Category Archives: Ancient Jokes and general humour

Some ancient education-related jokes (Jokes 4)

When MSNBC links to your blog, the smartest thing to do is find out why, and then post more on the same.

Quite some time ago I started a series on ancient humour and it’s time to revive it again.  See:

The Philolegos, or Laughter-Lover is a treasure trove of ancient humour.  As I wait anxiously for the strike to end at York University, here are some ancient education-related jokes:

“An egghead elementary school teacher suddenly darted a glance at the corner and shouted, ‘Dionysius is misbehaving in the corner!’  When one of the other boys pointed out that Dionysius had not yet arrived, he rejoined, ‘Well, he will be when he gets here’ (Laughter-lover, no. 61)

“An egghead was writing a letter from Athens to his father.  Wanting to show off over how well his studies were going, he added this postscript:  ‘I pray that when I come home I shall find you on trial for your life, so that I can show you how great an advocate I am'” (no. 54).

“A professor from [the city of] Sidon (see post here) asked a schoolteacher how much a five-litre flask holds.  ‘That all depends on whether you mean oil or wine” (no. 136).

“A gluttonous teacher called up to a loaf of bread he saw on a high shelf, ‘Come down and recite your lesson or I’ll come up there and teach you another one’ (no. 220).

“An egghead gym instructor was told first that his pupil was not feeling well, next that he had a fever, and finally that he was dead.  ‘If you keep giving him all these excuses to miss class, he’ll never have a chance to learn’ (no. 258).

Now even I would accept that last excuse for missing classes.

Haunted house for sale in Athens — belated Halloween post

Usually I like to post some scary stuff from antiquity in connection with Halloween (see earlier ones about talking, decapitated heads and such here and here), but I’m a bit behind.  Here is a somewhat entertaining tale of a haunted house preserved by Pliny the Younger (Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus in the early second century).  This ghost sounds a bit like a double for Jacob Marley.  Pliny seems to believe  the tale:

There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees. Immediately afterward a phantom appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and filthy appearance, with a long beard and messy hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued. Even in the day time, though the spirit did not appear, the impression nonetheless remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm. Consequently the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable, so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a sign was put up, giving notice that it was either for rent or sale.

(Pliny the Younger, Letters 7.27.5-6; adapted from the translation by William Melmoth, Letters of Pliny [Boston: Greenough and Stebbens, 1809]).

Moral of the story: Always ask if a place is haunted before you buy or rent.

(I came across the tale while reading D. Felton, “The Dead,” in A Companion to Greek Religion [edited by D. Ogden; London: Blackwell, 2007], 86-99.)

A few more ancient jokes, or selling your textbooks is not that impressive (Jokes 3)

Quite some time ago I began a series on ancient jokes (here and here), but I totally forgot about the whole thing.  As end-of-term marking and editing a volume presses upon me, I thought I’d at least post a few jokes from the Philolegos, the Laughter-lover.

A little who’s-your-real-father humour:

“An egghead on meeting a friend was congratulated by him on the birth of a son.  ‘Yes, thanks to all my friends!’, he replied” (Philogelos 98).

On just how stupid airheads can be:

“There were these two cowardly eggheads.  One hid in a well, the other in a bed of rushes.  When the soldiers who were after them let down a helmet to get some water, the one in the well thought a soldier had come down to get him, started to beg for mercy and so was detected.  The soldiers said that they would leave him alone if he would only shut up.  Hearing this, the other egghead hidden in the rushes called out, ‘Hey, leave me alone as well; I’m not saying anything!'” (96).

On what you shouldn’t do with your text-books:

“A witty young egghead sold his books when short of money.  He then wrote to his father, ‘Congratulate me, father.  I am already making money from my studies” (55).

(Again, all translations are from Baldwin, Philogelos, as cited in no. 1 of this ancient jokes series).

Regional rivalries and humour in the Greco-Roman world (Jokes 2)

Greco-Roman culture was marked by a competitive atmosphere in which individuals, groups, and communities sought to gain honour and reputation, sometimes at the expense of someone else’s shame. Cities, too, were often among the competitors for honour and, as Dio Chrysostom’s speeches to Greek cities in Asia Minor and elsewhere show (late first century CE), rivalries between particular cities could get quite heated, ranging from ongoing name-calling to violent clashes and war. Thus, for instance, Dio addressed the citizens of Nicomedia about their discord and strife with Nicaea, which involved each city claiming it was the greatest over against the other, and there were some concrete negative interchanges as a result (Oration 38). Dio, like Paul writing to the Christian group at Corinth (1 Corinthians), sought to alleviate the competitive atmosphere and tried to promote the values of concord and unity.

As in modern regional rivalries or region-centric thinking (in Canada it was once common to hear jokes about people from Newfoundland), sometimes negativity towards another area or people could take the form of ethnic stereotypes, including jokes. The ancient joke-book which I discussed in the previous post, The Laughter-Lover, contains a number of jokes of this kind, with the primary targets being inhabitants from Sidon (in Syria), Abdera (in Thrace), and Kyme (in Asia Minor). No doubt, some such jokes and caricatures originally emerged within the context of local civic rivalries. Here are a few that poke fun at — or stereotype as less than brilliant — people from Kyme (Cyme):(Again, all translations are from Baldwin, Philogelos, as cited in no. 1 of this ancient jokes series).

“A man from Kyme who was looking for a friend was in front of his house calling his name. ‘Shout louder, so that he’ll hear you,’ advised a passer-by. So he started calling, ‘Louder!'” (no.160).

“A man from Kyme was riding by a garden on a donkey. Catching sight of an overhanging branch full of ripe figs, he made a grab for it. But the donkey bolted and left him hanging. Up came the gardener and demanded to know what he thought he was doing hanging there. ‘I had an asinine accident'” (no. 166).

“A man from Kyme was so ill that his doctor despaired of him. However, he recovered. But he kept avoiding the doctor. Finally, the [doctor] managed to corner him and ask why. ‘Well, I’m embarrassed to be seen alive after you said I was going to die'” (no. 174).

“[There was a] doctor from Kyme who switched to a blunt scalpel because the patient on whom he was operating was screaming so much from the pain” (no. 177).

Ancient jokes: Humour now and then (Jokes 1)

There is no doubt that humour is a cultural thing. What is funny in the ancient world will not necessarily be funny now, and may even be considered nonsensical or offensive from the modern perspective. Likewise, what makes one group of people laugh in a particular period will certainly not be funny to another contemporary cultural group. Still, there are times when jokes from the Greco-Roman period make me laugh, perhaps partly because I spend a good part of my life “living” (theoretically) in the ancient world, but also because of western civilization’s cultural connections with the ancient Mediterranean. I have already mentioned some episodes in early Christian literature that seem intended to make the ancient audience laugh, such as the story of the apostle John and the bed bugs.

I thought it might be fun to start up an ongoing series on jokes from antiquity, jokes that may make some of us moderns laugh and/or provide us with glimpses into a very different cultural world than our own. There are plenty of references to humour and funny situations in many ancient sources (and ancient theatrical comedy was of course aimed, in part, at bringing laughter). Yet there is only one surviving example of an actual anthology of 265 ancient jokes, The Philogelos or Laughter-Lover (manuscript dating to the 10th century but reflecting jokes from the first centuries of our era, one of which can be dated to 248 CE).

The Laughter-Lover collects together jokes thematically, dealing with the stereotypical “intellectual”, “scholar”, or “professor” (scholastikos; there are over 100 of these), with physicians, with civic rivalry, and with people with bad breath, among others. Quite a few jokes have direct relevance to issues of gender and views of women in antiquity, as translated and discussed online here at Diotima.

Here’s my first installment relating to scholar-types (some of which also happen to reflect the realities of ancient slavery):

“An intellectual who had had an operation on his uvula was ordered by his doctor not to talk for a while. So he instructed his slave to greet all his callers on his behalf. Then he proceeded to say to each caller, ‘Please don’t be offended that my slave greeted you instead of me; I’m under doctor’s orders not to talk'” (Laughter-Lover, no. 7).

“After a dinner party two intellectuals kept taking it in turns to escort the other home in accordance with the rules of etiquette. The result: neither of them ever got to bed” (no. 20).

“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'” (no. 25).

Translations in this series of posts come from Barry Baldwin, The Philogelos or Laughter-Lover Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 1983, with adaptations. For a general discussion of humour through history, see Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg, eds., A Cultural History of Humour from Antiquity to the Present Day (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997).