traditions are dying: the singers are elderly, as are their patrons (Reynolds 1991; Slyomovics 1987; Honko 1998). The ethnographer is the closest thing that some of these performers have to an apprentice. Actually, Dwight Reynolds has actively played the role of apprentice to an Egyptian epic-singer. Reynolds is soon to publish a text of his teacher’s version of the Abu-Zayd epic. It seems that many scholars do not like to see or encourage radical modern changes in the performance and teaching of epic, and would prefer that a waning tradition dies a dignified death, whereupon monuments can erected to it.
In Tamil Nadu the performance of epic is doing quite well: a market remains, at least for the two performers I have interacted with, both of whom are considered modernizers to some degree. Subu Arumugam is accompanied by an apprentice, his son; and Mrs. S. Saraswathi has two young female apprentices who travel with her and accompany her in performance. The vitality of performance of epic can most definitely be measured by the presence or absence of apprentices, for their presence indicates an expectation that an economically significant market for the art will continue.
In recent years, female performers of epic have become more
in India (Flueckiger 1996; Blackburn 1988), Africa (Hale 1998), and
Arab nations, although there are those within these cultures who object
to this (Naroditskaya 2000). Women may perform in new contexts,
national and international folk festivals, on concert stages, and via
and television. The presence of female epic-singers in
male epic-performance contexts such as tea-houses, and private homes of
patrons, was and is not possible.
4) The practice of lament
This section is composed of the sub-sections: a)
Concerning the study
of lament; b) Concerning lament; and c) The lament
a) Concerning the study of lament
The mature study of lament processes was enabled by a number of developments -- in academia and in modern society in general -- that occurred in the 1960’s and 70’s. In academia, sociolinguistics came into its own, which included the ethnography of speaking (please see above). The performance-centered approach to folklore called attention to the texture and context of genres of verbal activity (Dundes 1964: Paredes and Bauman 1972). Lament, more than most genres of “literature,” only makes sense when approached as a social process, embedded in the larger social environment.
The general social and ideological development that furthered the study of lament was the women’s movement, i.e., feminism, which directed attention to gender role systems (Mills 1991), and challenged and to some degree transformed the West’s gender system (Lutz 1986, 1988; Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974). The 70’s saw the beginning of widespread study of women by women. Previous ethnographic fieldwork had for the most part been conducted by men, who had focused on men’s activities and perspectives -- the two most visible exceptions being Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict (Montagu 1953).
Feminist scholars argued for the reevaluation of emotion, a project that took place in a field that came to be known as the anthropology of emotions (Lutz and White 1986). The entrenched Western view had been that emotion was a largely a negative characteristic, that it was subjective, irrational, chaotic, disruptive, and cultivated by the weak of mind, especially women. The new approach stressed positive aspects of emotion: that it holds the key to empathy, engagement, bonding, community, and the abilities to nurture and love; it is an antidote to the alienation of the individual; and it enables self-expression, especially in the sense of working through feelings in the face of death and other disruptive experiences. “A disproportionate amount [of anthropology of emotions fieldwork] has been done in the Pacific, reflecting both an indigenous focus on emotional idioms and Oceanic ethnography’s traditional psychocultural emphases” (Lutz and White 1986, p. 406). A feature of the anthropology of emotions has been the study of how emotions are understood by the people under study.
As with epic, Western scholars’ consideration of lament began
to the Greek evidence. Beginning with Margaret Alexiou’s The
Lament in Greek Tradition (1974), there has been a series of
that have combined ethnography in Greece with references to historical
and literary portrayals of lament, including texts of ancient tragedies
and epics (Caraveli 1980, 1986; Danforth 1982; Holst-Warhaft 1992;
1991). As also has been the case with epic, scholars have found
lament must be studied beyond the West, for only in these other places
do living traditions of these genres continue to thrive.
b) Concerning lament
In this exam, I refer to the performance of epic and the practice of lament. The term, perform, implies a certain degree of detachment of the actor from the act: “the performer establishes a distance between his real-self as player and the role he is playing” (Abrahams 1981, p. 70). This may be an inappropriate way to refer to aspects of the delivery of epic, especially ritual and spirit-possession activity. For this inappropriateness I apologize.
However, in the case of lament, I feel that the term performance is generally inappropriate. Grief, anguish, and anxiety are at the heart of lament, and while these emotions may be expressed in culturally patterned ways, this situation is just too real for me to be comfortable with referring to it to as performance. Lament is a desperate or semi-desperate attempt to do something with words (Austin 1962). A loss has been suffered by the lamenter: lament is both an expression of this loss and an attempt to recover from it. A lamenter often bemoans her own present situation as much as, if not more than, the dead person’s. This is not to romanticize lament: as with possession and shamanism, there is a continuum in lament, from doing it to manipulate observers, to being overwhelmed by the experience.
A classic image of lament is that of a number of women gathered around the deceased’s body, speaking/chanting/singing and making repetitious movements. This type of lament involves sobbing, wailing, weeping or crying -- i.e., the presence of tears -- as one speaks/chants/sings, and may also feature moaning, shrieking, and screaming (Feld and Fox 1994). But other types of lament must also be kept in mind, including the singing of songs to and about the deceased, both before and after the funeral: such songs may be composed in the course of singing, or may be memorized in advance (Feld 1982; Wolf 1997). Also within the realm of lament is speech that involves pleading, begging, imploring, petitioning, appealing, enjoining, beseeching, entreating, and supplicating; complaining, accusing, cursing, threatening, nagging, and whining; and praying (these activities are of course not only practiced by women). All of these forms of behavior may feature particular forms of stylized speech; of breathing patterns; and of facial expressions and body gestures; all in an attempt to engage the listener in a relationship, as giver of relief.
Much moreso than is the case with epic, the analytical
category of lament
encompasses both marked and unmarked activities. There may be no
clear beginning, middle, and end to the various types of lamenting: the
border between the presence and absence of lament is porous, just like
the border between the living and the dead. Even in the case of
lament events, people may constantly go into and out of the lament
and from one aspect of the activity to another. “With the
exception of certain...sermon preaching discourses, lament is the most
prominent and widespread discourse in which one can comparatively study
stylized progressions moving back and forth on all continua relating to
the speaking and singing voice” (Feld and Fox 1994,
Steven Feld is one of the leading scholars of lament: in 1989 he organized a conference on the anthropology of lament (at the Folklore and Ethnomusicology Center, Austin, Texas). Feld reports that among the Kaluli of New Guinea, “Men tend not to sustain weeping for long periods... Women, on the other hand, start their weeping in the very fast hysterical manner and maintain a level of great intensity for a sustained time. Then, slowing down and catching their breath, the crying turns melodic, following a three- or four- pitch contour... [It is] women who turn the sung weeping into wept song” (Feld 1982, p. 32-3). At formal ceremonies Kaluli men do sing songs designed to cause listeners to shed tears over the dead, but here, as in many other cultures, it is “women’s weeping [that] is transmuted into prolonged improvised singing” (Holst-Warhaft 1992, p. 21).
Numerous scholars have noted that outside of the performance situation, epic-singers are often considered low-class and untrustworthy: the tradition is respected, but the bearer of it is not (Reynolds 1995; Slyomovics 1987). In the case of lament, the speaker is not practicing a high-status genre of verbal art: non-participants are likely to consider it merely a noisy and disturbing form of mortuary behavior (Caraveli-Chaves 1980, p. 130).
Moreover, the bereaved lamenter is at a moment of social crisis and transition. A relationship which gave her social status and perhaps physical support has ended, and now her social role in the community must be realigned, in a downward direction. In some cases there is the possibility of expulsion. “Lamenting women provide accounts...of the social death they experience when they lose the men through whom they are defined” (Murnaghan 1999, p. 208). One compensation lament provides is that it affirms a complex network of relationships among the female participants: bonding through shared suffering is a strategy for survival among these women (Caraveli-Chaves 1980). In the course of a lament event, each participant may mourn her own dead: “One woman said, ‘Ponos [pain, grief, suffering, sorrow] is necessary. It needs to be cultivated. Because I feel ponos for you and you feel ponos for me, we are comforted. A woman wants to feel ponos in order to find solace. I like to go to funerals to cry. I want to go because there I feel ponos. There I remember my own dead relatives. I feel sad there because I had parents too’” (Danforth 1982, p. 142). Lament is not done by isolated individuals, but by community members together: “The purpose of ritual lamentation is a collective tribute to the dead from the whole community” (Alexiou 1974, p. 44). “In most villages, lamentation remains a social duty for the whole community, to be performed for all alike. The bereaved family is not asked if it wishes for the dead to be lamented; the women simply come to the house and weep” (Alexiou 1974, p. 50).
Twenty years ago, one researcher of lament in Greece wrote that “The small, dwindling segment of tradition holders within this society on whom my investigation focuses consists of old people whose ages range between the late fifties and late eighties” (Caraveli-Chaves 1980, p. 131). It is ironic that the very social development that prompted the study of lament, feminism, is, at least in Greece, one of the reasons lament is dying out. For, as villages become less bounded, and as women’s lot becomes less miserable and dependent on men, the lament tradition is being abandoned: young women tend to be preoccupied with moving to cities, getting educated, and becoming financially independent. One immigrant Indian woman in the USA, a social worker by profession, has told me that as a child in India she witnessed lament, but found it unattractive. She didn’t care for the “show” the women seemed to be putting on; rather, she prefers a quiet conversation in a bereavement situation. Upon my further questioning, this woman explained to me that she did had known the words of the women’s antiphonal chants, and thus she had felt excluded from the activity.
In numerous cultures, “laments are led by a skilled, even professional class of women who are regarded as being especially gifted at improvising and performing songs for the dead” (Holst-Warhaft 1992, p. 1). These women are usually experienced with bereavement themselves and can recreate their emotional responses at one remove. With permission, they may also “lament their own troubles and their own dead, sending a message through the dead to their own kinsmen in the underworld” (Alexiou 1974, p. 41).
The presence of such professional lament leaders from beyond the immediate community indicates that lament activity can occur in a certain kind of public sphere. It must also be remembered that lament in general involves an emergence of the private into the public. A basic building block of society -- an intimate relationship with a spouse, parent, child, sibling, etc. -- has been shattered, and both parties, the deceased and the living, must now return to the general community. Authorities investigate, classify, and document a death, as they do a birth. The survivor may be open to accusations of having caused the death; she may wish to accuse others.
Laments are often meant to be overheard, or reported, throughout the community. At the same time, some aspects of lament are known only to the women, and to certain women, of a community (Weinbaum 2001). Laments consist largely of allusions, and there is much masking in both form and content (Radner 1993; Radner and Lanser 1987). This is an example of information management within a community.
In many cultures laments are sung by the bride’s family, and often by the bride herself, as she leaves to become a member of her husband’s household. To site just a few examples: China (Martin 1988); Greece (Herzfield 1986; Holst-Warhaft 1992); Finland and Karelia (Tolbert 1987); and Romania (Kligman 1988). Wedding laments have different tones than funeral laments, but the anguish of separation and loss is there in both contexts, and a common source of form and content is drawn upon.
In parts of rural Greece, couplets from laments may be remembered, circulated orally, and discussed throughout a village, or between villages, and may be used in folksongs. One such locally famous couplet is: “‘Ah mother, keeper of the home and mistress of embroidery, You knew how to embroider the sky with all its stars’” (Caraveli-Chaves, 133).
Three types of laments are: 1) personal laments for family members; 2) community laments for gods and heroes; and 3) historical laments for disasters affecting a city or people (Alexiou 1974, p. 55). Forced migrations can inspire laments for one’s lost city or homeland (Holst-Warhaft 1992, p. 1).
Among some, there is an “underlying fear of laments as magic songs, songs which open up perilous channels of communication between the living and the dead” (Caraveli-Chaves 1980, p. 130). Lament can be seen as “magic incantation designed to bring the dead back to life” (Alexiou 1974, p. 134). Lamenters often possess secret charms and miraculous potions (Caraveli-Chaves 1980, p. 145). It is woman’s capacity for reproduction that gives her firsthand access to the realm of the dead: talented lamenters are often also midwives (Caraveli-Chaves 1980, p. 146). “Laments bridge and mediate between vital realms of existence: life and death, the physical and he metaphysical, present and past, temporal and mythic time. The lamenter becomes the medium through whom the dead speaks to the living, the shaman who leads the living to the underworld and back, thus effecting a communal confrontation with death and, through it, a catharsis” (Caraveli-Chaves 1980, p. 144).
The mythologies of entire religions center around lament:
Many of the major religions established in the Middle East are based on ritual lament. All of these lamenting religious cults focus on the unjust or untimely death of a young man or god. In one group of cults, a beautiful young man is mourned by his goddess-lover: Adonis is lamented by Aphrodite; the Babylonian Tammuz by Ishtar; Phrygrian Attis by Cybele; Egyptian Osiris by his wife Isis. As might be expected in such cults, women play a prominent part, often leading the ceremonial weeping for the dead god. (Holst-Warhaft 1992, p. 24)
Kannagi -- portrayed in the literary epic, Silappathikaram (“anklet story”), written over 1,200 years ago -- is the leading epic figure of the Tamil people of South India, who very likely derive from the Eelamite people of the ancient Middle East (Cavalli-Sforza 1995). Kannagi personifies a number of types of laments. In the prelude to the story’s central episode, Kannagi’s husband abandons her, going off to live with a courtesan. Kannagi tearfully prayed to her husband’s image in a domestic shrine, and after a year her husband returned. Together Kannagi and her husband walked 200 miles to start life anew in the central city of the realm. There, when Kannagi found her husband dead in the street, unjustly beheaded by the local king, she lamented over him, screaming, “Are there no decent people in this city? Are there no gods here?” (motifs of female lament for a dead male and female lament as social protest). Kannagi spoke tenderly to her husband and placed his head back on his body: for a moment he seemed to revive and speak to her (motif of female lament reviving a dead male). Kannagi soon thereafter convinced the king of his unjust behavior, whereupon he took his own life in penance (motif of female lament causing the death of a male). Kannagi then circled the city three times, ripped off her left breast, and threw it against the city wall: the city burst into flames (according to one version, Agni, the god of fire, burned the city on Kannagi’s behalf) (motif of female curse/vendetta lament causing the destruction of a city).
One day while in Madurai, the city that Kannagi burned, I visited a police station in order to inquire about the location of a sacred tree and small shrine dedicated to Kannagi’s husband. Suddenly, a human tableau appeared on the far side of the room: a Tamil woman was kneeling on the ground, gesturing imploringly to the station police chief. She was speaking semi-hysterically, loudly, and extremely rapidly; she was not crying, but the tone and rhythm of her voice were that of wailing. Another officer, passing through the room, explained to me that the woman’s husband had been in a knifefight and both parties had been injured: the woman was now appealing to the police chief to refrain from arresting her husband. The police chief impassively listened to the woman for a few moments, and then, called from another room, abruptly walked away. The instant he left the room, the woman ‘snapped out of it’ and intently looked at me, the only other person present. I signaled reassurance. Only in the course of writing this exam have I realized that I witnessed a form of lament that day.
Oppaari is a Tamil word for lament. Oppaari
refers to a
wide range of weeping texted song, including ayirapaaddu
songs”), which are sung especially by Paraiyar women in the Thanjavur
(Trawick 1986, 1990, 1991). (Paraiyars are very low-caste: it
that generally in Tamil Nadu oppaari is a feature of low-caste
Paraiyar women often sing crying songs to themselves and to their close
friends, but these songs are also communicated upward in the status
-- they are pleas for help, and for redress of committed wrongs
1986, p. 297). The first-person pronoun is repeated again and
the singer claims she is deserving of protection, she is gold that has
been crushed, a lily that has been injured, paddy that has been sold
the price of chaff (Trawick 1986, p. 302). Themes of bodily
fragmentation of the kinship group, and loss of place
Crying songs tell of “exclusion from a fruitful state, and confinement
in a bad one... The cast-off younger sister (a major figure in Tamil
literature) becomes metaphorically linked with the untouchable woman,
excluded from her primordial home” (Trawick 1986, p. 332). Each
is sung in a single breath and is marked by a rapid rise to a peak in
followed by a gradual descent to the original pitch level (Trawick
p. 228). Numerous qualities are common to Paraiyar women’s crying
songs; lullabies; and hymns to the goddess, Singamma (Trawick
c) The lament process
The lament event proper fulfills the folklorist’s fantasy of the singing-dancing-improvising throng, and Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of multi-vocality (Bakhtin 1981), like few others. It provides an excellent arena in which to observe participatory discrepancies (Keil 1987, 1995). Below is a composite portrait of the lament event: data is drawn primarily from ethnographies of Greek cultures.
Women cluster around the body. “The chief mourner stretches her right hand over the body, and with her left hand grasps the right arm of the woman standing to her left” (Alexiou 1974, p. 40). Common gestures also include: right hand stretched upward; left hand clutching one’s head and hair; left hand striking oneself. As they weep, speak, and sing, women often rock back and forth, or from side to side.
“Screaming occurs especially upon the initial visual encounter with the corpse, and subsequently at the moment of separation from the corpse” (Seremetakis 1991, p. 107). Wails set off chain reactions, with staggered entrances of overlapping and independent words and sounds.
“The soloist emerges from the chorus in order...to engage in an agon with it” (Seremetakis 1991, p. 124). Chorus members often repeat the last word or phrase of the soloist. “Members of a group lament simultaneously, typically in heterophony (simultaneous performances involving different texts vocalized to variations of a single melody), or in more structured polyphonic, responsorial, or antiphonal forms. In these cases, distinct melodic and textual parts are performed in dialogic patterns of multi-voice alternation, or leader-chorus alternation, or alternation with vocal overlap” (Feld and Fox 1994, p. 42). The chorus supplements the soloist’s singing with “an elaborate metanarrative consisting of crying, stylized sobbing, screams, monologues, and body gestures” (Seremetakis 1991, p. 125). Participants go into and out of phase with each other, and the various layers of sound and movement only occasionally coalesce.
The rules of lament behavior are broken at times. “Bereaved women who express their grief in a wild or unrestrained fashion may be reprimanded by other women and told to join in the singing” (Holst-Warhaft 1992, p. 28). “An intervening singer will attach her mourning to that of the violent performer. The consoling singer attempts to establish an antiphonic relationship with the performer of acoustic violence” (Seremetakis 1991, p. 119).
The soloist often interjects a sob before and after a line of
“In this movement from nonlanguage to language to nonlanguage, the sob
occupies a pivotal position; it functions as a hinge in the soloist’s
The sob is both a musical and emotional ornament” (Seremetakis, pp.
214). “Cries come at regular intervals. The frequency
and there is gradual crescendo of emotion, of rising intensity”
Lamenters address the living, the dead, the tomb, the earth, the community of the dead (asking its members to look after the new-comer), etc. The woman who has suffered the loss often begins by expressing anxiety that she may not be able to find words adequate for the occasion. Typical formulations of this sentiment are: “How shall I weep for you?” “What can I say to express my affection?” (Alexiou 1974, p. 161).
Lamenters often ask the earth to open and accept the deceased, and for the dead to be reborn as vegetation (Alexiou 1974, p. 9). A lamenter at times smears her face with mud (Wicket 1992, p. 174).
The dead are asked rhetorical questions, such as “How can I bear the loss of you?,” “Will we ever be together again?,” “What will become of me?,” “How will I raise the children?” Wishes may be expressed: “I wish I could have prevented your death,” “I wish I had died instead of you,” “I wish we had died together” (Alexiou 1974). Lamenters often cry out for the dead not to leave them. Direct addresses to the deceased interrupt the linear flow of the surrounding narrative of the lament (Caraveli-Chaves 1980, p. 137).
An entire lament may consist of the plight of the female mourner (Seremetakis 1991; Caraveli-Chaves 1980), or of recent news of the village. A lamenter often refers to experiences she shared with the deceased. Allusions to local history, personalities, genealogies, and geography are key.
Using parallel grammatical constructions, lamenters often list the dead person’s qualities, behaviors, and achievements. Even such simple things as, “You were just eating.” The fact of the person’s death may be repeated over and over, to mesmerizing effect. The bleak present is contrasted with an idealized past.
The dead are praised and reproached -- all is seemingly designed to provoke the dead to respond (Alexiou 1974, p. 182). “Portions of dialogue that actually occurred between a woman and her deceased nephew found their way into her lament” (Caraveli-Chaves 1980, p. 151). “Laments may...by a sort of possession on the lamenter’s part, enable the dead to address the living, and either assuage their grief or call on them to redress real or imaginary grievances suffered in life” (Holst-Warhaft 1992, p. 3).
Words directed toward co-mourners may include exhortations: “Ah women of Dzermiathes, weep! Sing laments for my daughter!” (Caraveli-Chaves 1980, p. 148). Vendetta laments employ narratives of the past: a lamenter may cry out to co-mourners, “Do you remember?,” in an attempt to shame them into retributive action (Alexiou 1974, p. 166). “The expression of anger against authority in any form -- the police, the state, even the doctors who cared for the person -- is a common feature of Maniat laments” (Holst-Warhaft 1992, p. 67).
The transition from life to death may be alluded to through such conventional imagery as the melting of snow, the uprooting of vegetation, or the wilting of a flower (Caraveli-Chaves 1980, p. 137). The dead person is often compared to a fallen pillar of a house, or to a fallen tree (Alexiou 1974, pp. 193, 198).
The dead person’s underworld journey is an important lament
the lamenter may narrate this journey from a distance, or present
as accompanying or searching for the dead (Caraveli-Chaves 1980, p.
Death is portrayed as the deceased’s final journey. A river or
is often presented as the intermediary between the realms of the living
and the dead. Departure for marriage, and a journey to a distant
land are sometimes used as metaphors for the separation of death
In returning from being overcome by grief, a lamenter may signal her return by asking the dead to bless the living, and she may ritually recite the names of all present (Seremetakis 1991, p. 119).
Feld reports that among the Kaluli it is older women who do
elaborate sung weeping; younger women weep with shorter texts that are
highly repetitive (Feld 1982, p. 99). It seems safe to say that
general older women know these verbal arts traditions best, and that
have had the most practice in lament, having suffered many
In the course of laments, “Old women may comment on the vanity of life:
‘Mankind adds up to nothing. A life of strife, and only evil at
end.’” (Alexiou 1974, p. 42).
5) Is epic derived from lament?
The study of lament has begun to be a major part of the feminist reinterpretation of epic (Beissinger, Tylus, and Wofford 1999, p. 203).
This section grapples with the question, “Generally-speaking,
a relationship between epic and lament? If so, what is that
I continue to draw primarily on evidence from Greece. The
is composed of the sub-sections: a) The repression of lament; b) Lament
within epic; c) The appropriation of lament; and d) Conclusion.
a) The repression of lament
From the sixth century bc onwards, legislation was introduced in Athens and in a number of the other Greek city-states which was aimed at the restriction of what was viewed as extravagant mourning of the dead. The new laws were particularly severe on women mourners (Holst-Warhaft 1992, p. 3). Solon’s laws forbade the tearing of clothes in lament, and regulated where and when lamenting could take place (it had to end by sunrise), how many people could participate, what animals could be sacrificed, and how much food could be served (Alexiou 1974, p. 6).
The state cult was trying to wrest authority from clan cults (Alexiou, 18). The repression of lament in Greece was part of an attempt by men to empower their new public sphere, or imagined community, which was based not only on epics, but on written texts of epics: printed texts would come much later, continuing this same process (Anderson 1983; Habermas 1962). The contesting forces, then and now, can be summarized in the following way:
The contesting forces, then and now, can be summarized in the
Men’s power is restricted to the public, visible, and official realm. Though it provides them with opportunities for social domination, it limits them to a temporal sphere of experience. Women dominate the rituals connected to the life cycle as well as irregular, secret rites such as magic and witchcraft. As midwives, matchmakers, singers of bridal songs, and finally, as lamenters, they dominate the rites of passage, the perilous moments of transition from one realm to another. Such segregated domains of male and female activities render men socially but not culturally dominant, and establish a complex network of balances within the community. (Caraveli-Chaves 1980, p. 143)
Another aspect of the problem presented by lament in ancient Greece was that it worked against the state’s efforts to enlist men in armies. Women’s laments were considered subversive not just because they dwelt on the negative consequences of martial action, but because they ignored the death-defying kleos that provided a positive compensation for heroic sacrifice: kleos is the Greek term for eternal fame, as realized in epic song (Murnaghan 1999, p. 215). The concern of lamenting women for their own suffering meant that they saw little value in their men dying for the state. (According to a feminist view [Murnaghan 1999; Weinbaum 2001], lament critiques the entire nationalizing process as imperialistic, anti-woman, anti-nature, and anti-human: this view seems to romanticize lament, which at times calls for violent revenge.) Far from drawing their listeners’ attention to the glorious deeds of heroes, and providing closure and renewed resolution, laments caused listeners to think of their own sorrows, fragmenting their audiences into isolated and private mourners who might then form bonds of local community through the common experience of suffering (Murnaghan 1999, p. 206).
Lament was a threat to the authorities because it provides public opportunities to state what it is like to be a woman in a world centered on male interests and values. Women’s unsettling experiences of loss generate descriptions of the social structure as seen by its most vulnerable members (Murnaghan 1999, p. 208).
Some female informants in Greece claim that the ultimate goal of immersing oneself fully and repeatedly in the emotions of pain, grief, and sorrow, is to to rid oneself of these emotions, through a sort of catharsis (Danforth 1982, p. 144). However, local men often encourage their wives and other female relatives to devote less time and energy to the care of the deceased and to visit the graveyard less frequently, once a week perhaps, rather than every day. Mourners typically wear black clothes, grow hair long, and neglect personal appearance (Alexiou 1974, p. 32). Men argue that intense involvement with the dead can only lead to increased grief and pain, which may in turn cause illness (Danforth 1982, p. 136). I. M. Lewis has posited that women’s possession and lament activity, while ostensibly designed to heal women, can constitute a means of ongoing social protest (Lewis 1962).
Public authorities insist that a hero’s death should be marked
not women’s cries that may “wake the dead.” States -- like
institutionalized religions -- tend to promote controlled ritual, and
the more fluid (and often subaltern) practices involving shamanism and
Open wounds, the open female mouth that screams and improvises moiroloi (songs of fate), and metaphors of birthing, form a symbolic continuum, the official cartography of the female body. These are thresholds, limens, points of entry and exit where the outside and the inside -- fate, truth, and the social order -- meet in disordering contact. The presence of moira (fate) intensifies when the orificial imagery and functions of the female body intensify. In everyday social life, men associate this process with the polluting ambiance of the feminine. In the mourning ritual, women convert and invert the orificial symbolism of the polluting women’s speech and embodiment into media of cultural power that contest the verities of everyday social life. (Seremetakis 1991, p. 121)
As mentioned, organized religions have generally sought to curb lament. In the following two cases, the lamenting women being criticized by John Chrysostom (Archbishop of Constantinople, 347-407) were Christian nuns! In the first instance, Chrysostom demands: “‘What are you doing woman? Tell me, would you shamelessly strip yourself naked in the middle of the marketplace, in the presence of men, you who are a part of Christ? Would you rend your garments, tear your hair, and wail loudly, dancing and preserving the image of Bacchae women, without regard for your office to God?’” (Alexiou 1974, p. 29). In the second instance, Chrysostom writes: “‘The chants had died down. Then one of the holy sisters cried out in a disorderly fashion that never again should we set eyes on this divine face, whereupon the other sisters cried out likewise, and disorder and confusion spoiled that orderly and sacred clarity, with everyone breaking down at the lament of the holy sisters.’” (Alexiou 1974, p. 31).
The passion of lament can evidently be highly
elderly lady remembered that in the village of Samarina in 1947,
women gathered round, and they all were keening. The burial was
up for hours, waiting for the dirge to come to an end. And the
who at first gave orders for the bodies to be buried at once, when he
the women, he began to weep himself, and he let them go on with their
as long as they liked’” (Alexiou 1974, p. 47).
b) Lament within epic
There are many female laments within Homer’s Iliad. “Laments are the medium by which a female perspective on epic action makes its way into male-centered texts” (Murnaghan 1999, p. 206). For example, when he hears of Patrocles’ death, Achilles emits an inarticulate cry, but it is Briseis, the slave girl, who begins the first true lament for Patrocles. She addresses him directly: “‘I weep for you ceaselessly, for you were always kind.’ / So she spoke, weeping, and the women around her moaned, / Speaking outwardly for Patrocles, but each with her own sorrows” (Iliad XIX, 300-2; as cited by Holst-Warhaft 1992, p. 109).
While lament may be portrayed in epic, the overwhelming affect of loss is not dwelt upon. Lament is an expression of emotional misery which looks to the future and imagines the physical misery soon to follow. In epic, if the character speaking is a woman who has lost a man and is about to be sold into slavery, her situation must quickly be passed over, for in order to proceed in the epic vein, to maintain linearity and narrative itself, performers and listeners must at a certain point block that characters’ abysmal situation out of their consciousnesses and move on.
Incidentally, clowning, as well as lament, can occur in
epic, where it can function as commentary on idealized epic behavior
example, in the Tolubommalata shadow-puppet tradition of Andhra
South India: Flueckiger 1999). Clowning presents real world
in contrast to idealized epic conduct. Clown figures are often
and when they do appear, they are often disheveled, breathing hard,
themselves all over, and combing their hair with their hands.
clowns often express a voracious sexual appetite, in contrast to the
obedient wife standard in men’s national epics.
c) The appropriation of lament
To some ears, the complete Greek epics are transformations of laments: “Behind the great sadness and tragedy of the Iliad and the Odyssey lies a residual of lament poetry sung primarily by women” (Weinbaum 2001, p. 28). The goal of Greek epic is commemoration, from the moment of heroic death to its eventual glorification in everlasting song (Murnaghan 1999, p. 205). From what verbal arts traditions could performers of epic have drawn in the course of developing their genre?
A feminist reinterpretation of epic places performance of epic in the context of its local speech community. At the very least, the argument goes, epic-chanters and lamenters heard each other periodically. And epic-chanters would listen to lament because in the course of performing epics they needed at times to impersonate lamenters.
Women frequently take the leadership in creating and singing songs for ceremonial occasions associated with the crucial stages in the life cycle. (It should be noted that in many cultures women sing songs of celebration and joy, a point generally overlooked in this exam due to its topic.) Women often receive little status, recognition, or reward for their community verbal art activities, even though these activities often help both individuals and the group come to terms with grief (Finnegan 1977, p. 198). According to the theory of lament appropriation, male bards recast these lament elements -- which constitute the real grass-roots of culture -- into epic modes, using new melodies and rhythms, and stressing heroism and sacrifice (Weinbaum 2001, p. 26).
To be formed into epic, lament material needed to be distanced from self, objectified, depersonalized. Epic involves codifying direct personal experience into legend and history. The diminuitive and intimate means of addressing and referring to the deceased needed to be changed to honorifics, for in performance of (especially Greek) epic the stress is on honor and power. Performances of this codified material inspired in performers and listeners a sense of pride, and encouraged them to further construct and project strong public frontstage selves, and hide vulnerable and confused backstage selves (Goffman 1956). Lila Abu-Lughod refers to a similar distinction between public male discourse of honor and female private discourse of yearning and incompleteness in Bedouin culture (Abu-Lughod 1986).
Epic was not the only verbal art that utilized and transformed aspects of women’s lament: tragedy can also be seen as a patriarchal effort to co-opt the power of women and their primordial lamenting (Holst-Warhaft 1992, p. 10). In addition, ancient Greek men developed traditions of funeral orations and after-feast elegiac poetry recitals. In “praising the hero at common meals -- the purpose is to educate and exhort, and to celebrate the state. It is a patriotic and political ceremony” (Alexiou 1974, p. 128). The national character is discussed and praised in this discourse. A virtue is made of death, provided it is death in service to the state (Holst-Warhaft 1992, p. 5).
The idea of male co-optation of lament expressions and
not altogether new: for one, Jane Harrison argued that folk play and
drama survived through the forms they lent to world literature
1912, 1913, 1921: as cited in Weinbaum 2001).
Possession by deceased story figures may occur in the the course of both lament and the performance of epic. Event participants may feel intimacy with story figures in both types of event, but in the case of performance of epic, it is an intimacy with a figure with whom the participant has not had a human-to-human relationship.
A bereaved person (or persons) is at the center of the lament event, regardless of who else is there to support her and to facilitate. Lament focuses on the bereaved’s recent loss of a human relationship and the practical emotional and physical problems this raises: the future of the surviving individual is being discussed.
Performance of epic involves a group of people led by a
concerns a culture hero/heroine of a larger group, of which,
at least some of those present at the performance are members.
of epic concerns the life and spirit of this larger group.