Aristophanic Shape-Shifters: Myth, Fairytale, Satire


In Clouds 340–355 the deified Nephelai are described as shapeshifters, i.e. marvellous beings able to change their appearance at will. This fabulous concept was widespread in ancient Greek and Near Eastern myth and folklore; shape-shifting qualities are attributed to Olympian gods (Zeus, Dionysus), lesser demons (Proteus, Nereus, Thetis, Nemesis), heroic mortals (Periclymenus, Mestra), but also personages of the folk imagination, such as bogeys, wizards, and witches. Aristophanes loved this magical motif, which ultimately expresses the inexhaustible transformations of comic art. Philocleon in the Wasps, a paragon of vitality, performs a long series of simulated metamorphoses in the scenic space, imitating the movements and gestures of various animals or natural elements. The personified Nephelai, however, do not simply turn into anything they like. Rather, they select their form each time in such a way as to reflect the vices of the particular person they meet; they become e.g. deer before a coward, wolves in front of a greedy embezzler, or Centaurs before a lustful man. The Clouds’ serial metamorphoses are thus subjected to an ethical typology of the animal world, similar to the one found in animal fables. Aristophanes combines the magical motif of the shape-shifter with the moral allegory of the Aesopic corpus, and thus turns the folktale patterns into sati­r ical weapons against contemporary politicians. The shape-shifting Nephe­lai represent the polymorphous poetics of comedy, which uses mimetic forms to visibly criticize the evils of Athenian public life.