Barry Baldwin ~ Eggheads of the World Unite!

[Editor’s note: this is another never-before-seen effort from Dr Baldwin; we are again grateful that he thought this was an appropriate venue! As always, yours truly takes responsibility for any typos or other editorial negligences which may accrue.]

(As Adlai Stevenson once proclaimed)

Two mythical heroes, Palamedes and Rhadamanthys, were said to have invented jesting, which is about as daft as the claim of the tenth-century Byzantine dictionary Suda that Helen of Troy’s slave-girl Astyanassa invented all the sexual positions, or the student essay that informed me the Egyptians invented the horse in 1800 BC.

Poor Astyanassa. Her name means “ she’s unable to inspire erections.” – those who can’t, teach.

Earlier civilizations were already chuckling. According to a BBC website news item, the world’s oldest joke is a bit of Sumerian (c. 1900 BC) toilet humour: “ Something which has never happened since time immemorial: a young wife did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

Followed by this thigh-slapper from Egypt (c. 1600 BC): “ How do you entertain a bored Pharaoh? Sail a boatload of young girls dressed only in fishnets down the Nile and invite him to catch a fish.”

Another claimant is Isaiah  37.36: “ The Angel of the Lord smote a hundred and four score and five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians and when they arose early in the morning, Behold, they were all dead corpses.”

In fourth-century BC Athens, there was a Comedians Club. This popular Group of Sixty met to hone their wit in the Temple of Heracles. Alas, we have no specimens of their jests, but do know six of their names, including one nicknamed ‘ The Lobster’ – doubtless a prickly character. No less a fan than King Philip II (father of Alexander the Great) of Macedon paid this sniggering sixty the enormous sum of one talent for a copy of their joke book.

Roman comic playwright Plautus twice alludes to such collections. Scholars Quintilian and Macrobius both attest to a plethora in the early and later Roman empires. The ultimate assemblage was probably that of Melissus, a favourite professor of emperor Augustus, who put together 150 volumes of jokes. Macrobius collected Augustus’ own witticisms together with those of his daughter Julia. Several authors paraded Cicero’s rib-ticklers as well as those of (to us) such lesser lights as Hellenistic harpist Stratonicus and Lucian’s cracker-barrel philosopher Demonax.

One Christian wag, Bishop Sisinnius had his bon mots collected. Feeble stuff, e.g: “ Why do you bathe twice a day? Because I can’t bathe thrice.” In his article ‘ Is Wittiness Un-Christian?’, P. W. Van der Horst generated much debate, provoked by some Early Church Fathers’ contention that Jesus never smiled.

The sole surviving joke book is the Philogelos (Laughter-Lover). Its oldest manuscript is in the Pierpont Morgan Library. It contains 265 jokes, some recycled from section to section, classified by victim under several headings. It is attributed to the otherwise unknown pair Hierocles and Philagrios – the ancient Rowan and Martin? Double authorship is very rare in classical literature. Its date is equally elusive. Joke 62 refers to emperor Philip’s Millennial Games of AD 248. Number 76 about the Serapeum temple in Alexandria cannot post-date its destruction in AD 391. Other jokes are much older chestnuts. The Greek contains several late linguistic features, including Latinisms. There is no formal Christian presence, albeit some have detected elements thereof, with chronological consequences, pointing mistakenly – the Byzantines had no objections to ‘ obscenity’ – to the relative absence of blue jokes. Its manuscripts, plus a muddled quotation from the twelfth-century polymath John Tzetzes, suggest a Byzantine popularity.

Philogelos may have been an intended manual for wannabe gagsters. It has scored one modern success in British stand-up comedian Tom Bowen’s performance based entirely on it, immortalized on YouTube.

Between Byzantium and Bowen, the Philogelos has other progeny, for example Scoggin’s Tudor Jests, sometimes considered a Shakespearean source, and Joe Mlller’s 1739 Jest Book. No surprise that Samuel Johnson published a selection of its jokes two years later. And, a shame that the plan of his contemporary, Classicist Richard Porson, to show all Miller’s jokes came from Philogelos was addled in the egg.

Modern killjoys will condemn many items as ‘ politically incorrect’. I ignore such nonsense, though do blench at number 121 about a crucified runner. There’ll be no twaddle either about theories of humour: people know what makes them laugh and why.

Neo-conservative philosopher Leo Strauss rightly denounced “ the loathsome task of explaining a joke,” which didn’t stop Robert Browning ( Classicist, not the poet) from some outlandish Freudian and Marxist exegeses of items involving inherited wealth.

Now, a mini-Porsonian demonstration of humour’s Universality. Wearing my academic cap, I must wincingly disclose that Philogelos’ most ridiculed butt is the scholastikos, variously translated as ‘pedant’ (Johnson), ‘ absent-minded professor’ (American Albert Rapp), ‘egg-head’ (my own 1983  annotated translation):

The ethnic humour involves cities rather than countries. A typical joke has a swimmer dive under water to avoid getting wet when it rains – very Monty Python.

A talkative barber asking an egghead how he wanted his hair cut was told “ In silence.”

This was a golden oldie, attributed by Plutarch to King Archelaus of Macedon. It is also a fake golden newie: a British newspaper credited politician Lord Hailsham – my protest letter went unpublished. Barber-customer situations are, of course, standard Dagwood.

Two father-hating eggheads agree to kill each other’s fathers. Oedipal jealousy, opined Browning. The real interest is its anticipation of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

An egghead forgot a friend’s letter asking him to buy some books. So, he explained, “ I never got that letter you sent.” Here’s the origin of our Irish Bull, named for Obadiah Bull in Henry VII’s reign. It crops up in Larry Wilde’s The Last Official Irish Joke Book.
Gazing at twins, an egghead remarked,” This one doesn’t look as much like that one as that one like this one.” Also in Wilde, rivalled by a British soccer commentator’s “ At times he looks almost like his double.”

The pillow joke in which an egghead tries to soften an earthenware jar by stuffing it with feathers lived on in the Byzantine bishop-scholar Eustathius, hence to Wilde.
When an alcoholic, while drinking, was told his wife had died, he called out, “ Bartender, some dark wine, please.” In Wilde, a newly-widowed drunk asks for black olives in her martini.

No one paid attention to an egghead fallen down a well, so he climbed out and ordered somebody to fetch him a ladder. Wilde has a similar one about a man who lost a penny in a dark street and went to look for it in a lighter place, a joke I also remember from the old BBC radio comedy The Goon Show.

“ That slave you sold me has just died!” “ Well, he never did that when I owned him.”

This exchange between egghead and shop-keeper prefigures the immortal Monty Python ‘ Dead Parrot’ sketch.

Having bought some trousers too tight to put on, the egghead solved the problem by depilating himself – Fashionistas, take note! Also makes me recall the old Brooke Shields commercial ‘ There’s Nothing Between Me And my Jeans.’

An egghead ill in bed was hungry. Since food never seemed to arrive, he ordered the sundial to be moved into his bedroom. This variant on the classical jokes on gluttons whose bellies are their clocks is paralleled by the likes of Dagwood and Garfield, also the

British children’s comics ‘ Beano’ and ‘ Dandy’.

Seeing his tenants were having a good time, their spiteful landlord evicted them. Peanuts devotees will recognize this as prototype of Lucy’s typical behaviour.

An idiot teacher suddenly looked over to the dunce’s corner and shouted “ Dionysius is misbehaving there!” When another boy objected that Dionysius had not yet arrived, the teacher replied, “ Well, when he gets here then.” Boissonade, the 1848 Swiss editor of

Philogelos produced an identical item from local folk-lore.

A man with bad breath kissed his wife, murmuring “ My Aphrodite, my Hera.” Turning her head, she muttered “ Phew, Zeus” – this depends upon the Greek pun  O Zeus/ Ozeus, O Zeus, You Stink. This is one of a dead of bad breath jokes, no doubt a common affliction, given ancient love of garlic and onions and rudimentary dental hygiene – poet Catullus gibes at a man who brushed his teeth with urine. The emperor Marcus Aurelius optimistically recommended philosophic understanding as the best way to cope.

A shaggy-dog story beginning ‘ An egghead, a bald man, and a barber’ is the only joke with such a beginning, anticipating our (e.g.) ‘ An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman” – the Greek punchline is sadly missing.

I ‘sex up’ my finale with one of Philogelos’ very few carnal funnies. A Young man said to his randy wife, “ Shall we eat or make love?” “ Whatever you like,” she replied, “ We haven’t any bread.” This one has recurred both as a sixteenth-century French epigram and as a Robbie Burns ballad, ‘ Supper Is Na Ready’ in his The Merry Muses of Caledonia:

Roseberry to his lady says,

My hinnie and my succour
O shall we do the thing you ken,
Or shall we take our supper?
Wi’ modest face, sae fu’ o’ grace
Replied the bonny lady:
My noble lord, do as you please,
But supper is na ready.

So, Philogelos does not get off Scot-free…


Barry Baldwin ~ Definitive Moments

[Editor’s note: this is a never-before-seen effort by Dr Baldwin; we are grateful that he thought this was an appropriate venue! As always, yours truly takes responsibility for any typos or other editorial negligences which may accrue.]

Thought it might be amusingly instructive to compare and contrast definitions of Latin sexual terms in Lewis & Short (1879) and the Oxford Latin Dictionary (1968-82, ‘ lightly revised’, 2112).

Two dictionaries from very different periods, L&S from the Victorian period and OLD from the ‘swinging’ and ‘sexually liberated’ 1960s. One might have expected a greater frankness in the latter. Not always the case.

For spatial reasons, what follows is merely a selection. J. N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary  (1982) lists hundreds of Latinisms (pps. 257-65), with exhaustive discussions of them all in his text, for good measure (pps. 266-68), he adds a substantial inventory of Greek terms.

There’s also a lexical cornucopia in F. C. Forberg’s Manual of Classical Erotology, most accessible in the 1966 Grove Press reprint of the 1884 English translation ‘ privately printed for Viscount Julian Smithson M.A., and Friends’ – the dirty devils…

Also relevant, of course, is A. E. Housman’s once-notorious article Praefanda (in Latin), accepted by the Classical Quarterly, only to be withdrawn at proof stage by some panic-stricken trustees, rescued by the less shockable German editors of Hermes, still in Latin, but latterly (Arion 9, 2001, 180-200) Englished or rather Americanized into pungent demotic by James Jayo. Considering how Housman treated so many of their countrymen, it might be thought an exceedingly generous gesture by this German journal.

We start with Suetonius, On Grammarians 23, describing the shamefully indecent way Remmius Palaemon treated women – nowadays, he’d be a prime candidate for #MeToo. Men, too. When he attempted to kiss an unwilling man in a crowd, the latter ‘wittily’ cried out, ‘ Vis tu, Magister, quotiens festinantem aliquem vides, abligurire? (Master, do you wish to mouth everyone whom you see in a hurry? – Rolfe’s old Loeb: wonder what he thought the reader would make of this?).

L&S define abligurio as ‘ to lick away, waste or spend in luxurious indulgence’, adding their favourite formula in mal. part.  to indicate an (in their eyes) obscenity. OLD renders ‘ to eat up’, citing the Suetonius passage without any sexual indication.

Incidentally, Suetonius quotes a popular insult from an Atellan farce ridiculing Tiberius for his treatment of the lady Mallonia who had denounced him as she committed suicide: hircum vetulum capreis naturam ligurire  (the old goat was licking the does – Rolfe)
Let’s hurry on to festinate. Neither dictionary seems to admit this Suetonian passage. Adams and Housman devoted much space to this, the former (p. 144) adding that properare bore a similar sense, also noting a Pompeian graffito (CIL IV. 4758) comporting the apparent sexual neologism festinabiliter.

A colourful online essay, ‘ The Philology of the Orgasm’ by Max Kenneth points out that (e.g.) Spanish correr  and Russian kahnchat are used in this same erotic sense.

L&S tactfully omit Suetonius, Aug.  69. 2, an erotic litany sent in a letter to the emperor by Mark Antony: an refert, ubi et in qua arrigas? (Does it matter where or with whom you take your pleasure? – Rolfe again concealing the point – the verb means to have an erection, as OLD observes.

By the way, Dashiell Hammet’s The Thin Man (1934) was banned in Canada for Nora’s question to Nick, ‘Did you have an erection?’

Ceveo is defined by L&S simply as ‘ to move the haunches’. OLD is more expansive: ‘ of a pathic – to move the haunches in a lewd or effeminate manner’. We might have expected these in dictionary reverse, with the implied moral criticism.

Back to expected L&S form with the related verb crissare: ‘ to move the haunches, in mal. part., of a female as ceveo of a man’. OLD takes a different tack: ‘ of women, to move the haunches as in coitus’. Echoes in both, perhaps, of Lucretius’ erotic litany (bk. 4).

Getting to the bottom of things, L&S dub culus as ‘ posteriors’ (Note the plural, suggesting their minds were more on ‘buttocks’)’. Plain ‘ fundament, anus’ in OLD. Obliterated are the various semantic levels of these fundamental nouns. Culus (same goes for podex) requires a cruder appellation, ‘arse’ (‘ass’ in American). Anus  was useful if a pun was needed on the other anus (old woman). Clunes  by itself was respectable enough, albeit often used with such erotically-charged verbs as agitare.

Samuel Johnson, who pointedly omitted most vulgarisms from his Dictionary, did allow ‘ arse’, defining as ‘ the buttocks, or hind parts of an animal’.

Famously, when a pair of prim young damsels complimented him on leaving out objectionable words, Sam replied, ‘ What, my dears, have you been looking out for them already?’

Summing up, this is all a case of arse gratis artis.

L&S  register ‘Scrotum’ as one meaning of culleus; OLD  does not.

Cunnus and Cunnilingus are straightforwardly acknowledged by L&S as ‘female pudendum’ and ‘cunnum lingere’. OLD  defines the latter as ‘ a type of sexual pervert’ – somebody’s prejudices are showing.

L&S note the sexual connotation of deglubire in an Ausonius Epigram (71.5); not so in OLD. The former note the well-known Catullus poem for basic glubire, adding their usual in mal. part. formula. OLD  cites the Catullus but not the sense. For once, Forberg failed to spot.

Now, a splendid semantic conflict. L&S  define draucus as ‘ a sodomite’. OLD  say it means ‘ athlete’ (Adams does not mention the term). I suppose one may visualize an athletic sodomite, but…

Effutuo emerges from L&S  as ‘ to waste in debauchery’. OLD expands into ‘ to wear out with, or squander on, sexual intercourse’. As to basic futuo, L&S  take refuge in ‘ to have connection with a female’ – shades of the Biblical ‘Know’. OLD  counter with ‘ to have sexual relations (with a woman)’. Their brackets have become old-fashioned: nowadays, girls and women regularly talk of fucking a man. And, OLD’s avoidance of the f-word comes several years after (1965) Kenneth Tynan uttered it on BBC television.

L&S make a meal out of fascinus: trans. l.q. membrum virile  because an image of it was hung around the necks of children as a preventative against witchcraft’. OLD has much the same. Neither adduce (though it is in OLD’s repertoire of references) Petronius 138 where it has to mean ‘dildo’.

Both dictionaries give fellare and fellator short thrift, dismissing ‘ sucker’ as in mal. part.  and transf.  ‘ as a sexual perversion’. ˆL&S tactfully omit fellatrix, cited by OLD  exclusively from Pompeian graffiti.

L&S  wax Biblical for ineo as ‘ Know, in mal. part.’ OLD  registers the meaning without prejudice. It is so used in Antony’s above-mentioned letter to Augustus.

Irrumare and irrigator were bound to give our lexicographers trouble. After a neutral ‘ to extend the breast to, to give suck’, L&S  flee to ‘in mal. part., to treat in a foul or shameful manner’, with ‘ to that in a beastly or shameful manner’ following up. OLD  skirts even more around the Catullan issue, translating only one of the cognates, irrumator, as ‘ one who submits to fellatio’.

L&S  treat masturbator  in a very Victorian way, ‘ one who defiles himself’. No beating about the bush with OLD.
Likewise, L&S fight shy of mentula, left in ‘l.q. membrum virile’. Plain ‘ the male sexual organ’ in OLD.

Paedico and cognates are viewed as ‘ the practise of unnatural vice’ in L&S, whilst unvarnished ‘sodomite’ was enough for OLD.

Poppysma (not in Adams) is for L&S  ‘ a smacking or clucking with the tongue’. For Martial’s colourful poppysmata cunni, they cautiously add ‘ of a similar sound’. OLD  is similarly evasive.

Spintria (not in Adams) earns a fine combinative definition from L&S: ‘ the contractile muscle of the anus, also a male prostitute’ – very precise anatomical information. OLD is content with ‘ a type of male prostitute’.

L&S gloss vasatus sternly, ‘ i.e. mentula magna instructus’. It is not precisely specified in OLD because the term (often with bene added) is restricted to the Historia Augusta, beyond its lexical range, a strange and harmful editorial decision. See Adams (pps. 41-42) for details, OLD  does include Vaso  as ‘ one having a large sexual organ’, citing (with a question mark) the grammarian Pomponius.

For perfect finale, Sellarius, the jewel in L&S’ scatology-avoiding crown. OLD see the word (not in Adams) as denoting a type of male prostitute, connecting it with sellarium (privy), and adding a secondary unrelated ‘ member of a chariot-racing establishment (of uncertain function)’.

L&S arrived at this glorious circumlocution: ‘ one that practises lewdness upon a settle’. How many people nowadays know what a settle is? Had to verify it myself. English dictionary definition is elaborate: ‘ An old-fashioned piece of furniture with a long wooden seat and a high back and arms, often also with a box for storing things under the seat’.

I leave it to readers to settle the mystery of what kind of lewdness would be specifically practised in/on such a contraption…

Barry Baldwin ~ Get Stuffed

[Editor’s note: years ago we regularly featured transcriptions of Barry Baldwin’s Classical Corner items from Fortean Times and we are in the process of resuming that practice, More to come, hopefully on a once-a-week schedule (the next two will probably be the ones referenced within this one).  The current offering is reprinted with permission of the author himself, who years ago had to deal with yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription accrue to the latter.]

Or, The Mummy Returns – addenda to my previous embalmy army piece [FT162:19), itself supplementing FT159:45.

Embalming is associated with Egypt, thanks (mummies apart) to Herodotus’s lurid account (Histories, bk2 chs 85–7), especially the morticians’ proclivity for necrophiliac sex with female cadavers, a detail worthy of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One.

Thanks to his Egyptian staff, Joseph had father Jacob embalmed, likewise himself and eleven brothers (Genesis 50.2-3, 25-6; Acts 7.16) – Jewdicious biculturalism.

Herodotus (1.196; 3.24) attributes the practice to Babylonians and Ethiopians – esprit de corpse obviously widespread in the ancient East.

Various passages in Homer (e.g. Iliad, bk7 vv84–6; bk16 vv.456–7; bk18 vv350–3; bk19 vv37-9; Odyssey, bk224 vv67-8) may imply embalming, though not always easy to distinguish between this and pre-cremation unguenting; cf. R Garland, “Geras Thanonton: an Investigation into the claims of the Homeric Dead,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 28 (1981), p73 n35. Such corporeal preparation is widely attested, not least in Gospel accounts of Christ’s obsequies.

Bodies were similarly treated to preserve ther for long journeys to final resting places. Spartan kings Agesilaus and Agesipolis were coated respectively in wax and honey (Nepos, Agesilaus, ch8 para7; Plutarch, Agesilaus, ch40 para3; Xenophon, Hellenika, bk5 ch3 para 19). The various sources for Alexander the Great don’t all mention the honey, but Quintus Curtius’s biography (bk10 ch 10 paras9-13) says he was perfumed in the Egyptian manner”, and sent for burial to Alexandria, where Augustus (Suetonius’s Life, ch18 paral) saw the mummy before it vanished to make the Shakespearean (Hamlet, act5 sc1 vv224-5) reflection “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole?”

Greek and Roman writers frequently ridicule embalming, Lucretius (On the Nature of Things, bk3 vv888-93) from the philosopher’s view, Varro (Satires, fr81) from the comedian’s. Cicero (Tusculan Disputations, bk1 ch45 para108) calls it “an error of nations”. Dio Cassius (Roman History, bk50 ch 24 para26) has Octavian mock this “Egyptian idiocy” in a pre-Actium speech, ironically balanced by his later account (bk51 ch11 para15) of Cleopatra embalming Antony, the first Roman so prepared for eternity.

Lucian (Funerals, para21) provides the gothic tale (supposedly autoptic) of an Egyptian who placed a mummy at his dinner table, a scene re-created in Peter Fonda’s motorbike picture The Wild Angels.

Pliny expatiates on the preservative power of honey (Natural History, bk22 ch50 para108). The poet Statius (Silvæ, bk5 no1 vv225-31) describes the embalming of his wife Priscilla by Domitian’s courtier Abascantus. Nero typically provides the most spectacular example. Having kicked his pregnant wife Poppæa to death, he atoned by (Tacitus, Annals, bk16 ch6) “having her not cremated Roman-fashion but stuffed with spices and embalmed like a foreign potentate”; cf. Derek Couts, ‘The Nature and Function of Embalming in Rome”, Classical Antiquity 15 (1996), pp189–202.

Not much Byzantine evidence, although Corippus’s poem In Praise of Justin II (bk3 vv20-5) vouchsafes the embalming of Justinian (AD 565), while the famous “sweet odours” emanating from the uncorrupted corpse of Saint Demetrius of Thessalonica hint at chemical preservation.

Archaeological evidence bolsters the literary record. A young woman’s mummified body was discovered (1445) in an Appian Way sarcophagus, R Lanciani (Pagan and Christian Rome, Cambridge, 1892, p296) said it attracted “swarms of bees”. 1964 saw the discovery in (suitably) the so-called “Tomb of Nero’ of a seven-year-old girl datable to C. AD 150, while in 1962 (many electronic sites for these), the mummy of a middle-aged woman was found in a Thessalonican cemetery from c. AD 300. Most recently, again female from Thessalonica, a preserved body dating to c. 1700 BC: C Papageorgopolou & others, ‘Indications of embalming in Roman Greece by physical, chemical and histiological analysis,’Journal of Archaeological Science 36 (2010), pp35-42.

What goes around… The Mycenaean corpse Schliemann romantically thought was Agamemnon was preserved by a local pharmacist drenching it with gum arabic before shipment to Athens (Kathy Gere, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, Chicago, 2009, p25). Schliemann’s famous telegram to the King – “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon” – was actually a later re-write (David Traill, Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit, NY, 1995, p163).

Salty cognate Calypso finale provided by this 1953 Oxford theatrical satire:

Oh, you’ve all read in the New Testament How the wife of Lot became a condiment. It was her curiosity started the rot,

She only peeped a little but she had lost her Lot.

Classical Corner 133: Fortean Times 271 (February 2011), p. 19.