From Ritual Drama to Ancient Theater – Crete, Mycenae and Greece

The beginnings of true theater began in Greece. Some scholars agree with Aristotle’s theory that Greek tragedy evolved from the performance of the dithyrambic chorus which honored Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, fertility and revelry. Fifty men participated in the dithyramb ritual which consisted of dancing and singing a long hymn.[1]

Dithyrambic Singers

The oldest cultic theater that has been discovered is at the palace of Phaistos on the Mediterranean island of Crete. It is dated from the Minoan period circa 1900-1700 BCE and could accommodate up to three hundred people. The Minoans traded with the Egyptians and it is possible Egyptian cultic drama influenced Minoan religious rituals. Little is known about Minoan deities, but it is thought that the rituals were performed during agricultural feasts for a fertility goddess. Another cultic theater found on Crete at the palace of Knossos could accommodate five hundred spectators. Fragments of a fresco in the area show a group of women dancing in a chorus. All the figures are facing to the left, most likely facing the goddess’ shrine. Both the theater areas also had unusual wide steps that could have been a used as a tiered standing or sitting area for observers during the rituals.[2]

Knossos Theater on Crete

The Mycenaeans probably did not adopt the Minoan style of cultic theater when they conquered Crete around 1450 BCE, since no Minoan style theater has been discovered in the area of Mycenae. However, the Mycenaeans may have had their own festivals which incorporated ritual drama. One tablet speaks of a possible Sacred Marriage ceremony in honor of the god Poseidon. Frescoes featuring images of dancing choruses wearing animals masks are also evidence of a tradition of cultic drama.[3]

In Greece, little evidence remains of their earliest religious ritual dramas, which makes it difficult to study how their true theater developed. Unlike the clay tablets found in Mesopotamia and Anatolia or the temple carvings in Egypt, Greek texts did not survive the test of time.[4]

The most famous and mysterious Greek ritual festival, the Eleusinian Mysteries, began in Mycenaean period around 1600 BCE. People traveled to Eleusis to take part in the initiation ceremonies for the cult of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Even though all the ceremonies and rites were kept secret there are some theories about what kind of rituals took place. There was probably a reenactment of the abduction of Persephone by Hades and Demeter’s search for her missing daughter. The important finale would occur when Persephone returned from the underworld and was reunited with her mother. Some scholars theorize that a Sacred Marriage ritual may have also been included in the Eleusinian Mysteries which ended with the symbolic birth of a son.[5]

Eleusinian Mysteries Cave of Pluto

While no remains of a stage has been found at Eleusis, it is known many of the rituals were performed in a temple called the Telesterion, including the initiation ceremonies. The Telesterion could accommodate 3000 people. The cave of Pluto was adjacent to the Telesterion and was the symbolic entrance to the underworld.[6]

I think the main difference in the development of true theater in Greece from the cultures of the Ancient Near East, is that Greek drama evolved into its own true art form because of the competitions held during the Dionysian festivals in the fifth century BCE. The festival honored the god Dionysus but was a civic event as well as a religious one.[7] This could have opened the door to our idea of theater because it was based on a creative art instead of a religious practice.


[1] Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb, Living History: History of the Theatre Fifth Edition, (New York: Mc-Graw Hill, 2008), 29.
[2] Inge Nelson, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama,(Oxford, Oakville, CT:Aarhus University Press, 2002), 69-72.
[3] Inge Nelson, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama, 74.
[4] Inge Nelson, Cultic Theatres and Ritual Drama, 81-82.
[5] University of Evansville: The Ecole Initiative, “The Eleusinian Mysteries,” accessed July 12, 2012,
[6] Perseus Digital Library: Tufts University, “Eleusis (Site),” accessed July 15, 2012,
[7] Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb, Living History: History of the Theatre Fifth Edition, (New York: Mc-Graw Hill, 2008), 31-32.

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