Lysistrata | Study Guide


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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Aristophanes's play Lysistrata.

Lysistrata | Symbols



Props such as staffs, walking sticks, and spears can symbolize power or weakness. For example Lysistrata's Chorus of Old Men may have used walking sticks to help convey their "decrepit" condition. Although Aristophanes and other comic dramatists hardly felt the need to be subtle about phallic imagery—the male characters in Lysistrata probably wore prop phalluses throughout the play—staffs, swords, and so on could also be phallic symbols of male power. For instance Lysistrata's women complain about men who walk around the marketplace fully armed with spears; they suggest this over-the-top martial display is ridiculous in the context of buying figs. Reference to a staff is also used in the comic scene featuring the Spartan Herald. When the Magistrate accuses the herald of hiding an erection under his cloak, the herald lies and says the protrusion is "a Spartan herald's stick." In each of these cases the phallic imagery makes the men look not powerful but ridiculous. And of course the giant phalluses the male characters sport are both ridiculous and painful—"weapons" turned on themselves.

Bowls and Wine

"Woman power" is a strong force in Lysistrata. Not only do the women take over the treasury, but they also appropriate and transform totems of male martial power into feminine symbols. Shields, helmets, and blood are replaced with bowls and jugs of wine.

The first time bowls and wine make their appearance, the women are considering sealing their vows of chastity with a blood sacrifice in a shield—as men did in Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus. What follows is a parody of an ancient oath-taking ceremony, which ordinarily would be an all-male affair. Calonice objects that the blood sacrifice is wrong for an "oath of peace"; instead the women swear on a bowl of wine. By replacing the shield with a similar but different object, a bowl, the women usurp and transform a symbol of male power. The scene is rife with sensuality; Calonice fondles the wine jug and says, "healthy blood spurts out so beautifully!" as she pours it into a bowl, suggesting menstruation. That their vow is an "oath of peace" suggests peace itself is feminine.

Later in the play a female character adopts and transforms another male symbol of power. One Athenian woman hides a soldier's helmet under her garment; Lysistrata suspects she does so to simulate pregnancy. The woman's ridiculous excuse is that she plans to use the helmet as a bowl in which to give birth—a nest, as it were. What better symbol of female fertility?

The Acropolis

The Acropolis (sometimes referred to in Lysistrata as the "citadel") is a seven-acre hilltop complex the Greek statesman Pericles developed during Athens's Golden Age. The Acropolis's centerpiece, called the Parthenon, is the enormous temple of the female goddess Athena. The Parthenon served as a vault as well; the treasury of the Delian League—money collected from Athens's allies and intended for their protection—was stored there. So although the Acropolis has always symbolized Athenian culture, in Lysistrata it also symbolizes the city's financial power.

The Acropolis's temple of Athena symbolizes what was considered ideal for a household in Athens. The citadel was home to the high priestess of the city's cult of Athena—its most honored religious institution—along with her all-female staff. A woman named Lysemache held the position of high priestess in Aristophanes's day. Aristophanes associates the citadel's symbolism with Lysistrata herself by giving her a name similar to Lysemache and by having Lysistrata orchestrate a takeover of the Acropolis.

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