The Athenian Adonia in Context

The Adonis Festival as Cultural Practice

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Laurialan Reitzammer
  • Madison, WI: 
    University of Wisconsin Press
    , May
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Laurialan Reitzammer’s The Athenian Adonia in Context is a thorough collection and examination of all the surviving evidence we have for the ancient Athenian ritual of the Adonis festival. This monograph not only assembles the evidence, but places it in context, reading it against related social phenomena and arguing that the lack of such contextualization in the past has led scholars to misinterpret the Adonia as private, marginal, and easily dismissed. 

At this project the book succeeds exceptionally well, presenting a truly exhaustive study that considers, for example, all surviving vase-paintings of the Adonia and the conventions that govern vase-painting in general to create deeply informed reads of the available evidence. The particular highlight of this technique is the third chapter, “Funerals: Aristophanes’s Adôniazousai,” in which Reitzammer reinterprets a famous dismissive quotation about the Adonis festival delivered by a character in an ancient comedy. Reitzammer persuasively builds a case for how scholars have used this quotation in the past to argue that the Adonia was perceived as ridiculous in ancient Athens, why this quotation should be approached with skepticism—the character delivering it is unsympathetic, antagonistic, and ridiculed himself—and how a fuller read of the play as a whole reveals persistent parallels to the Adonis festival that position it as the central tactic utilized by the protagonist to drive the plot. This particular case study demonstrates the importance of contextual reading more broadly, especially in the case of classics, where evidence is scanty and interpretations of an entire culture may hinge on a single line of preserved text.

In its larger project to “[trace] the strains and the difficulties in marking the opposition between public and private, serious and trivial, central and peripheral with regard to the Adonia” (11), the book is largely successful, but does occasionally push particular readings of the Adonia further than the evidence can support—especially when discussing issues of margins vs. center. Although Reitzammer makes a convincing case that the women involved used the Adonia to comment on such serious public matters as war (the use of funerary lament for Adonis on the eve of the Athenian expedition to Sicily being a particularly striking example [83-88]), much of the evidence she presents for how non-participants viewed the festival actually reinforcesthe idea that the Adonia remained on the margins. In fact, the highly informative comparisons she makes between the Adonia and other cult rituals perceived as “foreign” cements the idea of the Adonis festival as nonmainstream practice linked to fears about women and their uncontrolled behavior (63-70). Although this certainly does contest the idea that the Adonia is unimportant or wholly private—how else could it generate fears for the public good?—it posits the festival as distinctly outside mainstream public religion. Reitzammer builds a strong case for the idea that the Adonia meant different things to those practicing it (the women that used it to comment on marriage practices and war policy), and to those observing it (city officials and other male public figures). But to say that a marginal practice comments on the center is by no means to place that practice at the center, nor does it particularly trouble the opposition between “central and peripheral.” In fact, it would be difficult to find a marginalized group or practice that does not comment upon the mainstream culture that excludes it.

The effort to force the Adonia into a position of central importance that it plainly does not occupy is nowhere more evident than in the fourth chapter, “Philosophy: Gardening for Fun in Plato’s Phaedrus.” Again demonstrating her skill at contextualizing evidence that has too often been taken out of context, Reitzammer convincingly proves within a few pages that a comment formerly believed to be a dismissal of the Adonis festival (opposing its “playful” practices to “serious” work) actually links the festival to the practice of philosophy as conceptualized by Socrates in this text. However, having provided a superior reading of this quotation, Reitzammer then spends the rest of the chapter making increasingly tenuous connections between the Adonis festival and the rest of the philosophical text, at one point going so far as to claim as significant their shared use of the extraordinarily common Greek adjective kalos (good/beautiful) for both the mythical Adonis and the philosophical Phaedrus (115). Unlike her convincing case for the festival’s centrality in Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, Reitzammer’s attempt to place the Adonia at the center of philosophical thought feels overstretched; the festival provides a good metaphor at one point in the dialogue, but cannot be sustained over the whole of the work as Reitzammer suggests.

Despite this one shortcoming, however, Reitzammer’s study does an excellent job of undoing our current perceptions of the Adonia as unimportant to scholarship on the Athenian polis and ancient Greek religion. Contrary to this tradition, her work has given us a deeper understanding of previously ignored references and frameworks through which to read the surviving evidence from classical Greece. She has certainly dismantled the idea that the Adonia had no effect on or political ramifications for the polis, and this book offers new ways for scholars of gender and religion to understand the use of women’s ritual as a vehicle for the dissenting voices that have been almost completely erased from the official record. Although Reitzammer may not have completely undone the peripheral status of this festival and its female participants, she effectively contests the idea that practices on the margins can be safely ignored, either by the political figures of the past or the scholars of the present.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel M. E. Wolfe is Adjunct Professor at the University of Puget Sound.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Laurialan Reitzammer is an assistant professor of classics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.



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