When Jokes Fall Flat: Why We Shouldn’t Be Laughing at Ancient Greek Vases

I’ll admit it – the choice of title isn’t great, and it doesn’t convey the fact that I really mean that we shouldn’t be laughing at all ancient Greek vases. I wholly accept the idea that there was a certain level of visual humor that existed in Greek art, some things at levels even we today couldn’t possibly get at first glance, but I haven’t read Alexandre Mitchell’s Greek Vase Painting and the Origins of Visual Humor or David Walsh’s Distorted Ideals in Greek Vase Paintings: the World of Mythological Burlesque so I don’t feel totally qualified to speak to that subject.

However, I did recently stumble across an article that appeared on my Facebook timeline, entitled Laughing at the Jokes on Ancient Greek Vases by Daniel Larkin. As a budding scholar of ancient ceramics and given that this article was being promoted by the American School for Classical Studies, I was intrigued.

Needless to say, I was disappointed.

I don’t know anything about Larkin. I really don’t. I didn’t even know he had authored the article until I had finished it. But there were some glaring issues with the article that I couldn’t quite ignore even as I dragged my way to the end of it. First, it was quite clear that the author was trying way too hard to pander to his audience. Reaching for a laugh, I think that in this day and age, it’s disappointing to see someone making jokes of things that probably would’ve gotten a genuine laugh twenty years ago.

His first attempt was in the first paragraph of his article:

Too many Greek vase jokes are lost in translation. For example, this duel between Achilles and Hector looks serious. But tragicomic ironies abound in ancient epic. The Trojan war started over a woman — Helen of Troy — and before this particular duel, Achilles chased a frightened Hector around the city three times before he would finally face him. That’s not exactly courageous, is it?

As a classical scholar and a die-hard Helen of Troy fan (I wrote my senior thesis in undergrad on her, y’all), maybe this was more cringe-worthy for me than for most others. But is the idea of a war starting over a woman really that funny? Personally, with all that I know about the origins of the Trojan War – the pact between the suitors of Helen, the Judgement of Paris, the involvement of the gods – I don’t think that the situation is funny at all. Sure, we might think that, today, there are more ‘logical’ reasons for going to war, but in that time, fighting to get back a lost possession, a wife, after traditional customs (i.e. xenia, guest friendship) had been betrayed, was logical for the Greeks. That’s why they wrote about it, after all.

Another quip by the author of this article that really bothered me was this:

For example, Zeus, not pictured, lusts after Ganymede, pictured below, in one object on view. It’s not just funny because it’s gay, it’s funny because it’s Zeus. Imagine if the leader of the gods was a sex addict and, like Bill Clinton, he always got away with it. How reassuring Zeus must have been to carousing men in symposia scheming to get away with cheating, too.

“It’s not just funny because it’s gay” – I have two questions for the author: what century are you living in and do you know anything about Greek culture at all? ‘Gay jokes’ are seriously a thing of the past, and even if they were still as prevalent and tolerated as they were decades ago, they certainly would not apply to the ways in which the Greeks saw themselves or their gods.

If there’s anything that I learned from an Ancient Sexualities course that I took two years ago, it’s that the sexual experiences of our modern world do not map on to the experiences of the Greeks thousands of years ago. I do not think that the images of Zeus and his consorts on vases were meant to be entertaining in the ways that this author thinks that they were. I think that, although it might be amusing to think of Zeus, the king of the gods, as the antithesis of moral Greek behavior – because of his infidelity with both unmarried and married women, not because of his interest in men – Zeus may have been mythologized in such a way in order to explain other parts of Greek history and of the Greek world. For example, many of the Olympian gods (Dionysos, Athena, Apollo, Artemis) would not exist without Zeus’ infidelities, nor would the Horai (the goddesses of the seasons), the Morai (the goddesses of fate and destiny), or the Muses.

Moreover, ‘cheating’ in our world did not carry the same connotations in the Greek world. Greek men were, in general, much more free to carry on with whomever they pleased, whether or not they were married (with some age-restricted exceptions).

The article is rife with what can only be characterized as, for lack of a better term, ‘locker room talk’, straight from the mouth (or keyboard) of a man who clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. From the quip about Zeus being ‘gay’ being funny, to the Greeks no less, to his speculation about whether Athena might have put Medusa’s head on her shield because ‘she was jealous that Medusa was too beautiful’ (are we sure he’s not referring to Aphrodite?), it is quite clear that an ancient history lesson is in order.

However, I’m not the one to give it to him (though I probably could).

As I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t laugh at any of the ancient Greek vases we come across. There are plenty of vases out there that – whether they were intended to make us laugh or not – amuse us in different ways. With that said, though, we should never pretend to know what the intentions of the ancient Greeks were, nor should we assume that their opinions on things like sexuality and war were the same as ours.

Perhaps Socrates was right when he said “For the gods too love a joke,” but those jokes are far out of our reach now, filtered through the lenses of artists who have agendas and senses of humor of their own. I think that, if there were to be a study of the humor of the ancient Greeks, the closest we might get to that is through the plays of comedians like Aristophanes, not through the so-called ‘visual humor’ of vase paintings (unless we use the humor of the comedies as our guide).

A Beginner’s Guide To Reading 3 Epic Poems

epic [ep-ik] adj. noting or pertaining to a long poetic composition, usually centered upon a hero, in which a series of great achievements or events is narrated in elevated style

A few days I came across a curious thing on Tumblr: a student who was interested in and in possession of three epic poems – The Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid – in translation, and who wanted to read them but didn’t know how to approach them in a way that made them easy to understand.

As a classics major in undergrad, I had little trouble understanding what was going on in these epics because I had been exposed to the stories, in varying amounts, and the cultural context of the stories for a number of years already. I can only imagine what it’s like to read these stories with little to no knowledge of the Greco-Roman world or the literature that came from it.

So, after a lot of thinking, I figured the easiest way to explain how to approach these epics was to provide anyone who wants to know how (i.e. anyone who’s reading this) with 1) a brief overview of the background, major characters, and major cultural topics of each epic and with 2) a general outline of the structure(s) of the epics.

Continue reading “A Beginner’s Guide To Reading 3 Epic Poems”