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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 suffering. 

Dionysus

The Mask

But 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.

The Legend of Kadmos and the rebirth of Dionysus

The 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. 

But 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. 

(One 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.) 

The 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.

To 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.  

But 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. 

After 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 tragedy.

The 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.

Dionysus 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. 

Euripides’ 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 god.

PREPARATION 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.

ANCIENT THEATRE 

The 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 dream.  

Aeschylus 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 ease. 

Whatever 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. 

But 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. 

But 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.

The 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.

All 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. 

But 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.

In 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 feast.

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. 

The 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 Euripides.  The 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.

While 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 the chorus.

Structure of Tragedy

A 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. 

Generally, a tragedy consists of the following: 

1. 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

One 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. 

THE POLITICAL INFLUENCE OF TRAGEDY 

This 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. …

Everywhere 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 rational argument.

Could tragedy 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.

The 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.  


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