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by H. Crosthwaite



WE are now in a position to reconsider the origin and significance of Greek tragedy. A goat-song festival began with the sacrifice of a bull at the beginning of the Great Dionysia at Athens.

The bull was slain as the procession entered the city; a he-goat was sacrificed, probably on the thymele, and the festival of drama began. The sacrifice was accompanied by a dithyramb. This was a form of lyric poetry heard especially at Athens. It was in the Phrygian mode, as befitted Dionysus, accompanied by pipes. The leader mounted the eleos (thymele), or altar, to recite a tale in trochaic metre about Dionysus. There was a circular movement of the chorus, probably with reversal of direction for the antistrophe. There is a fragment of Aeschylus, addressed to a female chorus: "You are to stand round this altar and shining fire, and pray, in a circular formation."

The word tragedy comes from 'ode', song, and 'tragos', goat. The other word for a goat, aix, is used by Aristotle to mean a fiery meteor. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, developed from the leaders (exarchontes) of the dithyramb. The first name known to us of a tragedian is that of Arion, who flourished around 600 B. C. in the city of Corinth. Choral odes in tragedy retained the Doric dialect of Dorian Corinth. Thespis, about 536, wrote the first recorded tragedy. There was one actor, and the chorus.

In the early days of Greek dithyramb, inflated goat skins were covered with olive oil. The chorus jumped on them and slithered off. The scenery for a tragedy was usually a palace or a temple. In the 5th and 4th centuries B. C., there would be a prologue, in which one, or sometimes two, actors introduced the subject of the play, but this was a later development. A primitive tragedy began with the entrance of the chorus, originally resembling satyrs (capripedes satyri Horace). They were generally humble inhabitants of the city where the action of the play took place. There would be twelve or more of them. At each side of the orchestra there was a parodos, or entrance, which gave its name to the opening song, parodos, of the chorus, which was accompanied by a musician playing a pipe. The actor, or 'struggler' (agonistes) came onto the stage. 'Episode' is an entrance. The chorus, rather than solo actors, were the original performers, but a second actor was introduced by Aeschylus in the 5th century, and a third by Sophocles. The first actor was the protagonist, the second the deuteragonist, and the third the tritagonist.

In a very early tragedy the subject matter would be the life and death of a god, especially Dionysus. Later, heroes would be the subject, and eventually ordinary people. When tragedians abandoned stories about Dionysus, public criticism said 'It's nothing to do with Dionysus'. Aeschylus introduced the tetralogy to meet this objection. His 'Oresteia' had the 'Proteus' as a satyr play to follow the three tragedies.

The actors wore masks. We learn from the Roman poet Horace that Thespis, regarded by many as the inventor of tragedy, went on tour with wagons, presumably used as a stage; his players coloured their faces red with wine lees. He is also said to have introduced masks made of linen. In the 5th century at any rate, the masks had expressions that suited the character of the wearer. The mask had a projection, onkos, at the top, supporting a high wig.

The actor wore cothornoi or buskins. These were high boots, laced at the front, with a thick sole which would increase the height of the actor and help to give an imposing and even supernatural appearance. Since a buskin could be worn on either foot, the word became a nickname for a trimmer in politics.

The actor wore a wig, headress and a long robe. Female parts were played by men. (In a comedy, actors wore a sisura, goatskin, like a shawl, over the tunic).

The episodes in a tragedy were scenes involving actors and chorus. Between episodes the chorus would sing a stasimon, a song during which they would stand in one place, as opposed to the parodos when they entered. The stasima were reflections on the action that had just taken place in the episode.

After the final episode, there was a final stasimon, then the exodos or final scene.

It is generally held that in Aeschylus's plays the emphasis is on the gods controlling events, as in the Iliad; in the plays of Sophocles the clash is between man and god; in Euripides the heroes and heroines may be brought right down to earth, but the gods are never far away. Euripides was attacked by Aristophanes for clothing his characters in rags. To give an example in detail, the Agamemnon of Aeschylus portrays the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aigisthos. In the next play of the trilogy, Orestes murders his mother to avenge his father, acting on the instructions of the god Apollo. In the third play, the Eumenides, he is under attack from the Furies, or Eumenides, divine pursuers who take a different view of the action of Orestes from Apollo. Man is a puppet, pulled this way and that by warring deities.

In his clash with an opposing force (god, hero, man or woman), a fatal flaw in the character of the tragic hero is revealed. Hamartia, the Greek word for sin in the New Testament, means in classical Greek missing the mark, going astray. The cause of the error is probably hubris, or arrogance, going too high and too far, like a god. The corresponding word in Latin, which comes from the same root, is superbia. It implies setting oneself up above one's fellow mortals. This results in a confrontation, and at some point the complications of the plot are resolved by a change of direction and fortune, the peripeteia. The hero who was successful and powerful is overthrown. In most tragedies, great importance attaches to a recognition scene which leads to, or indeed is part of, the peripeteia. In the Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus, king of Thebes, has been very, even too, successful. He has answered the riddle of the Sphinx, been rewarded with the throne of Thebes and with Jocasta, the widowed queen. When plague affects the city, he undertakes to find the guilty man who has brought pollution. He is himself revealed as the guilty man, a man who has murdered his father and married his mother. It is through his own persistence that he finds out who he is, and is revealed as the cause of the plague.

In The Bacchae of Euripides, it is the Stranger who is revealed as the god Dionysus.

After the katastrophe, or overturning, things settle down to a new order, possibly helped by the appearance of a god or goddess from the sky, lowered by a crane (deus ex machina). Scene shifting and stage effects were employed in a Greek theatre. The ekkuklema was a device for rapidly removing scenery to reveal the interior of a house. There was a lightning machine, keraunoskopeion, and a thunder machine, bronteion.

The tragic pattern is a sequence: koros, a surfeit of happiness and success; hubris, the resulting arrogant behaviour; nemesis, the desire of the gods for vengeance. They are red in the face with anger. They send ate, the blind folly which is associated with disaster which the victim brings on himself. Then come the peripeteia and katastrophe.

It is noteworthy that the word peripeteia is cognate with a verb meaning to collide, with unpleasant results. It is used, of ships colliding, by the historian Thucydides.

The Greeks felt that life was a matter of walking along a razor's edge. Any excess in any direction might prove disastrous. 'Nothing to excess' was one of the precepts engraved in stone at Delphi. With luck, life would go smoothly with the appropriate rites and sacrifices carefully observed. The slightest irregularity, hamartia, could bring ruin. This idea may have influenced the Greek philosopher Epicurus, best known through his follower the Roman poet Lucretius, whose account of nature and the universe is expressed, as was usual for exalted subjects, in a poem, De Rerum Natura. The gods, if they exist, are far away. There is no need to fear them and placate them with human sacrifices, as was done in the case of Iphigenia in the hope of getting a fair wind for the voyage to Troy. There is a rational cause for everything that happens. But Epicurus and Lucretius were then faced with the problem of free will. The solution put forward by Lucretius, that the atoms of which matter is composed have a tiny swerve, exiguum clinamen, introduces an element of uncertainty worthy of Heisenberg (De Rerum Natura II: 292).

It begins to look as if a Greek tragedy was a religious ceremony originally connected with a threat from the sky. In particular, it tried to counter a threat which had assumed the appearance of a goat. The aegis or goatskin inspired terror when waved, and, with the thunderbolt, played a leading part in the battles in the sky which are described so vividly in stories from all over the world, including Greece. The members of the chorus were in rectangular formation, but originally, in the dithyramb, they were in circular formation, as mentioned above. I suggest that they represented the solar system as the Greeks understood and described it. The intrusion of a strange body, with glaring eye (drakon), prominences that are compared to horns, a fiery crown, and a flowing tail, causes a disruption of the status quo. The danger is only averted when the object assumes a different course, is brought low like Lucifer, and is sent down to Tartarus. The representation by chorus and actors was not only a matter of remembering great events, of returning to Eliade's 'illud tempus', the past events and tune of great significance. It was also, and primarily, apotropaic, aimed at preventing disaster. We have already met a similar idea in the previous chapter in Plutarch's reference to Typhon.

The axe used for sacrifice was the pelekus, a double edged axe. In Odyssey III: 442, it is used for slaying a bull. In Iliad XVII: 520, Automedon uses one in battle, and lays low his opponent like a priest at a sacrifice. For the word pelekus, compare Peleg, O. T. Genesis X: 25, in whose days the earth was divided.

The head of the double axe resembles the thunderbolt as portrayed in the hand of Zeus. It can be compared with Thor's hammer Mjollnir, lightning.

COMEDY The word 'comedy' is cognate with the Greek word 'komos', a revel, and resembles 'kome', a village. Aristotle says that comedy owed its origin to the leaders of the phallic songs.

It shares with tragedy certain features. The chorus, twelve men and twelve women, wore masks and were caricatures of ordinary people, sometimes dressed as, for example, birds or wasps. They were generally padded, but removed their outer garments when they danced. They were equipped with phallic symbols, and specialised in a lascivious dance, the Kordax. This dance, associated with drunken revelry, originated in the Peloponnese, in honour of Artemis.

After the parabasis (entrance of the chorus) there was a contest between two leading characters, an agon.

The function of the chorus in comedy was to spur on the contestants, whereas in tragedy they usually only commented and tried to appease.

After various episodes, a comedy ended with an exodus of celebrations, feasting, or a wedding.

Just as electricity in the sky played its part in the origin of dithyramb and tragedy, so on the earth, in comedy its physiological effects were demonstrated and perceived by the chorus as the force behind fertility rites associated especially with Dionysus, Hermes, Demeter, and Pan.


If we accept the idea that the Greek oracles exploited electrical stimulation of the Sibyl, we can hardly avoid considering an electrical basis for the Greek theory of poetic inspiration. The 7th century Greek poet Archilochus, Fragment 120, declares that he can create the dithyramb when lightning-struck by wine [1] . The Roman poet Statius has laurigerosque ignes, laurel-bearing fire, for poetic inspiration (Achilleid I: 509).

The Muses were led by Apollo. They, together with the oracles, were the source of information which the Greek and Roman poets tapped. Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus 69, has: "I sent Kreon to Phoebus's temple to find out (pythoit) what I should do to save this city." The resemblance between Pytho and pythoit, the verb 'to find out', is a happy one.

Line 8 of the first book of the Aeneid reads: "Musa, mihi causas memora..." Muse, tell me the causes ...

The poet was thought of as inspired by an external force causing a condition akin to madness, 'mania'. 'Mantis' is the Greek for a prophet, and we have seen instances of mantic possession of the Sibyl at Cumae, when consulted by Aeneas, and of Cassandra on her arrival at Mycenae. Poetic inspiration was originally like this, accompanied in some cases, perhaps always at first, by dance. The verb skirtao, dance, which is used in The Bacchae, is associated with the frolics of goats. The temenos or sacred precinct at Samothrace had Ionic propylaea, or entrance gates, with a sculptured frieze of dancing girls.

At Delphi, the Thriae, three goddesses who were associated with prophecy by lot, relied on honey for inspiration (Homeric Hymn to Hermes, line 560): "And when they are inspired through eating yellow honey, they are keen to speak the truth."

"Inspired" here suggests 'set on fire', Greek 'thuiosin'. We can compare Vergil, Georgic IV, where honey is "caelestia mella", and bees have a share of the divine nature. The Homeric bard or rhapsode wore a purple cloak when reciting from the Iliad, and a green one when reciting from the Odyssey.

The word rhapsodos is generally thought to come from rhapto, stitch. The minstrel stitches words together.

It also suggests rhapis, a staff, and the satrap, the rod of Set, and the augur with his lituus. It is likely that the minstrel originally carried a staff not merely as a symbol of authority, but because of its association with electrical influences, as in the case of Moses's rod, and the ark. The words of Archilochus, already quoted, are certainly not against this idea. A. E. Housman spoke of poetic inspiration in his own case coming as a physical sensation while shaving.

The poet Hesiod, Theogony 30, describes his inspiration by the Muses: "So spoke the beautifully sounding daughters of great Zeus, and they cut off and gave me a shoot of strong laurel as a rod (skeptron), and breathed into me a divine voice, so that I should celebrate things future and past.

"In the Euthydemus of Plato, 277 d, there is an argument as to whether a learner in a class is wise or not. Euthydemus is questioning Kleinias. Socrates intervenes to warn Kleinias and his friend Dionysodorus:

"Perhaps you don't realise what the two strangers are doing to you. They are doing what those do in the rite of the Corybants, when they hold an 'enthronement' around the one they are going to initiate. Furthermore, there is a kind of dancing there and children's games, as you know if you have been initiated. And now these two are simply dancing round you, and are dancing in play, initiating you afterwards."

According to Nonnos, Dionysiaca, Kadmos saw a dance at Samothrace, with music from double pipes, and the clashing of spears on shields. In the Ion of Plato, Socrates discusses with a bard, Ion, the nature of a minstrel's art and inspiration.

"I see, Ion, and I come to show you what I think this is. For this speaking well of yours about Homer is not a 'skill', as was said just now, but a divine power which sets you in motion. Just as in the stone which Euripides called the Magnesian stone, and most others the Heraclean. Further, this stone not only leads the iron rings themselves, but also puts a power into the rings so that they can do this very thing which the stone does, attract other rings, so that sometimes a long chain of bits of iron and rings is formed, hanging from each other. And thus the Muse herself makes people full of god, and through these inspired people a ring of other inspired people is found. For all epic poets, if they are good, utter all their fine poems not through art, but by being filled with the god and possessed, and good lyric poets similarly, just as Corybants dance when out of their minds; thus lyricists are not in their right minds when they create these beautiful lyric poems. But when they embark upon harmony and rhythm, they are filled with, and controlled by, Bacchic frenzy, just as Bacchants when they are in their right minds; and the soul of lyric poets does this, as they themselves say. For the poets tell us, indeed, that they bring us lyrical poetry from springs flowing with honey from certain orchards and glades of the Muses, like bees, and they fly, too, like the bees. And they speak truly. For a poet is a light, winged and holy creature, who cannot create before the god enters him, and he is in ecstasy, and reason has left him (as long as he is in his right senses, every man is incapable of creating and singing prophetic songs). So in so far as they create not by art and by saying many fine things about men's deeds, as you do about Homer, but by divine lot, each one is only able to do that to which the Muse has impelled him, one to dithyramb, another to panegyrics, one to choral odes, another to epic, another to iambics. In other branches he has poor ability. For they create this poetry not by art but by a divine power, since if by art they knew how to create well, they would be able to do so in all branches. For this cause the god robs them of their reason when he uses, as his servants, prophets and divine seers, so that we who hear may know that it is not they who say such valuable things while out of their senses, but that it is the god himself who speaks, and is intelligible to us through them." [2]

When reading the above remarks about the Magnesian stone, or magnet, Chiron comes to mind. He was a centaur, son of Kronos and a daughter of Oceanus. He was half man and half horse, since in a domestic crisis Kronos had disguised himself as a horse. Chiron was the teacher of Asclepius and of Achilles, and was wise and just. He is referred to as the Magnesian centaur by Pindar, Pythian III: 45.

Plato, Ion 535e: "Do you realise then that the spectator is the last of the rings which I said took their force from each other under the action of the Heraclean stone? You, the rhapsode and actor, are the middle man, the poet himself is the first. And the god, acting through all these, pulls the human psyche in whatever direction he wishes, making a suspended chain of force. And, just as from that lodestone, a great chain is set up of dancers, directors and assistants, obliquely dependent from the rings suspended from the Muse. And one poet is dependent from one Muse, another from another; we say 'possessed', but it is the same thing, for he is held; and from those first rings, the poets, others are suspended in turn and filled with the god, some inspired by Orpheus, some by Musaeus. The majority are possessed and held by Homer.

PASSAGES REFERRING TO INSPIRATION AND POETRY Iliad XIV: 508: "Tell me now, Muses who live in the halls of Olympus, who of the Achaeans first took the bloodstained spoils from a slain enemy, when the glorious Earthshaker swayed the battle."

Iliad II: 100: Agamemnon holds his staff as he stands up to speak in the assembly.

Aeneid IV: 60: Dido holds the dish during sacrifice as she seeks the will of the gods.


Iliad XIX: 85 (an apology for hybristic behaviour): When Achilles has declared in the assembly that he is willing to end the feud and rejoin the fighting, Agamemnon stands up and speaks. "The Achaeans often reproached me for what you have just mentioned. But it is not I who am the cause, but Zeus and Fate (Moira) and the Fury (Erinys) that walks in darkness, who in the meeting cast fierce Ate into my mind, on that day when I took away Achilles's prize."

Odyssey VIII: 260: When Odysseus is entertained to dinner and a display of dancing by the Phaeacians, officials enter and clear the dancing floor and a ring, agon, wide enough for the performance.

Line 264: The dancers strike the holy floor with their feet (choron theion, holy dancing-floor). Odysseus marvels at the flashing movements of their feet (marmarygas).

According to Hesychius, choros is the same as kuklos and stephanos, circle, and crown. It means especially the round dance of the dithyramb, or the floor where it is performed.

Choros kuklikos = dithyramb.


Odyssey V: 235: Odysseus builds a boat to sail away from Calypso's island Ogygia. She gives him a big axe with an olive wood handle. Aeneid V: 305: At the funeral games in honour of his father, Anchises, Aeneas offers prizes. He will give two Cretan arrowheads shining with polished iron, and a double axe (bipennis) with silver chasing.

Frazer, The Golden Bough XLIX: At the end of June in Athens, the Bouphonia took place. The ox was brought to the bronze altar of Zeus Polios on the Acropolis. The ox was driven round the altar. The axe and the knife were dipped in water. The ox was laid low by a blow of the axe behind its horns, and its throat cut with a knife. The axeman threw his weapon away and fled, and the knifeman did the same.

A trial was held in a court presided over by the king to allocate blame for the murder. The girl who brought the water blamed the sharpeners, these blamed the men who handed the weapons to the butchers, the butchers blamed the axe and the knife. The axe and knife were found guilty and thrown into the sea.

At one time the killing of an ox had been a capital crime in Attica.

Notes (Chapter Eight: Sky and Stage)

1. Diehl: A. L. . G. 77

2. Plato: 'Iom.= 533d.

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