In light of the global pandemic of 2020, face masks have become a ubiquitous part of everyday wear, in order to keep ourselves and each other safe from disease. Wearing a mask in public shows that we care about those around us, and their well-being, as well as our own. In ancient Greek theater, masks, called prosopon (meaning “face, person”), were worn by actors as part of religious festivals to honor the fertility god Dionysus. Known as Bacchus to the Romans, the Greek god Dionysus blessed both the land and its people with fertility when pleased, and spread plagues when angry.  
To appease Dionysus, theatrical plays were performed at his sanctuary, the Theatre of Dionysus (from theatron, “seeing place”), where participants dressed in costumes, danced, held parades, and sang songs. The goat was sacred to Dionysus, and was given as a prize for the best tragedy (from tragoidia, “goat-song,”). Accompanying tragedies were also satyr plays (where we get the word satire, from the teasing nature of Dionysus’ satyrs, half-goat half-man attendants) and comedies (from komoidía, “carousing-songs”).  

In ancient Greek theater, masks have symbolic meaning, and represent particular emotions or character-types. The stylized facial expressions painted on each mask allows actors to convey a wide range of emotional depth. Combined with exaggerated gestures and the skillful delivery of one’s lines, spoken or sung, actors transform not only themselves, but every facet of human interaction, into works of art.

Theatrical plays tell emotionally-driven stories, about not only vainglory and violence, but also bravery, familial bonds, and love. The plays of Greece have been passed down over the millennia, not only to immortalize playwrights and famous historical or mythological figures, but also because the stories resonate with the human soul, and reflect the highs and lows in life that define what makes us human.

Artist: Lashante St. Fleur

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Credit: Open Past & Lashante St. Fleur

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