Who doesn’t love watching amazing epic films set in ancient times? These historical movies depicting the amazing tales of Greek mythology and its heroes take us into a world that might seem too far from our reality. We could even consider them as products from an enticing realm of fantasy. Nevertheless, our connection to those times goes far beyond the world of entertainment. Many essential parts of our lifestyle are derived from Ancient Greek traditions: philosophy, democracy, the modern conception of medicine, you name it. Although these were also influenced by earlier cultures and practices, there's no doubt that the Greeks shaped many ideas and views on our humanity. Even concepts we believe to be modern can be traced back to that era of innovations. And, believe it or not, cinema is one of them.
The Triumph of Pan - Nicolas Poussin
The first connection between cinema and Greek traditions comes from Plato's allegory of the cave. You know the story: humanity is held captive in a cave, and for them everything inside it is their only reality. They can't move well, and behind and above them there's a fire that projects the shadows of all passing objects on the wall in front of them. They don't know whether they're seeing an illusion or a representation. They take everything they see as real. This part of the allegory introduces an important part of cinema: the projection of objects, as well as the representation of a reality that mimics our own. But besides this clear connection, there's another one that's not as mentioned, and it derives —as life itself— from the pleasures of sexuality.
Bacchanal - Auguste Léveque
As you know the Ancient Greeks had a polytheistic religion, and each deity represented and reigned over a particular aspect of life. So, their way of honoring them was through rituals based on the deity's nature. One of the most important rituals people celebrated was to worship the famous Olympian god Dionysus. This deity had several festivities and rituals in his honor, being the Bacchanal or Dionysian Mysteries the most important one. As records show, these were religious rituals in which participants ingested intoxicating substances to induce a trance state. Let’s remember that among the many concepts this deity represented, Dionysus was the God of wine. In that way, worshipers consumed beverages that would reduce or remove their inhibitions. Thus the social restraints would disappear, and they would return to their most natural and instinctive state. According to the texts documenting these festivities or rituals, once the inhibition vanished, people would engage in free dancing and sexual activities that most of the time ended in orgies.
Bacchanal - Peter Paul Rubens
However, the importance of the ritual wasn’t really focused on sexual activities but on what they represented: the return to humanity’s most primitive state. Most importantly, these festivities are the foundations of the storytelling narratives we now enjoy in theater and cinema. Dionysus is also known as the god of theater because it was through his rituals that theater as we know it began. According to Nadja Berberović in her paper "Ritual, Myth, and Tragedy: Origins of Theatre in Dionysian Rites," rituals were understood as a moment in which participants were transported to the stories of their deities. In that way, the representations of these passages or religious episodes were seen as gates to the spiritual world and ways to reach holiness (of course, not in the Christian way).
La Reine Bacchanal - Fritz Zuber-Buhler
Soon, to make these rituals more realistic, so that the attendees would relate more to the stories, performers started including music, dances, and more complex dialogues, creating the core essence of the dramatic discipline and storytelling we still enjoy in films and theater. The worship of Dionysus not only gave us the impressive origins of theater, but also gave us a particular way of telling stories to make them more believable. Remember what I said about the idea of the projection as an understanding of reality in Plato's allegory? In a way, these narratives evolved into something so polished and refined that, even though we know they are mere representations, for a short period of time these narratives enshroud our minds, so we end up merging our conception of reality with that of those representations. This is what happens with cinema: we take the images and stories depicted for real. It's no wonder that most of the movies we consider to be good are those that move us and make us relate to them, no matter if they’re fantasy. So, yes, I’d say Dionysus shaped our taste in cinema.
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