Tuesday, August 06, 2013


Dying of Laughter

Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), And Even Now (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1921), p. 315:
Strange, when you come to think of it, that of all the countless folk who have lived before our time on this planet not one is known in history or in legend as having died of laughter.
Lucian, The Long-Lived 25 (tr. A.M. Harmon):
Philemon, the comic poet, was ninety-seven like Cratinus, and was lying on a couch resting. When he saw a donkey eating the figs that had been prepared for his own consumption, he burst into a fit of laughter; calling his servant and telling him, along with a great and hearty laugh, to give the donkey also a sup of wine, he choked with his laughter and died.

καὶ Φιλήμων δὲ ὁ κωμικός, ὁμοίως τῷ Κρατίνῳ ἑπτὰ καὶ ἐνενήκοντα ἔτη βιούς, κατέκειτο μὲν ἐπὶ κλίνης ἠρεμῶν, θεασάμενος δὲ ὄνον τὰ παρεσκευασμένα αὐτῷ σῦκα κατεσθίοντα ὥρμησε μὲν εἰς γέλωτα, καλέσας δὲ τὸν οἰκέτην καὶ σὺν πολλῷ καὶ ἀθρόῳ γέλωτι εἰπὼν προσδοῦναι τῷ ὄνῳ ἀκράτου ῥοφεῖν ἀποπνιγεὶς ὑπὸ τοῦ γέλωτος ἀπέθανεν.

Dear Michael Gilleland,

There is a list of examples of death by laughter, mostly drawn from Aulus Gellius, in the Officinae epitome (1560) of Johannes Ravisius Textor (Jean Tixier de Ravisi), which besides Philemon also includes the comic poet Philippides, who laughed himself to death after unexpectedly winning a contest. In the same volume can be found useful lists of classical figures who died by drowning, by falling off a horse, trampled by horses, bitten by snakes, stung by bees, mauled by lions, dogs or wild beasts, struck by lightning, crucified, hanged, of hunger and thirst, burned to death, by falling off a ladder, swallowed by the earth, by poisoning, during copulation, of excessive eating and drinking, crushed by a falling rock or collapsing wall, strangled or smothered, pierced by arrows, infested by lice, in prison, in the latrine, by flaying, suffocated by smoke or steam, in childbirth, beheaded, of a fever, of the plague, of apoplexy, by bleeding to death, of gout, of dysentery, etc.

Yours sincerely,

Alistair Ian Blyth

Jane Seeber adds:
Beerbohm also neglects Sir Thomas Urquhart, said to have died laughing on hearing that Charles II had reclaimed the throne. I'm currently reading John Willcock's entertaining and erudite biography, Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie, Knight (1899). Despite this story being generally regarded as a legend, he argues in favour of it.
"There seems at first, a certain grotesqueness in such a fatal exuberance of joy in connexion with such an event as Charles II. regaining the crown which his father had lost, and of which in another generation all of his blood were to be deprived. But we have to keep in mind that Sir Thomas was not alone in his folly, if folly it were; for a great wave of exultation swept over the three kingdoms at that time. Our author had, like many of his fellow-Royalists, staked and lost everything he possessed in the defence of the House of Stuart, and one can have little difficulty in understanding how the announcement of the triumph of the cause, which was so dear to him, should have agitated him profoundly."
Willcock has a long footnote on the subject, referencing Rabelais' treatment of the death of Philemon and Lucian as a source for Rabelais. The footnote can be found here, as part of the Project Gutenberg text.

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