Aristophanes’s The Birds: Welcome to Cuckoonebulopolis!

Something fanciful . . .
A touch of clouds and airy spaciousness
And lightness.

The Birds is an Old Comedy classic by Aristophanes, which according to Wikipedia, was originally performed in 414 BCE at the City Dionysia (major yearly Greek drama festival) where it won second prize.  It’s regarded as a “creative fantasy,” an assessment I agree with.  I think this is the first time I’ve been exposed to an Ancient Greek or Roman work in which the events could not possibly happen in their reality (by which I mean the the existence and meddling of the gods are accepted ideas).

When the play begins, Pisthetaerus and his friend Euelpides are wandering around the outskirts of Athens searching for a new place to live.  They complain of the over legislation in Athens:

A splendid city, Athens, rich and free,
Denying none the right to . . . pay a fine!

They decide to talk to the Hoopoe, who is really Tereus (a real jerk and an ex-Thracian king who I had to refresh my memory about by reading the section on him in Ovid’s Metamorphoses).  Basically, Tereus was transformed into a Hoopoe, a really gorgeous bird, and now lives among the other birds, teaching them English in his spare time.  In Aristophanes’s version of events, the transformation didn’t go so well and leaves the Hoopoe comically missing feathers, for which he gives the excuse of birds molting in winter.

The “happy idea,” a requirement in Greek Old Comedy, occurs when Pisthetaerus decides that the birds should build a city in the sky (“Unite, and form a bird metropolis”), called Cuckoonebulopolis (or Cloud Cuckoo Land, don’t you want to go?), which would make birds the kings of everyone, including the gods.  However, getting a meeting with the birds proves difficult, as the birds are mistrustful and hostile towards humans, causing the men to defend themselves against the bird attacks with kitchen utensils.  But once the birds listen to the men, they agree to the plan, and construction of the city in the sky is completed quickly.

There’s a lot of comedy involving various characters that attempt to take a stake in the new city or to profit from it, including a surveyor, an inspector, a statute salesman, and a lawyer (shyster lawyer jokes have apparently been around since Ancient Greece).

The vase above is thought to be depicting a scene from the play.  I’m glad to have found it, since the Chorus is composed entirely of birds (from flamingos to owls), and I was curious about their costuming for much of the play.

I read the R. H. web translation.

I read this for The Ancient Greek Classics Circuit, touring now.  Other stops today include A Striped Armchair and Cousins Read.

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5 Responses to Aristophanes’s The Birds: Welcome to Cuckoonebulopolis!

  1. Nancy C says:

    I’ve only read Aristophanes’ The Clouds, which also has a “happy idea” but deals more with the sophists. This sounds like a great read. I will certainly get myself a copy.

  2. rebeccareid says:

    Good question on the costumes! Sounds like another great play. I really need to read Aristophanes, sounds so funny.

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