Following his birth by Persephone, Dionysus’ life
was a troubled one. As a child playing, the Titans [the generation of gods
before that of Zeus] come upon him and dismember his body and feast upon it.
Zeus smells the burning flesh, discovers what the Titans have done and sends
them to Tartarus, that torturous part of the Underworld surrounded by a bronze
fence with iron gates reserved for those banished from the light. Athena
retrieves the heart of Dionysus, his essence, and gives it to Zeus. This is
simply the first phase of Dionysus’ suffering. Dionysus is the god of
the life of Dionysus was not over and to tell the rest of his story we must
first learn about the legend of Kadmos, ancestor of Oedipus. This will serve as
a preface to our first Greek tragedy, Euripides’ The Bacchantes.
Legend of Kadmos and the rebirth of Dionysus
story of Kadmos starts not in Greece but in Phoenicia, what is today Lebanon
just north of Israel. Agenor is king of Tyre, a coastal town, and he has a
beautiful daughter, Europa, who is coveted by mighty Zeus, divine father of gods
and men. One day when Europa is playing on the sea shore, Zeus comes to her in
the form of a handsome bull and coerces her upon his back. The bull then swims
out to sea, kidnaps Europa and takes her to the island of Crete, where her son
by Zeus, Minos, will one day be king.
we won’t follow Europa quite yet. We’ll leave her on Crete and instead
follow her brother, Kadmos, who their father sends in search of Europa. (We’ll
pickup Europa’s story in a later session.) In the company of their mother,
Kadmos wanders Greece looking for his sister. One of his stops is on the
volcanic island of Thera, then called Kalliste, where he leaves a small
contingent of Phoenicians to found a colony. The mother dies on the journey.
Kadmos continues on his way, but can’t find his sister, so he goes to the
famous oracle at Delphi to gain guidance from the god Apollo. But Apollo tells
Kadmos to forget Europa and instead found a city in Greece. Apollo tells him to
follow a cow to where it lays down and there found a city. This Kadmos does and
founds the city of Thebes in Boeotia. Thebes is situated on a hill overlooking
an agricultural plane. The citadel he names “Kadmia” for himself.
thing to notice in the Kadmos story is that it’s about a daughter, who is
kidnapped by a god and the mother who pursues her. The parent doesn’t find
her. The story of Demeter and Persephone is of the same type.)
countryside around Thebes, known as Boiotia, is agricultural and sacred to
Demeter, goddess of grain. But it is also sacred to Ares, god of war. No one
ever worshiped Ares and there are precious few temples for him throughout
Greece, but his presence hangs over Boiotia like the dark presence he is, full
of hate and lusting for violence. And all is not well for Kadmos and his
followers in Thebes because a large serpent kills some of his men at the spring
of Ares (which later became known as the Fountain of Dirce) when they go to draw
water. Kadmos then kills the “dragon,” which is the offspring of Ares, and
is told by the goddess Athena to sew its teeth in the soil like grains of corn.
This constitutes a symbolic mating between Ares and Gaia (Earth). Armed men, who
are called the “Sparti”
(sown men), sprout from the earth. The Sparti start
fighting among themselves, (as you might expect of a descendent of the war god)
and only five survive.
atone for his transgression against Ares, Kadmos works for the angry god eight
long years. But Kadmos is the most blessed of men, for Zeus gives him a divine
wife, Harmonia, the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, goddess of erotic love. All
the gods and goddess come to their wedding. They have four daughters and a son.
Zeus falls in love with one of the daughters, Semele, and sleeps with her. In
doing so, he re-inseminates the spirit of Dionysus into her.
Zeus’ divine wife Hera is jealous of Semele and, disguised as her nurse,
suggests Semele have Zeus come to her as he does her (Hera). But Zeus comes to
Hera as the thunderbolt and when he comes to Semele in this form, she is burned
to death, but Zeus saves the child, Dionysus. This is a “birth in fire”
which occurs frequently in myth and signals great promise. Zeus then retrieves
the infant Dionysus from Semele’s womb, and since the child is as yet not
fully formed, sews Dionysus into his own thigh. This is the beginning of
Dionysus’ second period of suffering.
being born from Zeus’ thigh, Semele’s sister, Ino, along with the nymphs of
Nysa raise the child as a girl and at times turn him into a goat to hide him
from jealous Hera. In his youth, Hera drives him mad, and he wanders the earth
from Egypt to Syria. Once when she finds him, Hera turns Dionysus into a bull.
While in Egypt, he invents wine and makes mankind aware of its uncivilized
pleasures. He travels in the company of his nurses, who become known as the
maenads. They communed with him during nocturnal, orgiastic rites on
mountaintops. Both male and female votaries dress in flowing garments and carry
the thyrsus, a staff wreathed in ivy and topped by a pinecone. Initially
Dionysus is mortal, but at some unknown time become immortal. His status as a
god is questioned in Thebes, and this questioning is the subject of our first
dismembering of Dionysus by the Titans and his re-insemination into Semele
illustrates Dionysus’ characteristic as the archetypal image of indestructible
life, zoë as opposed to bios.
The ancient Greek term zoë means
everlasting life, and bios is life’s limited manifestation (from which our
word “biography” comes). We experience our lives as a bios, a life with attributes but also with limitations, that which
is born and dies. But we also experience zoë, limitless life without
attributes, the human soul without the ego and persona. Our individual lives
(bios) are strung upon the unending thread of zoë as beads upon a necklace.
Each of us then contains both the infinite and the finite. The source of zoë is
the primal mother, Gaia, the goddess Earth. Dionysus is zoë.
is a god who transgresses boundaries. As the god of madness, he spans the
boundary between sanity and insanity. Since he was at different times turned
into a goat and a bull, he also has an animal nature, traversing the boundary
between what is human and animal, allowing what is distinctively human to blend
with nature. Since he was raised as a girl, Dionysus transcends male and female
genders. In particular Dionysus blurs the boundary between reality and illusion,
bringing into existence the phenomena known as theatre. He even transcends the
worlds of the mortal and the immortal since he was at one time mortal himself.
Dionysus transgresses all boundaries because zoë transcends human experience.
play, The Bacchantes, is about
Dionysus’ return to Greece and in particular his birthplace, Thebes, and him
founding his own sacred rites. But before we get into that play, we’ll first
learn something about ancient theatre, which will also tell us more about the
FOR READING TRAGEDIES
According to legend, Kadmos brought the
Phoenician alphabet with him into Greece. But archaeologists tell us that the
only writing in use by the Greek civilizations at the time, the Minoan and
Mycenaean both of which ended sometime shortly after 1200 BC, were the
pictographic forms Linear A and Linear B. Greeks didn’t start using the
Phoenician alphabet until Homer, around 750 BC, when The
Iliad and The Odyssey, products of
an oral tradition, where first put in written form. So none of the exploits of
Kadmos or Oedipus were written down at the time they occurred (1400-1200 BC).
And the invention of “tragic poetry” as an art form came some 200 years
after Homer, around 525 BC.
origin of ancient theatre seems to have been in the Dionysic dithyramb, an
improvised song honoring Dionysus and sung by a chorus of maenads under the
leadership of a man "wit-stricken” by wine (although no direct evidence
of this exists). Thespis separated the first actor from the chorus sometime
around 534 BC. Aeschylus is said to be the creator of tragedy. According to the
ancient traveler Pausanias, Aeschylus came to write tragedies because of a
said that when he was a boy he was asleep in the country looking after a
vineyard, and Dionysus met him and told him to write tragedies. When day
broke he wanted not to disobey, so he tried, and composed with the greatest
its origin, tragedy suddenly appears early in the 5th century as a
fully-formed discipline. Aeschylus also added a second actor and Sophocles a
third. In particular tragedies portray suffering, as one might expect since
Dionysus is the suffering god.
perhaps the most important change in the creation of tragedy was the wearing of
masks. Masks were a manifestation of Dionysus because of his dual nature. Part
of him is always hidden. Dionysus is the mask, and it is not empty but filled
with spirits. Donning the mask brings us into contact with the creativeness and
destructiveness hidden deep within our own natures. Dionysus marks the crossing
of opposites into one another, but also holds opposites in suspension, the
double image, and dissolves boundaries. The mask allows the actor to abandon his
own persona, enter a mythological reality and embody a character. The mask is
the representation of the mythological and sacred reality presented in tragedy.
we must take the concept behind the mask one step further. In ancient
iconography the mask was presented confrontationally face-on, as was Dionysus,
while the profile is used for representations of other gods as well as men and
women. Thus the mask is the instigator of confrontation with the person watching
the action on stage.
presentation of tragedies was a religious experience. The events were held in
the Theatre of Dionysus, the god’s territory containing the liminal
world he represented. The word “liminal” means “threshold” or
“entrance.” Liminality is the threshold
between the conscious and unconscious, the twilight zone between reality and
illusion. When in the liminal state, our identity is held in suspension. When a
spectator entered the ancient theatre, he entered the liminal world of Dionysus
where reality merged with myth thus allowing the viewer to escape his own
persona and merge with the mythic personage on stage. Classical tragedy was the
portrayal of suffering and destruction of humanity caught up in the mystery (in
the sense of the Mysteries) of the
divine. They experienced the unbearable in a safe context.
of us have experienced the world of Dionysus. Whenever we attend a play, as the
curtain goes up we experience that surge of emotion, the raising of hair on the
back of the neck. We enter a divine world and know something strange is about to
happen. This is the experience of being in the presence of Dionysus. This
“in-your-face” experience also occurs in the modern movie theatre. Who
hasn’t gone to a movie and come away in a daze, still lost in the world
presented onscreen? You don’t want to leave it and feel cheated by what the
real world has to offer. This is the intoxification of the Dionysian world.
it also occurs to an extent when we watch TV, even the news. This might well be
the reason we can’t stay away from the gore, scandal, debauchery shown on the
small screen. It all has a touch of Dionysus.
ancient Athens, the Theatre of Dionysus was situated at the edge of the
Akropolis, and its ruins are still there today. The Akropolis was the sacred
citadel at the heart of the city. The patron goddess of Athens, Athena, had her
temple, the Parthenon, on the Akropolis. Tragedies were presented as a part of
the Festival of Dionysus, the City Dionysia. The festival took place in the
spring, late March, when the city was crowded with visitors attracted there from
all parts of Greece by the festival. The first day, they held a grand procession
in which an ancient image of Dionysus was brought into the city from a nearby
town and setup in the theatre. Members of the procession were dressed in
brilliant garments, some driving chariots, others on foot. A long train of
sacrificial animals followed. The day ended in sacrifices and a torchlight
The dramatic competition began the next
day at sunup before an audience of 14,000 seated in tribal order, as a
quasi-formal gathering of citizens, as was the Athenian Assembly. The most
prominent citizens sat toward the front. First the priest of Dionysus sacrificed
a goat. The word “tragedy” means “song of the goat.” Since Dionysus at
one time had been changed into a goat, this was the appropriate sacrifice to the
god. Three tragic poets, who had been selected from the many, then presented
their plays on successive days.
Each poet presented three tragedies and a parody
known as a Satyr drama. Following the third day of viewing plays, a vote was
taken and the prize awarded to the winner. Everyone was welcome in the audience,
but women viewed from the very last rows. Preceding the performance, the
Athenians paid tribute to the sons of those killed in battle. The blowing of a
trumpet followed, and the plays began. No doubt, it was a rowdy bunch. If the
audience didn’t like the performance they threw goat-cheese and figs. At the
end of all the performances, the winning poet celebrated his victory with a
solemn sacrifice. It was all followed by a grand banquet.
people appearing on stage were of two sorts: mature, bearded actors to represent
the principals and a chorus of ordinary citizens. Both actors and chorus were
men. The actors each wore a mask covering the entire head, front and back. The
expression of the mask was gloomy and often fierce, the mouth open wide as a
voice projection aid. Masks were changed only when in the character’s fortune
dictated a change in expression. The colorful robes of the tragic actor heavily
influenced the Mysteries. Aeschylus was himself born at Eleusis, and the dress
of the high priest of the Mysteries (the Hierophant) and the torch-bearer (the
Dadouchos) was copied from Aeschylus’ tragedies. It has even been suggested
that the influence was the other way around, that Aeschylus took his
characters’ costumes from the sacred officials of the Mysteries.
The actors never attempted accurate
representation of the dress of the time period and portrayed the characters’
apparel as extraordinary. The garments were dyed brilliant colors and padded in
the chest and limbs. The actor also wore shoes with huge wood boots to further
exaggerate his appearance. In every way, the character was given superhuman
dignity and terrorizing features. The number of actors was small, one in the
time of Thespis, two in the time of Aeschylus, and three for Sophocles and
dress of the chorus was of an entirely different order. They also wore masks and
ordinary Greek dress consisting of a tunic and mantle. The chorus was composed
of twelve early on but became fifteen at the instigation of Sophocles. They were
18-20 year olds in military training with curls of sideburns down the cheeks but
not yet capable of growing beards, the bud and flower of the community. They
wore masks and marched in a rectangular formation of 5 ranks by 3 files that
resembled a close-order drill. See the figure below.
the actors were onstage and the dialogue in progress, the chorus stood facing
them, backs to the audience. With the stage empty, choral odes filled the pause
between acts with the chorus facing the audience.
The dancing was noble and
always carefully adjusted to the mood, consisting not only of movement but also
of gesture according to a symbolic code that could tell a story by itself.
Members of the chorus were placed so that the best was always
closest the audience. The leader was positioned in the center of this first
file, and during the choral odes, he led the dances and maneuvers. His
performance, being the most conspicuous, determined the success or failure of
tragedy must have resembled a modern musical or opera. The chorus used song,
speech and recitative according to the meter. They sang lyrical portions, spoke
the iambic trimeters and recited other assorted lines accompanied by a flute.
The role of the chorus was that of a commentator, an emotional bridge between
the audience and actors. The odes themselves contain sections in which the
chorus dances first one way (strophe) and then the other (anti-strophe). The
language is formal, dignified but simple, and unrhymed.
a tragedy consists of the following:
a prologue, which contains the exposition
2. a parodos, part sung by the chorus upon entering
3. several scenes
4. choral odes, which separate the scenes
5. exodus, the final scene containing the resolution
of the most startling aspects of ancient theatre is that rarely is violence
portrayed onstage. Generally the most dramatic action will occur offstage and a
messenger enter to tell what happened, although arguments and considerable arm
twisting will frequently occur. This may leave the modern reader a little cold,
but don’t let the narration of these violent acts, as opposed to onstage
dramatization, cause you to misjudge their importance. These offstage events are
the hinge-points around which the story swings.
POLITICAL INFLUENCE OF TRAGEDY
was the heyday of democracy in Athens. Democracy had been incorporated in 508
BC, and what happened in the theatre of Dionysus, the presentation of tragedies,
was part of the self-governing process. The political influence on the
playwrights was tremendous. Christian Meier describes the political situation
and the demands made of it in his book titled, The Political art of Greek Tragedy. The first chapter is called,
“Why the Citizens of Athens Needed Tragedy.”
For the first
time in history, broad sections of the population achieved a regular and
forceful voice in politics and ultimately came to play the key role. …
responsibility lay with and among the citizens; only the implementation of
decisions was ever delegated to individuals, and even then with multiple checks.
How could such a citizenry be equal to such tasks, such practical demands, such
responsibilities, above all at a time when these were all so new? It certainly
needed the knowledge and the capacity to judge the speeches and proposals of
politicians. To some extent the Athenians also appear to have developed new sets
of standards by which to assess and settle their thoughts and aspirations. …
Question upon question was bound to arise, questions which could hardly be aired
before the Assembly without arousing suspicions of vested political interest and
which required a constant concern for practicability and for the constraints of
step into this breach…?
In tragedy the
received, mythical way of thinking engaged with a new rationality, folk culture
engaged with high culture. … It may be that they sought in the plays, in the
festival of the Great Dionysia, renewed confirmation of their order and its
principles, and of the justice of the world.
tragic poets selected themes for their plays to educate the public in proper
citizenship. These were the parables whereby they built their philosophy of the
state. So don’t think Dionysus and his influence was just as the god of the
degrading elements of Greek life. Ironically, he made enlightenment possible.