The Vocabularist: 'Tragedy' originally meant 'goat-song'

Anthony Quayle in BBC production of Oedipus at Colonus.
Image caption Anthony Quayle as Oedipus, who puts out his own eyes in one of Sophocles' tragedies.

Following the great tragic dramas of 5th Century BC Athens, "tragedy" has come to mean something sad and horrifying. It has inspired fine expressions of compassion and regret.

In 1643 parliamentarian general Sir William Waller wrote to his old comrade Sir Ralph Hopton, on the Royalist side in the Civil War: "We must act those parts assigned to us in this Tragedy. Let us do it in a way of honour… I shall never relinquish the deare title of your most affectionate friend."

The original tragedies were performed at Athens' annual festival of the god Dionysus. In the Greek word tragoidia, the last part means "singing", as large parts of the plays were chanted.

Tragos, meanwhile, means "billy-goat". Later Greek and Roman writers believed a goat was the prize for the best plays, while some modern scholars think a goat may have been sacrificed during the festival.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption A goat may have been the prize in the annual festival held in Athens' Theatre of Dionysus (right) - or a sacrifice offered during the festival.

The plays were grim. Clytemnestra hacks up her husband Agamemnon with an axe. Medea spites Jason by slaughtering their young children. And Oedipus learns he has unwittingly killed his father and married his mother - she kills herself, while Oedipus puts his eyes out.

In the next century the philosopher Aristotle wrote that tragedy produces "pity and fear" in the audience, causing a purging (catharsis) of their emotions.

The effect of tragedy was enhanced by events that were unexpected but nevertheless caused by each other, wrote Aristotle.

And he believed the best subject for a tragedy was a fortunate person whose misfortune is caused not by wickedness but by a mistake.

Yet undoubtedly the spectators had a more general idea of what is tragic. Aristotle criticises playwrights for "writing to serve the wishes of the audience" when they do not conform with his ideals.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Disasters such as earthquakes are often described as tragedies, as are other events whose victims bear no share of the blame.

They probably enjoyed a debate on whether the victim caused their own misfortune, but also sensed the "tragedy" in sheer bad luck or others' villainy, as we often do when deploring tragic events today.

A wider view of tragedy was expressed by the sixth-century Roman Christian mystic Boethius. Tragedies, said Boethius, show how chance ends happiness "by random stroke (indiscreto ictu)".

In his translation of Boethius (about 1380), Chaucer defines tragedy merely as a story of "prosperite for a tyme, that endeth in wrecchidnesse".

But 23 centuries on, Aristotle's insights are valid. There is a tension between cause, fault and luck, and also how we view people's personal tragedies, pity them, and fear for ourselves.

The Vocabularist

This is the last report from the Vocabularist.

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