What Is The Origin Of Theater? A Journey Through Its History


Many people are unaware that what is currently a common activity and pure entertainment was originally linked to the most sacred. And it is that theater has its roots in religion; specifically, in the rites related to Dionysus, the Greek god of telluric forces, artistic inspiration and, in general, the heartbeat of life itself..

You may ask: what does this enigmatic god have to do with theater? What, then, is the origin of theater? In today’s article we offer you a summary of the beginnings of this activity that is currently so common in our society, theater.

The birth of tragedy

We have commented on it in the introduction: theater has a sacred origin. That is, it is linked to religion. In archaic Greece there were a series of rites related to the god Dionysus, in whose characteristics we find the roots of what would later become theater. However, let’s start by knowing who Dionysus was and why he was venerated.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), in his famous work The Birth of Tragedy, reflected the apparent dichotomy between the “Apollonian” (which he equated with the rational and the elevated) and the “Dionysian” (linked to the earth and sensuality). more primitive). According to the philosopher, with the passing of the centuries the human being had forgotten that “Dionysian” part that hides in the depths of his being and had surrendered to the arms of Apollo; that is, to logic, reason and a falsified balance.

Without entering into Nietzsche’s philosophy or discussing whether what he stated in his work was accurate or not, it is interesting how the thinker reflects the “telluric” nature of Dionysus, the Greek god who sponsored mystical delirium and the unbridled passions. However, it was not a gratuitous lust, but rather intended to establish a communion with divinity.

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This is actually quite common in archaic religions, in which blood and guts (through sacrifices), fertility (through ritual sex), and loss of reason (through drunkenness or drug consumption) allowed a “closer” to that god who, otherwise, remained hidden and inaccessible.

This was what the ancient mysterious rites dedicated to Dionysus intended, in which a goat was originally sacrificed while sacred psalmodies were performed.. This is how authors such as Aristotle describe it, many centuries after the rite appeared in Greece.


Dionysus and his sacred mysteries

But what do Dionysian rites and animal sacrifices have to do with theater? We will understand it right away. To begin, let’s take the word tragedy (so related to theater) and analyze it. Its most likely etymology is tragos, “goat”, and oidé, “song”; that is, the song of the goat. In other words, we find the origin of theater in these sacrifices to the god.

Long before the Great Dionysias of Athens (one of the best-known festivals in honor of Dionysus) there were already rites related to the god, in which a goat was sacrificed so that, with its blood, it would grant fertility to the fields. While the animal was killed, a series of singers, the goblins, recited the corresponding psalmodies and danced frantically dressed as satyrs.. This entire ritual had the objective of “awakening” the god and, with him, the fertilizing telluric forces.

Little by little, these psalmodies performed by the goblins were in turn answered by other singers, as if the god himself were responding to his worshipers. And so, gradually, the ancient Dionysian dithyrambs led to a spectacle that brought together the public, who, through the songs of the choir and the actors, entered into communion with the god.

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Theatrical catharsis

In reality, far from being a mere mass spectacle, in its origins the theater symbolized the union of the community with the sacred. Through sacrifice and songs, the public could enter a kind of sacred trance and “encounter” the divinity.

In classical times, especially in the Great Dionysias already mentioned, the rites of Dionysus are already theatrical spectacles that bring into play the chorus and actors and that, in general, no longer sacrifice. However, they continue to maintain the desire for sacred catharsis, since, through the stories of gods and heroes that were told on stage, the spectator saw his own virtues and vices as if in a mirror.. Even without blood, classical theater remained a ceremony of religious atonement.


The concept continued to be present even with the advent of Christianity. In the Middle Ages, theatrical performances were usually held on designated liturgical dates, such as Christmas or Easter, through which it was intended to link the viewer with the experiences of Jesus or the apostles and cause, once again, that catharsis. sacred. Few or almost none of these medieval texts are preserved, which is why the Auto of the Three Wise Men, written in the 12th century and preserved in the National Library of Spain, is of incalculable value..

As its title indicates, it stages, through monologues, the story of the Magi, the star of Bethlehem and the birth of the Messiah. Unfortunately, the text has not been preserved in its entirety and, furthermore, its writing, developed in prose without character notes, makes it difficult to understand.

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Theater has sacred origins, like most cultural elements that survive today. In ancient Greece it developed from the dithyrambs of Dionysus, in which the goblins dressed as satyrs came into action, reciting psalmodies to the god and responding to the coryphaeus, the direct antecedent of the actor.. A religious atmosphere was thus created that captivated actors and audience and allowed sacred catharsis.

The religious essence of theater was maintained until very recent centuries. In the Middle Ages, theatrical representations of biblical events were still common to facilitate the public’s communion with God. Even in the Baroque era we find the famous sacramental autos, among which we have creations of authentic literary geniuses (such as Lope de Vega).

In these sacramental autos, episodes related to the Eucharist were staged, in which, in addition to the declamations themselves, the so-called mojigangas, songs and dances that accompanied the exit of the actors took place. It is not necessary to analyze much to see its close relationship with archaic ritual dances.

In short, theater has a religious origin, even though today it is almost the opposite.. In fact, in some of today’s works we can still find that attempt at inner catharsis, since, with its invitation to common reflection, the play once again places the mirror between the actor and the audience.