Erotic desecration and sacralization in Greek myth and ritual

2018.07.06 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. The brief remarks in this post, dated 2018.07.06, pick up from where I left off in the post that is dated 2018.06.30. In my more lengthy remarks there, at §10, I started to argue that the erotic activity as narrated by the first-person speaker in the so-called First Cologne Epode of Archilochus, F 196a W, is ultimately not an act of desecration but rather an act of sacralization, sanctioned within a sacred space. I continue the argumentation here by analyzing situations where a narrated desecration in terms of myth can function as a sacralization in terms of ritual. In both the visual and the verbal arts, I argue, a khlaina or ‘cloak’ that covers a given depiction of erotic activity can function as a symbol of such sacralization.

A pair of heteroerotic lovers in a standing embraced covered by a cloak. Fragment of a red-figure cup, ca. 525–500 BCE.
A pair of heteroerotic lovers, in a standing embrace, covered by a cloak. Fragment of a red-figure cup, around 525–500 BCE. Louvre, Campana Collection G99, 1861. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. A primary context for sacralizing erotic activity, from the standpoint of my argument, is the framing of such activity within a temenos. This Greek word temenos, which is conventionally translated as ‘precinct’, is what I have in mind when I speak of a sacred space that functions as an actual setting for erotic activity in myth. Here I agree with the reasoning of Laura Swift (2015:19, with bibliography), who shows that the erotic activity narrated by the first-person speaker in the First Cologne Epode of Archilochus F 196a W may have been pictured as happening within a space that was sacred to the goddess Hera. As Swift points out, it is relevant that Hera can be pictured as a model for the erotic activity of seduction. A case in point is the Homeric scene where Hera seduces Zeus as if the two divinities were young unmarried lovers. At the climax of this seduction, as narrated in Iliad 14.342–345, Zeus covers himself and Hera with a golden cloud at the climax of their embrace. Something strikingly similar happens at the climax of the seduction scene as narrated in the Cologne Epode: in this case, the man who is seducing the woman says at verse 45 that he covered himself and his sexual partner with a khlaina ‘cloak’ at the climax of their embrace, so that the erotic details of their lovemaking are in the end not revealed. It can be argued, then, that this act of hiding the climax of a sexual encounter is typical of Hera, and that the encounter that we see being narrated in the Cologne Epode could be staged, as it were, inside a precinct that was sacred to this goddess.

§2. References to such a staging of a seduction scene inside the sacred space of Hera can be found in a set of relevant sources considered by Laura Swift (2015:19), and I will highlight here two of them.

§3. One of these sources is a poem of Dioscorides, who lived in the third century BCE. In this poem, preserved in the Greek Anthology (7.351), the daughters of Lykambes are pictured as speaking from the dead—from a tomb in which they are buried—and they are lamenting their suicide caused by what they say were false stories told about them by Archilochus: they deny, as we read at verses 7–8, that Archilochus ever succeeded in seducing them—that he ever even saw them ‘in the causeways [aguiai]’ of the city (ἐν ἀγυιαῖς) and ‘in the great precinct [temenos] of Hera’ (῞Ηρης ἐν μεγάλῳ τεμένει). These daughters of Lykambes, pictured here as speaking from their tomb, are evidently the same two girls whose reputations were ruined in the first-person narrative of the Cologne Epode of Archilochus.

§4. The second of the two relevant sources I am highlighting is a fragmentary poem preserved in Dublin Papyrus 193a, dated to the late third century BCE. Here again the daughters of Lykambes are pictured as speaking from their tomb, protesting what they say were false stories told about them by Archilochus.

§5. In the first of the two poems I have highlighted, the references to aguiai ‘causeways’ at verse 7 and to the temenos ‘precinct’ of Hera at verse 8 indicate, I think, that the girls are sacred to the goddess, and that they have a sacral role both inside the precinct of Hera and in processions to that precinct along the causeways of the city. The word temenos ‘precinct’ is explicit in associating the girls with their sacred roles. As for the word aguia ‘causeway’, it too is explicit, since it can apply to a “via sacra” along which a procession takes place. As I observe elsewhere (HPC 13n19, with bibliography), such an application of this word aguia is attested in a verse quoted by Thucydides 3.104.4 from the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (corresponding to line 148 as transmitted in the medieval tradition).

§6. That said, I will now argue that the tomb of the daughters of Lykambes was situated within a precinct that was sacred not only to Hera but also to Archilochus himself in his role as a cult hero.

§7. In the posting of 2018.06.30, §7, I drew attention to what Pausanias says at 2.32.4 about the tomb of Phaedra. This tomb, he reports, was situated within the temenos ‘precinct’ of Hippolytus, worshipped as a cult hero by the people of Troizen. So also, I argue, the tomb of the daughters of Lykambes was situated within the temenos ‘precinct’ of Archilochus, worshipped as a cult hero by the people of Paros. But that is only one part of the argument.

§8. The temenos ‘precinct’ of Hippolytus as cult hero was shared by this hero with divinities like Aphrodite, whose presence is noted by Pausanias at 2.32.3—not only with divinities like Apollo, noted at 2.32.2. So also, I propose, the temenos of Archilochus was shared with divinities like Hera—not only with divinities like, again, Apollo, who as we saw in the posting of 2018.06.30, §5, figures most prominently in the text of the Mnesiepes Inscription.

§9. Just as Phaedra, in terms of the myths and rituals of Troizen, may have been defamed unjustly by poetic tradition, so also the daughters of Lykambes, in terms of the myths and the rituals of Paros, may have had their own story to tell. The cloak that covers the two lovers in the Cologne Epode of Archilochus may thus be a symbol of the uncertainties surrounding the erotic encounter described in that poem. Here I cite a relevant work that was brought to my attention by Ettore Cingano: it is an extended study, by Giampiera Arrigoni (1983), of amorous encounters, and the picturing of such encounters in the visual arts can show a loving couple cloaked within the mystical protectiveness of a khlaina or ‘cloak’—which is what cloaks the infamous pair at the ending of the Cologne Epode.

A pair of heteroerotic lovers covered by a cloak.
A pair of heteroerotic lovers covered by a cloak. Sassari, National Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum Giovanni Antonio Sanna 2402. Drawing after Arrigoni 1983, table II.
A pair of heteroerotic lovers covered by a cloak.
A pair of heteroerotic lovers covered by a cloak. Bologna, Archaeological Museum, Palagi Collection 1434. Drawing after Arrigoni 1983, table III.
“The Kiss” (1907–1908), by Gustav Klimt (Austrian, 1862–1918). Oil on canvas, 180 cm x 180 cm.
“The Kiss” (1907–1908), by Gustav Klimt (Austrian, 1862–1918). Oil on canvas, 180 cm x 180 cm. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere 912. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Arrigoni, G. 1983. “Amore sotto il manto e iniziazione nuziale.” Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica 15:7–56.

Calame, C. 2009. “Referential Fiction and Poetic Ritual: Towards a Pragmatics of Myth (Sappho 17 and Bacchylides 13).” Trends in Classics 1:1-17.

Nagy, G. 2008. “Convergences and Divergences between God and Hero in the Mnesiepes Inscription of Paros.” In Archilochos and his Age II, ed. D. Katsonopoulou, I. Petropoulos, S. Katsarou, 259–265. Athens.

Nagy, G. 2015. “A poetics of sisterly affect in the Brothers Song and in other songs of Sappho.” A shorter version appeared in The Newest Sappho, ed. A. Bierl and A. Lardinois, 449–492. Leiden and Boston 2016.

Nagy, G. 2018.06.06. “Picturing Archilochus as a cult hero.” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2018.06.21. “A placeholder for the love story of Phaedra and Hippolytus: What’s love got to do with it?” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2018.06.30. “‘Sacred Space’ as a frame for lyric occasions.” Classical Inquiries.

Petropoulos, I. 2008. “Some New Thoughts on the Old ‘New Archilochos’ Fr. 196A West2.” In Archilochos and his Age II (ed. D. Katsonopoulou, I. Petropoulos, S. Katsarou) 123–131. Athens.

Swift, L. A. 2015. “Negotiating Seduction: Archilochus’ Cologne Epode and the Transformation of Epic.” Philologus 159:2–28.