As you read Aristophanes’ Birds, focus your attention on the new polis that Peisetaerus creates in the clouds (“Cloudcuckooland” or “Nephelokokkygia”). Respond to one of the following prompts below, or to comments from your fellow students. Remember that to receive credit for participating, you must comment at least once before the start of class on Wednesday.
- Is Cloudcuckooland a utopia? A dystopia?
- Why would Athenians fantasize about a tyranny?
- Is the subversion of the gods threatening?
- Is the play straightforward or ironic?
47 thoughts on “Discussion Forum: Week 7”
Peisetaerus is the main character in Birds and is displayed as an outrageous but persuasive character. He leaves home, creates alliances with both humans and birds, becomes a leader of the birds, and attacks different gods. He very quickly becomes the tyrant of the birds after they agreed to be led by him, a position which he was very successful in. The landscape of Athens at the time this play was written was somewhat tumultuous given the commencement of the Sicilian Expedition. I think that Aristophanes is trying to illustrate his belief that tyranny can be successful in ancient Athens. A paper written by Wayne Ambler called The Review of Politics suggests that perhaps Aristophanes is suggesting that while some leadership, such as Cleon, can be cruel and dangerous, a tyrant like Peisetaerus can be competent and effective. I think that this is flawed in that it does not consider Peisetaerus’ interest in supporting his ideals and not those of his subjects.
Aristophanes’ play features a lot of inversions and subversions of traditional thinking: order between humans and animals, societal norms, and religion. The subversion of the Olympian gods in particular likely would have been threatening for the people of Athens who believed in them. Towards the beginning of the play the gods are compared to birds, and Peisetaerus says to sacrifice “a gnat with intact nuts” to Zeus (97). This joke seems to be at the expense of Zeus, and it is a surprisingly bold move to make fun of a figure who was thought to regularly punish people. Other gods are also the targets of Aristophanes’ comedy. Further along in the play, Heracles and Poseidon agree to a treaty with Peisetaerus, giving up their rule in favor of his bird utopia. The utopia itself is so different from the Athenian way of life that it could be construed as threatening, and it being supported by the gods only enhances that.
I agree with a lot of the points that Deklan is making here. Specifically, after reading this comment, I thought of the portrayal of the Goddess Iris within the play. When we see her get caught, trapped, interrogated, and insulted, it is a clear subversion of the traditional worship that we often see on the vase’s and have read about in other works. This treatment of Iris goes hand in hand with the jokes pointed at Zeus and Poseidon. The quote that I wanted to reference in terms of the controversial treatment of a goddess is when Peisetaerus says “you’d be put to death anyway. Look here, we’ll be in a terrible fix, the way I see it, if we’re to be the rulers but you gods intend to misbehave and ignore the fact that it’s now your turn to obey your superiors. So tell me right now where you’re navigating those wings.”
The two main characters are jealous by how the birds live a life of ease while they are living in discomfort. Cloudcuckooland is then built and supposed to serve as a utopia where the main characters would enjoy a great life. I assume Cloudcuckooland represents Sparta or the colonies owned by Sparta. In reality, the Athenians weren’t able to live in Utopia because the Spartans won the Peloponnesian war. As Professor Farmer put it in class, “high risk, high reward,” the Athenians utopia vision failed and shortly after their city was no was taken over.
It’s really hard to tell if this play is straightforward or ironic! Looking at it from the lens of the 21st century gives it a completely different meaning than what might have been originally intended. Reading it now, it definitely seems like it’s ironic, mainly because the reader may have more overarching context than the original audience did. It feels clear that it’s a commentary on the larger structures of Athens and Greece, which might point to it being an irony, or at the very least, a really silly metaphor that can only be taken as ironic. However, the play is filled with little lines that seem like lessons for the audience, little morals that might point to it being a little more straightforward, lines like “A treacherous thing always in every way is human nature” (pg. 79).
I found the part of the play where the gods come down to negotiate with Peisetaerus to be ironic. The city of birds had been preventing the gods from receiving the sacrifices from the people and so the gods had become desperate for food because they were starving. Poseidon and Hercules were the main gods on the “committee” to discuss a way for peace between the two groups so the gods would receive their sacrifices. However, instead of the gods destroying Peisetaerus and the bird city with their powers which they easily could have, they try to negotiate with Peisetaerus. Instead, Peisetaerus just used this as a way to manipulate Hercules by telling him he is a “bastard” and Athena is the true “heiress” which is apparently news to Hercules. Eventually, Peisetaerus gets Hercules and Poseidon to agree to his silly demands because they are so desperate for food which is why the play is very ironic.
The subversion of the Gods in this play feels like a very controversial and taboo topic that would not have been a socially acceptable aspect of the play to talk about. The whole premise of the play is disrespectful to the status of the Gods in classical Athenian society. The birds build a new city in the Heavens, which feels like they are putting themselves as equals to the Gods. Peisetaerus is able to outsmart the Olympian delegates by manipulating them into agreeing to his terms. These actions of the play clearly disrespect the positions Gods were placed it. In turn, I think this play would have felt like an attack on Athenian society and especially on the elite, since the whole play stems from two men fleeing Athens and the city’s politics. The subversion of the Gods is thus not necessarily super threatening, but impact is has, a trickle down subversion of ancient Athens (the culture, society, beliefs, elite, politics, social structure) are all threatened by it. According to Athenians the Gods are the whole reason Athens is really here and Athens is like the God’s city on earth. This means that disrespecting the most central aspect of classical Athens would have been threatening to the whole city’s identity.
I agree with Meinhardt, the subversion of the Gods is very threatening to the identity of the city. The city of Athens bases its alliances, positions of power, choices, and overall framework of the Gods. Once the power of the Gods is put into a position of questioning, their influence that the people of Athens grant them is challenged, and therefore threatened. I believe Aristophanes is making the point behind the subversion of the Gods is for the citizens to realize that any belief in a “higher power” is foolish, and that we control our own destiny.
In considering whether Cloudcuckoo land is a utopia or a dystopia, I remembered one historical example: the Articles of Confederation, the U.S.’s first “constitution”. To significantly oversimplify things, under the Articles the U.S. basically did the opposite of what the British did. Thus, there were no taxes and very little governmental oversight, eventually presenting huge problems. I think Peisistratus essentially does this in Birds. His no laws, no inspections, and no gods policies seem great at first but will eventually create a dystopia.
I like the analogy regarding the Articles of the Confederation. I think one could make an argument that the Brexit situation is somewhat similar to what is happening in Birds. Brexit happened because the majority of voters were sick of the life and regulations of the E.U. However, after awhile people became dissatisfied with life and thought about rejoining the E.U. I would therefore say that that cloudcuckooland is a dystopia since they turned people away and immtindated entities (gods) into submitting to the cities demands.
I agree with this comment that ultimately cloudcukoo land is a dystopia, and enjoyed the connection you drew to the first draft of the constitution. I think it is also interesting how here the birds are driven to create this city by the prospect of gaining power, but alternatively the articles of confederation aimed to keep power with the people. It shows how in either scenario having all power concentrated in one place or no single power, a utopia may be the hope but a dystopia is created.
The subversion of the gods as second to the birds is certainly provocative and threatening to the Athenian opinion of authority, though it is arguably comedy’s job to poke fun at authority, including religion. The birds’ control over the gods through breaking connection to humans puts the gods in a weak position to birds, which is interesting considering birds are seen as small and possibly weak. Poking fun at religion is a common trope in comedy, even today, so it is interesting to wonder if Aristophanes was outside the norm in his mocking of the gods’ authority, especially given that he was comfortable poking fun at earthly authorities in his other plays.
While Cloudcuckooland was founded with the purpose of being a utopia, I find that it very quickly devolves into a dystopia. Peisetaerus sends the visitors who are trying to establish their idea of a working civilization fleeing out of fear, indicating his desire to create a utopia based purely off his own greed with no consideration for his subjects’ desires. He works the chorus into a frenzy to the point where they are creating a dictatorship, saying “But if you vote against us, you’d better make some copper lids to wear, like statues, because any of you who doesn’t have a lid, whenever you’re wearing a white suit, that’s just when you’ll pay the piper, getting crapped on by all of the birds” (169.) They are using threats to keep themselves in power, which is one of the biggest indicators of a dystopia.
I believe that the play is ironic. At first glance, Cloudcuckooland appears to be a utopia. But the unrealistic aspects of the city indicate that it is not truly one. For example, when Peisetaerus is talking with Poseidon and Heracles, he says, “Won’t you gods actually have greater power if birds are sovereign down below? . . . if you have the birds for allies, whenever anyone swears ‘by the Raven and by Zeus,’ the Raven will happen by and swoop down on that perjurer before he knows it . . .” (p. 231-232). The birds acting as gods and protectors of society is comedic and makes the city seem absurd. The impracticality of this story suggests that a utopia cannot actually exist.
I agree with morgan when she says this play is ironic. Cloudcuckooland does present to be a utopia, but upon further inspection is it clear that is not. I also thought of the example morgan used to depcit this. The fact that the birds have power in this world clearly shows that it is not in fact a utopia, and continuous the narrative that acheiveing a Utopia is impossible
In response to the question of whether Cloudcuckooland is a utopia or a dystopia, I believe that it is not entirely either. It seems that the creation of Cloudcuckooland, was quite obviously, meant to be a utopia. The two main characters originally attempt to flee the undesirable aspects of Athens and the rules and structure that its society imposed on them, hoping to find a new life in Terues or to be advised on how to create a new life. This then led to them creating a new society in the clouds that would allow them more freedom and a life emanating birds in the sense of free and easy living, which is an imagined utopia for them. However, once they begin creating the society, they are forced to turn around hopeful new entries to Cloudcuckooland as there is already argument about the rules and who is allowed in the city. Thus the society has started to shift from its original basis of being a free and loving society in the sky, however, I don’t believe it reaches full dystopian aspects.
My guess as to why the people of Athens would fantasize about a tyranny is that they might have wanted to get rid of all the annoyances that came with having a democratic government. Having people vote against something that you wanted, and still having to go through with the whole process might have been undesirable to some citizens, leading them to want a tyrant that handles all the decision-making on their own without input from anyone else. If a tyrant supported the views that they held as well, that would be even better, as the decisions that they want to be made get to be made without many people standing in their way. A tyranny might have seemed like the choice government for a utopian society to some.
I agree and think that Cloudcuckooland is not necessarily meant to be a utopia or dystopia, rather it reflects the uncertain view Athenians had on tyranny. Tyranny did not have the negative connotation it does now. Many tyrants were seen as effective and even empathetic leaders, others made them create a new governing system. I also think that this plays on the fact Athenians were always worried about the stability and continuation of their democracy.
Tyranny by modern standards is viewed very negatively. However, for Athenians tyranny was just another method of government. This is because the definition of a tyrant was different. A tyrant could be a person that others look to for hope in Ancient Greece because these people were rich land owning aristocrats. These aristocrats could bring about real change like helping out the poor. They achieved this through their own power as well as the military might that some tyrants accumulated.
I think that the birds that live in CloudCuckoo Land represent Aethon’s utopian ideals because they live up in the clouds, away from the tangible reality of the ground. Because most birds fly, they also symbolize freedom: Aethon reaches CloudCuckoo Land and is free to return home when he decides to leave. But in a sense, we also see two utopians in Birds, one that holds the community for social outcasts, where base desires such as gluttony and molestation go unchecked (ll. 128-143). And then you have the other utopian that has the chorus of birds, where they regain their rights as free, autonomous beings and are then worshipped by humans.
Cloudcuckooland was originally thought out by Peisetaerus to be a utopia and a place where birds would not have to deal with the struggles of man and Athens. But as time moves on we see that Cloudcuckooland was too ambitious and with that comes a lot of conflicts. For example they built a wall and talked of ruling mankind/the gods. With many visits from gods and messenegers the Birds soon realized that their end goal would be much harder than it seemed. This is why I think that Cloudcuckooland is not a utopia but is more dystopian in nature because of the problems brought on by ambition.
I agree with Drew, that Cloudcuckooland failed to be a utopia because of the unachievable goals it had. Peisetaerus and the birds want to rule everything and be the only ones with power. However, the rest of the world exists and does not want to be powerless. A utopia is impossible to achieve, especially in this case, because it requires people to be unequal. And when people are unequal, injustices occur which lead to the desired utopia becoming dystopian. It is also interesting how Peisitaerus is written, and why Aristophanes wrote his character. Peisitaerus becomes a tyrant as the play progresses and Aristophanes writes this new role in a positive light. Now, Aristophanes could be treating this as ironic, as we know, he has targeted other tyrant-like figures in Athenian politics and presented them unfavorably. I believe that this is meant to be ironic, and a way to indirectly point out how tyrants can come into being.
I think that some aspects of Cloudcuckooland are dystopian and ironic. By situating this polis as the opposite of Athens, both the positives and negatives of how Athens is run are highlighted in the new polis. When trying to convince the spectators to join the birds in their land, the chorus spectator underscores how customs are reversed. He gives the example that, “Say by custom it’s shameful here to hit your father; up there it’s admirable for someone to rush his father (and) hit him” (123). Such a perversion is not a positive change, and rather a regression to less civilized behavior. He also adds that slaves can be royalty in this polis, which may have been ironic and dystopian to the audience at the time.
The play is more straightforward than ironic, but veiled in multiple layers of metaphors and allusions. It presents the idea that a true utopia is impossible, as Peisetaerus’ fanatical ideas bring down the Gods themselves. This was echoed by Aristophanes’ personal beliefs on tyranny, particularly his belief that Cleon, a harsh and somewhat undemocratic leader, was terrible for the city. Cloudcuckooland could represent the Sicilian expedition, as it is far-fetched and idealistic, although at the time the play was written hopes were high about the expedition. Cloudcuckooland may instead represent Athens. It has walls built by the leagues of birds carrying mud from Libya, it becomes densely populated, and is at war, but with the Gods instead of the Spartans. “War’s broken out, war between words, between me and the Gods!” (p.94). Aristophanes supports the Athenian cause by having the gods (Spartans) defeated, although this may have seemed macabre to some devout audiences, and may, as aforementioned, signal Aristophanes’ view that a victory with tyranny is not a true victory.
I feel like the question whether Cloudcuckooland is a Utopia or Dystopia is very much a perspective issue. Perhaps for those living in Cloudcuckooland it may be a Utopia, but many people (athenians) are turned away from this city. The very people who founded the City turned away people coming in from the same place they were from. This type of imagery seems dystopian to me, but if a utopia carefully selects who it lets in, is it all the sudden not a utopia? Perhaps this is a Utopia for Peisataerus but would be a Dystopia for a person who was denied from the city. I wonder if this was social commentary by Aristophanes or if he was really providing his audience with a whimsical break from his war-time comedies, or both?
Even though it was meant to be a city defined by an escape from Athens, I definitely do not see Cloudcuckooland as a utopia. Of course, as others have noted, passage into the city is declined for a multitude of characters so that in itself is already showcasing the injustice of the city and therefore it cannot be a utopia. It’s also key to note that Peisetaerus essentially becomes a dictator or tyrant of the city and a ruler of the universe (over the gods), so by definition I do not think it can be considered a utopia based on that detail. It may seem like a utopia form the perspective of Peisetaerus, but you have to take into account that there are still some issues and injustices that persist in the city. One of the comments also noted how ambition can be seen as dystopian, and I think that connects back to my idea of the city being a utopia in the eyes of Peisetaerus’ ambition for ruling the universe, essentially.
I think that Cloudcuckooland first appears to the readers as a utopia, It does have aspects that, at the time, Athenians would desire but it also holds ideas that it could be a dystopia. The reason I would reason it is truly a dystopia is based off of its origin. The idea of Cloudcuckooland was created only to parallel Olympus or compete with the gods, which I believe to be sacrilegious. Because of the negative start it can only go further down hill. Later in the play as the birds begin to negotiate with the gods as if they are equal or just as powerful the reader can depict that man is naturally greedy and glutinous, revealing its actuality of being a dystopia. I believe that the people of Athens would not want a mote “tyrannical” leader or such a divide between who is allowed in and who is not. These birds are not gods but birds coming from Nyx, a primal God and Erebus making them equivalent. I think that the social aspect and restrictions make it an dystopia and also the deception of it being a utopia but then in reality being a dystopia based off its dystopia features. The goals are so unattainable that it is a dystopia yet the longing for freedom makes it appear as Utopian. I don’t think it was necessarily created TO be dystopian but it is the outcome of the actions.
I agree with the fact that Cloudcuckooland appears as a utopia, but as the play unfolds it becomes a dystopia. As the play progresses, Athens becomes a one-man show with a single decision-maker who controls all of the city’s resources, most notably its wings. Even if it doesn’t appear that this oppression has any effect on the pleasure of the birds, the play’s earlier dreams for a perfect human community have been entirely disproved. The utopia has almost entirely turned into a dystopia.
Hi! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts! I found a lot of what you said compelling, but I struggle with the idea that because Cloudcuckooland was created in a negative light that it cannot be a utopia. I definitely agree that because it was created to parallel Olympus that it is inherently sacrilegious, but I am not sure that I agree that this fact makes it inherently a dystopia. I say this because perhaps Aristophanes viewed Olympus as the dystopia, and created Cloudcuckooland in Birds as a way to pick apart all that he sees wrong with how Olympus is portrayed, making Cloudcuckooland his utopia. This being said, I’m not sure I would consider Cloudcuckooland a utopia, I definitely agree with Tea in that it seems like that to start, but as the play goes on it becomes more and more dystopian.
Though many of Aristophanes’ plays have elements that treat the gods with irreverence, the subversion of the Olympians in Birds is a different level of defiance than his other works, which tend to focus more on earthy targets of demeaning. In Birds, the birds are able to undermine the gods and take their place. They cut off the access to the smell of sacrifices from the humans and use this as bargaining, making the gods appear weak as they are defeated by the cunning of one mortal man. The boldness of Aristophanes and his disregard for the gods is most clear when he talks about what types of seed and to which birds citizens will sacrifice instead of what types of animals and which god. A very religiously important ritual is replaced with something considered worthless, like birdseed. Subversion of the gods is dangerous at this time in Athens, as we very well know it is one of the charges leveled against Socrates at the trial that leads to his execution.
I think that Aristophanes Birds is a quite an ironic play. A line in particular from Prometheus in page 220 about how “from the very moment you colonized the air” that “now not a single human sacrifices to the gods any more” shows that Cloud-Cuckooland has stepped footing in the world of the gods. Usually the Gods are associated with power and order and thus with Peisetaerus usurping the respect of the Gods he has threatened the command that they have over people. It seems that in Peisetaerus’s idea to build a utopia he has emulated a system of power that has already existed but with less balances and checks. This leads me to believe that he has created a corrupted utopia wherein it only benefits himself but not others.
Your response/reaction to the play was really interesting to me because it took on a perspective that I had not previously considered. I found your perspective to be especially provocative because you offer almost a more sinister perspective of Peiseetaerus’s motives to found Cloud Cuckooland. Your perspective allowed me to add more nuance to my point of view really just understood the play to be a ridiculous interpretation of life outside the rules and regulations of normative society. I found it to be a dream of escapism more so than a self-serving empire. However, I can completely see where you were coming from and I believe that there doesn’t necessarily need to be a harsh cut between it being a whimsical tale and a story of the pervasive corruption of power.
Although people at that time were optimistic about the Sicilian Expedition, Aristophanes creates Cloudcuckooland as a representation to show Athenians how this expedition might fail. Cloudcuckooland seems to be an ironic representation of a Utopia, and Aristophanes mocks the idea that a Utopia can exist. For instance, Peisetaerus becomes a sort of tyrant and dictator by the end, ruling over everyone and taking down the gods. This showcases how the idea of a Utopia is different in the mind of everyone and it is impossible for everyone to live all together as completely equals in such a society. Lawyers, poets, and more were turned away from the city meaning that in their perspective they do not see Cloudcuckooland as a Utopia but rather a place where their morals are not accepted. Cloudcuckooland can be seen as a city to escape from the morals and rules that were practiced by society, meaning that it could be a place for people to go to break these rules without consequences, further implying the fact that this Utopia is unable to work.
I thought that placing the gods at an enemy position of the birds which I assumed to be the utopian version of the athenians, because the subversion of the gods has been so threatening to the people of Athens in the past. During a time of war I think it was especially dangerous for Aristophanes to diminish the status of a well established power in society. Maybe that was the irony of the play, but it seemed like an interesting choice especially since Socrates was charged with death for his alleged insolence to the gods.
Cloudcuckooland cannot possibly be a utopia because it does not exist in a vacuum. It is still surrounded by earth and the Gods, and its inception involves conflict between these two plains in order to create a city in the sky. It is also ironic how Athena Polias is chosen as the God who guards the city when they made such an emphasis on being in a separate plain from earth and the Gods. Additionally, they clearly do not have grasp on foreign politics as they are incredibly dismissive when approached by representatives of ground cities and states. This ultimately makes them look naïve, hence the cuckoo in their city name. Finally, I do not believe that this is a dystopia either. It does not strike me as a society that is entirely rooted in injustice. Instead, it is one that seeks to create a vacuum in the midst of an interconnected world and fails miserably.
I think that this play is meant to be ironic because, while Cloudcukooland is called a utopia, it is ultimately a dystopia. Even though Aristophanes portrays Cloudcukooland as an escape from some of the issues of Athenian society, he also shows that Peisetaerus and the birds are self-serving with little regard for the well-being of humans or gods. Athenians may have fantasized about a tyranny because they might have believed that it would be better to let a single person who is intelligent make all the decisions rather than leaving it up to the people, but I believe that Aristophanes may have used this play to show why a tyranny would not be a good form of government for Athens.
It’s hard to tell whether or not Cloudcuckooland is a utopia or more of an ironic dystopia. On one hand, Cloudcuckooland seems to be a simpler life that Athenians envy. While Athenians live a complicated life of war and pain in the real world, the birds live a simple, unbothered life above the clouds. This makes sense for a utopia. It even makes sense that there is a tyrant, as having one singular rules eliminates the responsibility on the people to take part in decisions in a democracy. However, the utopia seems too unrealistic. So much so that it both accentuates the current struggles of athenian life and almost pokes fun at idealism. It makes it seem that anyone wishing for a carefree life is foolish.
I am fascinated by how bluntly they discuss the idea of cutting off the gods from humans. How would this have been perceived at the time? I would think with how seriously the Athenians viewed their religion, it must have seemed relatively problematic to presume to challenge their power. I think that this detail contributes to an overall tone that makes me feel like the city isn’t meant to be taken as a perfect utopia by any means.
In my reading of Birds, I found that Cloudcuckooland is originally intended to be a utopia, but the oversight of Piesetaerus ultimately leads to it falling into a state of dystopia. One thing I think Aristophanes may have been trying to convey is that the Athenians should recognize how good of a job their current system did at maintaining order, and how dreaming up new ideals could lead to more harm than benefit. Further, I saw Cloudcuckooland as a criticism on all who thought they could do such a good job as a ruler or felt that their ideas were best. Also, it seems like a bit of a reality check for the Athenian people in the sense that it forces them to think about themselves in comparison to another fictional utopia and see themselves as the inferiors.
Athens fantasized about a tyranny because in 414, when Birds was written, they were in the middle of the Peloponnesian War. Specifically, the Sicilian Expedition took place during 415-413. The expedition was ultimately a failure, which makes sense why Birds was so successful as Athenians felt defeated and wanted to fantasize about living a life free of war, politics, and conflict in general.
The fantasy about tyranny in Birds possibly reflects a growing sentiment among the Athenians that the ongoing war with Sparta is a result of slow and indecisive leadership. Although the tyrant in Birds, Peisetaerus, does not rule over Athens, but a fictional city, his leadership might represent what a tyrannical regime in Athens would look like if it had always been that way and not experimented with democracy. It is also important to note that Athenians are known for looking critically at their government and have been known to vote themselves out of power in favor of different forms of government. Ultimately, I think that Aristophanes rejects this idea of tyranny through the absurdity of Cloudcuckooland, but it worth wondering about in the context of Athens losing a war to Sparta, which is ruled by two kings.
The creation of a religion which legitimizes the birds as divine indicates irony in Aristophanes’ play. As many plays and literary depictions of wars in Ancient Greece feature heavy influence of the Gods, which removes agency from the people involved, what does the ironic religion of the birds seek to portray in Athenian society? Is Aristophanes commenting on the role of religion in Athens, or the actions of the Gods during periods of war?
Why would Athenians fantasize about a tyranny?
I believe Athenians fanticized about tyranny because they were experiencing unprecedented chaos. I think that tyrannical rule is associated with order and prosperity. The city experience a perceived prosperity after a tyrannical rule. They did not expect the war to last this long and everyone has experience famine, war, and plague. If tyranny is associated with order, it may then be construde to bring calm. Athenians want a utopia where the right decisions are made and they can return to the past when the city was victorious and in control.
The utopia in “birds” is above man and god. Athenians believe that their struggles arise from reprisal from the gods and conflict with men. A society beyond the control of either may mitigate their pain.
This play was performed towards the end of the Peace of Nicias, in a time when many Athenians were displeased with their city and Athens itself was on the brink of several years of hardship and turmoil. As full-on war with Sparta yet again loomed over the inhabitants of the city, many of them, no doubt weary of the unending hardship of war and plague, dreamed of the perfect world that they would like to see. I believe that Cloudcuckooland is supposed to represent this idyllic view of a utopia that many Athenians shared in this time. I feel that the displeasure of Peisetaerus and Euelpides, among others, with the gods and their goal of supplanting them mirrors the wishes of Athenians to do away with the leadership that brings them into pointless, endless wars that drag on and on for decades. Aristophanes uses the gods to represent Athens’s leadership at this time, and expresses the average citizen’s displeasure with them through the events of the story. Cloudcuckooland symbolizes the unfulfilled dream of these Athenians, a dream of a city where they could be happy and free from war and plague and all the burdens under which they had suffered for so long.
I think that the Athenians fantasized about tyranny because they recognized of all of the work it takes to maintain a democracy and the consequences of thereof. In a democracy you have to mobilize the citizenry, inform them, and provide them a system to voice their opinions. On the other side, officials have to campaign and listen to their electorate. This takes a lot of work. In the Birds, Aristophanes seems to show the effectiveness of a tyrannical system of government through Peisetaerus’ authoritarian relationship with the birds. Peisetaerus doesn’t have to listen to the birds or persuade them about his opinions but instead he just tells them what to do and they listen. This allows Peisetaerus to have an effective role as leader of the birds and gives a positive light to a tyrannical from of government.
While the subversion of the gods feels threatening in that the birds are effectively taking their place and demanding tribute, it is implied that the gods won’t really do anything about it. Peisetaerus says that birds should go eat up all the human food if humans don’t worship the birds as gods and that “when they’re famished, let Demeter dole out grain to them”, but to this Euelpides responds “She’ll certainly renege; mark my words, she’ll just make excuses” (99). This implies that, even if the birds take the place of the gods, the gods will find it too much of a hassle to act, thus showing how little they care.
The subversion of the gods in Birds feels very similar to the way in which Socrates belittled the foundations of Athenian democracy and society. Comparing the gods to birds and even saying that the birds would be better gods seems to me as something that would be considered very blasphemous, but maybe Aristophanes’ established identity as a comedic playwright allows him a degree of blasphemy. The almost glorification of tyranny was also interesting to me, especially considering the interesting relationship between the Athenian people and the 30 tyrants. At the same time, democracy seems to be a process that weighs heavily on the Athenian people, and tyranny almost takes some of that pressure off and unclogs the machine.