The infancy of Greek drama can be traced to the sixth century b.c.e, perhaps earlier. The Greeks chose to honor the god Dionysus, also known as Bacchus and Iacchos, by establishing an annual festival dedicated to his worship. This Greater Dionysia was celebrated in March and was eventually followed by a second festival in Dionysus’s honor, the Lenaea (“wine press”), held in the winter. The popularity of this “god of many names” among the ancient Greeks is understandable. His mother was Semele, a mortal princess seduced by Zeus. He was associated especially with wine and fecundity. It is believed that huge phalli were prominently featured at the Dionysia. Maenads (sometimes called bacchantes), female devotees of Dionysus, danced frantically at the god’s feasts. According to legend, these priestesses would race over the countryside in a sexual frenzy, even snatching up and biting the heads off small animals.
The earliest festivals featured a large chorus of singers and dancers. The term “orchestra” is derived from a Greek word that means “dancing place.” The first evolution of the chorus produced a leader. An exchange of speech, song, or chanting between leader and chorus was then possible. The chorus dressed as goats (an animal believed sacred to Dionysus) or as satyrs (a mischievous, lecherous mythical half-goat, half-human companion of the god). In fact, the word “tragedy”—a dramatic form central to...
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