Escaping and Purging

The 6th century BC Greek poet, director and actor Thespis began his career by training the singers and dancers that performed as part of the drama and comedy that was the heart of the religious festival dedicated to the God Dionysus. We honor Thespis, calling all actors “thespians,” because he was the first actor, stepping out of the chorus, giving himself lines that he recited as an individual. He first developed the idea of an alternative worldview than that expressed by the chorus introducing opposition and conflict, that is to say “drama.”

The Greek mystery tradition told of God (Zeus) creating man from the ashes of the Titans (giants) who had consumed his son Dionysus. Man, then is part immortal Dionysian substance and mortal Titan substance. In the mystery rituals and celebrations the Greeks were acknowledging the presence of Dionysus within themselves. Dionysus, then is an early manifestation of the human identity involving a false self (Titan substance) and a True self (Dionysus or Christ Consciousness). “Dionysus, Orpheus, and the other figures of the mysteries are variant aspects in manifestation of this cosmogonic [creation of the world] power, whose mythology in the Christian sphere became focused in the crucified redeemer.”[i]

Theatre as a religious rite became both an escape from personal responsibility for one’s behavior and a purging of suffering brought on by fear and religious guilt. Which is how much of our modern entertainment is used today in search of sensations as a distraction from reality. The statue of Dionysus was brought to the theatre and so placed before the stage that he might enjoy the spectacle much as the crucified Jesus hangs in the Church to witness the communion. Perhaps originally the theme, as in the drama of the Mass, was the passion and death of the god; gradually the poets were allowed to substitute the sufferings and death of a hero in Greek myth.

It may even be that in its early forms the drama was a magic ritual, designed to escape the tragedies it portrayed, and to purge the audience of evils by representing these as suffered by proxy and thereby “forgiven.” Dionysus was like Christ the savior, taking the hit for all ancient Greeks, or Dionysus was an early “savior” God who could intercede with the more remote and less compassionate Gods on Mt. Olympus on behalf of the mere mortals who crowded into theatre seeking relief from their existential angst.

As often happens with art, in this example the art found in the birth of the theatre, we find truth revealed and consciousness itself created within humanity. In this case a relative paradigm shift begins to occur with theatre center stage. “[Because] it was on the Dionysian stage that the major tragedies and comedies were first played, and fought out the bitterest phase of that war, between the old theology and the new philosophy, which binds into one vast process of thought and change the mental history of the Periclean age.”[ii]  In a very real sense, the birth of democracy and the possibility of Simple Reality were both born on the stages of Greek theatre in the 6th century BC.

Escaping and Purging

[i]     Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology. New York: Viking, 1968, page 646.

[ii]     Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939, page 378.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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