The Birds

Historical background

When The Birds was performed in 414 BC, Athenians were still optimistic about the future of the Sicilian Expedition,[6] which had set out the year before under the joint command of Alcibiades, who had promoted it enthusiastically, and Athens' most experienced general, Nicias, who had opposed the venture. In spite of this public optimism, there was ongoing controversy in Athens over the mutilation of the hermai, an act of impious vandalism that had cast ominous doubts over the Sicilian Expedition even before the fleet had left port. The vandalism had resulted in a 'witch-hunt' led by religious extremists and endorsed by priests of the Eleusinian Mysteries, leading to the persecution of rationalist thinkers such as Diagoras of Melos.[7] Alcibiades himself was suspected of involvement in anti-religious activities and a state ship 'Salaminia' was sent to Sicily to bring him back to trial. However, he managed to escape from custody and a reward of one talent of gold was subsequently offered by the Athenian authorities to anyone who could claim responsibility for his death.[8] Alcibiades had already been a controversial figure in Athenian politics for some years before then – he had combined with Nicias to bring about the ostracism of the populist leader Hyperbolus. Hyperbolus was a frequent target of satire in Aristophanes' plays, a role previously filled by Cleon, who had died in 422.

Places and people mentioned in The Birds

Aristophanes wrote for the amusement of his fellow citizens and his plays are full of topical references. The following explanation of topical references in The Birds is based on the work of various scholars[2][9][10] (commonplace references to conventional gods are omitted):

  • Libya: A region associated with the seasonal migration of cranes (lines 710, 1136), it allows for a pun on the Greek word libas (anything that drops or trickles) – Euelpides claims to be a Libyan bird on the grounds that he has wet himself with fear (65).
  • Phasis River: Pisthetaerus claims to be a bird from this river because he wets himself with fear (line 68). A popular pun associates Phasian (phasianikos) with informers or sycophants (sycophantikos) – the pun however is developed more explicitly in The Acharnians (Acharnians line 725-6)
  • Phalerum: An old port of Athens, it is a source of sardines (line 76), mentioned also in an earlier play.[11]
  • Salaminia: One of two Athenian ships reserved for state errands, it had recently been sent to Sicily to fetch Alcibiades back to Athens for trial. It is mentioned here as a good reason not to live near the sea (line 147). Iris resembles it and its sister ship Paralos as an errand-runner for the authorities (1204).
  • Lepreus: A town in Elis, it is suggested by The Hoopoe as a good place to start a new life but it is rejected by Euelpides because it puns with leprosy, which reminds him of Melanthius, a poet whose skin was evidently as bad as his verse (line 149).
  • Opuntian Locris: A coastal region of Greece opposite Euboea, it is another destination recommended by The Hoopoe but rejected by Euelpides because 'Opuntian' reminds him of Opuntius, a notorious sycophant with only one eye (line 152).
  • Melos: An island that had rebelled against Athenian control, it had been starved into submission. It is mentioned here as an example of what might be done against the gods (line 186) and also because it is an epithet for Diagoras of Melos (1032), a notorious atheist outlawed from Athens (possibly due to public anger over the mutilation of the hermae). Melos is also mentioned in The Clouds as an epithet for a Diagoras-like figure (Socrates).[12]
  • Cerameicon: Athens' most conspicuous cemetery – Psithetaerus hopes to get a hero's burial there (line 395). It is mentioned also in The Knights and The Frogs.[13]
  • Delphi: The religious centre of Greece, it is referred to by that name (lines 618, 716) and also by its ancient name Pytho (lines 856, 870). Athenians could only reach it through Boeotia, enemy territory (189). There are many references to Delphi/Pytho in Aristophanes' other plays.[14]
  • Marathon: Often associated with Athens' victory against Persia, it also happened to be a prime habitat for birds (line 246). It is mentioned in other plays also.[15]
  • Orneae: A Peloponnesian town, it was destroyed by the Argives at about this time.[16] It is mentioned because it allows for a pun on the Greek word for birds (line 399).
  • Phrygia: A good source of wool (line 493), its people make a poor comparison with Athenians (762, 1244). There are references to it in two other plays.[17]
  • Alimos: A community on the Attic coast, it was the birthplace of the historian Thucydides. Euelpides was on his way there from Athens when he was once mugged (line 496).
  • Egypt: It was once ruled by cuckoos (line 504). It was the home of the pyramid and yet nobody from there helped build the wall in the sky (1133). It is mentioned in other plays also.[18]
  • Phoenicia: This was another ancient land formerly ruled by cuckoos (line 504).
  • Babylon: Its famous walls resemble those of Cloudcuckooland (line 552).
  • Crioa or Krioa: A deme within the Antiochides tribe, it is the nominal home of Euelpides (line 645).
  • Dodona: An ancient, oracular shrine in the north west of Greece, its role is now performed by the birds (line 716).
  • Hebrus: A large river north of Greece favoured by swans (line 774).
  • Sparta: Home town of the enemy, it is also the name for common rope used as webbing for beds. Euelpides thinks it might be a good name for the new city-in-the-sky but Pisthetaerus would never sleep comfortably under that name (line 815). More commonly known as Lacedaimon, Sparta is the model of a xenophobic town (1012).
  • Phlegra: A plain where the Olympian gods outboasted the giants (line 824).
  • Pelasgicon: The northern side of the Athenian acropolis, its equivalent in Cloudcuckooland is called Pelargikonof the stork (line 832).
  • Sounion: A promontory identified with Poseidon Souniaratos (Invoked at Sounion), it is now to be identified with the hawk – Sounierax (line 868). The epithet Souniaratos appears also in The Knights.[19]
  • Ortygia: An island identified with Leto Ortygometra (Mother of Quail Island), it is now to be identified with the quail though by the same epithet Ortygometra (line 870).
  • Aetna: A Sicilian city founded by the Greek tyrant Hieron I, it is fancifully mentioned by the young poet (line 926) while he addresses Pisthetaerus in the manner of the illustrious bard Pindar addressing Hieron (Pindar fragment 94).
  • Corinth and Sicyon: Neighbouring towns in the northern Peloponnese, they are used metaphorically in a prophecy quoted by the oracle monger to define an intermediate space inhabited by dogs and crows i.e. Cloudcuckooland (line 968).
  • Colonus: A deme within the Aegides tribe, close to Athens – the mathematician Meton had recently designed an aqueduct there.
  • Olophyxia: A remote town in the troubled north-east of Greece, near Mount Athos, it is the very model of a well-regulated town (line 1041).
  • Laurium: A mining district near Athens, famous for its silver – owls from there (i.e. Athenian coins) will flock to the festival judges who award victory to The Birds (line 1106).
  • Alpheus: A river associated with Olympia, home of The Olympic Games – a breathless, gasping runner is said to be breathing it (line 1121).
  • Thrace: A north-eastern frontier and often a battleground during the Peloponnesian War, it is where the rebellious youth is sent to act out his violent instincts (line 1369). It is mentioned in other plays.[20]
  • Pellene: A village in the northern Peloponnese where a woollen cloak was awarded to winners in local games.[21] It is mentioned also in Lysistrata.[22]
  • Corcyra: A supply port for the Sicilian Expedition, it is mentioned here as a source of good cords for whips – the only 'wings' that Psithetaerus will give the sycophant (line 1463).
  • Medes: Brothers of the Persians, one might be expected to arrive on a camel – even if he happened to be a bird (line 277). There are several references to them in the other plays.[23]
  • Carians: Inhabiting the eastern shores of the Aegean, they are known for their involvement with crests – they invented the helmet crest and they lived on hill crests (line 292) – see also Herodotus.[24] An Athenian named Execestides is mentioned twice on account of his Carian origins (765, 1527). There are references to Carians in two other plays.[25]
  • Persians: A delegate from Persia, Pharnaces, is scheduled to appear at the ecclesia – an opportunity for corrupt Athenian officials (line 1030). Other references to Persians are in terms of the cock, a Persian bird (lines 485, 707) that predated Darius and Megabazus (484) as lord of Persia. Persians are mentioned in other plays too.[26]
  • Chians: Staunch allies of the Athenians, they merit a mention in prayers (line 879). There are references to them in other plays also.[27]
  • Scythians: A warlike and savage people – an effete Athenian, Straton, is imagined wandering in their midst (941). Scythians feature in the role of archers (Athenian equivalent of policemen) in three plays.[28]
  • Thales: One of the sages of ancient Greece, he is a benchmark for other mathematically minded intellectuals (line 1009).
  • Sardanapalus: An Assyrian king, he is the benchmark for other extravagant and self-indulgent imperialists (line 1021).
  • Lydians: Formerly an imperial power, they and their neighbours the Phrygians are now such timid folk that even the rainbow goddess Iris could intimidate them (line 1244). The Lydians are mentioned also in The Clouds.[29]
  • Illyrians: A barbarous people remarkable for the savagery of their warcries – barbarian gods sound like them when attacking Zeus (line 1521).
  • Triballians: A people inhabiting the Thracian frontier – one of their gods is in the delegation to Cloudcuckooland.
Poets, artists and intellectuals
  • Acestor Sacas: A foreign-born tragic poet – he is drawn to Athens just as Pisthetaerus is repelled by it (line 31). He is mentioned also in The Wasps.[30]
  • Sophocles: A renowned tragic poet, he wrote a play Tereus that is the basis for The Hoopoe's unfortunate appearance (line 100). He receives mentions in other plays also.[31]
  • Melanthius: A rather tragic tragic poet – mocked here for his leprous-like skin (line 151) and in Peace for his gluttony and lack of talent.[32]
  • Philocles: A nephew of the great tragedian, Aeschylus, he wrote a play about Tereus that was a feeble descendant of the Tereus written by Sophocles and he is nicknamed 'Lark' (lines 281, 1295). He is mocked in another two plays.[33]
  • Aesop: The legendary author of fables – the birds are ignorant because they have never read him (line 471) and he is the author of a cautionary tale about the eagle and the fox (651). There are references to him in The Wasps and Peace.[34]
  • Homer: The great Bard – he is indirectly quoted describing Hera (Iris) as a timid dove (line 575) and poets as servants of the Muses (910). He is referred to by name in three other plays.[35]
  • Prodicus: A philosopher and pundit, his knowledge is not respected by the birds (line 692). He is named also in The Clouds.[36]
  • Phrynichus (tragic poet): A respected tragic poet, he collected songs from the woodland Muse like a bee (line 749). He is mentioned in other plays.[37]
  • Aeschylus: A renowned tragic poet, he is named by Pisthetaerus as the author of a verse about heroes being shot with their own arrows/feathers (line 808) – the verse was borrowed from the now lost play Myrmidons.[38] Moreover a description of the nightingale (677) and Iris's threats of divine wrath (1240) are borrowed from Agamemnon[39] and Pisthetaerus' counter-threat to burn down Zeus's house (1246–7) appears to have been borrowed from Niobe.[9]
  • Chairis: A musician ridiculed in two other plays as a source of unwelcome noise,[40] he adds to the cacophony of the birds in this play (line 857).
  • Simonides: A respected poet, he is a role-model for the opportunistic young versifier who hopes to be hired by Cloudcuckooland (line 919). Simonides is accused of greediness in Peace[41] and he is twice mentioned in The Clouds.
  • Pindar: A renowned poet, he is referred to by name (line 939) and his elevated style is plagiarized by the young versifier (see remarks for Hieron I above). Some of his verses are also quoted in The Knights and The Clouds.[42]
  • Euripides: A controversial tragic poet, he is lampooned in all Aristophanes' plays and he even features as a character in three of them (The Acharnians, Thesmophoriazusae and The Frogs). There is no direct mention of him in this play but there are quotations from some of his plays: a derogatory reference to Lydians and Phrygians (line 1244) is from Alcestis[43] and a Choral injunction to make way for the hero (1720) is from The Trojan Women.[44]
  • Socrates: A famously quixotic philosopher, he was the role model for a generation of hungry, unkempt men until Pisthetaerus inspired new hope (line 1282). He is said to be an unwashed guide to the Underworld and a neighbour of the weird Shadow Foot people (Skiapodes line 1555). He appears as a character in The Clouds and he is mentioned again in The Frogs.[45]
  • Chaerephon: A loyal disciple of Socrates, he is a bat from hell in this play (lines 1296 and 1564). He is mentioned several times in The Clouds[46] and a couple of times in The Wasps.[47]
  • Cinesias: An innovative poet, he was often ridiculed by comic poets. He is a ridiculous, minor character in this play, where he is presented as a hyperbolical rhapsodist. He receives other mentions in The Frogs and Ecclesiaszusae.[48]
  • Gorgias: A renowned orator from Sicily – he and his student (or son) Philippus are barbarous monstrosities disfigured by their versatile tongues (line 1701). Both orators are mention also in The Wasps.[49]
Athenian politicians and generals
  • Aristocrates, son of Scellias: A political and military figure, his name allows for a pun on aristocracy – he is despised by Euelpides.
  • Nicias: One of the leading generals in Athens, recently entrusted with command of the Sicilian Expedition – he is a benchmark for clever soldiering (line 363) and for procrastination (640). He plays a minor role as a slave in The Knights and he is also mentioned by name in that play.[50]
  • Lusicrates: A snub-nosed official, notorious for taking bribes (line 513). He is possibly the same Lusicrates mentioned in Ecclesiazusae.[51]
  • Diitrephes: One of two cavalry commanders at that time, he was also a manufacturer of wicker jackets for wine jars, with handles known as 'wings' – these wings have helped him to rise to positions of authority (798) and he inspires youths to join the cavalry (1442).
  • Theogenes: A prominent politician, formerly a colleague of Cleon in a fact-finding mission to Pylos and one of seventeen Athenians pledged to observe the Peace of Nicias, it is possible that he was also influential three years later in the Oligarchic Coup of 411 BC and in the Tyranny of The Thirty.[52] He is ridiculed here as a braggart (lines 822, 1127, 1295). He is mentioned in another three plays.[53]
  • Aeschines: Possibly an influential figure many years later in Tyranny of The Thirty, he is here ridiculed as a braggart (line 823). He is mentioned also in The Wasps.[54]
  • Teleas: An influential politician – he is someone who doesn't like flighty types of people (line 168) and he is said to have been the man responsible for sending the inspector to Cloudcuckooland (1025)
  • Peisander: Represented as a ghastly soldier in Peace[55] and a corrupt rabble-rouser in Lysistrata,[56] he is mentioned here as a soul-less, blood-thirsty Odysseus-like figure (line 1556).
  • Laespodias: Another general, he was notable for a deformity of his legs, though he tried to hide it under his cloak (line 1569).
Athenian personalities
  • Philocrates: A prominent figure in the bird market (lines 14, 1077).
  • Callias: A spendthrift, he had squandered his inheritance paying off sycophants and loose women – he resembles a bird moulting (lines 283-4). He is mentioned again in two later plays.[57]
  • Cleonymus: Constantly the butt of Aristophanic jokes for gluttony and cowardice,[58] he is compared here with a 'Gobbler' bird that has a crest (line 289) and to a tree that drops leaves like shields (1475).
  • Orestes: Identified as a drunken and violent loiterer in The Acharnians,[59] he has since then added clothes-stealing to his bag of tricks (lines 712, 1490)
  • Cleisthenes: A frequent target for jokes on account of his conspicuous effeminacy,[60] he appears as a minor character in The Acharnians and in Thesmophoriazusae. He is a good reason why a virago like Athena should not be patron goddess of Cloudcuckooland i.e. one gender-bender is enough (line 831).
  • Straton: Yet another effete Athenian mentioned in other plays,[61] he is imagined suffering privations among savage Scythians (line 942).
  • Proxenides: Another braggart like Theogenes (see above) – the walls of Cloudcuckooland are so broad that they could ride past each other on large chariots (line 1126). Proxenides is mentioned earlier in The Wasps.[62]
  • Athenians who resemble birds: Tharreleides: jackdaw (line 17); Sporgilus the barber: sparrow (300); Spintharus, Athenian of Phrygian descent: finch (762); Son of Peisias, a traitor: partridge (766); Menippus: swallow; Lycurgus: ibis; Syracosius: jay; Meidias: quail Cleocritus, mentioned also in The Frogs:[63] ostrich.
  • Extras: Patrocleides: known for an act of incontinence (790); Leotrophides: a client worthy of the poet Cinesias (1406).
Historic, religious and mythical figures
  • Cranaus: A mythological king of Athens, his name is used as an epithet for Athenians (line 123). There are similar mentions in two other plays.[64]
  • Itys: The tragically short-lived son of Tereus and Procne, his name is used by the hoopoe when summoning the nightingale (line 212).
  • Agamemnon, Menelaus, Priam: Legendary kings of Greece and Troy – birds were prominently featured on their royal insignia (lines 509,512). Only Menelaus is named in other plays.[65]
  • Cebriones, Porphyrion: Two of the giants who featured in the Gigantomachy, they are emblematic of the birds' revolt against the Olympian order (lines 553, 1249–52)
  • Alcmene, Semele, Alope: Nymphs who were visited by the Olympian gods, they are typical of the old days when the Olympians had free passage through the skies (lines 558-9). Alcmene is mentioned also in The Frogs, Semele in Thesmophoriazusae.[66]
  • Erebus, Tartarus, Eros: Foundational material for genealogies such as Hesiod's Theogony, they are here revealed to be close relatives of the birds. Erebus (lines 691, 1194) isn't mentioned in other plays. Tartarus (693, 698) is mentioned in The Clouds,[67] and Eros (700, 1737) in two other plays.[68]
  • Colainis: An epithet for Artemis – it allows for a weak pun with acalanthis, the Attic word for goldfinch (lines 875).
  • Sabazius: A Phrygian god – his ethnic origin allows for a pun with phrygilos, the Attic word for finch (line 876). He is named in two other plays.[69]
  • Cybele: Known also as the 'mountain mother' (line 746), she is here identified with the ostrich and subsequently invoked as mother of the ostrich-like Cleocritus (877).
  • Bacis: A legendary soothsayer – his oracles are lampooned in this play (lines 962, 970) and in other plays.[70]
  • Pandora: The mythical source of mankind's misfortunes, she is to be placated with the sacrifice of a white ram on the authority of Bacis (line 971).
  • Diopeithes: A contemporary Athenian soothsayer and religious fanatic mentioned in other plays,[71] he is mentioned here along with the like-minded Lampon (line 988). Lampon is mentioned also as somebody who swears 'by the goose' (521).
  • Alexander: The legendary prince of Troy – the festival judges can expect better gifts than he ever got if they award first place to The Birds (line 1104).
  • Timon: The legendary misanthrope – what he was to the Athenians, Prometheus is to the Olympians (line 1549). He is mentioned also in Lysistrata.[72]
  • Odysseus: The hero of Homer's epic, named in three other plays[73] – he is presented here as a benchmark for spooky bloodlust (line 1561).
  • Solon: The founding father of Athenian democracy – his laws even govern the behaviour of the gods (line 1660).

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