Study Guide

Lysistrata Spinning, Sewing, and Weaving

By Aristophanes

Spinning, Sewing, and Weaving

Using "sewing" or "spinning" or "weaving" as a metaphor for "togetherness" has a long and illustrious history. Shucks, even today we talk about "a tightly knit family" or "patching up a relationship" or "a well-woven story." When we want to talk about cohesiveness, we reach for the needle and thread.

The same is totally true when we talk about things falling apart—we talk about sewing/spinning/weaving gone wrong. "Tied up in knots" usually refers to being confused and upset (usually about a romantic problem)… but it's totally also about the rage-inducing phenomenon of having to untangle, for example, yarn. "Falling apart at the seams" is an idiom that refers to absolutely losing it… and it also refers to a worn-out article of clothing in need of repair.

Sewing idioms are as old as sewing itself. Nowadays they might be considered cliché, but back in Ancient Greece they were probably still pretty cutting-edge. And, hey, even if they were cliché, Aristophanes has the playwriting chops to pull them off.

Wait, what exactly does Aristophanes pull off? Oh, just a few extended metaphors that use the domestic arts to talk about—you got it—being so happy together.

Around the middle of the play the Magistrate challenges Lysistrata to explain how she thinks women can solve a complicated global problem like the Peloponnesian War. She replies by saying that it's easy: she and the other women will simply untangle it like a ball of yarn that has gotten knots in it:

Magistrate: "So how will you women be able to put a stop to such a complicated international mess, and sort it all out?"
Lysistrata: "Very easily."
Magistrate: "How? Show me."
Lysistrata: (taking the sewing blanket from the Magistrate and using its contents to illustrate) "It's rather like a ball of yarn when it gets tangled up. We hold it this way, and carefully wind out the strands on our spindles, now this way, now that way. That's how we'll wind up this war, if we're allowed: unsnarling it by sending embassies, now this way, now that way."
(565-570)

Then, a little while later Lysistrata goes into a long metaphor comparing the city to a fleece of wool; she explains the complex process that she needs go through of beating the wool (getting the moochers out), carding it (removing the bozos who tend to hog the government positions), and then spinning it and weaving it into a new metaphorical "cloak" of unity:

Imagine the polis as a fleece just shorn. First, put it in a bath and wash out all the sheep dung; spread it on a bed and beat out the riff-raff with a stick, and pluck out the thorns; as for those who clump and knot themselves together to snag government positions, card them out and pluck off their heads. Next, card the wool into a sewing basket of unity and goodwill, mixing in everyone. The resident aliens and any other foreigner who's your friend, and anyone who owes money to the people's treasury, mix them in there too. And oh yes, the cities that are colonies of this land: imagine them as flocks of your fleece, each one lying apart from the others. So take all these flocks and bring them together here, joining them all and making one big bobbin. And from this weave a fine new cloak for the people. (574-586)

Sure, these analogies are a little yawn-inducing to today's audiences. We're just so used to sewing metaphors. But Lysistrata is also doing something super-clever here. She's showing the Magistrate that women have the know-how to fix complex political situations; that a domestic existence gives them the reasoning skills necessary to duke it out in the public sphere.

She's also cutting the Magistrate down a peg. Women's housebound duties were considered uninteresting and totally not manly back in Ancient Greece. By comparing governmental matters to household chores, Lysistrata is saying to the Magistrate: "Hey, this war-ending business is as easy as women's work. So how come you can't end this war, huh? Are you too much of a sissy?"