The ancient Greek notion of theôría (θεωρία) is of unquestionable cultural importance. Not only does it speak immediately to the ancient Greek festival as a cultural institution; philosophers seized on it as their preeminent metaphor for philosophical reflection. Most agree that it has to do with ‘looking’—but what sort of ‘looking’? Paradoxically perhaps, the later and derivative ‘intellectual contemplation’ of the philosopher seems easier to grasp (even if the ease turns out to be specious). But what of the original concept, embedded in the archaic culture of festival attendance?
If we look to its etymology for clues, our hope for illumination is quickly dashed. There is general agreement that theôría is a compound noun, whose second member derives from *swer(w)-, an Indo-European root that means ‘to observe, watch, protect’ from which we get Greek ὁράω (cf. Latin servare and vereri, and the English ‘observe’ and ‘warden’). The debate centers on the first member. Is it from the root that gives us ‘god’, θεός? If so, theôría would refer to the sphere of the divine, the activity of regarding the gods, guarding their privileges in the performance of ritual, seeking their will by consulting their oracles and enacting it. Or is it from the root that gives us ‘a sight’, θέα? If so, the term would designate the seeking out and watching of ‘sights’ and ‘spectacles’. These alternatives are not new. They have been known and severally advocated since antiquity.
This disagreement draws attention to a tired and facile dichotomy that seems hard for us to banish. The former interpretation is markedly ‘sacral’; the latter, seemingly ‘secular’. One view suggests a theôrós (θεωρός) who goes to the festival to worship. He engages in ritual action that reaffirms the privileges of the deity. The other, a theôrós who enjoys watching riveting displays of athletic prowess and accomplished musical performances. The two alternative etymologies highlight a further semantic difficulty. As hinted above, the envoy sent to consult an oracle was called theôrós, as was the official announcer of a future festival. If theôría denoted the act of ‘contemplating a sight’—and some such meaning is arguably prerequisite for the philosophical metaphor—in what sense could one say that the oracular or heraldic theôrós was traveling to watch a ‘sight’? To this, some have added the objection that ‘to watch a sight’ appears feebly tautological. Since poleis sent theôroí as official envoys to Panhellenic festivals, envoys who were especially charged with escorting the ἱερά (the sacrificial objects and offerings) and taking part in the sacrifices, can we accept the notion that, at root, their title focused on their role as members of the audience that watched the athletic and musical competitive events? A third difficulty, of an entirely different order, is that if we assume θέα as the first element—a distinctly Attic dialectal form—we face the embarrassing realization that the Doric form, θεαρός, seems inevitably built on a borrowed Attic form (the proto-Greek θᾱϝ– predicts Doric θα-, not θε-).
I suggest that two elements have been missing from this debate. The first, consideration of cultural trends and influences in the early archaic period. When we consider the different degrees of Panhellenism of the performance traditions and literary forms associated with the various Greek dialects, it is perhaps not so surprising if a term central to the development of Panhellenic festival institutions should have been coined first in the Attic-Ionic sphere, and only after some linguistic development its usage should have spread into Doric territories. This observation is of even greater relevance if, as I believe, theôrós and theôría were not narrowly restricted to the official poleis envoys, but designated first the average festival-goer and his festival attendance. The second missing element is a holistic view of the Greek festival as a full-fledged ritual complex. The suggestion that θέαι were secular spectacles (what someone has called “showtime”) attended by enjoyable leisure, which contrasted with the serious business of religious worship from which the mirth of ἑορτή was absent, should sound like the facile caricature that it is. If we have learned anything from the study of Greek drama in the last decades is how profoundly intertwined theater-going was with the religious and ritual dimensions of spectating. Add to this a mimetic ritual understanding of athletic and musical performance, and we have, I believe, a productive way to approach theôría in all of its cultural complexities, diachronic and synchronic.