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La force des objets : matrialit, formes, action rituelle

Du 30 mai au 1er juin 2013


Universit Toulouse 2-Le Mirail

Adeline Grand-Clment, Couleurs, rituels et normes religieuses en Grce ancienne


Dans un ouvrage rcent (What Color is the sacred?, 2009), M. Taussig rappelle que la
rvolution technologique du XIXe sicle, qui a permis la production des pigments et colorants
de synthse, a entran, dans les socits europennes, un dsenchantement de la couleur.
Arrache sa matrialit, elle a perdu le rle de substance magique polymorphe
(polymorphous magical substance) qui lui est dvolu dans nombre de socits nonoccidentales. Ainsi, chez les Indiens Chamacoco du Paraguay, tudis par T. Escobar, les
couleurs force the object to release hidden meanings, meanings that are neither complete
nor lasting, to be sure, but that can gesture, ever so obliquely, to truths that remain otherwise
concealed1 . Cest ce pouvoir dont la couleur peut investir un objet , cette efficacit
consistant faire jaillir des vrits, que je souhaiterais analyser, en me tournant vers les
pratiques rituelles des Grecs anciens, experts aux aussi dans la manipulation des pigments et
colorants. Dans leur systme de reprsentations, en effet, la poikilia ce que lon pourrait
traduire par la bigarrure tait mise en relation avec lharmonie et lagencement plaisant du
monde, le cosmos. Mais quel rle jouaient exactement les couleurs dans les dispositifs rituels,
destins prcisment entretenir de bons rapports avec les puissances divines et maintenir cet
ordre cosmique ? Les couleurs possdaient-elles une valeur intrinsque, mobilise pour entrer
en communication avec les puissances invisibles ? Les Grecs leur attribuaient-ils un mode
daction propre ?
Mener une telle enqute requiert de la prudence. En effet, les tudes danthropologie
historique consacres aux couleurs montrent quil nexiste pas de code symbolique
1

The Curse of Nemur: In Search of Art, Myth, and Ritual of the Ishir, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press,
2007, p. 66.

chromatique qui serait prtabli et immuable M. Taussig insiste juste titre sur le fait que
les manifestations colores se caractrisent par une grande fluidit et plasticit. Une couleur
nacquiert une signification, une efficacit spcifiques que lors du droulement dun rite
donn : les configurations sont ainsi varies. De plus, le mode daction des couleurs doit tre
pens en termes de relation, de manire dynamique : elles interagissent les unes par rapport
aux autres. Enfin, on ne doit pas abstraire les couleurs de leur support matriel, ni ngliger le
fait que leur charge symbolique se construit en association avec dautres proprits
sensorielles de ce support (objet ou substance) : texture, odeurs, sonorits. Nous garderons
donc ces donnes lesprit pour mener lanalyse.
Lorsque lon tudie les Grecs anciens, on naccde que de manire indirecte leurs pratiques
rituelles. Lhellniste ne peut malheureusement pas observer, la manire dun
anthropologue, le droulement des rituels. Les traces et les indices qui subsistent dans la
documentation figure et littraire donnent seulement accs des reprsentations, qui doivent
tre tudies en tant que telles. Voil pourquoi jai choisi ici dexplorer un type de sources
crites plus directes : les inscriptions rglementant les actes du culte et les comportements
lintrieur des sanctuaires. Il sagit de courts textes, varis, qui ont t gravs sur des bornes
ou des stles places lentre/ lintrieur des sanctuaires et auxquels les historiens
modernes ont donn le nom de lois sacres . La rglementation quils contiennent mane
soit de la cit, soit des autorits du sanctuaire ; elle concerne la puret rituelle et les conditions
daccs au temenos, la protection et la gestion des espaces verts qui font partie du domaine du
dieu, le calendrier du culte et le droulement des processions et sacrifices, la dvolution des
prtrises, Ce vaste corpus normatif de prescriptions et dinterdictions comporte plusieurs
centaines dinscriptions, qui manent de nombreuses parties du monde grec et schelonnent
entre le VIe s. av. J.-C. et le IIIe s. ap. J.-C.2. Les rfrences aux couleurs y reviennent de
manire rgulire, mais non systmatique. Chaque cas doit donc tre examin de manire
propre. Il est nanmoins possible de distinguer, dans lensemble des mentions releves, trois
types de configuration :
1- La couleur peut servir conjurer les risques de souillure (miasma) et prserver la puret
rituelle au sein de lespace sacr. La blancheur des substances et objets manipuls ou
ports (eau, bandelettes de laine, vtement,) vise ainsi garantir une communication
harmonieuse avec les dieux ce, en vertu des liens privilgis que la couleur blanche
entretient, aux yeux des Grecs, avec la lumire.
Elles ont fait lobjet dune dition en plusieurs volumes par F. Sokolowski, quil faut aujourdhui complter par
E. Lupu, Boston, Leiden, 2005.
2

2- La couleur peut tre lune des caractristiques exiges de la ou des victimes animales dans
le cadre de certains sacrifices. Il sagit souvent de se procurer des btes sans tache , au
pelage uniforme, tantt blanc, tantt noir, plus rarement roux. Le critre chromatique nest
alors que lun des lments se combinant avec dautres pour slectionner la victime
susceptible dtre accepte par la divinit concerne par le sacrifice, en accord avec sa sphre
dintervention, son mode daction, mais aussi sa place au sein du panthon local.
3- La couleur et le dcor du vtement de lofficiant, des participants aux rites et des plerins
entrant dans le sanctuaire font lobjet dune rglementation parfois stricte. Il sagit alors de
distinguer, de hirarchiser les diffrents acteurs en fonction de leur statut social et de leur
degr de participation aux rituels, mais aussi de plaire la divinit. De plus, cette dernire ne
doit pas tre offense : dans certains cas, les fidles ne peuvent pntrer dans le temenos
quaprs stre dpouill de leurs parures en or, des toffes pourpres ou richement colores,
dont le caractre ostentatoire pourrait attirer la colre divine. De tels rglements procdent
aussi dun souci de contrle du corps social. On peut en effet les rapprocher des lois
somptuaires qui, dans les cits grecques, visaient canaliser les manifestations du deuil
loccasion des funrailles.
Pour terminer, on confrontera les rsultats de lanalyse aux donnes rcoltes par les
anthropologues et les prhistoriens : quid de lexistence dune triade symbolique
noir/blanc/rouge, que lon retrouverait dans de nombreuses socits, et qui a t mise en
relation par V. Turner, et dautres aprs lui, avec la physiologie du corps humain3 ?

Colours, Rituals and Religious Norms in Ancient Greece


In a recent work (What Color is the sacred?, 2009), M. Taussig argues that the 19th century
technological revolution, which allowed to produce all kinds of artificial pigments and dyes,
led to a "disenchantment" of colour in European societies. Deprived of its materiality, colour
lost the function of a "polymorphous magical substance" it is still endowed with in many nonwestern societies. For example, according to the Chamacoco Indians from Paraguay, studied
by T. Escobar, colour forces the object to release hidden meanings, meanings that are
neither complete nor lasting, to be sure, drank that can gesture, ever so obliquely, to truths

Le blanc serait li au sperme ou au lait maternel, donc la puissance gnsique et la vie ; le noir la matire
en dcomposition, donc la mort ; le rouge occuperait une position charnire, en renvoyant au sang sang
guerrier dune part et sang menstruel de lautre.

that remain otherwise concealed4 . Thus, my paper will focus on the power bestowed on
objects by colour, and on colours power of revelation , through an analysis of the ritual
practices of the ancient Greeks, who were experts in the manipulation of pigments and dyes.
In their system of representations, poikilia what we could translate by variegation was
linked with harmony and cosmos - the pleasing arrangement of the world. Thus, one could
wonder what role colours played in ritual performances, when intended precisely to maintain
good relations with divine entities and to support the cosmic order? Did colours have an
intrinsic value, called forth to establish communication with invisible powers? Did the Greeks
assign a specific efficacy to colours?
Proceeding to such an investigation requires caution. As studies of colours in the field of
historical anthropology have shown, a pre-established and irremovable chromatic symbolic
code does not exist M. Taussig rightfully stresses the fact that coloured epiphanies are
characterized by fluidity and plasticity. Therefore a given colour may acquire specific
signification and effectiveness only during the sequence of a given ritual. Moreover, the mode
of action of colours must be thought in terms of relation, in a dynamic way: they interact.
Finally, one should not study colours apart from their material support, nor neglect the fact
that their symbolic content is built in association with the other sensory proprieties of the
support (whether it is object or a substance): texture, smells, sounds. We shall keep in mind
these data throughout our analyse.
The study of ancient Greek ritual practice relies upon indirect testimonies. Unfortunately,
hellenists cannot watch the sequence of rituals, like anthropologists do. They have to deal
with traces and indications to be found in literary and iconographic documentation, which are
mainly representations and that therefore must be studied as such. That's why I chose to
explore a more "direct type of written sources: the inscriptions regulating the acts of worship
and behaviours that are found inside shrines. These varied short texts were engraved on
boundary stones or steles put at the entrance and inside shrines, and which modern historians
called "sacred laws "5. The rules they contain emanate either from the city or from the
authorities of the shrine; they deal with many elements: ritual purity, the conditions of access
to the temenos, the protection and management of the green areas belonging to the gods, the
calendar of worship and the sequence of processions and sacrifices, the devolvement of
priesthoods, This vast normative corpus of prescripts and bans includes several hundred
4

The Curse of Nemur: In Search of Art, Myth, and Ritual of the Ishir, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press,
2007, p. 66.
5
They were edited in several volumes by F. Sokolowski, which can today be completed by E. Lupu, Greek
Sacred Laws, Boston: Leiden, 2005.

inscriptions, which come from many parts of the Greek world and from a large period of time,
spanning between the 6th century BC and the 3rd century AD . In these inscriptions,
references to colours are regular but not systematic. Every case must therefore be examined in
a specific way. It is however possible to identify three kinds of configuration:
1- Colour may serve to warn against risks of stain (miasma) and to preserve ritual purity
within the sacred space. The "whiteness" of substances and manipulated or carried objects
(water, wool bandages, pieces of clothe) aims at guaranteeing harmonious communication
with the gods by virtue of the strong links the colour white maintains with light, in the
Greek mind.
2- Colour may be one of the main characteristics required for the selection of animal victims
in some sacrifices. It is often a matter of offering "stainless" animals, sometimes white,
sometimes black, more rarely red-haired. The chromatic criterion is therefore one of the many
elements associated to choose the proper victim, so that it is likely to be accepted by the god it
is addressed to. The specific colour of the animal may reflect the sphere of intervention of the
divinity, his mode of action, or his place within the local pantheon.
3- The colour and adornment of the priests garments, as well as those of the participants in
rituals and of the pilgrims entering the shrine, may also be strictly regulated. It is then a
question of distinction between the different actors, according to their social status and their
degree of implication in rituals, but also of pleasing the gods. Besides, divine entities should
not be offended: in certain cases, male and especially female worshippers can enter the
temenos only after getting rid of their golden finery, of their purple and/ or many-coloured
clothes, to avoid divine jealousy and wrath. Such regulations are also a means of achieving
social order: they are very similar to sumptuary laws which, in the Greek cities, aimed at
channeling the demonstrations of mourning during funerals.
Finally, the end of my paper will confront the results of the current analysis with data
collected by anthropologists and prehistorians, and will wonder about the potential
black/white/red symbolic triad, that seems to be found in numerous societies, and whose
origin should be associated, according to V. Turner, and others after him, with the physiology
of the human body6?

White would be linked to semen or to maternal milk, therefore to potency and life; black to decomposing
material, therefore to death; red would occupy an intermediate position, being associated with blood warlike
blood on the one hand and menstrual blood on the other one.