May 12, 2013

A Night at the Theater

Dionysus the God of wine, nature, trance, theater and music.

Apollo of course is the most famous God of music in ancient Greece, but his music was always Greek and had to follow the rules of harmony or be used to improve the listener’s character. All the passionate music, all the drunken festival music and all the music from other countries fell to Dionysus. Even the instruments associated with lands outside Greece were given to Dionysus, as if they were so dangerous they had to be handled by an animal tamer.
The aulos, a double reed instrument closer to an oboe or bagpipe than a flute, was a favorite of the mad God’s followers. Its high wailing nasal sound went well with the frenzied trances that seemed to consume everyone at Dionysus’s festivals. Those who didn’t want to run up and down mountains while playing a wind instrument played cymbals, tambourines and drums; anything that rattled and clattered was allowed. Dancing cymbals, rattles and small drums that can be carried while running were used so often they became background noise.
It is fairly well known that Hermes invented the lyre using a tortoise shell and gave it to Apollo. But that was just one kind of lyre. The kithara was the lyre that became associated with professional musicians and Apollo. But the kithara was also called the lyre of drinking parties and intoxication, Dionysus's specialties. Meanwhile a larger deeper lyre, the barbiton, was linked to women and Dionysus but then mixed up with so many different instruments it is difficult to be certain what anyone meant by the term. The various lyres have connections to harps, guitars and even violins (some by round about routes). This creates an interesting spin on the many stories of meeting a guitar or violin playing spirit or "devil" at the crossroads!
Musician at the Crossroads

Music in general was used in Dionysus’s worship to induce trance states similar to drunkenness. Dionysus could drive men mad with the sound of his aulos or soothe sorrow with song. Tityroi and Satyrs, half animal nature spirits, surrounded Dionysus as he wandered from town to town, calling out his worshippers with music on aulos, shepherd pipes and tambourines. At Dionysus’s festivals, choruses dressed as Satyrs to perform Satyr-plays. They danced in circles while singing dithyrambs, hymns in honor of Dionysus.
Music and Meanads
Female followers of the vine God known as Meanads ran into the wilderness with their hair loose and streaming. They used music to dance, sing and play themselves into ecstatic trances.
The Korybantes, spirits of the countryside similar to the Kouretes and Dactyls, protected the young Dionysus by dancing around him and using their shields as cymbals to cover the infant's cries. Many different deities were said to have raised Dionysus; among them we find the Muses, the Goddesses of poetry, music and inspiration. They taught him the art of chorus singing and dancing, which was used in nearly all Greek theater. The Muses traveled with him around the world as he spread the art of wine-making. It was said they delighted his heart with song, dance and “their other talents.” As the God of intoxication, he was a God of inspiration and prophecy. He shared the Delphic oracle with Apollo and his Muses. Again like Apollo, Dionysus offered healing with his prophecies, most often in dreams, natural or wine-induced.
Dionysus was given the honor of inventing theater: both the plays and the buildings they were performed in. Many early theaters were open air stages, almost altars, with seats rising up to catch the voices of the actors and the music that went with them. Plays in Ancient Greece made heavy use of music to evoke emotional reactions from the audience and show how the story was progressing. Some called that much music decadent, some called it dangerous but it remained popular no matter what it was called. The Florentine Camerata (1600s) liked the idea of using music to tell stories and show emotion so much that they invented opera in imitation of Dionysus’s tragedies and comedies. The soundtracks of today’s movies and TV shows pay homage to this ancient use of music.

Dionysus was called Polyhymnus “the lover of all songs” or "much sung of" and Dionysus Melpomenus, “the singer” or “the minstrel of tragedy,” and Thyoneus, "inspired."
Tree God and May Pole
Dionysus Dendrites, the God of the Tree.
Singing, reed instruments, drums and cymbals mix melody and rhythm like water and wine. Every tune used to set a mood, every group that joins together in song and dance, every experimental form of music that breaks the rules calls up this God of the wild and uncontrolled. Karaoke, Kirtan, sports chants, Mardi Gras parades, rock concerts, musicals, music from other lands, songs that make us laugh and songs that let us weep all remind us of how inescapable divine inspiration truly is.