At the Dionysia festival in ancient Athens, playwrights entered their plays into a competition. Each playwright would submit four plays to be performed for the audience: three tragedies and one satyr play. These satyr plays were bawdy affairs, containing scenes of debauchery and drunkenness. Very few examples of this genre survive, but in addition to the Cyclops of Euripides (484 BCE–406 BCE), the only satyr play to survive complete, we are fortunate enough to have substantial sections of the Ichneutae (‘Trackers’) of Sophocles (497 BCE–405 BCE), preserved on a papyrus now held at the British Library.
The trackers of the title are a group of satyrs sent to find cattle belonging to the god Apollo, which have been stolen by his infant brother Hermes. The play gives us an important insight into the nature of the genre of satyr play, and is a valuable addition to the corpus of surviving ancient Greek dramas.
The papyrus itself was found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, as part of the extensive excavations undertaken there in the late 19th century by the Egypt Exploration Society. It was presented to the British Museum in 1914. A 1990 play by the English playwright Tony Harrison (b. 1937), The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, draws both on the Ichneutae itself and on the circumstances surrounding its 19th-century discovery.
- Article by:
- Mark Joyal
- The Greek World
Our knowledge of the great works of ancient Greek literature derive from two main sources: manuscripts from Byzantium, and papyri discovered in Egypt since the late 19th century. Here, Mark Joyal surveys the process by which these works were transmitted through the centuries.