Was Gelos – Greek God of Laughter – also a god of warriors? The answer is not as clear cut as you may think. This article reviews humor in Ancient Greece, and how Sparta – home to its most military organized and brutal people – was also one of the only two ancient Greek city-states known to have built a special temple for Gelos in which to worship him. A proposed explanation is that “It is easier to practice psychological honesty about dark aspects of human existence with the protective shield of laughter.”
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Sparta and the word spartans, indicate a very military and a spartan life. Certainly, it is not the first ancient Greek city that comes to mind when we think of laughter, humor and comedy. Can one ever envisage wit, jokes and laughter with a spartan life? Prof. Prof Edith Hall in her recent book ‘Introducing the Ancient Greeks’ (March, 2016, 2nd edition) points out that: “The image of warriors of Sparta cracking acerbic jokes in the face of death encapsulates the paradox this strange city-state presents. The most military and brutal of ancient Greeks, the Spartans were also the most famously witty. Indeed, Sparta was one of only two ancient Greek city-states known to have built a special temple for the god of laughter, Gelos, in which to worship him.”
Prof. Hall further explains that the origin of the word Laconic, first adopted in English in the late 16th century, originates from Laconia, the south-eastern part of Peloponnese. Plutarch’s (AD 46-120) collected ‘Laconic Sayings’ and ‘Sayings of Laconian Women’ which has become popular and it is still studied by modern speech writers and stand up comedians as a foundation to develop the one-line putdowns.
The reason that the Spartans favored wit, humor and laughter was because, as Prof. Hall explains:
The Inuit Eskimos have 20 different words for snow, it was the same with ancient Greeks who had as many words describing laughter. In classical Athens, there was an exclusive club for raconteurs, where also Philip II of Macedon frequented who enjoyed a laugh, he commissioned joke writers to write jokes and perform at the club. It was ancient Greeks who invented the idea of collecting jokes in a book. There is a book of jokes in fact that survived from the 3rd Century AD called ‘Philogelos’ or Laughter Lover.
In addition, the ancient Greeks believed that the immortal Olympian Gods, they were in a state of constant bliss, rocking forever with “inextinguishable laughter.” In fact in a hymn to Demeter (translates as earth mother, the Goddess of Earth), she was inconsolable because her daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, the God of the Underworld. Demeter protests to the Olympian Gods, and looks for consolation in Eleusis, a city in ancient Greece where the Eleusinian Mysteries were taking place.
The hostess in Eleusis, who was also queen of the surrounding area, had an idea of inviting the only stand up female comic in ancient mythology. This female stand up comic went by the name of Iambe, because of rude jokes she recited with an iambic meter. Prof. Hall explains that: “Demeter finally busts into laughter. Iambe, the comedian gave her name to the poetic meter that the Greeks always used for poems of insult and satirical abuse; it probably had its origins in prehistoric festivals, in ritual obscenity and jesting.”
This article was originally published on www.theschooloflaughter.com under the title “Ancient Greece: Laughter and Emotional Honesty” and is republished here with permission.
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Example of Spartan humor:
- Just before the battle of Thermopylae, a Spartan soldier came and reported, that the Persians clouds of arrows darkened the sun. ‘So much the better,’ said Leonidas,’ for we shall fight in the shade.’
- A Spartan ephor cut two of the strings of a harp, saying to the performer, “Don’t murder music.”
- Someone seeing a picture of Spartans being killed by Athenians, observed, “Brave fellows, these Athenians.” “On canvas,” interposed a Spartan.
- A youth, when someone promised to give him game-cocks that would die fighting, said, “Don’t do that, but give me some of the kind that kill fighting.”
- Spartan children were raised without chatter: everything they heard was short and with a double—a wise—meaning. They were trained to think before they spoke and to speak, finally, with grace, with sense. The shorter the sentence, the better. “How many of you are there?” a visiting foreigner asked a Spartan boy. The lad replied: “Enough, Sir, to keep out wicked men.”
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On a more personal note, this reminds me of the 1960s Japanese TV serie “Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman”. Zatoichi is a traveling masseur that goes from village to village (or rather from gambling house to gambling house since he can hear on which side the dice fall) on an apparent personal quest to help the widows and orphans of this world. He is also a blind hero with superhuman fighting skills.
What’s interesting in this serie is that the main character (Zatuichi) laughs/chuckles all the time (and so do all the villains by the way). He also happens to be invincible in combat and fearless in the face of death.
This feeds very well one of my many working hypothesis: laughter is the warrior’s rallying call. You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.