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Ancient Laughter, Modern Bewilderment January 28, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

Humour, it is sometimes said, is the most socially dependent aspect of literature. The gags that set William Shakespeare’s audience laughing now, very often, leave us shivering cold. Sometimes the generational shift is there under our eyes: the jokes in 1930s movies, Will Hay for example, appear fabulous to Beach but leave his students giving each other quick and significant glances in the direction of their teacher.

Shakespeare’s laughs and Will Hay’s antics are, at least ‘modern’. But some trips into ancient humour really freeze up the reader. Even one of Beachcombing’s favourite books – the Golden Ass – written as a comedy/ Roman road movie, is rarely as amusing as it was intended to be: the reader today remembers the piquant sex  and salvation in Isis (‘she is our lady’) not Roman toilet jokes.

In fact, anecdotes – along with satire? Juvenal is still funny – survive particularly well through the centuries, so much so that often we are still telling the same tales centuries later with cars replacing carts and ‘queens’ overlapping with Roman catamites. But if you have laughs based on puns or social institutions then you might as well give it up.

Nor were the Greeks any better. Beach has already visited in this place the hilarity caused when Chrysippus (c.206 BC) the oh-so-serious stoic philosopher laughed himself to death at a drunk donkey. It probably never happened but couldn’t they have made up something a little more juicy? Take some examples now, instead, from the premier Greek joke collection – yes there is one – Philogelos. Beach was initially attracted to the Greek equivalent of the Irish or the Jewish mother joke: the Greek intellectual. Always good to put the boot into philosophers. But these ones hardly fanned a smile.

An intellectual checked in on the parents of a dead classmate. The father was wailing: ‘O son, you have left me a cripple!’ The mother was crying: ‘O son, you have taken the light from my eyes!’ Later, the intellectual suggested to his friends: ‘If he were guilty of all that, he should have been cremated while still alive.’

An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man’s wife said that he had ‘departed’, the intellectual replied: ‘When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?’

An intellectual had been at a wedding-reception. As he was leaving, he said: ‘I pray that you two keep getting married so well.’

The same intellectual said that the tomb of Scribonia was handsome and lavish, but that it had been built on an unhealthy site. [Beach’s favourite: he spontaneously grinned here]

Upon the death of his wife, an intellectual was out shopping for a coffin and got into a big fight over the price. When the salesman swore that he couldn’t sell it for less than fifty thousand, the intellectual said: ‘Since you’re under an oath, here’s the fifty thousand. But throw in for free a small casket, in case I need it for my son’. [wth!!!!]

And finally a joke that is still told today.

A friend met an intellectual, and said: ‘Congratulations! You’ve got a baby boy!’ The intellectual replied: ‘Thanks to buddies like you!’

In any case, all this begs the question: how many Greek intellectuals does it take to change a lightbulb? Best answer to be immortalised on this site – drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Beachcombing knows Greek and Latin literature relatively well, but he has always felt a little lost in the Egyptian world. He did though stumble on this interesting site that lays Egyptian humour ‘bare’ with such epics as:

After a considerable while Hathor, Lady of the Southern Sycamore, came and stood before her father, the Universal Lord, and she exposed her vagina before his very eyes. Thereupon the great god laughed at her.

Yes, quite… Look out for the incest jokes too.

But what really set him off on this whole rollicking trip through the ancient world was a link sent in by Andy, the Mad Monk on some of the oldest jokes/riddles in history: this time from Mesopotamia. Here we see a series of ‘classics’ that are so obscure, presumably because of punning on language (which is almost impossible to translate) and our relative lack of knowledge of Mesopotamian society.

‘In your mouth and your teeth (or urine). Constantly stared at you. The measuring vessel of your lord. What is it?’

Answer: Beer.

‘He gouged out the eye. It is not the fate of a dead man. He cut the throat: A dead man – who is it?’

Answer: A governor… a governor is portrayed as executioner.

‘The deflowered girl did not become pregnant. The undeflowered girl became pregnant. What is it?’

Answer: Auxiliary forces.

Things seem to get progressively worse the further back we go. Neanderthal jokes – mammoth turds and body hair? – would perhaps have been physically painful. We should probably thank the gods that they couldn’t write.


3 Feb 2012: Ruththeunstoppablycurious writes in with this interesting reflection. ‘I‘ve often wondered at humor, both modern and historical. Slapstick and bathroom humor seem to work most widely and across time, even today within the Anglo world, and I would surmise among other close linguistic and cultural groups. I find comedies that I revisit from the 60′s to be flat and slow, with some exceptions.  I remember my dad telling me a joke that he found hysterical — I could see what was supposed to be funny, but it didn’t tickle. These days the humor is often obscure to me — we don’t have television, so I have my daughter explain it — and often then it falls flat.  I wonder if my sense of humor is a bit frayed around the edges or just out of date;  maybe not; my smart-mouth still gets me in trouble sometimes. Anyway, I have often wondered how often historians have not realized that the primary writings they were studying were actually humor.  Some satire is in-your-face, even across centuries, but others might not be so obvious.  What might future historians think of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, absent sufficient context?  Today there are people who don’t get that The Onion is satire. http://www.theonion.com/ And yet, humor still says something about the society from which it springs because it IS so contextual.  Parsing that out is VERY tricky, even today. Note that gentle humor becomes more popular at times, to be overtaken by harsh, mean humor at other times.  (Just a general observation on my part over several decades!) Perhaps it has to do with what’s hurting, or perceived as hurting at the time.  Robert Heinlein, the science fiction author, went to some lengths in Stranger in a Strange Land  to illustrate the purpose of humor as an alleviation of pain.’ Then we have the lightbulb jokes. There were about ten and here are the four best of the crop. Beach would vote for Ray, but they are all of Platonic calibre. Ray: how many Greek intellectuals does it take to change a lightbulb? Twelve. One to change the bulb, ten to sit chained looking at the shadows on the wall, and one to lecture them on how the world isn’t like that.’ Then PJ: How many Greek intellectuals does it take to change a lightbulb? Zero, for verily that is the job of a slave, not a man of learning.  Besides, can we not learn as much from an absence of illumination as we do from a brightly glowing but artificial luminescence?’ Or Adrian Sterling from the Anomalist: How many Greek intellectuals does it take to change a lightbulb? One to change the lightbulb and the other to diddle the catamite. Then Southern Man: One to smash it, ten to argue over whose fault it was and one to hand out the hemlock. Thanks Ruth, Ray, Adrian S and PJ!