The Birds (play)

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The Birds
Rider BM B1.jpg
Rider and birds Laconian calyx c. 540 B.C.
The Dramatis Personae in ancient comedy depends on interpretation of textual evidence. [1] This list is developed from D.Barrett's translation. [2]
Written by Aristophanes
ChorusBirds: partridge, francolin, mallard, kingfisher, sparrow, owl, jay, turtledove, crested lark, reed warbler, wheatear, pigeon, merlin, sparrowhawk, ringdove, cuckoo, stock dove, firecrest, rail, kestrel, dabchick, waxwing, vulture, woodpecker
  • Pisthetaerus citizen of Athens
  • Euelpides citizen of Athens
  • The Footbird servant to the Hoopoe
  • Hoopoe formerly Tereus, an Athenian prince
  • A priest (masked as a bird)
  • A ragged poet
  • An oracle man
  • Meton famous mathematician
  • A statute seller
  • An inspector
  • 1st messenger (a bird)
  • 2nd messenger (a bird)
  • Iris daughter of Zeus
  • 3rd messenger (a bird)
  • A rebellious youth
  • Cinesias famous poet
  • An informer
  • Prometheus titan and friend to Man
  • Poseidon god of the sea
  • Heracles divine protector of mankind
  • God of the Triballians
  • Heavenly herald
  • Xanthias slave to Pisthetaerus

Silent roles

  • Manes slave to Pisthetaerus
  • Bird dancers (flamingo, cock, 2nd Hoopoe, Gobbler)
  • Nightingale formerly Procne (flute player)
  • Raven piper
  • Sovereignty beauteous maid
  • Attendants as required
SettingA hillside wilderness outside the Hoopoe's nest

The Birds (Greek : Ὄρνιθες, translit.  Órnithes) is a comedy by the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. It was performed in 414 BC at the City Dionysia in Athens where it won second place. It has been acclaimed by modern critics as a perfectly realized fantasy [3] remarkable for its mimicry of birds and for the gaiety of its songs. [4] Unlike the author's other early plays, it includes no direct mention of the Peloponnesian War and there are few references to Athenian politics, and yet it was staged not long after the commencement of the Sicilian Expedition, an ambitious military campaign that greatly increased Athenian commitment to the war effort. In spite of that, the play has many indirect references to Athenian political and social life. It is the longest of Aristophanes' surviving plays and yet it is a fairly conventional example of Old Comedy.


The plot of the play revolves around Pisthetaerus, an Athenian who convinces the birds to create a great city in the sky, and thus regain their status as the original gods. Pisthetaerus eventually transforms into a bird-like god himself, and replaces Zeus as the king of the gods.


The play begins with two middle-aged men stumbling across a hillside wilderness, guided by a pet crow and a pet jackdaw. One of them advises the audience that they are fed up with life in Athens, where people do nothing all day but argue over laws, and they are looking for Tereus, a king who was once metamorphosed into the Hoopoe, for they believe he might help them find a better life somewhere else. Just then, a very large and fearsome bird emerges from a camouflaged bower, demanding to know what they are up to and accusing them of being bird-catchers. He turns out to be the Hoopoe's servant. They appease him and he returns indoors to fetch his master. Moments later the Hoopoe himself appears—a not very convincing bird who attributes his lack of feathers to a severe case of moulting. He is happy to discuss their plight with them and meanwhile one of them has a brilliant idea—the birds, he says, should stop flying about like idiots and instead should build themselves a great city in the sky, since this would not only allow them to lord it over men, it would also enable them to blockade the Olympian gods in the same way that the Athenians had recently starved the island of Melos into submission. The Hoopoe likes the idea and he agrees to help implement it, provided of course that the two Athenians can first convince all the other birds. He calls to his wife, the Nightingale, and bids her to begin her celestial music. The notes of an unseen flute swell through the theatre and meanwhile the Hoopoe provides the lyrics, summoning the birds of the world from their different habitats—birds of the fields, mountain birds and birds of the trees, birds of the waterways, marshes and seas. These soon begin to appear and each of them is identified by name on arrival. Four of them dance together while the rest form into a Chorus.

On discovering the presence of men, the newly arrived birds fly into a fit of alarm and outrage, for mankind has long been their enemy. A skirmish follows, during which the Athenians defend themselves with kitchen utensils they find outside the Hoopoe's bower, until the Hoopoe at last manages to persuade the Chorus to give his human guests a fair hearing. The cleverer of the two Athenians, the author of the brilliant idea, then delivers a formal speech, advising the birds that they were the original gods and urging them to regain their lost powers and privileges from the johnny-come-lately Olympians. The birds are completely won over and urge the Athenians to lead them in their war against the usurping gods. The clever one then introduces himself as Pisthetaerus (Trustyfriend) and his companion is introduced as Euelpides (Goodhope). They retire to the Hoopoe's bower to chew on a magical root that will transform them into birds. Meanwhile, the Nightingale emerges from her hiding place and reveals herself as an enchantingly feminine figure. She presides over the Chorus of birds while they address the audience in a conventional parabasis:

Hear us, you who are no more than leaves always falling, you mortals benighted by nature,
You enfeebled and powerless creatures of earth always haunting a world of mere shadows,
Entities without wings, insubstantial as dreams, you ephemeral things, you human beings:
Turn your minds to our words, our etherial words, for the words of the birds last forever! [5]

The Chorus delivers a brief account of the genealogy of the gods, claiming that the birds are children of Eros and grandchildren of Night and Erebus, thus establishing their claim to divinity ahead of the Olympians. It cites some of the benefits the audience derives from birds (such as early warnings of a change in seasons) and it invites the audience to join them since birds easily manage to do things mere men are afraid to do (such as beating up their fathers and committing adultery).

Pisthetaerus and Euelpides emerge from the Hoopoe's bower laughing at each other's unconvincing resemblance to a bird. After discussion, they name the city-in-the-sky Nephelokokkygia, or literally "cloud-cuckoo-land" (Νεφελοκοκκυγία), and then Pisthetaerus begins to take charge of things, ordering his friend to oversee the building of the city walls while he organizes and leads a religious service in honour of birds as the new gods. During this service, he is pestered by a variety of unwelcome visitors including a young versifier out to hire himself to the new city as its official poet, an oracle-monger with prophecies for sale, a famous geometer, Meton, offering a set of town-plans, an imperial inspector from Athens with an eye for a quick profit, and a statute-seller trying to peddle a set of laws originally written for a remote, barely-heard-of town called Olophyx. Pisthetaerus chases off all these intruders and then retires indoors to finish the religious service. The birds of the Chorus step forward for another parabasis. They promulgate laws forbidding crimes against their kind (such as catching, caging, stuffing, or eating them) and they end by advising the festival judges to award them first place or risk getting defecated on.

Pisthetaerus returns to the stage moments before a messenger arrives with a report on the construction of the new walls: they are already finished thanks to the collaborative efforts of numerous kinds of birds. A second messenger then arrives with news that one of the Olympian gods has sneaked through the defenses. A hunt is organized, the goddess Iris is detected and cornered and soon she wafts down under guard. After being interrogated and insulted by Pisthetaerus, she is allowed to fly off to her father Zeus to complain about her treatment. Hardly has she gone when a third messenger arrives, declaring that men in their multitudes are now flocking to join the new city-in-the-sky. Another set of unwelcome visitors arrives as advertised, singing due to the inspiration of the new city. One is a rebellious youth who exults in the notion that here at last he has permission to beat up his father. The famous poet, Cinesias, is next, waxing incoherently lyrical as the poetic mood takes hold of him. Third is a sycophant in raptures at the thought of prosecuting victims on the wing. All of them are sent packing by the Pisthetaerus. Prometheus arrives next, sheltering under a parasol because he is an enemy of Zeus and he is trying not to be seen from the heavens. He has come with advice for Pisthetaerus: the Olympians are starving because men's offerings no longer reach them; they are desperate for a peace treaty but Pisthetaerus shouldn't negotiate with them until Zeus surrenders both his sceptre and his girlfriend, Sovereignty—she is the real power in Zeus's household. His mission accomplished, Prometheus departs just moments before a delegation from Zeus arrives. There are only three delegates: the brother of Zeus, Poseidon, the oafish Heracles and some even more oafish god worshipped by barbarians called Triballians. Pisthetaerus easily outwits Heracles, who in turn bullies the barbarian god into submission, and Poseidon is thus outvoted – the delegation accepts Pisthetaerus's terms. He is proclaimed king by a heavenly herald and he is presented with Zeus's sceptre by Sovereignty, a vision of loveliness. The festive gathering departs amid the strains of the wedding march: Hymen O Hymenai'O! Hymen O Hymenai'O!

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): Places


The Shadow Foots (Skiapodes): a mythical people, they are mentioned in The Birds only as the neighbours of a spooky Socrates (line 1553) Nuremberg chronicles - Strange People - Umbrella Foot (XIIr).jpg
The Shadow Foots (Skiapodes): a mythical people, they are mentioned in The Birds only as the neighbours of a spooky Socrates (line 1553)

Poets, artists and intellectuals

Athenian politicians and generals

Athenian personalities

Historic, religious and mythical figures


It has been argued that The Birds has suffered more than any other Aristophanic play from over-interpretation by scholars. [74] Political allegory featured prominently in 19th century interpretations: Cloudcuckooland could be identified with the Sicilian Expedition as an over-ambitious scheme, Athenians could then be identified with the birds, and their enemies with the Olympian gods. The 20th century has also come up with allegorical interpretations—for example, Pisthetaerus has been interpreted as a metaphor for Alcibiades. [75] Cloudcuckooland has been understood by some scholars as a comic representation of an ideal polis and it has also been understood as a cautionary example of a polis gone wrong; according to yet another view, however, the play is nothing more than escapist entertainment. [76]

The friendship between Pisthetaerus and Euelpides is realistically portrayed in spite of the unreality of their adventure. The keynote of their friendship is good-humoured teasing of each other for one another's failings (e.g. lines 54–5, 86–91, 336–42) and the proof of their friendship is the ease with which they work together in difficult situations, largely due to Euelpides' willingness to concede the initiative and leadership to Pisthetaerus. The father-son relationship between Philocleon and Bdelycleon in The Wasps and the husband-wife relationship between Cinesias and Myrrine in Lysistrata are other examples of Aristophanes' ability to depict humanity convincingly in the most unconvincing settings imaginable.

Toynbee, in his Study of History , argues for a link between The Birds and the New Testament, pointing out significant examples of correspondence:

He believes that the New Testament was influenced by a literary tradition that began with Aristophanes. The major difference is that Aristophanes presents these ideas as comic fantasy, while the New Testament treats them as profoundly serious revelation. [77]

The Birds and Old Comedy

The Birds resembles all the early plays of Aristophanes in key aspects of its dramatic structure. Such resemblances are evidence of a genre of ancient drama known as Old Comedy. Variations from these 'conventions' are significant since they demonstrate either a trend away from Old Comedy, a corruption in the text or a unique dramatic effect that the author intended. Variations in this play are found in the following conventions:



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  1. Aristophanes:Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds Alan Sommerstein, Penguin Classics 1973, page 37
  2. 1 2 Aristophanes:The Birds and Other Plays D.Barrett and A.Sommerstein, Penguin Classics 1978
  3. Aristophanes: The Birds and Other Plays D.Barrett and A.Sommerstein, Penguin Classics 1978, page 149
  4. Greek Drama Peter Levi in 'The Oxford History of the Classical World' J.Boardman, J.Griffin and O.Murray (eds), Oxford University Press 1986, page 178
  5. The Birds lines 685–688
  6. Barrett, D.; Sommerstein, A., eds. (1978). Aristophanes: The Birds and Other Plays. Penguin Classics. p. 149.
  7. Janko, Richard (2006). "Socrates the Freethinker". In Ahbel-Rappe, Sara; Kamtekar, Rachana (eds.). A Companion to Socrates. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 54–55.
  8. The Peloponnesian War D.Kegan, Viking Penguin 2003, page 273
  9. 1 2 Hickie, William James, ed. (1853). Comedies of Aristophanes Vol. I. G. Bell.
  10. Aristophanis Comoediae Tomus II F.W.Hall and W.M.Geldart, Oxford University Press 1907, Index Nominum
  11. Acharnians line 901
  12. Clouds 830; Aristophanes: Clouds K.Dover, Oxford University Press 1970, note 830 page 145
  13. Knights 772; Frogs 129
  14. Pytho: Knights 220, 1229, 1273; Wasps 869; Thesmophoriazusae 332, 333; Lysistrata 1131; Frogs 659; Wealth II 213; Delphi: clouds 605; wasps 159, 1446
  15. Acharnians 697,698; Knights 781, 1334; Wasps 711; Thesmophoriazusae 806; Frogs 1296
  16. Thucydides VI.7
  17. Wasps 411; Thesmophoriazusae 121
  18. Peace 1253; Clouds 1130; Thesmophoriazusae 856, 878; Frogs 1206, 1406; Wealth II 178
  19. Knights 560
  20. Acharnians 136, 138, 602; Wasps 288; Peace 283; Lysistrata 103
  21. The Odes of Pindar G.S.Conway, J.M.Dent and Sons LTD (London 1972), page 57 note on Olympian IX
  22. Lysistrata 996
  23. Knights 478, 781; Wasps 12, 1097; Peace 108; Lysistrata 1253; Thesmophoriazusae 337, 365
  24. Herodotus I.171
  25. Knights 173; Frogs 1302
  26. Clouds 151; Thesmophoriazusae 734, 1175; Lysistrata 229, 1261; Ecclesiazusae 319
  27. Peace 171, 835; Frogs 970; Ecclesiazusae 1139
  28. Acharnians 704; Lysistrata 451; Thesmophoriazusae 1001
  29. Clouds 600
  30. The Wasps 1221
  31. Peace 531, 695, 697; Frogs 76, 79, 787, 1516
  32. Peace 802, 1009
  33. Wasps 462; Thesmophoriazusae 168
  34. Wasps 566, 1259, 1401, 1446; Peace 129
  35. Clouds 1056; Peace 1089, 1096; Frogs 1034
  36. The Clouds 361
  37. Wasps 220, 269, 1490, 1524; Thesmophoriazusae 164; Frogs 910, 1299
  38. frag. 123 Dindorf
  39. Agamemnon 1111 and 526
  40. Acharnians 16; Peace 951
  41. Peace 697
  42. Knights 1263, 1329; Clouds 597
  43. Alcestis line 675
  44. Trojan Women 302
  45. Frogs 1491
  46. Clouds 104, 144, 146, 156, 503, 831, 1465
  47. Wasps 1408, 1412
  48. Frogs 153, 1437; Ecclesiazusae 330
  49. Wasps 421
  50. Knights 358
  51. Ecclesiazusae 630, 736
  52. Aristophanes: Wasps D. MacDowell, Oxford University Press 1971, page 283 note 1183
  53. Wasps 1183; Peace 928; Lysistrata 63
  54. Wasps lines 459, 1220, 1242
  55. Peace 395
  56. Lysistrata 490
  57. Frogs 432; Ecclesiazusae 810
  58. Acharnians 88, 844; Knights 958, 1294, 1372; Clouds 353, 400, 673–5; Wasps 19, 20, 822; Peace 446, 673, 675, 1295; Thesmophoriazusae 605
  59. Acharnians 1166
  60. Acharnians 118; Knights 1374; Clouds 355; Wasps 1187; Lysistrata 621, 1092; Thesmophoriazusae 235, 634, 763, 929; Frogs 48, 57, 426
  61. Acharnians 122; Knights 1374
  62. The Wasps 325
  63. The Frogs 1437
  64. Acharnians 75; Lysistrata 481
  65. Lysistrata 155; Thesmophoriazusae 867, 901, 910
  66. Frogs 531, 582; Thesmophoriazusae 991
  67. Clouds 192
  68. Acharnians 991; Ecclesiazusae 957, 967
  69. Wasps 9, 10; Lysistrata 388
  70. Knights 123, 1003 sq.; Peace 1070 sq., 1119
  71. Knights 1085; Wasps 380
  72. Lysistrata 809, 812
  73. Wasps 181, 351; Peace 395; Lysistrata 490
  74. MacDowell, D. (1995). Aristophanes and Athens: an introduction to the plays. Oxford University Press. p. 221.
  75. Vickers, M. (1989). "Alcibiades on Stage: Aristophanes' 'Birds'". Historia . 38 (3): 267–299. JSTOR   4436112.
  76. MacDowell, D. (1995). Aristophanes and Athens: an introduction to the plays. Oxford University Press. pp. 221–227.
  77. More information can be found in Annex 1 of V. C I (d) 11, pp. 346 – 364, Volume VI of the unabridged Study of History.
  78. King's College: 1982 Aristophanes – Birds
  79. Shepard, Richard F. (June 2, 1983). "Stage: 'The Birds' by Aristophanes". The New York Times.