BMCR 2000.06.13

Dionysism and Comedy

, Dionysism and Comedy. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999. x + 294. $23.95 (pb).

Dionysism and Comedy is an engaging, if at times enigmatic, book. Riu (hereafter R.) would like to reread the plays of Aristophanes within the framework of Dionysiac ritual and their performance during the City Dionysia. To achieve this, R. must first build a case for the major thematic elements of the rituals and myths associated with Dionysus, relying on cult evidence and, as always, rather heavily on Euripides’ Bacchae. Polarities such as “outside” and “inside”, “foreigner” and “citizen”, “foundation” and “disfoundation” of the city, form what R. calls the “religious imaginary” of the Greeks, and can be felt in their rites, festivals, and myths concerning Dionysus. This framework is then applied to Aristophanic comedy, with the expectation that we will, to take one example (on which more later), better understand the comic role of women in Lysistrata, Thesmophoriazusae, and Ecclesiazusae, if we relate their dramatic behavior to the ritual behavior of women involved in Dionysiac worship. Not all readers will be content with such a formulation and some may even be hostile to it. Nevertheless I believe this book deserves a wide readership, especially among graduate students, because R. does an exemplary job of elucidating the major issues in each play and offers each a global reading that argues for an underlying mythic, though in my view not necessarily Dionysiac,1 structure.

Yet this turns out to be only part of the program in the book. The first part and last chapter (10), like bookends, take up the difficult questions of how to interpret the seriousness of Aristophanes, to what extent a unified position can be extracted on the issues of pacifism, panHellenism, criticism of the judicial courts, traditionalism, and whence and through which characters such views are to be reliably determined. Any answer to these questions must simultaneously account for the relationship of comedy to reality (comedy can surely invert reality, and occasionally celebrate the inversion, but not always), which R. sensitively explores in the final chapter. R.’s contribution to this discussion is to call for a “ritual” framework in which to interpret the language of Aristophanes, and I use quotes because it is not Dionysiac ritual that is here relevant but culturally determined ritual (and R. provides comparanda) which, for example, would make invective, obscenity, inversion and transgression not merely necessary but welcome symbolic acts that maintain the health of Greek social relationships (pp. 237-42).

The book is divided into three parts, two of which are subdivided into chapters. Part I, “The Reading of Old Comedy,” attempts to situate the insults and jokes of comedy vis-à-vis the world outside comedy. R. asks how one is to reconcile the insults that participants received on their way to Eleusis, or at the Lenaia, Anthesteria or Thesmophoria, in other words during ritual and festal occasions, with the legal prohibitions in Athens against slander (p. 13). Or how is one to reconcile the parody of cults and religious institutions, impiety toward the gods, slander of political figures, magistrates, and the city, allowable features of comedy which outside of comedy could be punishable by death? (p. 14). Comedy obviously has a ritual occasion for its performance, and therefore such behavior must be allowed, perhaps even hallowed, by that occasion. However, this does not mean that comedy is ritual (which is Cornford’s old thesis), only that it shares ritual features. But R. rightly asks as a consequence, how then do we disentangle those criticisms that are ritually tagged from those that have political relevance to the world outside comedy? R.’s answer — by way of Aristotle’s insistence ( Politics 1336b.3-23) that aiskhrologia should be banned from the State but allowed in certain religious cults, iambus, and comedy — is that comedy self-consciously distinguishes itself from reality (pp. 40-41), i.e. theatricalizes itself. As a result, or perhaps because, of this differentiation (apart from contradictions found within the plays themselves), R. reacts rather strongly against any attempt to discern the “ideology” of Aristophanes, on any issue. Such an ideology will not be forthcoming or credible, because the generic demands of comedy have already made it unreliable (p. 46).

The theatrical ground rules for comedy are not unlimited, and R. argues that they can be found in patterns that underlie the myths and rituals of Dionysus. R. is not merely claiming that we appeal to the standard associations of feasts, wine, and celebration connecting Dionysus and comedy, but that we look to what he calls “Dionysism,” “meaning the worldview that springs out from the myths and rituals in which Dionysus is involved” (p. 52). It seems that by using this term R. wishes to distance himself from the features of Dionysus that emerge primarily from myth (i.e. what is “Dionysiac”), though his own success on this point is dubious. In any case, Part II (Chapters 1-4) rehearses much old ground with regard to outlining the principal polarities associated with Dionysus: outsider vs. insider, barbarian vs. Greek, animal vs. human, disorder vs. order, transposed to the disfoundation vs. foundation of the city, dead vs. living, and the like. Although a panoply of evidence (literary, epigraphical, historical, artistic) is discussed, which in itself makes a good introduction to those unfamiliar with the French structuralist approach to Dionysus, this entire section will be open to the criticism that it conflates centuries of evidence, yet at the same time allows too prominent a place to Euripides’ Bacchae. R. is sensitive to the issue of historicizing the myths of Dionysus, and this leads him to two important conclusions: 1) against Segal,2 he argues that Dionysus is not a danger to the city (in his function as, what R. calls, its “disfounder”), nor is he a force for disorder, since “no people have had, as far as I know, a destructive god who would endanger the order and even survival of that people” (p. 84). Instead, Dionysus serves to indicate a community’s need for limits, hence his divinity (p. 85). And 2) contrary to Seaford,3 those maenadic participants in Dionysiac ritual in the Bacchae and in cult who are blessed ( μάκαρ) or fortunate ( εὐδαίμων) are so both in this world and the next, and Dionysus’ role as mediator between the dead and living is what must be stressed here, since this mutual exchange ensures the health of the community (pp. 104-105).

The blessedness promised to or assumed by participants in Dionysiac ritual leads naturally to a discussion of Eleusis and Dionysus’ role in it (and R. acknowledges [p. 107] that some scholars believe that his involvement in these mysteries is late), as well as of the Lenaia and Anthesteria, which leads to the most important use R. will make of the cult evidence. Just as Dionysus leads the maenads to the mountain for their oreibasia and sparagmos, so too Dionysus-Iacchus leads the procession from Athens to the shrine at Eleusis. Halfway to Eleusis, of course, the gephuristai made insults at the passing participants, which corresponds to the insults made by members of the procession at the Lenaia on wagons, and to the abusive insults made by (this time) men on the procession during the Anthesteria. Arrival from or travel to the “outside,” a path that can be trod in both directions bringing the traveler into contact with various forms of “otherness” (savagery, death, etc.), insults and mockery received along the way — these comprise the principal patterns that R. will discover in Aristophanes (p. 111).

Part III (Chapters 5-10) attempts detailed readings of the plays, each with the aim of integrating those elements which R. has established as “Dionysistic” (the neologism simply will not do) into the larger themes of the play. I will not try to do justice to the richness and complexity of R.’s arguments for each play, as I think readers will want to explore these for themselves, but only give the highlights of his conclusions.

Chapter 5 concentrates on the Frogs. It begins with a survey of the comic Dionysus, and presents the buffoonish Dionysus who is now a caricature of his attributes in cult and tragedy, organized principally along the notions of reversal and inversion (p. 121). More attention is paid to the second half of the play, especially to the textual problems of 1437-65, with a careful discussion of 1446-48 (and its relationship to 727-33 in the parabasis). R. defends the traditional attribution of these lines to Euripides, arguing against Dover’s4 case for the lines to be attributed to Aeschylus, and insists that the final awarding of victory to Aeschylus cannot be based on scholarly presumptions that Aeschylus is the “correct” or a better choice. If the comic Dionysus embodies changeability and reversability, then it makes more sense for “serious” advice (i.e. advice which corresponds to that given in the parabasis) to be given by Euripides, only to have Dionysus award Aeschylus the victory (p. 129). Having said that, R. shrewdly reminds us that every piece of advice given in the parabasis is ridiculed somewhere within the play and that we might need to rethink whether the parabaseis themselves are serious (ibid.). The final part of this chapter is given to the relationship between comedy and the mysteries, particularly in the parodos (esp. 368), and proposes (following Segal5) that the meaning of comedy, as a τελετή of Dionysus, must once again be found within a ritual framework (pp. 139-41).

Chapter 6, treating the Wasps and Knights, leaves the most to be desired. In short, R. argues that both plays essentially stage a transformation of important Athenian institutions — the judicial courts in the former, and strategia and the figure of the prostthw in the latter — which are best understood “through a comic replica of the myths of confrontation to Dionysus” (p. 149). Readers will have to decide whether such a specific ritual complex leads to more insight than, for example, the more general ones of “rites de passage” and ephebeia argued by Bowie6 for the two plays. But here again this reader at least feels that R. needlessly straightjackets the plots into a Dionysiac framework when multiple, and possibly competing, ritual frames might be at work.

Chapter 7 argues that the Birds dramatizes the foundation of an inverted, comic city, which equates to the “disfoundation” of a real polis. The “disfounder” of cities par excellence is Dionysus, especially vis-à-vis his cult companion at Delphi and ultimate city-founder, Apollo. The foundation of a city can be thematically related to the foundation of the cosmos, corresponding to the temporal boundary in myth between the time before Zeus and present reality (p. 158), which in turn can be related to the Flood motif present in the Anthesteria, especially on the Khutroi.7 Through the Dionysiac lens, we can better appreciate the return to the origins and the foundation of the cosmos highlighted in the play, as well as its eventual inversion or impossibility, since the installation of birds in the new city as divine purveyors of goods for men (esp. 723-36) prefigures an impossible dissolution of the “real” order outside comedy. R. ends by making a good case for reading this comedy by way of Plato’s casual remark ( Protagoras 327d-e) that comedy intensifies the audience’s need for reality, not the reverse (pp. 152 and 164).

The heart of the Chapter 8, which discusses the role of women in Lysistrata, Thesmophoriazusae, and Ecclesiazusae, revolves around the claim that women in the Greek religious imaginary figure most closely to barbarians (p. 177), hence their preeminent role in Dionysiac ritual and in Aristophanic plays that stage the commandeering of the city or of male institutions by women. Women are effective vehicles for introducing “otherness into the life of the city” (p. 194) yet, as in the rites of Dionysus, their temporarily convulsive activities only serve ultimately to refound and reestablish (a male-dominated) order. A parallel is found thereby between the role of women in these comedies and the ritual function of comedy itself, which never prefigures reality but rather presupposes a return to “normality” (pp. 190-91). At the risk of great simplification, R. concludes that each play stages the “feminization of the city” through revolt, usurpation or exchange of gender roles with men — all of which form only an apparent subversion — because in the reality outside comedy such reversals are impossible.8 We are not to see any of these plots therefore as “what the poet postulates for the city,” but rather as rituals (with a strong emphasis placed on the traditional characterization of women in comedy) that, themselves a liminal moment (in the van Gennep sense), look forward to the reintegration of the city (p. 190).

Reversal and inversion, the relationship of comedy to reality, also frame the discussions of Acharnians, Peace, and the Plutus in Chapter 9. In the Acharnians, Dicaeopolis — for R. the embodiment of Dionysiac contradiction — is a defender of foreigners who maintains his separation from the city even as he procures the peace that is in its best interest and who obtains that peace precisely through the impossibilities allowed in comedy (e.g. his private treaty). Peace features Trygaeus, a thief and slanderer of Zeus (or as R. suggests, a ὑβριστής, p. 218) who overthrows the established order of Zeus by stealing Peace. Rather too much weight, in my view, is placed on the connection between Dicaeopolis and Trygaeus as transgressors ( ὑβρισταί) on the one hand, and the ναρθάρκες ὑβρισταί at Bacchae 113 on the other to seal a connection with maenads (pp. 221-23). Both are typical comic heroes whose surreptitiousness, as a standard feature of comedy, need not be symbolically equated with Dionysism. The issue of justice dominates the discussion of the Plutus, and as in Peace, R. finds that the reversal of sovereignty myths is the key to understanding the final outcome of the play, with everyone rich and unwilling to offer sacrifice to the gods. Oddly, Dionysism per se does not figure at all in this brief discussion.

An Appendix is devoted to the Clouds, which R. believes contradicts all the other plays because it stages a “defense of the city” — arguably reversing the usual patterns of Dionysism — inasmuch as Strepsiades burns down Socrates’ school at the end (i.e. the motif of the “inverted” or “disfounded” city, to which other comic characters would normally retreat as a criticism of Athens, outside comedy, is cancelled) and the order of Zeus is reinstated. R. concludes , based on the revision alluded to in the parabasis (520-25) and following the work of others, that Aristophanes and Socrates are paralleled in the play “to reprove the original audience for not having appreciated the first version” (p. 270). In sum the features of this play that appear at odds with the others are intelligible in terms of the same overall schema of Dionysism, though the reasons for the differences may not be.

I have severely condensed much of R.’s argumentation and detailed treatment of Aristophanes to highlight what in my view is the book’s overall strength and weakness: its preoccupation with a Dionysiac frame to the exclusion (or at times the clandestine appropriation) of other ritual frames. Nevertheless, R. presents a tightly unified vision of Aristophanic comedy which, along with its up-to-date survey of many interpretive issues, merits a serious and diverse readership.


1. This is the merit of Bowie’s work, Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy (Cambridge 1993), that it does not presume a single complex of mythic and ritual ideas to underlie each play.

2. C. Segal, Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ Bacchae (2nd edition, Princeton 1997).

3. Criticized on p. 101, n37: R. Seaford, “Dionysiac Drama and the Dionysiac Mysteries,” CQ 31, no. 2 (1981): 252-75; Reciprocity and Ritual (Oxford 1994); Euripides. Bacchae, with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Warminster 1996).

4. K. Dover, Aristophanes. Frogs, ed. with introduction and commentary (Oxford 1993), p. 20.

5. C. Segal, “The Character and Cults of Dionysus and the Unity of the Frogs,” HSCP 65 (1961): 207-42.

6. Above note 1, chapters 3 and 4.

7. Though H. W. Parke, Festivals of the Athenians (Ithaca 1990, reprint of 1977 edition), p. 117, himself expressed reservation on how early this motif might have been attached to the festival.

8. R. also argues suggestively that this is an essential precondition for Old Comedy itself on pp. 205 and 207.