Stephen Halliwell, Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 44-45:
It may seem initially counterintuitive that of all ancient Greek communities it should have been the Spartans, with their reputation for being
the hardest, severest of peoples, among whom laughter — or perhaps one
should write Laughter — was allegedly the object of religious cult, uniquely
so within the mainstream public religion of Greek city-states.118 According
to Plutarch, this cult was marked by a small statue of the deity (Gelos)
dedicated by the great Spartan culture-hero, Lycurgus. Plutarch relates this
circumstance (which is perhaps the more credible for having been derived
from the early Hellenistic Spartan historian Sosibius) by way of stressing
that the Spartans, for all their toughness, did in fact make use of laughter in
their dealings with one another. They did so, on his account, both to make
more palatable the exchanges of personal criticism that were an integral part
of their ideological 'consciousness raising', and, by Lycurgus' own design, as
an occasional relief, at symposia and elsewhere, from the otherwise relentless toil of their austere way of life. This picture of Laconian mores suggests
that laughter counted as something psychologically and socially necessary
to the militarised regimen of the Spartiates, yet as a factor which existed
in firmly controlled counterpoint to the harsh, uncompromising demands
of that regimen. Elsewhere, in his life of Cleomenes, Plutarch tells us that
the Spartans had shrines dedicated to 'fear, death, laughter and other such
elemental experiences (pathēmata)', a formulation which prima facie makes
laughter one of the basic coordinates (physical, psychological and social) of
a rather darkly coloured map of existence.119 In the case of fear, however, so Plutarch explains, this was because the Spartans actually recognised the
communal value of something that might otherwise easily be framed in
wholly negative terms. If that is right, then in the case of laughter we might
conjecture that the Spartans had a nervous but canny reverence for an
impulse which counted as a force of nature (manifesting itself, like fear, in
keenly somatic form) and was deemed sufficiently dangerous to be treated
as at least quasi-divine. Difficult though it is to penetrate into the Spartan mentality, the idea of its deification of Gelos makes best sense as the
expression of an attempt neither to keep laughter at bay nor to encourage
its unbridled celebration, but to harness its power to the cohesion of a
scrupulously regulated society of equals.
118 The nearest parallel is the festival of laughter at Thessalian Hypatia posited (fictionally?) by Apul.
Met. 2.31, 3.11: see Milanezi (1992), esp. 134–41. The painting of personified Gelos at Philostr. maj.
Imag. 1.25.3 (quoted as epigraph to Ch. 3) is not testimony to religious practice: such a figure
appears nowhere in regular Dionysiac cult.
119 Spartan statue/shrine to Laughter: Plut. Lyc. 25.2 (Sosibius FGrH 595 F19, where Jacoby's commentary moots a misunderstanding of the face of an archaic statue), Cleom. 9; cf. Choric. Apol. Mim. 91–2 (Foerster). For Spartan 'worship' of personified laughter, fear, etc., see Richer (1999)
92–7, 106–7, Richer (2005) 111–12. David (1989) provides an excellent survey of the whole subject
of Spartan laughter; cf. Milanezi (1992) 127–31. The views ascribed to the Spartan Chilon should
not be taken as peculiar to his culture: cf. 29 above, with ch. 6, 265–7.
Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus
25.2 (tr. Bernadotte Perrin):
For not even Lycurgus himself was immoderately severe; indeed, Sosibius tells us that he actually dedicated a little statue of Laughter, and introduced seasonable jesting into their drinking parties and like diversions, to sweeten, as it were, their hardships and meagre fare.
οὐδὲ γὰρ αὐτὸς ἦν ἀκράτως αὐστηρὸς ὁ Λυκοῦργος· ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ τοῦ Γέλωτος ἀγαλμάτιον ἐκεῖνον ἱδρύσασθαι Σωσίβιος ἱστορεῖ, τὴν παιδιὰν ὥσπερ ἥδυσμα τοῦ πόνου καὶ τῆς διαίτης ἐμβαλόντα κατὰ καιρὸν εἰς τὰ συμπόσια καὶ τᾶς τοιαύτας διατριβάς.
Plutarch, Life of Cleomenes
9.1 (tr. Bernadotte Perrin):
Now, the Lacedaemonians have temples of Death, Laughter, and that sort of thing, as well as of Fear.
ἔστι δὲ Λακεδαιμονίοις οὐ Φόβου μόνον, ἀλλὰ καί Θανάτου καί Γέλωτος καί τοιούτων ἄλλων παθημάτων ἱερά.