An Introduction to the Joke of Lysistrata

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Cover of "Lysistrata (Signet Classics)"
Cover of Lysistrata (Signet Classics)

Lysistrata by Aristophanes is a particularly difficult play to analyse from a modern perspective, especially since our views and understandings are far from those of the target audience of the play.  This makes it very difficult to assess just what was the main joke of the play.  One could argue that the main joke is based around the women taking over the public affairs, but one could equally argue that the main joke is based on the sex strike among other themes.  This paper will explore to an extent whether the women taking over public affairs was the main joke and what social attitudes can be discerned form the humour in the play, focusing on the attitudes towards women despite many other attitudes discernible throughout the play which will not be explored here due to the huge extent to which these topics can be explored.

The sex strike could indeed be seen as the main joke as it appears to be at the centre of the play.  As Halliwell puts it ‘sex and war are the comic heart of the play.’[1] No one can get by without sex.  At the start of the play it is the women who are in anguish and ‘sex mad’, but towards the end of the play the focus changes tact and it is the men who are in anguish.  But would this work as the focus of the whole play?  How could it have worked unless there was some real contention between husbands and wives in this period, which we just don’t know of?  Sommerstein asserts that this was most likely not the mindset of Aristophanes’ essentially male audience…for one thing, the plot requires us to assume that consensual marital sex was the only kind of sex available to an Athenian male; well-known alternatives are simply ignored.[2]  Ultimately the concept brings around more questions than answers.  Is the comic tension simply who is going to crack first in a situation which is a fantasy?

The concept of women taking over public affairs is also questionable as the main joke of the play.  Hulton argues that the women’s occupation of the acropolis is indeed the central theme to the play[3], but when one looks at the play as a whole one can’t help but notice that this theme often takes a considerable backseat, especially in the second half.  Parker assesses that this theme works in connection with the sex theme in order to represent love in its civic manifestation, the bond between husband and wife identified with the city itself.[4]  The treatment of these ‘twin themes’ though appears to leave us with nothing more than an alluring fantasy.[5]

This concept does have a comic tone which is significant in the play.  For instance the comic reversal of the ways of the οικος favourably compared to those of the πολις with the old women defeating the old men of the chorus, Lysistrata’s attendants beating the Scythian archers and when the magistrate is symbolically turned into a woman.[6]  It is also fair to note that the women in the play do represent οικος and πολις for as Lysistrata points out, why can’t they look after the finances of the πολις? After all they look after the οικος finances.  It is even said that there is a need for women to save or rescue the whole of Greece from war as the men have created such chaos, an idea which in the mind of the male audience of the period would have surely been preposterous, and even more comic as the women are actually able to take over.[7]  This concept though almost becomes forgotten in parts of the play as it is overshadowed which suggests that though it was an important concept it may not have been created in order to be the main joke of Lysistrata.

The attitudes that emerge in Lysistrata are a mixture of social reality and comic stereotyping.[8]  There are a number of attitudes which are portrayed in the play, for instance the idea that Athens was a society in which the unmarried woman had no role or place.  The institution of marriage appears to be the foundation of society in Lysistrata, which is very different from in Aristophanes’ other plays such as the promiscuous sexuality of the Acharnians.[9]  The humour of the play particularly highlights the woman’s prominent role in marriage as well as in burial and lament.  For instance the chorus of the old women ‘bury’ the magistrate,[10] and pour a ‘nuptial bath’ on the old men ‘to make them grow.’[11]

Also in relation to the social attitudes towards women the humour of the play discerns comic stereotypes of Athenian wives, for instance, as secret, heavy drinkers.  The play discerns attitudes towards two groups of women; the first group of young sexually active women is portrayed in a rather negative manner appearing foolish and easily manipulated by their bodily desires, particularly their lust for sex and wine.[12]  The second group of older women past their prime are portrayed in a more positive manner: they pray to the gods, perform services in the cults of the πολις and are introduced to the stage while performing a classic type of portrayed female work (carrying water from a fountain).[13]  The attitudes towards different groups of women are seen throughout both parts of the play.

Social attitudes concerning a woman’s place and duties are also discerned throughout the play. For instance Kalonike comments when Lysistratas is exasperated over the women’s failure to appear that the domestic duties make it hard for women to leave the house.  This among many other passages discerns the norms of respectability in relation to women and is seen as the general social attitude towards the place of women.[14] Their place was in the home, not to be seen or heard.[15] Foley argues though that Lysistrata dissipates the standard comic and tragic expectations of behaviour of women.[16]  Still, as Faraone points out there is a repeated association with both day-to-day household economy and with important civic rituals and cults which women were expected to participate in.[17]


Aristophanes, Lysistrata (Penguin trans.), pp.177-235

Dillon, M., The Lysistrata as a Post-Deceleian Peace Play, in Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol.117 (1987), pp.97-104

Faraone, C.A., Salvation and Female Heroics in the Parodos of Aristophane’s Lysistrata, in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 117 (1997), pp.38-59

Fletcher, J., Women and Oaths in Euripides, in Theatre Journal, Vol.55, No.1 Ancient Theatre (2003), pp.29-44

Foley, H.P., The “Female Intruder” Reconsidered: Women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae, in Classical Philology, Vol.77, No.1 (1982), pp.1-21

Halliwell, S., Aristophanes – Birds, Lysistrata, Assembly women, Wealth (Oxford, 1997), pp.79-89

Hulton, A.O., The Women on the Acropolis: A Note on the Structure of the ‘Lysistrata’, in Greece and Rome, Second Series, Vol.19, No.1 (1972), pp.32-36

Parker, D., Lattimore, R., and Arrowsmith, W., Four Plays by Aristophanes (Middlesex, 1964), pp.342-344

Sommerstein, A.H., Penguin Classics: Aristophanes – Lysistrata and Other Plays (London, 2002), pp.134-137

[1] Halliwell, S., Aristophanes – Birds, Lysistrata, Assemby-women, Wealth (Oxford, 1997), p.79

[2] Sommerstein, A.H., Penguin Classics: Aristophanes – Lysistrata and Other Plays (London, 2002), p.136

[3] Hulton, A.O., The Women on the Acropolis: A Note on the Structure of the ‘Lysistrata’, in Greece and Rome, Second Series, Vol.19, No.1 (1972), p.32

[4] Parker, D., Lattimore, R., and Arrowsmith, W., Four Plays by Aristophanes (Middlesex, 1964), p.343

[5] Halliwell, op.cit., p.83

[6] Dillon, M., The Lysistrata as a Post-Deceleian Peace Play, in Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol.117 (1987), p.101

[7] Halliwell, op.cit., p.87

[8] Ibid., p.85

[9] Dillon, op.cit., p.103

[10] Aristophanes, Lysistrata (Penguin trans.), 599-607

[11] Ibid., 378-84

[12] Faraone, C.A., Salvation and Female Heroics in the Parodos of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 117 (1997), p.39

[13] Faraone, op.cit., p.39 – this task is seen in numerous echoes in popular myths and rituals concerned with salvation.

[14] Halliwell, op.cit., p.85

[15] Aristophanes, op.cit.,  – Lysistrata comments that in the last war ‘we were too modest to object to anything you men did – and in any case you wouldn’t let us say a word.  But don’t think we approved!…and then when you came home we’d be burning inside but we’d have to put on a smile and ask what it was you’d decided to inscribe on the pillar underneath the Peace Treaty – and what did my husband always say? – ‘shut up and mind your own business!’ And I did.’ – p.201

[16] Foley, H.P., The “Female Intruder” Reconsidered: Women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae, in Classical Philology, Vol.77, No.1 (1982), p.10

[17] Faraone, op.cit., p.39

Ancient Scripts of Egypt: An Introduction

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Obelisk at the Temple in Luxor

Writing and literature is a significant part in the development of all cultures and civilisations, Ancient Egypt is no exception.  Writing in ancient Egypt has a history of near three thousand years and in the study of this topic one sees that it can be broken down into a large amount of detail, documents and texts can be categorised based on diverse criteria. In order to gain a basic understanding of literature in Ancient Egypt it is important to focus on the process of development and in doing so look at the foundations of the topic.

Writing in ancient Egypt in the very beginning seems confined to a small group of the elite.  Literacy was generally a trait of the educated class and the upper-levels of the government, their audience being largely educated individuals like themselves.  Writing had a sacred quality for the ancient Egyptians and they were careful about what was written down as they believed that once something was written down it could became true.

The term ‘Egyptian literature’ generally refers to the entire surviving body of texts from the Pre-Ptolemaic periods, including texts of religious and funerary purpose, fictional or narrative texts and non-practical texts, but appears to have excludes the likes of practical texts such as letters and administrative works.  Particular periods of Egyptian history highlight different genres of texts and the introduction of different scripts.

The most revered of the Ancient Egyptian scripts is hieroglyphs; first attested to around the period of Naqada III, with the discovery of inscribed labels in the excavation of Tomb U-j at Abydos.  Hieroglyphs were used primarily for ornamental and monumental inscriptions and cursive hieroglyphs for religious texts.  Terms for scripts in ancient Egypt relate the different functions and institutional contexts of the scripts.  Hieroglyphs were known as ‘mdw ntr’ meaning ‘god’s words’, illustrating the sacred function of this script.  Cursive hieroglyphs are first attested in the first Dynasty and were used by scribes to write more easily in ink.

Aesthetic considerations were a determining factor in the layout of hieroglyphic inscriptions.  Although the hieroglyphic script is made up of pictorial symbols, the script was primarily phonetic rather than pictorial with signs mostly having phonetic values.

Hieratic is first encountered from the end of the first dynastic period as a development as the cursive form of hieroglyphs used for everyday purposes. However, finds of such hieratic documents are very rare before Dynasty 5. The script sees a reduction of the pictorial aspect with a tendency to write words out more fully with a greater use of phonetic complements. From the middle kingdom different forms of the hieratic script emerge, including formal and administrative. New kingdom hieratic appears more calligraphic but there was a reform to reintroduce the pictorial aspect of the signs.  Cursive hieroglyphs died out in the first millennium BCE, where as hieratic was used to the end for some religious and learned texts.

In terms of literature:

Pyramid Texts

The old kingdom was dominated by religious texts including funerary and pyramid texts. Pyramid texts were found in royal pyramids in dynasties 5 and 6 such as those found in the pyramid of UnasThe Pyramid Texts were funerary inscriptions that were written on the walls of the early Ancient Egyptian pyramids at Sakkara. However, the first Pyramid Text that were actually discovered were from the Pyramid of Pepi I. The pyramid texts eventually evolved into the Book of the Dead.

There is also evidence of medical texts but excavations have not yet recovered any from the old kingdom and no narrative literature is attested. The evidence of writing is at first fragmentary in the first dynasty, and full sentences only appear from the end of the second dynasty, when writing is more extensively used on monuments and in administration.

The middle kingdom saw the introduction of fictional literature including works such as the eloquent peasant, the tale of wonder and the tale of Sinuhe.

The eloquent peasant – Dyn 9/10, popular during the middle kingdom, illustrated a form of writing which appealed to the educated Egyptian. This tale tells of the eloquence of a peasant trader who is held wrongfully by the king so he can hear more of his eloquence.

The tale of Sinuhe – around the 12th dynasty, popularity shown by many copies that have survived; including a Limestone Ostracon with the concluding stanzas of The Tale of Sinuhe written in hieratic on one side.

Such stories also give us some understanding of Egyptian life. The tale of Sinuhe describes the return of an Egyptian courtier from exile which could be used as evidence of court life. These texts purport to be historical but details in the plots indicate fantasies to entertain and they provided a good counterpoint to official texts.

Coffin Text

The middle kingdom also saw the inclusion of the coffin texts. The Coffin Texts superseded the Pyramid Texts as magical funerary spells at the end of the Old Kingdom. Although they are mainly seen in the Middle Kingdom there are also examples dating from the Late Old Kingdom. The coffin texts illustrate the spread of afterlife ideas from the nobility classes to whole of the population and eliminated the exclusivity of the Pyramid texts.

A number of popular religious and philosophical texts are also attributed to the middle kingdom, such as the hymn to Hapy and the Dialogue between a Man Tired of life and his Ba.  These pieces and expanding genres of literature is an indication of Egypt’s increasing cultural achievements in the Middle kingdom as many different forms of literature flourished giving us a more widespread picture of the culture.

The new kingdom witnessed an expansion of existing genres and added categories including offering texts, hymns and funerary texts such as the book of the dead. And further texts were added to the list of fictional texts including the tale of the predestined prince and the tale of the capture of Joppai.

Such fictional texts of this period include the ‘the tale of two brothers’, which is considered as a historical allegory and a political satire.  The text is meant to entertain but also shows a sense of sophistication telling of two semi-divine protagonists and their adventures.  The text is dated to around the 19th Dynasty and comes fromMemphis around the time when Seti II was still crown prince.

The book of the dead or ‘the book of coming forth by day’ is a collection of magical spells derived mainly from earlier coffin and pyramid texts.  It was intended to guide the deceased through the various trials they would encounter before reaching the underworld.  Knowledge of the appropriate spells was considered essential in surviving and being happy in the afterlife.

Other examples of New Kingdom funerary texts include the ‘book of the gates’ which made its appearance in the 18th dynasty and referred to the 12 gates as barriers in reference to the hours of the night.

The Amduat or ‘the book of the secret chamber’ is another example of such funerary books which is aspired to be the oldest of the royal funerary books and appears in tombs such as that of Ramesses VI. The Amduat documents the sun god’s journey through the 12 divisions of the underworld, beginning on the western horizon and reappearing as Khepri, the newborn sun in the East. They correspond to the 12 hours of the night.

The late period saw the introduction of the demotic text. Which was initially used for commercial and administrative texts.  The demotic text was also used for literary purposes from at least the early Ptolemaic period onwards.  Demotion narrative fiction included exploits of heroic individuals such as the tale of Setne/khaemwaset and the cycle of inaros/pedubastis. This appearance and increase in popularity of the heroic exploits in Egyptian Literature suggests influence of Greek heroic texts.

Demotic was known as the popular script and was cursive, known to the Egyptians sekh shat (writing for documents), gradually replacing hieratic except with religious and funerary matters from the 26th Dynasty onwards. Demotic has been regarded as the primary cursive script of the north as early as 700BC and of all of Egypt by 550BC.. It’s survival was ensured by features such as in administration as the provision between greek and Egyptian law courts. It was used for business, literature, some religious texts and occasional stone inscriptions, such as seen on the Rosetta stone where it appears in stone along with hieroglyphs and Greek. Three phases can be distinguished in the development of the demotic script, early, Ptolemaic and roman.

Coptic which gradually developed from greek influence and then later gave way to arabic is debated about in regards to whether it can be counted as part of the ancient egyptian culture or a more modern cultural age. Either way I will leave it for later posts.

If you are interested in a detailed study of Egyptian scripts and how to learn them, have a look at THESE RESOURCES.

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Female Heroism in Ancient Greek Literature

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In order to evaluate to what extent there is a concept of ‘female heroism’ in ancient Greek literature it is necessary to look at female literary figures in ancient Greece and their qualities. There are several definitions of a heroine that provide us with a basis from which to evaluate the concept of ‘female heroism’.  Lyons asserts that a heroine is a “heroized female personage or recipient of heroic honours.” This definition is in some ways similar to definitions of male heroes yet female heroic figures in literature were very rarely seen in the same light. Even in the Oxford English Dictionary does it describe heroines as being, in ancient mythology, a female intermediate between a woman and a goddess; a demi goddess who has cult paid to them and are worshipped, a woman distinguished by courage, fortitude or noble achievements; “the chief female character in a poem, play or story”; the woman in whom the interest of the piece is centred.  Definitions of male heroism however include, “a great warrior”, “a man of superhuman qualities”.

The Flight of Medea

The concept of female heroism in Ancient Greek literature displays that heroines would not act as male heroes would, and they had less significantly recognised qualities.  This indicates that this concept was stunted due to lack of diversity in characters.  Harris and Platzner assess that heroines don’t often “go on quests or engage in combat with monsters or gods”.  An evaluation of Ancient Greek sources such as Euripides’ Hecuba and Iphigenia, suggests that the main role of the female hero was that of sacrifice.  The female heroic figure is excessively seen with this quality of self sacrifice, such as with Polyxena.  Euripides explains that Polyxena is self-sacrificial in nature for the sake of her people.  As Euripides  asserts that through her sacrifice to Achilles, the Greeks were finally able to set out on their voyage to Troy and the awaiting war.  However Polyxena also expresses more masculine qualities of wishing to obtain her honour and spirit by insisting on dying with dignity, not as a slave, so she can be a willing sacrifice.

Iphigenia also shows this willingness and quality of self sacrifice when she is sacrificed so the Greeks can leave Troyafter the Trojan War in Euripides7.  She sacrifices herself for the good of her people and accepted it as such, even though at the last moment she is spirited away by the gods.  This quality of self sacrifice is very rare in male heroic figures in Ancient Greek literature.  An evaluation of this quality indicates that the majority of female heroic figures were sacrificed and achieve honour quicker than their male counterparts; this illustrates one reason why their roles in literature are smaller; they achieve their purpose quicker.

Helen being taken from Troy

The female heroic character in Greek literature was however more than sacrificing.. Most female heroic figures also expressed qualities of wisdom, cunning and dignity.  Pomeroy explains that “Aristotle judged it inappropriate for a female character to be portrayed as manly or clever” but analysis of characters like Penelope and Nausicaa in the Odyssey, indicates that female heroic figures could, and did, hold these essentially masculine qualities.  Homer explains that Penelope outwitted her suitors for years by weaving and unravelling a huge web, displaying a cunning mind and, in so doing, keeping her dignity.  Nausicaa also shows these qualities. Homer explains that she kept her distance from Odysseus, even when she rescued him, for knowledge of the destructive powers of talk and never lost her honour.  Through this assessment we can see that the concept of female heroism did exist as evident in the actions and qualities of certain figures in relation to their portrayal in texts. But this concept of heroism is more passive in some respects to the male literary heroes, their quests and obviously heroic actions.

The concept of female heroism is also evidently used by the poet to transmit a deeper meaning. Euripides’ works use female figures such as Helen to portray a higher purpose.  Though Helen is a figure of questionability in regards to being a heroic figure or not, she can be assessed as portraying heroic qualities such as beauty and self sacrifice of love and family in Euripides.  Euripides portrays Helen as the catalyst, the trigger that started the Trojan War, which if hadn’t taken place; all those heroes would not have done those deeds and achieved a heroic status. Homer however illustrates Helen differently, showing her more as a seductive character, but uses her in the same manner.  This indicates that the concept of female heroism includes that of contribution to greater events, which is ultimately the reason why Helen can be seen as a literary heroine, as she is fulfilling the role of a ‘helper maiden’.

The female heroic figure is most often free from male assistance in her quest to achieve status.  The majority of female heroic characters are independent.  Harris and Platzner assess that this is particularly highlighted in “victorious heroines”, these are heroines who are able to “Retain their independence and to pursue their goals aggressively and yet remain within the context of gender-coded behaviour”.  Such heroines include Nausicaa and Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey.  An assessment of these figures suggests that both of these women were able to achieve their goals and not lose their honour and dignity, through their own means.  This idea is even portrayed in the so called “brides of death”, like Iphigenia, who are able to keep their dignity and obtain status through their own willingness to be sacrificed for a cause.

This independence is also shown from the point of comparison between male heroic figures and female heroic figures.  Pomeroy assesses that it is female characters who help male heroes.  Pomeroy expresses this idea by outlining the many heroic female figures that helped male heroes, “Ariadne, who helped Theseus slay the Minotaur; Medea, who helped Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece; and Nausicaa, the advisor of Odysseus…”.  An evaluation of this suggests that while male heroes require female assistance at times, female heroes do not require male assistance, making them independent from their counterparts and highlighting the concept of female heroism in Ancient Greek literature.

Odysseus and Nausicaa

The extent of the concept of female heroism is greatly diminished in literature though, due to it not being the dominant force that the concept of male heroism is.  Ancient Greece was a male dominated society and literature was written for males by males in order to inspire males, hence the concept of male heroism was by far much more established. Pomeroy analyses that “the mythology about women is created by men and in a culture dominated by men”, due to this, the role of the female in literature is usually submissive and modest.  Pomeroy assesses that it is only through the influence of Bronze Age literature that the Ancient Greek poet or writer could not ignore strong female characters.  Even so, the majority of female literary characters were seen as submissive to men. For instance, many accepted it when their own male relatives decided to sacrifice them.  Iphigenia in Euripides accepts her father’s decision to sacrifice her, indicating a submissive side with a sense of duty, though she also seen as self-sacrificing and honourable.

The concept of female heroism is important in terms of the purpose the female heroes portrayed.  In ‘Lycurgus against Leocrates’ Euripides expresses that “if women bring themselves to act like this, men should show towards their country a devotion which cannot be surpassed, not forsake it and flee, as Leocrates did, nor disgrace it before the whole of Greece.”  If women were willing to sacrifice themselves for their people and countries, so should men or else they were cowards.  Male heroes of the Polis were there to inspire, influencing the people and infusing them with their qualities as a reflection of heroic attributes.  Female heroes had a similar purpose to those heroes of the Polis, except they were to inspire the male heroes more than the people.  Through heroines in Euripides, Homer and Apollodorus; for instance Iphigenia and Polyxena, the authors are trying to bestow these self sacrificing qualities on their readers, the male heroes and the males in society.  They are also expressing the heroine’s lack of pride and ego which men are often governed by.

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