BAPTAE was a comedy satirizing the latest faddish belief system to hit Athens: the cult of the Dorian and Thracian goddess Cotyto. Just like Kabala or transcendental meditation and other systems have enjoyed a brief vogue with entertainers and even some movers and shakers various foreign deities would periodically develop a following in ancient Athens. Eupolis was lampooning the fashionable appeal of one such cult and also ridiculed other elements of Cotyto worship as we will see.
The title Baptae came from the fact that the worshippers of Cotyto would immerse or “baptize” their garments in blue, green or purple dye, an expensive and very ostentatious indulgence for the time period. And yes, Baptae and baptizing are from the same root word, since it originally referred to immersion in any liquid, not just water.
The main element of the Athenian version of the cult of Cotyto was the fact that her devotees were exclusively male and all of them DRESSED AS THE GODDESS as part of their rites of worship. Even today we can see the obvious comedy potential in a religion centered around transvestism. For a pop culture equivalent just think of the way successive generations of transvestites have idolozed and slavishly imitated Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Cher, Madonna and Lady Gaga.
In these paranoid and hyper-sensitive times it’s important to remember none of the jokes about homosexuality and/or transvestism in Greek comedies were truly bitter attacks. In these comedies EVERYTHING was fair game for ridicule, even the gods the Greeks worshipped, so being satirized in the comedies was not necessarily an act designed to encourage societal hostility.
For a modern comparison look at the way Quentin Tarantino is often ribbed over his obvious fondness for female feet. None of the jokes are meant to imply that he is “evil” or deserving of ostracism because of it, it’s just a prominent proclivity of his and so he is open to being tweaked about it.
Other elements of the Athenian version of Cotyto worship involved more than just dressing in gaudy purple or blue gowns, wigs and makeup. The Baptae also drank wine from penis-shaped goblets (I’m serious) and would gather around their altar on which a (real) female dressed as Cotyto stood to receive their worship.
This combination altar and stripper platform would also be used to bump and grind against while gazing up at the Cotyto surrogate, with the obvious end result. I’ll bet it was “the pelvic thru-u-u-ust that really drove them in-sa-a-a-a-a-ane” (with apologies to The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Obviously Baptae was a comedy that could practically write itself and was perfect for the risque jokes the Athenian audiences loved. From the fragments and scholia it can be determined that Eupolis’ comedy featured the female Cotyto surrogate being employed by the Baptae turning out to be THE ACTUAL GODDESS COTYTO HERSELF, come to Athens to punish the Baptae for supposedly distorting the original forms of her rites of worship. It would be a similar comedic outcome to a department store Santa Claus turning out to be the real St Nick and punishing a bunch of greedy, bratty kids who came to sit on his lap.
Perhaps a more fitting comparison would be to the actual Buddha coming to life to chew out a bunch of shallow celebrities who think they’re actual Buddhists just because they practice the surface elements of the belief system. Or maybe the actual deity from any given religion setting their adherents straight about how they’ve distorted the deity’s teachings and wishes.
The most prominent Athenian celebrity among the faddish Cotyto cultists who feel the goddess’ wrath is the one and only Alcibiades. This comedy is central to The Official Anecdote About Eupolis and Alcibiades, which I will deal with in detail below.
INDIVIDUAL JOKES FROM THE FRAGMENTS AND SCHOLIA –
*** The goddess Cotyto was often depicted playing a lyre, and her association with music, singing and dancing strengthens the modern comparison with figures like Judy Garland, Madonna and Lady Gaga. It also paved the way in Baptae for Eupolis’ jokes about Democritus of Chios, a figure known for some polarizing musical innovations in ancient Greece. Democritus as one of the Baptae shows Eupolis was probably not a fan of his innovations.
*** Anal sex jokes playing on the meaning of Baptai to instead mean men “immersing” their penis in the anus of their sex partner.
*** The goddess Cotyto growing weary and annoyed with the Baptae’s exhausting antics while they remain oblivious to the fact that they are with the actual goddess, not a paid mortal stand-in. The audience would presumably be laughing at the way the frolicing worshippers are getting more and more deeply in trouble with the goddess, all the while not realizing it.
*** The on-stage “baptising” of the worshippers’ garments was apparently done via some broadly slapstick dunking that splashed all the way out to the audience members. The most famous joking reference to this is found in Plato’s Symposium, when Aristophanes refers to the previous day’s performance of Baptae by mentioning that he is “one of those who were involuntarily baptised yesterday”. Hey, it could have been worse, Aristophanes. If Gallagher had been alive back then, it might have been watermelon fragments.
*** A slapstick bit of business in which the rhombos player in the comedy accidentally injures himself with his own instrument.
*** A joking insult about the musician Chairis’ supposed lack of talent.
*** A sex joke that uses a musical comparison which is very difficult to translate into modern terms. None of the translations that I have satisfy me so I’ll use my own and say the joke refers to a gay man using his hands to “play his lover’s buttocks like bongo drums”.
*** A joke about the politician Archedemos but the joke has not survived intact.
*** An insinuation that Chaireas (no relation to Chairis above) was really an illegal immigrant.
*** A metatheatrical joke by Eupolis implying that Aristophanes stole material from him for his comedy The Knights.
*** A joke about the tendency of Alcibiades to indulge in every new fad and belief system that came along. One of the characters describes Alcibiades by saying “He exclusively serves Cotyto … and ALL of the fertility gods … and … pretty much any other deities too.”
*** As always in a comedy featuring Alcibiades as a character his lisp was part of the humor.
*** After the goddess Cotyto revealed herself she bodily dunked the actor playing Alcibiades into the tub of dye, the Joke Heard ‘Round The Ancient World.
*** A few years later Alcibiades was leading the Athenian military assault on Sicily. The comedian Eupolis had joined up to fight and had the misfortune to be on the same transport ship that Alcibiades was on. As a wry revenge on the comedian for the way he had ridiculed him in Baptae Alcibiades had the crew tie Eupolis up and drop him in the Mediterranean Sea, dragging him along behind the boat. The remark that Alcibiades supposedly made to Eupolis about the incident was “You had fun baptising me on the stage, now I’m having fun baptising you in the sea.”
MISCELLANEA – Eupolis was one of the many casualties of the ill-fated invasion of Sicily. Given what a loss this was to the Athenian creative community a new law was passed forbidding any of the comic or tragic poets from serving in wartime.
*** Baptae‘s depiction of Cotyto worshippers as such oddballs led to the Greeks of the time often referring to ANY unusual sect as Baptae the way we might refer to any random cult as “Moonies”.
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