Greek Tragedy: Where'd the Athenians Goat It From?

Tragedy: A Goat Song?

A satyr chats with a Maenead, one of Dionysus's other followers. Tarporley Painter/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Goats might enjoy screaming like terrified people, but who knew they also helped inspire the ancient Greek theatre genre of tragedy? Classicists have long suggested that "tragedy" is derived from the Greek , composed of two wordstragos, or goat, and oidos, or song.  

So did some bovidae sing so much that they motivated the Athenians to create depressing tales about mythic heroes? How did goats relate to one of the greatest contributions the Greeks made to the world?

Did tragedians just wear goatskin shoes? Maybe there was more to it...

You’ve Goat to Love Tragedy

There are many theories as to why tragedy was associated with goats. Perhaps this was originally in reference to “satyr plays,”  satirical skits in which actors were dressed as satyrs, goat-like guys who were companions of Dionysus, god of wine, merriment, and theater. Whether the satyrs were part-goat or part-horse has been a subject of long debate, but satyrs were definitely tied to goats through their association with Dionysus and Pan. 

So then “goat-songs” would be the most appropriate way to honor the gods the goatish satyrs hung out with. Interestingly, satyr plays always accompanied a trilogy of tragedies when performed at the Athenian theater fest, the Dionysia, and are indelibly linked to tragedy, as we shall see.

Tragedy was performed in honor of Dionysus, with whom the satyrs associated.

As Diodorus Siculus notes in his Library of History, “Satyrs also, it is reported, were carried about by him in his company and afforded the god great delight and pleasure in connection with their dancings and their goat-songs.” He adds that Dionysus “introduced places where the spectators could witness the shows and organized musical concert.”

Interestingly, tragedy developed out of two Dionysiac traditions: the satyric drama – probably an ancestor of the satyr play  – and the dithyramb. Aristotle claims in his Poetics: “Being a development of the Satyr play, it was quite late before tragedy rose from short plots and comic diction to its full dignity…”  One Greek term for "satyr play" was a "play" on tragedy: "tragedy at play."

Aristotle adds that tragedy “ came from the prelude to the dithyramb,” a choral hymn to Dionysus. Eventually, from odes to Dionysus, the performances evolved to stories that weren’t related to the god of merriment; Dionysiac stories remained in the performing arts, however, through the creation of the satyr play, as opposed to the satyric drama (i.e., tragedy).

Winner Takes Goat

Other scholars, including the late, great Walter Burkert in his Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual, have opined that tragoidia meant “song for the prize goat." That meant the winner of a choral contest would take home a goat as first prize. Ancient evidence supports this theory; in his Ars Poetica, the Roman poet Horace mentions “the man who once competed for a lowly he-goat/With tragic verse, soon stripped the wild Satyrs/And tried coarse jests without loss of seriousness.” 

It has been suggested "tragedy" was derived from tragodoi, or “goat singers,” instead of tragoidia, or “goat song." That would make sense if a chorus of singers received a goat for a winning play. Why goats? Goats would’ve been a good prize since they were sacrificed to Dionysus and other gods. 

Perhaps the victors would even get a piece of the sacrificial goat meat. You’d be dining like a god. The chorus’s association with goats might’ve gone even further, since they may have dressed up in goatskins, like satyrs. In that case, what more fitting prize than a goat?

Literal or Metaphorical Goat?

The above interpretations are literal ones of the term “goat,” but perhaps the ancient Greeks understood tragoidia in a more nuanced sense. As classicist Gregory A. Staley theorizes in Seneca and the Idea of Tragedy, “tragedy acknowledge[d] that as humans we are like satyrs … tragic plays explore our animal natures, our ‘filthiness,’ as one medieval commentator called it, our violence and depravity.” By calling this genre a “goat song,” then tragedy is truly the song of humanity in its most debased state.

One medieval scholar gave a creative explanation for the goatish dilemma. Like a goat, tragedy looked good from the front, he says, but it was disgusting behind. Writing and attending a tragic play might seem cathartic and noble, but it deals with the most primal of emotions.