Ancient Greek Theater and Religion
by Peter Baiter, Betty Banks & John Burke
This exercise is the basis for the study
of the connections between ancient Greek theater and religion.
Beginning with Step 1, read the brief explanation and click on
the links to vases, sites, texts and images to learn more about
the links between ancient Greek religion and theater.
The Origin of Theater
Link: Historical Overview, 4.12.
Religion, Myth, and Community.
Explanation: Greek theater grew out of a religious festival,
and was often concerned with the deepest questions about morality
and the relationship between mortals, the gods, and fate. What
does the first step say about the role of tragedy in Athenian
society? Note the social context of religion and the way religion
was celebrated. Read all of sections 4.12-4.13.
Link: Primary Text, Hesiod Theogony lines 1-100.
Explanation: Read Hesiod's Theogony, lines 1-100.
What is the role of the muses of song and dance in religion?
Step 3: Tragedy
Link: Historical Overview, 10.2.
The Development of Athenian Tragedy.
between satyr and maenad.
Explanation: Please read this section carefully. What were
the connections between drama and religion?
Step 4: Overview
Link: Historical Overview, 10.
Athenian Religious and Cultural Life in the Golden Age.
Explanation: A long but good outline of the different strands
of Greek religion.
Step 5: Sacrifice
Link: Encyclopedia, Sacrifice.
Explanation: Read through the list of references to sacrifice
in this encyclopedia entry. The list will give you some idea
of the variety of reasons (for rain, at marriage, to dead men)
and types (birds, bears, oxen, wool) of sacrifice performed by
the Greeks and others in ancient times.
The practice of religious sacrifice
Link: Vase Catalog, Harvard
of a ram.
Explanation: Phrixos sacrifices the ram with the golden fleece
that has carried him to safety at Colchis. Read the description
of Side A, neck. Notice where the sacrifice is taking
place. To learn more about the myth of Phrixos, read the first
paragraph of "The Golden Fleece Medea" in Bullfinch's
Step 7: Euripides
Link: Encyclopedia, Euripides.
Explanation: Read this account of Euripides' contribution
to tragedy. Make sure to read the full account of his life and
how he was portrayed after his death. How is this contradictory
to his actions in life?
Link: Primary Text, Euripides Bacchae lines 1-40.
Explanation: This play is about Dionysus, the god of wine,
and the rituals from the other side of religion not commonly
associated with it in the modern world. Read lines 1-40 in which
Dionysus describes the Bacchic rites. For more information on
Euripides' Bacchae and a full account of Bacchic rituals,
see Masters Course: Bacchae.
Link: Primary Text, Euripides Bacchae line 298-326.
Explanation: This section of the play involves the nature
of Bacchic harmony with spontaneous, prophetic forces in nature.
Teiresias urges Pentheus to accept the Bacchic rites into his
land. Read lines 298-326. Why is Pentheus reluctant to accept
Dionysus and his rites?
Link: Primary Text, Euripides Bacchae line 677-770.
Explanation: What did the messenger see? What happens when
religion is denied? You will have to click over to the next section
to complete your reading of the messenger's account of the Bacchic
madness. Having read the account of his life, what do you think
is the message Euripides' is trying to send to his audience?
Step 11: Comedy
Link: Historical Overview, 12.2.5.
Athenian comedy during the war.
Explanation: Comedic theater was performed during a religious
festival. But it was obviously political, at least during the
classical period. Equally obviously, it contained elements that
may seem to us to contradict public morality. Tragedies and comedies
were performed on the same day, in the same theater, and to the
same audience. Would modern religious festivals allow comedies
of this kind? What sort of religious and moral system was it
that had, at one if its main festivals, the performance of plays
with such a strong political and pornographic content? How could
the gods smile on such an occasion? The remainder of this exercise
is designed to present what is for us a dilemma, but perhaps
not for the ancient Greeks.
Step 12: Birds
Link: Vase Catalog, Malibu
Explanation: Comedy went hand in hand with tragedy. This
vase shows comic actors in Aristophanes' Birds.
There are some aspects of the depiction which today might not
be regarded as moral - certainly not in a religious context.
Read the description of the costumes.
Step 13: Comic
Link: Vase Catalog, Tampa
actor on semi-circular lid.
Explanation: Explore further scenes from comedy, and identify
common characteristics of dress, action, situation and language
as they are depicted in images and plays. Question: What common
elements can you detect in the appearance of comic actors on
this vase and on the vase above? Look for other representations
(making a note of what you find) to fill out the picture. For
a list of actor associated links, see this
search for "actor."