A sampling of comments on Pausanias: 1.24.8–1.27.3

2018.04.05 | By Gregory Nagy

I continue from where I left off in Classical Inquiries 2018.03.01. I will highlight here a ritual noted by Pausanias at 1.27.3 involving two Athenian girls who are selected annually to serve the goddess Athena. The word that refers to these girls in their overall role as servants of Athena is arrhēphoroi, hereafter transcribed as Arrhephoroi. After the annual service of the two Arrhephoroi is concluded, they are replaced by two new Arrhephoroi, and the cycle is repeated, notionally for all time to come. The concluding event of the service performed by these two annually renewed Arrhephoroi is the ritual that I will highlight when I get to my comments on Pausanias 1.27.3. In this ritual, as he describes it, the two Arrhephoroi descend from the top of the Acropolis to a sacred space down below—while carrying on top of their heads containers that contain things that cannot be mentioned. Pausanias is being ostentatiously guarded here about revealing the full significance of the ritual, which as I argue can only be understood by way of correlating it with the myth about the daughters of Kekrops—a myth to which Pausanias himself refers at 1.27.2, and this reference occurs, most pointedly, right before his description of the ritual. The aetiological connection of ritual and myth here, as I also argue, is in some details so old as to reveal traces of a Mycenaean tradition.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

{1.27.3} translation by Jones 1918, modified by GN 2018.04.05:

{1.27.3} The things about this that most of all cause-wonder [thaumazein] for me are not completely knowable [gnōrima], but I will write down what kinds of things take place. Two maidens [parthenoi] dwell [oikeîn] not far from the temple [nāos] of Athena Poliás. The Athenians call them Arrhephoroi [arrhēphoroi]. For a time they live a regulated-life [diaita] [there] at the place of the goddess [theos (feminine)], but when the festival [heortē] comes round they ritually-perform [drân] at night the following. They place on their heads what the priestess [hiereia] of Athena gives them to carry [pherein]—neither she who gives it knows [eidénai] what it is that she is giving nor do they who carry [pherein] it understand [epistasthai] what it is. Now, there is an enclosure [peribolos] in the city, the enclosure of Aphrodite in the Gardens [kēpoi], as she is called. It is not far away, and there is an underground descending-passage [kathodos] that goes through it [= the enclosure]. This descending-passage is not-artificial-but-natural [automatē]. By way of this passage the maidens descend [katienai], and, [when they arrive] down below [katō], they leave behind the things they were carrying [pherein] and [replacing those things] they take [lambanein] something else, which they bring-back [komizein]—something that is covered [kaluptesthai]. These maidens [parthenoi], after this, are dismissed, and then there are other maidens led [agein] up to the Acropolis as replacements for them.

{1.27.3} subject heading(s): arrhēphoroi (Arrhephoroi); aetiology; drân ‘do, ritually-perform’; pherein ‘carry’; agein ‘lead’

As I indicated in the introductory paragraph of this posting, Pausanias at 1.27.3 is engaged in correlating a ritual with a myth, thus pointing to a traditional aetiology. (For a working definition of aetiology, see the Inventory of terms and names.) Unlike other interpreters of this passage, who are legion (there is a most helpful survey in Calame 2001:131–133), I argue that Pausanias here goes out of his way not only to say some things but also to leave other things unsaid. The leaving-out is just as intentional as the leaving-in. And I argue further that such leaving-out of some things is just as traditional as the leaving-in of other things. This further argument, which I present here only its barest outlines, is based on research I have done elsewhere, especially in an article on traditional wording in other Greek texts referring to other rituals, Nagy 2017, where I study the wording of the Linear B tablet Tn 316 from Pylos. In that article, I argue that the Greek word pherein ‘carry’, with reference to the carrying of ritual objects, is programmatically linked to the Greek word agein ‘lead’, with reference to leading or at least directing the carriers who carry such objects toward their proper ritual destination. The programmatic linking of such words, as I show in that article by analyzing not only Greek but also other Indo-European ritual texts, tends to be strictly controlled by ritual protocols concerning what can and cannot be spoken. In Pausanias 1.27.3, I now argue, we see a comparable linking of the words pherein ‘carry’ and agein ‘lead’. Even the element –phoros ‘carrying’ of the word arrhēphóros (I leave for another occasion my interpretation of the element arrhē-) shows the workings of a traditional interaction between pherein as a ‘carrying’ of a ritual object and agein as the ‘leading’ of the carriers by those who give the directions. In the case of the ritual described by Pausanias at 1.27.3, I note with special interest this detail: even the priestess of Athena who directs the Arrhephoroi to carry what they carry is unaware of the contents being carried—from the standpoint of ritual re-enactment. This ritualized unawareness corresponds to the mythologized unawareness of the daughters of Kekrops concerning the contents of the kibōtos ‘box’ entrusted to them by the goddess Athena. In the myth of the Kekropides as retold by Pausanias at 1.18.2 and as analyzed in Classical Inquiries 2018.01.25, the girl Pandrosos refrains from opening the box that contains what is not to be seen, not to be talked about, and so she remains unaware. By contrast, the girl Aglauros, together with her sister Hersē, opens the box out of curiosity and then, becoming aware by way of seeing what she sees, she plunges to her death from the top of the Acropolis. It has been argued that the sister Hersē is a later addition to an earlier mythological pair consisting of Pandrosos and Aglauros (Frame 2009:470–474). Perhaps, then, a new mythological pairing of Hersē and Aglauros may now be seen as matching the ritual pair of Arrhephoroi who descend from the top of the Acropolis to “ground zero”. In any case, the orderly ritual descent of the two Arrhephoroi matches the catastrophic mythological plunge experienced by two daughters of Kekrops. And, in the process of their descent, the Arrhephoroi pass through a natural underground kathodos ‘downward-pathway’ that corresponds to a Mycenaean passage from the Acropolis all the way down to a spring located at this same “ground zero” (details surveyed by Pirenne-Delforge 1994:50–59; following mostly Burkert 1966).


See the dynamic Bibliography for APRIP.

Inventory of terms and names

See the dynamic Inventory of terms and names for APRIP.