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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: September 2009

4 - Ritual laughter and the renewal of life


φιλοπαίσμονες γὰρ καὶ οἱ θεοί.

(The gods too are lovers of play.)


Gods take delight in mockery: it seems they cannot suppress laughter even during sacred rites.



In a bizarre anecdote related by Theophrastus in his lost work On Comedy and preserved in paraphrase by Athenaeus, we are told that the people of Tiryns in the north-east Peloponnese once suffered from a pathological addiction to laughter which incapacitated them for the serious business of life. They consulted the Delphic oracle, which told them they could escape their affliction by throwing a bull into the sea as a sacrifice to Poseidon, but on one strict condition: that they did so in an atmosphere free from laughter (ἀγελαστί). Anxious to adhere to Apollo's instructions, the Tirynthians took the precaution of excluding children from the sacrificial ritual. But one child infiltrated the crowd. When caught and rebuked, he asked: ‘What's the matter? Are you afraid I'll upset your bull/bowl?’ The Tirynthians burst into laughter, apparently at an (accidental) pun on two senses of ‘upsetting’, i.e. enraging the sacrificial victim and overturning the bowl – a play on the imagery of wine and animal sacrifice that may also allude to the Tirynthians' reputation for intoxication. The episode taught the city just how hard if not impossible it was to be ‘cured’ of an inveterate habit.