Performing Arts in the Ancient World Analysis


(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.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The most fundamental of the performing arts is dance, for in its most simple manifestations, dance requires only the human body in motion. The basic dance is that of wild and vigorous jumping and leaping in rhythm, the so-called ecstatic dance. Used in religious ceremonies from sub-Saharan Africa to ancient Israel to Classical Greece and Rome, the ecstatic dance usually begins with restraint but becomes so wild that the dancers often fall unconscious from exertion. It was believed that during such a dance the god being worshiped actually took possession of the performer’s body. The Greeks called this phenomenon enthousiasmos (literally “possessed by the god”), from which is derived the English word “enthusiasm.” Such a dance was practiced by the Hebrew prophets when attempting to get in touch with the word of God. A similar dance seems to have been performed by the ancient inhabitants of Crete where priestesses danced in worship of the great mother goddess. Young Cretan men performed a kind of bull dancing, a very dangerous artform akin to modern Hispanic bullfighting, in which young male dancers executed such maneuvers as somersaulting between the horns of the raging animal. Those that failed to execute these moves were often gored to their death, in effect being sacrificed to the divinity.

Throughout the ancient world, dance was associated with the most basic of human needs and activities. Members of the Tarahumara tribe in Mesoamerica use the same word for dance and work. Fertility of the soil, animals, and people was invoked and celebrated in ancient dance. A painting by English painter John White in 1585 records a Virginia Indian ritual of ancient origin in which seminude young men are seen dancing in a circle around the three most beautiful virgins of the tribe. A similar painting by American artist George Catlin (1832) depicts a Mandan Indian traditional buffalo dance in which the people wearing animal heads dance to ensure abundance of the valuable bison. Other animal dances are practiced by primitive peoples who mask themselves as an animal, such as a lion, in order to acquire the desired characteristics of that animal. An interesting cave painting from North Africa depicts dancers costumed as the praying mantis insect.

The Talmud of the ancient Hebrews describes dances of Hebrew maidens that seem related to fertility dances of primitive peoples. Perhaps the most famous of the Jewish women’s dances are those mentioned in the Christian Bible when Salome, daughter of Herodias, “danced before him and his guests and pleased Herod.” Also famous is King David’s dance before the Ark of Covenant. Muslim dances of Turkey and the Mideast are famous for the ecstatic, spinning movements of the holy men known as whirling dervishes, a dance that is now outlawed. A more playful form of Hindu-Arabic dance is the famous singki of the Muslim princesses. The dance tests the performer’s grace and skill as she dances between two pair of bamboo poles clapped together in syncopated and ever-accelerating rhythm.

Ancient Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa are alike in that their dances often involved death and journeys into the world of the spirit. The Yoruba people of southern Africa have elaborate dances associated with ritual journeys of the spirit, as well as elaborate dance-dramas devoted to the mother goddess. These latter dances have been well documented in film. The most significant spirit dance of all comes from the Hindus of India. According to Hindu theology, the god Śiva actually danced the world into existence. To this day, young women, following a tradition of many hundreds of years, start training at the age of five or six in the intricate steps and gestures that make up Indian temple dance. These dancers are in some way “married” to the deity in whose temples they are found. Known as kathakali, the dance-dramas of northern India have survived to the present. Also surviving from a tradition more than a thousand years old are the dances of India’s neighbors: Ceylon, Cambodia, Bali, and Siam. Each of these dance forms is unique to its region but all are based on the radical...

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Dance was an intricate part of theater in the ancient world, and the cultures of India, China, Japan, Greece, and Rome drew little distinction between the actor and the dancer. The plays of the Greek theater, known as dramenon, or happenings, featured dancing choruses as a major element of all productions. The word “theater” is drawn from the Greek theatron, or seeing place. The relation between theater and dance is nowhere better illustrated than in the fact that the large performing circle found in most Greek theaters is called the orchestra, or dancing circle. Although theatrical presentations are as old as humankind, modern Western theater seems to be a product of ancient Greece. Its origins were in the funeral rituals of Egypt, the sacred dance-drama of India, and the fertility rituals of Crete.

The Greek city-states had developed public religious festivals around two important seasons: spring and fall. The spring festival was devoted to Dionysus and was called the Dionysia, at which a number of rituals and dramas were performed. The Dorian Greeks claimed to have invented drama, but it was the Athenians who brought it to its classic form. In 534 b.c.e., Pisistratus, the ruler of Athens, made the Dionysia a legal state function. Thereafter, all male citizens of Athens were required to attend the plays each year. Thespis, the famous leader of a dithyrambic chorus, was named the first archon (producer) of Athens’s city Dionysia. Thespis is credited with formalizing dialogue in theater in that he would call out to his dancing chorus and they would answer him in a call-response pattern. Such performers were called answerers, or hypokritoi, which became the Greek word for actor and the English word “hypocrite.” At first only two types of dramenon were performed at the Dionysia, tragedies, or plays about the death of a hero and his replacement by another hero, and satyr plays, or comedies about the sexual escapades of the gods. It was the satyr plays that featured a chorus of singing and dancing goat-men or satyrs. Tragedies also featured a singing-dancing chorus, thought to be as large as fifty persons. All performers in Greek theater were men, although they frequently played women’s roles. The plays themselves were composed of two types of narrative elements: choral odes and the scenes between characters, known as the episodes. Choral performers were amateurs, young men chosen for their dancing ability. The actors were professional priest-performers. Costuming was very elaborate, and actors and chorus wore masks that completely covered the head.

The playwrights were known as poets (or makers) of dramenon. Three playmakers were selected each year, and each was responsible for one day of plays, which consisted of three tragedies and a satyr play. At the end of three days, a jury of twelve tribal leaders voted on the winner of the Dionysia, and that poet received a large sum of money. The vote was supposed to be directed by the hand of the god. Each day of plays was paid for by one of the three wealthiest men of Athens of that particular year, and one of those men, known as the choregus, or choral leader, was given the honor of being named the winner of the agon, or dramatic contest. Usually, the winner would put up a monument commemorating his victory and listing the names of the playwright and the hypokritoi, so that considerable information survives about the Dionysia. The most famous playwrights of fifth...

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Of all the performing arts, music in the ancient world is the least known because little evidence remains. The first musical instruments would most likely have been the human voice and body, with the voice providing melodic statement and the body creating basic percussion in the form of clapping and stamping. One only has to think of modern tap dancing to realize that to have a body and to be human means that music is immediately possible. However, undoubtedly, musical instruments were present from early times, and considerable visual evidence of instruments exists in Egypt and other parts of Africa, India and China, the Near East, and all about the Mediterranean Sea. Flutes, lyres, drums, and stringed instruments akin to the...

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Additional Resources

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theater. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.

Drewal, Henry John, and Margaret Thompson Drewal. Gelede: Art and Female Power Among the Yoruba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Drewal, Margaret Thompson. Yoruba Ritual: Performance, Play, Agency. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1992.

Gardner, Robert, and Karl G. Heider, Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age. New York: Random House, 1968.

Grunfeld, Frederic V. Music. New York: Newsweek Books, 1974.

Main, William P. Music Cultures of the Pacific, Near East, and Asia. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Meserve, Walter I., and Mollie Ann Meserve. A Chronological Outline of World Theater. New York: Feedback Theater Books, 1992.

Sachs, Curt. The Rise of Music in the Ancient World. New York: W. W. Norton, 1943.

Sachs, Curt. World History of the Dance. New York: W. W. Norton, 1937.

Sorrell, Waiter. The Dance Through the Ages. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1967.

Wyckham, Glynne. A History of the Theater. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.