There is something puzzling about Cloudcuckooland’s triumph over Olympus in Aristophanes’ Birds. At a critical moment, Heracles agrees to surrender his father Zeus’ heavenly kingdom after he is reminded that, as a bastard, he himself could not hope to inherit it (1646ff). Curiously, nobody points out that Zeus’ immortality would have rendered squabbles over legitimacy and inheritance utterly moot. Nor was this the only time Aristophanes joked about immortal gods as paradoxically immortal or as otherwise just like humans: compare especially the treatment of Dionysus in the Frogs (e.g., 122ff, 588, 633ff) or of Hermes in the Wealth (1102ff). This tendency, as scholars have realized, springs from a “lively folk religiosity” central to Greek polytheism which assumed an intimate and (to modern eyes) almost presumptuous intimacy between humans and their gods (Konstantakos 2015: 160; cf. Dover 1972, 31-33; Parker 2005, 147-52; Scullion 2015). Already in the earliest days of Greek literature, Homer viewed the gods as potential objects of good-natured ridicule (e.g., Od. 8.266ff), and on several occasions he even saddled them with decidedly ungodly near-death experiences (Il. 1.593, 5.388-91, 5.395-402, 5.899-901).
Not only, then, did the Greek gods know “how to take a joke” (Ehrenberg 1943: 193), but there was nothing unusual about overemphasizing or exaggerating their anthropomorphism. This is not to deny that Heracles’ anxiety over an irrelevant inheritance possesses an essentially humorous quality, which need not be based on any meaning beyond nonsense (cf. Kidd 2014). In this case, however, that nonsense was sanctioned by state religion, not to mention by Homer. But we can further illuminate the aggressively anthropomorphic and faux-mortal gods of Aristophanes, I think, by defining them in opposition to the gods of Euripides, who are unfailingly immortal yet regarded with more suspicion. Indeed, Euripides’ depiction of the divine was a favorite target of Aristophanes’ comic barbs (e.g., Thesm. 449-50). But what exactly was wrong with Euripides’ gods? Over the last few decades, the once-prevalent portrait of Euripides as the atheist of the Athenian stage (no doubt inherited largely from Aristophanes) has been increasingly challenged and reappraised (e.g., Lefkowitz 1987, 1989, 2016; Yunis 1988; Mikalson 1991; Mastronarde 2002; Pucci 2016); but in defending or questioning Euripides’ religiosity, scholars have tended (not without justification) to prioritize the theological issues raised by the tragedies themselves without dwelling on what it was that sparked Aristophanes’ piercing commentary.
In this paper, I argue that Aristophanes explored the rift between Euripides’ undeniably anthropomorphic gods (often exhibited ex machina) and many of his mortal characters’ idealistic, not to say untenable, conception of those gods (e.g., Eur. Ba. 1348; Hipp. 120; Ion 442-43; Her. 1341-46; Tro. 884; fr. 292.7 N). Responding to this tension and conflating it with ideas made fashionable by certain sophists (cf. Xenoph. frr. B11, B15, B23 D-K; Prot. fr. D10 D-K), Aristophanes represented Euripides, much like Socrates, as a worshipper of abstract or nonsensical deities (e.g., Thesm. 14-18, 272-74; Fr. 891-92; cf. Cl. 246ff, 365, 380, 424, 627). Of course, it is impossible for us to draw any conclusions about the dramatists’ own religious views. But whether Aristophanes was inspired by personal devotion or a simple desire to please his audience, it is significant that he preferred the mortal immortals of the “traditional” Homer to the abstract deities often associated (rightly or wrongly) with the “sophistic” Euripides. By depicting the gods as hopelessly human and even (disingenuously) disregarding their immortality, Aristophanes did more than passively echo traditional beliefs about the nature of the gods: he actively reaffirmed them.
Laughing with the Gods: Religion in Greek and Roman Satire Comedy Epigram and other Comedic Genres