Athena’s Big Finger: Obscenity and the Gods in Knights

Carl Anderson

Aristophanes’ Knights features a well known contest in which the protagonists, the Paphlagonian-Cleon and the Sausage-seller, bring various foods to the stage character Demos (1151–1201) for his dining pleasure. In order to improve the chances of winning the favor of Demos, each contestant claims that Athena supplied him with his particular food offerings. In response to the Paphlagonian’s initial gift to Demos, a small sacrificial barley cake, maziskê, from Athena pulaimachos at Pylos (1166), the Sausage-seller presents Demos with mustilai, special breads hollowed out in the middle and used as ladles to sop up zomos, a hearty soup served at public festivals, especially the Panathenaia (cf. Ar. Nu. 386). These particular mustilai must be absurdly oversized as they have been prepared by the chryselephantine hand of the goddess, that is, by the hand of Phidias’ Parthenon statue (1168–69). Indeed, Demos is so surprised by Athena’s handiwork that he unexpectedly addresses her (outside the competition). He exclaims: hôs megan ar’ eiches, ô potnia ton daktulon (1170).

The immediate joke lies in the incongruity of addressing Athena by the honorific title, potnia, in a context stressing the visual image of Athena’s huge ivory finger and the depression it has made in the mustilai. This paper goes a step further to suggest a sexual joke based on the use of daktulon, “finger,” as a double entendre for phallus, the commonly acknowledged resemblance of certain breads and pastries, including mustilai, to the female pudenda, and the reference to soup, zômos, which in comedy is often compared to vaginal secretions (cf. Henderson, Maculate Muse, 144). The use of the word pylos as a double entendre for vagina is also adduced to support a sexual interpretation of the passage.

Readers may hesitate to accept such a reading of Demos’ remark. But sexual imagery and double entendres abound in the contest; furthermore these images and double entendres are complementary to many of the political jokes in the comedy. The mustilai fashioned by Athena’s ivory finger function not only as ladles for hearty soup and descriptors of a part of the female anatomy, but they also serve as vessels to sop up the metaphorical zômos of Athens and the empire, i.e., political bribes and ally contributions (cf. 357, 360, 1173). If this interpretation is correct, Demos’ seemingly casual observation about the goddess and her huge ivory finger then anticipates and renders absurd the Paphlagonians’ boast that Athena pulaimachos, “Fighter at the Gates,” provided him with zomos for Demos (1171–72). The paper concludes that Aristophanes’ use of an obscene joke involving Athena is confidently playful and entirely in keeping with other obscene jokes and farcical treatments directed toward the gods in comedy. (15 minutes)

Back to the Meeting Program

[Home] [ About] [Awards and Scholarships] [Classical Journal] [Committees & Officers]
[Contacts & Email Directory
] [Links] [Meetings] [Membership] [News]