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Birth of Humour—Personalities—Story of Hippocleides—Origin of Comedy—Archilochus—Hipponax—Democritus, the Laughing Philosopher—Aristophanes—Humour of the Senses—Indelicacy—Enfeeblement of the Drama—Humorous Games—Parasites, their Position and Jests—Philoxenus—Diogenes—Court of Humour—Riddles—Silli.

There is every reason to suppose that a very considerable period elapsed before any progress was made in advance of the ludicrous, but at length by those who appreciated it strongly, and saw it in things in which it did not appear to others, humorous devices were invented from a growing desire to multiply the occasions for enjoyment. Observation and our power of imitation provided the means, and men of humour employed themselves in reproducing some ludicrous situations; and thus, instead of things derided being as previously wholly separate from those who derided them, a man could laugh, and yet be the cause of laughter to others. This discovery was soon improved upon, and by aid of imagination and memory, as opportunities offered, certain connections and appearances were represented under a great variety of forms. As the mind enlarged, the exciting causes of laughter were not mainly physical or emotional, but assumed a higher and more rational character.

At the period at which we have now arrived, we find humour dawning through various channels. We have traced approximations towards it in proverbs and fables, and, in a coarse form, in practical jokes; and as from historical evidences we are ready to admit that civilization had an Eastern origin, so we shall feel little difficulty in assigning Greece as the birthplace of humour. A greater activity of mind now begins to prevail, reflection has gradually given distinctness to emotion, and the ludicrous is not only recognised as a source of pleasure, but intentionally represented in literature.

Before the time of Æsop, though not perhaps of his fables, Homer related a few laughable occurrences of so simple a character as to require little ingenuity. In this respect he is not much better than a man who recounts some absurd incident he has witnessed without adding sufficient to it to show that he has a humorous imagination. His mirth, except when merely that of pleasure, is of the old hostile character. 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. In the Odyssey, Ulysses speaks of his heart laughing within him after he had put out Polyphemus' eye with a burning stick without being discovered. And in Book xviii, Ulysses strikes Irus under the ear and breaks his head, so that blood pours from his mouth, and he falls gnashing and struggling on the ground, at which, we are told, the suitors "die with laughter."

From this hostile phase the transition was easy to ridiculing personal defects, and so 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." Homer may merely have intended to represent the reviler of kings as odious and despicable, but there seems to be some humour intended. Ridicule of personal defects must always be of an inferior kind, being a matter of sight, and of small complexity. As the first advance of the ludicrous was from the hostile to the personal, so the beginning of humour seems to have been the representation of personal defects.[7]

In accordance with this, we find that the only mention of laughter made by Simonides of Amorgos is where he says that some women may be compared to apes, and then gives a very rude description of their persons. This subservience to the eye can also be observed in the appreciation of monkeys and dancing horses, already mentioned, the latter forming a humorous exhibition, as the animals were trained with a view to amuse. We have marks of the same optical tendencies in the appreciation of antics and contortions of the body, either as representing personal deformity, or as a kind of puzzling and disorderly action. A little contemporary story related by Herodotus shows that these pantomimic performances were now becoming fashionable in Athens. Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon, was even at this date so much in favour of competitive examinations, that he determined to give his daughter to the most proficient and accomplished man. On the appointed day the suitors came to the examination from every quarter, for the fair Agariste was heiress to great possessions. Among them was one Hippocleides, an Athenian, who proved himself far superior to all the rest in music and dissertation. Afterwards, when the trial was over, desiring to indulge his feelings of triumph and show his skill, he called for a piper, and then for a table, upon which he danced, finishing up by standing on his head and kicking his legs about. Cleisthenes, who was apparently one of the "old school," and did not appreciate the manners and customs of young Athens, was much offended by this undignified performance of his would-be son-in-law, and when he at last saw him standing on his head, could no longer contain himself, but cried out, "Son of Tisander, thou hast danced away thy marriage." To which the other replied with characteristic unconcern: "It's all the same to Hippocleides,"—an expression which became proverbial. In this story we see the new conception of humour, though of a rude kind, coming into collision with the old philosophic contests of ingenuity, which it was destined to survive if not to supersede.

We have another curious instance about this date of an earnest-minded man being above the humour of the day, (which, no doubt, consisted principally of gesticulation), and he was probably voted an unsociable, old-fashioned fellow. Anacharsis, the great Scythian philosopher, when jesters were introduced into his company maintained his gravity, but when afterwards a monkey was brought in, he burst into a fit of laughter, and said, "Now this is laughable by Nature; the other by Art." That amusement should be thus excited by natural objects denotes a very eccentric or primitive perception of the ludicrous, seldom now found among mature persons, but it is such as Diodorus, quoting no doubt from earlier histories, attributed to Osiris—"to whom," he says, "when in Ethiopia, they brought Satyrs, (who have hair on their backs,) for he was fond of what was laughable."

But a further development of humour was in progress. As people were at that time easily induced to regard sufferings as ludicrous, the idea suggested itself of creating mirth by administering punishment, or by indulging in threats and gross aspersions. A very slight amount of invention or complexity was here necessary. The origin of the comic drama furnishes an illustration of this. 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. As the taste for music and rhythm became general in that sunny clime, even these rioters adopted a kind of verse, by which rustic genius could give additional point to scurrility. Thus arose the Iambic measure used at the festivals of Ceres and Bacchus, and afterwards fabled to have been invented by Iambe, the daughter of the King of Eleusis. Hence, also, came the jesting used in celebrating the rites of Ceres in Sicily, and the custom for people to post themselves on the bridge leading to Eleusis in Attica, and to banter and abuse those going to the festivals. The story of Iambe only marks the rural origin of the metre, and its connection with Ceres, the Goddess of Harvest. Eleusis was her chosen abode, and next in her favour was Paros; and here we accordingly find the first improvement made upon these uncouth and virulent effusions. About the commencement of the 7th century, Archilochus, a native of this place, harnessed his ribaldries better, and put them into a "light horse gallop." He raised the Iambic style and metre so as to obtain the unenviable notoriety of having been the first to dip his pen in viper's gall. Good cause had he for his complaints, for a young lady's father, one Lycambes, refused to give him his daughter's hand. There was apparently some difficulty about the marriage gifts—the poet having nothing to give but himself. Rejected, he took to writing defamatory verses on Lycambes and his daughters, and composed them with so much skill and point that the whole family hanged themselves. Allusions, which led to such a catastrophe, could not now be regarded as pleasantries; but at that time he obtained a high reputation, and perhaps the suicide of the wretched Lycambes was considered the best joke of all.[8] The fragments which remain to us of Archilochus' productions seem melancholy enough, and the only place where he speaks of laughter is where he calls Charilaus "a thing to be laughed at,"—an expression which would seem to point to some personal deformity—we are told, however, by later writers, that he was a glutton. In another remaining passage Archilochus says that "he is not fond of a tall general walking with his legs apart, with his hair carefully arranged, and his chin well shaven;" where we still detect the same kind of caricature, and in default of any adequate specimen of his "gall," we may perhaps be excused for borrowing an illustration from Alcæus, who lived slightly later; and who, speaking of his political opponent Pittacus, calls him a "bloated paunch-belly," and a "filthy splay-footed, crack-footed, night fellow."

Archilochus lived in the fable age, and the most perfect of the small fragments remaining of his works are of that allegorical description. But he may be regarded as a representative of the dull and bitter humour of his time—a large proportion of which, as in his writings, and those of Simonides and Hesiod, was ungallantly directed against the "girls of the period."[9]
But Archilochus' humour, though rude and simple, opened a new mine of wealth, and if it was not at first very rich, it was enough to indicate the golden treasure beneath. Sonorous narratives about heroes and demi-gods were to be gradually supplanted by the bright contrasts of real life. Archilochus' ingenuity had introduced light metres suited for flippant and pointed allusions. The conceit was generally approved, and though the new form could not exactly be called humorous, it occurred to Hipponax, in the next century, that he could make it so by a slight alteration. Perhaps this "Father of Parody" intended to mimic Archilochus; at any rate, by means of a change in termination, he manufactured "limping" Iambics. We must suppose that he produced something better than this, but look in vain into his lines for any instances of real pungency. He was a sort of Greek Samson, his best jokes seem to have been connected with great strength, and to judge from what remains of his works, we should conclude that he was more justly famous for "tossing an oil cruise" than for producing anything which we should call humour. But, were we asked whether in that age his sayings would have been amusing, we may reply in the affirmative; they certainly had severity, for his figure having been caricatured by the sculptors of Chios, Bupalus and Anthermus, he repaid them so well in their own coin, that they also duly hanged themselves. It must be admitted that the fact of the same kind of death having been chosen by them, and by the objects of Archilochus' derision, does not increase greatly the credibility of the stories.

We now come to consider what we may call a serious source of humour. Already we have noticed the tendency in ancient times to exercises of ingenuity in answering hard questions. These led to deeper thought, to the aphoristic wisdom of the seven wise men, and the speculations of those who were in due time to raise laughter at the follies of mankind.

This introduces the era of the philosophers—a remarkable class of men, who grew up in the mercurial atmosphere of Greece. One of the most distinguished of them was Democritus, born 460 B.C. He came of noble descent, and belonged to so wealthy a family of Abdera that his father was able to entertain Xerxes on his return to Asia. The King left some Chaldean Magi to instruct his son, who, early in life, evinced a great desire for the acquisition of knowledge, and after studying under Leucippus, travelled to Egypt, Persia, and Babylon. He almost seemed a compound of two different characters, uniting the intellectual energy of the sage with the social feelings of a man of the world. Living in ease and opulence, he was not inclined to be censorious or morose; having mingled much in society, he was not very emotional or sympathetic; not tempted to think life a melancholy scene of suffering, but callous enough to find amusement in the ills he could not prevent. He regarded man, generally, as a curious study, as remarkable for not exercising the intellect with which he was endowed—not so much from censurable causes as from some obliquity in mental vision. Not that he regarded him as unaccountable—a fool in the ordinary acceptation of the word, is always a responsible being, and not synonymous with an idiot.

The humour of this laughing sage, grounded upon deep philosophy, was so little understood in his day that none were able to join in his merriment, nor did he expect that they should be; if he was humorous to himself, he was not so, and did not aim at being so, to others. On the contrary, he was thought to be mad, and Hippocrates was directed to inquire into his disorder, but the learned physician returned answer that not he, but his opponents were deranged. Whether this story be a fabrication or not, we may regard it as a testimony that wise men saw much truth in his philosophy. Montaigne, in his Essay on Democritus and Heraclitus, gives his preference to the former, "Because," he observes, "men are more to be laughed at than hated," showing that he regarded him as imputing folly to men rather than vice.

Even Socrates, whom we are accustomed to regard as the most earnest of philosophers was by no means a melancholy man. Fully aware of the influence exercised by humour, he often put his teachings into an indirect form, and he seems to have first thus generally attracted attention. He introduced what is called irony[10]—the using expressions which literally mean exactly the opposite to what is intended. 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. This story may be questioned, and it has been observed that he was not insensible to ridicule, for he said shortly before his death that no one would deride him any longer. We are told that he spent some of his last days in versifying the fables of Æsop.

We now return from theoretical to practical life, from the philosophers to the public. Nothing exhibits more forcibly the variable character of humour than that, while philosophers in their "thinking shops" were laughing at the follies of the world, the populace in the theatre were shaking their sides at the absurdities of sages. Ordinary men did not appreciate abstract views, nor understand abstruse philosophic humour, indeed it died out almost as soon as it appeared, and was only contemporary with a certain epoch in the mental history of Greece. Every popular man is to a great extent a reflection of the age in which he lives, "a boat borne up by a billow;" and what, in this respect is true generally, is especially so with regard to the humorist, who seeks a present reward, and must be in unison with the characters of those he has to amuse. He depends much on hitting the current fancies of men by small and subtle allusions, and he must have a natural perception of fitness, of the direction in which he must go, and the limits he must not transgress. The literature of an epoch exhibits the taste of the readers, as well as that of the authors.

We shall thus be prepared to find that the mind of Aristophanes, although his views were aristocratic, harmonized in tone with that of the people, and that his humour bears the stamp of the ancient era in which he lived. The illustrations from the animal world in which he constantly indulges remind us of the conceits of old times, when marvellous stories were as much admired as the monstrous figures upon the Persian tapestry. Would any man at the present day produce comedies with such names as "The Wasps," "The Frogs," and "The Birds."[11] But we here meet with our feathered and four-footed companions at every corner. The building of the bird's city is a good illustration of this. Thirty thousand cranes brought stones for the foundations from Libya, and ten thousand storks made bricks, the ducks with aprons on carried the bricks, and the swallows flew with trowels behind them like little boys, and with mortar in their beaks.

We also notice in Aristophanes a simple and rude form of the ludicrous, scarcely to be called humour, much in favour with his immediate predecessors. I refer to throwing fruits and sweatmeats among the audience. Trygæus (Vintner), celebrating a joyous country festival in honour of the return of peace and plenty, takes occasion to throw barley among the spectators. In another place Dicæpolis, also upon pacific deeds intent, establishes a public treat, and calls out, "Let some one bring in figs for the little pigs. How they squeak! will they eat them? (throws some) Bless me! how they do munch them! from what place do they come? I should say from Eaton."

In this scrambling fun there would be good and bad fortune, and much laughter would be occasioned, but mostly of an emotional character. Some of the jokes of Hegemon, who first introduced dramatic parody, were of a similar description, but more unpleasant. On one occasion he came into the theatre with his robe full of stones, and began to throw them into the orchestra, saying, "These are stones, and let those who will throw them." Aristophanes makes great use of that humour which is dependent upon awakening hostile and combative feelings. Personal violence and threats are with him common stage devices. We have here as much "fist sauce," and shaking of sticks, and as many pommellings, boxings of ears, and threats of assault and battery as in any modern harlequinade.

Next in order, we come to consider some of the many instances in Aristophanes of what may be called optical humour—that in which the point principally depends upon the eye. Thus he makes Hercules say he cannot restrain his laughter on seeing Bacchus wearing a lion's skin over a saffron robe. A Megarian reduced to extremities, determines to sell his little daughters as pigs, and disguises them accordingly.[12] In the Thesmophoriazusæ, there is a shaving scene, in which the man performed upon has his face cut, and runs away, "looking ridiculous with only one side of his face shaven." In another play where the ladies have stolen the gentlemen's clothes, the latter come on the stage in the most ludicrous attire, wearing saffron-coloured robes, kerchiefs, and Persian slippers. In another, the chorus is composed of men representing wasps, with waists pinched in, bodies striped with black and yellow, and long stings behind. The piece ends with three boys disguised as crabs, dancing a furious breakdown, while the chorus encourages them with, "Come now, let us all make room for them, that they may twirl themselves about. Come, oh famous offsprings of your briny father!—skip along the sandy shore of the barren sea, ye brothers of shrimps. Twirl, whirl round your foot swiftly, and fling up your heels in the air like Phrynicus, until the spectators shout aloud! Spin like a top, pass along in circle, punch yourself in the stomach, and fling your leg to the sky, for the King himself, who rules the sea, approaches, delighted with his children!"

The greater the optical element in humour, the lower and more simple it becomes, the complexity being more that of the senses than of intellect. It may be said there is always some appeal to both, but not in any equal proportions, and there is manifestly a great difference between the humour of a plough-boy grinning through a horse-collar, and of a sage observing that "when the poor man makes the rich a present, he is unkind to him." Caricature drawings produce little effect upon educated people, unless assisted by a description on which the humour largely depends. We can see in a picture that a man has a grotesque figure, or is made to represent some other animal; by gesticulation we can understand when a person is angry or pleased, or hungry or thirsty; but what we gain merely through the senses is not so very far superior to that which is obtained by savages or even the lower animals, except where there has been special education.

Next to optical humour may be placed acoustic—that of sound—another inferior kind. The ear gives less information than the eye. In music there is not so much conveyed to the mind as in painting, and although it may be lively, it cannot in itself be humorous. We cannot judge of the range of hearing by the vast store of information brought by words written or spoken, because these are conventional signs, and have no optical or acoustic connection with the thing signified. We can understand this when we listen to a foreign language.

Hipponax seems to have been the first man who introduced acoustic humour by the abrupt variation in his metre. Exclamations and strange sounds were found very effective on the stage, and were now frequently introduced, especially emanating from slaves to amuse the audience. Aristophanes commences the knights with a howling duet between two slaves who have been flogged,

"Oh, oh—Oh, oh—Oh, oh—Oh, oh—"

In another play, there is a constant chorus of frogs croaking from the infernal marshes.

"Brekekekex, coax, coax, brekekekex, coax, coax."

In "The Birds," the songsters of the woods are frequently heard trilling their lays. As they were only befeathered men, this must have been a somewhat comic performance. The king of birds, transformed from Tereus, King of Thrace, twitters in the following style.

"Epopopopopopopopopopoi! io! io! come, come, come, come, come. Tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio! trioto, trioto, totobrix! Torotorotorotorolix! Ciccabau, ciccabau! Torotorotorotorotililix."

Rapidity of utterance was also aimed at in some parts of the choruses, and sometimes very long words had to be pronounced without pause—such as green-grocery-market-woman, and garlic-bread-selling-hostesses. At the end of the Ecclesiazusæ, there is a word of twenty-seven syllables—a receipt for a mixture—as multifarious in its contents as a Yorkshire pie.

We may conclude that there was a humour in tone as well as of rhythm in fashion before the time of Aristophanes, and we read that there was a certain ventriloquist named Eurycles; but Aristophanes must be content to bear the reproach of having been the first to introduce punning. He probably had accomplices among his contemporaries, but they have been lost in obscurity. Playing with words seems to have commenced very early. The organs of speech are not able to produce any great number of entirely different sounds, as is proved by the paucity of the vowels and consonants we possess. To increase the vocabulary, syllables are grouped together by rapid utterance, and distinctions of time were made. Similarities in the length and flow of words began soon to be noticed, and hence arose the idea of parallelism, that is of poetry—a similarity of measure. A likeness in the tone of words, in the vowel and consonant sounds, was afterwards observed, and became the foundation of punning. The difference between rhythm and puns is partly that of degree—and the latter were originally regarded as poetical. Simonides of Ceos called Jupiter Aristarchus, i.e., the best of rulers; and Æschylus spoke of Helen as a "hell,"[13] but neither of them intended to be facetious. Aristotle ranked such conceits among the ornaments of style; and we do not until much later times find them regarded as ludicrous.

With Aristophanes they are humorous, and his ingenuity in representing things as the same because their names were so, would not have been unworthy of a modern burlesque writer. They, perhaps, were more appreciated at that time from their appearing less common and less easily made. But there is a worse direction than any above mentioned, in which Aristophanes truckled to the low taste of his day. The modern reader is shocked and astounded at the immense amount of indelicacy contained in his works. It ranges from the mild impropriety of saying that a girl dances as nimbly as a flea in a sheepskin, or of naming those other industrious little creatures he euphemistically calls "Corinthians," to a grand exhibition of the blessings of Peace under the form of a young lady, the liberal display of whose charms would have petrified a modern Chamberlain. In one place, Trygæus is riding to heaven on a dung-beetle, and of course a large fund of amusement is obtained from the literal and metaphorical manipulation of its food. Socrates' disciples are discovered in a kneeling posture, with their heads on the ground. "What are they doing?" inquires the visitor. "They are in search of things below the earth." "And why are their backs up in the air?" "With them they are studying astronomy."

These passages will give some faint idea, though not an adequate one, of the coarseness of Aristophanes' humour. The primitive character of it is marked by the fact that the greater portion has no reference to the sexes.

It is a crumb of comfort to know that women were not generally present at performances of comedies, and Aristotle says that young men should not be allowed to attend them until they are old enough to sit at table and get drunk. Moreover, to be humorous the comedian must necessarily have exceeded the bounds of ordinary usage. Aristophanes occasionally deplores the degeneracy of his times,—the youth of the period making "rude jests," but his own writings are the principal evidence of this depravity. His allusions are not excusable on the ground of ignorance; they are intentionally impure. There was once an age of innocence—still reflected in childhood, and among some unprogressive races—in which a sort of natural darkness hung over the thoughts and actions of men,—but it was in reality an age of ignorance. When light broke forth delicacy sprang up, and when by degrees one thing after another had been forbidden and veiled from sight by the common consent of society, there was a large borderland formed outside immorality upon which the trespasser could enter and sport; and much could be said which was objectionable without giving serious offence. Before the days of Aristophanes and the comic performances for which he wrote, very little genius or enterprise was directed into the paths of humour, but now every part of them was explored. Indelicacy would here afford great assistance, from the attraction it possesses for many people and the ease with which it is understood. Something perhaps is due to the fact that Greece had now reached the highest point of her prosperity, and that a certain amount of lawlessness prevailed as her brilliancy began to tremble and fade. From whatever cause it arose, Aristophanes stands before us as one of the first to introduce this base ornamentation. The most remarkable circumstance connected with it is that he assigns a large part of his coarse language to women. His object was to amuse a not very refined audience, and one that relished something preposterous.]
Thus Aristophanes lowered his style to the level of his audience, but in his brighter moments, forgetting his failings and exigencies, he disowns expedients unworthy of the comic art. He says he has not like "Phrynicus, Lycis, and Amisias" introduced slaves groaning beneath their burdens, or yelping from their stripes; he comes away, "a year older from hearing such stage tricks." "It is not becoming," he observes in another place for a dramatic poet to throw figs and sweetmeats to the spectators to force a laugh, and "we have not two slaves throwing nuts from a basket." In his plays "the old man does not belabour the person next him with a stick." He claims that he has made his rivals give up scoffing at rags and lice, and that he does not indulge in what I have termed optical humour. He has not, like some of his contemporaries, "jeered at the bald head," and not danced the Cordax. He seems in the following passage even to despise animal illustrations—

Bdelycleon. Tell me no fables, but domestic stories about men.

Philocleon. Then I know that very domestic story, "Once on a time there was a mouse and a weazel."

Bdel. "Oh, thou lubberly and ignorant fellow," as Theogenes said when he was abusing the scavenger. Are you going to tell a story of mice and weazels among men?


Like most humorists he blames in one place what he adopts in another.

Plato had so high an opinion of Aristophanes that, in reply to Dionysius of Syracuse, he sent him a copy of his plays as affording the best picture of the commonwealth of Athens. This philosopher is also said to have introduced mimes—a sort of minor comedy—from Sicily, and to have esteemed their composer Sophron so highly that he kept a copy of his works under his pillow. Plato appreciated humour, was fond of writing little amatory couplets, and among the epigrams attributed to him is the following dedication of a mirror by a fading beauty, thus rendered by Prior:—

"Venus, take this votive glass,
Since I am not what I was!
What I shall hereafter be,
Venus, let me never see!"


Plato objected to violent laughter as indicative of an impulsive and ill-regulated temper, observing "that it is not suitable for men of worth, much less for the gods," the first part of which remark shows that he was not emotional, and the second that a great improvement in critical taste had taken place since the early centuries of Homer and David.

As youth is romantic, and old age humorous, so in history sentiment precedes criticism and poetry attained a high degree of excellence, while humour was in its infancy. Comedy is said to have been produced first in Sicily by Susarion in 564 B.C., but we have only two or three lines by which to judge of his work, and they are on the old favourite topic. "A wife is an evil, but you can't live in a house without one." As it is said his wife left him, it must be considered doubtful whether this was not meant seriously. He was succeeded by Epicharmus, whose humour seems to have been of a very poor description. His subjects were mostly mythological, and he was fond of representing the gluttony of Hercules, and Bacchus making Vulcan drunk. In the more intellectual direction his taste was entirely philosophical, so much so that Plato adopted many of his views. We may safely assert that no comic performance worthy of the name took place until towards the end of the fifth century,[14] though in the meantime the tragic drama had reached its highest point of excellence. One Satyric play, so called because the chorus was formed of Satyrs, was put on the stage with three tragedies by those competing for the dramatic prize. It seems to have been mythological and grotesque rather than comic, but in the Cyclops of Euripides, the only specimen extant, we have feasting and wine drinking, the chorus tells Polyphemus he may swallow any milk he pleases so that he does not swallow them—which the Cyclops says he would not do because they might be dancing in his stomach—and Silenus recommends the Cyclops to eat Ulysses' tongue, as it will make him a clever talker.

After the time of Aristophanes, the literary, and, we may say, the social humour of Greece altered. It grew less political as liberty became more restricted, and men's minds were gradually diverted by business and foreign trade from that philosophical and artistic industry, which had made Athens the centre of the world. The brighter part of the country's genius descended to effeminate pursuits, and employed itself in the development of amorous fancies. In the comedies which came into favour, the dramatis personæ represented a strange society of opulent old men, spendthrift sons, intriguing slaves, and courtezans. If we did not know what temptation there is to make literary capital out of the tender passion, we might suppose that the youth of that day were entirely occupied in clandestine amours, and in buying and selling women as if they were dogs and parrots. No wonder that "to live like the Greeks" became a by-word and reproach. Beyond this, the authors throw the whole force of their genius into the construction of the plot, upon the strength and intricacy of which their success depends; and the management of the various threads of the story so as to meet together in the conclusion, shows a great improvement in art since the days of Aristophanes. Advancing time seems also to have brought a greater refinement in language. The indelicacy we now meet with is almost entirely of an amatory character, and not quite of so low a description as that previously in use. But in quantity it was greater. Philemon, who is said to have died from a fit of laughter caused by seeing an ass eat figs, wrote much that was objectionable; and Diphilus was probably little better. Philemon found coarseness answer, and was more often crowned, and a greater favourite than Menander, who is reported to have said to him, "Do you not blush to conquer me?" but it may be doubted whether even the latter was as free from indelicacy as is generally supposed. Plautus and Terence both complain that they cannot find a really chaste Greek play.

The age of Greek fables, that is the period when they were in common use in writing and conversation, was now drawing to a close. A few remain in Callimachus, and Suidas quotes some of perhaps the same date. At this time Demetrius Phalareus made a prose collection of what were called Æsop's Fables—as we seek to perpetuate the memory of that which is passing away. Babrius, also, who performed the same charitable office in "halting iambics," like those of Hipponax, may be supposed to have flourished about this period, although it has been contended that he was a Roman and lived in the Augustan age. However this may be, fabular illustrations began to drop out of fashion soon after this time, and by degrees were so far disallowed, that the man, who would have related such stories, would have been regarded as ludicrous rather than humorous. Although Phædrus Romanized Æsop's Fables, and gave them a poetical meaning, he never gained any fame or popularity by them. Martial calls him "improbus," i.e., a rascal.

In these and earlier days, besides the humour exhibited in comedies, a considerable amount was displayed at public festivals and private entertainments. 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. Sometimes the line commenced with the first syllable of a word, and ended with the last, and a corresponding conceit was to be formed to answer it. The successful competitors at these games were to be kissed and crowned with flowers; the unsuccessful to drink a bowl of brine. These verbal devices were too simple and far-fetched to be humorous, but were, to a certain extent, amusing, and no doubt the forfeits and rewards occasioned some merriment.

A coarser kind of humour originated in the market-place, where professed wags of a low class were wont to congregate, and amuse themselves by chaffing and insulting passers-by. Such men are mentioned centuries afterwards by St. Paul as "lewd fellows of the baser sort,"—an expression which would be more properly rendered "men of the market-place." Such centres of trade do not seem to have been improving to the manners, for we read of people "railing like bread-women," and of the "rude jests" of the young men of the market.[15] Lysistratus was one of these fellows in Aristophanes' days, and his condition seems to have been as miserable as his humour, for his garment had "shed its leaves,"[16] and he was shivering and starving "more than thirty days in the month."

By degrees, as wealth increased, there came a greater demand for amusement. Jesters obtained patrons, and a distinct class of men grew up, who, having more humour than means were glad to barter their pleasantries for something more substantial. Wit has as little tendency to enrich its possessor as genius—the mind being turned to gay and idle rather than remunerative pursuits, and into a destructive rather than a constructive channel. Talent does not imply industry, and where the stock in trade consists of luxuries of small money value, men make but a precarious livelihood. One of them says that he will give as a fortune to his daughter "six hundred bon mots—all pure Attic," which seems to suggest that they were to be puns. No doubt it was the demand that led to the supply, for jesters were in request at convivial meetings, and the jealousy of their equally poor, but less amusing neighbours, not improbably led to some of the ill-natured reflections upon them. Society was to blame for encouraging the parasite, who seems to have become an institution in Greece. He is not mentioned by Aristophanes, but figures constantly in the plays of later writers, where he is a smooth-tongued witty varlet, whose aim is to make himself agreeable, and who is ready to submit to any humiliation in order to live at other people's expense. Thus Gelasimus—so called, as he avers, because his mother was a droll—laments the changed times. He liked the old forms of expression, "Come to dinner—make no excuse;" but now it is always, "I'd invite you, only I'm engaged myself." In another place a parasite's stomach is called a "bottomless pit," and they are said to "live on their juices" while their patrons are away in the country. Their servility was, of course, exaggerated in comedy to make humorous capital, but as they were poor and of inferior social standing to those with whom they consorted, they were sure occasionally to suffer indignities varying in proportion to the bad taste and insolence of their patrons. Thus we read that they not only sat on benches at the lower end of the table, but sometimes had their faces daubed and their ears boxed. In the ambiguous position they occupied, they were no doubt exposed to temptations, but we are not to suppose that they were generally guilty of such short-sighted treachery as that attributed to them by the dramatists. Still, they certainly were in bad repute in their generation, and hence we are enabled to understand Aristotle's observation that he who is deficient in humour is a boor, but he who is in culpable excess is a bomolochos, or thorough scoundrel. He would connect the idea of great jocosity with unprincipled designs.

Philoxenus, had a more independent spirit than most parasites, and the history of his sojourn in Syracuse gives us an amusing insight into the state of Court life in Sicily 400 years B.C. He was an Athenian dithyrambic poet and musician; and as Dionysius affected literature, he was welcomed at his palace, where he wrote a poem entitled "The Banquet," containing an account of the luxurious style of living there adopted. Philoxenus was probably the least esteemed guest at these feasts, of which, but for him no record would survive. He was a man of humour, and some instances of his quaintness remain. On one occasion, when supping with the tyrant, a small mullet was placed before him, 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. As might have been anticipated, he soon greatly offended Dionysius, who actually sent him to work in the stone-quarries; but the cause of his misfortune is uncertain. Athenæus attributes it to his falling in love with a favourite "flute-girl" of Dionysius, and says that in his "Galatæa," he caricatured his rival as the Cyclops. According to another account, his disgrace was owing to his having, when asked to revise one of Dionysius' poetical compositions, crossed out the whole of it from beginning to end. He was, however, restored to favour, and seated once more at the royal table; but, unfortunately, the tyrant had again been perpetrating poetry, and recited some of his verses, which were loudly applauded by all the courtiers. Philoxenus was called upon to join in the commendation, but instead of complying, he cried out to the guards, "Take me back to the quarries." Dionysius, took the joke and pardoned him. He afterwards left the Syracusan Court, and went to his native place, Cythera; and it was characteristic of his bluntness and wit, that, on being invited by the tyrant to return, he replied by only one letter of the alphabet signifying "NO."

And now a most grotesque figure stands before us—it is that of Diogenes, who was a youth at the time of Aristophanes' successes, and was, no doubt by many, classed with those rude idlers of the market-place of whom we have already spoken. Some people have questioned his claim to be regarded as a philosopher. He does not appear to have been learned, or deeply read; but he was meditative and observant, and that which in an anchorite, or hermit, would have been a mere sentiment, and in an ordinary man a vague and occasional reflection, expanded in his mind into a general and practical view of life. Observing that the things we covet are not only difficult of attainment, but unsatisfactory in possession, he thought to solve the problem of life by substituting contempt for admiration. He was, probably, somewhat influenced by his own condition in this vain attempt to draw sweetness from sour grapes. He was poor, and we find that this despiser of the goods of this world, who considered money to be the "metropolis of all evils"—in his youth coined false money, and was banished to Sinope in consequence. Among his recorded sayings, he expresses his surprise that the slaves attending at banquets could keep their hands off their master's dainties.

But we should be doing Diogenes an injustice, if we set him down as a mere discontented misanthrope. In giving due weight to unworthy motives, we have looked only at one side—and that the worst—of his character. His mind was of an inquiring speculative cast, and in youth he aspired to join the disciples of Zeno. So persistent indeed was he that the stoic, unwilling to have such a questionable pupil, one day forgot his serene philosophy, and set upon him with a cudgel. Such arguments did not tend to soften Diogenes' disposition, and although he accused man of folly rather than malignity, he went so far to say that a man should have "reason or a rope." He probably thought it easier than Democritus to follow wisdom, because he did not see quite so far. Still he showed that he took an interest in social life, and had he been less of a moralist, he would have had better claims to be regarded as a "wit" than any other character in Grecian history. Many examples could be adduced in which his principal object was evidently to be amusing:—

Entering a school in which he saw many statues of the Muses, but few pupils, "You have many scholars among the gods," he said to the master. On being asked at what time it was proper to dine, "If you are rich, when you will; if poor, when you can," he replied, perhaps a little sadly; and to "What wine do you like to drink?" he quickly responded "Another man's." Meeting one, Anaximenes, a very fat man, he called out, "Give us poor fellows some of your stomach; it will be a great relief to you, and an advantage to us."

That Diogenes recognised humour as a means of drawing attention and impressing the memory, is shown by the story that on one occasion, when he was speaking seriously and found no one attending, he began to imitate the singing of birds, and when he had thus collected a crowd, told them they were ready to hear folly but not wisdom. There was also, probably, in adopting this form a desire to preclude the possibility of his being contradicted. He was thus proof against criticism—if his statements were said to be false—well, they were intended to be so; while, if they raised a laugh, there was an admission that they contained some seeds of truth. The following are examples of his disguised wisdom:—

On being asked when a man should marry, "A young man not yet; an old man not at all," he replied. "Why men gave money to beggars and not to philosophers?" "Because they think they may themselves become blind and lame, but never philosophers." When Perdiccas threatened that unless he came to him he would kill him, "You would do no great thing," he replied, "even a beetle or a spider could do that."

We can scarcely suppose that all the sayings attributed to Diogenes are genuine. There has always been a tendency to attribute to great men observations made in accordance with their manner.

Philosophers have generally been to a certain extent destructive, and seldom spared the religion of their times. Diogenes, who was called "Socrates gone mad," was no exception to this rule. Humour, which is seasoned with profanity, is most telling when there is not too large an amount either of faith or scepticism; very few could find any amusement in the sneers of an utter infidel. Diogenes was almost as deficient in ordinary religious belief as in most other kinds of veneration. Sometimes he may have had the good effect of checking the abuse of sacerdotal power, as when he observed to some who were admiring the thank offerings at Samothracia, "There would have been many more, had those made them, who had not been cured." He also said that the Dionysian festival was a great sight for fools, and that when he heard prophets and interpreters of dreams, he thought nothing was so silly as man. His blaming men for making prayers, because they asked not that which was good, but only what seemed desirable to them, may be taken in a favourable sense.

Before the end of Diogenes' life fanciful conceits became so much appreciated in Greece, that a regular "Court of Humour" was held at Heracleum, a village near Athens, and it is to be feared that many of the racy sayings attributed to eminent men, originated in the sessions of this jocund assembly. It was composed of sixty members, and their sayings came forth with the stamp of "The Sixty" upon them. Their reputation became so great, that Philip of Macedon gave them a talent to write out their jokes, and send them to him. He was himself fond of gaiety, invented some musical instruments, and kept professed jesters.

Soon after this time, we read of amateur jesters or rather practical jesters called planoi. Chrysippus, who was not only a philosopher, but a man of humour—a union we are not surprised to find common at that date—and who is said, perhaps with equal truth, to have died like Philemon in a fit of laughter, on seeing an ass eat figs off a silver plate—mentions a genius of this kind, one Pantaleon, who, when at the point of death told each of his sons separately that he confided to him alone the place where he had buried his gold. When he was dead, they all betook themselves to the same spot, where they laboured for some time, before discovering that they had all been deceived.

From this period we are mostly indebted to epigrams for any knowledge of Greek humour. They originated in inscriptions or offerings in temples; afterwards came to be principally epitaphial or sarcastic; and grew into a branch of literature.

We can scarcely understand some of the fancies indulged in at the time, which contain no salt at all—"Sports," Hephæstio calls them. Of these devices may be mentioned the "Wings of Love" by Simmias, a Rhodian, who lived before 300 B.C. The verses are graduated so as to form a pair of wings. "The first altar," written by Dosiadas of Rhodes, is the earliest instance of a Greek acrostic, or of any one which formed words. An acrostic is a play upon spelling, as a pun is upon sound; and in both cases the complication is too slight for real humour. They are rather to be considered as ingenious works of fancy. The first specimens are those in the Psalms—twelve of which have twenty-two verses beginning with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The 119th Psalm is a curious specimen of this conceit; it is divided into twenty-two stanzas, and a letter of the alphabet in regular order begins each of them. The initial letters of "The First Altar" of Dosiadas of Rhodes, form four words, and seem to be addressed to some "Olympian," who, the dedicator hopes "may live to offer sacrifice for many years." The altar states that it is not stained with the blood of victims, nor perfumed with frankincense, that it is not made of gold and silver; but formed by the hand of the Graces and the Muses. In the "Second Altar," also usually attributed to Dosiadas of Rhodes, we find not only a fanciful outline formed by long and short verses, but also a studious avoidance of proper names. Not one is mentioned, although thirteen persons are designated. It is evident that this "Altar" was a work of ingenuity, and intended to be enigmatical. Probably the substitutions were also considered to be somewhat playful and amusing, as in Antiphanes—a comic poet, said to have died from an apple falling on his head—we read,

A. Shall I speak of rosy sweat
From Bacchic spring?

B. I'd rather you'd say wine.

A. Or shall I speak of dusky dewy drops?

B. No such long periphrasis—say plainly water.

A. Or shall I praise the cassia breathing fragrance
That scents the air.

B. No, call it myrrh.


Another conceit in the form of a Sphinx or Pandean pipe has been attributed to Theocritus—perhaps without good foundation.

In the "Egg" there is not only the form of the lines, which gradually expand and then taper downwards, but there is also a great amount of similitude—the literary egg being compared to a real egg, and the poet to the nightingale that laid it. There is also a remarkable involution in form—the last line succeeding the first, and so on; and this alternation of the verses is compared to the leaping of fawns. The Axe or Hatchet is apparently a sort of double axe, being nearly in the form of wings; and is supposed to be a dedicatory inscription written to Minerva on the axe of Epeus, who made the wooden horse by which Troy was taken.

The ancient riddles seem to have been generally of a descriptive character, and not to have turned upon quibbles of words, like those of the present day. They more corresponded to our enigmas—being emblematic—and in general were small tests of ingenuity, some being very simple, others obscure from requiring special knowledge or from being a mere vague description of things. Of the learned kind were doubtless those hard questions with which the Queen of Sheba proved Solomon, and those with which, on the authority of Dius and Menander, Josephus states Solomon to have contended with Hiram. The riddle of Samson also required special information; and the same characteristics which marked the early riddles of Asia, where the conceit seems to have originated, is also found in those of Greece. Who could have guessed the following "Griphus" from Simonides of Ceos, without local knowledge, or with it, could have failed,

"I say that he who does not like to win
The grasshopper's prize, will give a mighty feast,
To the Panopeiadean Epeus."


This means, we are told, that when Simonides was at Carthea he used to train choruses, and there was an ass to fetch water for them. He called the ass "Epeus," after the water-carrier of the Atridae; and if any member of the chorus was not present to sing, i.e., to win the grasshopper's prize, he was to give a chœnix of barley to the ass. Well might Clearchus say "the investigation of riddles is not unconnected with philosophy, for the ancients used to display their erudition in such things."

Somewhat of the same character is found in the following from Aristophanes.
People. How is a trireme a "dog fox?"

Sausage Seller. Because the trireme and the dog are swift.

People. But why fox?

Sausage Seller. The soldiers are little foxes, for they eat up the grapes in the farms.

The simplicity of some of the ancient riddles may be conjectured from the fact that the same word "griphus" included such conceits as verses beginning and ending with a certain letter or syllable.

An instance of the emblematic character of early riddles is seen in that proposed by the Sphinx to Œdipus. "What is that which goes on four legs in the morning, on two in the middle of the day, and on three in the evening?" And in the riddle of Cleobulus, one of the seven wise men:

"There was a father, and he had twelve daughters; each of his daughters had thirty children; some were white and others black, and though immortal they all taste of death."

Also in the following griphi, which are capable of receiving more than one answer.

The first two are respectively by Eubulus and Alexis—writers of the "New Comedy"—who flourished in the first half of the 4th century, B.C.

"I know a thing, which while it's young is heavy,
But when it's old, though void of wings, can fly,
With lightest motion out of sight of earth.

"It is not mortal or immortal either
But as it were compounded of the two,
So that it neither lives the life of man
Nor yet of god, but is incessantly
New born again, and then again
Of this its present life invisible,
Yet it is known and recognised by all."


From Hermippus:—

"There are two sisters, one of whom brings forth,
The other and in turn becomes her daughter."


Diphilus, in his Theseus, says, there were once three Samian damsels, who on the day of the festival of Adonis delighted themselves with riddles. One of them proposed, "What is the strongest of all things?" Another answered, "Iron, because it is that with which men dig and cut." The third said, "The blacksmith, for he bends and fashions the iron." But the first replied, "Love, for it can subdue the blacksmith himself."

The following is from Theadectes, a pupil of Isocrates, who lived about 300 B.C., and wrote fifty tragedies—none of which survive.

"Nothing which earth or sea produces,
Nought among mortals hath so great increase.
In its first birth the largest it appears,
Small in its prime, and in old age again,
In form and size it far surpasses all."[17]


To make a riddle, that is a real test of ingenuity for all, and which but one answer satisfies, shows an advanced stage of the art. The ancient riddles were almost invariably symbolical, and either too vague or too learned. They seem to us not to have sufficient point to be humorous, but no doubt they were thought so in their day.

It may not be out of place here to advert to those light compositions called Silli, about which we have no clear information, even with regard to the meaning of the name. From the fragments of them extant, we find that they were written in verse, and contained a considerable amount of poetical sentiment; indeed, all that has come down to us of Xenophanes, the first sillographer, is of this character. We are told that he used parody, but his pleasantry, probably, consisted much of after-dinner jests and stories, for we find that although he praises wisdom, and despises the fashionable athletic games, he rejoiced in sumptuous banquets, and said that the water should first be poured into the cup, then the wine. But the most celebrated sillographer was Timon the Phliasian—intimate with Antigonus and Ptolemy Philadelphus—who wrote three books of Silli, two in dialogues, and one in continuous narrative. He was a philosopher, and the principal object of his work was to bring other sects into ridicule and discredit. A few reflections of general application are scattered through it, but they are in general quite subsidiary and suggested by the subject matter.

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FOOTNOTES:

[7] I cannot see in Homer any of that philosophic satire on the condition of mortals, which some have found in those passages where men are represented as being deceived and tricked by the gods. Anything so deep would be beyond humour. He very probably conceived that the gods, whom he represented as similar to men, were sometimes not above playing severe practical jokes on them. The so-called irony of Sophocles in like manner, is too philosophical and bitter for humour.

[8] Tom Brown, the humorist, says, Lycambes complimented the Iambics of Archilochus with the most convincing proof of their wit and goodness.

[9] Archilochus could not have been called a satirist in the correct sense of the word. His observations were mostly personal or philosophical. He had evidently considerable power in illustrating the moral by the physical world, and one of his sayings "Speak not evil of the dead," has become proverbial.

[10] Irony had previously been used in Asia. The only specimens of humour in the Old Testament are of this character, as in Job, "No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you;" where Elijah says to the prophets of Baal, "Cry aloud, for he is a god," and the children call after Elisha, "Go up, thou bald-head."

[11] Magnes and others of the day used similar titles. We read that there were once three Homeric hymns extant, named "The Monkeys," "The seven-times-shorn Goat," and "The Song on the Thrushes."

[12] After disposing of his daughters for a bunch of garlic and a little salt, he exclaims, "Oh, Mercury, God of Traffic, grant that I may sell my wife as profitably, and my mother too!"

[13] So the pun may be represented.

[14] Certainly not before 460 B.C.

[15] Compare our "Billingsgate."

[16] We sometimes speak of a seedy coat.

[17] The answers to the above riddles are, thistledown, sleep, night and day, shade.

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