Into the Looking Glass

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by Lesley Madytinou

Hail, children of Zeus, Grant lovely song and celebrate the holy race of the deathless gods who are for ever. Prayer to the Muses – ‘Theogeny’ by Hesiod

Neptune et les pirates

Neptune et les pirates

Like no other civilisation, either past or present, the ancient Hellenes institutionalised and refined their expressions and understandings of the ineffable Mystery of the Gods throughout every facet of human life. The Kosmos, the environment and the sophistication of human society all expressed and refined the complex interactions between the Gods of this vast and progressive religion. Humanity existed as a consequence of Divine interaction and had been gifted with the light of Divine Intellect. With all things being full of Gods (1), the interactive relationship between each individual person and the world around them was a visible representation and echo of divine communication. All things moving in accordance with the dance of Love and Strife (2); touching briefly then torn asunder. The fragile mortality of mankind, in eternal motion, was not unlike a small insect in a storm driven by the ancient winds of divine Law. Each life held joy and tragedy that echoed the comic and tragic mythical events of the deathless Gods in their eternal cycle of Creation and Destruction. These mythical feats were expressed in the ancient wisdom of the interconnected nature of action and consequence (3) as a divine deed. This sacred order could also be perceived in the eternal and unchanging qualities of the temporal nature of material existence.

“On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow” Herakleitos (4)

Dionysos and the Tragic Goat Song

It must not be forgotten that in Athens the tragedy was a religious ceremony, enacted not so much on the boards as in the soul of the spectators. Stage and audience were enveloped in an extrapoetic atmosphere: religion. Ortega Y Gasset (5)

The profound understanding of the expressions of the unchanging and the immortal within the changing nature of mortal existence is given form and meaning within human understanding and reason (Logos) through the God of Life, Wine and Theatre; Dionysos, Lord of all living things.

Through his sacred Mysteries, Dionysos illustrates the eternal cycle of life (Zoë) that remains unchanging in its central themes or qualities regardless of which specific biographical life (Vios) is being considered. The continuum is greater than any single biography. This motif of the Eternal within the Temporal is simultaneously expressed in the sacred practice of viticulture where the ageless spirit of wine is born from the death of any grape.

The Orphics spoke of this Mystery of the immortal essence within mortal existence as the Dionysian spark that animated matter with intelligence and spirit whilst existing entombed within the decaying Titanic nature of the flesh. These reflections on the parallels between mythical motifs, the motions of the Kosmos and nature together with the recurring patterns of human behaviour brought forth the medium of dithyrambs (songs to Dionysos) and its descendent; the theatre. The word theatre derives from the Hellenic ‘theatron’ (6) and the verb ‘thea’ (view/countenance). This offers the first glimpse (view) of the God Dionysos whose ‘mask’ or ‘countenance’ was the theatron; a looking glass into the immortal spirit of life.

The themes of the theatrical medium illustrate the unchanging essence of life’s events that transcend and mark the short-lived nature of each single lifetime. The theatrical themes were performed as portrayals of divine and human deeds that were called Dramas. The word ‘Drama’ derives from the root word ‘drao’ (to act/do/make’) and refers as such to an ‘action’ or ‘deed’. This offers the first intellectual understanding of Dionysos behind the mask as not a noun or an object but rather as a verb or an action.

Dionysos begins to sprout according to the conditions of the power which, while young, is hidden beneath the earth, yet produces fine fruits. Porphyry ‘On Images’ (7)

The late Hellenistic philosopher Porphyry assists this illustration of Dionysos as an active principle through his imagery of sprouting, growth and fruit-bearing. The sprouting and growth may be understood as the ‘deed’ of a plant whilst the bearing of fruit is symbolic of the consequence of the plants actions. This same pattern was the impetus and inspiration of the art of Tragedy that lay beneath the ‘earth’ or ‘mask’ of the exterior theatrical performances.

The tragedies are representations of the actions and reactions of its main characters within context to a narrative (usually historical) while the tragic events and climax exemplify the fruits of the protagonists’ deeds. The word tragedy derives from ‘tragodois’ meaning ‘goat song’ or ‘songs sung by goat-men’ (8 & 9) and signifies two central Mysteries of Dionysos.

Firstly, the goat and the child Dionysos are very closely linked in ancient imagery. The goat is the sacrificial substitute for Dionysos in the month of Elaphebolion (10)within the sacred precinct of Dionysos Eleuthereus (the bringer of freedom). The sacrifice of the goat and its relationship to Dionysos embody the revered teaching of the mystical bond between the sacrificer and the sacrifice.

Secondly, the sacrifice of a tragos (he-goat) is offered to Dionysos and the vineyard in payment for ‘sins against the vine’ (referring to the goat’s affinity for grazing upon vines).

“Very well, eat my fruit-bearing vines: The root will still bear enough wine to pour on you when you are sacrificed” An epigram by Leonidas of Tarentum (11)

This idea of the death of the goat as the fruits of its erroneous actions or tendencies is central to the primary motif of tragedy within ancient Hellenic theatre. The correlation between the protagonists of a tragedy and the goat seemingly originate from the early goat-skinned choral singers who performed the dithyrambs to Dionysos that preceded the tragic genre.

Thus the foundations of tragedy – both in its name and its outer form – were laid in the country and not in the city where the bull sacrifice predominated. Dr. Karl Kerenyi – Professor of Classics and the History of Religion

Through the actions of the central characters and by way of the virtues, honour or lives of others that they sacrifice to further their own aims and desires, the tragedy unfolds to reveal that the sacrifices made by the protagonists become the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives or happiness. Accordingly, the sacrificer becomes the sacrificed as punishment for their crimes in whatever form they take and from whichever God they may have offended.

Aristotle refers to the plot of a tragedy as its psyche (soul) and thus through the soul of the goat song (plot of the tragedy), core Dionysian mysteries are combined into a single fluid medium that expresses simultaneously the true nature of sacrifice and its association with the fruits of actions. An obscure term is still in existence to this day in Greece that refers to a lead actor as the ‘megas tragos’ (great goat) in remembrance of this mystic association.

The Primal Tragedy

The protagonist of the tragedy through the symbolic title of the ‘great goat’ thus represents the God and his enemy simultaneously. He is the visual quintessence who symbolises a core spiritual teaching of tragedy. ‘Man is his own worst enemy’ and the protagonists demonstrate this truth through the events that support the plot thus illustrating that all action taken is ultimately a deed towards one’s own person.

This truth about life told via the medium of the Lord of all living things was a central underlying motif within all plots of the ancient tragic genre and formed the basis of the didactic nature of sacred theatre.

The Orphics explained the reason for this internal struggle (between man and himself) within each life form through their doctrine concerning the birth and death of the first Dionysos who was the child of Persephone and Chthonian King. (12)

And so again came a time when the Lord of the Underworld came upon Kore in the flower of Her maidenhood and descended with Her to the Underworld. There Kore bore the Divine Child called both Dionysos and Iakhos (the Light of God). In Hades, the Lord of the Underworld placed the Holy Kore upon Her throne, where She ruled as Queen and was called upon as Persephone. He placed the Divine Child Iakhos upon His own throne and gave to Him the sceptre of power and proclaimed Him as King. There came a day when the Titans came across the Divine Child King, alone and at play. They gave to Him toys (one of which was a mirror) worthy of Divine Royalty to distract His infant mind. Whilst the young King was busy with His toys, the Titans slew Him and tore His remains into pieces. The Titans consumed their feast except for the kradaios (heart) of the infant God that they had set to one side. It was then that Zeus came upon their festivities and in horror beheld their crime. Enraged, He cast His Lightening upon the Titans until all that remained of them was a sublimated vapour from which ash emerged. From this soot came the substance from which earthly life derived. When this form of life arose it was twofold in nature. One part was made from the remains of the Titans and subject to wickedness and decay. The other part was the Divine body of Dionysos that had been consumed by the Titans before their punishment. This part was heavenly and indestructible. (13)

The mythological pattern of the birth of the Divine Child was the original, although not exclusive, theme of the choral songs (dithyrambs) sung to Dionysos. From the genre of the dithyramb developed Tragedy and the songs of birth became the tragedies that echoed as reverberations of the primal tragedy; the death and sparagmos (rending) of the first Dionysos. The usage of the word ‘rend’ offers the vital clue to understanding the Divine and mythological seed from which tragedy sprouted and blossomed, both in the suffering of real life and in its reflective medium of the theatre. To rend has a two-fold meaning; to tear apart as well as to distress through grief and despair (14).

This dual meaning perfectly illustrates the parallel between the mythical dismemberment of Dionysos together with the grief and despair of theatrical tragedies. This emotional rending was again two-fold. The actions (drama) and words (Logoi) of the actors gave external form to the internal nature of suffering while at the same time emotional responses were evoked from the soul of the spectators engaged directly with the soul (plot) of the tragedy. This union of souls expresses the interactive communion between the spectator/actor with the essence of life and its source; the Lord of all things living.

The Orphics represented this mystical reflective medium as the hand mirror gifted to the Divine Child King by the Titans to distract his attention prior to the death by rending. This mirror was believed to have caught the soul of Dionysos and ensured his rebirth.

The mythological pattern again is paralleled within the tragic genre of theatre. The emotions of the tragedy reflect images of real life suffering that is common to all humanity at any place or time in history thus illustrating the immortal nature of pure emotion that transcends individual chemical and biographical life and exists beyond death through the continuum of life as a whole. Yet this symbolic mirror affords an even deeper enquiry into the power of the theatrical medium as not only that which acts as a looking glass for life but also that which captures the soul of the spectator and binds it in communion with the soul of Dionysos through identification, empathy and sympathy with heroes and heroines who give form and expression to the plot of a tragedy.

Through this soul communion the spectator is thus afforded the experience of death by emotional rending and purification of their soul through its cathartic effect. This rending by emotions is simultaneously portrayed by the actors and experienced by the soul of the spectators. The rending unfolds along with the plot as the pain and guilt of the protagonists are revealed in full bloom resulting in an emotional split within the spectator between a joyful anticipation of impending justice as well as a compassion for human suffering when the day of retribution arrives.

The spectator is further torn asunder by the fearful knowledge that the actions of the protagonist have been the seed of their own destruction and that a single crime or act of hubris (overweening pride and arrogance) can set into action a chain of tragic consequences and further crimes for others who are simultaneously innocent victims of the first tragedy and perpetrators of further tragedies from their own reactions.

The Orphics taught that the source of human suffering was the Titanic crime against the First Dionysos and his death by dismemberment. As a consequence of this primal tragedy, the emotions of the life forms that arose from the death of Dionysos would eternally echo the rending of the Divine Child. The two-fold nature of life would thus be bound in the internal struggle to defeat the predator within that sabotages and sows the seeds of self-destruction. This self-defeating nature prone to decay through its destructive essence was capable of all form of crime, misdeed and hubris.

In remembrance of the original crime this mortal aspect of humanity is called the Titanic nature. The spark of the Divine Child that was consumed by the Titans is called the Dionysian nature and exists simultaneously within all life forms as the immortal and creative essence of life. Human and animal nature is thus ever bound by the tension of opposites between the destructive Titanic and the creative Dionysian natures. Creative and destructive forces are in turn moved by Love and Strife. This universal and mythical motif is echoed in the events that form a part of the plot but are not acted out by the protagonists on the stage during the tragedies(15).

These off-stage events are motivated by the Prime Movers of Love and Strife in all its forms and sensibilities. This places human nature firmly in a square of opposition between two central universal dualities: Love/Strife and Creation/Destruction. The agents of the rending on the universal, mythical and human levels are thus revealed and the source of suffering disclosed.

The tragedies of theatre capture and reflect the soul of this essential conflict that exists within all living things. The square of opposition thus forms the basic framework of any tragedy, both real and theatrical, and displays the core motivations arising from the central internal and external conflict of all protagonists. Through the tragic portrayal of the pure emotions deriving from configurations of the square of opposition within the tragedy, the spectators gain sensibility of the Prime Movers of the Universe as the cause and effect of life in all its aspects.

Torn between love and strife while seeking to create or destroy, the protagonists of the tragedy portray the highest and purest form of the Prime Movers that are only sensible to humanity through the emotions that drive them. Thus the soul of the tragedy and the spectator are joined though the reflection of that which is eternal and common to all; the essential emotions to love, to fight, to make and to break. The actor through their portrayal calls forth the essential emotions within both themselves in order to perform and within the spectator in order to watch.

The Titanic and Dionysian nature are torn asunder and reduced to the most primal elements of the primordial tragedy. Swept up in the emotions of the tragic protagonists, the spectator recalls the most primitive urges deep within and weeps real tears as the soul of the tragedy performs its greatest deed. For the looking glass of the theatre that is held up the soul of the tragedy has but one essential function; to evoke this reflective quality (mirror) within the soul of the spectator. As the spectator finds their emotions mirroring (through empathy or reversal) the reactions of the protagonists and sees themselves reflected within the tragic characters and events; reality and illusion unite within a primal truth and the spectator and the protagonist breathe and feel as one being. The spectators and actors united in eternal nature and yet separated by material form are thus the perfect vision of the dismembered Dionysos, the tragic victim of the primal tragedy.

Rebirth after Rending: Catharsis and Renewal

The very act of living and experiencing life within a society or civilisation dictated to by moral and emotional principles of restraint will cause repressive and dissociative tendencies within its people. Very few communities offer adequate outlets for the negative energies that build up as a natural consequence of living. To purge one of these negative energies was considered purifying and renewing all at once.

The Orphics believed that the creative Dionysian nature could be nurtured through the purification of the soul. Theatre with its tragedies offered the purification of the emotions through the catharsis (16) of the soul. The method was simple. A soul enmeshed in tragedy could be purged through the evocation of the primal emotions and through the positive direction of their purgation, the self-destructive impulses would be minimised within the reality of their everyday life.

In general terms, catharsis is the means by which emotional tension may be redirected from introverted self-absorption into an out-flowing (e)motion that causes release from tension and renews the spirit at the same time. This cathartic effect expresses one of the reasons why Dionysos was called the Redeeming God (17).

The cathartic power of tragic theatre is the acknowledgement of the vehicle of renewal and rebirth being found within the heart. The heart within this context is symbolic and has a threefold meaning. Firstly, the heart is the symbolic seat of the emotions; secondly, the heart or core of a matter indicates the cause of behaviour and thirdly as a colloquial Hellenic pun referring to the phallus as the heart and thus the conduit for the seed of rebirth.

The heart is a key symbol in the myth of the dismemberment of the first Dionysos as it is the organ that survives the Titanic consumption. Zeus makes a potion from this heart that he gives to Semele, the second mother of Dionysos, to impregnate her. Thus is born the second Dionysos, God of the Vine who lives on past the death of the grape in the spirit of the Wine.

As the dismembered God, he redeems through the cathartic properties of suffering and from the preservation of the heart the seeds of rebirth are sewn to ensure that what the Titanic nature may destroy, the Dionysian will surely resurrect. This is the mythical analogy for the human instinct to persevere, endure and live on past the horrors of being pulled apart emotionally by death, fear, suffering and pain.

It is also a reminder not to lose heart in the face of despair or to allow one’s heart to grow cold with bitterness. The heart bears the seed of renewal and if the germ of bitterness and vengeance are planted then only further tragedy may unfold.

The Didactic Art of the Redeeming God

‘We poets make men better citizens’ Aristophanes (18)

Tragedy made the insensible sensible and gave both form and order to the apparently chaotic causes and effects of human nature and suffering. By means of tragic representation, the poet (playwright in modern terminology) could impart significance to affliction and by giving structure to intense emotional states could facilitate conscious awareness of the incomprehensible. The misfortunes of life could be more easily understood by the mind cultivated in the art of Tragedy and the highly moral nature of the medium allowed for a thorough exploration of both virtue and vice.

The development of tragic theatre as a poetic portrayal within religious festivals was directly related to a progressive refinement of its ability to educate at the same time as entertain. This form of recreational edification is called the Didactic Art and was utilised in a highly sophisticated and symbolic manner in sacred theatre to illustrate the tragic consequences of the innate tendencies of human nature. As such the Didactic Art within Tragedy became a form of moral and ethical guidance for its spectators as the means by which coherence of emotions, thought and meaning could be achieved.

This alignment between the intellect, the emotions and the spiritual principles of the religion within the spectator was an important factor within the works of the master poet who would often illustrate through the characters of his plays, the tragic consequences of what may happen if the intellect, emotions and actions of a hero are in state of disarray. The tragic work, composed from the structured sequencing of events and characters together with the dramatic standards of performance, would thus enable the poet to direct the sensibilities of the spectator to extend beyond the limits of individual life experience (19) and into the pool of central wisdom.

The basic elements of the Didactic Art within theatrical tragedy reveal the tools of the poet and the framework with which the ancient spectator could look deep within this reflective pool of life experience and human memory.

a. The Standard Language of Theatre

The ancient poet was first and foremost an observer of life. Through the objective perspectives that distance offers, the poet could stage this mirror reflection of life within the theatrical medium. By means of the employment of certain measured techniques within the development of tragic theatre, a standard ‘language’ was developed that gave the spectator the correct context with which to ‘view’ the work of the poet and the portrayal of the tragedy. The refinement of this standard and symbolic theatrical language enabled the poet to write his work on many levels simultaneously.

Each year the State would commission the great poets of the time to write a trilogy of Tragedy and a single Satire to be performed at the Greater and Lesser Dionysia. The trilogy was in fact a Tragedy in three parts that would trace the chain of consequences set off by the original tragic protagonists through the generations or years that followed the first event.

Many of these tragic events mirrored aspects of either the primal tragedy or other mythical/historical tragedies. This continuum of protagonists and events that spanned generations illustrated perfectly the adage that ‘this year’s harvest is a product of last year’s sun’. The Didactic nature of tragedy reflected both the rituals of the real world and acted as a medium for dramatic representations of many ancient Hellenic maxims all at once.

The drama (actions) of a trilogy would follow a particular pattern or set standard to enable the spectator to not be distracted by the ‘blood’ of a deed but rather to concentrate on the ‘tears’ resulting from the action. Thus the poet would direct the spectators’ attention to the ‘fruits’ of the events to illustrate that the core of the tragedy was not the deed itself but the consequences and effects thereof.

By the means of this standard, the spectator knew what to expect on the most basic level and thus the subtleties of the cycle of action, reaction and reactive actions became more easily apparent. This enabled tragedy to develop into a highly sophisticated and cultivated didactic medium. The costumes, masks, skenes (scenery), gestures, diction and staging were all standardised and stylised to allow even the slightest difference to have a profound effect on the spectator. The very real emotions portrayed within the unrealistic appearances of the masked actors offered a glimpse into the surreal quality of real life tragedy.

The true action in any tragic event is what happens beneath the masks of appearances and the theatrical medium symbolised this perfectly. The aim of the poet was to appeal to the soul of the spectator (Dionysian nature) through the spirit, intellect and emotions and not to the Titanic nature through the sensory perception of appearances. This marks the central distinction between the art of sacred theatre and the performance art of modern stage and screen.

b. The Basic Elements of Tragedy

One of the central means by which the spectator was educated at the same time as being entertained was through the basic elements of tragedy as a whole. The first and most obvious of these elements is Rhesis (20) referring to a declaration or statement made a protagonist in a tragedy. Rhesis is both a tool of character and plot development for a poet as well as the means by which new ideas or opinions concerning the state of government or humanity may be proposed to the spectator within a contextual setting. Bearing in mind that these tragedies were watched by all leaders and politicians, the Rhesis of a tragedy was an extremely powerful poetic tool that appealed to the intellect of the audience.

The second element appealed to the spectator on a more human level and was called the Monody. The Monody refers to the lament within a tragedy that expresses grievous regret usually over a death that occurs. In the strange ironic language of the theatre the lament is almost always a call for the spectator to live without regret by illustrating the tragic effects of remorse once irrevocable change has taken place. Remorse is central to any tragedy as the hero or heroine exemplifies the tragic genre through the lamentation of their regrets.

The regret expressed in the Monody is simultaneously a recognition and this refers directly to the third element of tragedy: Anagnorisis. The concept of Anagnorisis is one of recognition or discovery (21) and refers to the protagonist’s moment of awareness of their true nature as well as the simultaneous acknowledgement of the reality of a situation.

Aristotle defines Anagnorisis as ‘a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined for good or bad fortune.’ As the hero or heroine throws themselves down in the lamentation of the Monody, they experience Anagnorisis and will arise either as Elektra or Orestes over the body of their father Agamemnon in the spirit of revenge or in the defeated futility of Andromache as her son is taken from her.

On the rare occasion, a tragic figure will arise who acknowledges utterly the power of the Fates and the importance of the tragic event within the larger scheme of life and history. Such is the heroine Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, who must walk freely to be sacrificed on the altar of Artemis or be dragged by the assembled armies. Her recognition and total acceptance of her Fate combined with her willingness to be sacrificed elevates her beyond the purely tragic figure of her mother Clytemnestra who blames and slays her husband Agamemnon in an act of pure vengeance. Thus arises Elektra and Orestes from lamenting over the body of their father and they, in turn, will illustrate the consequences of harvesting fruits that have grown from the seeds of vengeance and will murder their mother Clytemnestra in cold blood. The tragic fruits of vengeance sow their seeds for many a generation and all actions are ultimately cyclic in nature; ever seeking the point of origin yet rippling through life like a drop of water in a calm pool echoing the primal tragedy.

The fourth element of tragedy is very closely related to the Anagnorisis and resolve by which the tragic hero or heroine arise from their Monody. The ancient concept of Agon (22) is central to not only tragedy but also to all forms of competition or conflict. Agon is used generally to denote a contest of any type but may be interpretated to denote the indirect challenge inherent within any act of competition or conflict.

How the hero or heroine chooses to meet the challenge of any tragic event, as defined by their Anagnorisis, is indicative of the outcome of the internal conflict between their Titanic and Dionysian natures in the moment of lamentation. Some heroes are defeated at the beginning while others will rise to the challenge in different manners. This is the means by which the poet may appeal to the spirit of the spectator. Agon as a concept is inseparable from Arête (referring to virtue as a principle of personal excellence) and thus the ideal manner in which to meet the challenge of the tragic Agon is through virtuous reaction.

By the tendencies inherent within their own natures, the tragic heroes fall short of this ideal as all humans do on occasion. But the utter humanity of the hero complete with all the failings is the truly didactic nature of the tragic protagonist as a model of the tragic consequences that may result from fated misfortune, lack of virtue or from well meaning actions gone awry. Actions based upon virtuous principles but lacking in clarity, reason or the accurate assessment of a situation are often the means by which the protagonists meet their tragic ends. This twist in the plot of the tragedy illustrates admirably that excessive or defective virtue may cause great harm and life is often not very clearly delineated in the definition of right or wrong action within any situation. Many tragic protagonists must face the dilemma of choosing between the lesser or greater evil. Loss is inevitable in Agon and thus the hero in any contest or conflict must face the choice of minimising the harm or following the path of least resistance regardless of the outcome. This choice is the turning point of the tragedy; the Peripeteia that leads to either good or bad fortune for the protagonist.

The Agon of the tragedy will almost always be associated with the fifth element of tragic theatre; the Peripeteia referring to a ‘reversal’ that is best explained by Aristotle.

“A change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity” (23)

Peripeteia was, in the opinion of Aristotle, the most powerful element of tragedy because it revealed a change from one state of being to its opposite state. The living die; the virtuous man acts with vice; joys becomes suffering; poverty befalls the wealthy, love may turn to hate and vengeance just may change into mercy. The Peripeteia of a tragedy was the poetic tool to illustrate the changeability of life’s circumstances and thus the true instability of any condition or state of being.

The tragic portrayal of human fragility inspires both fear and pity within the spectator. The reversal is yet another manifestation of theatrical mirroring. The eyes of the spectator that find their reflection within the looking glass will always see a reversal of their own image. Left becomes right and right becomes left. The Peripeteia gives this mirror reversal both form and meaning within context to the character development of the protagonist and the plot of the tragedy. Life and fortune can change in a less than a minute and the master poet cautions the spectator not to be complacent.

It is not easy to acknowledge and accept how frail life and humanity really is or how inescapable and irrevocable the power of the Fates and the Gods may be. However, to not recognise this truth of life and believe oneself to be invulnerable to the law of the Gods illustrates one aspect of the sixth element of tragedy; Hamartia. Each tragic protagonist has a fatal tendency that burdens and creates bias within their own natures that leads ultimately to a terrible mistake or error in judgement (24).

The term Hamartia includes both innate behavioural tendency and any resulting error in judgement within its concept although Aristotle mostly used the word to describe flawed actions or unethical behaviour. Hamartia may take many different forms within the complex personality of a tragic hero as may be illustrated through Oedipus whose Hamartia was simultaneously his hasty and rash temperament (innate) as well as his lack of knowledge of his true parentage through no fault of his own that causes him to unwittingly slay his own father and marry his mother. This sense of Hamartia as being a failing that occurs beyond the power of human control is a crucial element within tragedy.

Within ancient Hellas, the power of the Moirae (Fates) was indisputable and utterly complete. The Fate of a protagonist is tragic only because essentially they are virtuous within their nature before and after the calamity strikes. The protagonist’s feelings of anger and revenge seem very just within their own minds. Yet due to the combination of the hero’s Hamartia that is both fated and innate, the Peripeteia of the tragedy externalises the challenge of the Agon. Sadly, objectivity and reason are greatly diminished in times of personal crisis and thus the resolve of the protagonist is often founded upon biased opinion and subjective truth. The turning point of the tragic hero is more often than not a path that leads to greater misfortune. The spectator must then watch in horror as the hero, who thoroughly believes in their own virtue and vision of justice, sows the seeds of their own destruction to bear the fruits of their own defeat.

The innate tendencies and errors in judgement that may be defined as Hamartia within the genre of tragic heroes and heroines are closely related to the concept of Hubris, the seventh and final basic element of tragedy. The greatest error in ancient Hellas was the act of Hubris and in Athens was considered a crime. Hubris refers to any act where a victim is humiliated or shamed so as to make the offender look superior.

Hubris is to cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to you, nor because anything has happened to you, but merely for your own gratification. Hubris is not the requital of past injuries; this is revenge. As for the pleasure in hubris, its cause is this: men think that by ill-treating others they make their own superiority the greater. Aristotle (25)

A perfect example of Hubris is the action of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad when he mistreats the corpse of Hektor (26). Any act based on self-confidence and pride that humiliated a defeated foe was deemed Hubris as was any mortal who believed themselves to be above the Gods and Divine Law considered being guilty of Hubris.

An example is found in the tragedy Hippolytus where Aphrodite is offended by Hippolytus’ rejection of Phaedra’s love in an act that ultimately leads to the death of the tragic hero (27). Another illustration of Hubris against the Gods may be found in the tragedy named the Bacchantes where the protagonist Pentheus refuses to honour Dionysos and is killed by the God’s followers (28).

The excessive pride and arrogance of Hubris reveals a deeper understanding of the elements of Agon and Hamartia within context to the tragic medium. The innate pride or self-confidence within the tragic protagonist may more accurately be defined as their Hamartia or the result of their Hamartia. When this Hamartia is externalised into an action, it becomes Hubris.

Furthermore, through the act of Hubris the unseen and as yet unmentioned challenger within the Agon is unveiled. For the destruction or virtuous ruin of the protagonist is called more commonly their Nemesis. This mythical parallel illustrates the jurisdiction of the Goddess Nemesis, sister to Themis (Natural Law) and mother to the Erinyes (the Furies) who is present each time law is absent. Thus the destruction of the tragic protagonist is truly their fall from the state of virtue and justice that they regard so highly. Once the protagonist has encountered their internal Nemesis, their defeat is absolute.

Through the Peripeteia (reversal) of Law into Lawlessness, the tragic hero will become what they themselves despise and the circle will be complete. The seed has been sown and the bitter fruits harvested.


The Redeeming Dionysos of Tragedy is a mirror reversal of the more light-hearted Dionysos commonly known only as the drunken God of Wine. In communing with the soul of the Goat-Song, the spectator sees a far more serious side of the God than his accompanying satyrs and nymphs may indicate at first glance. The ecstasy is also agony and the flowing wine is also blood. The mirroring is complete and has unveiled the flesh that exists beneath the mask of appearances. The reflective medium of theatre has revealed the eternal nature of Tragedy that is present in the temporal nature of tragic events. Reality has been exposed from deep within the hidden nature of illusion. The opposites are reconciled and yet from the irrevocable tragedy of the protagonist’s nemesis, the light of rebirth and renewal shines. The spectator walks away from the theatre unscathed. As the observer of impersonal events, they have been purified by the intensity of pure emotion and have been afforded a new perspective on emotional issues that may only be experienced from a distance. The seed of a new and better way of life has been planted and it is the hope of the tragic poet that the spectator will drink deeply from the pool of human wisdom to nourish and nurture their Dionysian spark. The mirror that shone so brightly is now an inner light that may or may not illuminate the footsteps of the spectator as they make their way back to the ordinary world.

“…whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure…” [Hamlet Act III; Scene II] (29)

‘Thanks be to the sweet-voiced Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, for the nourishing of souls and the bestowal of reason’ Prayer to the Muses

References and Notes:

1. Thales of Miletus: Pre-Socratic philosopher (624-546 B.C.E) considered one of the seven Sages of ancient Greece. 2. Empedocles of Acragas (490-430 B.C.E.) 3. Thomas R. Martin: An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander 4. The philosophy of all things being in flux originates from Herakleitos, the Pre-Socratic philosopher. Plato (Cratylus) explains the doctrine of flux: “Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things go and nothing stays, and comparing existents to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river” 5. Jose Ortega y Gasset: Meditaciones del Quijote 6. All references to the meaning and roots of Hellenic words are taken from ‘The Analytical Dictionary of Ancient Greek’ by Makarios P. Pelekes 7. Porphyry ‘On Images’ translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford 8. Professor Brian Leahy Doyle: ‘A study guide for Sophocles’ Antigone’ 9. Jane Ellen Harrison Westport: Ancient Art and Ritual 10. Dr K.Kerenyi: ‘Dionysos; an Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life’ 11. Varo: ‘De Rustica’; Leonidas ‘Anthologia Palatina; Eunos ‘Anthologia Palatina’ (excerpt translated by K. Kerenyi from ‘Dionysos; An Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life’) 12. Dr K. Kerenyi: The Gods of the Greeks 13. Reconstructed by M & L Madytinos from various Orphic fragments taken from K. Kerenyi’s ‘Gods of the Greeks’; ‘Dionysos’ and ‘Eleusis’; WKC Guthrie’s Orpheus and the Greek Religion and GRS Mead’s ‘Orpheus’. The names of all the toys have not been given in this version of the myth as they are relevant to other mysteries. 14. Funk & Wagnalls ‘Standard Dictionary’ Volume II 15. All battles, love scenes and actual deaths were not portrayed on stage in Greek Tragedies and were only sung about by the chorus or narrated by the Nuntius (narrator). 16. Aristotle: Poetics (translation by SH Butcher) 17. Orphic Hymn No 50 to Lysios Lenaios (Dionysos at the festival of Lenaia) refers to Dionysos as ‘the many-named redeeming God’ – Orphic Hymn translated by M Madytinos. 18. Aristophanes: ‘Frogs’ (405 B.C.E) 19. Oliver Taplin (Lecturer in Greek and Latin at Oxford University): ‘Greek Tragedy in Action’ 20. Sebastiana Nervegna’s review of Simonetta Grandolini (ed), Lirica e Teatro in Grecia. Il Testo e la sua ricezione. Atti del II incontro di Studi. Perugia, 23-24 gennaio 2003 21. Northrop Frye: “Myth, Fiction and Displacement” p 25 Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology 22. Joel Trapido (1949) The Language of the Theatre: I. The Greeks and Romans: Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Oct., 1949), pp. 18-26 doi: 10.2307/3204106 23. Aristotle: Poetics. Trans. Ingram Bywater. New York: The Modern Library College Editions, 1984. 24. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. V.8 1135b12-20 25. Douglas MacDowell: “Hybris in Athens.” Greece and Rome 23 (1976) 14-31. 26. Homer’s Iliad, translated by Richard Lattimore 27. Euripides’ Hippolytus (also called Hippolytus Unveiled) 28. Euripides’ The Bacchantes (also called the Bacchae) 29. William Shakespeare: Hamlet

Additional References

1. Michael R. Deschenes: The Heart of the Matter: Gods, Grief and Freedom in Aeschylus’ Oresteia 2. Dr. Larry A. Brown (Professor of Theatre): Aristotle on Greek Tragedy 3. Michael Best: Shakespeare’s Life and Times. Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria: Victoria, BC, 2001-2005. 4. C. Hemingway: Theatre of Ancient Greece (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) 5. Mark Griffith: Slaves of Dionysos; Satyrs, Audience and the ends of Oresteia.


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