Greek Drama

dionysus-acropolisIt is the morning of the first day of the City Dionysia.  The event takes place in Athens, a city state on what is now mainland Greece. It is one of the most powerful cities in the Ancient world. This is the home of modern philosophy, mathematics, democracy and -for our interests- drama.

Athens is a city that has grown into the very hill that surrounds it.  The most important temple of Athena, the patron Goddess of the city, stands on the highest hilltop. It overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, and guards the many fishermen who venture out to feed their families and obtain some additional income.

Just below this temple sits the theatre of Dionysus; a theatre dedicated to Dionysus, the God of wine and merriment. The seats are carved into the hill, and almost 15, 000-30,000 citizens can attend this performance. In a matter of hours, as soon as the sun rises, this theatre will hold all of these citizens and more.

The priests in the temple of Dionysus are preparing the statue of the God. They will ceremonially wash, cleanse and feed the statue before he is carried at the front of the crowd of Athenian citizens as they walk to the theatre of Dionysus.   He will be placed in the seat of honour at the front of the theatre.  A goat will be sacrificed to him, indicating a beginning in the ceremonies.

It is a civic duty to come to this event.  Everyone has the day oath007aff.  The fishermen will not venture out today.  The event is important for many reasons : it is honouring the God Dionysus for his help in keeping Athens safe; it is part of the citizen’s civic duty; and it is believed that the act of crying at a tragedy will purify a person.

The God has taken his place at the front of the stage, and people file through the entrance of the theatre and take their seats where they can find them. They have brought food and drink for the day- the performances will last until the sun sets.  This will be a week-long event, and everyone has been eagerly awaiting it.  Playwrights will compete for a coveted ivy garland that is made of gold, and more importantly the bragging rights to claim themselves the winner of the City Dionysia.

Each playwright must write three tragedies, usually about myth or legend.  Originally, when the City Dionysia started, there used to be a huge chorus; sometimes 300 people. They were regular citizens that were required to offer their time to support the competition.  Slowly over time, the chorus started to disappear and one or two actors replaced the chorus.

12-portraitofmaskandactorThe audience of Athenian citizens can hear the plays very well, even if they sit quite a distance up the hill away from the stage.  This is possible because of the natural acoustics of the mountainside and the bowl shape of the theatre. The actors also are wearing large masks over their faces with a hollow mouthpiece that has a megaphone to project their words.  The actors wear stylized costumes that communicate their role in the presentation (rich, poor, man or woman).   They wear huge platform shoes that add additional height so that the people who are sitting high up on the side of the hill can see them better. They, like their audience, are only men.  There is much debate whether women could attend the theatre in Athens.

The day is long and pleasurable: as the sun sets the audience will have seen three tragedies from one playwright and a set of comedies at the end of the day.  The god will be returned to his temple, and everyone will spend the rest of the evening discussing the plays over their rice, fish and olives. They still have another six days of performances to experience, and everyone is eager to see the other playwrights’ work.





Posted in drama, drama history, Education, historical | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mausoleum: The face behind the stone

artemisia_prepares_to_drink_the_ashes_of_her_husband_mausolusShe challenges Penelope, the loyal wife of Odysseus, for the role of faithful companion. Some ancient texts claim she drank the ashes of her cremated husband in tribute. In history, Artemisia is known for creating a palatial monument for her husband Mausolus, and establishing the name of mausoleum  to honour his name for eternity.

She was married to her brother, the time honoured tradition of keeping royal blood in the family. No history seems to remain about their children, but they were married at least twenty years. When Artemisia lost her brother in 351 B.C.E, she continued to build the regal tomb. She survived him by two years before she followed him to this palatial resting place.

It was grand;  overlooking the human engineered   harbour of Halicarnassus, it stood on a hilltop. The best Greek sculptors were brought to the Eastern outpost under the Persian Empire to carve a magnificent monument to Mausolus and Artemisia; this magnificent structure would command the name of mausoleum for the rest of history.
Surrounded by a courtyard, their mausoleum was a masterpiece that incorporated both ziggurat and pyramid with the craft of Grecian sculpture. Lions adorned the stairway and knights on horses guarded the gates. Wife and husband would stand elegant in their four horse chariot atop the pyramid roof adorning the marble statue, column rich architectural triumph. It could be seen as a temple on a man made mountaintop. Ironically the bodies of the patrons of the Mausoleum might have been buried beneath the imposing structure- only to be looted almost two-thousand years later.
A rebellion of Rhodes challenged Atemisia’s singular power. Her soldiers defeated the Rhodesian aggressors- outwitted by her navy. Taking the banner of the Rhodesian ships, her soldiers conquered Rhodes. She erected at least one statue in triumph to her success: a statue of Athena and one of her own likeness. After the Rhodesians gained their independence, the space around the statues was considered Abaton, or the space was in accessible.

Claimed as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world by Antipater of Sidon, it was written about by historical notables such as Pausanias, Strabo, Vitruvius, Satyrus, Phytheus, valerius Maximus and Pliny the Elder. Alexander the Great claimed the land as his own, being a nephew of Artemisia and Mausolus.
Artemisia’s face, is lost to history, but their love will ever live on in the name of Mausolus, or mausoleum- the building that will honour the resting place of the dead.

Posted in Art history, historical, history and literature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gateway to Another Time: Lascaux Cave Paintings

dedicaceePlaced in context of the time it was found, the discovery of the Lascaux Cave was overshadowed by a world in crisis. France has just fallen to Nazi rule three months earlier. Four boys, and a dog with the forward thinking name of ‘Robot,’ discovered the Lascaux Cave while on a search for mythical treasure. News of discovery of the cave spread. One of the boys, Jacques Marsal, pleaded with his parents to allow him to guard the cave entrance from vandals who might destroy the ancient site. They acquiesced, and he spent the rest of his life as the chief guide of the cave.
lascaux_taureau_marie_madeleineIt is not the oldest cave found. The Metropolitan Museum of Art dates the art at around 15, 000 BCE. Roucadour Cave art is estimated to be 24, 000 BCE. Perhaps the Lascaux cave is a beacon for the immigration of a group- or simply an indication that the tradition of cave art was alive and well in prehistory. It is believed to be the best example of Paleolithic cave art. There are approximately 2000 paintings within the cave, and most of them are pictures of animals. Many are pictures of horses and stags. Paintings of animals have been superimposed over older renderings, communicating that artistic quality was less important than the placement and symbolic significance.

a99dddccf717d9ad1440b40daf9e1a7d1There are many interpretations of these paintings: from communicating an understanding of the stars to images based on hallucinations. It is interesting to note that while a regular diet at this time would consist of reindeer, there were no representations of this animal. The cave itself would not have been used for shelter, but possibly a gathering place. Most of the paintings are found in hard to reach locations in the cave, encouraging the belief that they were made as part of a magical ceremony- possibly to increase the chances of success in the hunt. It has been suggested that these caves were chosen based on their ability to be illuminated during the winter solstice (Newgrange might be a descendant of this ritual). Some of the paintings would have needed a form of scaffolding to paint their size, increasing the impressiveness of their creation.

las10Hollowed out bones were found in the cave, and have some of the pigments used within the shaft. These were evidently used to blow paint onto the wall. The colours that were used on the walls, and in other cave art paintings, are predominantly brown, red, black, white and violet. All of these colours were available to Paleolithic people through iron oxide, calcite, and charcoal. Iron oxide can be mined, and comes in a range of colours: yellow, red, purple and brown ochre. Some historians suggest that the painters at Lascaux might have traveled 25 miles to obtain these precious minerals. The colours were ground up, possibly using bones from the animals they hunted as a pestle, and a hollow in the cave floor being the mortar. The liquid base could be a range of possibilities from blood or urine to animal fat.
magd_rekDue to human interaction with the cave, the art is in grave danger. Mold, fungus, lichen and crystals threaten the priceless art. A replica cave was created for tourists only 200 meters from the original; an interesting alternative when faced with a curious financially vibrant public.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Mystery of Books

My mother hated cleaning, so from a very early age our agreement was that if I took responsibility of housekeeper, she would read to me.  For about ten years, our arrangement exposed me to many classics. The size of our apartment meant that I could work anywhere and still hear her read. Many a day I spent washing the laundry, cleaning the dishes, and moping the floor to Pickwick Papers, Wuthering Heights or Anne of Green Gables (to name just a few).

Through the stories I was transformed.  I could be the main character, their landscape seemed almost palpable.  For ten years, I felt as though I had lived many lives and travelled through history.

One book that was of particular note I have never forgotten.  It is a story about a building in Suffolk England, and the lives lived for almost two millennia within and around this place.   It is about how time changes a location, and about how our lives are part of a bigger story than our own brief existence can comprehend.  I think this book was the first book that solidified my love of history; written by Norah Lofts, the book is called, A Wayside Tavern.

It starts with Roman soldiers and the exodus of Rome from Britain.   They find one building that might have been a tavern in which to rest for the night on their trek to a port town. Their leader Marius, is forced to stay behind after a wound that renders him lame.  What results is the discovery of a girl left behind through sickness, by the people desperate to avoid the chaos within the country that the Roman withdrawal creates.  Marius’ and Gilda are the progenitors of a line within this tavern that will witness the growth of Christianity, Reformation, Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World War. It is a tale about time, place and our identity in the world; also delving into the creation of myth and legend.

Like a pleasant memory of a childhood playground, I always dreamed one day I would re visit the book to see if it had that same allure it held so many years ago.  I am visiting England for the summer- the homeland of my father, as well as the focus so much of my family’s history.  It is the canvas for many of the stories and history I learned as both an adult and a child. It is the country of Norah Lofts novel.

I was overjoyed when I found, The Wayside Tavern, Online for sale (no less joyful to have found that my memory didn’t fail me in remembering the title); doubly overjoyed when it arrived in the mail.   A used copy, it was with a large sense of irony that I opened the cover page to find that it was sent from England. It was my intent to take it back to its homeland and read it while on holiday; enamored with the idea of reading this much loved book in the country in which it was based.

I am now finished this five hundred plus page book.  The story still held me in thrall, and enforces my love of history.  Being in England allows me to see what Lofts used as a central piece for her story; the character-rich buildings that make this beautiful land and the people who call it home.

The book had a deeper richness with the memory of that familiar voice, now long gone, so many years ago that first read it to me.  Perhaps one day, if my daughter will allow, I will share it with her.

Posted in Art, Book Review, children, historical, history and literature | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Beauty of Colour: Vermilion

I credit Richard II for my most recent research project.  If he hadn’t been wearing a cloak painted with Vermilion kneeling before the Lapis Lazuli enrobed Madonna, in the famous Wilton diptych, I would never have started my exploration.  I have always been fascinated with art; the ability to create an inspirational piece through one’s imagination is magic in itself. When you combine this with the historic challenges of finding, mixing and ensuring the resilience of the paints used, it is amazing that so many artistic pieces survive the centuries to share their stories.

Vermilion, I was to discover, has a long and very interesting history.

The colour Vermilion is made from the mineral cinnabar. This ore also contains mercury which is a toxin to the human body. If ingested or inhaled it can kill or corrupt the victim, if held in the palm of a hand the heat could release the mercury- a dangerous beauty indeed. Vermillion is a derivation of Latin vermiculus, or worm (most will correctly connect vermin or vermicelli with the Latin word), wrongly connected with another dye that could be made from an insect  Kermes vermilio.   Kermes, or as we know it today as Crimson.  Our crimson is synthetically produced, no worms were harmed in the making of it.

There are very few mines for cinnabar, but the luck of the global community, it was spread out fairly.  Each continent received their own supply. Vermilion can be found in many of the world’s most established civilizations: Chinese, Indian, European, and Mayan.

Red is universally seen as a symbol of longevity and nobility; the colour of blood- life itself.  The power of the upper class is based on their ability to pay for this hard to find- dangerous to handle resource.

Possibly used in human art since 25, 000, Vermilion has an exciting history.

The Romans got their supply of cinnabar possibly from the Almaden mine in Spain, which even today has the largest supply of mercury in the world. Spain has mined cinnabar from around 5300 BCE. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History mentions, vermilion or minium- even today there is a confusion with led.

While Pliny does not know the origin of the ritual, he believes it to be religious in nature; the head of the statue of Jupiter on the Capitolinus Hill in Greece was covered with Vermilion, a symbol of honour for a military leader.  The Roman people would follow this tradition to honour every general who brought their country victory through battle, by adorning their head in vermilion; symbolizing blood of their enemies or miraculous life in the face of death.

Toxic to inhale, the workers in the mines were poor or enemies of the Empire.  Life would be short after one began working in the mines. Pliny explains that workers in the mines wore a loose bladder skin over their heads to minimize the toxins they inhale.

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it covered the city of Pompeii in Volcanic pumice and ash. Pliny the Elder was one among the thousands who lost their lives in the natural disaster. Uncovered from the sixteenth century to the present day, are the three dimensional lives of the people.  The rich residents had their dining halls adorned in cinnabar.  One example is the Villa of the Mysteries in which the dining hall is covered with what looks to be a woman going through a religious rite- possibly marriage.

Cinnabar was used in the Mayan culture; famous for their blood lust, and the connection to life and death. Lord Pacal, the longest living ruler of Mesoamerican history, died in 683 CE. He was regally buried in the Temple of Inscriptions, in Palenque, with jade adornments and Cinnabar sprinkled throughout his tomb and painted on his sarcophagus. Dating from the same time is the ‘Red Queen;’ a noble woman, richly adorned for the afterlife, and covered in cinnabar.  Some sources say she might be his Queen.  Cinnabar was also used for incense; the transmutability of the mineral turning into mercury would highlight the change from life to death and the mystery of the world.

According to some scholars, the use of vermilion was introduced to the 11th and 12th centuries, but the tradition of Sindoor Dana has been honoured for over 5000 years.  Sindoor Dana is still practised by Hindu’s in India and around the world; the groom places a line of vermilion (and turmeric and lime) down the front parting of his bride’s hairline.  A woman who wears this is ensures her husbands protection by the Goddess Parvati. The wearing of Sindoor is found in the Mahabharata. This communicates the life of a couple’s new union, and ensures the husband’s health. It is believed it stimulates the chakras on the forehead and the crown. The bride will apply this every day for the rest of her marriage.  It is taken off by an older woman when the woman becomes a widow. It is believed the Sindoor will calm the bride, give her clear thought and ensure sexual energy; this is why it is forbidden for widows.

Having just touched the surface of the life history of this amazing colour, I hope to learn more in the future.

Works Cited:,0978,001:36

Posted in Art history, historical | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment