The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Tragedy’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

The origin of the word ‘tragedy’ involves wine, singing, and goats. More predictably, it involves the origins of theatre itself, back in ancient Greece. But in order to understand the etymology (or, at least, the commonly accepted etymology) of the word ‘tragedy’, we need to go back over two thousand years and take a closer look at those singing goats.

Tragedy begins in ancient Greece. The first great tragedies, by playwrights like Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, were staged as part of a huge festival known as the City Dionysia. Thousands of Greek citizens would gather in the vast amphitheatre to watch a trilogy of tragic plays, such as Aeschylus’ celebrated trilogy, the Oresteia, which tells the story of Agamemnon’s marriage to Clytemnestra and the bloody drama which unfolds when he sacrifices their daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods during the Trojan War.

The word ‘tragedy’ would attract new meanings as the classical era gave way to the medieval. In the Middle Ages, the Middle French tragedie denoted a narrative (whether in verse or prose) dealing with sorrowful or disastrous events, while by the Renaissance in the sixteenth century, the word was being applied to verse drama written in an elevated style and dealing with the downfall or death of a protagonist: the ‘tragic hero’. In every case, the one aspect of ‘tragedy’ which persisted was the emphasis on sorrow or disaster: on bad things happening to people.

But where did the word ‘tragedy’ come from? It has its roots in the ancient Greek term τραγῳδία which denotes a tragic drama or tragic play. The term was also sometimes applied, more widely, to any serious poetry. Ultimately, the word is thought to have its roots in the term τράγος, which means ‘he-goat’ and ᾠδή, which is where we get the word ‘ode’ from. This term ultimately means ‘to sing’, so ‘tragedy’ ultimate means ‘song of the he-goat’ or ‘goat song’.

Here, we might compare ‘tragedy’ with the term ‘rhapsody’, which also has its roots in ancient Greek literature: a ‘rhapsody’ is literally a ‘stitch song’, from the Greek ῥάπτειν meaning ‘to stitch’ and ᾠδή meaning ‘ode’ or ‘song’. A ‘rhapsody’ was an epic poem which would be recited rather than performed by a group of actors, and so is a complementary term to ‘tragedy’, in many ways.

For the ‘trag-’ part of ‘tragedy’, we might bear in mind the word ‘tragus’, a name for a part of the ear, so named because of the hair that grows in the outer ear canal (especially as one gets older), which put someone in mind of the chin-whiskers of a male goat at some point, and the name stuck.

But what have goats got to do with classical theatre? It’s been suggested that goats got mixed up in the world of tragedy because a he-goat was offered as a prize in the earliest contests for writing tragedy, at the City Dionysia.

It’s possible that the City Dionysia in Greece grew out of earlier fertility festivals where plays would be performed, and a goat would be ritually sacrificed to the god of wine, fertility, and crops, Dionysus. The idea, perhaps, was that the sacrificial goat would rid the city-state of its sins, much like the later Judeo-Christian concept of the scapegoat.

Tragedy, then, was designed to have a sort of purging effect upon the community, and certainly Greek tragedy aimed at moral purification. The audience members (all male) were supposed to witness the downfall of the tragic hero and look to their own lives, and ensure they avoided any of the flaws which had contributed to the undoing of the protagonist.

So, when audiences observed Oedipus falling prey to the prophecy that he would unwittingly kill his father and marry his mother, they were supposed to reflect on the flaw in his nature which had led Oedipus to ruin his life. And in Oedipus’ case, it was all because he was too stubborn to back down on the road and gives another man right of way. This other man, unbeknownst to Oedipus, was his biological father, and when the two men fought and Oedipus killed the old man, he set in motion a chain of terrible events which can truly be called ‘tragic’.

Ancient Greek tragedy was very different from our modern experience of theatre. Because audiences were so vast, actors wore masks which symbolised their particular character, so even those sitting towards the back of the amphitheatre could tell who was who. The Romans, in many ways, preferred a good comedy (witness the success of Terence or Plautus) to a tragedy, but they loved the theatre, too, and continued this tradition.

They also continued the tradition of actors wearing masks on stage. In Latin, the word for such a mask was ‘persona’, which is why, even to this day, we talk about adopting a persona whenever we adopt a different identity from our own. We are, metaphorically speaking, putting on a mask. This is also the reason why the list of characters in a play is known as the ‘Dramatis Personae’. Our word person is also derived from the Latin meaning ‘mask’.

However, despite its considerable vintage, tragedy is, perhaps surprisingly, not the earliest of all literary genres. No, it isn’t comedy either. Instead, that honour should go to a third genre of drama, known as the satyr play, a kind of bawdy skit from which comedy and tragedy both eventually developed. Satyr plays were satires or burlesques which featured actors sporting large strap-on penises, the phallus being a popular symbol of fertility and virility, linked with the god Dionysus.

Only one satyr play survives in its entirety: written by the great tragedian Euripides, Cyclops centres on the incident from the story of Odysseus when the Greek hero found himself a prisoner in the cave of Polyphemus, the one-eyed monster.