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by Dr Michael Scott
Were the ancient Greeks funny? It’s a question not often asked. When thought about, most people will turn to the ‘comedies’ put on at different religio-theatrical festivals across ancient Greece, most notably in Athens. The majority surviving for us today are by Aristophanes, writing across the divide of the 5th and 4th centuries BC, but some also survive by Menander writing later in the 4th century BC.
Aristophanes makes political jokes, imitates the politicians of the day (who without doubt were often sitting in the audience) and uses exaggeration and caricature to pass comment on the social and political well being of the city. The caricature of ‘Demos’ – the people – is, for example, an old man who is easily hood-winked. What we have of Menander on the other hand seems to reveal a comic writer much more concerned with representing a kitchen-sink-drama style portrayal of domestic hilarity.
But did the Ancient Greeks tell jokes? Yes they did. Sources tell of ‘joke-groups’ who met to trade and test their wit, like the group of 60 who met in the Temple of Heracles in Athens in the 4th century BC, and whom even Philip of Macedon paid to send him a collection of their best.
A much later text that has survived down to us is the ‘Philogelos’ – ‘the laughter lover’ – compiled by Hierocles and Philagrius (of which almost nothing is known) in perhaps the AD 4th century. Here the compilation reveals something of the nature of Greek jokes – and they are surprisingly like are own.
There are those that focus on the ‘buffon’, the idiot, who does something stupid and funny, which have a remarkable parallel, as some scholars have already pointed out, with the ‘English, Scottish and Irish’ jokes still told in Britain today in which the Irish person always does something ridiculous (and which, I’d wager, every country has a version, which simply varies the nationalities).
One ancient Greek idiot joke reads: “An idiot, wanting to go to sleep but not having a pillow, told his slave to set an earthen jar under his head. The slave said that the jug was hard. The idiot told him to fill it with feathers.”
There are also the comic insults, listed so as to be used in instant one-line put downs – “You don’t have a face, but a fireplace” reads one. But my particular favourites are the ‘doctor’ jokes: “A person went to a doctor and said “doctor, whenever I get up from sleeping, I’m groggy for a half an hour afterwards and only after that am I all right” To which the doctor replied: “Get up half an hour later.”
Dr Michael Scott is the Moses and Mary Finley Research Fellow at Darwin College and an affiliated lecturer at the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge. His first book, From Democrats to Kings is out now in paperback and his second, on the sanctuaries of Delphi and Olympia, was published in April 2010 by Cambridge University Press. www.historyextra.com