201 - Lecture 7-2


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LECTURE SEVEN ANCIENT GREEK DRAMA When we talk about drama (comedy and tragedy), we should understand that we are dealing (again) with a unique Greek institution. To be sure, ancient populations told stories, but none developed the elaborate protocols of the Athenian dramatic festivals. It would appear, too, that none had the same tragic view of life that pervades the ancient Greek perspective (as seen in their view of the gods, of history, of the brevity of life and the value of competition and personal excellence). Dionysus Any discussion of Greek drama begins with the god who is responsible for this institution and in whose name the dramatic festivals were held. I am referring to Dionysus. Dionysus is the latest newcomer to the Olympians. Unlike the other Olympians (who are either the product of Rhea and Cronus or the product of Zeus and other goddesses) Dionysus is the son of Zeus and the mortal Semele (daughter of king Cadmus of Thebes). The story is that Zeus slept with Semele and got her pregnant. A bit before she was about to deliver, Hera (Zeus’ wife) paid her a visit in disguise. Jealous of Semele, she played on the young woman’s suspicions and told her to get Zeus to appear to her in his true guise. Semele did (much to Zeus’s horror) and was utterly consumed when he appeared to her as a thunderbolt. Even as the flames devoured her, Zeus rescued the foetus and carried him to term in his thigh. And so Dionysus was born. The majority of myths involving Dionysus all turn on the following theme: Dionysus arrives in town and proclaims his divinity. Because he is born of a mortal mother, some citizens (usually members of the royal family) deny his divinity. They meet with a terrible fate (suicide, madness, dismemberment of their children etc.) We will see this theme is present in Euripides’ most famous play, the Bacchae . Dionysus goes by various names – Iacchos, Zagreos, Bacchus. Attributes Dionysus is most often associated with wine, but this is an oversimplification. He is the god of vital fluids (wine, blood, sap, semen). When vegetation starts growing in abundance (especially ivy and grapes), this is a sign that Dionysus is on the scene. The Anthesteria is an Athenian spring festival associated with the new wine (it involved citizens sitting by themselves at a table and drinking a huge quantity of wine in silence). The Dionysia also took place in the spring; the Lenaia more in the winter.
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Because Dionysus is associated with wine, he is also associated with ritual madness. When one drinks wine, one is taking in the god himself. Having a god within oneself is called ‘enthusiasm’. Because containing a god is difficult, it can lead to a form of madness ( mania ) and Dionysus’ followers (most often females) are called ‘maenads ’ (or Bacchants). They carry a rod (topped with grapes) called a thyrsus . As a manic band, they possess unusual strength and can perform a sparagmos (dismemberment of an animal, often a bull or cow, using their bare hands). According to myth, if a bystander
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