Scholarly treatment of the use of traditional myth by Aristophanes, the great Corinthian playwright, has mostly employed the following perspectives: First, the combining of comic plots and mythical elements for political satire. Comic poets use traditional mythical elements to enrich newly invented plots that entail satire of current political and social issues. For example, the plot of Lysistrata, which draws on traditional myths of gynecocracy, satirizes the political and social dead end reached by wartime Greeks, suggesting a comically unrealistic solution. The second perspective is that of the parody of tragic myth, on which several comedies depend for some of their basic plot lines; and finally, the least prominent perspective is that of the substratum of myth and political rituals discerned by functional analysis, which attempts to connect comic myth with familiar political and social issues. This final approach is one of great controversy among classicists.
Political myth is usually produced by the reinterpretation or the reworking of traditional mythical material so that it may bear political significance and import in the current context of the political life of the city-state. Myths formed in this way constitute new versions that contribute to the self-definition of cities or social groups or serve to justify political developments. In attempting to understand such mythical references to the past, a functional analysis demonstrates the socio-political function and ideological significance of the politic use of traditional myth, or as many scholars have come to call it, the use of “intentional history.” The phrase expresses the blend of myth and history that the ancient Greeks saw as their past. This kind of cultivation of memory secures the survival and consolidation of collective identity and has the power to influence the future. The political use of myth has its roots in archaic poetry; Athenian politics is known to have taken advantage and made great use of poetic myth of this kind.
It is only natural that political myth, which is found in historical and poetic settings, echo in the comedies of Aristophanes. We would expect Aristophanes’ political comedies to be significantly attracted to this particular type of myth: political comedy is filled with contemporary allusions, and political myth is an appropriate carrier of such allusions in a poetic context. This is not to suggest that political myth in comedy should bear a ‘solemn’ message.
The comic plot elements and jokes within the political satires form part of varied contexts within many different Aristophanic plays, but they have a common basis (like jokes based on the satire of women or of sophists that are also common through Aristophanes’ work). The common basis here is the satire of the political use of myth. As noted at the start, political myth is put at the service of satire. Hence this type of use of myth suggests another form of comic satire. Aristophanes’ use of the politic myth in order to satirize it functions as a means of elucidating a common experience to the Greeks, namely the use of myth for socio-political gains. Although seemingly on the surface, a serious topic, Aristophanes’ ability to integrate such a topic into a comedic work demonstrates its pervasiveness and profane status in Greek culture, but more importantly its comedic value in bringing his audiences both to laughter and enjoyment. Awareness of this form of satire brings significant gains: it enhances our view of the plays’ political aspects and of the satirical techniques used, and it provides new clues to the conception of certain comic heroes and lines of comic action.
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