From The Birds by Aristophanes
Image by Duncan Cameron (@brokensharkcage)
CHORUS: Dearest one, we love the dun of your coat, your reddish throat, you who are first flute of the forest. Let your voice ring out to Spring that it may be heard over the chorus of birds.
Come, you who live in the half-light between the night-going-on-day or day-going-on-night, you poor creatures of clay, you poor spectres, you poor shades who fade and flitter between the portals as leaves flitter and fade, come listen to us, the immortals. Let us, the ageless ones, those who don’t perish, tell it like it is not only about our own peerage but the sources of rivers, the seats of deities, the origin of Chaos and Dark in which you’re wont to dwell — after which you may, for a lark, advise that know-all, Prodicus, to go to hell. For in times long gone by there were only Chaos, Night, the Dark, and the pit of Tartarus. No Earth. No Sky. But black-winged Night would put a wind-milted egg in the Dark’s belly, from which, in the way one thing leads to another, Eros would sally forth—Eros of the golden wings, the bright and beautiful Eros who would himself do the nasty with Chaos in the pit of Tartarus, so bringing our bird-dynasty into being and leading the first of our line to the light. There had been no ageless ones, you see, until Eros would combine those elements. Only then did Sky and Sea and Earth exist as such, only then did the Blessed Ones exist. So it is that we are much, much older than the oldest of the Blessed. That we’re the seed and breed of Eros is clear in many ways. Not only do we fly but we’re efficacious in love, as when some dear beardless boy is persuaded to spread his butt by the love-token of a goose or a purple gallinule or a little red rooster. All the best things come, as a rule, from the birds. The very roster of the seasons is decreed by us. When the crane leaves these shores for Lybia it’s time to put in the seed. Then the sea captain can hang up his oar and have a long lie in. Then Orestes can weave himself a cloak so he doesn’t get frost-bite as he relieves travelers of theirs. The kite lets us know it’s time for the sheep to be shorn. The swallow announces that light summer clothes may be worn with impunity. We’re like the oracles at Ammon and Dodona and Delphi and Phoebus Apollo rolled into one. That’s why it’s so common for you to consult the birds as to which way to go in both business affairs and affairs of the heart. A bird lets you know which way you should jump. The slang term “bird” may also import and impart the sense of a casual remark, a sneeze, a chance encounter, a thump, a class of a flunkey or, in at least one figure, an ass or Egyptian donkey. Our role as augurs keeps on getting bigger and bigger.
CHORUS: Take us for your gods LEADER: and we’ll say our sooth on fair winds, cold snaps, the sudden turn from the mildly to the stiflingly hot.
Take us for your gods and we won’t be aloof. We won’t be in the least standoffish. We won’t spurn you like Zeus from some remote spot.
Take us for your gods and we’ll promise that health-wealth, youth, laughter, dancing, parties and everything else for which you might yearn will be your, and your ancestors’, lot. CHORUS: Muse of the thornbush tiotiotiotiotinx
blessed with so many notes,
with whom, from a leafy ash,
tiotiotiotiotinx across the mountains and plains I would release from my throat for Pan or Cybele the strains totototototototototinx of some hymn, a hymn on whose melody Phrynikhos would feed like a honey-bee. How would you like to come and live with the birds? You may rest assured that our laws are somewhat different from your own. Here it’s illegal for a son to hit his father. With us, a strapping young lad thinks nothing of going a few rounds with his dad in the cockpit. Where one of you is branded as a runaway slave, we see a francolin, speckled and banded. If you happen to be a Phrygian slave, like Spintharos, you’re a frigg-it-bird. Whereas, if you’re like Exekestides, a Carian crow, you can always find a way to grow some grandfeathers. And if that Lundy, Peisias, wants to open the gates and let our enemies pass through unimpeded, how could he fail to be a partridge, like his father, famous for turning tail? So the swans would sing tiotiotiotiotinx
to Apollo, beating time with their wings,
tiotiotiotiotinx on the Hebros banks to the airy clouds tiotiotiotiotinx till the beasts in their ranks all cowered and were cowed and the ocean waves would suddenly relent tototototototinx as the gods of Olympus and a throng of Muses and Graces all sent up their joyful answering song tiotiotiotiotinx. There’s nothing handier than having the wings of a bird. Suppose, for example, you get bored with one of these tragic plays. You could fly off home, have a bite of lunch, and return in the sweet by and by. And if Patrokleides there happens to be taken short he needn’t stain his drawers. He need only let a fart, float off, do his business, and float back inside. What if you’re getting a bit on the side with your neighbor’s wife? Once you see him in the
reserved section, you can fly to her house, give her a meat injection, and be back again. If you’re wise, you’ll see there’s nothing handier than a pair of wings. You’ve seen the spectacular rise of Dieitrephes who, on the strength of a couple of
wicker bottle-flaps, went from captain to colonel to commander— a shit-hot, shit-kicking satrap.
Published in The Birds, translated from Aristophanes by Paul Muldoon with Richard Martin, Oldcastle, County Meath: Gallery Books, 1999.