Presenter: Rachel Dowe (Thesis review seminar)

The gods of Aristophanes’ comedies seem to share many of the vices of mortals, and his plays make fun of their worship in what appears to be a sacrilegious manner. Yet, during this period various individuals were harshly punished for sacrilegious acts and the spreading of unconventional beliefs. It is thus striking that comedy was allowed the freedom to portray the gods publically in such a manner. I therefore propose to examine how deities are characterised in Aristophanes’ comedies, and how this treatment differs from Athenian popular culture. In particular, I wish to determine what these differences reveal about the nature of ‘old comedy’ and its license to approach religion in a manner not necessarily tolerated elsewhere. In this paper, it will be observed that, despite the impious aspects of his gods, Aristophanes’ depictions were recognised as ultimately products of the comedic stage. These comedic constructions were excused by a ‘festival license’, where transgressions of social norms were allowed and encouraged during a time of festivity. However, it will also be demonstrated that the comic depictions of the gods actually relied on the traditional attitudes of the audience in order for the jokes to have a foundation. In this way, Aristophanes’ comedies consistently demonstrated the primacy of popular beliefs, rather than agitating for an abandonment of such ideals. The impiety present on the stage is thus moderated by an underlying acknowledgement of divine power. This paper proposes to argue for this reading of the plays by utilising Aristophanes’ Peace as a case-study.