Thursday, July 23, 2020
Deification of Laughter
Stephen Halliwell, Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 44-45:Newer› ‹Older
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.Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 25.2 (tr. Bernadotte Perrin):
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.
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.Plutarch, Life of Cleomenes 9.1 (tr. Bernadotte Perrin):
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.
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.