Dead easy

MAGISTRATE:
But the international situation at present is in a hopeless muddle. How do you propose to unravel it?

LYSISTRATA:
Oh, it’s dead easy.

MAGISTRATE:
Would you explain?

LYSISTRATA:
Well, take a tangled skein of wool for example. We take it so, put it to the spindle, unwind it this way, now that way [miming with her fingers]. That’s how we’ll unravel this war, if you’ll let us. Send ambassadors first to Sparta, this way, then to Thebes, that way —

MAGISTRATE:
Are you such idiots as to think that you can solve serious problems with spindles and bits of wool?

LYSISTRATA:
As a matter of fact, it might not be so idiotic as you think to run the whole City entirely on the model of the way we deal with wool.

MAGISTRATE:
How d’you work that out?

LYSISTRATA:
The first thing you do with wool is wash the grease out of it; you can do the same with the City. Then you stretch out the citizen body on a bench and pick out the burrs — that is, the parasites. After that you prise apart the club-members who form themselves into knots and clots to get into power, and when you’ve separated them, pick them out one by one. Then you’re ready for the carding: they can all go into the basket of Civic Goodwill — including the resident aliens and any foreigners who are your friends — yes, and even those who are in debt to the Treasury! Not only that. Athens has many colonies. At the moment these are lying around all over the place, like stray bits and pieces of the fleece. You should pick them up and bring them here, put them all together, and then out of all this make an enormous great ball of wool — and from that you can make the People a coat.

Aristophanes: Lysistrata, 565–586.
Translated by Alan H. Sommerstein


Weaving and spinning were essential activities in the lives of ancient Greek women. The production of textiles, from separating the fibres to sorting them into bundles and finally finishing the garment, required complex and painstaking work. In Aristophanes’ comedy quoted above, the women of Greece combine their efforts to put an end to the the ongoing fights between city-states: it’s no wonder that Lysistrata chooses this metaphor when she suggests using female expertise to quell the escalating tensions of the war. She is not giving a step by step guide to textile production, but unraveling a political programme for both the resolution of international conflicts and for the establishment of peace and unity within the polis, which the interweaving of the Athenian population would bring about, thus creating the cohesive fabric of the People.

Athenian black-figure lekythos: textile production
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

The photos in this post all come from the same vase, a black-figure lekythos made around 550–530 BC in Athens. Its belly shows eleven female figures performing various activities: separating the wool, gathering the finished bundles into baskets and weighing them; two standing in front of a loom; and two others lifting the finished blanket. The interpretation of the scene on the vessel’s shoulder is less clear: a seated female figure (perhaps a goddess), veiled in a robe, is approached on each side by two youths and four maidens, the latter dancing hand in hand, forming a chorus. Joining Lysistrata in her comedy, we have added “just a little bit” of music to accompany their steps:


The featured image above shows the lower part of the loom from the lekythos: loom weights stretch the threads that are used to make the fabric. The chorus dances to Otis Redding’s song Respect performed by Aretha Franklin.

And for all those in the mood for Aristophanes’ comedies, The Frogs will be broadcast live from the ancient theatre of Epidaurus on Saturday (10/07). Click here to watch: www.livefromepidaurus.gr.

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