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Boogeymen in the Playwright’s Closet: Mormolukeia, Generic Aesthetics, and Adolescent Outreach in Old Comedy

Al Duncan

This paper studies Aristophanes’ use of the rare term mormolukeia to signify dramatic masks in two fragments:

31 K-A:  ἀφ’ οὗ κωμῳδικὸν μορμολυκεῖον ἔγνων,
“Ever since I knew the comedic mormolukeion…”

130 K-A:  {A} τίς ἂν φράσειε ποῦ ’στι τὸ Διονύσιον;
{Β} ὅπου τὰ μορμολυκεῖα προσκρέμαται, γύναι,
“{A} Who can tell me where the precinct of Dionysus is?
{B} Where the mormolukeia are hung-up, woman.”

I argue that Aristophanes’ peculiar and potentially novel word-choice, akin to English “boogey-face”, had generic and aesthetic implications, anticipating Aristotle’s treatment of the comedic mask as a material emblem of its genre (Arist. Poet. 1449a32-7). A face that frightens children, but is recognized by adults to be fictitious and harmless, accords well with what Aristotle considered to be the “painlessly” ugly and distorted (aischron ti kai diestrammenon… aneu odunēs) aesthetics of Old Comedy. Dramatic masks were portable, physical, and non-ephemeral items of theater which, when part of a winning production, were publically dedicated in the Dionysion.  I therefore further suggest that verbal reference to dramatic masks served a complex function: reminding audiences of Aristophanes’ competitive ambitions, situating his stagecraft within an enduring material archive, and recognizing costumes’ role in promoting Old Comedy to those who had ready access to neither performance nor script——adolescent boys in particular.

Scholarship on the mormolukeia fragments has not adequately situated the masks within their generic or aesthetic contexts. Green first connected the victorious dedication of theatrical skeuē (cf. Lys. 21.4) to visual depictions of hung dramatic masks, but made no distinction between tragic and comic types nor drew any connection to these relevant Aristophanic fragments. Patera has studied the cultural associations of Mormo/mormolukeia, but only cursorily addresses theatrical realia. Recently, Rusten has linked fragments 31 and 130 K-A to victorious dedication, but does not attempt to explain why Aristophanes would have used the curious term “Mormo-goblin” (Rusten’s translation) to signify theatrical masks. Revermann, however, has posited that ugliness was a generic marker of Old Comedy, and in a similar vein, I argue that a consideration of generic aesthetics and audience offers a compelling account of why “boogey-face” is an appropriate term for the mask.

Mormolukeion’ was a rare word in fifth- and fourth-century Greek, securely attested only four times (beyond 30 and 130 K-A, the word signifies an “ugly fright” at Pl. Phaed. 77e and Ar. Thesm. 417). Indeed, Aristophanes possibly coined the term, formed on analogy with Gorgo and its derivative gorgoneion. Accordingly, mormolukeion would denote the lupine visage (note morpheme –luk–) of the female spook Mormo, a familiar if variously-defined figure invoked to scare naughty children into good behavior. 

Attic comedy was apparently popular among adolescent boys (Pl. Leg. 658d), a demographic freshly able to appreciate both comic masks and boogey-men for what they really are: fictitious and non-threatening. Interpreting the comic mask as “painlessly” ugly helps resolve the apparent paradox in these Aristophanic fragments, observed by Hedreen, that mormolukeia are “frights” which are not frightening at all. Fragment 31 K-A, thought to be from the parabasis of Amphiaraus, suggests that the Aristophanes’ own youthful fascination with theatrical boogey-faces served as a call to the poetic profession.

More than simple commemorations of victory, masks dedicated in the Dionysion promulgated the aesthetics and cultural importance of Old Comedy beyond its theatrical audiences. Fragment 130 K-A, which locates the Dionysion not by its architecturally prominent theatron but by its mask-covered “hall of fame”, is a testament to the significance of non-ephemeral theatrical artifacts.  References to mormolukeia, voiced by a masked actor standing yards away from these generic emblems and symbols of victory, prompted spectators to consider the fate of the masks worn in the current production.  Publicly displayed, these masks would become lasting markers of poetic success. But when privately stored—relegated to the playwright’s closet like the costumes of the notoriously unsuccessful playwright Euripides in Aristophanes’ Acharnians—these harmless “boogey-faces” were painful reminders of defeat.

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Comedy and Comic Receptions

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