Sophocles (Classical Writers)/Chapter 2

Sophocles by Lewis Campbell
Chapter II. Antecedents: Religious.



The rise of Tragedy in connection with the Dionysiac festivals has been clearly described by Professor Jebb in his Primer of Greek Literature.. All that is here necessary is to allude in general terms to the religious influences under which the art grew up, and the religious associations which clung to it, and then pass on to the consideration of other elements of thought and feeling which were no less essential to its life.

Tragedy has been regarded as the meeting-point of Dorian lyric poetry and the Ionian epos upon Attic soil. But this is not a complete account of its origin. That which had the power to fuse these divers elements, and combine them into a new whole, the red blood which animated this new creature, was the orgiastic impulse of a peculiar form of Nature-worship, which, according to Herodotus, was not indigenous to Hellas, but had been imported from the east. The worship of Bacchus or Dionysus had come into Attica by way of Eleutheræ from Thebes, and had been fused with other mystic rites, especially those of the Eleusinian Demeter.

Nature-worship and the drama.—Few mental phenomena are more difficult to grasp, while none is more certain, than the union of sport with seriousness, the mingled sadness and gaiety, with which men in early times expressed their reverence for Nature. Some interesting traces of this may be found in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, where the tone of festive gladness blends with the native melancholy of the theme in a most delicate harmony. An analogous combination was present in the more robust and somewhat coarser ritual of Dionysus. And, as the waking-dream which haunts the play-time of a gifted child reflects the colours of reality, so that his likings and aversions, the habits of his daily round, his tasks and penalties, his simple but awe-stricken imaginations of worlds beyond his own, are mirrored in the prompt imaginings to which "the little actor frames his part," so the worshipper of Iacchus, exhilarated at once and awed in representing to himself the sufferings of the god, threw more and more of human experience into the work.

Thus winning an outlet for itself, and claiming all things for its food, the strong imaginative tendency acquired new forces.

I. And, first, tragedy proper became differentiated from the satyr-drama.

The springs of joy and grief lay near together in the orgiastic ecstasy, and, at first, what we should call tragic and comic elements were confused. But some exceptional spirit, touched to finer issues than the rest, and finding a peculiar charm in the tones which expressed human struggle and sorrow, desired to have them freed from the grosser elements, and varied from the conventional limitations that threatened to choke their music. From such beginnings we may imagine the tragic poet to have gradually become conscious of his peculiar function—that of stirring and soothing men by idealising for them the sadness of human life.

"I come no more to make you laugh; things now
That bear a weighty and a serious brow,
Sad, high and working, full of state and woe,
Such noble scenes as draw the eye to flow,
We now present; those that can pity, here
May, if they think it well, let fall a tear:
The subject will deserve it."

Yet the vein of rustic naïveté was not wholly eliminated, but peeps forth at rare intervals even in Sophocles, reminding us of the deep saying of Socrates, that it belongs to the same genius to produce tragedy and comedy.

II. While thus becoming specialised, and putting on its proper form, the tragic spirit also gained in comprehensiveness. There was a Protean, adventurous, prehensile element in the Bacchic worship that predisposed it to acknowledge kindred with other rites. It could neither be stationary nor isolated, least of all in the liberal Athenian air. That the Eleutherian Dionysus should become associated with the mystic influence of the Eleusinian Demeter, or with the wild impulsiveness of Pan; that in his graver aspect he should conciliate to himself the jealous Furies, and, as the lord of nightly exaltation, even claim affinity with the powers of Death, was natural if not inevitable. But in tragedy as we know it, the original religious element has attained a much wider catholicity, and without losing either in spontaneity or in mystic depth, displays itself in the full daylight of the national religion. Zeus, Athena and Apollo, Hermes and Artemis, appear for the most part in full accord with the Spirits of Earth and Darkness. Only, through their contact with tragedy, the mystic attributes of the Olympians are deepened and intensified. Zeus as the Judge, Apollo as the Seer, Hermes as the Guardian of the Dead, preside fitly over the development of tragic themes. And now and then a note of dissidence is heard, and the seen and unseen worlds, the Gods of Glory and of Gloom, are for the moment opposed, (Æsch. Ag. 636 foll. Soph. Ant. 777–80.)

Of the hundred and more religious functionaries, male and female, who occupied the front rows in the Dionysiac theatre, not one could fail to hear from time to time some reference to the deity whom he served; though the priests of Apollo, of Artemis, and of Nemesis (probably a late comer) might feel at tragic representations a peculiar sympathy with the priest of Dionysus Eleuthereus, who occupied the central chair.[1]

The same enlargement of the original scope of Bacchic song appeared also in the variation of the subject. The sorrows of Dionysus could not always be the vehicle of expression. As the people of Sicyon had found the calamities of Adrastus, their native hero, a more congenial theme for tragic choruses, so we can readily understand how an Athenian concourse might often prefer to have their feelings moved by a scene from the life of Theseus or of Erechtheus.

III. And the utterance of emotion at the Dionysiac festival, while thus becoming more catholic and more national, became also more essentially dramatic. This was the only form of early religious feeling which had either force or freedom enough to call for downright impersonation and to make it possible.

The Eastern story-teller sits in the midst of a circle of enchained listeners in his ordinary garb. He may often suit his gestures to his words, and mimic looks and tones. But the imagination of the listeners is satisfied without his directly representing those of whom he tells his tale.

Seat the epic rhapsodist on a throne above his audience, with a wand to beat time to the measured cadence of his recitative, and he will charm the placid Ionian multitude through a summer's day. They do not ask that the heroes should step forth from the stately framework of the narrative.

Arion puts on his robe of inspiration and tunes his lyre, and he is at once divine, and the rough Corinthian sailor forgets his toil and his rapacious greed in listening to him. His hearers become responsive to every variation in his strain; but they do not as yet demand to see an actual concrete embodiment of what so moves them.

It was only when feeling had been raised to an extraordinary pitch through the excitement of choric song and the imagined presence of Dionysus at his feast, that there came the passion for impersonation, the desire for immediate vision (ἔποψις) of the acts and objects about which emotion had become transcendent. Hence came the power that wove together the pre-existing elements of Greek poetry and art into a new creation, having an intense life, a novel charm and fascination, of its own.

The fact that the lyric element in tragedy was prior to the dramatic—that the actors were originally members of a chorus—shows that the drama took its rise, not from the mere love of imitation, or from the habit of recitation, but from the imperative need for expression.

Sophocles and the religious aspect of the drama.—In Sophocles tragedy has long since broadened from its source, and the strictly religious motive is veiled under the free handling of triumphant art. Hardly any of his subjects are taken immediately from the Dionysiac legend. The gods seldom come upon the scene, and their several attributes are less distinct than in Æschylus. Their absolute control of human things appears indirectly. They work through the passions of men. But the Bacchic fire still springs forth unbidden. The thought of Dionysus is ever at hand, especially in connection with Thebes. And while Zeus is absolute, and the predominance under him of Athena in the Ajax, and of Apollo in several plays, is clearly acknowledged, the poet's sympathy for the mystic side of all religion, his reverence for the powers of the under-world—that longing for things unseen, and for the revelation of eternal truths, which the Eleusinian worship had encouraged—has a deeper and more pervading influence upon his work.

The religious elements that are most persistent in Sophoclean tragedy are—

1. The association of religion with the sanctities of domestic life. In this the powers of Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Artemis, Demeter, and the Erinyes are combined.

2. The recognition of Athena as the special protectress of cities.

3. The religious duty of protecting the stranger and the suppliant.

4. The importance of funeral rites.

5 . The close relation of the Divine working to the course of individual lives.

6. The tendency, which is most apparent in the latest dramas, insensibly to substitute the inward for the outward, the moral for the positive, in religious obligation.[2]

  1. It is a noticeable fact, though, as several of the seats are lost, it may be accidental, that Ares the Destroyer, and Aphrodite the Goddess of Love, are not named in any of the places at present marked in the Dionysiac theatre.
  2. The cry of Hyllus at the end of the Trachiniæ, and the complaint of Philoctetes on hearing of the death of Antilochus, are the chief expressions in Sophocles of the new feeling of perplexity about the gods, which so largely affects the work of Euripides. See also Fragm. 649 (Dind.).