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Dressing up for the festival: ritual dress in ancient Greek tragedy

Gloria Mugelli

University of Pisa

In Euripides’ Electra, Agamemnon’s daughter refuses to participate in the Heraia of Argos. She is still mourning her father and her dress is inappropriate for the religious festival: “look at my filthy hair/these tatters that are my clothes” (Eur. El. 184-185 trans. Kovacs). The theme of the young girl who can not celebrate a festival because of the poor state of her dress may seem quite familiar to a modern reader. Nevertheless, reading tragic texts out of their performance context, we miss a part of the efficacy of Electra’s statement. The spectators of the ancient drama could actually see Electra’s tragic costume, and they knew from experience that mourning dresses were inappropriate for religious festivals: each Athenian citizen attended various religious festivals, and Greek tragedy was performed during a festival in honour of Dionysus.

In this paper I will discuss the form and meaning of ritual dress in ancient drama, considering the representation of ritual clothes in ancient performance and their perception by the audience. I will focus on the tragic representation of garments used for rites and festivals, in relationship with the broader experience of the audience as ritual agents and spectators of rituals.

5th-century Athenians celebrated the public festivals of their city, and were involved in rites of smaller bodies such as deme, phratry or family. Each one of these cults required different degrees of participation by the community members, and therefore Athenian citizens were able to perform themselves various rites. At the same time, public Athenian festivals, such as the Panathenaia or the City Dionysia, registered a great number of participants, who could also assume the role of spectators. Ancient festivals were spectacular under many aspects: processions and sacrifices, in particular, were considered beautiful to be seen and good to be represented.

The spectacular nature of festivals and rituals is reflected by the massive presence in Greek tragedies of rites that were either directly performed or described within the drama.

Ritual garments were one of the elements of ancient rituals that had a place in the tragic performance. In certain cases, ritual garments are shown on the tragic scene just before the characters exit to perform a ritual. In some tragic passages (Aesch. Eum. 1028; Eur. Hel. 1085 ff.) the characters change their dress for ritual purposes, in some others (Eur. HF 327 ff.; 431 ff.; Eur. IA 1434 ff.) the act of getting dressed for a ritual receives a great emphasis. In certain cases (Soph. Trach. 604-609), wearing a particular dress is presented as a matter of ritual norm, while in a great number of passages (Eur. El. 184-185, Eur. Al. 923 ff., Eur. Supp. 97 and many others) the characters discuss on the ritual appropriateness of certain clothes - in particular mourning dresses - to perform a rite or to celebrate a festival.

In this paper I will compare the tragic passages with some relevant archaeological, iconographic and epigraphic evidences on ritual clothes. I will focus on the representations of ritual and on ritual norms concerning clothes, with the purpose of understanding the main characteristics of ritual dresses.

Focusing on the materiality of clothes, I will draw some conclusions on the interferences of ritual dresses with the codes of Greek tragic costumes (in terms of colours, shapes and use of accessories).

The main results of this study will concern the relationship between the ritual garments represented in Greek tragedy and the actual experience of the tragic audience. Comparing the tragic use of ritual garments with the actual ritual norms, I will discuss the dramatic function of the passages concerning ritual clothes. I will focus on the perception of these passages by the 5th century Athenian audience, with the purpose of enlightening a specific aspect of the actual experience of the spectators of Greek tragedy, which during the dramatic performance were sitting in the theatre of Dionysus wearing their own proper dress for the festival.

Session/Panel Title

Theatre, Performance, and Audiences: Ways of Spectating in Antiquity

Session/Paper Number


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