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The Relation of Ancient Theatre with Esoteric Religious Tradition

by Tasos Prousalis


Tasos Prousalis


In order to fulfill aristotelic entelecheia, which according to the hindu tradition is sat-cit-ananda, eternal bliss full of awareness, in order to live, to perceive and to be blissful, man’s consciousness is revealed in the cosmic “becoming” by four ways: religion, philosophy, science and art.  Nowadays, metaphysics is left out of the main corpus of modern philosophy, but in antiquity, the abovementioned four expressions of the human mind and spirit were not separated but inter-related. Hence, it seems that the esoteric mystic traditions and the relation with the Sacred flourished in and through Art, and especially through theatre. Moreover, we can notice the metaphysical nature of theatre ‘s roots, since theatre is derived from Eleusinian mysteries in ancient Greece.

The theatre is born in our country, Greece, as a need of our ancestors ‘souls to adore God, especially in the form of Dionysus, and through him other Gods too, by chanting. The source of ancient drama was dithyramb, a devotional song that was chanted, accompanied by flute or drum, in order to honor Dionysus. Dithyramb‘s topics were the adventures, transformations, death and the rebirth of Bacchus -another name for God Dionysus- and metaphorically, of the Nature itself.

During the chanting parts of dithyrambus the priests used to dance, and these ritual dances dedicated to Dionysus were the initial sacred drama. The different gestures and the mimic expression of body movements of the dancers-priests underlined the significant verses of the hymns. Moreover, the verb “to dance”, (is pronounced cho-re-vo in greek), in ancient Greece meant “dance in circle”, so it was referring to a sacred dance and according to Pindar, this word was used merely to describe such an activity performed by Gods, like Apollo or the Muses.

All theatrical plays were given during the feasts dedicated to Dionysus, like Linea or small Dionysia. After a symbolic representation of Dionysus’s travel from Eleutheres to Athens,  the day before the start of the feast, God’ s statue was placed in his permanent position in the centre of the theatre, in the sacred fireplace thymeli, and from there, God watched the plays and enjoyed the spectacle.

Nevertheless, other Mediterranean populations as well, used to worship Gods, related with the seasons’ circle. A myth quite similar to that of Dionysus, exists in Ancient Egypt of -2000. This is the famous “drama of Abide”. Its story was reconstructed  after the narrations of the priest Ikhernofret, which has collected an older material in order to give a performance in front of pharaoh Sesostris the third. Actually, this is not a real theatre, but a great ritual with theatrical characteristics. This is the outline of the drama: the Goddess Isis sends her son Horus, along with the God Thoth and dog-headed Anubis, to the river Nile, to collect the sliced parts of Osiris’s dead body, and to reunite them for bringing him back to life. Sith, the power of evil and Isis, the great Mother and the power of Love confronted each other; they always do. This fight between the constructive and destructive powers, between regeneration and damage, good and evil, life and death underlines the dualistic character of phenomena, but also give support to the development of individual and collective consciousness, and through reincarnation, finally liberates man from the material world. At the end of the abovementioned drama, the procession carried the god’s replica to the temple, the devotees stayed around night-watching with candles and hoped for an eternal after-death life.

Apart from “drama of Abide”, known also as the “Osiris‘s sufferings”, ancient egyptian theatrical tradition includes “Memphis drama” -its subject was the struggles of God Ftha so as to become the superior monarch-, and also the  religious drama Heb-sed, (its main idea was once more God’s resurrection), and also a drama  regarding the  recovery of Isis’s son Horus, after the bite of a scorpion, and finally the funeral ceremony in relation with soul’s immortality. In these rituals, Gods were impersonated by the priests. One of them played the dead and the other gave the order: “leave your shroud” or “aside the sand” or “aside the walls”. So, the feature of these customs regarding prayers and rituals –similar to the Greek ones according to Herodotus claim- was action, just the opposite of inertia linked with the death of the physical body.

Regarding the traditional theatre of India is as old as Vedas. Also in India, theatrical art is considered sacred. Actually, a part of Vedas, Natya sastra is dedicated to the art of theatre. According to the tradition, Gods called the sage Bharata and initiated him to the Sacred art, and then, they asked him to prepare a performance for the celebration of Gods’ victory over the demons. The eternal cosmic battle of the two opposite poles take place first in the skies, then in earth, as the demons prevent the play to step forward, by making the actors to forget their words and by causing other troubles too.

The origin of traditional sanskrit theatre was the mimetic public narration of stories derived mainly from Mahabharata but also from Ramayana and Puranas. These stories, characterized by the ideals of devotion and heroism, were played as an essential part of  religious feasts, in order to strengthen people ‘s religious feeling.

Hence, when those times, the priests present themselves in front of the people dressed with colorful costumes, garlands and ornaments, and  accompanied by the sounds of musical instruments like drums and stringed vina, started to recite verses and stories about the spiritual worlds, concerning gods and demigods like Vishnu and Rama, Siva, Durga, Ganesha, Lakshmi and Kali, afterward the religious feeling of the devotees was elevated and came up to ecstasy. Sri Krishna was -still is- the greatest character of traditional Indian theatre and according to the scriptures is incarnated to liberate people from material illusion. The material field along with all the living beings constitute His “lila”, meaning his game or his pleasure. This fact, when dramatized, moves emotionally the spectators and offers them a spiritual advancement. The background of the stage is the little Vrindavana forest, where  the shepherdesses, gopis and young shepherd-boys, have fun in the company of their beloved Krishna. He plays the flute and they dance, they are falling in love with him, so love is full around. And when they lose him, they are devastated and they desperately look for him in the forest. The happiness and the sadness as the play unfolds, are reflected in the spectators’ faces. Oh, that’ s true, only close to God one can be happy! This affirmation goes down, from the stage to people’ s hearts, and heal them, and is converted into devotional love for Him. On the other part, Lord Shiva, as cosmic dancer or Shiva Nataraj is the one who grants the dance in the theatre and symbolizes the eternal rhythm of life and death, the everlasting cosmic flow.

So, the theatre in the three basic traditions of the ancient world, in India, in Egypt and in Greece, is a vehicle of high esoteric Ideas. The old rituals of the primitive societies like the ceremonies regarding the induction to the race or the adulthood initiation, were replaced over the years with myths’ representations, as for example, the myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone in Eleusinian mysteries or the Osiris-Isis myth in Egyptian mysteries, and finally this gave birth to mystic theatre. These ritualistic acts of mystic origin took place for centuries or even for thousands of years before receiving their definite theatrical form which allowed to be presented as an open theatrical play, attainable for all and not only for a few initiates.

It is clear that the themes of these representations used to concern the oscillation of a pendulum between the two opposite sides, between two gates, Birth and Death. Especially death is a phenomenon that all three, ancient, classical and contemporary theatre deals with. Orphic manuscripts, Isiodo‘s “Theogony”, Puranas and Upanisads, and also Gilgamesh epic, all these religious, philosophical and of great literary value texts give clues about underworld and offer a precious material for theatrical utilization. Moreover, Homer’s “Odyssey” chapter, called Nekyua, which describes the visit of Odysseus in underworld-Hades has fascinated more than anything else, many subsequent artists. In the comedy of Aristophanes called “Batrakhoi” (The Frogs), presented in -405, there is a description of a trip to Hades with the purpose of finding the tragic poets, and later on, in the 2th century+, the scenery of  Lucianus’s work “Dialogues of the Dead” -adopted too many times for the theatre- is also the dark underground kingdom of Pluto. The theme of Orpheus descending to Hades with the intention of taking back his beloved Eurydice intrigued many sculptors, musicians, painters and also theatrical writers. Therefore, from Homer and the first philosophers, many secrets about death and other mysteries were incorporated into the works of tragic poets. All these works -take for example “Prometheus Desmotis”, meaning bound-  although in a first level are quiet static, if you read between the lines you may realize that  there are full of esoteric intensity, full of life, full of essence.

In reality, the conventional space of the orchestra -the stage-, it is not a place where a distorted copy of life is created, but the place where life itself shows its inner truth, beyond the limits of time and space. The theatre even though it is a human product -which has to do with human beings and their action in the four-dimensional spacetime-, its spirit is totally esoteric, mystic and metaphysic because it goes beyond human boundaries, it perceives the higher worlds and then it comes back to life in order to provide trustfully the ideas of Justice, Beauty and Truth. This is the real nature of the ancient theatre, the theatre as it is indeed. It is the view (the-a) of three (tri-on, in greek) –theatron, the theatre in Greek– worlds, the simultaneous view of the physical, subtle and superior worlds where the divine beings live.

This metaphysical and esoteric quality of the theatre, was emphasized the last centuries by two great personalities: the father of contemporary theatre Konstantin Stanislavski and also by Antonin Artaud, which illustrated in details the “metaphysics in theatre”. He believed that the theatre should not be limited in verbal expression, logos, -as it happen mostly in West- but it must attain also the perfection of the non-verbal expression; this is the way of regain its primordial function, its religious and metaphysical aspect that reconciles it with the cosmic “becoming”.

The ancient tragic and comic poets were real grand-artists as they were capable of reconcile and combine the esoteric invisible with the cosmic manifestation and coherent flow over stage. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides with their tragic speech but also Aristophanes with his censorious humor and control over his contemporary society, teach us what religiosity means. They answered through their works, sometimes directly, and other times in a roundabout way, in the fundamental philosophical questions: what the world is, what a man really is, and which is the goal of life. By giving answers or even some hints about these subjects, they have succeed in educating people of their times and next generations also. Really, all three kinds of ancient drama, tragedy, comedy and satiric drama prove their educative role, over the years.

Tragedy, in particular, drives the spectator to participate emotionally into action, by incorporating him somehow in the play, as if it was one of the actors, someone who really takes action. The goal of this kind of theatre is to “transform” the spectator, so he would be a new person after the play, different than the one before seeing the play. So, this is a kind of “alchemic theatre”, as it tries to achieve a shift, an alteration on spectators’ attitude.

The spectators are educated both by chorus, which functions as the inner voice of heroes’ consciousness, and also by heroes’ sufferings. The sufferings (pathos), become lessons. Besides that, trough empathy for the heroes, the spectators they are getting electrified and finally relieved. This is the Aristotelian catharsis, the “emotional cleaning”.

Comedy, on the other side, reveals the superficial aspect of life, its happiness beyond the troubles caused by mental exertion on self-realization. Comic characters live in nature, they become one with the ground and the earth gives them all kind of goods like garlic and bread, olive and wine. They are in turn, very merciful for all these blessings, so they dance, they drink, they have fun, and the ever-present gods watch them in this joyful condition.

In comedy, the spectators watched the actors who criticize in a satiric manner different wrongs and errors concerning persons or social institutions. Most of the times, they approved by claps and laughs, but if they were opposed to actors’ – in reality to writer’s- suggestions, they made noise, by whistling and clattering, οr they even thrown things to the actors. Surely, this was not a “politically correct” behavior but it was part of a liberating and therapeutic process, as the non-logic orgiastic, dionysiac  aspect of the citizens’ emotions had the opportunity first  to be expressed and then discharged and controlled again. Furthermore, the citizens felt that were part of a bigger collective whole, and this way the city became more coherent.

Hence, the tragedy, the comedy and the satiric drama had a common goal, the “learning with pleasure” and tried to bring katharsis, by different means.  The comedy caused katharsis through laughing, but tragedy through mercy and fear. This fear is not what we feel in front of a usual danger, but the assumption that the human sufferings may disturb the cosmic order and upset Harmony and moreover, what the consequences may be.

Therefore, ancient theatre, and especially ancient Greek tragedy, touches the core of our existence and this is due not only to its ritualistic form and style, not only to its mystic structure but also to its mystic and esoteric origin and end (telos). All tragedies have a common nucleus. Tragic heroes are usually descendants of persons who have committed crimes or sins, so they carry some hereditary miasm. But their tragicalness is not caused by this miasm. According to a verse of Aeschylus’s work “Agamemnon”, “the old insult, brings a new one”, so the tragic hero exceeds the measure, arrives to Hyvris, insult, and then Justice or Nemesis comes, and he is obliged to accept the consequences of his actions, according to the inevitable cosmic rules. The trinity, exceedance of Measure-Hyvris-Nemesis, is found in every tragedy, with Hyvris to be correlated with the peak of tragedy, and Nemesis with its purifying, redemptive solution.

Behind all tragic heroes, one person is found: the archetypical Man. As we move from myth’s level to the archetypical level, we go deeper to the essence of tragedy. In this level, the tragicalness is found in Man’s frustration, expressed when he fights against powers and wills that surpass him, so he is forced to surrender. Nevertheless, in this “battle”, Man sometimes may achieve a moral victory, as Antigone for example. In this case, the exceedance of the measure, is not a crime that brings punishment but a positive transcendence of the human level, a Man’ s transformation into a superior being.

In a symbolic level, the tragic hero is the soul itself and her perplexities in the material world. Its tragicalness is revealed when its urges, instincts and passions, its lower part is opposed to its higher part, consciousness. Here is the Man, here is the Tragedy: the human soul covered by layers of ignorance; the human being lost in the material labyrinth.  In order to be liberated, he must realize itself or God located also in his heart.

A theatre oriented towards these ideas, I think that it may be very helpful for all people. Metaphysics and esoteric traditions, when use theatrical pattern as a vehicle -and especially the theatre of our Greek ancestors- aid us to escape of the conventional everyday ‘s life, by creating a gate in the cosmic time-flow; the human being may pass through and reach the spiritual hilltops where Gods and Ideas reside.


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