Aristotle on the Origins of Comedy


Aristotle formulates two complementary theses (a ritual and a grammatological one) on the provenance of comic drama; both were forecast by the comic playwrights of the fifth century. On one hand, comedy is said to have originated from the leaders of phallic processions, a type of ceremony attested for Attica and other areas of Greece by philological and archaeological evidence. Already in Aristophanes’ Acharnians (241–79), the main hero’s phallic festival represents a small-scale “proto-comedy”, by means of which the celebration of peace is set up as a kind of regress to the ultimate roots of the comic spectacle. Apart from the comic actors’ phallic costume, which was declining in Aristotle’s time, the aforementioned theory was chiefly inspired by a consciousness of the deeper phallic nature of comic drama, which traditionally ends with the hero’s sexual triumph. On the other hand, Aristotle holds up iambic poetry as a grammatological and thematic precursor of comedy. Comic writers such as Cratinus and Aristophanes had exploited the same idea to fashion entire episodes of their plays (the finale of the Peace, Cratinus’ Archilochoi). It is likely that fifth-century sophists and intellectuals had discussed these issues, and their opinions may have motivated the comic poets’ phantasmagorical creations.