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Athens on Mount Olympus: portraying gods in Aristophanes’ Birds

Francesco Morosi

Scuola Normale Superiore

A paradoxical travel to another dimension, Birds is one of Aristophanes’ most enigmatic comedies: it stands out as the only surviving Aristophanic comedy that bears no evident connection with the life of the polis. But this does not mean that in shaping his Cloudcuckooland Aristophanes did not keep Greek reality in mind. Aristophanes’ fantasy world is not pure science-fiction: on the contrary, it is depicted and described through the poetic filter of Greek and Athenian everyday life (for instance, the foundation of Cloudcuckooland is heavily indebted to the Greek colonists’ experience).

In this paper I examine one of these poetic filters, concerning the portrayal of gods. As is well known, gods are a fundamental feature of Birds: in fact, Peisetairos’ plan entails a sacred war against Zeus (Av. 556). But how are gods portrayed in the comedy? Is it possible to find a predominant paradigm in their depiction?

Although they are said to live in the sky (Av. 1234: τοῖς ἐν οὐρανῷ θεοῖς), gods are frequently portrayed as a maritime power throughout the play. When Iris comes on stage, for instance, Peisetairos mistakes her for a πλοῖον (Av. 1203), and all along the dialogue persists in using naval metaphors: at Av. 1214-5 he mentions the fact that she should have been given a seal-stamp (σύμβολον | ἐπέβαλεν), a procedure that is only attested for sea travels (cfr. Aen. Tact. 10.8). At Av. 1256 he threatens to harass her by using a double-entendre based on naval warfare (the ἔμβολος being the ram used for assaulting enemy ships). Later on, Prometheus describes Zeus as responsible for the traffic of offerings through coastal trading-stations (Av. 1523: ἐμπόρια): the exchange of burnt sacrifices is comically depicted as a sea-borne trade, and a ‘geography’ of gods is also provided, according to which the Olympians live by the coast – and therefore control trade routes and markets – and barbarian gods live inland (Av. 1522: ἄνωθεν τῷ Διί). The gods, then, are often seen in Birds as the holders of a maritime power.

Actually, when Birds was first staged, the Greek world knew such a maritime power, that aimed at controlling military and trade routes – Athens. In more than one place Aristophanes suggests a comparison not only between the gods’ realm and a generic naval empire, but between the actual Athenian empire and Zeus’. Firstly, after Iris has stated her name (Av. 1204: Ἶρις ταχεῖα), Peisetairos compares her to two Athenian ships: Πάραλος ἢ Σαλαμινία (those two being the Athenian state triremes, used to carry orders to all the allied poleis in the Aegean). Then, when asked who Basileia is, Prometheus explains that, among many things, she ταμιεύει ... τὰ νεώρια, manages the yards (Av. 1538-40). Commentators have not noticed that Aristophanes is here explicitly mentioning an Athenian public office, the ταμίας εἰς τὰ νεώρια, the treasurer of the yards (Jordan 1975: 57-8). Zeus’ plenipotentiary, then, is depicted as an official in charge of Athenian naval infrastructure. This prepares the audience for the embassy scene, when Aristophanes applies to the gods the Athenian laws on inheritance: Herakles is not entitled to inherit Zeus’ treasures because, unlike his fellow-gods, he was not born from an Athenian mother (Av. 1652: ἐκ ξενῆς γυναῖκος). The gods all come from Athens, and Zeus’ empire is compared to the Athenian. But this comparison has been carefully built by the poet all along the second half of the play, through the combination of metaphors of maritime power with an Athenian setting.

Far from creating a new Athens in Cloudcuckooland, then, Aristophanes is instead offering a comic alternative to it: Peisetairos sacred war against the gods proves to be, through the mirror of poetic metaphor, a war against Athens itself. 

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The Power of Place

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