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Epiphanic Visitations: Deities on Temples and in Greek Tragedy

Jessica Paga

College of William & Mary

Before the invention and regular use of the crane, actors appearing ‘on high’ in the Greek theater utilized the roof of the skene.  In the fifth century, this roof would have been the flat ceiling of the ephemeral wooden skene, erected anew for each festival of the City Dionysia.  The skene’s form for much of the fifth century was likely simple: a rectangular structure with one, or sometimes two, doors, a flat roof with a trapdoor providing access to and from the interior, perhaps a window cut into the façade, and decorated with painted canvas hangings.  A stairway may have provided further roof access from the rear of the structure.

As Mastronarde has shown, a rooftop location is most ideal for divine appearances and creates a physical separation between divine and mortal realms (1990).  This spatial division accentuates the metaphysical distinction between gods and humans, such that mortal characters appearing on the roof, like the watchman of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (1-39), require explicit justification.  The gods of tragedy appear in a spatially distinct locus, removed from the realm of mortals.

Accentuating this association of divine beings with roofs, I argue, is the regular appearance of gods in the pediments of temples beginning in the sixth century.  The east pediment of the Old Athena Temple on the Akropolis, dated ca. 500, depicted a striding Athena vanquishing the Giants, in the first large-scale figural mythological narrative in Athens.  Around the same time, the first phase of the sanctuary and theater of Dionysos Eleutherios was articulated at the base of the southern slope of the Akropolis (Papastamati-von Moock 2015), with its own small temple’s pediments filled with supernatural beings like satyrs and maenads, likely flanking a central figure of the god himself (Despinis 2000).  By the mid-fifth century, divine pedimental sculpture (and increasingly divine akroteria) had become commonplace in Greek sanctuary architecture. At the same time, some temple pediments also included so-called “epiphany windows,” possibly designed to facilitate rituals at the roof level (Miles 1998/1999). The presence of deities on the roof of the skene draws on this visual association present in sacred structures.  Particularly when the skene was designed to evoke a temple or other sacred structure, such as during the opening of Aeschylus’ Eumenides or in Euripides’ Ion, divine presence on the roof would have reified this connection between pedimental sculpture and dramatic epiphany.

Moreover, the chronological confluence of figural divine pediments and divine appearances in drama would have been further underscored by the increasing use of the crane for deus ex machina scenes throughout the second half of the fifth century.  The crane, as developed for use in staging dramatic productions, would have been derived from the cranes used at building sites since the Archaic period for the construction of monumental stone buildings, primarily temples.  Cranes lifted divine pedimental sculpture into place at the tops of temples, just as cranes now lifted actors playing divinities into place above the skene. This correlation deepens the association between temples, the upper surface of the skene, and divine epiphanic appearances.

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Topography and Material Culture in Fifth-Century Drama

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