Academic journal article Helios

Playing the Tortoise Reading Symbols of an Ancient Folk Game

Academic journal article Helios

Playing the Tortoise Reading Symbols of an Ancient Folk Game

Article excerpt

While the entrance of children into the world of adults has captured attention as a rite of passage with a more formalized conception of ritual, children's lore per se in antiquity is still a largely unexplored topic. While classical scholars often discuss how poems and rituals passed from one generation to another, the tendency has been to neglect the role of children in the transmission of traditional activities and poems, and the interconnections between adult and children's performances. (1) In this paper, I analyze the poetics of one particular game that presents important themes for the study of gender in antiquity: the tortoise game. Specifically, I suggest that by looking at the use of this game in the poetry of Erinna, and by following traces of similar poetic imagery in other parts of the Greek tradition that focus on the female voice, we can form a new approach to the interrelation of different generations and the transition from girlhood to womanhood. (2) As I argue, the tortoise is a marked and evocative reference that bestows greater meaning to performances that highlight this animal figure in their poetics. My aim is to analyze aspects of the processes of oral transmission and to recognize the diachronic context in which variation and re-creation of performances take place. (3) It is only when we see what kind of communication is established among different generations, and how memories of childhood or adolescence are evoked in their literary representations, that we can fully evaluate how a collective voice is formed and becomes a steering force in poetic memory. In both the representation of the tortoise game and Erinna's fragments, there are clear and direct references to female work and death--important aspects of adult daily life. Through games and innocent songs, children are exposed to social norms and expectations; at the same time, the narrative in the songs alludes to cultural practices and beliefs that are perpetuated in time.

I. The Chelicheldne Game

Let us first consider the ancient testimonia for the tortoise game (chelichelone). Julius Pollux, the second-century CE lexicographer and rhetorician, describes the game, to which Erinna and Eustathius also refer. (4) The game presents an antiphonal structure, a dialogue enacted by a group of girls, one pretending to be the tortoise, in a crystallized version of real game activity which links skillfully the themes of death and traditional female wool-working.

The 'tortoise' is a girls' game, similar to the 'pot.' One
girl sits and is
called the 'tortoise' whereas the others run around her
asking her:
"Tortoise, what are you doing in the middle?
I'm weaving wool and Milesian thread." (5)
Then they shout back:
"What was your son doing when he died?
From white horses into the sea he was--jumping." (6)

At the very utterance of the word 6iXato (jumped), the girl playing the tortoise jumps up and tries to tag another girl, who then becomes the tortoise, ensuring the game's circularity and continuation. Unlike other ancient games' rules, it is not difficult to reconstruct those of this game. They are highly reminiscent of the ephedrismos or ephedriasmos, derived from the verb ephedrizo (to sit upon), referring to a game in which the players try to throw balls or pebbles on a stone placed upright on the ground. If they fail, one player has to carry another while her eyes are covered by the rider's hands until she touches the stone. (7) The iconography of the ephedrismos game clearly reveals it a children's game. The tortoise game, however, according to Pollux, is a game for parthenoi, a word that can refer to girls of marriageable age (Levaniouk 2008, 209). In my reading here, I treat the tortoise game as one of the most common little girls' games in antiquity performed as a 'ring' game; but because of its evocative poetics, it seems to influence, and be a locus of reference for, older girls as well. Its appearance in Erinna's poetry, as we shall see, attests to its importance not merely as a game but as the earliest choral instruction in female repertoire, with the game's action coordinated with a short song. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.