Performing Arts in the Ancient World Introduction


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Artifacts from 30,000 years ago indicate that Ice Age people may have been performing religious rituals, and it is likely that the performing arts of music, theater, and dance formed the crucial elements of that ritual. Some 10,000 years later, drawings in caves in France, Spain, and Africa show performers in costumes representing various animals. Some of these performers are also carrying musical percussion and string instruments.

The earliest historical records of performing arts come from Egyptian pyramids circa 2,800 to 2400 b.c.e. These so-called pyramid texts consist of hieroglyphics and scenes depicting trials through which a spirit must pass before being admitted into a happier place. Some scholars believe that these texts were actually dramas, danced and enacted with accompanying music by performer-priests to ensure the well-being of the dead pharaoh and to demonstrate the continuity of life. Other scholars cite the Ikhernofret stone (c. 1868 b.c.e.), which contains the primary evidence about the Abydos passion play, said to be the first recorded text of a performance presented in ancient Egypt. The annual play, which concerns the life, death, and rebirth of the god Osiris, probably contained elements of all the performing arts. In addition to such passion plays, the Egyptian pharaoh was expected to demonstrate publicly his mastery of several sports, including archery, throwing, and chariot racing. It is from these Egyptian spectator events that most scholars date the beginnings of the performing arts in ancient civilizations.