The Religious Birth of Theatre

Omi Religion Theatre

Few will deny that theatre has its origins in religion.  While civilizations grew, some type of religion evolved as various gods were worshipped and ceremonies and rituals to honor these deities were developed the world over.  Distinctive features of these rituals contributed to the elements of what we now call theater.  The intermediary between the gods and the worshipers, i.e. priest, shaman, clergyman etc., contributed his words – developing dialog, his gestures – creating acting and even dancing, his voice – vocalizing into singing.  Other components employed in the rituals would add music, masks and even make-up which aided in the formation of theater.

Not all historians, however, agree about when the beginning aspects of theatre first appeared.  Most point to the religious ritual and ceremony in the worship of the god Dionysus, god of wine and fertility for Athens in ancient Greece around 700 BCE.  Hymns, termed dithyrambs, were sung by a chorus of about fifteen worshipers to honor their god Dionysus.  The chorus would perform in future years as a procession wearing costumes and masks, and, still later, some of its members would take the part of special characters, introducing proto-actors.

However, placing the introduction of theater back to the Hellenistic period of ancient Greece negates the influence of the Egyptians from as far back as the 2000s BCE.  Passion plays honoring the king-god Osiris, his death and resurrection, were performed each year in Abydos, Egypt around that time, far earlier than the old Greek theatricals.  Some historians actually put the writing of the original Osiris drama as far back as 3200 BCE.

Although theater continued to evolve around the world, it began to disintegrate in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.  It was practically non-existent in that region during the period known as the Dark Ages.  Again, religion was prominent in returning theater to its present state.  A chant, Quem Quseritis, from a tenth century Easter mass is credited with the revival of theater.  During the Matins service on Easter morning, this chant was enacted as a intimate scene of question and answer dialog among a few worshipers.  From this minuscule performance, theater evolved into today’s gigantic entertainment entity according to historical scholars.

Given the role religion has played in creating theater, what can the theatrical world do for today’s religious institutions?  One answer is stage lighting.  During medieval times  huge Gothic cathedrals were designed in order to bring more light and space into them so that the many religious relics being brought from the Holy Land during the Crusades could be displayed and seen.  But no matter how large the churches’ windows became, they were positioned seventy to eighty feet above the floor and never allowed enough light to enter and illuminate all the exquisite  objects and architectural decorations contained within.  The artificial lighting of the time, oil lamps and candles did little to help.  Imagine what today’s stage lighting, such as a pin spot, could do to highlight  a special statue or featured picture in your sanctuary.

Lighting equipment can also be employed to improve whatever musical performances occur in your place of worship by designating individual soloists or adding visual variety and concentration during the moments of important musical passages and key changes.  Theatrical moments can be enhanced with lighting.  Spiritual moments can, and often are, theatrically communicated and stage lighting can help promote your message.

During these times, as the holidays come closer, it is important to have your lighting systems at the ready for your artistic choices.  Statistically, more people come to services during the holidays and, in order to influence them to increase their attendance during the year, the more memorable the holiday experience, the higher the success rate of return will be.

Did you know that a sixth century mystic wrote in his book, The Celestial Hierarchy, that light was divine?  Why not add more light to your religious campus?  Visit to see the largest selection of theatrical lighting equipment or give Louie an email at Louie @ and ask a question to one of our advisors for free.

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