Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Humour in The Ancient World

The urge to laugh is a primal urge, present from the dawn of human history. Even apes appreciate humour.

In the early 20th century, anthropologists Schulze and Chewings, got caught in a terrifying thunderstorm they thought would scare the Australian aboriginals, who had been genetically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world for at least 35,000 years. Rather than being afraid they burst out laughing at an unusually loud or peculiar clap of thunder.

Photo source:

One of the Oldest Jokes in the World

Comes from Sumer in Modern Iraq. 

"Something, which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."

Ancient Egyptian Humour

Physician jokes can be found already in ancient Egypt.
The ancient Egyptians were very new media savvy with catchy symbols and their jokes are often cartoons. Political satire, scatological humor, sex jokes, slapstick, and animal-based parodies; we should say – laugh like an Egyptian!

Erotic Turin Papyrus from the Ramesside period (1292-1075 B.C.E.)

The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor the sailor tells his story: Then he (i.e. the snake god of the island) laughed at me for the things I had said, which seemed foolish to him.

Ankhsheshonq in the 4th century BCE quotes a much older saying
“Before the god the strong and the weak are a joke.” (Lichtheim 2006)

Ancient Greek Humour

The "
Philogelos" or "Laughter-Lover" (manuscript dating to the 10th century but with older jokes probably from 250 CE) is an anthology of 265 jokes.

  • "Wishing to teach his donkey not to eat, a pedant did not offer him any food. When the donkey died of hunger, he said "I've had a great loss. Just when he had learned not to eat, he died." 
  • “An intellectual who had had an operation on his uvula (vital for speech) was ordered by his doctor not to talk for a while. Then he said 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’”. 
  • “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’” .

There is also great wisdom in ancient Greece about the therapeutic value of humour. Hippocrates (460-370 BC) advices physicians to bring laughter to the patient rather than dour faces. This is something many modern physicians seem to have forgotten.

Ancient Roman Humour

Romans were rather funny and definitely not serious and pompous statues as later history would have them. The ruins of places like Pompei are full of rather naughty graffiti and lewd jokes. Here're two sarcastic and macho ones from ancient Rome.

A misogynist is taking care of his departed wife's burial. Someone asks him "Who is it that rests in peace here?" The man answers: "Me, now that I'm rid of her!"
A man tell another man: "I had your wife, without paying a penny". The man replied: "It's my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?"
Photo source:

Humour in The Hebrew Bible

Hershey Friedman, Professor at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York has written about how humour brings man closer to God in the Bible.

First, there is the idea that God has a sense of humour.

  • In Psalms (2:4), "He who sits in heaven will laugh, the Lord will mock them."
  • In Psalms (37:13): "My Lord laughs at him for He sees that his day is coming."
  • In Psalms (59:9): "But as for You, God, You laugh at them; You mock all nations."
Then there is sarcasm: (Exodus 14:11): "Was there a lack of graves in Egypt, that you took us away to die in the wilderness?"

There is much humorous imagery:

  • "As a gold ring in a swine’s snout, so is a beautiful woman from whom sense has departed" (Proverbs 11:22).
  • "It is better to live in a desert than with a contentious and angry woman" (Proverbs 21:19).

The First Christian Joke Books

Photo source:

Monks continued the tradition of using humour and riddles as a teaching tool in the Ioca Monachorum, a text that dates to 700 A.D.
  • Who was not born but died? (Adam).
  • What man can kill another man without being punished? (A doctor).

Japanese Jokes

Heiyo Nagashima, Japan Society for Laughter and Humor Studies, writes how the Japanese kobanashi or joke books started having Chinese jokes in the 18th century and American jokes in the 19th century. He claims that the Japanese do not tell each other Japanese jokes but foreign jokes.

Photo source:

Chinese Jokes

Ancient China was full of delightful humour with life insights, which have not dated over the centuries. We have delightful jokes from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

On his birthday, an official's subordinates chipped in to give him a life-sized solid gold rat, since he was born in the year of the rat (each year of a twelve year cycle has a different animal). The official thanked them and then asked, "Did you know that my wife's birthday is coming up? She was born in the year of the ox."
A heavily laden woodcutter stumbled into the local doctor on a narrow path. When the doctor drew back his fist to hit him, the woodcutter dropped to his knees and begged, “Please kick me instead.” 
A bystander asked, “Why would you rather him kick you?” 
The terrified woodcutter replied, “Treatment by his hands would be much deadlier than with his feet!”

Indian Humour

Ancient India abounds with wit and humour. Even the world’s greatest epic, The Mahabharata says of itself

“What is found herein may also be found in other sources, What is not found herein does not matter.”

Ancient India has an extensive tradition of moral tales.
A greengrocer and a potter jointly hired a camel and each filled one side of the pannier with his goods. The camel as he went along the road took a mouthful every now and then, as he had a chance, from the greengrocer's bag of vegetables. This provoked a laugh from the potter, who thought he had the best of the bargain. But the time came for the camel to sit, and he naturally sat on the heavier side, bearing down on the pots, and also to have his mouth free to eat from the bag of greens. The pots in the bag all broke, and then the greengrocer had the last laugh.

Historical figures like Birbal, the minister of Emperor Akbar and Tenali Rama, the jester in the court of Krishnadevaraya (1509 AD - 1530 AD), ruler of the medieval Vijaynagar empire in southern India are sources of great wit.

Once when Tenali Rama was sentenced to death for some trick or the other, he was given the right to choose the form of his execution. After giving due consideration to the matter, he says "Your Majesty! I would like to die of old age!" The emperor couldn’t bear being without his wit and promptly pardoned him.

  • Miriam Lichtheim (1914-2004). Ancient Egyptian Literature. Volume II: The New Kingdom. The Regents of the University of California, 1976, 2006. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Greek Humour from Source: Philip Harland


P.Ganeshan said...

Cool! I was always curious about how humour could be different in different cultures. Humour is a great way to bear life.

Estel Morgan said...

Interesting to think if humor is different at different times. I was reading an article about humor in Nazi Germany, and they did have humor then, very subtle. Good post.

Harri Rautiainen said...

an excellent study, interesting reading.

Julian Macey said...

Good viewpoint. Gave me lots of ideas. Thanks. Every culture has different sense of humour. When we don't have the same sense of humour, we tend to call others humourless.

Singapore Jobs said...

Humor is great medicine if you are suffering from stress.

thanks for having a blog like this

Jobs in Singapore

Would you care for exchange link with our site?
comment me for your response

Kamini said...

Good article with nice jokes. Humour is so vital in every human society.

internet marketing said...

Definitely laughing is more than a medicine, a day without laughing is a wasted day. Thanks for this information.

company logo design said...

Loving your blog, awesome tips on this you have here. I
would just like to ask you some questions privately, mind
contacting me at sales@ company logo
logo design

av女優 said...