Eleusis

Έλευσις

Eleusis

The arrival of the outsider

Suppliants – Conflict – Inclusion

The doors of Europe have been flooded in by waves of people who request refuge or a second chance in life – which in the classical Greek thought is described as supplication. However, supplication can take many forms tightly connected with the ontological moment of the birth of Greek tragedy. This is what we suggest to be the common thematic axis that will run the events of the Athens Festival and the educational programs of the Epidaurus Lyceum. We explain our reasoning in the text below.

 

With the general title “ Έλευσις / Eleusis, = the arrival” we reflect on the ontological moment of the birth of the tragedy, which occurs when an “outsider” enters our community. In that moment two things can happen: the outsider can be accepted and will have to go through a process of “cleansing” and “inclusion,” as happens in many ancient myths. But in most cases the outsider is met with animosity and is seen as the dangerous and unknown “other,” and as a result from the conflict of the community with the foreigner the tragedy is born.

 

In the Poetics Aristotle claims that tragedy originates from the dithyramb – the collective song that is simultaneously danced in honor of Dionysus that is lead by a lead singer/lead dancer. At some point in the long process of the performance of the song, the lead singer interrupts the collectiveness and turns (“responds”) to the other singers/dancers creating the first dialogue, thus planting the dawning of drama. But why is he conversing? And what is the subject of this dialogue?

 

The dithyrambic song narrated an incident of the life and sufferings of the god – initially just of Dionysus, as the only extant tragedy with Dionysian subject matter indicates, the Bacchae by Euripides (circa 405 BCE). In all the narratives, however, Dionysus is a “foreigner”, an “outsider”, who comes to disrupt the tranquility and the order of the community in order to impose his worship. So his dialogue is not a “mellow exchange of opinions”, but a confrontational place of enforcement and resistance between the lead actor and the chorus. Gradually the conflict was extended to other narrations, apart from those of Dionysus, and the confrontational place and time become even more elaborate, so it would include other “outsiders” as well – dishonored heroes, suppliants, fugitives, political protesters, women in danger, victims of war who are dragged into slavery. Almost all the categories above are included in the totality of the tragic production: Ajax, The Suppliants (by Aeschylus and Euripides), The Trojan Women, Hecuba, Medea, Prometheus Bound, Antigone, Oresteia, Seven Against Thebes, Electra, The Persians etc. An interesting fact is that comedy, despite its different origin, also has an intense confrontational nature including debates and a constant threat of conflict (e.g. Lysistrata, The Birds, The Wasps, The Clouds, The Acharnians).

 

The new element that the evolution of drama brings in the 5th century, in relation with the ontological moment of its birth, is that all kinds of conflicts are now included in the ideological context of the city-state, the polis. Everything acquires a political dimension (with the wide meaning of the term) and there is not a single play, even of the most “domestic passion”, such as Phaedra, Hippolytus, and the Trachiniae, that can be fully understood without taking into consideration the wider social and political ideology of the time. The polis enforces its terms, and the tragic conflict disrupts the order of the community; an order that needs to be restored at the end of the play even at the expense of the individual characters. The conflict is smoothed out, but the ‘cracks’ that were created in the beginning of the play never fully heal (at least in tragedies), to become a reminder of the instability of the structure of the human society, and the fragility of the human nature.

 

One final remark:

The transcription in English of the word ‘Έλευσις’ as ‘Eleusis’ is very interesting, because it refers to the sacred place Eleusis, the seat of the Eleusinian mysteries, where is the place of the arrival of the fugitive goddess Demeter at the palace of king Celeus. The goddess, in the form of an elderly exile, is accepted in the palace as the nurturer of Demophon, the son of the king. There a conflict is created, when Celeus and Metaneira believe that the nurturer is trying to murder their son, whilst she is only burning his mortal flesh to render him immortal. The result of the conflict is the revelation of the goddess’ identity, and her request that a temple in her honor should be erected in the acropolis of Eleusis and public celebrations be established. Thus, a new identity of the community is being created around the temple and the public worship of the goddess, which from that point onwards became famous for establishing the Eleusinian Mysteries. The community is built around the narration of the Eleusis and the inclusion of the outsider.

 

Efimia D. Karakantza
Tenured Assistant Professor of Ancient Greek Literature
Department of Philology
University of Patras

 

Jocasta Classical Reception, Greece 

 

Fellow in Ancient Greek Literature
Director of the Kyklos project
Center for Hellenic Studies 
Trustees for Harvard University

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