|DIONYSUS AND GREEK
Although the origin of Greek drama cannot be known with any certainty, we do
know that tragedy and comedy had deep roots in the religious and communal life
of the Greek polis and were closely connected with the worship of the
god Dionysus (sometimes spelled Dionysos, called Bacchus by the Romans). A
great deal of basic information about this god and his interactions with other
deities and humans can be found in Carlos Parada's
to Greek Mythology, while
Thompson muses about the nature and meaning of the god.
An excellent article by Patricia Easterling (A Show for
Dionysus.The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Ed. P. E.
Easterling. Cambridge University Press, 1997. 36-53) maintains that Dionysus
was closely associated with Greek tragedy because of the following major
characteristics of the god:
- As the god specifically associated with wine and wine miracles, Dionysus
intoxication, which can lead both
to positive release and to self-destructive passions and actions.
- More generally, Dionysus was a god of wild nature, of the forces
outside of the civilized city:
- unchecked, luxuriant plant growth, as can be seen in
this cup, painted by Exekias
- fierce, untamed animals such as large cats (panthers, leopards, lions)
bulls, and snakes; note the snakes and leopard that characterize the maenad on
this cup by
the Brygos painter, or in
painting of Dionysus himself holding a dismembered animal
- sexuality unbounded by humane and civilized limits, particularly symbolized
by the half-animal satyrs who were the god's companions
- As a god of ecstatic possession, Dionysus left his worshippers without
individual, conscious identity; his female followers were called
raving women, and are shown in
was a major part of the worship of Dionysus, especially as a celebration of
self-consciousness and constraint, as can be seen on this lovely Roman
cameo of a dancing satyr.
- Dionysus was pre-eminently a god of otherness; he was
frequently represented on vases by a mask, as in the numerous eye
vases like the one shown above, where the mask of Dionysus is placed
between two large eyes.
- Dionysus also played a role as god of mystic initiation in cults such as
the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter and Persephone.
The word tragedy is connected with the Greek word tragoi, meaning
goats, and Dionysus and his followers are sometimes
pictured with a goat. One of the musical
instruments associated with Dionysus, the aulos or double pipe, was used to accompany
Barbara F. McManus
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