gods, and masks, and murders, oh my!

My work in progress.

My work in progress.


The first week of the Hum Lab: A Consortial Workshop is coming to a close.  We arrived in the land of ten thousand lakes as a motley, enthusiastic crew of students from various liberal arts colleges and of various majors, bound together only by our shared reading of Euripede’s Heracles and a general confusion about what would we could and would produce over the course of an intensive, two week, collaborative working period. 

Many research articles, Google Docs, and plaster molds later, and our projects are beginning to (literally) take shape.

Half of us are working on contextualizing and recreating tragic masks of the sort that would have been utilized in 5th century B.C.E. Athenian theater; tragedies were all performed in mask. There is not a whole lot of information running around about this, but some visual evidence remains in vase-paintings (especially the famous Pronomos Vase) and texts (the often-quoted, but dubiously reliable descriptions of the origins of drama that Aristotle writes, for one). There is also a significant amount of contemporary scholarship about the symbolism and purpose of tragic masks, exploring everything from the meaning of a frontal gaze, the possibility that masks protect the actor and spectators from the spiritual and moral pollution of the atrocities portrayed in the tragedies, and the role of ambiguous facial features in the perception of human emotion. 

While these and some other, more technical questions (i.e.: can spectators see the features of a mask at the distance that would have been typically between a viewer and the performing space in the 5th century B.C.E.) will be tested once we have our masks, my own particular interest is in the dramatic portrayal of the divine in Heracles.

Hanging over the play is the gods’ role in justice: do they uphold it or do they toy with it for their own pleasure or perhaps they are outside of it altogether? Moreover, just like the humans in the play, the gods are constrained by fate, by more powerful beings, and by their own flaws. At the tragic crescendo of the play, Heracles’ returns from the underworld just in time to save his family from the murderous plotting of a political usurper– only to then kill them himself in a fit of madness brought on by the goddess Lyssa. The spectators are privy to a conversation between Lyssa and another goddess, Iris, just before Lyssa sets Heracles to doom.  Lyssa states that Heracles does not deserve to be subjected to the horror of killing his children, especially because he faithfully served the gods in his recent labors; Iris waves away her objections, and so Lyssa accepts the will of Iris and Hera. In one line of text, it is as if her moral compass’s bleeping warnings of cruelty never sounded off; she gleefully describes how her madness is inescapable and overpowering, and sets off to destroying Heracles’ family.

In making a mask of Lyssa, I am attempting to explore the imaged manifestation of the divine in the Greek tragic world. It seems, from the little historical evidence remaining, that divine masks were not much different than mortal masks– and that the gods’ actions within the tragedies were just as troubling of the question of free will and right action as the mortals’.