The Surprising Etymology of Tragedy
Tragedy (noun): A drama typically exploring serious events, often including the main character’s downfall caused by personal faults and/or fate, and with an unhappy or disastrous ending
It may not make immediate sense that the word tragedy originally meant “goat song”—derived from the ancient Greek tragos (“goat”) and oide (“ode” or “song”). To understand what this says about the nature of tragedy, we need to go all the way back to Greece in the seventh century BCE and the ancient rituals, or Dionysia, held in Athens in honor of Dionysus, the god of vegetation, wine, and fertility. The Dionysia were religious festivals associated with the harvest and vintage, and they included ritual sacrifices and fertility celebrations. They also featured wild dancing and singing by characters wearing goat skins in imitation of the satyrs, Dionysus’s attendants. These rustic episodes eventually acquired a greater degree of literary refinement and included the dramatic performance of poetry by choruses called tragoidoi. In time, these dramatic entertainments came to include spoken portions, as well as serious plots inspired by the Dionysia’s commemoration of death and the renewal of life. Long after these performances had left the immediate context of religious ritual, they continued to explore matters of solemn import to the culture: the causes of suffering, the nature of guilt, and the absence of justice.