The Gods in Greek Tragedy

This March, we were treated to a visit from Emeritus Professor at University College London, Chris Carey, who shared his expansive knowledge on Greek drama with us in his lecture ‘The Gods in Greek Tragedy’, as Classics Ambassador Caroline recounts:

“Professor Carey began his talk by looking at the nature of the performance of tragedy in Ancient Greece. In the 5th century BCE, most performances, and certainly all major premieres, took place at religious festivals in honour of the gods – this is perhaps surprising to us considering the gods’ often shockingly deplorable behaviour in these plays. 

Aristotle’s Poetics, normally our guide for understanding the theory of ancient drama as well as literature and philosophical thought, strangely has nothing explicit to say about the gods of tragedy. Yet the gods feature in every surviving tragedy in some form and hence it is impossible to understand performances without first understanding them. The gods of tragedy went beyond a simple reflection of everyday experience and were powerful as they were elaborated versions of what the audience knew in their daily lives: deities anthropomorphic in appearance but infinitely more beautiful and omnipotent.

Xenophon’s Oeconomicus described how the gods were in control of all aspects of life and hence to be successful you must appease the gods. This implies that the gods expected to be honoured continually, with animal sacrifices being the most common form of offering. This discussion was continued in Xenophon’s Hellenica, as divine control was seen to extend to human actions. For example, in civil war, the enemy’s choice of a poor battle position was seen to be the work of the gods. The supporters of democracy saw themselves in the right and so assumed that the gods would support them and aid them in their defence of what they thought was human justice. 

Aristophanes’ Birds

Professor Carey examined how the distinguishing aspect of Greek tragedy is the way that the gods, unlike in epic, do not directly interact with humans but instead work through events or signs. Aristophanes’ Birds demonstrates how anything can be a sign and how by reading these correctly, you can appreciate what the gods intend for you as birds act as oracles. Along with the sending of signs, however, the gods can directly control events of the play, despite us rarely seeing them on stage. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus simultaneously sees the responsibility of Apollo for his fate but also his own part in carrying out the acts. He views the play’s events as operating on both a divine and human level. The chorus, however, prefers to have this sense of control behind the scenes as they see oracles as providing some structure in the terrifying world, rather than allowing it to be completely random. 

The Pythian Oracle of Apollo at Delphi

Divine oversight over human affairs is also present in Aeschylus’ most famous trilogy, the Oresteia. In the first play, the Agamemnon, the chorus sees the role of Zeus in the events of the play and despairs, however, by the final part of the trilogy, the Eumenides, the world has changed and the chorus sees Zeus’ interventions more positively. These changing attitudes suggest the same pattern of the gods being difficult to comprehend to humans and the trilogy as a whole shows how Zeus plays the long game, and hence at any stage of his plan it is impossible to see what he proposes for the future. The audience is, however, given an overall sense that although the gods may reside over order in the world, it is not always visible, and hence characters frequently reflect bitterly on the unfairness with which the gods treat human beings. 

Yet despite their own behaviour, Professor Carey explained, the gods are guardians of human morality – they expect better of us and punish human wrongdoers. The overreacher is one of the most common themes in tragedy, as humans who demand more break the natural order presided over by the gods. For example, in Aeschylus’ Persians, the Persians have been defeated by a smaller Greek army and it is implied that this is because the divine and natural order also fight against them. This may seem reassuring but in reality it is not always the case as in Euripides’ Medea, Medea receives no punishment for her murders, but rather Helios, her grandfather, supplies her with a chariot to escape, undermining any ideas of the gods’ sense of justice and care for human morality.

Medea escaping on her snake-drawn chariot, with the help of the sun god

When the gods do mete punishment, they regularly do so at a disproportionate level to the crime. Professor Carey looked at how in Euripides’ Bacchae, Pentheus, king of Thebes, refuses to allow the worship of Dionysus and is punished by being ripped apart by his mother, the eponymous bacchant, in the hills. At the play’s end, a dialogue between Dionysus and Pentheus’ grandfather Cadmus reveals that the god is indifferent to the suffering people experience. This presentation of gods continues into other tragedies. Sophocles’ Niobe has Apollo and Artemis kill all of Niobe’s children as punishment for her boasting. The grotesque disparity of power between the relentless gods and the innocent children raises the question of whether the gods deserve our worship and belief, and some Greek rationalists asked just that, as why should the gods only be better than us physically rather than also morally? In Euripides’ Herakles, Herakles argues that if the gods are truly gods, they should be worth more than the myths say. Some scholars argue that Euripides was urging viewers to not believe in the gods as they did not deserve admiration. It is, however, impossible to know what Euripides truly believed, as his plays still assert the omnipotence of the gods, like all other tragedies. They imply that despite disliking the gods, they are our superiors in power and hence expect our fear. Denying this only calls down disaster for yourself, as seen in Creon’s fate in Antigone.

Apollo and Artemis slay Niobe’s children, vase by the Niobid Painter

Professor Carey explained how the gods, beyond acting as a collective, also hold their own individual spheres of influence. In Aeschylus’ Danaids, Aphrodite is not only a human-shaped being but also a personification of love and desire. The usefulness of this is seen in Euripides’ Hippolytus as Hippolytus rejects Aphrodite and the passion she stands for. Aphrodite appears at the play’s beginning and Artemis at the end, allowing each goddess to act as a pole between which the scenes can take place as the two forces they represent, sex and resistance, influence the play’s outcome. Similarly, in the Bacchae, Dionysus represents both the god standing next to Pentheus but also the wild forces inside of him waiting to burst forth and destroy him, making him simultaneously a being and an experience.

The terrible fate of Pentheus

Finally, Professor Carey looked at how the gods being real objects of belief makes them invaluable in tragedy. The importance of this is seen by examining more modern texts, such as Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Christopher Marlow’s Jew of Malta, as despite having figures that are personifications of attributes, they are less successful in producing the immediacy of the gods as there is no underlying belief in them. Marlow’s Doctor Faustus does a better job of recreating this urgency through the good angel and bad angel, as well as characters like Mephistopheles, because they were thought to really influence people’s everyday lives. It is for this reason, Professor Carey stated, that the Greek gods are such an important resource, as love or hate them, approve of them or disapprove, you cannot ignore them if you want to live in the world.”


Caroline will be competing in the Grand Final of our 2022 Classics Competition, presenting on her unsung hero from the ancient world – the Greek scientist Democritus. Come and give her, and the three other finalists, your support and encouragement at AKS Lytham on Saturday 26 March from 2pm. Free entry, and refreshments available.

Our final lecture of the season will take place on Thursday 28 April at 7pm, in person and online, with Dr Paul Roberts, entitled Last Supper in Pompeii. All are welcome to join us for £5 on the door, or you can become a member here.