To learn the essence of something, it is a useful exercise to seek out its origins. Without knowing where something came from, it is impossible to truly understand the meaning of it. By studying the conditions that caused it to come into being, you can see it in its purest form.
To see the true beginnings of Europe art and paganism, you must travel back to an ancient time before written records. While much can be learned by this, it is much harder to draw concrete conclusions without any easily accessible first hand evidence.
Drama is modern by these standards. Its oldest form is tragedy. It was developed by the Ancient Greeks, just under 2500 years ago. While the majority of the plays the Greeks wrote have been lost to the ravages of time, a few key masterpieces have been saved. They are still reproducible in their original form, with the same words and meaning. To have the unaltered expression of the ancients is a priceless gift for modern people interested in such things.
While its importance to history and art is obvious, it is has a much less well known side. Tragedy was just as important to religion in the ancient world. By immersing yourself in these works, you instantly get a feeling of their pagan nature. The word itself has connotations of ritual. Tragedy is derived from the Ancient Greek word tragoidia, meaning he-goat-song.
Tragedy was derived from an ancient pagan ritual to Dionysus called dithyramb. At the center of this ritual was a hymn sung about the life of Dionysus. Upwards of fifty men were said to have taken part in these rituals. It started to take on a new form when spoken word was intermingled with this singing. As the worship of the gods evolved, these rituals started to focus more on these spoken roles. It created something very similar to the drama we are familiar with today.
While the chorus might have lost its central role, the subject matter of these plays were ever focused on the gods. The main characters of this new form of ritual were mostly human, but their fates were inevitably decided by the gods. The tragic hero was smart, capable, and extraordinarily gifted and his fate was unusually cruel.
This characteristic, unfortunate turn is what gives tragedy its power. The downfall of the main character is most often brought on by his own hubris and arrogance to the gods. Through this, tragedy becomes an inherently moralistic art form. It strives to teach the audience member reverence for the gods through these tales of great misfortune.
In contrast, Christianity and similar Asiatic religions tell fables that promote hope through resurrection and redemption to the lowliest of men. A pagan playwright has no use for such endings. Its values are inherently European. Tragedy demonstrates how no one can escape consequences. The gods will always have the final say, despite the greatest efforts of man.
Strong and healthy European societies have always embraced this tragic outlook in their mythology and art. Later European paganism tragic tales such as The Death of Baldr and The Fall of Sigurd. We see similar themes appear in the plays of the Renaissance with writers such as the great Shakespeare and in Romantic Europe through operatic composers such as Wagner.
When tragedy is viewed this way, you can start to see modern drama, in cinema and at the theater, through the eyes of the ancient. Those who understand the power of the tragic hero share much in common with the pagan authors who first forged the genre. Tragedy is an affirmation of the pagan warrior spirit; the world can be cruel and unforgiving but ultimately it is the way you fight that gives life its true meaning.