Click Here To Learn More About Jinny Anderson
There are two things about human beings that make them entirely unique, humor and art. Humor can be very specific to a time or culture, but there are undoubtedly some things that people have laughed at since the dawn of time. We tend to think of our ancient ancestors as being terribly serious all the time, probably because that was how they tended to portray themselves in art and we think of survival in the old days as being a rather dangerous, harsh, and serious business. I am convinced, however, that there had to be two guys building the Great Pyramid who passed the time by making sarcastic remarks about the guy in charge or telling a joke about a Sumerian and a Hittite who walked into a bar.
Anyone who has spent time studying the ancient Greeks knows that they were often very funny. There are Greek comedic plays that have survived that are full of truly funny jokes and satire. There is an actual joke book that exists from Roman times that is full of Greek and Roman jokes and a lot of them are very similar to what we might laugh at in modern times, with some obvious cultural differences, of course. There is obviously nothing very funny about slavery, but it was a way of life in Rome and subject to humor like anything else. One joke is about a guy who is sending an employee overseas to bring back slaves. He tells him to buy two 15 year olds. The guy can't find two 15 year olds so he brings back one 30 year old. Sound sort of familiar?
There is another joke about an old man with bad breath who raises his face to the sky to pray to Zeus, the King of the Gods. He asks Zeus what he wants from him and Zeus says, “Do me a favor, pray to the Gods of the underworld for a while.” Just your average bodily function joke, and they had plenty of those and they are just as crude as the ones we have today. There is a joke about a man who is walking through a cemetery and comes upon a man who is sitting by his recently departed wife's grave. He asks him, “Who rests in peace here?” and the man says, “Me, now that the nagging old bat is dead.” This joke just goes to prove that men have been telling dreadful wife jokes since the someone thought up the institution of marriage.
Ancient people were not very politically correct. There are plenty of insult jokes about fools, people with big rear ends, foreigners, loose women, and fat people. Since there were not as many obese people back then (they didn't have fast food joints and high fructose corn syrup) jokes about large people were more about their lifestyle than anything else. Being heavy was indicative of being spoiled, lazy, self-indulgent, and decadent and those were qualities that earned you plenty of joke time. There is one joke that is funny but you need to know that any confections of the time were sweetened with honey. Two guys are standing on a street corner and see a man with an enormous stomach being carried on a litter by a dozen straining slaves. The one man tells the other that if the bees come looking for their hive they'll know where to tell them to find it. There are lots of jokes about absentminded professors, corrupt politicians, and people from Abdera, a city in Thrace where everyone was evidently very, very stupid.
There are some jokes that have a context so specific to the time and culture that it is impossible to figure out why they are funny unless you are a scholar of that particular period in history, and even then it might be tough if you don't have the right information. It would be like trying to explain a joke about one of our current politicians or celebrities to someone who lived a couple of thousand years ago. You just kind of have to be there.
No matter what kind of humor is popular at any time, I strongly suspect that people have always understood the same thing about laughter; it can hurt and it can heal. It can be used as a weapon to attack others or try and make you feel better about yourself by putting others down or it can help you deal with sadness and tragedy, put things into perspective, get back at the people with power who make your life miserable, and create a bond between you and others. Life can be a serious business and there has probably always been someone trying to lighten it up.
Would you like to read past issues of That's Life? Click Here