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Birds by Aristophanes - - an excerpt


Dramatis Personae


PISTHETAIROS: a middle-aged Athenian

EUELPIDES: a middle-aged Athenian

SERVANT-BIRD: a slave serving Tereus, once a man

TEREUS: a hoopoe bird, once a man




GLUTTON-BIRD: a fictitious species


CHORUS: of birds

XANTHIAS: slave serving Pisthetairos

MANODOROS: slave serving Euelpides, also called MANES

PROCNE: a nightingale with a woman’s body, consort of Tereus



ORACLE MONGER: a collector and interpreter of oracles

METON: a land surveyor

COMMISSIONER OF COLONIES: an Athenian official

STATUTE SELLER: a man who sells laws

FIRST MESSENGER: a construction-worker bird

SECOND MESSENGER: a soldier bird

IRIS: messenger goddess, daughter of Zeus


YOUNG MAN: young Athenian who wants to beat up his father

CINESIAS: a very bad dithyrambic poet and singer

SYCOPHANT: a common informer


POSEIDON: god of the sea, brother of Zeus

HERCULES: the legendary hero, now divine

TRIBALLIAN GOD: an uncouth barbarian god

PRINCESS: a divine young lady


SLAVES attending Pisthetairos.


[Scene: a rugged, treed wilderness area up in the rocky hills. Enter

Pisthetairos and Euelpides, both very tired. They are clambering down

from the rocky heights towards the level stage. Pisthetairos has a crow

perched on his arm or shoulder, and Euelpides has a jackdaw. Both

Pisthetairos and Euelpides are carrying packs on their back. They are

followed by two slaves carrying more bags. The slaves stay well out of

the way until they get involved in the action later on.]


EUELPIDES: [speaking to the bird he is carrying]

     Are you telling us to keep going straight ahead?

     Over there by that tree?


                                                         Blast this bird—

     it’s croaking for us to head back, go home.


     Why are we wandering up and down like this?

     You’re such a fool—this endless weaving round

     will kill us both.


                                         I must be an idiot

     to keep hiking on along these pathways,

     a hundred miles at least, and just because

     that’s what this crow keeps telling me to do.


     What about me? My poor toe nails are thrashed.                                             10

     I’ve worn them out because I’m following

     what this jackdaw says.

PISTHETAIROS [looking around]

                                                        I’ve no idea

     where on earth we are.


                                        You mean from here

     you couldn’t make it back to your place?                                                                         [10]


     No way—not even Execestides

     could manage that.1


                                     We’re in a real mess.


2Tereus: the name of a mythological king of Thrace who married Procne and raped her sister Philomela. The sisters killed his son and fed Tereus the flesh for dinner. All three were changed into birds: Tereus into a hoopoe, Procne into a nightingale, and Philomela into a swallow. Tharreleides: the reference here seems to be to a well-known member of the audience, perhaps celebrated for his small size and loud voice.

     Well, you could try going along that pathway.


[The two men start exploring different paths down to opposite sides of the stage]



     We two were conned by that Philokrates,

     the crazy vendor in the marketplace

1Execestides: An Athenian descended from Carian slaves and therefore not entitled to be a citizen. The point is that he must have been very skillful to get to Athens, given where he started, and even he couldn’t find his way back to Athens.

     who sells those trays of birds. He claimed these two                                        20

     would take us straight to Tereus the hoopoe,

     a man who years ago became a bird.

     That’s why we paid an obol for this one,

     this jackdaw, son of Tharreleides.2

     and three more for the crow. And then what?

     The two know nothing, except how to bite.


[The jackdaw with Euelpides begins to get excited about something.

Euelpides talks to the bird]


     What’s got your attention now? In those rocks?                                                              [20]

     You want to take us there? There’s no way through.

PISTHETAIROS [calling across the stage to Euelpides]

     By god, the same thing over here, no road.


     What’s your crow saying about the pathway?                                                  30


     By god, it’s not cawing what it did before.


     But what’s it saying about the road?



     it’s saying nothing, just keeps on croaking—

     something about biting my fingers off.

EUELPIDES [addressing the audience]

     Don’t you think it’s really odd the two of us,

2Sacas: a name for Acestor, a foreign-born tragic dramatist.


1birds: the Greek expression is “to the Ravens,” meaning “go to hell.”


     ready and eager to head off for the birds,3

     just can’t find the way. You see, we’re not well.

3tribe and clan: the political units of Athenian civic life.


     All you men sitting there to hear our words,                                                                     [30]

     we’re ill with a disease, not like the one

     which Sacas suffers,no—the opposite.4                                                            40

     He’s no true citizen, yet nonetheless

     he’s pushing his way in by force, but we,

     both honoured members of our tribe and clan,5

     both citizens among you citizens,

     with no one trying to drive us from the city,

4basket, pot, and myrtle boughs: these materials were necessary to conduct the sacrifices at the founding of a new city.


     have winged our way out of our native land

     on our two feet. We don’t hate the city

     because we think it’s not by nature great

     and truly prosperous—open to all,

     so they can spend their money paying fines.                                                         50

     Cicadas chirp up in the trees a while,

     a month or two, but our Athenians                                                                                          [40]

     keep chirping over lawsuits all their lives.

     That’s why right now we’ve set off on this trip,

     with all this stuff—basket, pot, and myrtle boughs.6

     We’re looking for a nice relaxing spot,

     where we can settle down, live out our lives.

     We’re heading for Tereus, that hoopoe bird—

     we’d like to know if in his flying around

     he’s seen a city like the one we want.                                                                  60