PHILAGELOS, THE WORLD’S OLDEST JOKE BOOK


Don't Worry Be Happy
Sculpture by KSR

Laughter is good for the soul, and it sometimes keeps you out of a lot of trouble. People have been laughing at one thing or another for centuries. Robert Frost wrote “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.”

Philagelos, a composite collection of 260 or so gags in Greek probably put together in the 4th century, is the oldest existing collection of jokes, but not the oldest collection ever heard of. In the 2nd century Athenaeus wrote that Philip II of Macedon paid for a social club in Athens to write down its members’ jokes. Apparently the early jokes were similar to the jokes of today, which throws out any thought that we may have evolved to a higher standard.

Do we all laugh at the same jokes? I think not. Things that I find hilarious, frequently bring a shake of the head from Dr. Advice. Contrarily, his idea of funny usually leaves me a bit chilly and wondering if he needs his head examined. The fact that we all find something to laugh at is the more important.

Laughter was always a favorite device of ancient monarchs and tyrants, as well as being a weapon used against them. A good king, of course, knew how to take a joke. One of the most famous one-liners of the ancient world was a joking insinuation about the paternity of the Emperor Augustus. The story goes that spotting a man from the provinces who looked much like the himself, the emperor asked if the man’s mother had ever worked in the palace. ‘No’, came the reply, ‘but my father did’. Augustus found that quite humorous.

There were many well-known philagelos ‘laughter-lovers’ in the first century, some of whom enjoyed seating dinner guests on ancient ‘whoopi cushions’ and then laughing as the air was gradually let out, proving that schoolboy pranks existed even then

democritus
Democritus, 5th century philosopher and atomist

Democritus, renowned as antiquity’s most inveterate laugher, was a stumpy little thumb of a man, who not only loved laughing but making others laugh as well. From Democritus to Whoopi Goldberg, the laugh instigators who grace our world keep the serious stuff at bay, and enable the sick, the lazy and the lame to face the perils of daily living.

Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.

12 thoughts on “PHILAGELOS, THE WORLD’S OLDEST JOKE BOOK”

  1. Yes laughter is the elixir for eternal life;
    When I read how dangerous smoking was I stopped reading. I always think back of that joke by an English comedian. Also Woody Allen with; Not only do I not believe in God but try and get a plumber on Sunday.
    I love the sculpture.

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    1. I like to think of all the comics who make life so much fun. Woody Allen is one of the best, along with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. British comedy is one of the best,; I like John Cleese for one. I particularly like Jewish comedy. A people who have suffered throughout history and still are able to laugh at themselves. I tht is the secret—the ability to laugh at oneself.

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  2. Another wonderful sculpture. What you say about a good king knowing how to take a joke is so true. If only more of the so-called leaders in the modern world had that quality!

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  3. Thanks mrsdaffodil. She wasn’t meant to look like Whoopie Goldberg, but somehow she fit for this one. Maybe our leaders should be graded on their sense of humor before we elect them! Most of them get a little prickly if everyone doesn’t agree with them. Maybe that’s common with all of us!

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  4. I’m completely astounded. I know the line “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane,” not from Robert Frost, but from Jimmy Buffet’s great song, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.” The chorus goes:

    It’s these changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes
    Nothing remains quite the same
    With all of our running and all of our cunning
    If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.

    A little creative borrowing there? The Frost estate came after the composer Eric Whitacre for using “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” in one of his pieces. I wonder how Buffett skated by? Maybe they just didn’t know, or maybe they liked Buffet’s work. Hard to say.

    Anyway, your larger point about laughter is so on target. The ability to laugh at our own foibles is something we all need to learn, but equally important is the courage to claim our right to laugh at what amuses us.

    The best example I can think of came back in the 80s, when I happened to be in the lead car of a funeral procession (well, after the hearse). As we pulled into a San Antonio cemetery gate, the first thing we saw was a large sign that proclaimed, “NO Planting WIthout Permission!” There wasn’t a one of us who didn’t burst out laughing, and we laughed so hard we were afraid we weren’t going to be able to stop before we had to get out of the car. Horrible, some would say. I say it’s just human – part of that well-known “essential comedy of human relations”.

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    1. Someone at the cemetery board either had a good sense of humor, or wasn’t thinking of the “deeper” question. It was funny though.

      That is strange about the Frost quote. I’m glad they missed it though. I love Jimmy Buffet. I once sang a duet with a musician friend at Dr. Advice’s birthday party of “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw.” I may have sampled the punch bowl too often.

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  5. It’s disconcerting, isn’t it, when someone close laughs at the wrong things! 🙂 And then there are the times in cinemas watching Woody Allen movies and I’m the only one laughing! “What’s wrong with you people?”

    I also like what Shoreacres says about having the courage to laugh at what amuses us. One of the best laughs I’ve had occurred in the hospital when my father was dying. The man in the bed across the room was lying flat on his back without a pillow and all I could see from my vantage point were the soles of his feet. And he was conversing loudly to what looked like the air cos there was no one else around and it was just the funniest thing. I laughed and laughed.

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    1. I agree that though it seems macabre to laugh when someone is obviously dying, it does happen. When my mother was trying to die, we were having a dinner in the other room with family. Everyone was having a really good time, and my aunt, who did not imbibe, had a couple glasses of wine and could not stop laughing. The next day she was really contrite. But I think our brains try to lighten our load on occasions which are life-changing. My grandmother had the ability to laugh at trouble, of which she had quite a lot. Maybe we subconsciously realize we can’t do anything about some things.

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      1. I agree. Laughter in times of trouble is part release of tension, part fear. Hospitals and funerals I think are places where both the funniest and saddest things happen.

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