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Aristophanic comedy offers fertile ground for exploring the associations of women
with water in classical Athens, for his women—lustful wives, smart meddlers, inveterate
gossipers, confirmed imbibers—have a tendency to lose control of their emotions and
appetites, “a tendency encouraged by [their] wet nature and by the liquid or liquefying
nature of emotions and appetites themselves” (Carson 1990: 156). In this paper we
examine whether the traditional view of Aristophanes’ women as comic confections with
little serious substance holds up to scrutiny. We examine three plays (Knights, Clouds
and Lysistrata) and argue that, in fact, in these comedies the perceived natural connection
of women and water is simultaneously promoted through the performance of particular
tasks and subtly recast in ways that reveal women as astute and serious critics of the
social and political status quo.
One of the most important sites in the Athenian women’s world was the fountain,
where they met to wash, fetch water, and converse and gossip (Cohen 1996; Lewis
2002). In the Knights, produced in 424, we hear of triremes gathered in water, like
gossiping women at the well, a scenario that simultaneously exploits the conventional
association between women and water and twists it to great effect. For, by having them
express opposition to Athens’ imperialistic designs and intimate that they could withhold
their procreative selves from the polis, Aristophanes allows the perspective of Athenian
women to be voiced, and that perspective is integral to the political message the poet
elaborates in the play (Anderson 2003). The triremes’ gossip is not private/familial; it is
public/civic. Tellingly, the only other female figures in that comedy are the mute
Spondai, literally, liquid offerings.
Just like the triremes, in Nephelai the clouds have physical traits of women (341),
they are parthenoi (300), and they sail, if in the sky, to Athens (300). Their association
with drops, moisture, showers, and storms is mentioned throughout the play (264ff., 370,
575ff.), and their ambiguous nature (both nurturing and capable of destruction) is alluded
to in 1115ff. In the second half of the parabasis, they bemoan the lack of honor given to
them, recall their steering the Athenians away from poor political judgment and exhort
the audience to indict Cleon. In other words (and not unlike that which we see in the
gossiping ships of Knights), the clouds, natural instruments of the comic disparagement
of philosophers and astronomers, are also ‘feminine’ elements aware of what is wrong
with current Athenian politics. They are the one female part in a play dominated by
males, and they briefly remark on politics in a drama mostly concerned with men, the
history of ideas, and the clash between old and new.
The relationship of women and water in the Lysistrata (performed in 411) focuses
primarily on the Enneakrounos, a fountain at the foot of Athena’s citadel, where the
chorus of women presumably fetch the water to extinguish the fire set by the old men at
the Acropolis’ gates. The fountain’s waters were used for various religious rituals and for
weddings (328-29), the latter coming into play when the women first threaten to give the
men a “bridal bath”, and then empty their pitchers as they call
on the river Achelous, a metonymy for “water,” especially in ritual contexts (Henderson
1987, ad loc.). By dousing the fires with bridal water, the women turn the water central to
their becoming wives into an instrument of civic safeguard. To be sure, the women’s
invocation to Athena as a fellow firefighter, Tritogeneia (345), a water pun, is precisely
to save her oikos and her city and, by extension, Greece (σῶσαι Ἑλλάδα 525).
Women’s conventional associations with water allow Aristophanes to exploit what
David Cohen calls the “strategic fluidity” of the categories public/male and
private/female (1996: 137), and in Knights, Clouds, and Lysistrata the pairing women/
water guides the playwright’s exploration of the permeability of the additional categories