The Panhellenic Games
The argon or contest was at the center of life for the Greeks in their striving towards individual excellence, and, at the same time, prepared them both physically and mentally for conflict.
The Olympic Games, held every four years in honor of Zeus, were the first of a series of four Panhellenic contests, founded in 776 BCE. The others were: the Pythian Games – held every four years, near Delphi, in honor of Apollo, the Nemean Games – held every two years, near Nemea, also in honor of Zeus, and the Isthmian Games – held every two years, near Corinth, in honor of Poseidon.
Participation in the games confirmed ones Greekness and fundamentally helped to shape what it meant to be Greek. Greeks became Greek by competing with other Greeks in games that were open to any male individual identified as Greek.
Since each site was dedicated to a god, competitions held there were protected by a Sacred Truce that ended all interstate warfare during the period of the games. This allowed everyone – competitors and audiences alike – the freedom to compete and travel.
Greek women rarely competed – accept in horse-racing events where they might own the animal – but they were included in the audience, where everyone came together peacefully. In addition to athletics and horse racing, there were music competitions, art competitions, and theatrical competitions.
At the core these were religious events in which the very best in each field was established. These individuals would devote their acts and abilities to the gods; the winners would receive ‘a crown’ of sacred herbs called stefanos. As with Homeric heroes, the winners were commemorated in verse and honored with “undying glory” in odes that connected them to these heroes of old.
Originally individual aristocrats competed on their own behalf, but as city states grew more powerful, these Games became a legitimate venue for the expression of the competitiveness that existed between city-states which sent their best athletes to represent them.
Over at least three days Athenians had the opportunity, time and space to experience and think about those aspects of humanity that threatened the wellbeing and eunomia (balance) of their society, both in the oikos (family) and in the polis (state.)
By the end of the sixth century, Athens had become the home of a tradition of drama that strengthened the bonds of the entire community. The most splendid of the Bacchic festivals, the City Dionysia, took place in March each year to welcome the spring. It was held from the first within the precincts of the city, in the sacred enclosure of Eleuthereus on the south of the Acropolis, where the remains of the great Athenian theatre are still to be seen.
Dionysus, among other things, was the God of tragic art, and some scholars believe that these events were part of the religious festival in his honor. Others that they were added to the religious festival since the “audience” had already gathered for that event. Nevertheless, gods are always present in the plots, at least in the background, and sometimes as characters on the stage. They are often invoked, or challenged by the human heroes who are frequently their helpless pawns.
The plays took place in a stadium that seated about 20,000 people and were held on three specific and consecutive days each year, from sun up to sun down.
Each day one poet alone would present a trilogy, followed by a burlesque satyr play, which was shorter and often connected thematically to the plays that preceded it. In the Greek agonistic spirit — (from the Greek agōnistikos, from the word agōn meaning contest) — these plays were part of a competition between three tragedians selected for the event by the Archon responsible for organizing it all. In addition, more frequently than not, the main characters in every play were in conflict with each other.
Tragoidia is a formal term that refers not to the subject matter but to the form, and its meaning was more like our word “play” than our word “tragedy.” According to Aristotle, “The plot of a Tragoidia needed to be serious.” Nevertheless, those that survived are almost all tragedies in our sense of the word.
Actors were generic figures: they wore heavy masks, hiding any expression, their robes were heavy and indistinguishable from each other, their movements ritualized. To move the audience, they relied entirely on the quality of their voices, dance-like movements, and on the poetry they spoke and sang. Sophocles, for example, avoided performing in his plays because his voice was too weak.
The plots were almost always drawn from traditional Greek mythology and tended to focus on conflict within a great family from the remote and heroic past. So the broad outline of the story and the main characters would be known to the audience. But the play’s details were modified, and minor characters often invented in order to refocus the story to highlight whatever angles the writer wanted, putting whatever words he wanted into the character’s mouths. Thus the tragedy commented on wider contemporary social themes, like justice, the tension between public and private duty, the dangers of political power, and the balance of power between the sexes.
Greek audiences would already be accustomed to listen attentively for a long time in public assemblies, and in the law courts, consequently the spoken word would have been easier for them to listen to and retain than this format would be for us today.
Aspects, perspectives and the relevance of the trilogies would be discussed by citizens, since tragedy not only validated traditional values, reinforcing group cohesion, but also exposed weaknesses, conflicts and doubts in both the individual and the state. Athenian democracy was new and the transition from traditional blood or tribal loyalty to loyalty to the state, although intellectually welcomed, would likely have been more difficult for individuals to internalize. Athenians applied what they learned in the theatre to other aspects of their lives, to difficult civic issues, to their deliberations in the Assembly and to their judgments in the courts.
The plays told stories that dealt ruthlessly and relentlessly with human passions, conflicts and suffering at the same time expressing Greek ideals. They were open to all citizens, possibly even women and slaves. Over at least three days, then, Athenians had the opportunity and space to experience and think about those aspects of humanity that threatened the wellbeing and eunomia (balance) of their society, both in the oikos (family) and in the polis (state.)
Here in open-air theatres the public could watch as every transgression—even the most horrific of human drives and passions—was acted out and released in a very controlled setting. It provided a cathartic experience (or cleansing) for everyone; here suffering was experienced and accepted, and empathy fostered. Greek Classical Theatre was a safety valve for the society where every year, passions and concerns were revealed and then could be controlled.
Karen Armstrong writes in The Great Transformation, “Tragedy taught the Athenians to project themselves toward the ‘other’ and to include within their sympathies those whose assumptions differed markedly from their own. … Above all, tragedy put suffering on stage. It did not allow the audience to forget that life was ‘dukkha,’ painful, unsatisfactory, and awry. By placing a tortured individual in front of the polis, analyzing that person’s pain, and helping the audience to empathize with him or her, the fifth-century tragedians – Aeschylus (ca 525 – 456), Sophocles (ca 496 – 405), and Euripides (ca 484 – 406) – had arrived at the heart of Axial Age spirituality. The Greeks firmly believed that the sharing of grief and tears created a valuable bond between people. Enemies discovered their common humanity …”
Storytellers had always told versions of well-known myths, tailored to isolate and address societal problems, but now, for the first time, the words were played out by human representatives, rather than just narrated. These ceremonies were religious, they included libations to the gods, music and dancing with stories now acted out by masked actors. A goal was for everyone present to achieve a receptive state – one that is “outside oneself” the Greek meaning of “ecstatic” – in which the actors, chorus and audience could participate “as one”.
Plays posed questions, revealed problems, exposed human weaknesses and strengths, and provided a cathartic experience for everyone present, one that helped to facilitate transformation and change at all levels of society, whether personal or political. Thus, theater became a driving force designed to keep Democracy on track.
Greek religion in its developed form lasted more than a thousand years, from the time of Homer (thought to be 9th or 8th century BCE) to the reign of the Roman emperor Julian (4th century CE). During that period its influence spread as far west as Spain, east to the Indus River, and throughout the Mediterranean world. The Romans identified their deities with those of the Greeks; the stories and images of Christian saints and heroes echo the actions, values and images of the heroes and deities of the ancient Greek world.
Watch: Plato’s Cave
An animated version of Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave.