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Wings or Armor? Costume, Metaphor, and the Limits of Utopia in Aristophanes' Birds

Pavlos Sfyroeras

Middlebury College

What does Peisthetaerus give the Rebellious Youth, the first of three intruders in search of wings? The interpretation of Birds 1360-9 has divided commentators since antiquity: does the youth receive wings to be viewed as weapons or weapons to be viewed as wings? I argue for the latter option: instead of the requested eagle-wings, Peisthetaerus offers military equipment! This is not a trivial question solely about staging, nor can it be addressed separately from the rest of Birds. On the contrary, it is central to the play's reflection on the ontological status of the comic utopia, even on the relationship between language and reality.

Speaking, as Peisthetarus does, of weapons as though they were wings has a long poetic pedigree. Already in Iliad 19.386 Achilles’ divine armor “fits and lifts him like wings” (εὖτε πτερά). Closer to Birds, in Aeschylus’ Myrmidons (fr. 139), Achilles’ well-known proverb, quoted when Peisthetaerus and Euelpides first appear in bird costume (807-10), figures weapons as wings. This earlier anticipation is sealed with πτερῶν πτερῶν δεῖ (1420), built on ὅπλων ὅπλων δεῖ, another phrase from Myrmidons (fr. 140). While the reverse analogy of wings as weapons is also employed in the bird-chorus’ quasi-hoplitic assault (342-50), the sustained allusion to Myrmidons, along with the use of νομίσας and the demonstrative pronouns in 1364-6, points to military gear imagined as bird costume.

Why is this staging crucial for interpreting the play? Like the other two intruders (the dithyrambic poet Kinesias and the Informer) looking for wings, the aspiring patricide also fails to achieve his goal. Instead of wings, all three receive only metaphors, i.e. other objects or concepts metaphorically described as wings. This represents a radical shift in the function of language in Birds that scholars have yet to adequately appreciate. Up until this point, all dramatic action is predicated on literalizing metaphors, on the Cratylean notion that words contain the essence of their referent, hence that they generate their own reality, in this case the reality of the utopian Bird-city. Confronted with the three intruders seeking to share his utopia by obtaining wings, however, Peisthetaerus emphatically refuses to literalize metaphors. This becomes explicitly thematized in the Informer’s case, where pterôsis is achieved through logoi (1437-50), but the process begins with the youth and continues with the poet.

In addition, all three intruders constitute allusions to the Dionysiac festival. The youth, in particular, treated “like an orphan” (1361) and having his patricidal aggression channeled into battle instead (1364-6), evokes the war orphans honored with a hoplite’s armour upon their attaining manhood. The exploration of the function of poetic language is thus folded into a reenactment of aspects of the festival on stage.

To conclude, in this episode towards the end of Birds, where Peisthetaerus grants metaphorical not literal wings, costume emerges as a locus of metatheatrical reflection: it condenses ideas on the generative power of metaphor, the relationship of poetic language to reality, and on the dramatic festival as enabling but also limiting the construction of comic utopias.

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Greek Comedy

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