Kore as Nymph, not Daughter:
Persephone in a Locrian Cave

Bonnie MacLachlan
University of Western Ontario

The descent and return of Kore/Persephone was commemorated in ritual at Locri Epizephyrii, where her shrine enjoyed singular prominence in antiquity, but had a focus that was markedly different from the narrative of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Western Locri was in the orbit of the Greek colonies of the West, not of Attica and the Greek mainland. Here in Magna Graecia and in Sicily the significance of the disappearance of Kore was not its effect upon the aggrieved and enraged Demeter, but the fact that it was the first step in a theogamy, a sacred marriage. The famous terracotta plaques (pinakes) that were unearthed by Paolo Orsi in the early 20th century from Persephone's shrine on the Mannella hill at Locri honour Kore as bride, and the fact that as bride she becomes Queen of the Dead. In one type of the pinakes she is shown with Hades receiving Dionysos in the Underworld, a depiction of three gods with chthonic powers. These votive plaques, representing different scenes in the narrative of Persephone's abduction, marriage and reign as Queen, together with other votive objects left at Mannella, can best be explained as proteleia, gifts left for the goddess by Locrian brides, but they honor the reality that Persephone was not only married to Hades, but in Hades, where she assumed the role of conferring (or withholding) privileges for the dead.

The pinakes date from the second half of the 5th century B.C.E. In the next century we find ritual activity elsewhere in Locri--in a Cave of the Nymphs--activity that also combines nuptial with Underworld elements. Votive artifacts common to both sites clearly link both rituals, but in the later one the proteleia are informed by a much more complex array of religious, philosophical and cultural currents that flowed through the Greek West in the Hellenistic period. This paper addresses the question of the nature of the ritual that took place in the cave and explores the way in which the fundamental characteristics of nymphs in Greek thought were reflected in the experience of the women participants in this ritual.

The cave, known as the Grotta Caruso, has been published in a recent monograph by Felice Costabile (I ninfei di Locri Epizefiri,1991). The cave opening as described by Paolo Arias, who excavated it in 1940 (Le Arti, 1941), was large and its height over 9 feet. Inside was a basin that could be filled with water to a depth of about 2 feet, brought from a spring in the cave through a system of canalization. A large block positioned in the basin would have been submerged when it was filled with water and clearly served for part of the ritual; nearby is a stone altar that was intended to remain above water when the basin was filled, as it was raised from ground level with rocks placed beneath it. By a series of stairs the participants could descend to the water. Niches in the walls of the cave were repositories for a wide variety of votives--prenuptial offerings and objects found in other nymphaea, in women's tombs, and in Persephone-Demeter shrines.

Before examining the ritual itself and the votive objects that might provide details about what activities took place in the cave, it may be important to reflect upon the Greek idea of nymph, and what particular connotations it might have had in Locri. Nymphê is the Greek word for "bride." In this respect Persephone was a nymph, and it would make sense for ritual activity in the Mannella shrine to be continued in the Grotta Caruso. More accurately, however, it is the Greek word for "nubile young woman," since words like nymphê or parthenos reflect a social, not a technical, legal, or physical reality. (Penelope is called nymphê at Od. 4.743.) Greek literature is full of unmarried wood nymphs or water nymphs, young women who lived in the wild, in the countryside--the untamed areas--where they were accompanied by Pan or silens. These mythical nymphs, like their male companions, were sexual creatures. Nymphai, mortal and mythical, were sexual beings by definition, as Jennifer Larson has pointed out (Greek Nymphs. Myth, Cult, Lore [2001] 3). Mythical nymphai were aggressively so: nympholepts like Narcissus or Sicilian shepherds were victims of these female erotic predators, deinai theai (Theocritus, Id. XIII.43). The erotic valence that surrounded nubile women generally in Greece was heightened in stories involving mythical nymphs, but also surrounded the human nymphai (brides) of Locri, the city's nubile young women. James Redfield, in his recent book The Locrian Maidens: Love and Death in Greek Italy (2003), has drawn attention to the consequences of the fact that in Locri women were foregrounded in ways we have not as yet encountered on the Greek mainland. Locrian women, not men, transmitted class and rank through the marriage bond. Locrian men may have conveyed property through marriage, but Locrian women determined the social status of their husbands. Their nubility possessed the potential to confer nobility. Prenuptial rituals, such as those that took place at the Mannella shrine and in the Grotta Caruso, had social consequences that went much further than providing a rite of passage for girls, and it is probably safe to say that they commanded the attention of Locrian citizens generally.

The essential eroticism of Greek nymphs was combined with two other important features, the chthonic and the playful. In Greek myth and iconography nymphs also formed part of the Dionysiac thiasos, being indistinguishable from maenads in many instances (see Cornelia Isler-Kerenyi, AA [1999.4] 553-56, and Larson, Greek Nymphs, 91-96). In the Hellenistic period they participated in the expanding complexity of Dionysos--god of the theater and of play, of wine and the thyrsus, of madness and ecstasy, of death and rebirth, the god who offered hopes for an afterlife--and this intricate assembly of powers found its way into the symbolic expressions for the nymphs, ritual and human, who frequented the Grotta Caruso.

Like the Persephone-nymph depicted on the pinakes, the nymphs in the cave possessed chthonic features. Caves were not infrequently represented as entrances to the Underworld. (We call to mind the cave in which Odysseus takes refuge [Od. 13.96-112] with its two entrances, one of which allows the "descent of mortals," while the other is reserved for immortals.) Shrines honoring nymphs were frequently found in proximity to those of other chthonic gods such as Zeus Meilichios. (A nymphê whose shrine was located in the Athenian agora may have been the consort of this god [Larson, Greek Nymphs, 112].) The young Locrian women who entered the Grotta Caruso and descended the stairs may well have been enacting a ritual descent to the Underworld where, like Persephone, they prepared themselves to encounter an underworld spouse.

The erotic and the chthonic are central to the Greek portrait of nymphs and appropriate features for prenuptial activity in Persephone-dominated Locri. During the ritual activity at the Grotta, we assume that nubile young women went down the stairs and into the basin of water. Prenuptial ritual bathing was common in cults dedicated to nymphs. That the Locrian women sat on the submerged rock and poured water over themselves seems likely. It would find a parallel in Callimachus' Aitia 66, describing an Argive practice where women weave a robe for Hera, but only after they sit down on a rock in the fountain of the water nymph Amymone and pour sacred water over their heads. Callimachus addresses Amymone and other water-nymphs:

…heroines, children of the daughter of Iasus (Io).
Bride of Poseidon, water-nymph, for those women whose task it was
To weave the pure robe for Hera, to stand beside the weavers' rods
Before they had sat on the sacred rock and poured your water down over their heads

Was not right. This is the rock in the center, around which you flow.
Queenly Amymone, and beloved Physadea
And Hippe and Automate, hail most ancient homes of nymphs,
And flow, sparkling Pelasgian maidens.

Another parallel to the Grotta Caruso ritual may be suggested by one of the Sacred Laws of Cyrene (SEG IX.72.16), which prescribes a katabasis to appease Artemis for the loss of virginity at marriage:

A bride must go down to the nymphaeum to Artemis, whenever she wishes at the Artemisia, but the sooner the better. Any woman who does not go down shall sacrifice in addition what is necessary for young women. If she has not gone down, she will purify the shrine and sacrifice in addition a full-grown animal as penalty.

That there was water accompanying this ritual is suggested by the fact that underground chambers have been found in Cyrene below water level, with seats carved into the rock and a 4th century dedication inscription to Artemis (F. Chamoux,.Cyrène sous les Battiades [1953] 318).

The Cyrenean ritual, like those at the Grotta Caruso, was connected with marriage, and the votive artifacts from the Locrian cave consist of a complex array of proteleia, including a large number of terracotta nude females, kneeling or sitting but with truncated limbs. These figurines have been found in women's tombs in Locri and in the area of the theater. Elsewhere in Magna Graecia and in Sicily they also turn up in the graves of young women. Often their arms have been deliberately cut off, or their legs at the calves or the knees. Some have holes in the truncated limbs, suggesting that limbs could be added, like dolls with articulated arms and legs that could move. These dolls, who wear the polos, are likely votive gifts intended for a goddess who would oversee a young girl's transition as nymphê. One of the better known epigrams from the Hellenistic Anthology (AP VI.280) honours Timareta, a korê who died before her marriage, but after she had dedicated her dolls to Artemis Limnatis:

Timareta before her wedding dedicated her tambour and her lovely ball
And the hair-net that held her hair.
Her dolls
(korai), too, to Artemis of the Lake, a korê to a korê, as is fitting,
And the clothing of the dolls.
Daughter of Leto, do you place your hand over the girl Timareta
And in purity may you preserve her purity.

The epigram makes explicit a triple identification of korai: Timareta-korê, Artemis-korê, and the votive doll-korai. This may provide us with a clue to understanding the role of these Grotta Caruso dolls: the polos they wear suggests that they are intended to represent a goddess-korê, Persephone perhaps, or a presiding Nymph of the Grotto; they could have functioned as korê-doll gifts to the goddess while at the same time representing the korai-nymphai who were performing rituals in the nymphaeum.

The nude figurines were also found in the Mannella sanctuary, and Persephone's presence is felt in the Grotta with the occurrence of terracotta busts like many found throughout this part of the world in Demeter/Persephone sanctuaries. But nymphs are also clearly represented by the artifacts. Many terracotta plaques featuring three female heads were found in the Grotta, sometimes with Pan and sometimes with Dionysiac symbols. This trio of heads is found in nymphaea, in Persephone shrines, and in tombs elsewhere in the Greek world, but in the Grotta Caruso an unusual combination occurs: sometimes the nymphs appear with a tauromorph, a bull with a human face and horns. The iconography of this figure is consistent with portraits of Acheloos or other river gods, and we have textual evidence that ties the Locrian one to a river. An inscription on one of the Grotta's plaques names the bull-man as Euthymos, a curious Locrian hero. Euthymos was a historical figure, a boxer from Locri who was victorious at Olympia three times. A statue was erected there in his honour (its inscription survives), and Callimachus celebrated his successes (frr. 84-85 Pf). But we learn from Pausanias (VI.6.4), Pliny the Elder (NH VII.152) and Aelian (VH VIII.18) that Euthymos also achieved legendary status by vanquishing a daimon that had been menacing the nearby city of Temesa. The city had been obliged by Delphi to propitiate an earlier offence by offering to the daimon the most beautiful parthenos in the city each year. Euthymos' reward for defeating the daimon was to receive as bride, as nymphê, the young girl dedicated that year. The nuptial connection between Euthymos and the Grotta's nymphs becomes clearer. It is enhanced, however, by the water connection of Euthymos. As a legendary figure he was the son of the river Kaikinos, and when his long life was over he leapt into a river and disappeared. Historical and legendary hero, he was also a cult-hero: when two of his statues were miraculously struck by lightning on the same day, Delphi prescribed a cult in his honour. Why, we may ask ourselves, did the Locrian women dedicate in the Grotta these plaques with the three nymphs and Euthymos? There are no parallels for this practice, and no analogies to be found in texts from elsewhere. It could well be that there was a general hero-cult of Euthymos in Locri in which the young women participated, then integrated their experience into this other ritual. The narrative of the Temesian daimon fits a Locrian narrative pattern in which nubile women are preserved from danger (e.g., Pindar, Pyth. 2.19), and a woman who purchased a plaque with Euthymos and the nymphs could be making a thank-offering for the general security of Locrian parthenoi. Or her focus could be the erotic connection between a hero and a parthenos, under the patronage of those sexual divinities at the spring, the nymphs. The connection between a hero with water-associations and a nubile young woman under the patronage of the sexual divinities of the Grotta's spring perhaps explains it. Not to be forgotten, however, is the fact that Euthymos as a tauromorph is a dead hero, a chthonic spouse.

Beyond the erotic and the chthonic there is a third feature of Greek nymphs, the playful aspect. Nymphs are playful, and transgressively so. This may help to explain one of the most curious aspects of the activities that took place in the Grotta, the theatrical. Many of the artifacts from the cave were also found with votive deposits in the Hellenistic theater in Locri, such as the nude female figures wearing the polos and plaques with the three nymphs. But more direct theatrical elements appeared in the cave itself--masks, silens and comic actors, and a large figure belonging to the phlyax theater (Costabile, I ninfei di Locri Epizefiri, fig. 128). It has the distorted body, grotesque face and protruding belly associated with phlyax actors depicted on South Italian vases. Phlyax plays have long been assumed to be a kind of South Italian farce, precursors of the Atellana, but T.B.L. Webster, followed now by Oliver Taplin in Comic Angels (1993), would give them a better pedigree. Taplin argues that, like the Apulian vases, the degree of their sophistication has long been under-estimated because of the (appropriate) grotesquery of the characters. Taplin makes a strong case for the sophisticated wit of the people of Southern Italy and Sicily, where phlyax plays were enjoyed: with inter-textual evidence he demonstrates that these were clever parodies of the great Athenian tragedies, and even meta-comic, with allusions to Aristophanes. We know that Locri participated in the genre. The Locrian poet Nossis celebrated the best-known phlyax playwright of Magna Graecia, Rhinthon, in an epitaph that invites the passer-by to laugh loudly at his tomb (AP 7.414)

As you pass by laugh, laugh loudly, and spare a kind word
for me. I am Rhinthon of Syracuse.
I may have been one of the lesser nightingales of the Muses,
but I picked myself a special ivy-wreath thanks to my tragic phlyakes.

Rhinthon, who was born in Syracuse but worked in Taras/Tarentum, has earned the reputation of expanding the genre of tragi-comedy, subverting some of the Attic conventions. It is very likely that his plays were performed in the theater at Locri, and the presence of a phlyax figure in the Grotta suggests that Locrian women enjoyed the sophistication and wit he represents. It is worth recalling that comic plays were written about Locrian women: the title Locrides is ascribed to both Anaxandrides and Posidippus. There may have been actual theatrical performances in the cave: among the votive objects were miniature models of the Grotta on which curtains were carved in relief. Terracotta figurines of comic actors and musicians, along with masks, indicate the importance of the theater to the votaries. The chiaroscuro mix of the serious and the comic, like the interplay between death and life, would be appropriate for the rituals in a nymphaeum.

The spoudogeloion environment of the Locrian cave may be explained further by the reflection that Persephone's presence would have been felt along with that of the nymphs. Laurie O'Higgins, in Women and Humor in Classical Greece (2003), argues that the ritual abuse in which Greek women engaged at Demeter/Persephone festivals like the Thesmophoria played a part in the general development of sexual humor in Greek poetry and the enjoyment of the grotesque on the comic stage. These "carnivals of women," as she calls them, explored the possibilities that came out of the grotesque, reflected in--for example--the pregnant crone figures found at Demeter/Persephone sites, or Baubo figurines. (Paolo Orsi in excavating the Mannella shrine found a Baubo figure.) In the Grotta Caruso the Locrian brides probably indulged in the ridiculous and the excessive with their comic votives; the voices and the laughter that echoed from the Grotta may have been anything but solemn.

A feature that merits further research is the direct connection in Southern Italy and Sicily between nymphaea and the theater. The largest and best-known theater in the area is of course that of Syracuse, frequented by Pindar, Aeschylus, Plato, and Lysias. And directly behind the top tier of seats is a nymphaeum. This was situated next to the pre-existing Via dei Sepolcri, the "Street of the Tombs" that later became one of the entries to the theater. As in the Grotta Caruso, we have in Syracuse the collocation of death, nymphs and theater. We also have water: today, the water still flows from a spring through the alcove of the central cave. Before the construction of the Syracusan theater the niches in the rocks (some artificial and some natural) afforded places for votive deposits to the nymphs who provided fresh water. Even earlier, the pre-Greek population used these niches for burials. When Paolo Orsi excavated the nymphaeum in 1900 he found female busts, nymph-plaques with three small heads, a relief of Pan and a silen mask: the nymphs here were poised to play.

The collocation of theaters with springs, fountains and nymphaea is remarkably common in the Greek Mediterranean world: examples are found in Sicily at Agrigento, Akrai, Morgantina, Segesta, Tindari and Taormina. And the collocation in various sites of votive artifacts representing Demeter/Persephone with comic figures and masks is no less striking. Perhaps the most impressive collection to date was unearthed on the island of Lipari, off the north shore of Sicily. (These are described by Bernabò Brea in Menandro e il teatro Greco nelle terracotta liparese, 1981.) Here, in the necropolis known as Contrada Diana, was a Koreion. Busts of Persephone were found in the Koreion together with silens. From tombs in the necropolis came a stunning and precious collection of terracotta masks, of characters from Attic tragedy and satyr plays, from Middle Comedy, phlyax plays, and New Comedy. Lipari was clearly devoted to the theater in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.E., and the theatrical life appears to have been continued after death. In many tombs were found eggs, a universal symbol of death and renewal. Eggs also appear to have been tied to the phlyax theater. On a Lucanian crater from the 4th century a phlyax player holds up a platter with five eggs (P. Claudio Sestieri, Dioniso 7 [1940] 191-95). In another Campanian crater a phlyax player converses with Dionysos; the god holds his thyrsos, the actor a torch in his right hand and an egg in his left (Gennaro Pesce, Dioniso 7 [1939] 162-65). This is a clear collocation of the chthonic and the playful.

Returning to Locri and the women's katabasis ritual in the Hellenistic period, we can, I think, make better sense of the Grotta's conflation of the erotic, the chthonic and the playful by seeing how Dionysos moved through the rest of this part of the world at this time. He was a natural fit with the nymphs and with Persephone: as Heraclitus says, "Hades and Dionysos are one" (fr. 15 DK). Dionysos released the soul through ecstasis and through play. No direct representations of Dionysos have been found inside the Grotta, but his companions--silens, phlyakes, nymphs and likely Persephone herself--offered the participants a world like that enjoyed by his initiates, one which hinted at the ultimate reality he promised.