Monthly Archives: November 2017

Aeschylus and Athens – Thomson (Part 2 of 2)

1941, Fourth Edition 1973, Lawrence & Wishart, 374 pages (continued from part 1)

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 12: Democracy

Summary: Democratic revolution that expelled the tyrant Hippias marks the transition of Athens from simple agricultural to monetary economy: 1) hereditary privilege of landowners abolished, 2) claims of birth now inferior to claims of property, and 3) tribal system based on kinship swept away. Paradoxically, common people restored primitive communism of tribal society in democratic revolution: 1) use of lot, popular assembly, and common festivals. Merchants and artisans and started revolution with new wealth. Down to beginning of 6th century, clan owned property; individual enjoyed usufruct. Spartan economy marked by absence of money and repression of industry and trade. Cleisthenes’ democracy was a reversion to tribal democracy (which at end of sixth century had been subverted by aristocrats into a mechanism to oppress the bourgeois) on a higher evolutionary plane. According to Aristoxenos, Pythagoras introduced weights and measures to the Greeks (530 BC). Pythagoras’ political domination of Kroton may be described as commercial theocracy. In Pythagoras’ musical thought, opposing musical notes are resolved by their mean; this idea crossed over into his political thought where opposing social classes, the aristocrats and the low-born are resolved by the emerging middle class. Theognis quote on how money ruins everything: livestock is bred to maintain the noble breed, but nobles will marry lower classed folks who have money. The implication is that wealth has blended breed and so the ‘true’ citizens are dying out. Pythagoreans inherited from the Orphics view that life is a struggle and took the idea to the next level by incorporating a political element and reaching out to the new middle class. Aeschylus was a Pythagorean and a democrat.

Comments: Thomson’s comments on how the proliferation of coinage accelerated change by altering the balance of power between social classes rings true today. Today, however, it’s not coinage that precipitating change. It’s been around too long. Rather, today, the development of new financial instruments plays the same role, instruments such as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs). After the Great Recession in 2008 when these instruments blew up, Warren Buffett famously referred to them as ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’. Like coinage in the 6th century, new financial instruments today play a role in redistributing wealth.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 13: Athens and Persia

Summary: Cleisthenes’ democratic revolution at the end of the 6th century took place against the backdrop of growing Persian and Carthaginian power. In this way, Greece was hemmed around on both east and west. For Athenian politicians at the beginning of the fifth century, several power plays were available: 1) appeal to democrats at home, 2) appeal to conservatives at home, 3) appeal to aristocratic

Sparta, 4) appeal to monarchical Persia, or 5) appeal to the moderates. Unforeseen power plays could result, such as Miltiades, an aristocrat from the illustrious Philaidai clan appealing to the masses. After the allied victory against Persia, Athenian society capitalized on the anti-Persian sentiment, became an empire, and began exploiting slave labour on a new scale.

Comments: Still the same unpredictable friends and enemies game in modern-day politics. Case in point: Hong Kong. When Hong Kong was a British colony, the democrats wanted to be freed from the imperial yoke. When Britain ceded Hong Kong back to China, the same democrats, finding that they had more freedom under the British, wanted to go back to being a British colony.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 14: Tetralogy

Summary: Ten dithyrambs performed, one from each tribe. Dramatic competition non-tribal: any citizen could submit a tetralogy. Themistocles may have been choregos for Phrynichus’ Sack of Mlletus (the play would have angered the pro-Persian Alcmaeonid contingent in the city).Thomson follows Pickard-Cambridge’s study on origins of tetralogy, i.e. the satyr play and the tragic trilogy. Also discusses the rise of comedy from death and resurrection rituals. Discussion of Peloponnese influences on Attic drama. Inauguration of comedy into the City Dionysia in 487/6 BC takes place when Themistocles, the radical democrat, at height of powers. Individual plays in the trilogy functioned as acts in Shakespeare plays. By having more than one play, the dramatist increases the scope of the plot.

Comments: The danger on writing on the ritual origins of tragedy is that so much is conjecture. One example that Thomson discredits is Murray’s conjecture that the tragic trilogy had three parts to represent the birth, death, and resurrection of the god. Even if this is true, how useful is it?—there is quite the leap between totemic ritual and the polished art form of tragedy.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 15: Oresteia

Summary: Cicero, who studied at Athens, relates that Aeschylus was a Pythagorean as well as a poet. The story of Orestes as related by Aeschylus contains stratified bits of social history from the tribe, the monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Thomson relates in Agamemnon cool technique by which Aeschylus accelerates the action: “In the parades, and again in the first stasimon, the poet begins by taking our minds back ten years to the beginning of the war. Together they form the longest choral passage in his extant work, and of the stasima which follow each is shorter than the last—a device by which the tempo is quickened as we approach the crisis. Absorbed in the past, we forget the present, and when the action is resumed, the plot advances so rapidly that we accept without question the poet’s time-scheme, in which widely separated events are compressed within a single day. Thomson provides a reading of the Oresteia and notes ritual elements, such as when Clytemnestra ‘prepares’ Cassandra for an initiation (e.g. reversal of ritual like Berlioz’ witches’ mass in Symphonie Fantastique. Aeschylus takes elements of primitive ritual and elevates them into dramatic art: e.g. the thrones or lament between Electra and Orestes at their father’s tomb. Cult epithet of Moiragetes applied to Zeus at Olympia and Apollo at Delphi subordinated tribal rights to state. Thomson claims Erinyes stands for tribal order where kinship is traced through mother. Athena’s mediation of conflict between tribal custom (Furies) and aristocratic privilege (Apollo) results in birth of democracy where wealth of community is equitably distributed. In the Oresteia, the Erinyes stand for the blood feud (tribal society) and Apollo stands for the practice of purification and the rule of the landed aristocracy. The landed aristocracy is the intermediary between the tribe and the democratic state.

Comments: Thomson’s discussion of how Aeschylus makes the time-scheme believable reminds me of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds ‘Panic Broadcast’. Welles, by broadening the scope of the crisis by leaps and bounds, also creates a similar effect. It seems to me that, in the main, much is correct about the ritual interpretation except when it tries too hard. It strikes me as odd that, while the message of Marxism is that ‘wealth isn’t everything’ (because it’s evenly distributed), Marxists spend an inordinate about of time and energy talking and analyzing wealth and capital.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 16: Earlier Plays

Summary: The Persians dramatizes the aristocratic idea that wealth breeds pride, which is punished by the gods. In Seven against Thebes, the magical functions of early kingship associate the well-being of the king with the well-being of the state. In the epic tradition, both Eteocles and Polyneices have sons, and the latter’s son led an expedition against Thebes which ultimately destroyed it. Aeschylus breaks from this tradition to lay to rest the Erinys, the king’s ancestral spirit or curse. Thomson believes that this shows how kinship gives way to higher organization of state: the clans are swallowed up by the idea of citizenship. In Suppliants, Thomson identifies an economic factor motivating the Danaides’ refusal to marry their cousins: their cousins marry them for the sake of the accompanying inheritance, and, after the marriage, they are free to keep the inheritance if they divorce. In effect, the Danaides would be put in the position of a slave who has bought her master.

Comments: Seven against Thebes is a scorned text. Of all Aeschylus’ plays, Thomson gives it five pages of attention. Contrast this with the Oresteia and the Prometheia, to which Thomson devotes whole chapters. To me, the countdown to the seventh gate is one of the true marvels of the tragic stage. The suspense! If, as Thomson argues, the Danaides reject the marriage because of the economic implications, I wonder what Danaos, their father, who has led them out of Egypt at considerable risk, gets out of the deal?

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 17: Prometheia

Summary: Prometheus is patron saint of proletariat because he stole fire, a symbol of civilization. Higher stages of civilization marked by division of society into economically unequal classes with those who enjoyed the fruits of production and the producers. Man gets fire as a gift, but also Pandora’s box: no free lunch for fire. Hesiod, on the losing end of the material struggle, mentions Prometheus. The next writer to mention Prometheus is Aeschylus, also a democrat. Orphic Wheel of Necessity behind Prometheus legend. Aristocratic scholars such as Mahaffy side with Zeus in Aeschylus’ play. Shelley, the revolutionary poet, sees Zeus as a tyrant. Thomson sides with Shelley: Aeschylus as a dramatist capitalizes on the Athenian democrats’ fear of tyrants in his portrayal of Zeus. Reconstruction of the two lost parts of the tragic trilogy. In Shelley’s lifetime, Industrial Revolution had enriched the rich and impoverished the poor. Shelley, however, was less moderate than Aeschylus, who wanted to reconcile the landowners and the merchants.

Comments: I wonder what the impact of automation and robots will have on the class struggle? In Thomson’s reading, the class struggle has been around since the beginnings of the division of labour in tribal society. One class prevails, then another becomes oppressed in turn. First it’s the landowners fighting the merchants (in 5th century Greece). Then after the merchants have been reconciled, the slave trade picks up. With the rise of automation, you can have a class of inhuman producers. First time in history. The part of me that likes Hegel says that class struggle is a manifestation of not only economic priorities, but a desire for recognition, which will continue even as the world automates and robots become the new producing class.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 18: After Aeschylus

Summary: Population of Athens in 431 BC: 172,000 citizens (including women and children), 28,500 resident aliens, and 115,000 slaves (why not round to the nearest 5000?). In 413 BC 20,000 slaves in the mines went over to the Spartans. Nikias owned 1000 slaves in the mines. From 450-430 BC class of rentiers came into existence from Pericles’ policies: that was the price Pericles paid to retain support. The rentiers, of course, lived off he backs of the others, mainly the resident aliens. Contradiction in Athenian democracy was that the constitution which had been founded in the name of equality was overthrown by the class that had founded in the name of inequality. The only way to maintain the welfare state where the citizens no longer worked was to expand the empire. Development of money accelerated growth of private property. Aristotle discusses money saying its original function is to facilitate exchange. Selling in order to buy is good, but buying in order to sell (profit) is bad: moneymaking becomes an end in itself. Thomson has interesting Marx quote:

The simple circulation of commodities (selling in order to buy) is a means for the appropriation of use-values, for the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital, on the other hand, is an end in itself, for the expansion of value can only occur within this perpetually renewed movement. Consequently, the circulation of capital has no limits.

Solon said at the beginning of the Athenian monetary revolution that “Riches have no limit.” Aristotle writes on the dangers of inflation: savers who are too into moneymaking may find themselves like Midas starving amongst gold because their money has become worthless because of inflation. Thomson writes about how money makes complex the old relationship between peasant and landlord. Now speculators who overproduce crops can find no buyers. Thomson has a Sophocles quote on money:

Money wins friendship, honour, place and power,

And sets man next to the proud tyrant’s throne.

All trodden paths and paths untrod before

Are scaled by nimble riches, where the poor

Can never hope to win the heart’s desire.

A man ill-formed by nature and ill-spoken

Money shall make him fair to eye and ear.

Money earns man his health and happiness,

And only money cloaks iniquity.


Of all the foul growths current in the world

The worst is money. Money rives men from home,

plunders great cities, perverts the honest mind

To shameful practice, godlessness and crime.

Thomson summarizes each of Sophocles and Euripides’ play in relation to the class struggle and changing social and political trends. For example, he writes that Plato’s Republic, with its basis in slavery, is an implicit confession of the intellectual bankruptcy of the city-state. Nice observation in how the Orphics asserted the independence of the soul as a coping mechanism for their brutal life; now Aristotle used the idea of the soul to justify the subjection of slaves and women: just as the body is secondary to the soul, women and slaves are secondary to men, argues Aristotle. Aristotle and Plato’s theories supporting inequality remind Thomson of Malthus in the nineteenth century, who based ‘laws’ justifying the existence of cheap, expendable labour on Darwin, the laws of the struggle of existence and the survival of the fittest. Pindar declares Tyche one of the Moirai and the strongest of them all. Thomson argues that tragedy after Euripides was exhausted because it could no longer solve the conflicts in society. It would not rise again until the bourgeois revolution of modern Europe brought back similar conditions out of merchant princes in early Athens.

Comments: I wonder if the development of money accelerated change by giving folks who otherwise could not have property the ability to accumulate capital through monetary instruments rather than land? Instead of enslaving the masses, monetary instruments gave savers a tangible goal. Property was out of reach, but money could be accumulated. This chapter is the best so far in the book. Sweeping look at the birth and death of tragedy from an economic perspective.

Part Four – Aeschylus, Chapter 19: Pity and Fear

Summary: Plato and Aristotle both agree tragedy serves a social function. Difference is that Aristotle thought tragedy serves a positive social function by purging pity and fear. In primitive medicine, epilepsy and hysteria were treated by a rite of initiation, in the course of which the patient would die and be born again. Like a reboot. Dionysos Bacheios (induce) and Dionysos Lysios (cure) similar to Koryantes in that he had power to induce and cure madness. Phrygia and Thrace are mining districts for gold and silver, the development which induced a spiritual crisis because of the labour draw. Thus in Thrace Herodotus recounts how, when a child is born, its kinsfolk laments the birth. But when a man dies, they celebrate. When Aristotle talks about the purgation of pity and fear he is describing theatre in terms of religious experience. Theatre experience more involved in ancient times. In London theatres, members of audience keep emotional reaction inside. But in ancient times (and among the peasantry in the west of Ireland), members of the audience had a strong visceral reaction to theatre. Athenian playwright is descendent of priest-magician, medicine-man, and exorcist.

Comments: That’s a good point on how we’re expected to keep emotions in check during performances. That laughter is excluded is a profound point. Very true. I remember seeing a performance of Bach’s oratorio the Saint John Passion some years ago at the church across the street. There was a young lady sitting beside me, and when the chorus starts yelling ‘Kreuzige ihn! [Crucify Him!]’ , she started sobbing, and continued to do so. I remember thinking that, for some reason, this was odd. The action isn’t real. But I remember being touched by the depth of her faith: here was her Saviour being dragged to the cross. Why wouldn’t she cry? Why weren’t the other members of the audience crying. Lots has changed between the theatre of Aeschylus and today, perhaps more than we think. Maybe someday this will come back, and we’ll be allowed to express our emotions in public places.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Aeschylus and Athens – Thomson (Part 1 of 2)

1941, 4th Edition 1973, Lawrence & Wishart, 374 pages (continued in part 2)


Summary: Greek tragedy was an organ of Athenian democracy. Aeschylus was a democrat as well as a member of the old Attic nobility. The fundamental question which engrossed him all his life was how tribal society evolved into the democratic city-state (polis). Thomson will investigate origins of tragedy in this work. His method will involve comparing material culture (food production, technology, leisure, etc.,) with tragedy, which he considers to be a social institution as well as an art.

Comments: It’s very interesting that in the preface to the third edition (1966) Thomson writes that Aeschylus and Athens has been translated into seven languages and is used in several countries as a textbook for the training of actors.

Part One – Tribal Society, Chapter 1: Totemism

Summary: In the beginning, each clan in a tribal society would be associated with a ‘totem’ or a sacred object which they could not eat. The clan’s job would be to multiply the totem (for the other clans). For example, some Australian clans have as their totem the wallaby, a marsupial one size smaller than a kangaroo. As tribal societies advanced and evolved, their totem would become more of a figurehead. At some point, for example, the taboo of eating the totem animal would be removed. Discussion of lack of division of labour in the very beginning of social organization. Men and women in those days would forage. Hunting introduced the division of labour.

Reaction: Just as philosophers and historians begin their investigations with the idea of the ‘first man’ (e.g. the ‘man in the state of nature’ of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Hegel) to trace out why humankind developed as it did, Thomson lays out in this chapter the story of the ‘totemic man’, who, I guess, will develop into the tragic hero. Just a guess. Further speculation: although Athenian civilization would grow out of its tribal roots, it nevertheless would remember its totems and tribal roots when it staged tragedy.

Part One – Tribal Society, Chapter 2: Exogamy

Summary: In primitive languages, a man applies to his wife’s sisters the same term he applies to his wife, and a woman applies to her husband’s brothers the same term she applies to her husband. The nomenclature does not correspond to reality. Morgan inferred that the language reflects an ‘original promiscuity’ or ‘primitive promiscuity’ where it did correspond to reality, e.g. at some point in early society, humans lived in a state of hetaerism where women were the common property of their tribe and children never knew their fathers. At the time of writing (1941), Morgan has been rejected in the West (because of incompatibility with bourgeois marriage) and accepted in the Soviet Union. Thomson writes on barter: ‘When Glaukos exchanged shields with Diomedes, gold for bronze, Homer can only explain it by saying that Glaukos lost his head; but it is more likely that Glaukos was expecting a return such as Mentes promised Telemachos after being presented with an heirloom. It is easy to see how these hospitable exchanges might develop into barter’.

Reaction: It’s too good to pass up the chance to see who won the ‘primitive promiscuity’ debate. Was Morgan (who influenced Marx and Engels) right? Were the anthropologists in the West or East right? Well now we know! According to the Wikipedia article on ‘Promiscuity’, Morgan’s idea of primitive promiscuity has been discredited. There must be a whole dynasty of scholarship looking at what happened during the gift exchange between Glaucus and Diomedes where Glaucus gives Diomedes gold armour worth 100 oxen and receives in return bronze amor worth 9 oxen. Following Horace, I argue in my book Tragedy is Risk Theatre that the difference in value between the armour (i.e. 9 oxen) is the inferred value of Glaucus’ life, since they meet as foes on the battlefield and it is clear that Diomedes would have brained Glaucus. I’m not sure how this chapter on matrilineal and patrilineal descent will tie into the discussion of Aeschylus’ tragedies. Maybe Thomson will argue the tension between them plays out in Aeschylus’ dramas?

Part One – Tribal Society, Chapter 3: Property

Summary: When the Homeric chieftain counts his possessions, he enumerates his household good, slaves, and livestock, but does not mention the pastures on which his cattle graze. No mention of private property. Discussion of the Fates. Moira originally denotes a ‘share’ or ‘portion’. One of the three Fates bore the name of Lachesis, the goddess of Allotment, synonymous with kleros, a lot of land or a piece of wood used for casting lots. Thomson cites the seventh Olympian by Pindar where Rhodes was divided into three moirai by the sons of Helios, who cast lots to determine ownership. Because use of lot was integral element in administration of the Athenian democracy, the ancient democracy was the reassertion by the common people of their lost equality (from the tribal days). The use of lot was a guarantee of equality.

Reaction: No mention of private property? When the Homeric chieftain Agamemnon bribes Achilles to return, he offers him seven citadels, complete with lands, people, meadows, and a seaview to boot. If Agamemnon can give away the land, is this not considered ‘private property’? Was the use of the lot a guarantee of equality? I’m skeptical. In Tragedy Is Risk Theatre, I argue that the lot is anything but equal. In the Iliad, for example, the Achaeans cast lots to see who fights Hector because the casting of lots would reveal heaven’s intent, which is anything but equal. Because we have probability theory, we know that casting lots can guarantee equality. But probability theory did not emerge until the 1600s at the earliest, and, if you ask Ian Hacking, not until later. The Athenian democracy predated probability theory by over two millennia. Would they have known that the lot guarantees equality, or was, rather a sign from heaven?

Part Two – From Tribe to State, Chapter 4: Monarchy

Summary: After Dorian conquest, new social structure emerged: those who produced wealth and those who enjoyed it. An analysis of Achaean social organization, which was social, and not tribal. Conflict between the Achaeans in the Iliad is conflict between tribal and personal allegiances. Greek epic matured as monarchy declined. When royal courts broke up, the royal minstrels went out among the people and started singing about work and farming to ordinary folks. So Homer transformed into Hesiod. Tribal culture before the monarchy is organized as a type of primitive communism: this is backed the use of the lot, according to Thomson.

Reaction: Not surprising that the monarchy declined with epic. During the Trojan War, the soldiers and the kings , or, as Homer says, ‘the best of the Achaeans’ left their homes undefended for 10, and in some cases, over 20 years. No wonder the Dorians invaded. If Homer transformed into Hesiod, who transmitted the Iliad and the Odyssey from when they took place (~1200 BC) to when they were written down in the sixth century? And weren’t Homer and Hesiod around at the same time (according to the tradition, that is), in the 8th century BC?

Part Two – From Tribe to State, Chapter 5: Aristocracy

Summary: Achaean society was structured like feudal system of western Europe with king – vassal relationships. Dorian settlement of Sparta created disruptive inequalities from the growth of private property. Aristocracy responds to challenge by maintaining tribal principle of common ownerships. Spartan aristocracy rejects trade, refuses to codify laws, and frowns on commerce. Tribal structure which was originally based on equality now instrument of class domination. New social system in Attica and Ionia even more oppressive than Peloponnese. Moira as metron or ‘measure’ begins appearing in Hesiod, who is like Chaucer’s Parson in that he echoes risk averse folk wisdom, ‘nothing in excess, everything in due measure and you will be happy’. Ionian science product of mercantile aristocracy: see Thales, for example, who was a merchant who cornered the oil [olive, that is] market. Class struggle broke old mold of tribe and clan, look to what happened on the Asiatic seaboard of Aeolis. Ionian philosophers described world in term of kosmos of tribal order. Anaximander’s theory of physical universe based on tribal interactions projected onto matter: the assimilation or encroachment of one substance on another which destroys the universe by returning matter to its original state is based on idea of feud or vendetta between clans where one clan assimilates or encroaches the other.

Reaction: Okay, I get it. In Part One Thomson’s providing the social background leading up to Aeschylus. Funny, Thomson mentions Agamemnon’s bribe to Achilles and says that, in fact, the sovereign does own the land. See the notes above to ‘Chapter 3: Property’. I thought in that chapter he said that Homeric chieftains do not own private property? In Thomson’s reconstruction of the ‘first man’ or the ‘original community’ where everything is in a golden age of equality without the division of labour did human beings have the will to power? Nietzsche contra Marx: that would be a good showdown. Has anyone done that? The part about Ionian science (one of the great leaps forward that Wilson writes about in Consilience) being couched in terms of tribes and clans is fascinating, part of the history if ideas, itself a fascinating subject. The history of ideas, or history of science, traces out how ideas emerge out of the cultural and historical soil. For example, the theory of thermodynamics began, surprise surprise, during the Industrial Revolution.

Part Two – From Tribe to State, Chapter 6: Tyranny

Summary: Midas, the Phrygian king who turned all to gold and Gyges of Lydia, who with his gold ring of invisibility, usurped the crown, were tyrants, tyrants being defined as money-made kings. Tyrants were possible because of the growth of trade, the rise of a merchant class, and the building of towns. Benefit of coins over iron spits and gold and silver utensils is that coins were light, standardized, and state-guaranteed. Sappho and Alkaios write of merchants turned into tyrants. Ambition tempts merchants to overreach themselves, write aristocratic poets. Gods also jealous of those who marry above station (Pindar on Ixion). Solon entrusted with dictatorial powers in 593 BC to avert peasant revolt. Peasant could only retain 1/6 of produce and victimized by 50% interest rates on loans. They had to sell land, children, and themselves. Peisistratos supported commercial policy (which weakened aristocrats and strengthened the middle class) and developed coinage. Peisistratos instituted City Dionysia to give the common people a festival and a god. Nice Theognis quote on how ‘The mass of the people knows one virtue, wealth; nothing else avails’.

Reaction: What does the graven token of coinage represent? Some say money is an IOU. Others say the value of money represents the labor of mining gold and silver out of the ground. What I argue in Tragedy is Risk Theatre is that money represent desire itself. Unlike barter, where there is upkeep, hassle, and spoilage in the objects of exchange (animals must be fed, tools wear out, freight is a factor with heavier items), money is hassle free, doesn’t go bad, and is easily transported. And what is more, because it can be converted into practically anything, it stands in men’s eyes as desire itself…except in tragedy, where it has no value at all. In tragedy, only blood, sweat, and tears are legal tender. I wonder where Thomson’s Marxist perspective will take him here. My book says that tragedy shows us that the real things worth having can’t be bought by cash: they can only be bought by blood, sweat, and tears. My guess is that Thomson will argue that tragedy, and specifically, the festivals such as the City Dionysia redistribute capital back to the people. Just a guess.

Part Three – Origin of Drama, Chapter 7: Initiation

Summary: In primitive tribes, when boys and girls reached puberty, they underwent an initiation ceremony in which they ritually die and are reborn as an ancestor who has returned in a sort of reincarnation process. Actor guilds were mystic societies who renewed life by dramatizing the dance of the totemic clan when the clan system falls into decay. In the Mysteries, a ritual which had been designed as a preparation for life has been transformed into a preparation for death.

Reaction: One striking feature that Thomson writes about from the Eleusinian Mysteries is the ‘sudden blaze of torchlight which illuminated the darkness and transformed the sorrow of the onlookers into joy’. Recent scholarship is beginning to question just how much Greek tragedy was about pain and suffering. Lots of ‘happy ending’ Greek tragedies exist. And the tragic trilogy itself was capped off with a light-hearted satyr play. Wise writes in an Arethusa article that tragedy had changed from the fifth to the fourth centuries. In the fifth century, tragedy was a happy, auspicious affair. In the fourth century, star actors corrupted tragedy into tear jerking events so that they could use their stage presence to elicit fear and pity from the audience. Aristotle, being from the fourth century, wrote about the tragedy he saw, not the original tragedy of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Maybe there is something of the ‘sudden blaze of torchlight’ in fifth century tragedy?

Part Three – Origin of Drama, Chapter 8: Dionysus

Summary: Greek gods in constant evolution, ritual remembers distant original functions of gods. Before the gods, there was ritual: Thomson quotes Goethe Faust, ‘In the beginning there was the deed’. In the beginning, nature and human society operated in unison. Thomson to focus on two festivals called ‘Carrying out Death’ and ‘Bringing in the Summer’. Death and Summer are identical, different aspects of vegetation spirit which annually dies and is reborn. Dionysus celebrated by secret societies and associated with agriculture. Tragedy of Bacchants by Euripides founded on actual ritual, the ritual of ‘Carrying out Death’ and ‘Bringing in Summer’. Pentheus torn to pieces by Bacchants is embodiment of Dionysus, who was torn to pieces by the Titans. In Attica, worship of Dionysus modified in consequence of changes in relations of the sexes.

Reaction: I don’t doubt that part of Thomson’s argument is correct linking Dionysus to agricultural rituals. But my difficulty with understanding the whole connection between ritual, Dionysus, and tragedy is a sign of how far we moderns are from Bronze and Classical Greek civilization. As classicists, we think we comprehend Greek civilization, but perhaps the ones who best understand the Greeks are the modern day goatherds and farmers, the ones who are still in tune with nature?

Part Three – Origin of Drama, Chapter 9: Orphism

Summary: Sixth century cult of Dionysus Orphic in character. Parallels in myths of Arion, Dionysus, and Orpheus. Dionysus welcomed by tyrants as peasant god to supplant aristocratic gods. Relationship between Peisistratidai and mining industry. Orphism entered Attica through mining connections from Thrace. Orphism associated with mining areas from mixed populations and originated in Thrace. Up until sixth century, demand for slave labour small because of agricultural economy. Mining, however, has more demands on slaves. That Orphic writings borrowed from the rustic Hesiod and not the aristocratic Homer tells you of its allegiances. One new development of Orphic thought is the conception of soul as different than body: one is pure, the other corrupt. Moira becomes Ananke in Orphism and later. While Moira originally represents the principle of an equal share for all members of society, when tribal society died off, moira became ananke, the opposite. Ananke represents the yoke of slavery and keeping slaves at a subsistence level. Diodorus quotes on conditions of mines in Egypt and Spain from first century. Very poor conditions.

Reaction: Sixth and fifth century BC Orphism resembles first and second century AD Christianity in that it inverted the reigning aristocratic values and gave the dejected, many of whom were slaves, hope.

Part Three – Origin of Drama, Chapter 10: Dithyramb

Summary: City Dionysia founded or refunded by Peisistratos. Chapter on the first day of the City Dionysia, which lasted six days in March. Tripartite structure of tribal initiation: ‘send off’, ‘contest’, and ‘return’. Theatre is also a ‘contest’ within the Dionysia. Dithyramb from Corinth. On the origins of the dithyramb Dionysian ritual.

Reaction: Thomson recollects an interesting folktale concerning Archilochus, who in his youth was sent by his father to fetch an ox from the countryside. He left in the moonlight, and on the way back et peasant women, who offered to buy the ox from him, and then vanished, leaving at his feet a lyre. The women were the Muses. Thomson understands the myth to show that the poet’s art was derived from an ox cult maintained by a female thiasos led by a male priest. Wow that’s a deep read. The tale reminded me of how Demodocus (the bard in Homer’s Odyssey) and even, according to legend, Homer himself was blind. For the gift of song the Muses took their sight. Archilochus got off easy, who traded an ox. Homer gave his sight, Robert Johnson and Adrian Leverkuhn sold their souls, and Archilochus sold an ox.

Part Three – Origin of Drama, Chapter 11: Tragedy

Summary: Thomson to investigate the actor, then the chorus, then Aristotle’s analysis of the tragic climax, and conclude with some remarks on the stage. This chapter looks at the half-century before Aeschylus, a period in which little is known. Traces development of third actor in Aeschylus: traces of development can be seen in how the actors respond to chorus, but not to one another: e.g. in final trial in Oresteia Athena talks to Apollo, Orestes talks to Apollo, but nothing between Orestes and Athena until the end. Set speeches of Seven show ritual origin of drama. Limited stock of characters: king, queen, prophet, herald, and messenger. With exception of Corinthian messenger in Oedipus, messenger never individualized. Pre-Aeschylean tragedy consisted of prologue, entry of chorus, stasimon, entrance of hero who relayed situation, hero disappears, another stasimon, messenger announces hero’s death, and lament. Examination of terminology: hypocrites (actor, answerer, interpreter), prohetes (interpreters), exarchon (poet-leader of dithyrambic chorus), thiasos (secret society). Tragedy derived from leaders of dithyramb: the hypocrites (actor) ‘interprets’ the significance of the action, e.g. if the chorus performs a choral dance, the leader must explain that the dance signifies the wanderings of the daughters of Eleuther after they have been driven mad by Dionysus. Connects Aristotle’s anagnorisis (recognition) with self-revelation of the god Dionysus after his rebirth. Unrealistic structure of stichomythia (rapid-fire exchanges between characters) inherited from cult. Sphinx riddle given to sphinx from Laius, who got it from his father, who got it from the oracle at Delphi. Those who wanted a claim on the succession line of Thebes were sent up to the Sphinx to see if they could answer her riddle. The riddle had something to do with initiation into the secrets of the royal clan. Dionysian drama, between when it had ceased to be thiasos secret society ritual and when it became established by Peisistratus, was the property of guilds of actors, who toured country villages (from Horace). 13th and 14th century liturgical plays transferred from clergy to bourgeois guilds, which rapidly secularized them against the opposition of the ecclesiastical authorities. Difference between Tudor and Greek drama is that Greek drama retained its religious roots. So, from the original ‘totemic rite’ of tribal society, one branch becomes ‘epic’, which flowers in Homer and Hesiod during the monarchy, Homeric hymn, didactic poetry, and elegiac during the aristocracy, and epigram during the democracy. Another branch becomes ‘clan cult’ and flourishes as choral ode, skolion, and monody during the aristocracy and democracy. The final branch ’secret society’, ‘primitive dithyramb’, ‘passion play’, and ‘peasant ritual’ becomes dithyramb, satyr play, tragedy, and comedy during the democracy.

Reaction: After the Greek and Roman heyday of tragedy on the stage, it seems tragedy reverts back into its ritual beginnings as spoken affairs between a variety of actors. Some of what Thomson says sounds dubious to our ears today, but undoubtedly, much of what he says on the cultic origins of drama must be correct. If that is the case, and I believe it is, we must consider how foreign tragedy really is to our modern sensibilities, much more foreign than we have thought. We know one or two of the tragedies, which form the basis of western thought and western civilization and we think the Greeks were an earlier form of ourselves. But, looking at the origin of Greek tragedy, is this necessarily true? Perhaps we thought we had grasped the Greeks, but in reality, grasp what we believe to be the Greeks. Troubling.

…review to be continued and concluded in part two, stay tuned! Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’ll be doing Melpomene’s work.

149th Annual Meeting Abstracts – Society for Classical Studies

Very exciting, last week the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) posted all the 149th Annual Meeting Abstracts! Here they are. It’s going to be a busy week in Boston in January 2018. There looks like there’s a really interesting panel on ‘Approaching Risk in Antiquity’. Talks of calculating risk at gaming tables, what ‘risk’ meant, and so on. Cool! Your truly will be speaking at the ‘Agency in Drama’ panel. The panel’s presided over by Helene Foley from Columbia University. She gave a talk at the University of Victoria as part of the Lansdowne Lecture series back in 2003. The Greek & Roman Studies Course Union got to take her out to dinner at Romeo’s Restaurant after the lecture. I remember everyone was excited to hear her speak, and it was nice to chat with her in an informal setting after the lecture. The undergraduate years were the good old days for sure. The other speakers at the ‘Agency in Drama’ panel are Mary Dolinar (Wisconsin-Madison) ‘The Agency and Power of the Dying Alcestis’, Jonathan Fenno (University of Mississippi) ‘Electra’s Living Death in Sophocles’ Electra‘, and Caleb Simone (Columbia) ‘Choreographing Frenzy: Auletics, Agency, and the Body in Euripides’ Heracles‘. We’ve been requested to circulate our papers amongst ourselves by mid-December to ensure a lively discussion. Time to start writing! Here’s a link to my SCS abstract, pasted below:

Edwin Wong

Independent Scholar

The worst-case scenario in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes happens if Eteocles and Polyneices confront one another at the seventh gate. Because of the multitude of permutations possible with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is a low-probability event. The resulting miasma, however, makes it a high-consequence event. I argue that Seven against Thebes provides an important lesson in risk management by bringing about, against all odds, the low-probability, high-consequence outcome. The lesson is that we are in the most danger when we are the most confident.

By repeated references to gambling, dice, and chance, Aeschylus encourages us to consider the likelihood of the worst-case scenario in terms of probability. Lottery images abound. First, the attackers draw lots to determine their stations (55-6, 375-6). Second, Eteocles invokes Hermes as the god of chance and lots when he comments on the matchup at the fourth gate: “Hermes has brought them together with good reason” (508). Commenting on another matchup, Eteocles says: “Ares will decide the outcome with dice” (414). Third, Eteocles alludes to an ominous throw in dice games (6+1) when he says that he will assign six defenders “with himself as seventh” (Roisman, 22n.15). Gambling references invite audiences to ask themselves what the odds of the worst-case scenario are.

What are the odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate? The odds are 1:49, or roughly two percent: the probability, therefore, is low. Although Aeschylus’ audience lacked modern probability theory and a way to compute the exact odds, Aristotle makes it clear that they could indeed differentiate between likely and unlikely outcomes (Cael. 292a29). Because of all the possible permutations with seven defenders, seven attackers, and seven gates, Aeschylus’ audience would recognize that, in a random setting (i.e. one where captains are posted to their gates by lot), the likelihood of the brothers meeting at the final gate is low.

Eteocles’ confidence is also bolstered, paradoxically, by another low-probability event. The matchups from gates one through six, being random, should favour neither brother. But what happens is that the matchups, when taken in aggregate, overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. The odds, for example, that an opposing captain at gate four bearing the device of Typhon on his shield will be matched up against a defender bearing the device of Zeus (who defeated Typhon) is 1:16. But even though this (and other) matchups are unlikely, they do take place. The fortuitous matchups bolster Eteocles’ confidence.

Eteocles interprets the fortuitous matchups as a sign that the gods are on his side because randomness in ancient Greece was anything but random: randomness was a manifestation of an underlying order in the cosmos. The lot, imbued with numinous significance, was expected to reveal the grand design. When the Achaeans, for example, were looking for a champion to duel Hector, they drew lots. Ajax’ lot, as though by design, “jumps out” of the helmet (Hom., Il. 7.181-3). So too the Olympians drew lots to see who would rule the sky, the seas, and underworld (Apollod., Bibl., 1.2.1). They decided by lot because fate or destiny revealed itself through randomness. Thus, when Eteocles sees the random matchups from gates one through six going his way, his confidence goes up.

Against all expectations, however, Aeschylus brings about the worst-case scenario: both brothers are called to the seventh gate. By bringing about the low-probability, high-consequence event against all odds, Aeschylus dramatizes risk: the most unlikely outcomes can have the most serious repercussions. As risk dramatized, Seven against Thebes may be read as a lesson in risk management. Its lesson is that, like Eteocles, we are in the most danger when we feel the most confident. In today’s age where confidence in technology and progress may lead to the downplay of manufactured risks (whether environmental, nuclear, biological, or financial), ancient tragedy can still offer moderns an important lesson.

Session/Panel Title:

Agency in Drama

Session/Paper Number


Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work. See you at the Society for Classical Studies annual meeting!

War of the Worlds (Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre)

War of the Worlds – A Radio Play, directed by Brian Richmond

Here’s something different: a radio play. It turns out, in 1930s, in the days before television (it wasn’t until the 1950s that saw the proliferation of TVs), families huddled around their radio sets after dinner. On October 30, 1938, a 23-year-old Orson Welles performed a broadcast of Howard Koch’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with the Mercury Theatre for CBS. That broadcast would become known as the ‘Panic Broadcast’, as many listeners who tuned in mid-show missed the disclaimer at the show’s start about the work being fiction. As a result, panic erupted as some listeners booked out of town while others went into hiding, fearing the martian invaders who would melt all resistance with their dastardly ‘heat gun’. The resulting infamy propelled the young Welles into a household name, both stateside and around the world. Welles, riding the wave of fame, would go on to produce, star, and direct Citizen Kane two and a half years later, a movie on whom some critics have conferred GOAT status.


The radio play ran two days from October 30-31. FB and I went on Halloween night. The first act consisted of playing the 2013 PBS American Experience Documentary ‘War of the Worlds – The Panic Broadcast’. The second act consisted of a dramatic reading of the 1938 Mercury Theatre Broadcast by members of the Blue Bridge Acting Ensemble. After the conclusion of the second act the cast remained on stage for a Q&A talkback session to discuss what the dramatization means to us today.


FB estimated the crowd at 100. My tally came in a little lower at 90. Tickets were $30. So, going from FB’s estimate (round numbers are always good), the box office collected $3000 on Tuesday. If the box office drew in another $3000 on Monday, that would bring the total to $6000. With 6 members of the creative team (e.g. director, stage manager, costumes), 11 actors, 1 usher, and two concession workers, this $6000 would be divided by 20, leaving $300 per person. Good thing there are corporate sponsors: Caffe Fantastico, Times Colonist, City of Victoria, and Earth’s Herbal. Side note, I had a hard time reading the ‘Earth’s herbal’ corporate logos on the brochure, letters were quite small. I wonder how much longer the Times Colonist can continue to sponsor theatre? In unrelated news, a 71-year old theatre festival was in jeopardy after Sears Canada, which declared bankruptcy, ended funding.

The Show

The PBS documentary was entertaining on the big screen. It contained snippets of a wide variety of all-too-human reactions to the panic broadcast. There was a stern judge that wanted to put Welles in jail for mischief making. One lady told her son to finish the chicken dinner leftovers because ‘tomorrow isn’t coming’. The best was this one lady that decided that, since the aliens were invading, she might as well go down to the bar to down a couple of stiff drinks. Good thinking, that’s what I would have done! The documentary also went through some of the more interesting letters that came in to CBS, some praising Welles, some damning Welles, and some which both praised and damned Welles. One smart comment told Welles he’d better go to Mars himself, because it was the safest place for him after all the mayhem he caused.

The dramatic reading of the broadcast recreated verbatim the words of the original broadcast. You can see in the dramatic compression of time that takes place that realism was not the point. It seems that five or ten minutes after the aliens land they’re decimating the resistance, and after another ten minutes whole areas have become wastelands. The surprising thing is that, despite this, panic erupted, as audiences thought the newsflashes were real (the broadcast consisted of a fake music program which would be interrupted by equally fake ‘newsflashes’ reporting the advance of the Martians).

My favourite part of the show was the Q&A talkback session after the show. I would say about twenty-five people stuck around to listen and take part. I can see why they don’t always do these Q&A sessions. It would take some patience for the cast and director to answer these questions politely. There was some talk on the ‘fake news’ phenomenon today. And obligatory comparisons between Welles’ ‘propaganda’ to Hitler, Trump, and Limbaugh. There was a good comment when one person asked why Welles was seated and not standing during the reading. The director said that in the actual CBC studio, Welles could see the orchestra and the other speakers, so could act as more of a conductor. They thought about this, but it was difficult to set up the stage to accommodate this. Someone asked if anyone had died. The answer was no. But with a population of 140,000,000 at that time, you’d think that quite a few people would have died during the show. If 1 out of 100 people die each year, there would be 140,000 deaths in 1938 or roughly 380 deaths per day. How would anyone know whether the sudden stress of the alien invasion pushed anyone over the mortal precipice? Some good comments on how dramatic radio performances are: the mind fills in all the blanks. Back when I was a lad, we used to gather around to watch X-Files on Saturday night. After the show, we would put on the radio, there was this one station that, at 10 at night, would replay these old radio dramas. They were fascinating.

The most interesting point was made by the director: in a recent New Yorker article, the writer argued, and convincingly, that the panic itself was a media creation. The argument goes that, the newspapers did not like this upstart medium of radio. When Welles’ panic broadcast came out, to be sure, some were discomfited, but not to the extent that we had previously thought. What happened was that the newspapers blew it all out of proportion to discredit radio. I had a little laugh when I heard this. Not only was the broadcast a hoax, the panic was also (largely) a hoax as well. While we laugh at the people who fell for the alien invasion hoax, we ourselves, even today, fall victim to the hoax perpetuated by the newspapers that there was widespread panic. The urban legend continues today. When I told my friend MR about the show, he said, ‘Yeah cool, that the broadcast that incited pandemonium and people to kill each other’. Moral of the story: before we laugh at how gullible others are, we should make sure we have control over our own ‘fake news’!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.