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  • Mass Hysteria and Ancient Theatre March 6, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    Another birthday party visit for Little Miss B this afternoon: birthday parties are rapidly becoming, along with potty training, bad Disney and the satanic Little Miss Kitty, the worst things about parenthood. Beachcombing is forced, in any case, to limit himself to a quick post on Lucian of Samosota today.

    Now, to get down to business, Lucian (obit post 180 AD) was a Greek-writing Assyrian who is sometimes credited with the world’s first science-fiction story: a few Mediterranean types get involved in a war between the King of the Sun and the King of the Moon over, of all things, the planet Venus (another post, another day). But Lucian also includes, in his short How to Write History, a delicious account that deserves to be better known, a case of, let’s call it, theatrical mass-hysteria.

    There is a story of a curious epidemic at Abdera [city in Thrace, i.e. northern Greece], just after the accession of King Lysimachus. It began with the whole population’s exhibiting feverish symptoms, strongly marked and consistent from the very first attack. About the seventh day, the fever was relieved, in some cases by a violent flow of blood from the nose, in others by perspiration no less violent. The mental effects, however, were most ridiculous; they were all stage-struck, mouthing blank verse and ranting at the top of their voices. Their favourite recitation was the Andromeda of Euripides; one after another would go through the great speech of Perseus; the whole place was full of pale ghosts, who were our seventh-day tragedians vociferating: ‘O Love, who lord’st it over Gods and men…’ and the rest of it. This continued for some time, till the coming of winter put an end to their madness with a sharp frost.

    So the whole city not only comes down with a collective nose-bleed, they also run around quoting lines from a recent theatre hit: hysterical slaves and their master screaming at each other in hexameter. The modern equivalent would presumably be London taking en masse to bed with a flu and chanting in extremis lines from Mamma Mia. Beachcombing has just remembered that there are worse things than bad Disney…

    Lucian goes on to discuss the happening in a pleasingly modern fashion:

    ‘I find the explanation of the form [the madness] took in this fact: Archelaus was then the great tragic actor, and in the middle of the summer, during some very hot weather, he had played the Andromeda [in Abdera]; most of them took the fever in the theatre, and convalescence was followed by a relapse – into tragedy, the Andromeda haunting their memories, and Perseus hovering, Gorgon’s head in hand, before the mind’s eye.’ While one outstanding twenty-first century commentary gives us the following exegesis (1): ‘It is noteworthy that the affliction combined physical and mental features. Its course seems to have commenced with a physical ailment brought on by the heat, which left the sufferer weakened and suggestible, at which point he was overtaken by this remarkable collective delusion.’

    The problem is whether or not this account of Bacchae by Limelight can be trusted.

    Beachcombing feels bound to say, first, that Lucian is a sly old dog. He is always ready to give a sarcastic karate kick to the genitals of anyone or anything he dislikes: something that he usually does with exquisite timing. But here at least the description pans out. Indeed, in this short account, the tale of Abdera is a hook to hang Lucian’s own conceit up on. Lucian has no interest in stating something that he knew would be generally disbelieved.

    So far so good.

    Unfortunately, and here the problems begin, whatever his intentions, Lucian is talking about a distant event: Lysimachus – the king referred to in the text – was one of the diadochus and he ruled in Asia Minor from 306 BC to 281 BC. There are then perhaps four hundred long years between event and source. And while this may have been described by any number of antique writers Lucian is the only surviving author to record the theatre madness and his source was conceivably no more than a drunken if delicious tale recounted in a tavern.

    Why though would anyone come up with a story like this? The most economical explanation is that someone was having fun at the expense of the Abderans. The Roman orator Cicero (EaA) tells us, in the first century BC, that the air at Abdera was believed to make people stupid. Do we not perhaps have here then the ancient equivalent of an Irish or a Newfoundland joke? Lucian either believed the tale or decided to go along with the story for his own rhetorical purposes.

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for ancient accounts of mass hysteria, though most, in his experience, don’t stand up, run around the town and quote blank verse: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com