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Thread: Ancient Humour

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    Member Oresai's Avatar
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    Ancient Humour

    March 25, 2008 -- In the ancient Greek poem "The Odyssey," the story's hero, Odysseus, tells the Cyclops that his name is "Nobody." When Odysseus instructs his men to drive a fiery iron spit into the monster's single eye, the Cyclops yells out in vain, "Friends, Nobody is killing me now," so no one comes to help.

    This action-adventure humor, dating to around 800 B.C., is one of the first recorded jokes, according to the classics scholar Owen Ewald, who recently presented his findings on "Humor in the Ancient World" at Seattle Pacific University. The world's first one-liners, however, were likely delivered tens of thousands of years before Homer, author of "The Odyssey," was born.


    The Earliest Evidence for Humor


    In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropologists Louis Schulze and Charles Chewings became the first outsiders to record contact with Australian aboriginals, who had been genetically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world for at least 35,000 years. They witnessed evidence of a comedic tradition that could date as far back, according to Joseph Polimeni, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba.

    Polimeni recently authored a paper on the evolutionary origins of humor, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Schulze and Chewings got caught in a terrifying thunderstorm they thought would scare the Australians. Instead, as they later wrote: "When the thunder rends the air in deafening claps...the natives show no fear. On the contrary, they will converse freely, make light of it, and even burst out laughing at an unusually loud or peculiar clap of thunder."

    The ability to be amused by life's inevitable surprises goes back at least 35,000 years, Polimeni said, citing the isolated Australians' genetic capacity for humor. "Since archaeologists believe that modern Homo sapiens date to 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, it's actually not a very provocative statement," he added. "In fact, humor is probably at least as old as that."


    The Co-Evolution of Humor and Spirituality


    The 35,000-year-ago mark is significant because many milestones in human evolution began to surface at that point. Polimeni thinks people were beginning to develop the brainpower for more abstract thinking. One of the earliest symbolic pieces of art, a figurine with the head of a lion and the legs of a person, dates to this period.

    Evidence for the earliest spirituality also dates to the same era, through archaeological depictions resembling contemporary shamanistic art, Polimeni said. Zombies -- still a comedic B-movie favorite --represent the sort of early beliefs that mixed spirituality with the contradictions that often form the basis of humor. "A zombie, a spiritual concept in many hunting and gathering societies, is a person who is dead," explained Polimeni. "Being both dead and an active person is a contradiction...a violation, a concept reflecting opposite positions," qualities present in many a joke.

    Polimeni theorizes that humor and spirituality emerged together, perhaps as ways for humans to relieve stress, communicate and make social connections in lieu of grooming, roughhousing and other, more direct means used by our primate ancestors.

    "Given that the basis of humor may conceivably be rooted in the same cognitive machinery that allows animals to play and tease, it is certainly possible that the cognitive processes that allow spirituality may have piggy-backed on this humor cognitive substructure," he said.


    Lost in Translation


    The link between spirituality and humor may extend to the Bible, but much of the book's sarcasm, irony and wordplay was lost when it was translated into Latin and other languages, according to Brooklyn College's Hershey Friedman, who published related findings in the journal Humor. "Translating Hebrew into English results in the loss of the imagery and wordplays of the Hebrew," he told Discovery News.

    One of Friedman's favorite passages is the "Book of Jonah," which, in the Jewish faith, is read each year on Yom Kippur. Jonah becomes such a successful prophet that people repent, fast and dress according to his guidance. "Even the animals fast," Friedman said. He explained that Jonah was meant to be a parody for readers.

    "In effect, God is saying, 'I sent the worst prophet I could find (Jonah) to the Assyrians, and he did not have to say very much, and they all repented. I sent numerous articulate prophets to the Israelites and they did not wish to change their idolatrous ways." "There is humor here, but the humor is used to deliver a very potent message," he added. "The humor in the Bible has a purpose. It is used to mock the idolater and the wicked."


    The First Joke Books


    Monks continued the tradition of using humor as a teaching tool in the Ioca Monachorum, a text that dates to 700 A.D. Riddles abound: Who was not born but died? (Adam). What man can kill another man without being punished? (A doctor). The earliest known collection of jokes in a book, however, is Philogelos, or "Laughter-Lover," dating to 350 A.D. in the Greco-Roman period.

    Ewald says many of the anecdotes concern the comedic exploits of an idiotic "egghead" character. More than 100 jokes target snooty intellectuals, irritating professors, people with bad breath and even slaveholders. One reads, "An intellectual was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew up, causing his slaves to weep in terror. 'Don't cry,' he consoled them, 'I have freed you all in my will.'"


    The Original Jon Stewart?


    Certain forms of humor have come and gone over the centuries. Nevertheless, Ewald says, "What has remained the same are the methods of deriving humor -- humor from situations and humor from words still remain the two main techniques." Incongruous situations involving animals, as well as political humor, seem to be as popular today as they were 2,500 years ago.

    At that time, the Greek playwright Aristophanes was the Western world's Jon Stewart, according to Ewald. In one satire of the jury system in Athens, two dogs fight over a single piece of cheese. A canine jury and judge watch over the proceedings. "Animals doing human things is always funny," Ewald said.

    "Aristophanes is like Jon Stewart because he makes fun of politicians," he added. "For example, he calls the politician Cleon 'Jagged Teeth' to make fun of his physical appearance."


    Humor's Global Reach


    Perhaps the most striking feature of comedy through history is what a global phenomenon it is. Tribal societies in Africa and the Americas designated clowns who spoofed all sorts of things and helped to resolve disputes. A "laughing Buddha" emerged in Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto cultures to welcome worshippers with his laughing face, protruding belly and sack full of goodies. Greenland's Innuits developed comedic insult contests to avoid physically harming each other under the worst imaginable conditions.

    As Polimeni observed, "To my knowledge, no anthropologist has ever suggested he or she had visited a humorless society."

    Source: http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/03/25/ancient-humor-joke.html

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    Senior Member Arundel's Avatar
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    I believe that humour is a very important thing in life. I grew up in a family, who believed in humour, and when I worked many of my fellow workers had a great sense of humour. But now that I am retired and only at home with my husband, there is no humour in my life. I miss it. My husband does not even know or care what humour is.

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    Senior Member Praetorianer's Avatar
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    Heracles bringing the boar to Eurystheus, who tries to hide. I assume, this could have been meant to be humorous, too. It´s a metope of a temple 530 BC in Paestum.
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    It's not meant to be humorous, it's symbolic and intellectual. Myth is not "literature" as modernists suppose, who wish to deny it's meaning. What is a joke is modern education, and not a good one at that!

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    Quote Originally Posted by exit View Post
    It's not meant to be humorous, it's symbolic and intellectual. Myth is not "literature" as modernists suppose, who wish to deny it's meaning. What is a joke is modern education, and not a good one at that!
    Please stop talking this crap. I know that many of the old works are abstract and deep-minded, but it´s absolutely wrong to assume that ancient people only thought and learned, but never laughed.
    For example the words of Odysseus, as mentioned above, are sure meant to show his devious attitude in opposite to the other hero of Homers epos, the strong combatant Achill. On the other hand there is no reason, why it couldn´t even be funny.
    Homer is strongly influenced by the singers and their traditions and these were in the first place entertaining.
    What about Hesiods Falcon and Nightingale? Yes, it´s deep minded, but it´s another story, which as additionally funny.
    The presentment of Heracles and Eurystheus is without a doubt another example, but if you don´t think so, I´m sure you will soon gladden us with your interpretation of Eurystheus hide-and-seek.
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    The Spartans were some funny people. Their wit was so legendary, that, not only did their contemporaries record examples for posterity, we have a specific word for Spartan humor: Laconic Phrase.

    Here are some examples:
    * A witticism attributed to Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, is a response to a proposal to set up a democracy there: "Begin with your own family."
    * On another occasion, Lycurgus was reportedly asked the reason for the less-than-extravagant size of Sparta's sacrifices to the gods. He replied, "So that we may always have something to offer."
    * Being asked what sorts of exercises and martial arts he approved of, Lycurgus responded, "All types, except that in which you stretch out your hand."
    * When he was consulted on how Spartans might best forestall invasion of their homeland, Lycurgus advised, "By remaining poor, and each man not desiring to possess more than his fellow."
    * When asked whether it was advisable to build a defensive wall enclosing the city, Lycurgus answered, "A city is well-fortified which has a wall of men instead of brick."
    * King Charilaus, explaining why the list of Spartan laws was so short, said: "Men of few words require few laws."
    * King Demaratus, being annoyed by someone asking him who the most exemplary Spartan was, answered "He that is least like you."
    * When someone tried to engage him in conversation at a time and place he thought inappropriate, King Leonidas responded, "Much to the purpose, elsewhere."
    * When the Persians sent envoys to the Spartans demanding the traditional symbol of surrender, an offering of soil and water, the Spartans threw them into a deep well, suggesting that upon their arrival at the bottom, they could "Dig it out for yourselves."
    * On her husband Leonidas's departure for battle with the Persians at Thermopylae, Gorgo, Queen of Sparta asked what she should do. He advised her: "Marry a good man and bear good children."
    * Herodotus recounted another incident that preceded the Battle of Thermopylae. The Spartan Dienekes was told the Persian archers were so numerous that when they fired their volleys, their arrows would blot out the sun. He responded with “So much the better, we'll fight in the shade”. Today Dienekes's phrase is the motto of the Greek 20th Armored Division.
    * When Leonidas was in charge of guarding the narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae with just 7,000 Greek men in order to delay the invading Persian army, Xerxes offered to spare his men if they gave up their arms. Leonidas replied "Molon Labe" (Greek "Μολών Λαβέ"), which translates to "Come and take them". Today this is, among other things, the motto of the Greek 1st Army Corps.
    * Leonidas asked a Spartan to take a final communication about the battle home; the man declined, saying "I came here to fight, not to act as a messenger." He made the same request of another Spartan, and received the reply: "I shall do my duty better by staying here, and in that way the news will be better."
    * When asked by a woman from Attica, "Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?", Gorgo replied, "Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men."
    * Polycratidas was one of several Spartans sent on a diplomatic mission to some Persian generals, and being asked whether they came in a private or a public capacity, answered, "If we succeed, public; if not, private."
    * One famous example comes from the time of the invasion of Philip II of Macedon. With key Greek city-states in submission, he turned his attention to Sparta and sent a message: "If I win this war, you will be slaves forever." In another version, Philip proclaims: "You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city." The Spartan ephors sent back a one word reply: "If." Subsequently, both Philip and Alexander would avoid Sparta entirely.
    * Demetrius I of Macedon was offended when the Spartans sent his court a single envoy, and exclaimed angrily, "What! Have the Lacedaemonians sent no more than one ambassador?" The Spartan responded, "Aye, one ambassador to one king."
    * After being invited to dine at a public table, the sophist Hecataeus was criticized for failing to utter a single word during the entire meal. Archidamidas answered in his defense, "He who knows how to speak, knows also when."
    * Spartan mothers or wives gave a departing warrior his shield with the words: Συν ται η επι ται! Syn tai i epi tai! or Ή ταν ή επί τας! E tan i epi tas!, "With it or on it!", implying that he should return (victoriously) with his shield, or (his cremated body in an urn) upon it, but by no means after saving himself by throwing away his heavy shield and fleeing.
    * The king of Pontus engaged a Spartan cook to prepare their famous black broth for him, but found it distasteful. The cook explained, "To relish this dish, one must first bathe in the Eurotas."
    * Upon being asked to come hear a person who could perfectly imitate a nightingale, a Spartan answered, "I have heard the nightingale itself."
    * When asked what dowry she was giving her bridegroom, a poor Spartan girl said: "My father's common sense."
    * After an Athenian accused Spartans of being ignorant, the Spartan Plistoanax agreed: "What you say is true. We have learned none of your evil ways."
    "Ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time."
    -H.P. Lovecraft

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