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.

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