This document was written by William Ridgeway and originally published in The Dramas and Dramatic Dances of Non-European Races. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915. pp. 5-11.

The present writer was led in 1904 to the conclusions that (1) Tragedy proper did not arise in the worship of the Thracian god Dionysus; but (2) that it sprang out of the indigenous worship of the dead [1] especially of dead chiefs such as Adrastus, the ancient pre-Dorian and pre-Achaean king of Sicyon, as described by Herodotus [2] in a passage which is our earliest authority for Greek "tragic dances"; (3) that the cult of Dionysus was not indigenous in Sicyon, but had been introduced there by Cleisthenes (as it had been also brought into Attica and Naxos), and had been superimposed upon the cult of the old king; (4) that even if it were true that Tragedy proper arose out of the worship of Dionysus, it would no less have originated in the worship of the dead, since Dionysus was regarded by the Greeks as a hero [3] (i.e. a man turned into a saint) as well as a god. The fact that in his most ancient shrine amongst the Bessae on Mount Pangaeum he had an oracle, as had the old heroes Trophonius and Amphiaraus at Lebadea and Oropus respectively, strongly confirms this conclusion, which will be still further corroborated by the evidence respecting the origin of oracles from dead kings presented in the following pages.

The Sicyonians honoured their old chief with sacrifices and tragic dances for the same reasons as those for which ancestors, heroes, and saints have been, and are still being, worshipped, as we shall see, in Western Asia, India, Burma, China, Japan, and, in a word, in almost every corner of the world. A good king in his life was supposed to bring all sorts of prosperity to his people. Thus Homer [4] speaks of "a blameless king whose fame goes up to the wide heaven, maintaining right, and the black earth bears wheat and barley and the trees are laden with fruit, and the sheep bring forth and fail not, and the sea gives store of fish, and all from his good guidance, and the people prosper under him." Nor is this doctrine confined to Greece, for it was held by the Swedes respecting Freyr, their ancient king-god, whilst conversely it was thought that under a bad king the earth refused her increase. [5] When a great and good chief dies, and the arm that once brought victory to his people can no longer wield the spear, and though a great barrow hide his bones, all is not over. His spirit is supposed to have the same tastes and passions in death as he had in life. Within his grave he still thinks of his family and people, and if they in turn still think of him and refresh his vital element with libations, best of all human blood, he will keep sleepless watch and ward, help them in hour of peril, and use his kindly influence with Earth to make her yield her increase and to make fruitful the herds, flocks, and women of his tribe; and what the great king is supposed to do for his tribe, the rude fore-fathers of each humble family are supposed to do for their kin in a lesser degree. Furthermore the Greeks believed, as countless races still believe, that what a man or woman loved in life, they love in death. At a soldier's funeral we fire volleys over his grave, while an officer's charger is led after the funeral car, a survival of a time not long past when the horse would have been slain at the grave to accompany the master to the unseen world. Did the dead when in life love manly prowess and the swift racing of athletes and horses? At his funeral Obsequies these had their place, as witness the famous games celebrated by Achilles after the burning of the body of Patroclus. There was the chariot-race, foot-race, boxing, wrestling, archery, and, most dangerous of all, the single combat. For this entered Ajax and Diomede. The former hurled a spear with such force that it pierced the shield of Diomede and almost reached his body. Diomede's blood warmed, and soon the Achaeans saw with anxiety that he had his eye fixed on the throat of Ajax intent on dealing a fatal wound. Achilles likewise saw it, and promptly prevented the death of one of the bulwarks of the Achaeans by parting them asunder and giving equal prizes to both. To this we shall have to revert presently. In the fifth century before Christ, after the other funerary rights were concluded, the body burned or buried, the Thracians raised a barrow over the grave and "games of all sorts were held," in which the single combat was awarded the highest prize. [6]

In the Italian Peninsula there is good evidence [7] for a like practice in the funeral games (ludi funebres) held at the obsequies of wealthy Romans, for the single combats between pairs of gladiators seem to have been nothing but a continuance of the practice of earlier days, slaves only being compelled to fight to the death. Servius [8] has the very significant remark that this was in accordance with the ancient belief that human blood should flow at the grave of a dead man. It must be carefully borne in mind that there were no gladiatorial shows, save at funerals, until the Imperial times. It must also be remembered that at a wealthy Roman's funeral [9] immediately after the praeficae, or hired "keeners," in some cases followed dancers and mimes who jested freely, whilst according to Suetonius [10], the chief mime (archimimus) wore a mask in the likeness of the deceased, imitated his speech and manners, and even jested at his expense. Then came the imagines, which, according to Polybius [11], were masks representing distinguished ancestors of the deceased. These were brought out from the atrium, and each was worn by a man who was chosen to resemble as closely as possible the ancestor impersonated and was clothed with the dress of his office. Each rode in a chariot accompanied by lictors and other insignia of his office. Thus the ancestors of the dead man escorted him to the family tomb. This dramatization of the dead, which we shall find to be very widespread and primitive, led naturally to regular dramatic performances as part of the funeral games. Thus the Adelphi of Terence was performed at the funeral obsequies of Aemilius Paulus in 160 B.C.

But it was not merely at the actual obsequies that chariot-races, single combats, and contests of athletes took place. In the case of men pre-eminent among their fellows similar performances were repeated periodically in the recurring seasons. Thus Pindar [12] not only tells how Pelops shares in the honours of the blood-offering, where he lies buried by Alpheus stream and has a much-frequented barrow, but how Heracles founded the games beside the ancient tomb of Pelops, and how from afar he beholdeth the races.

In life the dead may have loved the dance and been honoured with dances, as David was by the Hebrew women on his return from the overthrow of the Philistines, whilst wicked Herod was so charmed by the dancing of Salome that he gave her the head of the Baptist, and as we ascribe to our gods our own feelings, dances are held in honour of them. Thus David himself danced before the Lord when he brought back the Ark from Shiloh. Let not the critic say that such practices are not Aryan, for "of the many religious ceremonies to be witnessed in the Cathedral of Seville," writes Mrs. Villiers Wardell [13], "none is so supremely interesting as the dances before the High Altar of the boys known as Seises. These dances take place every year on the three days of the Carnival, at the Feast of Corpus Christi, which falls at the end of May or the beginning of June, and during the octave of the Immaculate Conception, which begins on December 7th. The dances take place at the foot of the High Altar, and are accompanied by a stringed orchestra and by the organ. The boys--ten in number--wear pages' costume of the period of Philip III, and these costumes are made as follows: there is a tunic and knickerbockers of either blue or red damask, with stripes of gold galon. Red is the colour for the Carnival and the Feast of Corpus Christi, and blue for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. A very curious feature of these costumes is Las Aletas or wings, which are made of the same stuff as the rest of the costume and which hang down from the shoulders at the back. Las Aletas were the wings of the original boys who were dressed as angels. Over the shoulders and across the breast the boys wear scarves of white taffetas, which are fastened on the shoulder with a rosette. They wear collars and cuffs of white lace and sombreros a la chamberga, or hats, which are turned up directly in front. These hats are made of blue or red damask and are lined with white, and are adorned with a tuft of plumes, blue or red, according to the season."

The 'Seises' of the Seville Cathedral dressed for the dance in honour of Corpus Christi or the Virgin.

My friend the Rev. T.J. Pulvertaft, to whom I am indebted for the photography here reproduced, thus writes: "I went to the cathedral expecting to be shocked, and got quite close to the chancel rails. To my great astonishment I saw boys dance a beautiful minuet, and somehow or other, hypnotized by the motion and the music, I lost count of time and everything else. It was a wonderful experience. There was not a trace of frivolity in the performance, and the whole mise en scène was most impressive. One story is worth repeating. When the Pope some centuries ago wished to suppress all religious dances in churches, he was asked to permit the Seises (there were originally six dancers) to continue. He issued a bull saying that they could continue until their clothes were worn out. The canons still always put a patch of old garment on the new, and in this way obey the order of his Holiness." [14]

But the Andalusians do not stand alone in such ideas of what is pleasing to Divine or sacred personages. In ancient Sicily, Venus of Eryx was the most famous of all deities. With Christianity she, like many another pagan divinity, was turned into a Christian saint, and by the modern Sicilians she is thought to dance before Christ in heaven, as is shown by the following quatrain:

    O santa Venera,
    Sì bella, sì tenera,
    Che in Paradiso
    Tripa avanti Gesù. [15]

But ancient Greece supplies striking instances of the use of dances to honour the dead besides those performed at Sicyon in honour of Adrastus. For example, at Athens on the third day of the Anthesteria, a very ancient festival of the dead, pots of cooked vegetables were offered to the gods and to the dead, and there circular dances were performed similar to those held on solemn occasions at this hour in India and elsewhere. But amongst primitive peoples all dances are mimetic and pantomimic, and this holds true of not a few of those in vogue amongst civilized nations, as in the case of the Japanese Bon Odori, and to this rule the Greeks were no exception. As we shall find the dead honoured by mimetic dances in Burma, China, Japan, and numberless other places, we need not be surprised to find Adrastus of Sicyon honoured with dances which alluded to his great sorrows. That dead saints and martyrs who have suffered much in life are supposed to be pleased by having their woes kept in continual remembrance after death has been put beyond doubt. [16]

I also pointed out that the white masks, the only kind used by Thespis, were entirely unsuitable for Dionysiac representations, but eminently adapted for those of ghosts. In support of this view of the origin of Tragic masks much evidence from many regions will be adduced. Finally, I urged that Horace was right in his account of the grand step made by Thespis in the development of Tragedy. In early days the tragic chorus and its dithyramb were closely attached to the tombs or shrines of heroes, and were only performed on festival occasions at sacred spots, as was the case with the Mysteries and Miracles of mediaeval Europe. Thespis detached his chorus and dithyramb from some particular shrine, possibly at Icaria, his native place, and taking his company with him on wagons, gave his performances on an extemporized stage when and where he could find an audience, not for religious purposes but for pastime (as he himself said) and for gain, and I thus explained [17] Solon's outburst of anger at his presentations. Thus, not merely by defining more accurately the rôle of the actor, but by lifting Tragedy from being a mere piece of religious ritual tied to a particular spot into the greatest form of literature, he was the true founder of the Tragic art.

For the moment we shall pass over the question of the dithyramb, which will be more fittingly discussed a little further on.


  • Solar Myths, Tree Spirits, and Totems - An examination of the importance of solar myths, tree spirits, and totemism in the development of tragic drama.
  • The Origin of Tragedy: Introduction - A discussion of the history of dramatic literature, debunking previous theories that have centered their attention on the rise of Greek Drama.
  • Origin of Comedy - An examination of the development of Greek comedy from the Phallic processions of the Greeks.


1 For the full treatment of this subject, cf. W. Ridgeway, Origin of Tragedy (1910), pp. 28 sqq.

2 v. 67.

3 Plutarch, Quaest. Graec. 36; de Iside et Osiride, 35.

4 Odessey, xix. 107 sqq.

5 Annals of the Four Masters, sub A.D. 10.

6 Herod. v. 8.

7 Servius, Ad Verg. Aen. iii. 67; v. 78.

8 Ibid.

9 Dion. Hal. vii. 72.

10 Vesp. 19.

11 vi. 53.

12 Ol. i. 91; x. 30.

13 Spain of the Spanish (London, 1909), pp. 231-2.

14 In a letter dated February 6, 1914.

15 For this verse I am indebted to my friend Mrs. Margaret Y. Gibson, LL.D., Ph.D., who heard it in Sicily.

16 Ridgeway, op. cit., p. 60.

17 Op. cit., pp. 36-7.

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