In this next lesson, Dionysus will be introduced as the god of wine. Dionysus was a tragic figure. Like the vine that produced ripe grapes from which he drew forth sweet nectar in spring, only to be cut back and left to shiver as a gnarled stump in winter, Dionysus embodied both mirth and cruelty, as did his invention of wine. The son of Zeus and the last of the great Olympian gods, he was the only one with a human mother, Semele. Through Hera’s trickery, she was killed and banished to Hades from which Dionysus was able to set her free. It was this story that transformed the paradigm of religious belief among the Greeks. Hitherto, the early Greeks had believed death to be the closure of life (at least where mortals were concerned). The resurrection from the underworld of a human, Dionysus’ mother, offered a new view of rebirth to a higher plane of existence. Thus, Dionysus became a central figure to be celebrated in the spring, a time when the Earth renews herself after the hardship of winter has passed. And it was from these early religious celebrations that Greek theater was born. Students will learn about this myth by sharing in an oral reading of “Dionysus” from Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire’s
Book of Greek Myths
(pages 66-69). Included in this account, is the story of how Dionysus transformed some nefarious sailors into dolphins, which according to legend, is why they are the most human of all the creatures that live in the ocean.
To further illustrate some of the components of classic Greek theater, will again refer to Richard Patrick’s
All Color Book of Greek Mythology
to offer a pictorial view of the beginnings of European theater that stemmed from Ancient Greek religious festivals.
Plate 57:Hermes with the infant Dionysus (marble statue); Plate 56: The theater at Delphi (location photo).
By the fifth century B.C., religious festivals honoring the gods became a mainstay of Greek culture. These festivals consisted of retelling stories about the gods, which became even more elaborate through acting, costuming, and choral orchestration. Audiences 20,000 and 30,000 strong were able to hear these stories owing to the acoustical design of the amphitheaters in which the festivals were held. Padded costuming, elaborate masks, and platform shoes made the actors larger than life, and a chorus of fifteen aided in the aural clarity of the storytelling by joining their voices to narrate and make commentary. Among all the festivals, the Dionysia or City Dionysia, was by far the most noteworthy.
Plate 43: Delphi at the south-west spur of Mount Parnassu (location photo).
Delphi was considered one of the most venerated places in Greece where Apollo, Dionysus and Athena were represented by priests and priestesses. The Oracle (shrine) at Delphi is frequently represented in the Greek Classics as the prophetic words of the gods most often set these ancient stories into motion.
Plate 45: A Muse with lyre (first century B.C. relief).
After defeating the Titans (which was explained to students in “Lesson Two: The Infinite”), Zeus created nine divine creatures, the Muses. These were the daughters of Zeus and the Titaness Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Each daughter grew to preside over a different art or science: Erato, lyrics; Euterpe, music; Thalia, comedy; Melpomene, tragedy; Terpsichore, dance; Urania, astronomy; Clio, history; Polyhymnia, hymns; Callipe, epics. Today, when we think of the muses, we envision the guiding light of inspiration.
Plate 54: Head of a satyr (Etruscan terracotta sculpture).
The satyrs resembled Pan, the god of nature. They were woodland creatures with pointed ears, short horns, and goat legs, and are best known for their unrestrained fondness for revelry. As theater developed in the fifth century B.C., satyr plays—short comedic pieces following three tragedies and employing a chorus of actors dressed as satyrs —were presented to audiences as comic relief. The one extant satyr play, the
by Euripides, is a parody of Odysseus’ encounter with Polyphemus, the Cyclops from Homer’s
(“The Satyr Play” from
The Essential theater
by Oscar G. Brockett, page 57.)
After the presentation (above) students will receive their folders back to review their answers thus far to the questions
“Who are you?”
“Where did the world come from?”
They will be instructed to look at some of the quotations in the
Stormy Weather Odyssey Outline
handout (see “Lesson Five: Stormy Weather”). We will then discuss the structure of Homeric Simile and students will try their hands at creating a couple of their own. Once again, they will be directed back to the quote by William Blake at the beginning of this section to guide their focus.