Festivals, Gods, and
symbolism are a big part of ancient Greek theatre and their society. Mythology
and ritual go hand in hand when thinking about the practices followed during
the festivals and mythology is heavily incorporated into the plays that were
The Cerberus, a three headed dog
with a serpent’s tail, a mane of snakes, and the claws of a lion that guarded
the underworld allowing only the dead to enter and never letting them escape. “Cerberus
was the twelfth and final labor that was given to Heracles by King Eurystheus.
Heracles had to capture the three-headed dog without using any weapons. After
learning how to enter the Underworld, and assisted by some of the gods, he
managed to go to the Underworld and find Hades to ask for his permission to
take Cerberus to the surface and succeeded” (Karas). This creature is often
used in Greek mythology to symbolize angry, frustration, and fury.
An example of symbolization in myth is in the play
Oedipus Rex where the mythical creature, a Sphinx is presented in the story. A sphinx is described as a creature with ” the
face of a woman, the body of a lion, the wings of a bird, and a tail of a
serpent it terrorized the city of Thebes, strangling anyone who could not
answer its riddle” (Gamble). In Greek mythology the Sphinx often appears “to be
the literary way in which the ancient Greeks transitioned from the old
religious practices, represented by the Sphinx, to the new ones and the
establishment of the Olympian deities, represented by Oedipus” (Karas). This
was shown in Oedipus Rex when the Sphinx defeated herself after Oedipus
correctly answers both of her riddles.
The God Dionysus himself acted as a symbol among the
ancient Greek culture. The cult of Dionysus had conquered all of Greece. An important
element of their new worship was the exhilaration of the soul, which is expressed
by rapid movements of hands and body and by hysterical screaming. Women would moving around with pinewoods in their hands, in
order to lighten their way through the woods, following all night long their invisible guide (Dionysus) . In return,
he filled their souls with physical and spiritual pleasures and at the same
moment their souls were purified and exalted to the perfection of a
version of the legend, Dionysus conquered the immortal happiness through
sadness and death. Dionysus symbolizes the ever powerful life. During the
rituals and the orgies Dionysus was called back from the dead by his followers.
As we can see there is a strong bond between the legend of Dionysus and the
legend of Demeter and Persephone. The worship of these three gods was
transferred as one to Greek South Italy and later on to the Romans.
of rituals were a resource for the playwright, allowing chains of association
that a modern audience cannot easily share. When Aristophanes’ farmer announces
that he has drained his jug (which incidentally held over two litres) he adds
that wine was neat. The skin of the wine symbolizes and offer of peace. The
wine which Dionysus gave mortals was thought to be a dangerous gift, so neat
wine was always mixed with water” (Wiles 29).
Ancient Greeks performed myths and stories, and acted
out social and religious rituals, using text, music, dance, costume and
impersonation in some form. Performances whether it be solo or in a group were
formally presented to an audience in a designated space and for a special
occasion. Ancient Greek rituals had an important narrative and performative
aspect that combines myth and ritual. Not only do myths have more validity when
enacted through rituals, but it makes ritual interesting and meaningful.
The festival for Dionysus was held in the spring when
vines would start bearing leaves. It became one of the most important events of
the year and its primary focal point was the theater. Most of the great Greek
plays were initially written to be performed at the feast of Dionysus. All
participants, writers, actors, spectators, were regarded as sacred servants of
Dionysus during the festival.
Dionysus became one of the most important gods in
everyday life and was associated with several key concepts. One was rebirth
after death; his dismemberment by the Titans and his return to life was
symbolically echoed in viticulture, where the vines must be pruned back
sharply, and then become dormant in winter for them to bear fruit. Another
concept was that under the influence of wine, one could feel possessed by a
greater power. Unlike other gods, Dionysus was not merely a god to be
worshipped, but he was also present within his followers; at those times, a man
would possess supernatural powers and was able for things he would not be able
to do otherwise.
During the Festival of Dionysus competitions between
tragedy and comedy plays were held. There were 10 tribes that would attend the
festival and each tribe sat in their own sections. “Tragedy has a strong link
with the rituals performed in the worship of Dionysos such as the sacrifice of
goats (a song ritual) and the wearing of masks. The drinking rites which
resulted in the worshippers losing full control of their emotions and in effect
becoming another person, much as actors hope to do when performing. The music
and dance of Dionysiac ritual was most evident in the role of the chorus and
the music provided by an aulos player, but rhythmic elements were also
preserved in the use of first, trochaic tetrameter and then iambic trimeter in
the delivery of the spoken words” (Cartwright).
are stories that explain a natural or social phenomenon, using supernatural
beings or events to tell a story that took place earlier on in history. Ancient
theater emerged from myths, rituals, and ceremonies dedicated to the gods. “The
Greeks held many festivals to honor their many gods, particularly Dionysus. These
festivals usually involved drunken men dressed in goat skins to symbolize
sexual potency. The earliest festivals only had one person playing all roles.
Later, three actors were used on-stage. Due to the limited amount of actors
allowed on stage, the chorus became an active part of Greek theater. Greek
theater took on my forms; however, the tragedies written during this time
resonate well with contemporary audiences. Greek tragedies are based on history
and mythology. Many of the stories centered on a character’s search for the
meaning of life and the quest to understand the nature of the gods” (Johnson). These
ceremonies and rituals that were held were the foundation for ancient Greek