Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jokes of the Ancient World

A student dunce, after dreaming that he stepped on a nail, is bandaging his foot. His colleague asks why, and upon learning the reason, observes, "No wonder they call us dunces! Why on earth do you sleep barefoot?"

 - Philogelos 15, 4th c., William Berg trans.

The "student dunce" is Berg's translation of scholastikos, a university student; by reputation, they weren't especially bright. These characters feature in many of the jokes in the book. Other translations give the term as "egghead" or, playing to modern stereotypes, "professor;" Berg uses "student dunce" throughout.

There are older references to books of jokes, and there are isolated jokes preserved in writing from earlier centuries, but the 4th-century Greek Philogelos, or "Laughter Lover," is the oldest jokebook text which still survives. Some of the jokes continue to amuse, while others serve only to shed light on what cultural commonplaces of the book's own era could be mined for humor. The aforementioned stupidity of students is one, and similar things are said about the people of Sidon. Here are a few more examples:

30. Seeing that he's about to be shipwrecked, a student dunce calls for wax tablets so that he can write his will. Noticing that his slaves are in great distress because of their impending doom, he tells them, "Don't be upset; I'm setting you free."

91. A student dunce invites his fellow students to dinner. They praise the pig's head and urge him to have another feast the next day. So he goes off to the butcher and says, "Give me another head from the same porker; we really liked the one we had yesterday!"

109. A dunce hears that fair judgments are made in Hades. Since he has a case in court, he hangs himself.

137. A fellow says to a butcher from Sidon, "Lend me a knife as far as Smyrna."

"I don't have a knife that reaches that far," says the butcher.

148. When the garrulous barber asks him, "How shall I cut your hair," a quick wit answers, "Silently."

234. A husband with bad breath asks his wife, "My dear, why do you hate me?"

She gives him an answer: "Because you kiss me."

The whole book is online here.

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