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Religion and the Gods in Greek Comedy

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter explores the uses to which religious motifs are put in Greek comedy and the relationship between comic representation of gods and cult and the range of contemporary Athenian religious attitudes. Which gods appear in a comedy, and how they are represented, is a reflex of the social and cultural concerns or anxieties with which the play deals. It is argued that the lighthearted ways in which Old Comedy treats the aspects of divine identity, ritual (especially sacrifice), and festival activity on which it focuses attest and reflect the familiarity to an Athenian audience of comfortably noncommittal attitudes to the validity of theological propositions and the primacy of simple pleasure in feast and festival in routine experience of religion. The same sorts of representations and attitudes persist in New Comedy, alongside an increasingly abstract representation of divine identity in which Tyche-personified "chance" or "fortune"-looms large.

Keywords: religion, gods, divine, cult, sacrifice, festival, ritual, religious attitudes, Tyche, fortune, chance

Remarkably little has been published on religion and the gods in Greek comedy. This no doubt has partly to do with the difficulty of the most interesting questions about the role of religion in comic drama, and especially in Old Comedy: Are its often undignified portrayal of the gods and predominantly lighthearted approach to cultic matters evidence, as was generally supposed in the first half of the twentieth century, that contemporary Athenians did not take the gods wholly seriously, or that belief in the gods was waning in the later fifth century (e.g., Keller 1931; Kleinknecht 1937, esp. 116–122; Nilsson 1967: 779–783)? Or is it rather evidence—taken alongside, for example, the many hymns in Aristophanes which clearly owe a good deal to cultic congeners—that traditional piety thrived on, or even required, the outlet of comic license (e.g., Dover 1972: 31–33; Parker 2005: 147–152)? Or, as Keller 1931 suggested, is there perhaps a clear distinction between reduced seriousness about the mythology of the gods and routine cult on the one hand, and on the other, marked restraint and respect toward the Eleusinian mysteries?

Then there are the difficult questions about the relationship between comedy and real life, questions which we now rightly see as prior to those posed above, but which were often not adequately faced in earlier scholarship and remain underdiscussed in connection with religion and the gods (but see Given 2009 and above all Parker 2005: 147–152). No one has ever doubted that religion and the gods are put to poetic employment in comedy, that—whatever else they may be—they can certainly function as what Parker calls “enabling fictions” (Parker 2005: 145), but to what extent, if any, can we see beyond such employment and confidently detect predominant or common religious assumptions of an “Athenian audience?” Is, for example, the traditional view that comedians must rely on common assumptions to get laughs, just as orators must rely on them to be persuasive, really a safe criterion? Most importantly, perhaps, is it possible to avoid petitio principii in this matter, that is, to discover criteria allowing conclusions that are not simply based on prior assumptions about Athenian religiosity?

(p. 341) The questions about Old Comedy are interesting and difficult. New Comedy’s treatment of religion and the gods, by contrast, can be described in a more straightforward manner, and can to some extent serve as a check on our ideas about Old Comedy.

Cult in Old Comedy: Festivals, Sacrifice, and Oracles

Aristophanes is arguably our richest source from the classical period, alongside the inscriptional record, for the realities of fifth-century Athenian cult and the gods who were its recipients. The inscriptions give us a far wider range of evidence for the names, epithets, and sanctuaries of recipients of cult, the names and dates of festivals, ritual procedures, and sacrificial victims, but they generally tell us little or nothing about the attitudes of those participating in the cults—although texts that are “sacred laws” of course require and assume a high standard of seriousness and piety. Aristophanes, by contrast, does give us rare and precious glimpses of such attitudes, indications of how (some) participants in (some) rituals felt about them.

An instructive example of what Aristophanes (and inscriptions) have to tell us about cult is Strepsiades’s account in Clouds of experiences at the festival Diasia. “By Zeus,” he says, “exactly that happened to me once at the Diasia. I was roasting a haggis for my relatives and forgot to make a slit in it. So it puffed up and then suddenly exploded, spattered my eyes, and burnt my face” (408–411). He later mentions having bought a toy cart for Phidippides at the same festival (864). Strepsiades’s haggis apparently contradicts the testimony of Thucydides (1.126.4), who mentions Diasia as a festival for Zeus Meilichios that does not involve sacrifices of “ordinary sacrificial victims” (1.126.6), i.e., the standard animal sacrifice with banqueting. Scholars of Greek religion, associating this with Xenophon’s attestation of holocaust (wholly burnt) sacrifice to Zeus Meilichios (Anab. 7.8.4), used to conclude that animals were sacrificed at Diasia as holocaust offerings involving no banquet (e.g., Deubner 1932: 155–156). Zeus Meilichios, often portrayed in the form of a snake, seems to be the sort of underworld or chthonian god to whom holocaust can be appropriate, and all this seemed to square with much later evidence that the festival Diasia was conducted “with a certain grimness” (Σ Luc.107.15,110.27 Rabe; Hesych. δ 1312 Latte). The picture was, however, completely altered—and the evidence of Clouds strikingly confirmed—with the publication in 1963 and 1983 of two new Attic inscriptions (of the late fifth and mid-fourth centuries), both of which clearly attest standard animal sacrifice rather than holocaust at the Diasia (Sokolowski 1969, no. 18 A 37–42; SEG 33 [1983] 147.35). It turns out, therefore, that Aristophanes’s evidence is more reliable than that of Thucydides, and surely also more reliable than the later evidence on the mood of the festival. The slapstick of the exploding haggis might just be squeezed into a picture of a “grim” Diasia, but taken together with Strepsiades’s recollection of buying the toy cart—and Demosthenes (10.50) tells us that “the abundance (p. 342) and cheapness of the things for sale” was the mark of a well-organized festival—it seems safe enough to conclude that Strepsiades’s barbecuing and toy-buying, like the sacrificial banqueting now securely attested, are evidence that for most participants Diasia was rather a jolly than a grim festival (see further Scullion 2007: 190–193).

Broadening our scope a little, we find that Aristophanes provides a good deal of suggestive evidence about the mood in which his contemporaries attended festivals. At Peace 815–816, the chorus ask the goddess-Muse to “play with me in this festival” (μετ’ ἐμοῦ ξύμπαιζε τὴν ἑορτήν, cf. Frogs 319, 333, 375, 388, 392, 407b, 411, 415, 442, 452 with Dover 1993: 57–59; Menander, Epitrepontes [Arbitrators] 478), and in the vast majority of references to festivals in the plays the predominant mood is pleasure—relaxation, family, food and drink, entertainment—and above all the delights of peace in contrast to the horrors of war. There are sometimes hymns (and happy dancing to them), but little in the way of theology or demonstrative piety on the part of ordinary people, and there are often sacrifices, but it is their aspect as a meal that engrosses the ordinary participant’s attention. The spirit of holiday is much more obviously invoked than that of holy day.

Chronologically the first, and one of the most famous, of the festival scenes in extant Aristophanes is Dicaeopolis’s celebration in Acharnians (202, 241–279) of his own Rural Dionysia when he acquires a thirty-year peace treaty—a treaty in the shape of a libation-bowl or wineskin (with a pun on spondai = both “treaty” and “libation”). In this case, there are a number of marked cultic elements: Dicaeopolis begins by calling for ritual silence (241), musters a phallus procession with his daughter as basket-bearer, prays to Dionysus “that I may conduct this procession and sacrifice pleasingly to you, and that I and my household may hold the Rural Dionysia with good fortune now that I’m released from war-service, and that the thirty years’ peace may be beneficial for me” (247–252), and sings a hymn to Phales—a personification of the large ritual phallus carried in the procession—which perhaps owes something to phallic hymns in cult but focuses on sexual antics and drinking as preferable alternatives to war in a way that cultic hymns will not have done (263–279). The choice of Dionysus and the Rural Dionysia, rather than any other god or festival, for the celebration of Dicaeopolis’s separate peace is perhaps driven primarily by the representation of the treaties on offer as libation-bowls or wineskins and secondarily by a jolly rural festival—and one with sexual associations—being the natural choice of Dicaeopolis as a pleasure-loving rustic of the deme Cholleidae (406). There is no reason to think of the Dionysiac festival context of the performance of the play as relevant; Aristophanes makes such associations clear when they are relevant, as in Frogs. More importantly, we should notice that—as has often been observed of Old Comedy (recently, for example, by Given 2009)—the business of putting the world to rights, here of making the peace, is the task of human agents rather than of the gods. Dicaeopolis turns to the Rural Dionysia to celebrate something he has brought about himself, not—as would be normal in cult—to invoke the god’s help beforehand in the hope of obtaining it, nor to thank the god afterward for having granted it. There is a touch of those standard modes of approach to the god in the phrase “that the thirty years’ peace may be beneficial for me” (252), but Dicaeopolis’s (p. 343) Rural Dionysia is clearly much more a “celebration” in our secular sense than a festival whose professed cultic function is paramount.

The obvious question is whether this predominance of celebration and pleasure over cultic function is purely a product of the comic context or might rather tell us something important about how ordinary Greeks felt about festivals. It is difficult to feel confident drawing a conclusion, but the vast majority of references to festivals elsewhere in Aristophanes points in the same direction as the passage in Acharnians, and surely justifies us in assuming that priority of festival fun over cultic functionality was a familiar attitude to Aristophanes’s audience. Just as most comic references to sacrifice center on eating and drinking, so too do many references to festivals—meat from the Apaturia festival for erotic go-betweens (Women at the Thesmophoria 558); thrushes (a favorite food, cf. Clouds 339) for Choes (“Jugs”), the second day of Anthesteria (Acharnians 961); and in the telling catalogue of pleasures associated with personified Peace by Trygaeus at Peace 530–532: “she smells of harvest, parties, Dionysia, pipes, tragic performances, Sophocles’s songs, thrushes, little lines by Euripides.” The drinking contest that was a feature of Choes (but not the fact of the day being apparently “unclean,” possibly because the souls of the dead were thought to come up during it: Parker 2005: 294–295), also figures prominently in Ach. (1000–1002, 1085–1086, 1211, 1228–1229), which is our most important source for the events of this day of the festival (cf. Women at the Thesmophoria 745–747 and Frogs 215–219 for the third day of Anthesteria, Chytroi, “Pots”).

Peace is a particularly rich source for attitudes to festivals. When Trygaeus frees Peace, she is accompanied by two attractive attendants, Opora, personified Harvest, whom Trygaeus will marry, and Theoria, personified “Junket” (see Scullion 2005: 126), whom he restores to the Athenian Council (in their reserved seats in the theater) and who represents the Council’s jolly privilege of sending delegates to enjoy themselves at international festivals, which the coming of peace will allow them to do again. Theoria is exclusively associated with light-hearted references to the festival pleasures of food and above all of sex (341–342, 715–717, 872–874, 876, 879–880, 881–908; see Scullion 2005: 119–121). The motif of the festival as a place where men meet and sometimes impregnate women is familiar in the fifth century (e.g., Wealth 1013–1014, in tragedy Euripides Ion 545–554), and recurs in New Comedy (Menander, Epitrepontes 450–454, 472–480; Samia 31–49; also probably Phasma 194–207), and there is therefore no reason to conclude that in Peace comic exaggeration has lost touch with reality. Comic exaggeration there no doubt is, but still it is difficult not to see this most spectacular example of the “fun and games” model of the festival as telling us something important about Athenian attitudes, or at any rate about an available—and not a strange—attitude, even among official state delegates to the most prominent international festivals.

Festivals can also be treated quite disrespectfully. In Clouds, beyond the references to Diasia, there are references to two festivals marked as especially old-fashioned: Socrates calls Strepsiades a “moron smelling of the Cronia” (398), and Worse Argument employs Dipolieia (a festival of Zeus Polieus) and its ritual Bouphonia (“Ox-slaying”) as marks of what is “antiquated” (984–985). It is remarkable that it should be divine festivals that Aristophanes makes spring to the lips of his characters as indicative of what is stale and (p. 344) fustybut Cronia and Dipolieia are precisely the festivals a poet would choose who wanted his audience to find imputations of fustiness plausible. The Cronia was dedicated to Cronus and thus harked back to the divine ancien régime, and the Bouphonia ritual of Dipolieia, with its focus both on sacrifice as a guilty act and on trial of the sacrificial knife or axe, was strikingly distinctive and will have seemed to many fifth-century Athenians, as to many modern scholars, redolent of the remote origins of animal sacrifice.

Is the festival of the Eleusinian Mysteries, as Keller 1931: 54–61 suggested, treated by Aristophanes with exceptional respect? There is the difficulty here that, unlike most festivals, the Mysteries were subject to a strict requirement of secrecy, but even so there is nothing in Frogs resembling Sophocles’s “How thrice-blessed are those of mortals who go to Hades having seen these rites, for to them alone is life given there, to the others all ills” (fr. 837 Radt TrGF; cf. Hymn. Hom. Cer. 480–482; Pindar, fr. 137 Snell-Maehler). The closest we come are Heracles’s references to “fair sunlight” and “blessed bands of men and women” in Hades (154–157, cf. 327) and the chorus’s final lines in the scene: “For us alone is there sun and sacred daylight, all of us who are initiated and behaved righteously toward strangers and ordinary people” (454–459). There are occasional references to Demeter, but she is invoked rather to protect the chorus so it can “safely play and dance all day” (387–388) than as goddess of mystic initiation. The chorus pray to her: “…and may I say many funny things, and many serious things, and frolicking and jesting worthily of your festival may I be garlanded as victor” (389–393); the prayer shifts us away from the mysteries to the comic contest at Dionysus’s festival by blurring the chorus’s plot-internal and -external identities. Otherwise, the emphasis throughout is on the pleasures of the dancing led by Iacchus, on “our uninhibited, fun-loving worship” (332–333nor does Aristophanes eschew the scene’s potential for sexual humor at 408–415). Thus there seems no reason to regard Aristophanes’s treatment of the mysteries as especially restrained by contrast with his handling of other festivals.

What can we conclude? It seems safe to say that when they sat down to watch a comedy, an Athenian audience was not expecting to learn important things about the meaning and purpose of the festival of Dionysus during which the play was performed, or of any other festival. Rather, festivals are primarily events at which ordinary participants enjoy themselves, eat and drink too much, buy things, watch processions and athletic contests and shows, and perhaps misbehave sexually. That, we must assume—given the overwhelming predominance of the same set of attitudes throughout the plays—was, if not a universal, at any rate a very common attitude.

The two other staple elements of Greek religious practice which recur in Aristophanic comedy are sacrifice and oracles. Far more often than not, oracles come in for mockery as absurdly obfuscatory or as self-serving invention (or both), especially those cited by oracle-mongers (such as Hierocles the seer at the end of Peace) or those connected with the low-grade oracles of Bacis or Glanis. The oracle predicting the advent of the Sausage-Seller in Knights (128–147) turns out to be true, but unlike most comic oracles it also obviously serves an essential plot-function, elevating a most unlikely candidate to the status of savior of the city. Several Aristophanic sacrifices likewise play a (p. 345) role in organizing the plot—the establishment of the cult of Peace (Peace 922–1126), the sacrifice-blocking siege of the gods in Birds (190–193, 563–569, 809–811, 848–903), the setting of the scene of the Thesmophoria festival (Women at the Thesmophoria 284–288), and a sacrifice that loses its point when Wealth gains his sight and so can reward the good on his own initiative (Wealth 137–143, 1113–1116, 1171–1184). These more extended scenes do not focus on sacrifice primarily as a source of meat in the same way as passing references elsewhere do, but still involve plenty of humor of that kind. A fragment of the old comic poet Pherecrates (K-A fr. 28) reflects, as no extant passage of Aristophanes does, men’s uncomfortable awareness that they rather than the gods enjoy the meat of standard sacrificial procedure —an oddity for which Hesiod’s story of the tricking of Zeus by Prometheus is already an attempt to account (Theogony 535–557).

The importance of all this for our study of Aristophanic technique is obvious enough: even the realia of ritual and cult are grist to the poet’s comic mill, and earn their place in his work either as useful premises of the plot or by their capacity to raise laughs, to be mocked, or to invoke nostalgia for the pleasurable pursuits of peace.

The Gods in Old Comedy

Let us explore further the question of Aristophanes’s dramatic employment of the stuff of Greek religion by considering his depiction of the gods and their roles in the plays. His technique at the level of general plot-construction can be very subtle indeed. Perhaps the best example is his personification of the Clouds; he gives the impression at first that they are newfangled, appropriately vaporous deities of the sophists, but in the parabasis (518ff.) they take on a new guise as neglected divinities of traditional type, and by the end of the play they become stern defenders of belief in and respect for the traditional gods (1454–1455, 1458–1461 with 1470–1480, 1506–1509). The comic technique is striking: with minor exceptions, the full chorus manages to maintain from its opening words—one of the loveliest of many lovely hymns in Aristophanic comedy, in praise of holy Athens (299–313)—the identity of novel divinities who are nevertheless traditional both in their values and in their hymnic idiom. The audience’s initial impression that they are sophistical divinities is created almost entirely by what Socrates, the Chorus Leader, and Strepsiades say in the opening scene (252–253, 258–259, 264–266, 316–318, 319–322, 331–334, 365–411, 412–419, 423–424, 427–428, 431–432, 435–436, 457–475 [whole chorus]). The comic technique here hardly promotes “coherent characterization,” but it is highly effective and thematically important, both as manifestation of how much turns on how one looks at things, and—if only retrospectively for many in the audience—as a “ticking time bomb” of traditional good sense lying half-hidden until in the end it explodes sophistry.

One of the important effects of this kind of use of divinities or divine personifications is to keep the divine realm in the background while the human agents of the comedy work out their schemes—successfully or unsuccessfully, for good or ill—on their own. It has often been observed that though the gods are very frequently mentioned in (p. 346) Aristophanes, they rarely play a very prominent or essential role in the working out of the comic plot, even in the few plays in which gods are characters (Hermes and silent Peace in Peace; Iris, Prometheus, Poseidon, Heracles, and the Triballian god in Birds; Dionysus, Heracles, and Pluto in Frogs; Wealth and Hermes in Wealth). In general, the driving force of an Aristophanic plot is someone’s attempt to reshape the world in the form of human desire—or sometimes merely to sort out his own world to relieve his anxieties. Thus war must give way to peace (Acharnians, Peace, Lysistrata), political corruption (and war) to honesty (Knights), the generally wretched state of society to a new regime (Birds), bad new poetry to good old poetry (Frogs), the political incompetence of men to women’s good sense (Assemblywomen), unjust distribution of wealth to reward of the good (Wealth)—or a man must escape his debts (Clouds), his father’s jury-mania (Wasps), or his bad reputation with women (Women at the Thesmophoria).

If one reflects on these particular themes, the general sort of role the gods might play suggests itself readily enough. In Aristophanes, the Peloponnesian war is always an entirely manmade stupidity. Trygaeus is tempted to blame it on Zeus (Peace 57–71, 103–108), but soon learns from Hermes that the gods have decamped in disgust at mortal rejection of their attempts to arrange truces (204–226), and so Trygaeus must counteract vaguely personified Polemos (“War”) to free the goddess Peace. Lysistrata is gender-inflected, so that the opponent there is men (with personified Reconciliation resembling Peace, and Lysistrata herself associated, through the real-world priestess Lysimache [Henderson 1987: xxxviii–xl], with Athena as savior of Athens). In Acharnians, the opponent is the belligerent Cleon and his ilk, and so again in Knights. The theme of a new regime of the world in Birds entails displacement of the gods as its traditional rulers and so brings scenes of a sacrificial blockade of the gods and a negotiated settlement (of sorts, through bribery of minor divinities), but the focus is very much on human rather than divine sources of the world’s troubles, including a series of types of Athenian pest—poet, oracle-expounder, informer, and so on. The role of Dionysus (and likewise of Heracles and Pluto in Frogs) is obvious enough, and it is centrally important that Dionysus acts here primarily as a bereft lover of Athenian tragic drama rather than as the daunting god of myth and cult. Assemblywomen, like Lysistrata, is focused on the shortcomings of men, politics, and social mores. One can imagine a play about the injustices of wealth in which distorted human values were the problem, but not perhaps an old comedy. Aristophanes wants a vivid opponent, which the social causes of unfair distribution of wealth are too various and diffuse to provide (unlike the Athenian social pests who can appear as types in Birds): hence only in Wealth is a god (Zeus) vigorously accused of injustice toward those who honor him (Wealth 87–98, 123–126, 1117), and moreover, the regime he runs is overthrown when Chremylus succeeds in having Wealth cured of his blindness (1112–1119). The gods are bound to be less prominent in Wasps, with its focus not only on an individual’s problems but also on manmade aspects of Athenian political culture. The Clouds come into their play because of the theme of sophistry, and the modest role of the Thesmophoroi, Demeter and Kore, naturally suits the setting of Women at the Thesmophoria. Looked at in this way—even with the ready concession that in any given case Aristophanes might have made quite other choices—it (p. 347) is clear how far the role of the gods depends on prior considerations of theme and plot, and how unsafe it therefore is to look for any consistent Aristophanic theology.

There is, however, evidence in the comedies that atheistic ideas, skeptical attitudes to the gods and cult, and quite remarkable acts of impiety were familiar to poet and audience. Such passages are not terribly common, but Euripides is taxed with disbelieving in the gods (Women at the Thesmophoria 450–452, cf. Ran. 889–893, 936); the chorus of Women at the Thesmophoria say that any man caught among them will be punished and “will say that the gods manifestly exist” (668–675); and in Knights, one slave asks another whether he really believes that gods exist (30–34). Socrates’s powerful arguments against traditional accounts of Zeus’s control of the weather are an example of the sort of thinking that might produce doubt of the gods’ existence (Clouds 369–402). Carion’s robustly satirical account of the goings-on in the Asclepieum during Wealth’s incubation-cure is not quite skeptical—the cure, after all, succeeds—but with its priest “sanctifying the offerings into his sack” and so on, it certainly expresses a rather jaundiced view of healing cult (Wealth 653–747). Perhaps most startling among the acts of impiety mentioned is the Priest of Zeus Savior’s complaint at the end of Wealth that no one now sacrifices or even enters a sanctuary, “except the thousands who come to relieve themselves” (1183–1184)—which sounds, though one cannot of course be certain, like the sort of joke that suggests such behavior was not uncommon.

All discussion of the gods in Aristophanes inevitably comes round to the indignities he visits upon them. A scholium on Peace speaks of the prevalence in Old Comedy of “Heracles the hungry, Dionysus the coward, and adulterer Zeus” (Schol. vet. Ar. Pax 741e; on Zeus as adulterer in comedy, see Parker 2005: 151 with n. 67). In his appearances in Peace and Wealth, Hermes cuts a rather poor figure, initial bluster giving way to greedy submission to bribery, and so too the trio of Poseidon, Heracles, and the Triballian who come to negotiate for the gods in Birds. But debate centers specially on Dionysus in Frogs, who soils himself in fear—twice (308, 479–493), envisages himself masturbating while watching his slave enjoy congress with a girl (541–547), and is generally craven and dim throughout. There are essentially two lines on this: the older view that it indicates that Aristophanes’s contemporaries no longer took the gods very seriously, and the more up-to-date assumption that, as Parker puts it, “Greeks felt able to cheek the gods precisely because they did not doubt their power,” and “reality itself provided the necessary corrective” (Parker 2005: 149, 150).1

This may be right, but the first suggestion is certainly rather paradoxical, and the second is an attempt to account for the absence of any corrective in the plays themselves, so that there is some risk here of reading in a prior assumption about the quality of Athenian religiosity, a problem to which we will revert. If we were right to suggest that (p. 348) the average Athenian’s sense of a festival had little strictly “religious” about it, might it not be reasonable to wonder whether in his notions of the gods he likewise operated with a minimal (or merely residual) attachment to the validity of myths and theological propositions, and a correspondingly active capacity (or even propensity) to enjoy seeing them sent up?

We cannot draw conclusions about Aristophanes’s own religious views, but can we—as in the case of festivals—make safe inferences about the range of attitudes to the gods familiar to his audience? If so, we must begin by noting that the overwhelming impression his work gives is of a wide range both of “mythical” gods and of recipients of cult (particular forms of gods identified by epithets, such as Zeus Soter and so on) whose existence is taken very much for granted and who are regarded with affection rather than anxiety or fear. This last may also tell us something important in the sense that such an attitude can naturally slip over into not taking the gods very seriously. But clearly it was not inconceivable to think of Zeus or the generality of gods as operating a rather poor regime, and the question is therefore how far Aristophanic comedy suggests that such attitudes were confined to a small, generally despised minority of eggheads. Put another way, the central question is surely this: Is the comic marginalization of certain attitudes about the gods evidence that such attitudes were repugnant or scarcely conceivable to most Athenians, or should we conclude rather that their extreme marginalization in the plays is a reflex of comedy’s clear tendency to create objects of (sometimes genial) contempt, and that, since we have no safe means of measuring the presence among and appeal to common people of such attitudes, it would be arbitrary to make the extreme assumption that their appeal was confined to a tiny and marginalized minority? The latter seems to me the more prudent conclusion, but a clear and still generally accepted statement of the other conclusion was given by Dover:

Fifth-century Greece produced some individuals of extraordinary intellectual penetration, who speculated on the structure and history of the universe in terms of natural, intelligible processes from which the acts of personal gods were excluded; but in the same city as such an individual, often perhaps in the same household, we should find a majority for whom a strong wind was a person who decided when he would blow, a blight on the crops the manifestation of a god’s anger for a sacrifice promised but not performed, and a sudden bright idea the intervention of an unseen being in the mental processes of an individual human. The average Greek, in short, felt himself to be living in a world populated by superhuman agents (the term ‘supernatural’ would beg the question), and although he might exhibit a cheerful agnosticism if pressed to discuss the precise character and operation of any one such agent, he would not so cheerfully omit the inherited system of festivals, rituals, sacrifices and observances which in his view had for so long ensured the survival of his family and city.

(Dover 1972: 31–32)

Perhaps we can confine ourselves to two observations about this. First, it is a curiously polarized society Dover envisages, a kind of Pietyville that yet produced, as so many sports of nature rather than by organic processes, the individuals of extraordinary (p. 349) penetration—and there were very many of them indeed—who escaped the radical fundamentalism of the majority; it was a Pietyville, moreover, to which sophists from all over the Greek world were drawn. Secondly, how does Dover know that “the average Greek” held quite such fundamentalist attitudes, or that a “cheerful agnosticism” would only emerge when such a person was pressed, or that it was not primarily delight in festivals, rituals, and sacrifices, in combination with cheerful uncertainty or doubt about their metaphysical efficacy, that made omission of them unthinkable? The usual answer to this is that the appeals to conventional piety common in comedy itself and in oratory guarantee that conventional piety was widespread, but we have found reasons to be cautious about comedy in this respect and, as Wasps suggests, the context of a law court, as in a different but analogous way that of the comic theater, is conducive to the encouragement and adoption of more rigidly disapproving and judgmental attitudes than most other contexts. Dover may not be wrong, but the application of prior assumption is surely playing a bigger role here than it ought.

Before turning to New Comedy, we should notice finally a controversial line on religion in Old Comedy that appeals strongly to some scholars but seems quite unpersuasive to others. This is the notion that the plots of old comedies tend to be based on an underlying ritual matrix or model—the aetiological myth(s) of a rite, or its ritual elements, or both. Thus, for example, Lada-Richards 1999 argues that in the course of Frogs Dionysus goes through the stages of a mystic initiation. The most comprehensive—and most learned and circumspect—study on these lines is Bowie 1993 (with Bowie 2000 on the fragmentary plays). Stimulating as such studies—those on comedy no less than those on tragedy—can be, the references, allusions, or analogues to ritual that they posit tend to be so cryptic and/or so vague and approximate that they seem persuasive only to those inclined to assume a priori that Athenian dramatic poets somehow ought to have based their plots on ritual, but unpersuasive to those not inclined to make such an assumption, even though—indeed partly because—neither the assumption nor the interpretations to which it gives rise are conclusively falsifiable.

New Comedy: Menander

There is little to say about religion and cultic gods in the “Middle Comedy” of the first three quarters of the fourth century. We have many fragments of middle comedies, but no complete or nearly complete play has survived, and it is correspondingly difficult to speak with any confidence about the role of the gods in them, except to say that myths about gods, especially about the births of gods, figured among the mythological burlesques that seem to have been very popular in the first half of the fourth century (see Nesselrath 1990: 188–240, Nesselrath 1995, and Konstantakos in this volume). New Comedy, from its beginnings in the last quarter of the fourth century bc, completes a transition from fantastical Old Comedy with its coherent polytheism to thoroughly bourgeois plots and assumptions and to a combination of cultic “local (p. 350) color” with a big picture dominated rather by Tyche—Fortune or Chance personified or deified—than by the traditional pantheon or by any one god.

Greek cult in its traditional forms persisted throughout the great period of New Comedy and beyond, as is clearly reflected in the plays of its most famous practitioner Menander and in the fragments of such other new comedians as Philemon and Diphilus. Thus, for example, Habrotonon says that, having been celibate for two days, she is qualified to carry Athena’s basket in the Panathenaea procession (Epitrepontes 438–439), and Moschion in Kitharistes (Lyre-Player) relates how he saw and fell in love with Phanias’s daughter at a δειπνοφορία τις παρθένων, “a maidens’ meal-carrying” in honor of Ephesian Artemis (Kitharistes 93–97). There are a number of passages in Menander useful to the student of Greek cult for their mention of ritual detail, for example the separate treatment of the tongue of sacrificial victims (Kolax [Flatterer] fr. 1.4–5 Sandbach), the gods’ desire for a victim with good bones and a large spleen (Samia 399–404), and many details of the ritual of weddings (including the cutting of a sesame cake) in Samia (73–75, 122–125, 157–159, 190–191, 673–674, 730–731, cf. K-A fr. 340). There are similarly useful passages in Theophoroumene (Demoniac Girl) about ecstatic cult and the gods associated with it (25–28, 31–57).

A very common new comic type-role is the mageiros—butcher, sacrificer, cook—whose characteristically sardonic approach to his trade is splendidly exemplified in a long fragment of Diphilus in which a mageiros expounds the pros and cons of various kinds of customer, noting for example that the merchant sailor sacrificing to fulfill a vow after his ship was damaged or his cargo had to be thrown overboard is to be avoided because “he doesn’t do it with any pleasure, but purely for the sake of nomos (convention)” (Diphilus K-A 42.13–14, cf., e.g., Menander Aspis 216–233, Dyskolos 393–424, Perikeiromene 995–1000, Samia 286–294, fr. 409 K-A). Among Menander’s plays, sacrifice looms largest in Dyskolos (Bad-Tempered Man), where Sostratus’s mother, who sends Getas to fetch a mageiros, is keenly indiscriminate in her offerings to gods (259–264), a superstitious attitude that generally comes in for disdain in Menander, as it does here in the scene between Getas and the mageiros Sicon at 393–414 (other references to sacrifice at Dyskolos 198, 400–401, 417–418, 430, 439–441 [sacrificial requisites mentioned], 474).

The bad-tempered man himself, Cnemon, who regards the shrine of Pan and the Nymphs next to his house as a mere nuisance, expounds an even more sardonic view of sacrifice than Diphilus’s mageiros: “How they sacrifice, the thieves! They bring hampers and wine-jars, not for the sake of the gods but of themselves. The incense and the cake are piously dealt with—all of it put on the fire and the god gets that. But having dedicated the tail-bone and the gall bladder—because they’re inedible—to the gods, they wolf down everything else themselves” (Dyskolos 447–453). Of course, Cnemon is grumpy and jaded, but there can be no doubt that the dubious status of traditional modes of sacrifice as “gifts for the gods” was clear enough—noticed, as we have seen, by the old comedian Pherecrates, and also by the middle comedian Eubulus (K-A fr. 127)—and that Cnemon’s vigorous denunciation is therefore telling. His allowance that offerings of incense and cake are pious chimes with and perhaps reflects the views of Menander’s (p. 351) older contemporary Theophrastus, who in On Piety recommends such simple offerings and condemns animal sacrifice. There is an even more sharply satirical treatment of the theme in a fragment of Menander’s Methe (Drunkenness), whose speaker notes that he is bringing the gods a little ten-drachma sheep but has spent a talent (a huge sum) on such other provisions for the feast as dancing-girls, perfume, wine, eels, cheese, and honey. If we had to expend as much on the gods as on ourselves, he says, “wouldn’t the bother of sacrifices be doubled?” (πῶς οὐχὶ τὸ κακὸν τῶν ἱερῶν διπλάζεται; Menander K-A fr. 224.10). It again seems safe to conclude that this attitude must have been familiar—or at any rate recognizable—to Menander’s audience, and it is a natural enough development of the primary focus on sacrifice as a source of meat that is exemplified in Old Comedy; there would of course be (for example) a gently rueful way of holding and expressing the same essential idea. As Nilsson put it many years ago when speaking of sacrifice in New Comedy, “As had already been the case earlier, the feast was the main thing, the sacrifice only a form” (Nilsson 1974: 194). There is no doubt at all that this sort of attitude was countered by advocates of traditional piety or, as in the case of Theophrastus, of reformed piety, but beyond the existence of a debate about the nature of piety there are no demographic facts or statistical trends available to us now for the reconstruction of “standard” and “nonstandard” contemporary attitudes (but see e.g. Mikalson 1998: 68–74 for an argument in favor of piety as predominant).

A range of divine recipients of cult finds mention in New Comedy, but nothing like as wide a range as in Old Comedy. Such gods typically enter the picture because their sanctuary is in or near the stage setting, and seldom for any other reason. They are far more marginal than their congeners in Old Comedy, and indeed in most cases provide little more than pleasant local color. Menander’s Sikyonioi is set at Eleusis, for example, and an Eleusinian goddess spoke its prologue, and his Leukadia was set at a temple of Apollo on the island of Leucas, whose holy spring is mentioned (Leukadia 7). Some local divinities of this type—the Eleusinian goddess just mentioned; the heros theos or hero-god of Menander’s Heros, who was a local divinity of the deme Ptelea; or, the best-known example, Pan in Dyskolos—can conveniently deliver the prologue speech which is a standard component of Menandrian comedy, providing background information necessary for comprehension of the plot. Some prologues are, however, spoken not by traditional divinities but by personified abstractions such as Agnoia (“Misconception”) in Perikeiromene (Girl with Her Hair Cut Short) and Tyche in Aspis (Shield).

With Tyche, we come to the “big picture” and the question of how New Comedy’s characters perceive the universe as operating. This figure, “Fortune” or “Chance”—originally a simple personification, but in time a goddess of cult—plays the central, controlling role in the Menandrian world, largely displacing Zeus and the gods and little associated with the cultic modes of converse traditional with them, so that a divide seems to appear in the coherent system of cultic practice and divine governance. Menander K-A fr. 681 says that Tyche is the only divinity, the others empty names. In some respects, therefore, we move here beyond what students of Greek religion regard as their proper domain and into the realm of popular philosophy. A very inconsistent philosophy it is too, and not only, one suspects, because of the varying views, temperaments, and situations of (p. 352) the characters who talk about Tyche in the plays, but also because there was simply no standard or predominant line on the matter in contemporary society.

In Aspis (Shield), Tyche describes herself as “in charge of all this [the plot situation], to judge and control it” (Aspis 147–148), but human perception of her—and the very fact that Tyche can equally well be translated “Chance” as “Fortune”—suggests rather that her operations are highly unpredictable and sometimes hostile or indifferent to human desire. The Tyche of Aspis tells us that she is a god, but “fortune” also occurs often as a common noun. Daos in Aspis opines that “tyche is uncertain” (248–249) and quotes from the fourth-century tragedian Chaeremon the line “human affairs are a matter of tyche, not good counsel” (411); a fragment of Kitharistes (Lyre-Player) describes tyche as “various and deceptive” (fr. 8 Sandbach), as the personified goddess is “blind and wretched” at K-A fr. 682. A character of Philemon’s says that there exists no divinity Tyche, but that τὸ αὐτόματον, “mere chance” or “the accidental” which happens to each person, is called tyche—with a pun on tyche and the verb τυγχάνω, “happen” (Philemon K-A fr. 125), but Demeas in Samia says that τὸ αὐτόματον is a sort of god (Samia 163–164).

Many of the most interesting passages about Tyche / tyche are found among the fragments of the new comedians excerpted precisely for their sententiousness by anthologists. The old idea that one’s character is one’s daimon or presiding divinity occurs frequently—for example, in the form “νοῦς [“mind”] is the god in each of us” (Menander fr. K-A 889)—and is now often associated with Tyche. Thus a Menandrian character says that a man who does not cope well with his own affairs calls his own character tyche (K-A fr. 687), and we encounter the related ideas that we would not need Tyche if we all helped one another (Menander K-A fr. 686) and that tyche works best when one helps it oneself (Philemon K-A fr. 56). On the other hand, some character argues rather that “it is divinity that gives bad fortune or otherwise, not a flaw of character” (Menander K-A fr. 321.3–4).

In two passages, the relation between character and fortune or divinity is developed at some length. A character in Philemon says that there is not a single tyche, but that each person gets his own inborn tyche when he is born, and that one cannot get tyche from another (K-A fr. 9). A fragment of Menander develops similar ideas in more traditional terminology: everyone has a good daimon, as mystagogos (“mystic guide”) of his life, from birth, for we must not believe that there exist evil daimones, nor that god possesses evil, but rather that he is in all respects good. “Those who themselves become evil,” it continues, “through their own character, making a mess of their lives, hold a daimon responsible and call him evil, having become evil themselves” (Menander K-A fr. 500). This is of course a good, traditional Greek view, going back to Homer (Odyssey 1.32–43).

Tyche and tyche tend to predominate in general reflection, but such traditional talk of the gods or daimones as we have just seen is not uncommon. Sometimes such god-talk is positive, as when Misconception in the prologue of Kolax (Flatterer) holds that “through divinity even evil turns to good” (Kolax 169) or someone claims that “the poor are always regarded as the gods’ care” (Leukadia fr. 5 Sandbach) or that “god, if you consider the matter, is fair to all, to free and slaves alike” (Menander K-A fr. 451). More often, though, talk of the gods is negative: “But where are such just gods to be found, Getas?” (Misoumenos [The Hated Man] fr. 7 Sandbach); “the gods [are inclined to favor?] the (p. 353) bad people” (Kolax 27); “there is unjust judgment, as it seems, even among the gods” (Menander K-A fr. 291); “I sacrificed to gods who give me nothing” (Menander K-A fr. 612). Onesimos in Epitrepontes (Arbitrators) offers an account of how things work that nicely sums up the range of views we have been surveying. “Do you think, Smicrines,” he asks, “that the gods have so much leisure as to distribute ill and good day by day to each person?” There are one thousand towns in the world, he goes on, and thirty thousand people in each town—can the gods ruin or save every single one of them? Rather, the gods have put character in us, and this is each man’s god, “the cause of success and of failure for each” (Epitrepontes 1084–1099).

Students of Menandrian comedy have long seen that the gods and religious motifs, including the gods and abstractions who speak prologues, are thoroughly embedded in the internal literary economy of the plays (e.g., Zagagi 1994: 142–168), and it is clear in the case of the many passages from (more or less) extant comedies quoted above, and can be safely inferred in the case of the fragments, that they are serving specific purposes of theme or plot. As in the case of Old Comedy, then, we can get no purchase on a Menandrian theology. As with the motifs of cult, however, we are entitled to conclude that a very wide range of ideas about the (divine) governance of the world was in circulation in contemporary society. Recent scholarship has tended to conclude of New Comedy that its moralizing tendency is on the whole consistent with traditional piety (e.g., Mikalson 1998: 68–74, Parker 2005: 147–147), but as in the case of Old Comedy we ought perhaps to proceed more cautiously and not attempt to “reconcile” the range of views expressed in the plays, nor too readily marginalize the skeptical, cynical, and grim views, which are very common indeed. No doubt, traditional piety did remain strong in the sense that traditional religious practice was carried on with little outward change, but that is eminently compatible with considerable change at the level of “belief.” It may be, though, that there wasn’t a radical change in the fourth century, and that New Comedy rather confirms our emphasis on the relaxed attitudes to cult and the gods, focused on practice rather than belief, in Old Comedy—attitudes of which the range of views about religion and the gods reflected in New Comedy can be seen as a not unnatural development. Perhaps comedy after all suggests that what characterized the “ordinary Greek” of both periods was a profound emotional attachment to what Gilbert Murray (1946: 66–67) called the “inherited conglomerate” of myths, practices, and (possible) beliefs, an attachment that was ethnic, nostalgic, traditionalist, sometimes perhaps antiquarian, as well as based on the simple pleasures of feast and festival—but all of this salted with an equally profound capacity for wit and irony, which can be and often are species of skepticism, and which find natural expression in comedy.

Further reading

The best recent discussion of religion and the gods in comedy—brief but pithy— is Parker 2005: 147–152, an important alternative to the general line taken here. Also helpful or important on various aspects are Marianetti 1992, Bowie 1993 and Bowie 2000, Given 2009, and (p. 354) Jay-Robert 2002. Keller 1931 is still worth reading, if rather superficial methodologically, and Kleinknecht 1937 and Horn 1970 are useful studies of parodies of prayer and hymns. Anderson 1995 is a detailed study of epithets of Athena in Aristophanes, perhaps useful primarily for students of Greek religion. I have, alas, not seen Gellar 2008, a dissertation on sacrifice and ritual imagery in Menander and the Roman comedians. Zagagi 1994 contains perhaps the best chapter on the gods in a literary study of Menander.


Anderson, C. 1995. Athena’s Epithets: Their Structural Significance in Plays of Aristophanes. Stuttgart and Leipzig: Teubner.Find this resource:

    Bowie, A. 1993. Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

      ——. 2000. “Myth and Ritual in the Rivals of Aristophanes”, in D. Harvey and J. Wilkins, eds., The Rivals of Aristophanes: Studies in Athenian Old Comedy, edited by D. Harvey and J. Wilkins, 317–339. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales.Find this resource:

        Deubner, L. 1932. Attische Feste. Berlin: H. Keller.Find this resource:

          Dover, K. 1972. Aristophanic Comedy. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

            ——. 1993. Aristophanes: Frogs. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Find this resource:

              Gellar, T. 2008. “Sacrifice and Ritual Imagery in Menander, Plautus, and Terence.” PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008. Non vidi.Find this resource:

                Given, J. 2009. “When Gods Don’t Appear: Divine Absence and Human Agency in Aristophanes.” CW 102: 107–127.Find this resource:

                  Henderson, J. 1987. Aristophanes: Lysistrata. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Find this resource:

                    Horn, W. 1970. Gebet und Gebetsparodie in den Komödien des Aristophanes. Nuremberg: Carl.Find this resource:

                      Jay-Robert, G. 2002. “Fonction des dieux chez Aristophane: Exemple de Zeus, d’Hermès et de Dionysos.” Revue des Études anciennes 104: 11–24.Find this resource:

                        Keller, G. 1931. Die Komödien des Aristophanes und die athenische Volksreligion seiner Zeit. Tubingen: Laupp.Find this resource:

                          Kleinknecht, H. 1937. Die Gebetsparodie in der Antike. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer.Find this resource:

                            Lada-Richards, I. 1999. Initiating Dionysus: Ritual and Theatre in Aristophanes’ Frogs. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Find this resource:

                              Marianetti, M. 1992. Religion and Politics in Aristophanes’ Clouds. Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann.Find this resource:

                                Mikalson, J. 1998. Religion in Hellenistic Athens. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

                                  Murray, G. 1946. Greek Studies. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Find this resource:

                                    Nesselrath, H.-G. 1990. Die attische mittlere Komödie: Ihre Stellung in der antiken Literaturkritik und Literaturgeschichte. Berlin: De Gruyter.Find this resource:

                                      ——. 1995. “Myth, Parody, and Comic Plots: The Birth of Gods and Middle Comedy.” In Beyond Aristophanes: Transition and Diversity in Greek Comedy, edited by G. Dobrov, 1–27. Atlanta: Scholars Press.Find this resource:

                                        Nilsson, M. P. 1967. Geschichte der griechischen Religion. Vol. 1. 3rd ed. Munich: Beck.Find this resource:

                                          ——. 1974. Geschichte der griechischen Religion. Vol. 2. 3rd ed. Munich: Beck.Find this resource:

                                            Parker, R. 2005. Polytheism and Society at Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (p. 355) Find this resource:

                                              Scullion, S. 2005. “‘Pilgrimage’ and Greek Religion: Sacred and Secular in the Pagan Polis.” In Pilgrimage in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Antiquity: Seeing the Gods, edited by J. Elsner and I. Rutherford, 111–130. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                Scullion, S. 2007. “Festivals.” In A Companion to Greek Religion, edited by D. Ogden, 190–203. Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

                                                  Segal, C. 1961. “The Character and Cults of Dionysus and the Unity of the Frogs.” HSCPh 66: 207–242.Find this resource:

                                                    Sokolowski, F. 1969. Lois sacrées des cités grecques. Paris: E. de Boccard.Find this resource:

                                                      Zagagi, N. 1994. The Comedy of Menander: Convention, Variation and Originality. London: Duckworth. (p. 356) Find this resource:


                                                        (1) An even more popular line of explanation has been festival license or the spirit of carnival, but Parker 2005: 149 with n. 61 speaks of the “easy victory” of this view, rightly noting the absence of “a comparative study which locates the Greek material clearly and firmly. It is not enough to know that in various religious traditions (e.g. medieval Christianity) laughter is permitted about sacred subjects: one needs a clear view of what may and may not be laughed at.”