The Muse Project –They Who Perform

Melpomone, Muse of Tragedy

“Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.”

Steven Sondheim, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

This Muse Project will talk about two Muses together, Thalia the Muse of Comedy and Melpomone the Muse of Tragedy.

“For the name of each Mousa (Muse), they say, men have found a reason appropriate to her: . . . Melpomene, from the chanting (melodia) by which she charms the souls of her listeners… Thaleia (Thalia), because men whose praises have been sung in poems flourish (thallein) through long periods of time.”

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 7. 1 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.)
Thalia, Muse of comedy

Thalia also means “rich festivity” and Melpomene’s name may be derived from the Greek verb melpô or melpomai meaning “to celebrate with dance and song,” which may seem strange in relation to tragedy, but there is singing and dancing in Greek tragedies. You can’t talk about tragedy and comedy, though, without talking about Dionysus, who along with Apollo was often with the Muses.

Mask of Dionysus found at Myrina (Aeolis) of ancient Greece c. 200 BC – 1 BC, now at the Louvre

“They say also that when he [Dionysos] went abroad he was accompanied by the Mousai (Muses)…”

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 4. 3 (Greek historian C1st B.C.)

Dionysus, the son of Zeus and Semele, is called Dionysus Eleutheria because that is from where he came to Athens and where the first festival for him was celebrated, a rural festival in Eleutherae, Attica that became known as the Rural Dionysia. Attica is the area around Athens that was politically controlled by the city. The City Dionysia (Dionusia ta astika) began in Athens in the 6th century during the reign of the tyrant Peisistratus and is the biggest festival in Athens after the Panathenaia. It is in the Athenian month of Elaphabolion on the 10th-17th (which this year falls on March 3-11) and it begins with a procession of phalloi and the statue of Dionysus. The statue ends up in the theater where it resides to observe the theater competition. Unlike the Panathenaia, non-Athenians were allowed to participate in this festival. The Rural Dionysia occurs in the Athenian month Poseideon (December).

Tragedy means “goat-song”

Theater began in Greece as part of Dionysian festivals, choruses of men singing and dancing. What started out as a single choral group performing developed into a chorus plus one actor, then chorus plus two actors, then chorus plus three actors, and then even two choruses. The theater competition of the Dionysia was three days long, with one playwright showcased per day. There were performed three tragedies and one satyr play. A satyr play is a bawdier form of comedy featuring satyrs.  Judges would then vote on the winner. The Greek dramatists we know today won many times at the City Dionysia including Aeschylus thirteen times, Sophocles eighteen times, and Euripides 24 times. Two other days of the festival were devoted to dithyrambs (hymns to Dionysus) and comedies. The great comedian playwright Aristophanes won thirteen times.

The actors were all men. There is debate whether women were allowed to attend performances. In view of how patriarchal Ancient Greek society was, it would not be surprising if they did not, though ironic considering how important women are to Dionysus and his worship. To understand this, read Euripides’ Bacchae.

Greek Chorus

Another major component of Greek theater is that they wore masks. While it is unclear how dramatic performance became associated with Dionysus, it may be because that in becoming another person in performance we are put outside ourselves, just as the gift of the fruit of the vine that Dionysus gave us makes us “not ourselves.” The importance of singing and dancing has been explored here before. Combining Homeric-like oration to the chorus is frankly brilliant. Here is a nice introduction to Greek theater.

“There was implanted in us men the sense of rhythm and harmony, and that the joint authors thereof were Apollon and the Mousai (Muses) and the god Dionysos.”

Plato, Laws 672b (Greek philosopher C4th B.C.)

“The gods, in pity for us, have granted to us as fellow-choristers and choir-leaders Apollon and the Mousai (Muses),–besides whom we mentioned, if we recollect, a third, Dionysos.”

Plato, Laws 664b

The Muses Melpomone and Thalia, along with Dionysus and Apollo, are credited with giving us the gift of theater which flourishes today on film as well as the stage. To celebrate the City Dionysia yourself, watch a movie with your favorite glass of wine.


joyous goddess, ivy-wreathed goddess,

in your works we find laughter, an excellent gift.

In wit there is wisdom, good cheer builds good will,

and a merry heart lightens the weight of the world.

O goddess of comedy,

what in life surpasses the delight we know in your

mirth and merriment?

Thalia, goddess, child of Olympos, I honor you.


you sing of our sorrows, of hardship and struggle,

of perfect despair and savage fate.

So strange it is, that tales of melancholy and ordeal

should bring us pleasure,

and yet it is so.

You teach us, muse, that each step and misstep we


unknown and unthought,

directs our luck and our lot,

Melpomene, goddess, child of Olympos, I honor you.

To the Muses I, Hester Butler-Ehle

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *