Hybris, nemesis, and catharsis are three important aspects of every ancient Greek tragedy. Hybris and nemesis were mentioned way before the birth of Greek theatre; we know the terms from ancient Greek mythology. And catharsis is a concept that was introduced in drama. But what is the meaning of these three theatrical terms?
Hybris and Ancient Greek Drama | Pride and Injustice
The English word “hybris” derives from the Greek «ὕβρις». In modern Greek, the term is used in a way that can be translated as “insult” or “curse word”. But in ancient Greek, the term refers to an insult which was targeted towards gods and goddesses, rather than other humans. But how could a mortal offend a god or a goddess?
The easiest way an ancient Greek could manage to commit hybris, was by being excessively proud and overconfident. This is why the English word “hybris” is often translated as “excess pride”. Odysseus, for example, committed hybris when he started mocking Cyclops Polyphemous, after managing to blind him. Blinding him was an act of self-defense – it was the only way he could escape the island. But repeatedly making fun of him was unnecessary. Odysseus insulted Poseidon in this way, and the god of the sea punished him for his arrogance.
In ancient Greek theatre, the concept of hybris still revolved around excess pride and overconfidence but it also included other negative traits and actions. The gods and goddesses in ancient drama were presented as more sensitive and caring than in ancient Greek mythology. They also cared for the injustices towards humans.
For example, the tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone root back to an hybris that was committed by a human towards another human. Oedipus’ father had attacked a young boy, which enraged the gods. The entire family got stuck into a series of tragedies. In Antigone, the ruler Creon enrages the gods for being both arrogant and being cruel towards Antigone and her deceased brother, Polynices. Therefore, “hybris”, in the context of drama, can also be translated as “injustice”, “outrage”, or “immoral act”.
The necessity of hybris in ancient tragedy is therefore obvious. Tragic events would not be possible without an act of hybris. Hybris – either in the form of arrogance and pride or in the form of injustice- is the usual cause of every single tragedy. And from the stories that ancient tragedians narrated on stage, we can assume that pride and injustice are often connected – with acts of injustice being the result of excess pride. In other words, an arrogant and proud person is more likely to be unjust and, as a result, insult the gods and goddesses.
Improve your Greek language skills with a complete video course on Udemy for intermediate speakers. Intermediate Greek lessons online.
Nemesis and Ancient Greek Drama | Divine Punishment
Nemesis is the result of hybris. It derives from the Greek word «νέμεσις» that can be translated as “delivering justice”. That meant bringing good fortune to the virtuous and bad fortune to immoral people. Similar to the concept of karma. But, because the term “nemesis” was used predominantly in tragedies, the negative aspect persisted. “Nemesis” today is translated as “punishment” or “bad karma”.
It is important to note that the concept of nemesis has been personified. Goddess Nemesis, also called Rhamnousia, has been mentioned in many ancient texts, including Hesiod’s “Theogony”. She is the goddess who punishes the ones who commit hubris.
Just like hybris, nemesis is an important part of every ancient Greek tragedy. Without it, the tragic characters will never face their problems or deal with their inner demons. Nemesis – divine punishment- leads us to the final and most important concept of ancient Greek drama: catharsis.
Catharsis and Ancient Greek Drama | Emotional Cleansing
Hybris and nemesis were two concepts that were present in ancient Greek myths. A hero or heroine would be blinded by his or her pride and they would be punished for it with a long period of bad luck. But ancient Greek theatre was born at a time when ancient Athenians were rethinking their old values and tried to construct a more sensitive and humanitarian society. Ancient Greek drama does not stop at nemesis. Punishment for the shake of punishment is too cruel. Instead, punishment should be a learning lesson for the person who receives it and anyone who witnesses it.
Catharsis is tragedy’s ultimate goal. The term derives from the Greek «κάθαρσις», which means “cleanse”. But it is mostly known for its metaphorical meaning – the “spiritual or emotional cleanse” that can be achieved through art. Catharsis is the reason why rich Athenians paid for the tickets of the financially struggling citizens. Every Athenian had to participate to “cleanse” their soul and be better citizens.
The term is attributed to Aristotle who used the metaphor of soul cleansing in his work “Poetics”. In tragedy, catharsis is experienced by both the play’s characters and the audience. The tragic characters who commit hybris and then receive nemesis, “cleanse” their mind and heart from all the negative emotions that led them to make unjust decisions or actions.
In Antigone, the tyrannical ruler of Thebes, Creon, sees the body of his diseased son and immediately regrets all his past decisions. The audience leaves knowing that, from now on, he will be an empathetic and caring leader. Having experienced tragedy, he will be able to get in other people’s shoes.
At the same time, the members of the audience of a tragic play can leave the theatre feeling “lighter”. They experienced intense negative emotions while watching the tragic characters’ misfortunes but, in the end, something positive comes out of it. Theatre acts as a form of psychotherapy. The viewers can resurface their suppressed emotions – jealousy, fear, regret, anger- and let them go. They exit the theatre with their emotions purified. And that is what catharsis is.
Antigone by Sophocles is one of the most well-known ancient Greek theatrical plays. It belongs to a collection of tragedies – the Theban plays – since it takes place in the Greek city of Thebes. It was written by the great tragedian Sophocles and was presented at the theatrical competition of Dionysia in 441 BC.…
In 412 BC, the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides presented a trilogy of plays at the annual theatrical competition of Dionysia in Athens. One of those plays was Helen – inspired by the legend of Helen of Troy.