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"Visual Humour on Greek Vases (550–350 BC): Three Approaches to the Ambivalence of Ugliness in Popular Culture", The Palgrave Handbook of Humour, History, and Methodology (eds. D. Derrin and H. Burrows), 2020, 175-200


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Ugliness, in a society obsessed with beauty was often feared and mocked, but it could also be used to criticise mainstream values. This was the choice made by Athenian vase-painters of the sixth to the fourth centuries BC. Mass-produced at the height of Athenian democracy, painted vases were an inexpensive and popular artform that offer us an amazing insight into the daily life of the great city. In contrast to other artforms often commissioned or too expensive to fool around with, vase-painters made a liberal use of parody, visual puns, situation comedy and caricature. The study of the visibility of ugliness on Greek vases opens a number of unexpected theoretical and methodological issues which help us better define visual humour in ancient Greece. At least three forms of ugliness were displayed on vases: (1) caricature, an intentional form of ugliness; (2) the inherent ugliness of physical deformity, foreigners, the elderly and the ‘other’; (3) finally, the construction of ugliness both physical and moral through the intrusion of a ubiquitous humorous mythological creature called the satyr in a ‘civilised’ society presents a third pathway to ugliness.
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Edited by
Daniel Derrin · Hannah Burrows
The Palgrave Handbook
of Humour, History,
and Methodology
The Palgrave Handbook of Humour, History,
and Methodology
Daniel Derrin • Hannah Burrows
The Palgrave
Handbook of Humour,
History, and
ISBN 978-3-030-56645-6 ISBN 978-3-030-56646-3 (eBook)
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Daniel Derrin
Department of English Studies
Durham University
Durham, UK
Hannah Burrows
Department of History
University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, UK
This book is a carefully considered and curated study of humour and the past.
Far from being assembled in haste, it has had a long gestation. Given its rich
variety of topics and the expertise involved, that is not surprising—co- ordinating
such a multi-talented team might challenge any editorial team. However,
Daniel Derrin and Hannah Burrows have proved their organisational skill time
and again during this developmental period. Together, they have staged not
one but four collaboratories and panel presentations to explore resources and
possible collaborations, launched and maintained a website (https://humour-, and administered a research grant to support the
whole. For those authors lucky enough to attend sessions at the University of
Aberdeen in 2015 and 2016, at Trinity College Dublin in 2016 and at Durham
University in 2017, meeting and discussing face to face moved the book for-
ward, providing inspiration, a vital critique and wonderful memories.
The real reason for cautious preparation is neither length nor number of
authors: it is meeting the demands of the methodological challenges that this
book is designed to address. For those who have watched the project from its
inception, therefore, the book forms the end product of extended and deliber-
ate discussion about how best to tackle this serious—if amusing—subject. It is
not at all straightforward to approach texts and practices from times past and
across many different languages and cultures, and to focus upon their nexus
with humour further complicates the task. Humour is largely a modern con-
cept and remains quite ill-dened, even in English-speaking cultures.
Importantly, it is innately ambiguous, a potential trap for the unwary scholar in
any age. Until very recently, cultural historians were loath to include humour
in their remit, even when studying the so-called emotions of the past.
While much has been achieved since the rst pioneering conference dedi-
cated to the cultural history of humour, convened in Amsterdam in 1994,
methodologies and terminologies have remained unclear. This is despite the
rapid development of humour studies itself, a eld that bridges across many
disciplines, from neuroanatomy and psychology to linguistics and performance
art and politics. Indeed, looking back over the last quarter-century, it seems to
me that cultural history and humour studies tended to remain in largely sepa-
rate camps with little intellectual exchange. In 2013, I was invited to contrib-
ute to a University of Cambridge seminar on the history of the emotions,
teaching a section titled ‘Humour and Laughter’. Coming from a humour
studies background, I welcomed the decision to include both terms, but found
it difcult to identify either as an emotion. When I asked my (cultural histo-
rian) colleagues for clarity, they told me they regarded laughter as the emotion,
humour as the cause.
From the stance of humour studies, however, laughter is a multi-valent form
of human behaviour that can signal many things—amusement, certainly, but
also nervous embarrassment, surprise, even antagonistic sarcasm and dispar-
agement. Laughter may be fake, concealing all manner of non-humorous inner
feelings (psychologists term this non-Duchenne laughter, and it induces quite
different feelings in its audience than does true Duchenne laughter). Seen this
way, laughter is not itself an emotion, but can be allied to a very wide range of
emotions, including humour. When allied to humour, then it stands to it as
weeping does to its own possible range of emotions, from grief to joy.
Humour on the other hand cannot be limited to being an emotion. It cer-
tainly can be what Wallace Chafe calls ‘the feeling of non-seriousness’ (The
Importance of Not Being Earnest, 2007) that characterises amusement, but the
word is also used variously to denote the stimulus to being amused or the cre-
ation of a humourist or comedian, and to describe a range of experiences and
responsive behaviour that includes laughter and smiling. It has become a con-
venient umbrella term that sums up a very wide range of humour-related phe-
nomena and, as such, has spread around the world, and has been adopted as a
modernising neologism into languages such as Japanese and Chinese.
But is humour an emotion? The question of whether humour (in the gen-
eral sense) is purely a cognitive or an affective experience has plagued humour
studies from its inception in linguistic studies. Recently, however, neuroanat-
omy (using MRI scans) has convincingly demonstrated that in response to
humour, the human brain activates both cognitive and affective pathways, and
does so in a complex sequence. Distinguished by nanoseconds, several distinct
neural steps occur for a human subject exposed to a humour stimulus: rst
comes recognition of something as humorous (i.e. not serious, a kind of recog-
nition of a play-frame), then comes comprehension or decoding (what might
be called ‘getting it’) and nally come the responses to it (possibly including
laughter and smiling). While these steps are sequential, their outcomes are far
from inevitably positive. For example, a humour recipient may recognise that
something is intended as humour—and may even respond to it with signs of
acceptance—but still may not like it nor enjoy the process. By the same token,
enjoyment of the humour does not always require full comprehension, let
alone a grasp of the hidden structures of topic/s, target/s and structural devices
employed, nor possession of the specialist knowledge required for decoding
humour’s incongruities, ambiguities and wordplays. Consciousness of why
something is funny is not required in order to nd it amusing—or only humour
scholars would ever laugh. For many reasons, therefore, it is well-nigh impos-
sible to separate the cognitive and affective elements of humour.
If these complexities exist for present-day humour and laughter, how much
more must they apply to other cultural periods in the past? Many languages
possess their own terms for words relating to humour, including its forms and
purposes, and the social conventions surrounding the use of humour and
laughter vary enormously between cultures and also within cultures, even
today. All this presents formidable barriers preventing an easy application of
contemporary concepts, theories and assumptions about where to nd humour
and how to approach it. Rising admirably to the challenge posed by such meth-
odological difculties, the editors and authors alike have nevertheless managed
here to present a book designed to help others as well as to offer its own
The book’s structure guides the reader rst through issues of theory and
method, and then through case studies capitalising on detailed knowledge of
periods and texts, linking historical material with particular theoretical
approaches. Interestingly for me at least, this illuminates not only the source
material but the general utility of the theory, whether traditional or modern.
Daniel Derrin refers to this as ‘conceptual grafting’, a way to get around some
of the problems that arise when trying to apply in specic historical contexts
typically universalising ‘theories of humour’. As far as I am aware, this is the
rst book to adopt such an approach, rst discussing the limits of what is pos-
sible in identifying and accessing humour that is located in the past, and then
linking a range of modern theories and techniques to specic texts and their
cultural milieux. As such, I believe it marks an important step forward in con-
structive interchange between humour studies and cultural history, and justies
the book’s title of ‘Handbook’.
For full measure, the third part of the book puts this approach to a practical
test. Several chapters investigate what happens when an informed application
of theory and expert knowledge is carried into translating and interpreting past
texts and images for modern audiences. Is the humour workable? What are the
difculties that arise? How do modern audiences respond to the humour? Does
the supercial meaning of the humour only translate, or can its deeper signi-
cance or worldview pass from its original age to the present?
Throughout the book, the editors have ensured that it deals meticulously
with the past widespread tendency in both humour studies and cultural history
to conate laughter and humour, reaching for precision in the terms and
descriptions used across all chapters. Authors distinguish between benign and
corrective (malicious) humour—and there is plenty of malice in some of the
texts and interpersonal remarks here analysed! In other places, the humour
considered is benign and uplifting, linked to religious insight. The principal
argument made by all the specialists across their separate elds is that studying
humour in past texts, images and records is rewarding in and of itself, for a
number of reasons.
Firstly, looking for such humour is often a pioneering effort: it is surprising
how often in the past scholars have completely overlooked it. Treating the past
with too much reverence can do it as much disservice as studying it too super-
cially. Secondly, searching for humour puts our knowledge of the past to the
test, showing how demanding it is to peer at images and passages that look
suspiciously odd and to be condent of one’s interpretation of them as humour.
This is not a task for the faint-hearted. Thirdly, however, the task reminds us
not only of the distance between our own contemporary culture and that of the
past, but also of some of the closeness that exists between the past and the pres-
ent. While today’s comic practices and theoretical approaches of course vary
from those of the past, they also have surprising similarities. Despite the lack of
direct equivalence of terms in many periods and languages, some of the studies
reveal the sense of a shared experience of humour and of being amused. When
we see Erasmus’s Folly recommending laughter as a way of discreetly passing
over tensions between married couples and avoiding divorce, we immediately
recognise the insight. From that early modern world, it is just a step to Harvard
University in the 1930s and the beginnings of personality assessment, when
Gordon Allport chose to include in his instruments a test for sense of humour
as an indicator of maturity and good mental health.
I am proud to recall that the rst steps towards this book can be traced to
Australia. The Australasian Humour Studies Network (AHSN), now hosted by
the University of Sydney, was founded on a wave of interest in studying humour
that was generated by the 8th Conference of the International Society for
Humor Studies at the University of New South Wales in 1996. The AHSN has
assembled each year since then to exchange papers and strengthen each other’s
belief that their topics, far from being simple and easy as many colleagues in the
academy suppose, are in fact highly demanding. I and others in Australia and
New Zealand have had the honour of providing a meeting ground for this
group. During some of those events, the editors rst explored the possibility of
this project. After that, as they say, the rest is history. It seems only appropriate
that I salute them in this foreword as they encourage exploration of the chal-
lenges involved in appreciating historical humour. It is my belief that their
book will play an important part in assisting the future achievements of humour
Sydney, Australia JessicaMilnerDavis
We wish to thank Jessica Milner Davis for her unfailing support in this endeav-
our from the very beginning. The Arts and Humanities Research Council
(Project Reference: AH/N008987/1) generously funded the Humours of the
Past (HOP) project, which led to this volume and for that we are very grateful.
A grant from the Principal’s Interdisciplinary Fund at the University of
Aberdeen helped us crucially at an early stage. Thanks also to the members of
the HOP project’s steering group who helped us plan and organise
Among them, we wish to single out the following individuals to whom we
are sincerely grateful for their help as members of the editorial board for this
volume. Many thanks to each of you for your advice and input.
• Giulia Baccini
• Ron Stewart
• Conal Condren
• Delia Chiaro
• Jessica Milner Davis
Part I Preliminaries: Terms and Theories 1
1 Introduction 3
Daniel Derrin
2 The Study of Past Humour: Historicity and the Limits of
Method 19
Conal Condren
3 No Sense of Humour? ‘Humour’ Words in Old Norse 43
Hannah Burrows
4 Rewriting Laughter in Early Modern Europe 71
Lucy Rayeld
5 The Humour of Humours: Comedy Theory and Eighteenth-
Century Histories of Emotions 93
Rebecca Tierney-Hynes
6 Bergson’s Theory of the Comic and Its Applicability to
Sixteenth-Century Japanese Comedy 109
Jessica Milner Davis
7 Comic Character and Counter-Violation: Critiquing Benign
Violation Theory 133
Daniel Derrin
8 Humour and Religion: New Directions? 151
Richard A. Gardner
Part II Case Studies 173
9 Visual Humour on Greek Vases (550–350 BC): Three
Approaches to the Ambivalence of Ugliness in Popular Culture 175
Alexandre G. Mitchell
10 Approaching Jokes and Jestbooks in Premodern China 201
Giulia Baccini
11 Testing the Limits of Pirandello’s Umorismo: A Case Study
Based on Xiaolin Guangji 221
Antonio Leggieri
12 The Monsters That Laugh Back: Humour as a Rhetorical
Apophasis in Medieval Monstrology 239
Rafał Borysławski
13 Medieval Jokes in Serious Contexts: Speaking Humour to
Power 257
Martha Bayless
14 ‘Lightness and Maistrye’: Herod, Humour, and Temptation in
Early English Drama 275
Jamie Beckett
15 Embodied Laughter: Rabelais and the Medical Humanities 293
Alison Williams
16 Naïve Parody in Rabelais 313
John Parkin
17 ‘By God’s Arse’: Genre, Humour and Religion in William
Wager’s Moral Interludes 325
Lieke Stelling
18 Romantic Irony: Problems of Interpretation in Schlegel and
Carlyle 341
Giles Whiteley
19 Unlocking Verbal-Visual Puns in Late-Nineteenth-Century
Japanese Cartoons 361
Ronald Stewart
20 Popular Humour in Nordic Jesting Songs of the Nineteenth
and Twentieth Centuries: Danish Recordings of Oral Song
Tradition 383
Lene Halskov Hansen
21 Spanish Flu: The First Modern Case of Viral Humour? 405
Nikita Lobanov
Part III Humour of the Past in the Present 429
22 Translating Humour in The Song of Roland 431
John DuVal
23 Intercultural and Interartistic Transfers of Shandean Humour
in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries 443
Yen-Mai Tran-Gervat
24 The Scholars, Chronique indiscrète or Neocial’naja istorija?
The Challenge of Translating Eighteenth-Century Chinese
Irony and Grotesque for Contemporary Western Audiences 459
Anna Di Toro
25 Putting Humour on Display 481
Laurence Grove
26 Building The Old Joke Archive 499
Bob Nicholson and Mark Hall
Index 515
© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature
Switzerland AG 2020
D. Derrin, H. Burrows (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Humour, History,
and Methodology,
Visual Humour onGreek Vases (550–350BC):
Three Approaches totheAmbivalence
ofUgliness inPopular Culture
The importance of ugliness in ancient Greece, be it in literature, philosophical
thought or the pictorial arts, is difcult to assess but is key to understanding
ancient visual humour. According to most of our ancient literary, philosophical
and visual sources, Athenian society from the sixth to the fourth centuries BC
aspired to a certain esthetic ideal.
When Plato distinguished the different steps
that lead to beauty, from objects in the sensible world to the idea of Beauty
itself in the intelligible world, he was developing philosophically ideas that had
already been in vogue for nearly a century. Indeed, the treatise entitled Kanon
by the sculptor Polykleitos, which he expressed in his statuary (the Diadumenos,
the Doryphoros), already substantiated a Greek vision of beauty linked to the
notions of balance and mathematical harmony between the whole and its parts.
The word kosmos expressed these ideas more accurately than the word kalos
(‘beautiful’) for it referred not only to the concept of ‘ornament’ but also to
‘universe’ and ‘order’.
In a society where the world was seen as beautiful and ordered or beautiful
because it was ordered, was there any room for disruption, errors, humour and
ugliness? Aristotle dened the laughable as ‘a mistake or a kind of ugliness
A. G. Mitchell ( )
Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Fribourg,
Fribourg, Switzerland
(aischos) that causes no pain or destruction: so for example the comic mask is
something ugly and distorted but causes no pain’.
Aischos, ugly, the base, the
deformed, was opposed to kalos, the beautiful, the noble. Both adjectives
applied to moral character, to actions, as well as to appearance and things.
understand ancient Greek humour, we must focus on ugliness. Obviously, it is
not ugliness per se that causes laughter, it is ugliness in context or instrumen-
talised or the presence of surprise as a laughing catalyst. Already in the
Renaissance, Madius (Vincenzo Maggi), in his treatise On the Ridiculous
(1550), comments on Aristotle’s poetics. He writes ‘If ugliness alone were the
cause of laughter, while it continues to exist, laughter should also continue.
But, without ceasing the cause of ugliness, we nevertheless cease laughing; also
those things that are ugly but are familiar to us, do not cause laughter. Therefore
it is clear enough that the cause of laughter does not reside only in ugliness, but
it is also the work of surprise’.
It is obvious from a strictly logical point of view that ugliness is the inalien-
able companion of beauty: without a relevant visual comparison—except in a
Platonic context—beauty does not mean anything. But why show visual ugli-
ness (as opposed to moral ugliness) rather than hide it? The Greek approach
was to expose in order to demonstrate. Even in Sparta, deformed children were
not hidden, but left to die in full view of the public. There was no place in clas-
sical Greece for the kind of ultra-realistic stone portraiture that appeared four
hundred years later at the end of the Roman republic, of fty-year-old men
with shrivelled faces, their features almost caricatured either because of an acute
sense of morality, or because the busts were based on death wax masks. Greek
artists would certainly have been able to produce similar portraits had they
wished to but when having to choose between the two poles of mimesis (faith-
ful imitation of nature) and aesthetic ideal, Greek artists leant towards their
idealistic aspirations and yet drew on physical reality, including ugliness.
We need to distinguish between different kinds of ugliness when consider-
ing visual humour on Greek vases. At least three forms were displayed on vases:
(1) caricature, an intentional form of ugliness, a popular and democratic egali-
tarian tool. (2) Then came the inherent ugliness of deformity, foreigners with
non-Caucasian facial traits, the decrepitude of the elderly, all of which reveal
deep anxieties about disease, the ‘other’ and the inevitability of death. (3) And,
nally, the construction of ugliness both physical and moral through the intru-
sion of a ubiquitous and humorousmythological creature called the satyr in a
‘civilised’ society presents a third pathway to ugliness, that of the ambivalence
of the (Eliasian) civilising process.
: C
One of the major changes that accompanied the advent of democracy was
when democratic egalitarianism nally took precedence over an aristocratic
society built on honour and shame. It was in this context that ugliness nally
gained the right to be heard. This process is only visible over a long period of
time. We observe the rst edgling signs with Thersites, the tremendouslyugly
crowd-pleaser in the Iliad: ‘He is the ugliest man ever to come to Ilion, bandy-
legged and stooped. His head is covered with only a small amount of thin
downy hair. Achilles and Ulysses really abhor him for he quarrels with them
As Halliwell writes, ‘It is no accident that Thersites, a symbolic
gure of ridicule incarnate from Homer onwards, receives an exceptionally full
physical description in the Iliad that seems to match up his ugliness with the
subversive unruliness of his bent for mocker y’.
Thersites was not allowed to
speak, as he was excluded from any deliberative participation in the aristocratic
context of the Achaean camp. When he pushes too far his criticism of
Agamemnon, ‘king of men’, heis violently beaten up by Odysseus amongst a
laughing and jeering crowd, heroes and common sailors included. Thersites’
speech is not unreasonable as such but he is too far ahead of his time. He is
prevented from speaking out loud because he does not show enough aidos
(‘respect’) towards aristocratic authority. It will only be in the context of
democracy that parrhesia, the right to express oneself freely, would become
law. The intentional visual ugliness of caricature, this visceral need to express
one’s opinion through ugliness in a movement of egalitarian democratic par-
rhesia, by belittling the values of beauty and harmony, was a way of levelling
the aristocratic ideal and all its values to the ground. It is a necessary form of
burlesque. Caricature was an egalitarian tool in a society that was seeking to
emancipate itself from ancient kinglyfeats of arms, to promote the power of
the people, of the Demos. The ugliness of caricature, exaggerated and inten-
tional, had a political function.
Athenian black- and red-gure vases were the perfect expression of this emi-
nently popular culture, as they cost almost nothing to produce, being made
from clay and involved almost negligible labour costs. They were therefore
accessible to everyone, rich and poor.
As most vases were produced for the
market and not on commission, craftsmen had to comply with the rules of
market economy: they followed fashion or went against it, to sell more vases.
Since they had to be appreciated by as many buyers as possible in order to be
sold, their gurative scenes represent what most Athenians believed at the time.
In this sense it truly was a popular artform. The concept of ‘popular’ culture
has a convoluted and controversial history. It was traditionally opposed to a
dominant ‘high’ culture which controlled it by imposing its values and cultural
norms. In this view, popular culture developed on the reception of these values,
through the imitation of the ‘high’ culture. But this dichotomy was completely
revised by Pierre Bourdieu,
moving to different perceptions altogether, on
different modes of cultural appropriation.
In terms of fashion and the culture
that is reected through the images depicted on the vases it is evident that
some representations aspire to aristocratic and elite values that trickle down to
the entire demos (population).
Caricature is a transformation, a grotesque or ridiculous representation of
people or things by exaggerating their most characteristic features. To ensure
their caricatures were understood by their contemporaries, ancient painters
were in possession of a veritable comic arsenal.
Some ancient caricatures still surprise the modern observer, such as a small
wine container in the Louvre Museum (Fig.9.1).
On one side of this askos,
we see a man, naked, leaning over his cane from which hangs his only garment,
a folded tunic. This male character is almost entirely bald and wears a goatee.
The most surprising aspect of this scene is the disproportionate size of his head,
which is simply gigantic compared to his stunted body, a large head that
reminds us of press cartoons or Punch and Judy shows. Who was the butt of
the joke? His attitude is a very common one in Greek vase-painting, that of the
passer-by or onlooker (Fig. 9.2),
one of many thousand images of idle citi-
zens found on vases, often in the context of the palaestra. The excessive size of
his head and his thoughtful attitude also recall the caricature of a sophist, the
intellectual whose head was larger than his body and who spent his time talking.
He was sketched by a simple craftsman from the potters’ district who had
little reason to respect these smooth talkers who travelled from city to city to
offer their services, as described by Aristophanes: ‘a crowd of sophists, diviners
[…] with long hair […] horoscope makers, lazy-bones’.
It may be the same
kind of intellectual who was mocked in the Philogelos, a collection of jokes in
ancient Greek.
People tell a young egg-head that his beard is coming in, so he goes to the front
door to welcome it. When his friend realises what he’s doing, he says ‘No wonder
Fig. 9.1
people think we’re idiots—how do you know your beard isn’t coming through
the back door?’
Mythology was not immune to caricature. Most Greek heroes were either
the result of the union of a god and a mortal like Herakles, or the offspring of
kings, like Odysseus, son of Laertius, king of Ithaca. Painters often present
Odysseus at his best, highlighting his famous metis, or craftiness, a quality the
Greeks were particularly fond of, beinggreat negotiators in politics and trade.
But some vases deliberately caricature the hero. Among the most famous, those
of the Kabirion sanctuary, ten miles from Thebes (Greece) caricature him in a
completely grotesque way on several occasions, either when he escapes from
the island of Calypso on two amphorae, running on the waves, or in the com-
pany of the magician Circe.
But one of the most interesting vases is in London.
This oinochoe (or jug) (Fig.9.3)
shows a highly caricatured Odysseus, wear-
ing his sailor’s polos hat and carr ying off the Palladion—the small statue of
Athena which, according to tradition, was the guarantor of Troy’s safety. The
scene is easily understood if we compare it to its ‘serious’ version, an oinochoe
from the Louvre for example (Fig.9.4).
Fig. 9.2
In the caricature, Odysseus has stolen the sacred image of Athena from the
city of Troy. The painter has given him a pot belly and a bloated scrotum, a
head that is not proportionate to his body and a particularly hairy face. His
sailor’s hat is worn very low on his forehead, which increases the hero’s inele-
gant appearance, just like his rufed hair sprouting from either side of the polos.
If Diomedes is the other caricatured character, with his gigantic nose, we have
an additional source of amusement here, because of Odysseus’ trickery.
According to tradition it was Diomedes who returned to the Greek camp with
the Palladion, not Odysseus. For those who might want to interpret this scene
as a visual representation of a theatrical stage scene, it should be noted that
their entire bodies are caricatured, not just the face, which eliminates the pos-
sibility that they are wearing comedy masks. There are no hints to the realia of
stagecraft. The painting even escapes Oliver Taplin’s list of ‘visual theatre sig-
We must adjust our perspective to that of the ancient customer and
insist on the fact that on the one hand we are dealing here with playfulness
between images and on the other hand that the burlesque of the scene is due
Fig. 9.3
to a social need to belittle even the great eponymous hero of the Odyssey. With
these gures, we are now in the fth and fourth centuries BC, a time in which
society had become far more egalitarian and where, unlike Thersites, the unfor-
tunate dishevelled hunchback of the Homeric era, one could make fun of the
powerful kings of old with impunity. The fact that the vase was designed in
Apulia and not in Athens does not hurt our interpretation of the vase, since a
city like Taranto, even if founded by Sparta, also became a democracy from the
fth century onwards.
This burlesque humour and the need to humble a king is particularly clear
in the many representations of Herakles bringing the Erymanthean boar alive
to King Eurystheus. Here, burlesque and comic inversion serve to satisfy a
need for democratic justice. The ugliness here is moral (the king’s cowardice)
and not physical.
The burlesque was often linked to situations of comic inversion where gods,
heroes or kings were ridiculed as we have seen with Odysseus. Among Herakles’
twelve labours imposed on him by King Eurystheus, only the capture of the
Erymanthean boar contains a touch of humour for not only did Herakles sur-
vive the ordeal, but he brought the monstrous beast alive back to the palace.
Eurystheus, terried both by the hero and by the boar, hid in a pithos, a kind of
Fig. 9.4
huge grain container. It seems that vase-painters particularly enjoyed showing
the last stage of the story. On numerous vases in the fth and fourth centuries
BC, Eurystheus is found hiding in a pithos. In these scenes, Herakles is carry-
ing the wild boar, either on his back or over his shoulder, placing his foot on
the edge of the pithos and preparing to throw the beast inside the container.
Painters often show Eurystheus gesticulating in despair, begging Herakles to
spare his life. The position of the boar like Damocles’ sword above the king’s
head begging from the bottom of his pithos expresses Herakles’ genuine supe-
riority as a popular and Panhellenic hero. Our vase (Fig.9.5) shows him eeing
as Herakles approaches, one foot already in the pithos.
Eurystheus was king
of Mycenae. To see a man of superior status ee in a cowardly manner to hide
in his own palace is burlesque. It is the ridicule, the degradation of the king,
that makes the masses laugh, especially at a time when there were no more
kings. But this scene was so often reproduced in Greek art that one might
wonder if, stripped of any surprise effect, it made viewers laugh at all. The
repetitiveness of the representations suggests something else: it was not so
much the surprise that made the viewers laugh, but a ridiculed false king and
the comical reversal of the situation. Indeed, the humour of this scene owes
something to the tricked trickster, the fact that the king gets a taste of his own
medicine. As Henri Bergson writes: ‘Not infrequently comedy sets before us a
character who lays a trap in which he is the rst to be caught. The plot of the
villain, who is the victim of his own villainy, or the cheat cheated, forms the
stock-in-trade of a good many plays’.
Despite the fact that Herakles was faith-
ful to the king throughout all his labours, the king abused his monarchical
powers to impose impossible ordeals in the hope of getting rid of him. The
situation is ironic because it turned out to be to his disadvantage. This often-
reproduced burlesque scene reveals a kind of visceral need for justice. Eurystheus
gets what he deserves because he never behaves as a true king.
Fig. 9.5
: T
Regardless of the technique of caricature, some gures differed from the clas-
sical ideal body type and were considered ugly per se: the dwarf, the foreigner
with African traits, the decrepit elderly man. Each of those is addressed
The Dwarf andSocial Cohesion
Achondroplasia was the most common form of dwarsm among the represen-
tations of short-legged dwarfs on Greek vases. Why were the latter mocked in
ancient Greece beyond the obvious contrast between their physical appearance
and a ‘normal’ or idealised body type?
This phenomenon is easily explained
by Henri Bergson’s ‘social laughter’.
This kind of laughter is linked to the fear
of difference, and all the more so in a democratic and egalitarian society where
no head should surpass any other. People mock and laugh at each other within
a group because laughter is a social tool that forces each person to remain in his
or her place, to conform to rules and customs, not to break out of the ranks, to
ensure the group remains a harmonious entity. In doing so, social laughter
emphasises the rules, values and elements that bind a society together and
imposes a form of social cohesion.
Giving birth to certain congenital deformities must have caused, like it often
does today, a feeling of guilt coupled with divine injustice, which may explain
the presence of representations that hoped to counter fate or the evil eye. Why
a feeling of injustice?
One might have grown used to the loss of a limb due to
sudden illness or combat, but how could one reconcile one’s faith in the wis-
dom and justice of the almighty gods when children were born mentally or
physically diminished? To escape this feeling of powerlessness, artists ensured
that their approach to art based on experience and mimesis remained con-
strained by an idealism that tried to show what one should look like rather than
what one really did. In such a society, artists and citizens in general tried to
control the world around them by striving for order and balance. Dwarves
played the same role as various representations of the Other. The origin of eth-
nic jokes, or jokes on other cultures,
is often linked to the fear of the Other, to
the perception of differences. Dwarves lent their distinctive features to carica-
ture to amuse the general public, reassure them and reafrm the Polyclitean
canon -a tribute to normalised imagery.
A black-gure kantharos from the Kabirion of Thebes (Fig.9.6) shows ve
grotesque athletes exercising.
Two gures are wrestling, their penises dan-
gling instead of being tied like most ancient Greek athletes, who practised in
the nude. The athlete on the left is prognathic, with a snub nose and scruffy
hair. The second pair of wrestlers are caricatured dwarfs. Their legs amount to
a quarter of the total length of the body, and the dwarf on the right’s head is
particularly disproportionate. To the far right, another dwarf is performing a
war dance, the pyrrhike, his hand almost touching the ground as he leans to the
ground, weighed down by his large and heavy shield (oplon) and helmet. The
humour in this scene is particularly apt: the athlete and the warrior embodied
superior moral and physical values in Greek society. Only the wealthiest citizens
had the idle time to exercise at the palaestra or arm themselves. They were
perfect targets for potters.
African pygmies were no longer represented in the fth century as they had
been in the previous century. The foot of the famous François vase (570 BC)
showed pygmies ghting cranes: they were abnormally small men but whose
body parts were well proportioned. Most red-gure vases in the fth century
that depict pygmies, however, present them as if they were dwarfs,
like a rhy-
ton in the Saint-Petersbourg museum (Fig. 9.7), attributed to the Brygos
These warriors are grotesquely misshapen. They are small, have
stocky legs, fat bellies and large buttocks; their scrotum bag hangs so far down
it is almost being dragged on the ground. They both wear pointed Scythian
soft hats, more suitable for oriental warriors than dwarfs even claiming to be
pygmies. The reference to Scythians, oriental foreigners per se, alienates them
even more from Greek gures. The rst pygmy grabs the crane by the neck and
is about to strike it with a club, while the second pokes the hindquarters of the
beast with the tip of his sword. In doing so, his left arm is shown dangling like
a monkey’s arm. The physicianGalen tells us that painters or sculptors could
not make a better parody of a human hand than by drawing a monkey’s paw.
And, according to Athenaeus: ‘The Scythian sage Anacharsis said that when
human jesters were introduced at a banquet, he did not smile, but burst out
laughing when an ape was brought in. This animal, so he said, was laughable
by nature, but human jesters only by practice’.
Our pygmy-dwarfs’ attitude—
despite their beards—also resembles that of the babies or toddlers represented
on the hundreds of miniature choes sold at the Anthesteria, with painted
images of toddlers up to all kinds of mischief and very often teasing animals.
Evidently, toddlers acting as battle-hardened warriors are ridiculous. In short,
the two gures on this vase encapsulated a wide range of what vase-painters
thought were inherently ugly or ridiculous traits: African miniature men,
dwarfs, Orientals, apes and toddlers.
Fig. 9.6
The Foreigner andtheFear ofthe‘Other’
The fear of the outsider is the fear of the ‘other’ and of course of the dissolu-
tion of the group by barbaric pollution. Difference was not seen as an enrich-
ment but as social impoverishment, a weakness. The Greek denes himself in
opposition to the‘other’. Greece’s city-states discovered their quasi-national
identity as a so-called free and civilised Greece built in opposition to a so-called
totalitarian Persian empire during and after the Persian wars. In this context,
the need to make fun of the ‘barbaric’ foreigner (from barbaros, who does not
speak Greek), whether they are Persian or African, is both linked to the fear of
losing what the Greeks had gained, civilisation, and to forging a coherent and
social identity that was distinct from other cultures.
Just as the unsightly physical appearance of dwarfs was used to ridicule cer-
tain characters, so were African physical characteristics because of their stark
contrast with (idealised) Caucasian features. The destruction of the group or
social fabric by its pollution with foreigners most certainly explains the marked
fear of the other and the fear of difference. Among the many representations of
African slaves or servants, there is, for example, a comic image on a fragmen-
tary black-gure Boeotian kantharos (Fig.9.8).
A naked slave, caricatured, with typical African traits, prominent lips, snub
nose, curly hair, ithyphallic (with a sexual erection), desperately tries to keep a
dog from gobbling up the meat that was placed on a trapeza, or small two-tray
banquet table, by pulling with all his might on the dog’s leash. Frank Snowden
could not understand why Greek artists represented so many Africans and pyg-
mies with African traits.
It seems that Greek artists actually chose to borrow
African traits as a caricature device. Their appearance was so different from the
‘average Greek’, their skin colour, their curly hair, their prognathism, their
eshy lips, their at or snub nose, made them to be ‘natural caricatures’. If we
add dwarsm, these traits become even more caricatured and grotesque than
they already were to the Greek eye.
Fig. 9.7
All these elements are integrated in the caricature of Kephalos, a well-known
Boeotian hero, on a kantharos preserved in the Athens Museum (Fig.9.9).
This caricatured gure, with its round skull, prognathic lower jaw, thick lips
and a snub nose, wears a ridiculous, stunted and twisted petasos. The petasos
was a hat often worn by hunters and travellers because its wide edges protected
its wearer from the rain. The personage is naked, except for his stick and the
hunter’s chlamys wrapped around his left arm, which reveals his huge belly and
swaying genitals. His name is inscribed, KEPHALOS. The ugliness of his cari-
catured face is all the more amusing given that usually in Greek vases, the hand-
some version of this hunter is the one chased by the lovesick goddess Eos
(‘Dawn’). The hound, whose appearance is as grotesque as his master’s, is
chasing a fox with a bushy tail. Thanks to Apollodoros and other ancient
we know the story of Kephalos’ magic hunting dog who caught
every prey it set its sights on, including the famous Teumessian fox, which rav-
aged the region of Cadmeia. However, it is very difcult to imagine that our
pot-bellied dog or his master on the Athens vase will catch or catch up to
The Old Man
Old age was feared for it was a reminder of the inevitability of death and the
eventual annihilation of the social group. Caricature is sometimes only present
to exaggerate pre-existing physical ugliness. When a painter insists on the ugli-
ness and decrepitude of old age rather than its nobility, like that of the vener-
able and wise Nestor, this reveals something other than the egalitarian and
Fig. 9.8
democratic need that we have previously analysed. We are dealing with an anxi-
ety linked to the coming of death, because of the Greeks’ gloomy vision of the
afterlife, where souls, good and bad, live like shadows (eidola) in the under-
ground world of Hades.
Even the great hero Achilles told Odysseus—who
had come to the underworld to ask Tiresias to help him nd his way home to
Ithaca—that he would rather be a cow herder, the servant of a poor peasant
than roam the glorious Elysian elds.
The grey kingdom of Ploutos, an epi-
thet of Hades meaning ‘wealthy’ (in souls), was not seen as a sort of peaceful-
ness that followed the turmoil of life. One understands better the Greek
obsession with youth which was seen as a value in itself. The contrast between
youth and old age was far more pronounced then than it is today. The arrival
of old age was a threat to be mocked or mourned. Theognis writes that old age
was destructive, lethal and ‘the most evil of all things among mortals; more
grievous than death and all diseases’.
Other authors make fun of it, like Aesop
in ‘The Old Man and Death’: an exhausted old man, tired of carrying wood,
invokes Death. When it appears and inquires as to why it was invoked, the old
man replies: ‘to help me carry my burden’; and Aesop adds: ‘the fable shows
that every man, even in misfortune, is fond of life’.
Demetrius writes ‘Lysias
is said to have remarked to an old woman’s lover that it was easier to count her
teeth than her ngers’.
In vase-painting, the fear of death and its closest phys-
ical state, old age, was expressed differently. The emphasis is placed on youth,
beauty and virile strength. There are few representations of old age. A number
of black- and red-gure vases depict the encounter between the paragon of
youth, Herakles, and the personication of old age, the vile Geras. The inter-
pretation of these scenes is not easy because it is not mentioned in any
ancient text.
Fig. 9.9
A red-gure pelike (Fig.9.10) depicts Herakles, tall and athletic, the paws
of his lion skin nicely tied across his chest, leaning over his club, elongated like
a cane.
His right hand nonchalantly placed to his hip he converses with the
old man. The name of the latter is inscribed on the other vases that show the
same meeting.
He is a stunted character, a hunchback, crooked, bent over a
cane just as twisted as he is. He is macrophallic (with a very large penis), bald,
with an unusually curved nose. The macrophallia of Geras is a sign of social
inelegance, even debauchery.
There are other mythological characters consid-
ered to be inherently ugly: Charon, the Underworld’s ferryman, often found
on white-ground lekythoi, wearing his old hat, an emaciated face with high
cheekbones or Boreas, the North Wind, with his scruffy beard and shaggy hair.
According to mythographers, the latter only managed to lay with a Fury and a
harpy. The God Hephaestus himself was ridiculed by his peers because the ugli-
ness of his malformed foot contrasted with his divinity and the beauty of his
wife, the goddess of beauty and love, Aphrodite. All these characters are ugly,
but Geras’ ugliness is exaggerated to the point of being grotesque.
Bergson explains it very well: ‘For exaggeration to be comic, it must not
appear as an aim, but rather as a means that the artist is using in order to make
manifest to our eyes the distortions which he sees in embryo’.
The comedy in
the image also comes from the obvious parallel with the numerous representa-
tions of citizens conversing, leaning over their cane (Fig.9.2). Herakles’ club
looks more like a cane than a weapon. The superiority of youth over the
Fig. 9.10
decrepitude of old age is tragic-comic, all the more so if we compare this scene
to the other four scenes of the meeting. Indeed, in those the old man is vio-
lently knocked out. We better understand the inscription, which comes out of
Herakles’ mouth, KLAUSEI, ‘you will cry!’ The painter is referring to the next
stage of the encounter, that is the caning. According to Shapiro, this episode
has been interpreted as the symbolic victory of Herakles against death and his
But he is not only mocking death here, it is also old age and the
fact that he is striking old age reveals an anxiety rather than a victory. Finally, if
Herakles’ apotheosis is a great moment in the cycle of his adventures, his death
itself—poisoned by a scorned wife—is not heroic, to say the least.
The next scene (Fig. 9.11) shows, like so many other vases of the Theban
Kabirion, a comic world upside down.
We are shown an unusual race between
an old white-bearded man making broad and measured arm movements while
a young athlete follows him closely, out of breath, with his elbows thrown
backwards as if to give himself more momentum. Clearly in this scene, age
comes before beauty, hence its comedy.
’ S
The satyr, mythological servant of Dionysos, is the epitome of physical and
moral ugliness. He is half man, half beast, has the donkey’s tail and ears; has
shaggy hair, a scruffy beard and a snub nose.
He is also a coward who cares
only for wine. In addition to this, he is in perpetual erection, because his
immense sexual desire is almost always frustrated. What does this living symbol
of physical and moral ugliness have to do with a polite society? As I will elabo-
rate further, inspired by Norbert Elias’ Civilizing Process, we are now in the
fth century BC at the height of what Elias would have called the monopolisa-
tion of violence, an era obsessed with culture and civilisation, and a political
regime that forced the former nobility to adapt. They moved from a time when
violence was inicted with impunity by the aristocracy and from gargantuan
feasts to the contests and games of the symposium, the democratic Court
Fig. 9.11
culture par excellence, organised with meticulousness, with rules, an archos
(head of the banquet), values, customs, the way to behave and acceptable top-
ics of discussions. Norbert Elias speaks of the civilising process, a dual move-
ment of aristocratic values trickling down and people aspiring to these same
values. What is the function of the satyr in this context?
The Civilising Process Applied toGreek Antiquity
Elias’ brilliant theory of the civilising process, the monopolisation of violence
by the state, the adaptation of nobility and the creation of a curial culture, as
well as the aspiration to imitate the mores and values of this Court by the
people, has been of benet to many researchers in very different elds.
demonstrated all these phenomena based on the evidence of an increased pub-
lic demand for etiquette manuals from the Renaissance to the nineteenth cen-
tury with hundreds of rules of propriety, explaining how to properly eat, drink,
blow one’s nose, spit or defecate. These manuals of good manners were Elias’
best source to investigate the civilising process. This theory has been criticised
for its ethnocentrism and its penchant for evolutionism, given the specic
European and chronological nature of this phenomenon, from the ninth cen-
tury AD to the nineteenth century, but even the most vociferous detractors like
H.P. Dürr have not offered any alternative models. A recent article by Jon
P. Jørgensen shows however that Elias’ theory can apply with some adjust-
ments to ancient Greece, to the transition from the archaic (aristocratic) to the
classical (democratic) period.
Besides what can be gleaned from this article as
an antiquarian, it has the potential to open the civilising process to areas other
than Western Europe from the medieval period to the nineteenth century.
The Greek classical period is characterised by an increasingly rm social con-
trol of violence and aggression and corresponds to Elias’ civilising process. This
process is possible in the civic space and political structures of the city-state. It
is for instance the passage from a civilisation where one was armed before step-
ping out the door to an Athenian city where it was unthinkable to walk in arms
in the streets of the city, even at the height of the Peloponnesian war. So much
so that Aristotle wrote in the fourth century BC that ‘the Greeks bore arms and
bought wives from each other. In general, the remnants of these old customs
that have persisted are completely ridiculous’.
The comparison does not end
there. The way the tyrant Pisistrates seized power in 561 is comparable to Elias’
principle of ‘monopolisation of violence by the State’. In this case, the monop-
olisation of violence is reected in the transition from an aristocratic to a tyran-
nical government. The tyrants came from the ranks of the nobility and therefore
won a erce competition with other aristocrats. What is fascinating here is the
build-up to the tyrannical coup. Despite its violence, it took place with the help
of clubs and not deadly spears.
Symbolically and in a very pragmatic way, the
baton puts things in order. It is a punitive and reformist instrument. Athenian
society had already had to develop a certain restraint due to the ‘monarchical
mechanism which had transformed the behaviour of the aristocrats from an
unrestrained violent group to a form of agonistic competition with a more
curial character. Just as Elias associates curial society with the control of vio-
lence and explains how the aristocracy restructured its war customs into civili-
ties, so can change in Athens be associated with the dynamics of the symposium
culture. There is an excellent passage from Aristophanes’ Wasps performed in
422 BC where we witness a real culture clash between the peasant Philocleon
and his young son Bdelycleon as they are heading to a symposium.
The son
explains to his father how to behave appropriately at the symposium, from
clothing to behaviour, even humour (especially to avoid dirty jokes), and keep
to certain conversation topics (politics, sports). In short, he must learn to
behave in an elegant, civil and social manner. We understand how the ‘good’
behaviour at the symposium means that the aristocracy had totally changed its
way of being, from violent and externalised behaviour to a rened and civilised
style where it was necessary to avoid offending others.
Clearly these aristo-
cratic court manners had trickled down to the point of embracing the entire
population. One would really have to live far from the city not to be aware of
it, like Philocleon. As Jørgensen explains it, the aristocracy naturally preserved
an important role in democracy, since its members were orators and generals
and therefore had considerable inuence in the laws that had been adopted.
But we can see that the aristocrats had adapted to the new political system and
that they were now behaving like good little democrats.
Let us return now to the satyr and his incongruous presence in a society
where civility has become a value in itself. Literature is not of much help, but
Greek vases can provide an answer to this enigma. For different reasons, com-
mercial ones, especially the vases, reproduced all these various movements, val-
ues and counter-values, elite culture trickling down and popular culture aspiring
to imitate, as suggested by Elias.
The Right Way toUse aWine Jug: Symposium Etiquette
Fifth centurysympotic culture was the equivalent to Elias’ curial culture. The
vases show us very clearly how to behave at the banquet, if only the way to use
wine from the krater where the pure wine was mixed with water in very precise
proportions decided by the banquet archon.
A skyphos in the Oxford Museum (Fig.9.12), shows two young men on
either side of a column krater.
One of them carries a skyphos in one hand and
holds a cup at arm’s length that he presents to his companion. The latter lls
an oinochoe directly from the krater and then pours the mixture into the drink-
ing cup. Sometimes painters also added ladles to serve wine or wine ltering
cups to purify the liquid. The scene presents the quintessential symposium, the
democratic, collective and regulated domestication of the liquid, the absorp-
tion of which could make one lose their control and their rational mind.
The satyr follows a very different etiquette because he is not subject to the
rules and laws that govern the City. He is a forest creature, uncivilised and
individualistic. A series of cups and lekythoi show satyrs fornicating with
amphorae or jumping out of craters and pithoi. A satyr shown on the inside of
a cup in Geneva (Fig.9.13) has already plunged headrst into a krater.
the lower body, legs, tail and genitals are visible hanging out of the krater. He
is shown upside down, as if he were doing a headstand in the container. His
grotesque attitude reveals the satyr’s immense gluttony. The presence of a wine
cup (kylix) drawn in black gure like an emblem, in the foreground, on the
body of the crater indicates that it is a krater lled with wine and what the satyr
hopes to nd there.
Hundreds of vases are livened up by visual puns based on the transgression
of stylistic rules, much like some comic book characters who emerge from the
frame of their vignette. These puns were visual games without narrative ele-
ments, which caused comic shifts between container and content, blurring the
formal differences between the decorative frame and the characters painted
within it. Painters transformed small conventional details into series of images
that were often repeated and known to the public to create a comic effect,
stand out from the competition, surprise viewers and attract potential buyers.
Parodies were similar to visual puns, except that the transgression was not sty-
listic but narrative in nature. Parodies made fun of well-known aspects of every-
day life or mythology. The codes of imagery were obvious to the people of
Athens who saw them every day, but the painters who wanted to make sure
that the viewers would recognise a visual parody at rst glance always made
sure to leave enough details in the scene to recognise the serious model and
enough quirky details to understand how the image had been distorted. Let us
take an example.
Satyrs, with their frenetic sexuality, drinkers of unmixed wine, and frenzied
servants of Dionysos living in the mountains and forests, are at the opposite
end of the spectrum from athletes, living incarnations of arete (virtue).
However, a column krater in Munich (Fig.9.14), shows us precisely the impos-
sible, satyrs at the heart of the Polis, trying to participate in agonistic events.
To show satyrs acting (or pretending to act) as citizens is absurd and highly
amusing. Our satyrs are all ithyphallic and training for the pentathlon: the disc,
Fig. 9.12
the javelin, the long jump, boxing. Two others, covered in long clothes, carry
large objects resembling the forked sticks typical of palaestra’s trainers. A
double- pipes player stands at the centre of the composition. On the other side
of the same vase, human athletes are also training for the pentathlon. From left
to right, we recognise the coach (identied by his forked stick), two boxers, a
javelin thrower, a double ute-player, another javelin thrower, a discus thrower,
a second double-pipes player and a runner. Because the satyrs on this krater are
Fig. 9.13
Fig. 9.14
placed in a ‘role’ that is not theirs, pretending to be citizens of the city, this vase
has been considered by a number of researchers to be inspired by a satyric
drama. Two dramas are mentioned: Aristias is said to have staged a satyric
drama by his father Pratinas in 467, entitled Palaistrai, which included boxer
and Aeschylus’ Isthmiastai, in which satyrs prepare the Corinthian
As I have demonstrated elsewhere there are numerous scenes in
which satyrs pretend to be citizens.
In fact, our scene is simply a parody and
not a scene of satyric drama. All it takes is looking on the other side of the ves-
selto nd ‘real’ athletes. In addition to the parody, there are two additional
sexual jokes in the scene: rst, the non-forked sticks of our satyr trainers are
actually giant dildos, and second the satyrs’ usual erection in an athletic con-
Athletes could not be in erection because the foreskin of their penis was
always tied with a kynodesme, which made it impossible to have an erection or
unwanted movements during sportive workouts.
Parody is a two-way process. By means of satyrs, real athletes with physical
prowess and aristocratic values are belittled, degraded to the level of alcoholic
braggarts, which was certainly comforting on some level for average Athenians.
But, the latter also laughed at the satyr, this mythological prankster and his all-
too- human shortcomings, at the opposite of good manners, of the City and of
‘well-behaved’ citizens. This gure of the in-between, as fascinating as the
king’s buffoon, made it possible to make fun of what citizens sometimes
thought quietly to themselves. What was the function of the satyr in a society
where the civilising process was almost nalised, where sophrosyne (civility and
restraint) was seen as a virtue, a society where everyone spoke of kalos kagathos
(handsome and upstanding) as an almost universal principle? The satyr served
as a safety valve, an agent of carnival that disrupted this self-righteous world by
acting as a clown. He represented the secret desires, the animal impulses that
slumbered within the ‘civilised’ being, the Dionysian primordial forces and the
‘shivers of intoxication’ Nietzsche wrote about.
The satyr functions like an
Athenian fantasy caught in a social entanglement. It allows him to make fun of
good manners, while highlighting them, to breathe a little, in an increasingly
hierarchical, claustrophobic world of citizens who ‘must’ behave well in all
Norbert Elias’ ideas have been particularly useful for understanding the
purpose of the satyr and its humorous function in ancient Greek visual culture.
The animality described by Elias, which had to be overcome by society in
order to be able to move forward, is reected in Athens by the comic and ugly
satyr who symbolises the transition from a world of Dionysian ecstasy and
mysteries, wild rites that included tearing animals alive and eating them raw
(diasparagmos and omophagy), to the theatrical world in a new civilisation of
the ‘cooked’ with its ‘acceptable’ sacrices.
What is left of the ancient vio-
lence and unruliness in the beautiful and orderly world of the symposium? The
ambivalence of the satyr, a curious and comical gure because of its moral and
physical ugliness.
1. Abbreviations of reference works in vase-painting: ABV: Beazley, J.D., Attic
Black-gure Vase-painters, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956; ARV
Beazley, J. D., Attic Red-gure Vase-painters, 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1963; Add: Burn, L, Glynn, R., Beazley Addenda, Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1982; Add
: Carpenter, T.H., Mannack, T., Mendonca,
M., Beazley Addenda, 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989; (BA#):
Oxford: Beazley Archive (BA) Database number; CVA: Corpus Vasorum
Antiquorum; KH 1: Wolters, P. and Bruns, G., Das Kabirenheiligtum bei
Theben, vol. 1, Berlin, 1940; KH 4: Braun K. and Haevernick, T.E., Bemalte
Keramik und Glas aus den Kabirenheiligtum bei Theben, Berlin, 1981; LIMC:
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae; Para: Beazley, J. D.,
Paralipomena; Additions to Attic Black-gure Vase-painters and to Attic Red-
gure Vase-Painters, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971; PV
: Trendall,
A.D., Phlyax Vases, 2nd ed. (BICS, Suppl. 19, 1967); RVAp: Cambitoglou, A.,
Trendall, A. D., The Red- gured Vases of Apulia, vol. 1–2, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1979, 1982; RVP: Trendall, A. D., The Red-gured Vases of
Paestum, British School at Rome, 1987.
2. Aristotle, Poetics, 1449a34–35. Common editions of ancient texts are cited in
the bibliography; however, all translations of the Greek are my own.
3. See also Sidwell, From Old to Middle, 252–253.
4. Quoted and discussed further by S.Attardo, Linguistic Theories of Humor, 37–39.
5. Homer, Iliad, 2: 212–277.
6. Halliwell, Greek Laughter, 10.
7. A red-gure pelike in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, LOAN399 (BA
44463) attributed by Lezzi-Hafter to the Achilles painter, has a grafto under
its foot ‘4 for 3.5 obols’, that is 0.15 ancient drachma or 1.05 euros for four
vases. See Vickers and Gill, Artful Crafts, 85–87, Figs.4.3–4.4.
8. Bourdieu, La distinction.
9. In recent years, studies of ‘popular’ cultural practices in the classical world have
tried to redene the ancient sociological landscape. See especially the works of
Grig, Popular culture, and Forsdyke, Slaves Tell Tales.
10. On ways of distinguishing representations of masks worn by painted characters
from caricatured faces on Greek vases, see Mitchel, Origins, 254–257.
11. Athenian red-gure askos, Paris, Louvre Museum, G610; (BA 2720).
Provenance: Italy. 460–440 BC.Vectorised drawing © Alexandre G.Mitchell.
12. Athenian red-gure skyphos, Laon, Municipal museum, 37.1034; (BA 212122),
832.32, Add
295. Provenance: Eretria (Greece); Amphitrite painter;
450–430 BC.Vectorised drawing © Alexandre G.Mitchell.
13. Aristophanes, Clouds, 102–103.
14. Baldwin, Philogelos, 43.
15. See Detienne, La mètis.
16. Boeotian black-gure skyphos from the Theban Kabirion sanctuary, Oxford,
Ashmolean Museum, G249; KH 4.67.409, pl. 23. 450–375 BC; Boeotian
black- gure kantharos from the Theban Kabirion sanctuary, London, British
Museum, 1893.3–3.1. 450–375 BC; Boeotian black-gure kantharos from the
Theban Kabirion sanctuary, Nauplion, archaeological museum, 144; KH
4.67.405. 450–375 BC; Boeotian black-gure kantharos from the Theban
Kabirion sanctuary, Mississippi, Mississippi University, P 116; KH 1.100K20=KH
4.67.402. 450–375 BC.
17. Apulian red-gure oinochoe, London, British Museum, F366, close to the style
of the Felton painter, 350 BC; PV
85, no. 194, RVAp 177, no. 94. Photograph
© Alexandre G.Mitchell.
18. Apulian red-gure oinochoe, Paris, Louvre museum, K36, 360–350 BC, Circle
of the Ilioupersis painter. (
19. Taplin, Pots and Plays, 37.
20. Athenian black-gure amphora, Syracuse, Regional Archaeological museum
Paolo Orsi, 21965; Leagros Group; 520–500 BC. Digitised drawing after
Perrot, Histoire de l’Art, 10, 210–211, gs. 136–137.
21. Bergson, Laughter, 2.2.
22. Dasen, Dwarfs; Dasen, ‘Inrmitas’.
23. See the chapter by Jessica Milner Davies in this handbook.
24. Mitchell, ‘Disparate bodies’; Mitchell, ‘The Hellenistic turn’; Mitchell, ‘Les
handicaps à l’époque de Galien’.
25. Davies, Ethnic Humor.
26. Black-gure Boeotian kantharos from the Theban Kabirion sanctuary, Berlin,
Staatliche Museen, 3179; KH 1.99K16, pl. 29.1–2, 50.11=KH 4.64.355.
450–375 BC.Vectorised drawing © Alexandre G.Mitchell. As explained above
in the context of Taranto in Apulia, Greek democracy was no longer the monop-
oly of Athens: from the end of the fth century and early fourth, Thebes had
also moved from an oligarchic government to a democratic one. Statements
based on Greek vases from different regions of the Mediterranean are therefore
not invalidated because of their dispersion.
27. Mitchell, Greek Vase Painting, 208–209.
28. Athenian red-gure rhyton, St Petersbourg, Hermitage museum, 679; (BA
204087), ARV
382.188 (1649), Para 512, Add 113, Add
228; Brygos
painter; 480–470 BC.Vectorised drawing © Alexandre G.Mitchell.
29. Galen, On the Natural faculties, I, 22.
30. Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters, 14.613d.
31. Fragment of a black-gure Boeotian kantharos from the Theban Kabirion sanc-
tuary, Athens, National archaeological museum 10530; KH 1.103K44, pl. 15.4
= KH 4.63.320. 450–375 BC.Vectorised drawing © Alexandre G.Mitchell.
32. Snowden, Blacks, 161.
33. See the (non-exhaustive) bibliography on the representations of Africans in clas-
sical antiquity in Mitchell, Greek Vase Painting, fn. 90.
34. Boeotian black-gure kantharos from the Theban Kabirion sanctuary, Athens,
National Archaeological Museum, 10429; KH 1.98K9, pl. 10.11, 44.4=KH
4.63.303. 450–375 BC.Vectorised drawing © Alexandre G.Mitchell.
35. Apollodorus, The Library, 2.4.6–7; Pausanias, Description of Greece, 9.19.1;
Suidas, s.v. ‘Teumesia’; Ovid, Metamorphoses, 7.762.
36. On humour as a revealing catalyst of hidden anxieties, see Mitchell, ‘Humor,
women, and male anxieties’.
37. Homer, Odyssey, 11: 489–491.
38. Theognis II, 1021. See Greek Elegiac Poetry.
39. Babrius, Phaedrus. Fables, 60.
40. Demetrius of Phalerum, 262.
41. Athenian red-gure pelike, Rome, National Etruscan museum of Villa Giulia,
48238; (BA 202567), ARV
284.1, Add 104, Add
208. Provenance: Ceveteri
(Italy). Matsch painter; 480–460 BC. Vectorised drawing © Alexandre
42. Athenian black-gure lekythos, Adolphseck, Schloss Fasanerie, 12; (BA
303575), ABV 491.60, Add
122, Para 223. Provenance: Greece; Class of
Athens 581; 510–500 BC. Athenian red-gure skyphos, Oxford, Ashmolean
Museum, 1943.79; (BA 211723), ARV
889.160, Add
302, Para 428.
Provenance: Spina (Italy). Penthesilea painter; 460–440 BC.Athenian red-g-
ure neck-amphora, London, British Museum, E290; (BA 207611), ARV
653.1, Add
276. Charmides painter; 460–440 BC.Athenian red-gure pelike,
Paris, Louvre museum, G234; (BA 202622), ARV
286.16, 1642, Add 104,
209. Provenance: Capua (Italy). Geras painter; 510–490 BC.
43. Aristophanes, Clouds, 1011–1020.
44. Bergson, Laughter, 1.3.
45. Shapiro, Personications, 94.
46. Boeotian black-gure kantharos from the Theban Kabirion sanctuary, Bonn,
Akademisches Kunstmuseum, 301. 450–375 BC. Vectorised drawing ©
Alexandre G.Mitchell. See also Mitchell, Greek Vase Painting, 248–279.
47. On the ambivalence of the satyr, see Lissarrague, ‘l’ambivalence’; Lissarrague,
‘sexualité’; Lissarrague, ‘satyres bons à montrer’.
48. Elias, Civilising Process.
49. Jørgensen, ‘taming’.
50. Aristotle, Politics, II, 1268b.
51. On the bearing of arms in ancient Greece, see Wees, ‘Bearing Arms’.
52. Aristophanes, Wasps, 1212–1217.
53. Herman, Morality.
54. Athenian red-gure skyphos, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 520; (BA 200611),
76.84, Add 83, Add
168, Para 328. Epiktetos; 520–490 BC.Vectorised
drawing © Alexandre G.Mitchell.
55. Athenian red-gure cup, Geneva, Museum of Art and History, 16908; (BA
11019), Add 88, Add
178. 510–490 BC. Vectorised drawing © Alexandre
56. Athenian red-gure column krater, Munich, Antikensammlungen, 2381; (BA
202099), ARV
221.14, Add 98, Add
198. Provenance: southern Italy;
Nikoxenos painter; 525–490 BC.Vectorised drawing © Alexandre G.Mitchell.
57. Simon, ‘Satyr-plays’, 130.
58. Brommer, Satyrspiele, 60.
59. Mitchell, Greek Vase Painting, 156–206. On the innocuous presence of the
double-pipes player in the scene as well as on hundreds of other black- and red-
gure vases featuring athletes and without the presence of satyrs or actors, see
Mitchell, Greek Vase Painting: 188.
60. Compare to the giant dildo on the Athenian red-gure amphora, Boston,
Museum of Fine Arts, 98.882; (BA 202711), ARV
279.7, Add 102, Add
Para 354. Provenance: Capua (Italy); Flying-angel painter; 500–490 BC.
61. Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, 18.
62. See Lévi-Strauss, Raw.
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Babrius and Phaedrus. Fables. Translated by Ben Edwin Perry. Loeb Classical Library.
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Full-text available
The paper’s general context is visual humor in ancient Greece but its main focus is on the way in which women from different backgrounds were portrayed and mocked by (mainly) male Athenian vase-paintersbetween the sixth and fourth centuries BC.1 The driving idea is that men tried to the best of their abilities to control women, and their fears are revealed in comic depictions. The artists were really artisans: they usually did not have patrons as they mass-produced their often well-designed utilitarian objects for the marketplace. Their production followed the rule of fashion and because these objects were ubiquitous in Athens, and showed every aspect of daily life and mythology, they offer us a popular vision of what troubled, fascinated, or amused most Athenians. In many respects, the main problem in studying women in classical Athens is that they have often been seen as an undifferentiated mass.
Most studies of ancient Greek politics focus on formal institutions such as the political assembly and the law courts, and overlook the role that informal social practices played in the regulation of the political order. Sara Forsdyke argues, by contrast, that various forms of popular culture in ancient Greece--including festival revelry, oral storytelling, and popular forms of justice--were a vital medium for political expression and played an important role in the negotiation of relations between elites and masses, as well as masters and slaves, in the Greek city-states. Although these forms of social life are only poorly attested in the sources, Forsdyke suggests that Greek literature reveals traces of popular culture that can be further illuminated by comparison with later historical periods. By looking beyond institutional contexts, moreover, Forsdyke recovers the ways that groups that were excluded from the formal political sphere--especially women and slaves--participated in the process by which society was ordered. Forsdyke begins each chapter with an apparently marginal incident in Greek history--the worship of a dead slave by masters on Chios, the naming of Sicyon's civic divisions after lowly animals such as pigs and asses, and the riding of an adulteress on a donkey through the streets of Cyme--and shows how these episodes demonstrate the significance of informal social practices and discourses in the regulation and reproduction of the social order. The result is an original, fascinating, and enlightening new perspective on politics and popular culture in ancient Greece.
The first book to offer an integrated reading of ancient Greek attitudes to laughter. Taking material from various genres and contexts, the book analyses both the theory and the practice of laughter as a revealing expression of Greek values and mentalities. Greek society developed distinctive institutions for the celebration of laughter as a capacity which could bridge the gap between humans and gods; but it also feared laughter for its power to expose individuals and groups to shame and even violence. Caught between ideas of pleasure and pain, friendship and enmity, laughter became a theme of recurrent interest in various contexts. Employing a sophisticated model of cultural history, Stephen Halliwell traces elaborations of the theme in a series of important texts: ranging far beyond modern accounts of 'humour', he shows how perceptions of laughter helped to shape Greek conceptions of the body, the mind and the meaning of life.
The aim of this article is to discuss how the increasing social control of violence and aggression, which characterized the period from the Archaic to the Classical Age in ancient Greece, can be explained as an Eliasian civilizing process. Particularly crucial for this development is the question of how the city-state's distinctive urban-political structures were the locus of this civilizing process. Accordingly, it is argued that not only are Elias's key concepts analytically relevant to the ancient Greek civilizing process, but also that they are to be reassessed in the light of the ancient Greek city-state culture. Thus, by the advancing of the argument that the civilizing process is not a uniquely western phenomenon, which occurred in western Europe from the Middle Ages to the end of the 19th century, the analytical relevance of Elias is re-evaluated and augmented.