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The Birds (Ornithes) is a comedy written by the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes in 414 BC, and performed that year for the Festival of Dionysus.

Background

Unlike most of Aristophanes' plays, The Birds doesn't attack any specific person or event. However, it is likely inspired by the failed Athenian invasion of the Greek colonies in Sicily in 415 BC. The Sicilian colonies supported Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, and the failure of the invasion led to Alcibiades being sentenced to death for sacrilege, and his defection to Sparta; however, these events are not specifically parodied in the play.

Plot

Pisthetairos and Euelpides, frustrated with life in wartime Athens, search for Tereus, a king who had been changed into a hoopoe, in the realm of the Birds in the sky. The play begins as they reach the sky; how they get there is not important. After meeting a descendant of Tereus, they convince the birds to help them create Nephelokokkygia (or Nephelococcygia, "Cloudcuckooland", or sometimes "Cuckoonebulopolis"). Pisthetairos and Euelpides are given feathers and wings by the birds, and Pisthetairos quickly takes over the new city as a dictator, after which Euelpides leaves in disgust.

Pisthetairos has the Birds build an enormous wall (600 feet high), and expels every annoying visitor who arrives in the city. Among the various visitors are a poet, singing ancient praises of the newly created city, a lawyer selling all the latest legal documents, and the goddess Iris who flies through the city not knowing that the walls are supposed to stop her. Prometheus also arrives to inform Pisthetairos that the city has become the focus of humanity's worship and sacrifices, which are no longer being received by the gods. A delegation from the gods, led by Poseidon and Heracles, comes to negotiate for the sacrifices, and they eventually allow Pisthetairos to marry Zeus' maid Basileia, who is the true force behind Zeus' control of Heaven. The play ends as Pisthetairos realizes he is the new ruler of the gods.

Pisthetairos is at first an ordinary man with whom the audience can sympathize in his quest for a utopia. However, Cloudcuckooland quickly collapses from egalitarian state to dicatorship as Pisthetairos acquires a fancy for tyranny and hubris. Although Aristophanes was not attacking anyone or anything in particular, his point remains that humans are corrupt and greedy, regardless of where they live.

The parabasis of the play, in which the chorus of Birds talks directly to the audience, takes place after the exit of the lawyer. It involves a discussion of the importance of birds to the universe and the alleged travesties performed on them by humans, including keeping them in cages as pets and cooking them as food. The chorus then promises not to defecate on the audience if they give the play first prize.

The Birds of Aristophanes

Hoopoe (Upupa epops)

Aristotle, History of Animals, Book 9

The hoopoe also changes its colour and appearance, as Aeschylus has represented in the following lines:—

The Hoopoe, witness to his own distress,
Is clad by Zeus in variable dress:-
According to legend, the Greek playwright Aeschylus was killed when a tortoise was dropped on his bald head by a Lammergeier which mistook it for a stone.

Common Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus

A bird that had been associated with Hera on an archaic level, where most of the Aegean goddesses were associated with "their" bird, was the cuckoo, which appears in mythic fragments concerning the first wooing of a virginal Hera by Zeus.

Eurasian Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus

Aristotle, History of Animals book 8: Birds, as a rule, are very spare drinkers. In fact birds of prey never drink at all, excepting a very few, and these drink very rarely; and this last observation is peculiarly applicable to the kestrel. The kite has been seen to drink, but he certainly drinks very seldom.


Nightingale (Aedon) ( Luscinia megarhynchos) In Greek mythology, Aedon, daughter of Pandareus, was the wife of Zethus. The pair had one daughter, Itylus. Aedon accidentally killed her and was stricken with grief and guilt. In pity, the gods turned her into a nightingale, which cries with sadness every night. Alternatively, she was the queen of Thebes, who attempted to kill the son of her rival, Niobe, also her sister-in-law, and accidentally killed her own daughter instead and thus, the gods again changed her into a nightingale.

Text of The Birds


Aristophanes, The Birds and Other Plays : Lysistrata, Wealth, Assembly Women (Penguin Classics) , David Barrett , Alan Sommerstein (Translators) Penguin Classics ISBN: 0140449515

Plays by Aristophanes

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