Humour in the ancient world

What we’d see as humour is associated with our recent times but apart from satirical works and the pictures of Pietro Aretino which were more bawdy than humorous, apart from the lightheartedness of Chaucer, was there actual humour as we know it, say, in ancient times?

Did G-d have a sense of humour?

In Ancient Egypt, there is the Queen of Punt:


Notable is the scene at the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri that portrays the overweight figure of the Queen of Punt, followed by a small donkey.  The caption reads, “the donkey that had to carry the queen”, and apparently the ordinary Egyptians thought this was funny as well, for they repeated the drawing in rough sketch clearly copied from the original.

animal drivers

Another humorous allusion was to animals which were personified as partaking in human activity.

The Greeks

In Iliad, xi, 378, Paris, having hit Diomed, from behind a pillar with an arrow in the foot, springs forth from his concealment and laughs at him, saying he wished he had killed him. In Iliad, xxi, 407, where the gods descend into the battle, Minerva laughs at Mars when she has struck him with a huge stone so that he fell, his hair was draggled in the dust, and his armour clanged around him.

So it’s a cruel humour depicted here and it is but a step to ridiculing personal defects:

Homer tells us that when the gods at their banquet saw Vulcan, who was acting as butler, “stumping about on his lame leg,” they fell into “unextinguishable laughter.”  Thersites is described as “squint-eyed, lame-legged, with bent shoulders pinched over his chest, a pointed head, and very little hair on it.”


It commenced in the harvest homes of Greece and Sicily—in the festivals of the grape-gatherers at the completion of the vintage. They paraded the villages, crowned with vine-leaves, carrying poles and branches, and smeared with the juice of grapes. Their aim was to provoke general merriment by dancing, singing, and grotesque attitudes, and by giving rein to their coarse and pugnacious propensities.

Spectators and passers by were assailed with invectives, pelted with missiles, and treated to all that hostile humour which is associated with practical joking. So vile was their language and conduct that “comedy” came to signify abuse and vilification.

The irony of Sophocles was pretty close to humour:

A man may be either praised or blamed in this way, but Socrates’ intention was always sarcastic. He put questions to men, as if merely desiring some information they could easily give him, while he knew that his inquiries could not be answered, without overthrowing the theories of those he addressed. Thus, he gave instruction whilst he seemed to solicit it.

In various other ways he enlivened and recommended his doctrines by humorous illustration. It is said that he even went to the theatre to see himself caricatured, laughed as heartily as any, and stood up to show the audience how correctly his ill-favoured countenance had been reproduced.

And Homer would rae as humorous in today’s context:

In the Homeric hymn to Mercury, we read that the god extemporized a song, “just as when young men at banquets slily twit each other.” When the cups flowed, and the conversation sparkled, men indulged in repartee, or capped each other in verses. One man, for instance, would quote or compose a line beginning and ending with a certain letter, and another person was called upon for a similar one to complete the couplet.

This is most certainly in today’s vein:

On one occasion, when supping with the tyrant, a small mullet was placed before Philoxenus, and a large one before Dionysius. He thereupon took up his fish and placed it to his ear.

Dionysius asked him why he did so, to which he replied that he was writing a poem, called “Galatæa,” and wanted to hear some news from the kingdom of Nereus. “The fish given to him,” he added, “knew nothing about it, because it had been caught so young; but no doubt that set before Dionysius would know everything.”

The tyrant, we are told, laughed and sent him his mullet.

Reminds me of the supermarket where I kept holding lettuces to my ear until a supermarket lady asked what I was doing.  I replied that I’d been told by my wife to bring back a good lettuce.

“How would I know?” I asked her.

“Check the heart,” she’d replied.



Given that they had no concept of heterosexuality or homosexuality but rather that of the penetrator and the penetrated, then a boy would fall into the latter category but when he became a man, it would be seen as shameful for him to continue this.

The humour was almost barrack room or football locker room humour, with jokes about size and who’d done what.  The Priapus poems were in this vein.  Today’s idiomatic expressions in Italian retain much of this legacy and are colourful in the extreme.

So overall, from what I’ve seen and read, there’s not all that much difference between the ancients and the moderns when it comes to humour.

And for some other ancient boom-booms, check out Jams.

5 comments for “Humour in the ancient world

  1. October 18, 2009 at 17:25

    Doesn’t Mary Beard say some interesting things about this? I know Quentin Skinner has written a bit on this- its an interesting topic.

    • October 18, 2009 at 17:35

      It’s a fascinating topic, Tiberius and I admit I ran this with you in mind. There’s just too much material for one blogpost. Beard liked Cicero, of course though I have no great knowledge of this don. Skinner has a less orthodox view of Greece. What in particular struck you about Beard’s view?

  2. October 18, 2009 at 17:46

    The Sumerians had the oldest joke and it was about farting.

    “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap,”

    The Sumerians obviously never went to Merthyr Tydfil where it is common practice and even part of the traditional marriage ceremony if your posh….you don’t want to know about the non posh ceremony it tends to get a little messy.

  3. October 18, 2009 at 18:18

    Jim Bowen was invloved in a project to record the jokes from a 4th Century Greek jokebook:

  4. October 18, 2009 at 18:22

    It is a great topic. I’m very ignorant on it all- Beard I know has written something but I can’t remember where. There is a fascinating in our time program on Greek comedy which I found really interesting- particularly about the way that the old comedy was quite grotesque but by the time of Menander comedy is calmed.

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