Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

The Birds by Aristophanes

Part 2 out of 2

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.2 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

Priest! 'tis high time! Sacrifice to the new gods.

I begin, but where is he with the basket? Pray to the Vesta
of the birds, to the kite, who presides over the hearth, and
to all the god and goddess-birds who dwell in Olympus.

Oh! Hawk, the sacred guardian of Sunium, oh, god of the storks!

Pray to the swan of Delos, to Latona the mother of the quails, and to
Artemis, the goldfinch.

'Tis no longer Artemis Colaenis, but Artemis the goldfinch.[1]

f[1] Hellanicus, the Mitylenian historian, tells that this surname
of Artemis is derived from Colaenus, King of Athens before Cecrops
and a descendant of Hermes. In obedience to an oracle he erected
a temple to the goddess, invoking her as Artemis Colaenis (the Artemis
of Colaenus).

And to Bacchus, the finch and Cybele, the ostrich and mother
of the gods and mankind.

Oh! sovereign ostrich, Cybele, The mother of Cleocritus,[1]
grant health and safety to the Nephelococcygians as well as
to the dwellers in Chios...

f[1] This Cleocritus, says the scholiast, was long-necked and strutted
like an ostrich.

The dwellers in Chios! Ah! I am delighted they should be thus
mentioned on all occasions.[1]

f[1] The Chians were the most faithful allies of Athens, and hence
their name was always mentioned in prayers, decrees, etc.

...to the heroes, the birds, to the sons of heroes, to
the porphyrion, the pelican, the spoon-bill, the redbreast, the grouse,
the peacock, the horned-owl, the teal, the bittern, the heron,
the stormy petrel, the fig-pecker, the titmouse...

Stop! stop! you drive me crazy with your endless list. Why,
wretch, to what sacred feast are you inviting the vultures and
the sea-eagles? Don't you see that a single kite could easily carry off
the lot at once? Begone, you and your fillets and all; I shall know
how to complete the sacrifice by myself.

It is imperative that I sing another sacred chant for the rite
of the lustral water, and that I invoke the immortals, or at least one
of them, provided always that you have some suitable food to offer
him; from what I see here, in the shape of gifts, there is naught
whatever but horn and hair.

Let us address our sacrifices and our prayers to the winged gods.

Oh, Muse! celebrate happy Nephelococcygia in your hymns.

What have we here? Where did you come from, tell me? Who are you?

I am he whose language is sweeter than honey, the zealous slave
of the Muses, as Homer has it.

You a slave! and yet you wear your hair long?

No, but the fact is all we poets are the assiduous slaves
of the Muses, according to Homer.

In truth your little cloak is quite holy too through zeal!
But, poet, what ill wind drove you here?

I have composed verses in honour of your Nephelococcygia, a host
of splendid dithyrambs and parthenians[1] worthy of Simonides himself.

f[1] Verses sung by maidens.

And when did you compose them? How long since?

Oh! 'tis long, aye, very long, that I have sung in honour of this city.

But I am only celebrating its foundation with this sacrifice;[1]
I have only just named it, as is done with little babies.

f[1] This ceremony took place on the tenth day after birth, and
may be styled the pagan baptism.

"Just as the chargers fly with the speed of the wind, so does
the voice of the Muses take its flight. Oh! thou noble founder of
the town of Aetna,[1] thou, whose name recalls the holy sacrifices,[2]
make us such gift as thy generous heart shall suggest."

f[1] Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse. --This passage is borrowed from Pindar.
f[2] [Hiero] in Greek means 'sacrifice.'

He will drive us silly if we do not get rid of him by some present.
Here! you, who have a fur as well as your tunic, take it off
and give it to this clever poet. Come, take this fur; you look to me
to be shivering with cold.

My Muse will gladly accept this gift; but engrave these verses
of Pindar's on your mind.

Oh! what a pest! 'Tis impossible then to be rid of him!

"Straton wanders among the Scythian nomads, but has no linen garment.
He is sad at only wearing an animal's pelt and no tunic."
Do you conceive my bent?

I understand that you want me to offer you a tunic. Hi! you (TO
EUELPIDES), take off yours; we must help the poet.... Come, you,
take it and begone.

I am going, and these are the verses that I address to this city:
"Phoebus of the golden throne, celebrate this shivery,
freezing city; I have travelled through fruitful and snow-covered
plains. Tralala! Tralala!"[1]

f[1] A parody of poetic pathos, not to say bathos.

What are you chanting us about frosts? Thanks to the tunic, you no
longer fear them. Ah! by Zeus! I could not have believed this cursed
fellow could so soon have learnt the way to our city. Come, priest,
take the lustral water and circle the altar.

Let all keep silence!

Let not the goat be sacrificed.[1]

F[1] Which the priest was preparing to sacrifice.

Who are you?

Who am I? A prophet.

Get you gone.

Wretched man, insult not sacred things. For there is an oracle
of Bacis, which exactly applies to Nephelococcygia.

Why did you not reveal it to me before I founded my city?

The divine spirit was against it.

Well, 'tis best to know the terms of the oracle.

"But when the wolves and the white crows shall dwell together
between Corinth and Sicyon..."

But how do the Corinthians concern me?

'Tis the regions of the air that Bacis indicated in this manner.
"They must first sacrifice a white-fleeced goat to Pandora, and give
the prophet, who first reveals my words, a good cloak and new sandals."

Are the sandals there?

Read. "And besides this a goblet of wine and a good share
of the entrails of the victim."

Of the entrails--is it so written?

Read. "If you do as I command, divine youth, you shall be an eagle
among the clouds; if not, you shall be neither turtle-dove, nor eagle,
nor woodpecker."

Is all that there?


This oracle in no sort of way resembles the one Apollo dictated
to me: "If an impostor comes without invitation to annoy you during
the sacrifice and to demand a share of the victim, apply a stout stick
to his ribs."

You are drivelling.

"And don't spare him, were he an eagle from out of the clouds,
were it Lampon[1] himself or the great Diopithes."[2]

f[1] Noted Athenian diviner, who, when the power was still shared
between Thucydides and Pericles, predicted that it would soon be
centred in the hands of the latter; his ground for this prophecy was
the sight of a ram with a single horn.
f[2] No doubt another Athenian diviner, and possibly the same person whom
Aristophanes names in 'The Knights' and 'The Wasps' as being a thief.

Is all that there?

Here, read it yourself, and go and hang yourself.

Oh! unfortunate wretch that I am.

Away with you, and take your prophecies elsewhere.

I have come to you.

f[1] A celebrated geometrician and astronomer.

Yet another pest! What have you come to do? What's your plan?
What's the purpose of your journey? Why these splendid buskins?

I want to survey the plains of the air for you and to parcel
them into lots.

In the name of the gods, who are you?

Who am I? Meton, known throughout Greece and at Colonus.[1]

f[1] A deme contiguous to Athens. It is as though he said, "Well known
throughout all England and at Croydon.

What are these things?

Tools for measuring the air. In truth, the spaces in the air
have precisely the form of a furnace. With this bent ruler I draw
a line from top to bottom; from one of its points I describe a circle
with the compass. Do you understand?

Not the very least.

With the straight ruler I set to work to inscribe a square
within this circle; in its centre will be the market-place, into which
all the straight streets will lead, converging to this centre like
a star, which, although only orbicular, sends forth its rays
in a straight line from all sides.

Meton, you new Thales...[1]

f[1] Thales was no less famous as a geometrician than he was as a sage.

What d'you want with me?

I want to give you a proof of my friendship. Use your legs.

Why, what have I to fear?

'Tis the same here as in Sparta. Strangers are driven away,
and blows rain down as thick as hail.

Is there sedition in your city?

No, certainly not.

What's wrong then?

We are agreed to sweep all quacks and impostors far from our borders.

Then I'm off.

I fear 'tis too late. The thunder growls already. (BEATS HIM.)

Oh, woe! oh, woe!

I warned you. Now, be off, and do your surveying somewhere else.

Where are the Proxeni?[1]

f[1] Officers of Athens, whose duty was to protect strangers who came
on political or other business, and see to their interests generally.

Who is this Sardanapalus?[1]

f[1] He addresses the inspector thus because of the royal
and magnificent manners he assumes.

I have been appointed by lot to come to Nephelococcygia.
as inspector.[1]

f[1] Magistrates appointed to inspect the tributary towns.

An inspector! and who sends you here, you rascal?

A decree of T[e]leas.[1]

f[1] A much-despised citizen, already mentioned. He ironically
supposes him invested with the powers of an Archon, which ordinarily
were entrusted only to men of good repute.

Will you just pocket your salary, do nothing, and be off?

I' faith! that I will; I am urgently needed to be at Athens to attend
the assembly; for I am charged with the interests of Pharnaces.[1]

f[1] A Persian satrap. --An allusion to certain orators, who, bribed
with Asiatic gold, had often defended the interests of the foe
in the Public Assembly.

Take it then, and be off. See, here is your salary. (BEATS HIM.)

What does this mean?

'Tis the assembly where you have to defend Pharnaces.

You shall testify that they dare to strike me, the inspector.

Are you not going to clear out with your urns? 'Tis not to be
believed; they send us inspectors before we have so much as paid
sacrifice to the gods.

"If the Nephelococcygian does wrong to the Athenian..."

Now whatever are these cursed parchments?

I am a dealer in decrees, and I have come here to sell you
the new laws.


"The Nephelococcygians shall adopt the same weights, measures
and decrees as the Olophyxians."[1]

f[1] A Macedonian people in the peninsula of Chalcidice. This name
is chosen because of its similarity to the Greek word [for] 'to groan.'
It is from another verb, meaning the same thing, that Pisthetaerus coins
the name of Ototyxians, i.e. groaners, because he is about to beat
the dealer. --The mother-country had the right to impose any law
it chose upon its colonies.

And you shall soon be imitating the Ototyxians. (BEATS HIM.)

Hullo! what are you doing?

Now will you be off with your decrees? For I am going to let YOU
see some severe ones.

I summon Pisthetaerus for outrage for the month of Munychion.[1]

f[1] Corresponding to our month of April.

Ha! my friend! are you still there?

"Should anyone drive away the magistrates and not receive them,
according to the decree duly posted..."

What! rascal! you are there too?

Woe to you! I'll have you condemned to a fine of ten thousand

And I'll smash your urns.[1]

f[1] Which the inspector had brought with him for the purpose
of inaugurating the assemblies of the people or some tribunal.

Do you recall that evening when you stooled against the column where
the decrees are posted?

Here! here! let him be seized. (THE INSPECTOR RUNS OFF.) Well!
don't you want to stop any longer?

Let us get indoors as quick as possible; we will sacrifice the goat

f[1] So that the sacrifices might no longer be interrupted.

Henceforth it is to me that mortals must address their
sacrifices and their prayers. Nothing escapes my sight nor my might.
My glance embraces the universe, I preserve the fruit in the flower
by destroying the thousand kinds of voracious insects the soil
produces, which attack the trees and feed on the germ when it has
scarcely formed in the calyx; I destroy those who ravage the balmy
terrace gardens like a deadly plague; all these gnawing crawling
creatures perish beneath the lash of my wing. I hear it proclaimed
everywhere: "A talent for him who shall kill Diagoras of Melos,[1]
and a talent for him who destroys one of the dead tyrants."[2]
We likewise wish to make our proclamation: "A talent to him among you
who shall kill Philocrates, the Struthian;[3] four, if he
brings him to us alive. For this Philocrates skewers the finches
together and sells them at the rate of an obolus for seven. He
tortures the thrushes by blowing them out, so that they may look
bigger, sticks their own feathers into the nostrils of blackbirds, and
collects pigeons, which he shuts up and forces them, fastened in a
net, to decoy others." That is what we wish to proclaim. And if anyone
is keeping birds shut up in his yard, let him hasten to let them
loose; those who disobey shall be seized by the birds and we shall put
them in chains, so that in their turn they may decoy other men.

Happy indeed is the race of winged birds who need no cloak in winter!
Neither do I fear the relentless rays of the fiery dog-days;
when the divine grasshopper, intoxicated with the sunlight, when noon
is burning the ground, is breaking out into shrill melody; my home
is beneath the foliage in the flowery meadows. I winter in deep
caverns, where I frolic with the mountain nymphs, while in spring
I despoil the gardens of the Graces and gather the white, virgin berry
on the myrtle bushes.

I want now to speak to the judges about the prize they are going
to award; if they are favourable to us, we will load them with
benefits far greater than those Paris[4] received. Firstly, the owls
of Laurium,[5] which every judge desires above all things, shall never
be wanting to you; you shall see them homing with you, building their
nests in your money-bags and laying coins. Besides, you shall be
housed like the gods, for we shall erect gables[6] over your dwellings;
if you hold some public post and want to do a little pilfering,
we will give you the sharp claws of a hawk. Are you dining in town,
we will provide you with crops.[7] But, if your award is against us,
don't fail to have metal covers fashioned for yourselves, like those
they place over statues;[8] else, look out! for the day you wear
a white tunic all the birds will soil it with their droppings.

f[1] A disciple of Democrites; he passed over from superstition
to atheism. The injustice and perversity of mankind led him to deny
the existence of the gods, to lay bare the mysteries and to break
the idols. The Athenians had put a price on his head, so he left Greece
and perished soon afterwards in a storm at sea.
f[2] By this jest Aristophanes means to imply that tyranny is dead, and
that no one aspires to despotic power, though this silly accusation
was constantly being raised by the demagogues and always favourably
received by the populace.
f[3] A poulterer. --Strouthian, used in joke to designate him, as if
from the name of his 'deme,' is derived from [the Greek for] 'a sparrow.'
The birds' foe is thus grotesquely furnished with an ornithological
f[4] From Aphrodite (Venus), to whom he had awarded the apple, prize
of beauty, in the contest of the "goddesses three."
f[5] Laurium was an Athenian deme at the extremity of the Attic
peninsula containing valuable silver mines, the revenues of which
were largely employed in the maintenance of the fleet and payment
of the crews. The "owls of Laurium," of course, mean pieces of money;
the Athenian coinage was stamped with a representation of an owl,
the bird of Athene.
f[6] A pun, impossible to keep in English, on the two meanings
of [the Greek] word which signifies both an eagle and the gable
of a house or pediment of a temple.
f[7] That is, birds' crops, into which they could stow away plenty
of good things.
f[8] The Ancients appear to have placed metal discs over statues
standing in the open air, to save them from injury from the weather, etc.

Birds! the sacrifice is propitious. But I see no messenger
coming from the wall to tell us what is happening. Ah! here comes
one running himself out of breath as though he were running the Olympic

Where, where is he? Where, where, where is he? Where, where, where
is he? Where is Pisthetaerus, our leader?

Here am I.

The wall is finished.

That's good news.

'Tis a most beautiful, a most magnificent work of art. The wall is
so broad that Proxenides, the Braggartian, and Theogenes could pass
each other in their chariots, even if they were drawn by steeds as big
as the Trojan horse.

'Tis wonderful!

Its length is one hundred stadia; I measured it myself.

A decent length, by Posidon! And who built such a wall?

Birds--birds only; they had neither Egyptian brickmaker, nor
stone-mason, nor carpenter; the birds did it all themselves; I could
hardly believe my eyes. Thirty thousand cranes came from Libya
with a supply of stones,[1] intended for the foundations. The water-
rails chiselled them with their beaks. Ten thousand storks were busy
making bricks; plovers and other water fowl carried water
into the air.

f[1] So as not to be carried away by the wind when crossing the sea,
cranes are popularly supposed to ballast themselves with stones,
which they carry in their beaks.

And who carried the mortar?

Herons, in hods.

But how could they put the mortar into hods?

Oh! 'twas a truly clever invention; the geese used their feet
like spades; they buried them in the pile of mortar and then emptied
them into the hods.

Ah! to what use cannot feet be put?[1]

f[1] Pisthetaerus modifies the Greek proverbial saying, "To what use
cannot hands be put?"

You should have seen how eagerly the ducks carried bricks. To
complete the tale, the swallows came flying to the work, their beaks
full of mortar and their trowel on their back, just the way little
children are carried.

Who would want paid servants after this? But tell me, who did
the woodwork?

Birds again, and clever carpenters too, the pelicans, for they
squared up the gates with their beaks in such a fashion that one would
have thought they were using axes; the noise was just like a dockyard.
Now the whole wall is tight everywhere, securely bolted and well
guarded; it is patrolled, bell in hand; the sentinels stand everywhere
and beacons burn on the towers. But I must run off to clean myself;
the rest is your business.

Well! what do you say to it? Are you not astonished at the wall
being completed so quickly?

By the gods, yes, and with good reason. 'Tis really not to be
believed. But here comes another messenger from the wall to bring us
some further news! What a fighting look he has!

Oh! oh! oh! oh! oh! oh!

What's the matter?

A horrible outrage has occurred; a god sent by Zeus has passed
through our gates and has penetrated the realms of the air without
the knowledge of the jays, who are on guard in the daytime.

'Tis an unworthy and criminal deed. What god was it?

We don't know that. All we know is, that he has got wings.

Why were not guards sent against him at once?

We have d[i]spatched thirty thousand hawks of the legion of Mounted
Archers.[1] All the hook-clawed birds are moving against him, the
kestrel, the buzzard, the vulture, the great-horned owl; they cleave
the air, so that it resounds with the flapping of their wings; they are
looking everywhere for the god, who cannot be far away; indeed, if I
mistake not, he is coming from yonder side.

f[1] A corps of Athenian cavalry was so named.

All arm themselves with slings and bows! This way, all our soldiers;
shoot and strike! Some one give me a sling!

War, a terrible war is breaking out between us and the gods! Come,
let each one guard Air, the son of Erebus,[1] in which the clouds
float. Take care no immortal enters it without your knowledge.
Scan all sides with your glance. Hark! methinks I can hear the
rustle of the swift wings of a god from heaven.

f[1] Chaos, Night, Tartarus, and Erebus alone existed in the beginning;
Eros was born from Night and Erebus, and he wedded Chaos and begot
Earth, Air, and Heaven; so runs the fable.

Hi! you woman! where are you flying to? Halt, don't stir! keep
motionless! not a beat of your wing! --Who are you and from what
country? You must say whence you come.[1]

f[1] Iris appears from the top of the stage and arrests her flight
in mid-career.

I come from the abode of the Olympian gods.

What's your name, ship or cap?[1]

f[1] Ship, because of her wings, which resemble oars; cap, because she
no doubt wore the head-dress (as a messenger of the gods) with which
Hermes is generally depicted.

I am swift Iris.

Paralus or Salaminia?[1]

f[1] The names of the two sacred galleys which carried Athenian
officials on State business.

What do you mean?

Let a buzzard rush at her and seize her.[1]

f[1] A buzzard is named in order to raise a laugh, the Greek name also
meaning, etymologically, provided with three testicles, vigorous
in love.

Seize me! But what do all these insults mean?

Woe to you!

'Tis incomprehensible.

By which gate did you pass through the wall, wretched woman?

By which gate? Why, great gods, I don't know.

You hear how she holds us in derision. Did you present yourself
to the officers in command of the jays? You don't answer. Have you
a permit, bearing the seal of the storks?

Am I awake?

Did you get one?

Are you mad?

No head-bird gave you a safe-conduct?

A safe-conduct to me, you poor fool!

Ah! and so you slipped into this city on the sly and into these
realms of air-land that don't belong to you.

And what other roads can the gods travel?

By Zeus! I know nothing about that, not I. But they won't pass
this way. And you still dare to complain! Why, if you were treated
according to your deserts, no Iris would ever have more justly
suffered death.

I am immortal.

You would have died nevertheless. --Oh! 'twould be truly
intolerable! What! should the universe obey us and the gods alone
continue their insolence and not understand that they must submit
to the law of the strongest in their due turn? But tell me, where
are you flying to?

I? The messenger of Zeus to mankind, I am going to tell them to
sacrifice sheep and oxen on the altars and to fill their streets
with the rich smoke of burning fat.

Of which gods are you speaking?

Of which? Why, of ourselves, the gods of heaven.

You, gods?

Are there others then?

Men now adore the birds as gods, and 'tis to them, by Zeus, that
they must offer sacrifices, and not to Zeus at all!

Oh! fool! fool! Rouse not the wrath of the gods, for 'tis
terrible indeed. Armed with the brand of Zeus, Justice would
annihilate your race; the lightning would strike you as it did
Licymnius and consume both your body and the porticos of your palace.[1]

f[1] Iris' reply is a parody of the tragic style. --'Lycimnius'
is, according to the scholiast, the title of a tragedy by Euripides,
which is about a ship that is struck by lightning.

Here! that's enough tall talk. Just you listen and keep quiet!
Do you take me for a Lydian or a Phrygian[1] and think to frighten me
with your big words? Know, that if Zeus worries me again, I shall go
at the head of my eagles, who are armed with lightning, and reduce his
dwelling and that of Amphion to cinders.[2] I shall send more than six
hundred porphyrions clothed in leopards' skins[3] up to heaven against
him; and formerly a single Porphyrion gave him enough to do. As for
you, his messenger, if you annoy me, I shall begin by stretching your
legs asunder, and so conduct myself, Iris though you be, that despite
my age, you will be astonished. I will show you something that will
make you three times over.

f[1] i.e. for a poltroon, like the slaves, most of whom came to Athens
from these countries.
f[2] A parody of a passage in the lost tragedy of 'Niobe' of Aeschylus.
f[3] Because this bird has a spotted plumage. --Porphyrion is also
the name of one of the Titans who tried to storm heave.

May you perish, you wretch, you and your infamous words!

Won't you be off quickly? Come, stretch your wings or look out for squalls!

If my father does not punish you for your insults...

Ha!... but just you be off elsewhere to roast younger folk than us
with your lightning.

We forbid the gods, the sons of Zeus, to pass through our city and
the mortals to send them the smoke of their sacrifices by this road.

'Tis odd that the messenger we sent to the mortals has never

Oh! blessed Pisthetaerus, very wise, very illustrious, very
gracious, thrice happy, very... Come, prompt me, somebody, do.

Get to your story!

All peoples are filled with admiration for your wisdom, and they
award you this golden crown.

I accept it. But tell me, why do the people admire me?

Oh you, who have founded so illustrious a city in the air, you
know not in what esteem men hold you and how many there are who burn
with desire to dwell in it. Before your city was built, all men had
a mania for Sparta; long hair and fasting were held in honour, men
went dirty like Socrates and carried staves. Now all is changed.
Firstly, as soon as 'tis dawn, they all spring out of bed together
to go and seek their food, the same as you do; then they fly off
towards the notices and finally devour the decrees. The bird-madness
is so clear, that many actually bear the names of birds. There is
a halting victualler, who styles himself the partridge; Menippus calls
himself the swallow; Opuntius the one-eyed crow; Philocles the lark;
Theogenes the fox-goose; Lycurgus the ibis; Chaerephon the bat;
Syracosius the magpie; Midias the quail;[1] indeed he looks like
a quail that has been hit hard over the head. Out of love for the birds
they repeat all the songs which concern the swallow, the teal, the
goose or the pigeon; in each verse you see wings, or at all events
a few feathers. This is what is happening down there. Finally,
there are more than ten thousand folk who are coming here from earth
to ask you for feathers and hooked claws; so, mind you supply yourself
with wings for the immigrants.

f[1] All these surnames bore some relation to the character or the build
of the individual to whom the poet applies them. --Chaerephon,
Socrates' disciple,
was of white and ashen hue. --Opuntius was one-eyed. --Syracosius was
a braggart.
--Midias had a passion for quail-fights, and, besides, resembled that bird

Ah! by Zeus, 'tis not the time for idling. Go as quick as possible
and fill every hamper, every basket you can find with wings. Manes[1]
will bring them to me outside the walls, where I will welcome those
who present themselves.

f[1] Pisthetaerus' servant, already mentioned.

This town will soon be inhabited by a crowd of men.

If fortune favours us.

Folk are more and more delighted with it.

Come, hurry up and bring them along.

Will not man find here everything that can please him--wisdom,
love, the divine Graces, the sweet face of gentle peace?

Oh! you lazy servant! won't you hurry yourself?

Let a basket of wings be brought speedily. Come, beat him as I do,
and put some life into him; he is as lazy as an ass.

Aye, Manes is a great craven.

Begin by putting this heap of wings in order; divide them in three
parts according to the birds from whom they came; the singing, the
prophetic[1] and the aquatic birds; then you must take care
to distribute them to the men according to their character.

f[1] From the inspection of which auguries were taken, e.g. the eagles,
the vultures, the crows.

Oh! by the kestrels! I can keep my hands off you no longer; you
are too slow and lazy altogether.

Oh! might I but become an eagle, who soars in the skies! Oh! might
I fly above the azure waves of the barren sea![2]

f[1] Or rather, a young man who contemplated parricide.
f[2] A parody of verses in Sophocles 'Oenomaus.'

Ha! 'twould seem the news was true; I hear someone coming who
talks of wings.

Nothing is more charming than to fly; I burn with desire to live
under the same laws as the birds; I am bird-mad and fly
towards you, for I want to live with you and to obey your laws.

Which laws? The birds have many laws.

All of them; but the one that pleases me most is, that among the
birds it is considered a fine thing to peck and strangle one's father.

Aye, by Zeus! according to us, he who dares to strike his father, while
still a chick, is a brave fellow.

And therefore I want to dwell here, for I want to strangle my
father and inherit his wealth.

But we have also an ancient law written in the code of the storks,
which runs thus, "When the stork father has reared his young and has
taught them to fly, the young must in their turn support the father."

'Tis hardly worth while coming all this distance to be compelled
to keep my father!

No, no, young friend, since you have come to us with such
willingness, I am going to give you these black wings, as though you
were an orphan bird; furthermore, some good advice, that I received
myself in infancy. Don't strike your father, but take these wings
in one hand and these spurs in the other; imagine you have a
cock's crest on your head and go and mount guard and fight; live
on your pay and respect your father's life. You're a gallant fellow!
Very well, then! Fly to Thrace and fight.[1]

f[1] The Athenians were then besieging Amphipolis in the Thracian Chalcidice.

By Bacchus! 'Tis well spoken; I will follow your counsel.

'Tis acting wisely, by Zeus.

"On my light pinions I soar off to Olympus; in its capricious
flight my Muse flutters along the thousand paths of poetry in turn..."

f[1] There was a real Cinesias--a dythyrambic poet born at Thebes.

This is a fellow will need a whole shipload of wings.

CINESIAS (singing)
"...and being fearless and vigorous, it is seeking fresh outlet."

Welcome, Cinesias, you lime-wood man![1] Why have you come here
a-twisting your game leg in circles?

f[1] The scholiast thinks that Cinesias, who was tall and slight
of build, wore a kind of corset of lime-wood to support his waist--
surely rather a far-fetched interpretation!

"I want to become a bird, a tuneful nightingale."

Enough of that sort of ditty. Tell me what you want.

Give me wings and I will fly into the topmost airs to gather fresh
songs in the clouds, in the midst of the vapours and the fleecy snow.

Gather songs in the clouds?

'Tis on them the whole of our latter-day art depends. The most
brilliant dithyrambs are those that flap their wings in void space
and are clothed in mist and dense obscurity. To appreciate this,
just listen.

Oh! no, no, no!

By Hermes! but indeed you shall. "I shall travel through thine
ethereal empire like a winged bird, who cleaveth space with his
long neck..."

Stop! easy all, I say![1]

f[1] The Greek word used here was the word of command employed
to stop the rowers.

"...as I soar over the seas, carried by the breath of the

By Zeus! but I'll cut your breath short.

"...now rushing along the tracks of Notus, now nearing Boreas
across the infinite wastes of the ether." (PISTHETAERUS BEATS HIM.}
Ah! old man, that's a pretty and clever idea truly!

What! are you not delighted to be cleaving the air?[1]

F[1] Cinesias makes a bound each time that Pisthetaerus strikes him.

To treat a dithyrambic poet, for whom the tribes dispute with each
other, in this style![1]

f[1] The tribes of Athens, or rather the rich citizens belonging
to them, were wont on feast-days to give representations of dithyrambic
choruses as well as of tragedies and comedies.

Will you stay with us and form a chorus of winged birds as slender
as Leotrophides[1] for the Cecropid tribe?

f[1] Another dithyrambic poet, a man of extreme leanness.

You are making game of me, 'tis clear; but know that I shall
never leave you in peace if I do not have wings wherewith
to traverse the air.

What are these birds with downy feathers, who look so pitiable
to me? Tell me, oh swallow with the long dappled wings.[1]

f[1] A parody of a hemistich from 'Alcaeus.' --The informer is
dissatisfied at only seeing birds of sombre plumage and poor appearance.
He would have preferred to denounce the rich.

Oh! but 'tis a regular invasion that threatens us. Here comes
another of them, humming along.

Swallow with the long dappled wings, once more I summon you.

It's his cloak I believe he's addressing; 'faith, it stands in great
need of the swallows' return.[1]

f[1] The informer, says the scholiast, was clothed with a ragged cloak,
the tatters of which hung down like wings, in fact, a cloak that could
not protect him from the cold and must have made him long for the
swallows' return, i.e. the spring.

Where is he who gives out wings to all comers?

'Tis I, but you must tell me for what purpose you want them.

Ask no questions. I want wings, and wings I must have.

Do you want to fly straight to Pellene?[1]

f[1] A town in Achaia, where woollen cloaks were made.

I? Why, I am an accuser of the islands,[1] an informer...

f[1] His trade was to accuse the rich citizens of the subject islands,
and drag them before the Athenian court; he explains later the special
advantages of this branch of the informer's business.

A fine trade, truly!

...a hatcher of lawsuits. Hence I have great need of wings
to prowl round the cities and drag them before justice.

Would you do this better if you had wings?

No, but I should no longer fear the pirates; I should return
with the cranes, loaded with a supply of lawsuits by way of ballast.

So it seems, despite all your youthful vigour, you make it your
trade to denounce strangers?

Well, and why not? I don't know how to dig.

But, by Zeus! there are honest ways of gaining a living at your age
without all this infamous trickery.

My friend, I am asking you for wings, not for words.

'Tis just my words that give you wings.

And how can you give a man wings with your words?

'Tis thus that all first start.


Have you not often heard the father say to young men in the
barbers' shops, "It's astonishing how Diitrephes' advice has made
my son fly to horse-riding." --"Mine," says another, "has flown
towards tragic poetry on the wings of his imagination."

So that words give wings?

Undoubtedly; words give wings to the mind and make a man soar
to heaven. Thus I hope that my wise words will give you wings to fly
to some less degrading trade.

But I do not want to.

What do you reckon on doing then?

I won't belie my breeding; from generation to generation we have
lived by informing. Quick, therefore, give me quickly some light,
swift hawk or kestrel wings, so that I may summon the islanders,
sustain the accusation here, and haste back there again on flying

I see. In this way the stranger will be condemned even before
he appears.

That's just it.

And while he is on his way here by sea, you will be flying
to the islands to despoil him of his property.

You've hit it, precisely; I must whirl hither and thither like
a perfect humming-top.

I catch the idea. Wait, i' faith, I've got some fine Corcyraean
wings.[1] How do you like them?

f[1] That is, whips--Corcyra being famous for these articles.

Oh! woe is me! Why, 'tis a whip!

No, no; these are the wings, I tell you, that set the top a-spinning.

Oh! oh! oh!

Take your flight, clear off, you miserable cur, or you will soon
see what comes of quibbling and lying. Come, let us gather up our wings
and withdraw.

In my ethereal flights I have seen many things new and strange and
wondrous beyond belief. There is a tree called Cleonymus belonging
to an unknown species; it has no heart, is good for nothing and is
as tall as it is cowardly. In springtime it shoots forth calumnies
instead of buds and in autumn it strews the ground with bucklers in
place of leaves.[1]

Far away in the regions of darkness, where no ray of light ever
enters, there is a country, where men sit at the table of the heroes
and dwell with them always--save always in the evening. Should any
mortal meet the hero Orestes at night, he would soon be stripped and
covered with blows from head to foot.[2]

f[1] Cleonymous is a standing butt of Aristophanes' wit, both as an informer
and a notorious poltroon.
f[2] In allusion to the cave of the bandit Orestes; the poet terms him a hero
only because of his heroic name Orestes.

Ah! by the gods! if only Zeus does not espy me! Where is Pisthetaerus?

Ha! what is this? A masked man!

Can you see any god behind me?

No, none. But who are you, pray?

What's the time, please?

The time? Why, it's past noon. Who are you?

Is it the fall of day? Is it no later than that?[1]

f[1] Prometheus wants night to come and so reduce the risk
of being seen from Olympus.

Oh! 'pon my word! but you grow tiresome.

What is Zeus doing? Is he dispersing the clouds or gathering them?[1]

f[1] The clouds would prevent Zeus seeing what was happening below him.

Take care, lest I lose all patience.

Come, I will raise my mask.

Ah! my dear Prometheus!

Stop! stop! speak lower!

Why, what's the matter, Prometheus?

H'sh! h'sh! Don't call me by my name; you will be my ruin, if Zeus
should see me here. But, if you want me to tell you how things are
going in heaven, take this umbrella and shield me, so that the gods
don't see me.

I can recognize Prometheus in this cunning trick. Come, quick
then, and fear nothing; speak on.

Then listen.

I am listening, proceed!

It's all over with Zeus.

Ah! and since when, pray?

Since you founded this city in the air. There is not a man who now
sacrifices to the gods; the smoke of the victims no longer reaches us.
Not the smallest offering comes! We fast as though it were the
festival of Demeter.[1] The barbarian gods, who are dying of hunger,
are bawling like Illyrians[2] and threaten to make an armed descent
upon Zeus, if he does not open markets where joints of the victims
are sold.

f[1] The third day of the festival of Demeter was a fast.
f[2] A semi-savage people, addicted to violence and brigandage.

What! there are other gods besides you, barbarian gods who dwell
above Olympus?

If there were no barbarian gods, who would be the patron of

f[1] Who, being reputed a stranger despite his pretension to the title
of a citizen, could only have a strange god for his patron or
tutelary deity.

And what is the name of these gods?

Their name? Why, the Triballi.[1]

f[1] The Triballi were a Thracian people; it was a term commonly used
in Athens to describe coarse men, obscene debauchees and greedy

Ah, indeed! 'tis from that no doubt that we derive the word

f[1] There is a similar pun in the Greek.

Most likely. But one thing I can tell you for certain, namely,
that Zeus and the celestial Triballi are going to send deputies here
to sue for peace. Now don't you treat, unless Zeus restores the sceptre
to the birds and gives you Basileia[1] in marriage.

f[1] i.e. the 'supremacy' of Greece, the real object of the war.

Who is this Basileia?

A very fine young damsel, who makes the lightning for Zeus; all
things come from her, wisdom, good laws, virtue, the fleet, calumnies,
the public paymaster and the triobolus.

Ah! then she is a sort of general manageress to the god.

Yes, precisely. If he gives you her for your wife, yours will be
the almighty power. That is what I have come to tell you; for you know
my constant and habitual goodwill towards men.

Oh, yes! 'tis thanks to you that we roast our meat.[1]

f[1] Prometheus had stolen the fire from the gods to gratify mankind.

I hate the gods, as you know.

Aye, by Zeus, you have always detested them.

Towards them I am a veritable Timon;[1] but I must return in all
haste, so give me the umbrella; if Zeus should see me from up there,
he would think I was escorting one of the Canephori.[2]

f[1] A celebrated misanthrope, contemporary to Aristophanes. Hating
the society of men, he had only a single friend, Apimantus, to whom
he was attached, because of their similarity of character; he also
liked Alcibiades, because he foresaw that this young man would be
the ruin of his country.
f[2] The Canephori were young maidens, chosen from the first families
of the city, who carried baskets wreathed with myrtle at the feast
of Athene, while at those of Bacchus and Demeter they appeared
with gilded baskets. --The daughters of 'Metics,' or resident aliens,
walked behind them, carrying an umbrella and a stool.

Wait, take this stool as well.

Near by the land of the Sciapodes[1] there is a marsh, from the
borders whereof the odious Socrates evokes the souls of men.
Pisander[2] came one day to see his soul, which he had left there when
still alive. He offered a little victim, a camel,[3] slit his throat
and, following the example of Ulysses, stepped one pace backwards.[4]
Then that bat of a Chaerephon[5] came up from hell to drink the camel's

f[1] According to Ctesias, the Sciapodes were a people who dwelt
on the borders of the Atlantic. Their feet were larger than the rest
of their bodies, and to shield themselves from the sun's rays they
held up one of their feet as an umbrella. --By giving the Socratic
philosophers the name of Sciapodes here Aristophanes wishes to convey
that they are walking in the dark and busying themselves with
the greatest nonsense.
f[2] This Pisander was a notorious coward; for this reason the poet
jestingly supposes that he had lost his soul, the seat of courage.
f[3] Considering the shape and height of the camel, [it] can certainly
not be included in the list of SMALL victims, e.g. the sheep and
the goat.
f[4] In the evocation of the dead, Book XI of the Odyssey.
f[5] Chaerephon was given this same title by the Herald earlier
in this comedy. --Aristophanes supposes him to have come from hell
because he is lean and pallid.

This is the city of Nephelococcygia, Cloud-cuckoo-town, whither we come
as ambassadors. (TO TRIBALLUS) Hi! what are you up to? you are
throwing your cloak over the left shoulder. Come, fling it quick over
the right! And why, pray, does it draggle in this fashion? Have you
ulcers to hide like Laespodias?[2] Oh! democracy![3] whither, oh!
whither are you leading us? Is it possible that the gods have chosen
such an envoy?

f[1] Posidon appears on the stage accompanied by Heracles and
a Triballian god.
f[2] An Athenian general. --Neptune is trying to give Triballus some
notions of elegance and good behaviour.
f[3] Aristophanes supposes that democracy is in the ascendant in Olympus
as it is in Athens.

Leave me alone.

Ugh! the cursed savage! you are by far the most barbarous of all
the gods. --Tell me, Heracles, what are we going to do?

I have already told you that I want to strangle the fellow who has
dared to block us in.

But, my friend, we are envoys of peace.

All the more reason why I wish to strangle him.

Hand me the cheese-grater; bring me the silphium for sauce; pass
me the cheese and watch the coals.[1]

f[1] He is addressing his servant, Manes.

Mortal! we who greet you are three gods.

Wait a bit till I have prepared my silphium pickle.

What are these meats?[1]

f[1] Heracles softens at sight of the food. --Heracles is the glutton
of the comic poets.

These are birds that have been punished with death for attacking
the people's friends.

And you are seasoning them before answering us?

Ah! Heracles! welcome, welcome! What's the matter?[1]

f[1] He pretends not to have seen them at first, being so much engaged
with his cookery.

The gods have sent us here as ambassadors to treat for peace.

There's no more oil in the flask.

And yet the birds must be thoroughly basted with it.[1]

f[1] He pretends to forget the presence of the ambassadors.

We have no interest to serve in fighting you; as for you, be
friends and we promise that you shall always have rain-water in your
pools and the warmest of warm weather. So far as these points go we
are armed with plenary authority.

We have never been the aggressors, and even now we are as well
disposed for peace as yourselves, provided you agree to one
equitable condition, namely, that Zeus yield his sceptre to the birds.
If only this is agreed to, I invite the ambassadors to dinner.

That's good enough for me. I vote for peace.

You wretch! you are nothing but a fool and a glutton. Do you
want to dethrone your own father?

What an error! Why, the gods will be much more powerful if the
birds govern the earth. At present the mortals are hidden beneath
the clouds, escape your observation, and commit perjury in your
name; but if you had the birds for your allies, and a man, after
having sworn by the crow and Zeus, should fail to keep his oath,
the crow would dive down upon him unawares and pluck out his eye.

Well thought of, by Posidon![1]

f[1] Posidon jestingly swears by himself.

My notion too.

And you, what's your opinion?


f[1] The barbarian god utters some gibberish which Pisthetaerus
interprets into consent.

D'you see? he also approves. But hear another thing in which we can
serve you. If a man vows to offer a sacrifice to some god, and then
procrastinates, pretending that the gods can wait, and thus does not
keep his word, we shall punish his stinginess.

Ah! ah! and how?

While he is counting his money or is in the bath, a kite will
relieve him, before he knows it, either in coin or in clothes, of
the value of a couple of sheep, and carry it to the god.

I vote for restoring them the sceptre.

Ask the Triballian.

Hi Triballian, do you want a thrashing?

Saunaka baktarikrousa.

He says, "Right willingly."

If that be the opinion of both of you, why, I consent too.

Very well! we accord the sceptre.

Ah! I was nearly forgetting another condition. I will leave Here
to Zeus, but only if the young Basileia is given me in marriage.

Then you don't want peace. Let us withdraw.

It matters mighty little to me. Cook, look to the gravy.

What an odd fellow this Posidon is! Where are you off to? Are we
going to war about a woman?

What else is there to do?

What else? Why, conclude peace.

Oh! you ninny! do you always want to be fooled? Why, you are seeking
your own downfall. If Zeus were to die, after having yielded
them the sovereignty, you would be ruined, for you are the heir of all
the wealth he will leave behind.

Oh! by the gods! how he is cajoling you. Step aside, that I may
have a word with you. Your uncle is getting the better of you, my poor
friend.[1] The law will not allow you an obolus of the paternal
property, for you are a bastard and not a legitimate child.

f[1] Heracles, the god of strength, was far from being remarkable
in the way of cleverness.

I a bastard! What's that you tell me?

Why, certainly; are you not born of a stranger woman? Besides,
is not Athene recognized as Zeus' sole heiress? And no daughter
would be that, if she had a legitimate brother.

But what if my father wished to give me his property on his
death-bed, even though I be a bastard?

The law forbids it, and this same Posidon would be the first to
lay claim to his wealth, in virtue of being his legitimate brother.
Listen; thus runs Solon's law: "A bastard shall not inherit, if
there are legitimate children; and if there are no legitimate
children, the property shall pass to the nearest kin."[1]

f[1] This was Athenian law.

And I get nothing whatever of the paternal property?

Absolutely nothing. But tell me, has your father had you entered
on the registers of his phratria?[1]

f[1] The poet attributes to the gods the same customs as those
which governed Athens, and according to which no child was
looked upon as legitimate unless his father had entered him
on the registers of his phratria. The phratria was a division
of the tribe and consisted of thirty families.

No, and I have long been surprised at the omission.

What ails you, that you should shake your fist at heaven? Do you want
to fight it? Why, be on my side, I will make you a king and will feed
you on bird's milk and honey.

Your further condition seems fair to me. I cede you the young

But I, I vote against this opinion.

Then it all depends on the Triballian. (TO THE TRIBALLIAN.) What do
you say?

Big bird give daughter pretty and queen.

You say that you give her?

Why no, he does not say anything of the sort, that he gives her; else
I cannot understand any better than the swallows.

Exactly so. Does he not say she must be given to the swallows?

Very well! you two arrange the matter; make peace, since you
wish it so; I'll hold my tongue.

We are of a mind to grant you all that you ask. But come up
there with us to receive Basileia and the celestial bounty.

Here are birds already cut up, and very suitable for a nuptial feast.

You go and, if you like, I will stay here to roast them.

You to roast them! you are too much the glutton; come along with us.

Ah! how well I would have treated myself!

Let some[one] bring me a beautiful and magnificent tunic for the

At Phanae,[2] near the Clepsydra,[3] there dwells a people who have
neither faith nor law, the Englottogastors,[4] who reap, sow, pluck
the vines and the figs[5] with their tongues; they belong to a barbaric
race, and among them the Philippi and the Gorgiases[6] are to be found;
'tis these Englottogastorian Philippi who introduced the custom all over
Attica of cutting out the tongue separately at sacrifices.[7]

f[1] The chorus continues to tell what it has seen on its flights.
f[2] The harbour of the island of Chios; but this name is here used
in the sense of being the land of informers ([from the Greek for]
'to denounce').
f[3] i.e. near the orators' platform, in the Public Assembly, or because
there stood the water-clock, by which speeches were limited.
f[4] A coined name, made up of [the Greek for] the tongue, and [for]
the stomach, and meaning those who fill their stomach with what they
gain with their tongues, to wit, the orators.
f[5] [The Greek for] a fig forms part of the word which in Greek means
an informer.
f[6] Both rhetoricians.
f[7] Because they consecrated it specially to the god of eloquence.

Oh, you, whose unbounded happiness I cannot express in words,
thrice happy race of airy birds, receive your king in your fortunate
dwellings. More brilliant than the brightest star that illumes the
earth, he is approaching his glittering golden palace; the sun
itself does not shine with more dazzling glory. He is entering with
his bride at his side,[1] whose beauty no human tongue can express; in
his hand he brandishes the lightning, the winged shaft of Zeus;
perfumes of unspeakable sweetness pervade the ethereal realms. 'Tis
a glorious spectacle to see the clouds of incense wafting in light
whirlwinds before the breath of the Zephyr! But here he is himself.
Divine Muse! let thy sacred lips begin with songs of happy omen.

f[1] Basileia, whom he brings back from heaven.

Fall back! to the right! to the left! advance![1] Fly around this
happy mortal, whom Fortune loads with her blessings. Oh! oh! what
grace! what beauty! Oh, marriage so auspicious for our city! All
honour to this man! 'tis through him that the birds are called to such
glorious destinies. Let your nuptial hymns, your nuptial songs,
greet him and his Basileia! 'Twas in the midst of such festivities
that the Fates formerly united Olympian Here to the King who governs
the gods from the summit of his inaccessible throne. Oh! Hymen! oh!
Hymenaeus! Rosy Eros with the golden wings held the reins and guided
the chariot; 'twas he, who presided over the union of Zeus and the
fortunate Here. Oh! Hymen! oh! Hymenaeus!

f[1] Terms used in regulating a dance.

I am delighted with your songs, I applaud your verses. Now
celebrate the thunder that shakes the earth, the flaming lightning
of Zeus and the terrible flashing thunderbolt.

Oh, thou golden flash of the lightning! oh, ye divine shafts
of flame, that Zeus has hitherto shot forth! Oh, ye rolling thunders,
that bring down the rain! 'Tis by the order of OUR king that ye
shall now stagger the earth! Oh, Hymen! 'tis through thee that he
commands the universe and that he makes Basileia, whom he has robbed
from Zeus, take her seat at his side. Oh! Hymen! oh! Hymenaeus!

Let all the winged tribes of our fellow-citizens follow the bridal
couple to the palace of Zeus[1] and to the nuptial couch! Stretch forth
your hands, my dear wife! Take hold of me by my wings and let us
dance; I am going to lift you up and carry you through the air.

f[1] Where Pisthetaerus is henceforth to reign.

Oh, joy! Io Paean! Tralala! victory is thing, oh, thou greatest of the gods!

Book of the day: