The word τραγῳδία (tragoidia), from which the word "tragedy" is derived, is a compound of two Greek words: τράγος (tragos) or "goat" and ᾠδή (ode) meaning "song", from ἀείδειν (aeidein), "to sing". This etymology indicates a link with the practices of the ancient Dionysian cults. It is impossible, however, to know with certainty how these fertility rituals became the basis for tragedy and comedy.
The classical Greeks valued the power of spoken word, and it was their main method of communication and storytelling. Bahn and Bahn write, "To Greeks the spoken word was a living thing and infinitely preferable to the dead symbols of a written language." Socrates himself believed that once something was written down, it lost its ability for change and growth. For these reasons, among many others, oral storytelling flourished in Greece.
Greek tragedy as we know it was created in Athens around the time of 532 BC, when Thespis was the earliest recorded actor. Being a winner of the first theatrical contest held in Athens, he was the exarchon, or leader, of the dithyrambs performed in and around Attica, especially at the rural Dionysia. By Thespis' time, the dithyramb had evolved far away from its cult roots. Under the influence of heroic epic, Doric choral lyric and the innovations of the poet Arion, it had become a narrative, ballad-like genre. Because of these, Thespis is often called the "Father of Tragedy"; however, his importance is disputed, and Thespis is sometimes listed as late as 16th in the chronological order of Greek tragedians; the statesman Solon, for example, is credited with creating poems in which characters speak with their own voice, and spoken performances of Homer's epics by rhapsodes were popular in festivals prior to 534 BC. Thus, Thespis's true contribution to drama is unclear at best, but his name has been given a longer life, in English, as a common term for performer — i.e., a "thespian."
The dramatic performances were important to the Athenians – this is made clear by the creation of a tragedy competition and festival in the City Dionysia. This was organized possibly to foster loyalty among the tribes of Attica (recently created by Cleisthenes). The festival was created roughly around 508 BC. While no drama texts exist from the sixth century BC, we do know the names of three competitors besides Thespis: Choerilus, Pratinas, and Phrynichus. Each is credited with different innovations in the field.
More is known about Phrynichus. He won his first competition between 511 BC and 508 BC. He produced tragedies on themes and subjects later exploited in the golden age such as the Danaids, Phoenician Women and Alcestis. He was the first poet we know of to use a historical subject – his Fall of Miletus, produced in 493-2, chronicled the fate of the town of Miletus after it was conquered by the Persians. Herodotus reports that "the Athenians made clear their deep grief for the taking of Miletus in many ways, but especially in this: when Phrynichus wrote a play entitled "The Fall of Miletus" and produced it, the whole theatre fell to weeping; they fined Phrynichus a thousand drachmas for bringing to mind a calamity that affected them so personally and forbade the performance of that play forever." He is also thought to be the first to use female characters (though not female performers).