Greek Drama Ep.6: The Concepts of Hybris, Nemesis, and Catharsis

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?

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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.


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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.

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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.

Greek Drama Ep.5: Antigone by Sophocles

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. It is based on the myth of Oedipus but Sophocles manages to make the story even more tragic. It focuses on the subject of written vs. unwritten rules and absolute power.

Greek Drama Ep.4: Helen by Euripides

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.

Greek Drama Ep.4: Helen by Euripides

A beautiful woman accused of causing chaos and bringing all evils to this world. She could be Eve or Pandora. But, this time, she is Helen. The one accused of causing the Trojan War. The one who left her husband’s side and traveled to Troy with another man, Paris.

Greek mythology and the Homeric hymns that kept them alive focused on brave heroes who fought battles and explored the world. Greek tragedy, on the other hand, placed the misunderstood characters under the spotlight. In the IIiad and the Odyssey, we hear what men had to say about Helen. In the play Helen by Euripides, we listen to her side of the story.

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Euripides’ Helen (Theatrical Play)

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.

Helen’s Myth | Helen of Troy

According to the myth, Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leda and wife of king Menelaus of Sparta. One night, Helen reportedly escaped Sparta with her Trojan lover, Paris. The latter was a young prince who was promised by goddess Aphrodite the most beautiful woman in the world. And, despite popular belief, it is not clear whether Helen chose to leave with Paris.

Ancient Greek sources are contradictory regarding Helen’s stance on this matter. Herodotus and most sources mention she was abducted by Paris. The poet Sappho, however, argues that Helen left Sparta willingly. “Full easy it is to make this understood of one and all: for she that far surpassed all mortals in beauty, Helen her most noble husband. Deserted, and went sailing to Troy, with never a thought for her daughter and dear parents.”, she writes.

Looking closely at the storyline, we can easily notice how irrelevant Helen’s stance appeared to be. Nobody really cared whether Helen was abducted or decided to escape from Sparta because she was unhappy. She was portrayed as the destructive woman – source of all evils- for whom several ships sailed towards Troy. And many young men fought and lost their lives. She, a “wicked woman”, was blamed for starting a vicious war.

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Euripides’ Take on Helen’s Myth

The unconventional ancient Greek tragedian Euripides wanted to defend Helen. Inspired by Herodotus’ claim that the Spartan queen was taken to Egypt by god Hermes, he told her version of the story.

In Euripides’ version of the story, Paris did not travel to Troy with Helen herself, but with an “eidolon” – a lifeless copy of her. Goddess Hera, protector of marriage, wanted to stop Paris from doing so. The Trojan prince had offered the apple of discord to another goddess and she aimed at punishing him. She ordered the messenger god Hermes to guide Helen out of her palace and transport her to Egypt, where she took refuge at the palace of Proteas.

The play starts with Helen standing next to Proteas’ grave, explaining her story. She is hopeless. She was taken away from home against her will. She had no way of returning home and she knew her name was tainted anyways. Not only that, but she felt uneasy in Egypt after her protector’s death. King Proteas’ son, Theoklymenos, put a lot of pressure on her. He wanted to marry her.

Helen then comes across a familiar face. Teucros, the best Greek archer who participated at the Trojan war, had visited the palace of Proteas to ask for a prophecy. Proteas’ daughter, Theonoe, was a well-known fortune teller at that time. Helen is desperate to know where her husband is and if he is searching for her. Teucros, however, informs her that Menelaos is probably dead. She also becomes aware of how hated she is by both Greeks and Trojans. Helen then starts mourning on stage, along with a group of Spartan women. She has lost all hope.

But what Helen, the tragic character of play, does not know, is that Menelaos is alive and hiding on the riverside of the Nile. He was washed ashore when his ship sunk. Him, the counterfeit Helen, and his men, were all hiding in a cave.

Menelaos then decides to seek for help at the palace of Proteas, where he comes across an old maid. The woman explains that Greeks are not welcome here. Theoklymenos, the son of Proteas, will execute any Greek who steps foot at his house, to keep Helen by his side. Menelaos is buffled. Who is this Helen she is talking about?

Menelaos and Helen finally meet and after a long dialogue – during which they are both skeptical about each other – they reunite. “I was tricked by the gods into taking to my arms a misty phantom-form, to my sorrow.”, he says. With one of the characters replying: “How so? Was it then for this we vainly toiled?”.

With Theonoe’s help, they manage to escape by boat and return to Sparta. Theoklymenos becomes enraged and almost kills his sister. But Theonoe is saved last minute with the help of the gods and goddesses.

Helen, a Play with Anti-War Sentiment

On a surface level, the tragedy focuses on the importance of virtue and oaths, especially between husband and wife. But Helen is more than a play about loyalty. The play is about the nonsense of war. What was the purpose of the Trojan war? Just a lifeless shadow. Euripides had just witnessed the defeat of Athens in the Sicilian Expedition. This war had caused great panic to Athenians and people started questioning the necessity of war.

Moreover, the play brings forward the voices of women who have been shamed and blamed from society without much proof. Both the feminist and anti-war sentiment of the play were inspired by the teachings of the sophists. The latter were Greek lecturers who questioned the values and ethics of their time. Some of them argued that women should be equal to men, that war only brings destruction, gods and goddesses do not exist, and that humanity should focus on science.

Euripides’ plays were controversial, since they questioned the morals of his time. He is known as the misunderstood tragedian and it took years to get recognized for his contribution to theatre. Helen has inspired many contemporary artists, including the Greek poet Yorgos Seferis.

Greek Drama Ep.6: The Concepts of Hybris, Nemesis, and Catharsis

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?

Greek Drama Ep.1: Introduction to Classical Theater (History & More) | Drama 101

Welcome to Helinika’s first episode of the new series on Greek drama. Drama is enjoyed worldwide in theaters, operas, television sets, and computer devices. But did you know that the roots of (western) drama take us back to ancient Greece?

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What is the Meaning of “Drama”?

The word derives from the Greek “δρᾶμα”, which means “action”. This comes as no surprise, since drama is basically acting. Its birthplace is no other than Athens, the current capital of the Hellenic Republic of Greece. When visiting Greece, however, you can visit another city that bears the same name: Drama in northeastern Greece.

History of Drama | Classical Greek Drama

The birthplace of drama -at least as we know it in the West- is Classical Greece. Classical Athens to be precise. Around the 5th Century BC, ancient Greeks started incorporating choirs and dance choreographies – called dithyrambs– in the worship of the pagan god Dionysus.

Dionysus was the god of grape harvest and wine. He was also associated with fertility, religious ecstasy… even madness. It comes as no surprise that the German philosopher Nietzsche associated passion and chaos with Dionysus. Dionysian was what he described as the state of intoxication and disorder.

Indeed, the start of Greek drama consisted of all that: religious ecstasy, alcohol consumption, and a general lack of boundaries.The first Dionysian dithyrambs resembled concerts from the 1960s and 1970s, rather than organized theatrical performances. Many historians also suspect that actors would dress up as satyrs: half goat – half man creatures that teased people.

As time passed by, these theatrical acts started becoming more organized. Distinct types of drama emerged, such as tragedy and satyr. In the 4th Century BC, drama in Greece was institutionalized and theatrical competitions emerged. Not only that, but the first ever dramatic theory was also recorded some years later (335 BC): Aristotle’s “Poetics”.

Dionysian Dramatic Performances | Theater of Dionysus

In the ancient theater of Dionysus, near the Acropolis of Athens, the first ever theatrical competition started taking place: the Dionysians. Dramatists would present a tetralogy of plays – three tragedies and a satyr play. The latter would help the audience experience “catharsis” – a strong relief from the negative emotions that people accumulated while watching these tragedies.

Comedies were introduced in the competitions around the 442 BC. Before that time, they were considered to be less important and comedians were not eligible to win a prince. But what was the price exactly? It was no other than a goat – a symbol of Dionysus.

The theater of god Dionysus was constructed in the 6th Century BC but the competitions – which lasted for many consecutive days – started in the 5th Century BC. During these competitions, judges and spectators would sit down and enjoy the plays.

At first, Athenians were able to watch the plays for free. Later, middle and upper class Athenians and foreigners were required to purchase a ticket. People facing financial problems were able to watch for free – the city-state would cover the costs.

Ancient Athenians believed that theater had a positive impact on human psychology. Every Athenian citizen had to participate. Crowds of people would be gathering in the theater with snacks and drinks from morning till sunset, watching the plays and discussing the plot with each other.

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Types of Greek Drama

Tragedy, Comedy, and Satyr play were the three types of ancient Greek drama. Tragedy was the most common one. It really translates to the “song of the goat” – probably because of the goat dress-up in the Dionysian dithyrambs (the predecessor of tragedy). But there are also numerous other theories. For example, that the name is connected to the prize that was offered to the winners of the theatrical contests, which was no other than a goat.

Tragedies were inspired by the stories that had been told for centuries in Greece – the Greek myths. Stories of heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses. But the main focus was not the glory of these heroes and divine beings but rather the suffering of the humans in these stories. In Helinika’s Greek mythology videos we focused on characters such as Jason and Odysseus. In this series, we will be discussing tragic characters, such as Medea and Helen of Troy.

All actors in tragedies -and other types of drama- were male. They would play even the women’s roles. Actors wore masks and shoes that elevated their bodies. There was a chorus – a choir that also danced. Violent acts would not be shown on stage and several devices were used to create visual effects. But we will talk on this subject on a different video.

Satyr plays were something between a comedy and a tragedy. They resembled the dithyrambs the most, meaning that they were the most chaotic and obscene plays that were presented to the audience. The actors would dress up as satyrs: goat-like creatures with a big sexual appetite. An example would be the play “Cyclops” of Euripides, which narrates the encounter of Odysseus with Cyclops Polyphemus.

Comedies were the opposite of tragedies. The word translates to “laughter provoking songs”. Comedies had happy endings and had an overall more uplifting mood. The characters though were less inspiring. Aristotle would describe them as “worse than the average (person)”, whereas tragic heroes and heroines were “better than the average (person)”.   

The Greek who really influenced comedy was Aristophanes. He wrote 40 comedies and he is known as “the father of comedy”. His works were very similar to satyr play, since they involved obscene language and actions and a lot of the events had a tragic tone to them. He would also criticize and make fun of the political and philosophical personalities of his time, including Socrates. Aristophanes’ plays resemble what we now consider a satirical play.

Other Greek Theaters and Greek Drama Today

Greek drama continued being popular until the beginning of the Hellenistic period. It inspired Roman theater, which focused more on entertainment and performance, rather than tragedy and catharsis.

Apart from the theater of Dionysus, many other theaters were built in ancient Greece, including the Herodion of Athens, the theater of Philippi in northern Greece, and the little and great theaters of Epidauros at the Sanctuary of Asclepius.

Ancient Greek plays -adapted or unchanged- are still played to this day around the world, including some of these ancient theaters. Playing at the annual cultural festival of Epidauros is a great achievement for theater actors and actresses. Next time you visit Greece, check whether there are any ancient Greek plays performed in the Herodion of Athens or the Epidauros.