ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian humor: satire, puns, foolishness, excesses, nudity, sex, grimaces, infirmities, incongruities, slapstick
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Ancient Egyptian humour
What the ancient Egyptians laughed at

    Not everything we laugh at we think of as humorous, and what is considered amusing changes from place to place and from time period to time period. We should therefore be cautious when talking about ancient Egyptian humour. Of course they smiled and laughed, told jokes and funny stories, but their sense of the hilarious was not identical to ours.
    There are a number of topics which seem to have been thought of as funny throughout the ages. Much as it pains us politically correct westerners, we have always laughed at other people's infirmities or idiosyncrasies. The blind, hunchbacks, dwarfs and retarded have been butts for our jokes. Schadenfreude, the pleasure of delighting in somebody else's misfortune, may not be quite as cruel as it used to be, but we still laugh at somebody slipping on the proverbial banana skin. Bodily functions too have tickled our funny bone. Not quite as down to earth has been satire, the art of poking fun at the powers that be; and rarest of all has always been the gentle flower of self-mockery.
    Not every time we read about laughter in the sources, the mirth was the result of something we would think of as funny. Piye, on his victorious advance through Egypt, had many occasions to be pleased:
Behold, [he] besieges Herakleopolis, he has completely invested it, not letting comers-out come out, and not letting goers-in go in, fighting every day. He measured it off in its whole circuit, every prince knows his wall; he stations every man of the princes and rulers of walled towns over his (respective) portion
Then [his majesty] heard [the message] with courageous heart, laughing, and joyous of heart.
The Victory Stela of King Piye
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four, §818f.
    Teasing can be fun if it is good humored, but mocking is generally intended to hurt. In the tale of Truth and Falsehood the son of Truth grew up without knowing his father and was mocked by the other children because of it:
"Whose son are you? You don't have a father!" And they reviled him and mocked him: "Hey, you don't have a father!"

    Laughter is a joy in itself. But sometimes it can be used to achieve some purpose. In the tale of Princess Ahura the girl convinces her father Merneptah to let her marry her brother Naneferkaptah:
I said to him (i.e. her father): "Let me marry the son of a general, and let him marry the daughter of another general, so that our family may increase!" I laughed and Pharaoh laughed.
Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah
Lichtheim vol.3 p.128
    When looking at ancient Egyptian pictures or reading old stories we get the feeling that we have a pretty good idea of what they found funny. Still, some caution is called for.

Bowl Predynastic period (Naqada Iearly Naqada II), (ca. 39003650 B.C.)
Provenance unknown
Polished red pottery
H. 9.8 cm (3.9 in.), Diam. 13.5 cm (5.3 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    While a cute bowl with human feet like the one on the right will amuse us, a sight like this may have had much less of an effect on the ancient Egyptians who were used to much of their furniture legs having feet, or rather hooves or paws.
 
    Like beauty, funniness lies in the eye of the beholder. One man's joke may well be perceived to be an insult by somebody else. The ancient Egyptians were as likely as us to take umbrage at becoming the butt of a joke as a New Kingdom scribe learned to his chagrin.

Satire

    Different social classes will laugh at different things. While the oppressed working classes would see the funny sides of their "betters", upper class scribes must have thought the descriptions of the various tradesmen in the Satire of the Trades to be hilarious:
I do not see a stoneworker on an important errand or a goldsmith in a place to which he has been sent, but I have seen a coppersmith at his work at the door of his furnace. His fingers were like the claws of the crocodile, and he stank more than fish excrement
Erotic Turin Papyrus

Scene from the Erotic Turin Papyrus

    There is a hint of social mockery in the Erotic Turin Papyrus where the limp, over-sized member of the exhausted lover is crowned with a lotus flower (ostensibly the flower which is adorning the head of the girl supporting the man's buttocks). These lotus flowers are often depicted in the genteel party scenes of the New Kingdom bourgeoisie, hovering above the heads of the guests.
    While in animal cartoons many vignettes are innocuous with hares cooking and donkeys Satirical papyrus playing the harp, it is a cat (again decorated with a lotus flower) which copulates with a goose in the Erotic Turin Papyrus. Wolves act as flute playing goatherds, and a cat drives geese in front of it in the picture of a British Museum papyrus above. One also wonders what the outcome of the game of senet between the lion and the gazelle is going to be.
    The darts of satire were sometimes aimed at kings and gods. Both Menkaure and Ahmose II [6] figure in tales about drunkenness. According to a story Herodotus heard, Khufu prostituted his own daughter, and she was so successful at it that she could build her own pyramid:
Cheops moreover came, they said, to such a pitch of wickedness, that being in want of money he caused his own daughter to sit in the stews, and ordered her to obtain from those who came a certain amount of money (how much it was they did not tell me): and she not only obtained the sum appointed by her father, but also she formed a design for herself privately to leave behind her a memorial, and she requested each man who came in to give her one stone upon her building: and of these stones, they told me, the pyramid was built which stands in front of the great pyramid in the middle of the three, each side being one hundred and fifty feet in length.
Herodotus, Euterpe
    In The Contendings of Horus and Seth the gods look to us like a pretty ridiculous bunch of fuddy-duddies, incapable of coming to a decision and then enforcing it. But was this how the ancient Egyptians perceived it? Maybe they were incapable of seeing their gods in such a light, and to them this was a conflict so difficult to solve that it took decades of deliberations.

Puns

    There are cultures which value verbal wit more than others. The English today are very fond of punning, and so were the ancient Egyptians. Their writings are quite often spiked with word plays, hidden behind the somewhat rebus-like structure of their script.

Incongruities

    To the ancient Egyptians, used to depict their gods in both human and animal shapes, the gulf between humans and animals must have been smaller than it is to us. Still it tickled their fancy to look at pictures of animals behaving like humans or listen to animal fables reflecting human behaviour. What else would a powerful lion do but laugh, when a lowly mouse promised to save him in exchange for being spared:
The lion laughed at the mouse and said: "What is it that you could [do] in fact! Is there anyone on earth who would attack me?" But he swore an oath before him, saying: "I shall make you escape from your misfortune on your bad day!" Now although the lion considered the words of the mouse as a joke, he reflected, "If I eat him I shall indeed not be sated," and he released him.
The Lion in Search of Man
Lichtheim vol.3 p.158
But the joke was on the lion in the end, when he was caught in a trap and the mouse returned to save him by gnawing a hole into the net holding him.

Foolishness

    In the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor it is a god mocking a mortal, but nobody needs to feel ashamed for looking foolish to a god in the vein of Ankhsheshonq's maxim Before the god the strong and the weak are a joke [2]. As the sailor tells his story:
Then he (i.e. the snake god of the island) laughed at me for the things I had said, which seemed foolish to him.
The shipwrecked sailor
Lichtheim vol.1 p.167
    On the other hand, being laughed at by mere mortals because of one's stupidity or ignorance is a different cup of tea altogether, not something one would proudly relate to one's cronies. Such stories are rarely told in the first person singular:
And there was a priest there called Nesiptah; and as Naneferkaptah went into a temple to pray, it happened that he went behind this priest, and was reading the inscriptions that were on the chapels of the gods. And the priest mocked him and laughed. So Naneferkaptah said to him, "Why are you laughing at me?"
And he replied, "I was not laughing at you, or if I happened to do so, it was at your reading writings that are worthless.
    Irony was used in a letter to the scribe Amenemope. At first the writer gives fulsome praise to the scribe for his 'accomplishments' ...
A scribe (writing) in every style(?); there is nothing that he does not know. Men inquire after his response in quest of choice words. Keen of wit, patient of heart, loving mankind; rejoicing at deeds of Justice, he turns his back upon iniquity. [The scribe of steeds(?) ///////// Amenemope, son of the steward Mose, the revered.]
... and later demolishes his reputation by citing examples of his ignorance, lack of courtesy, and incompetence. Ankhsheshonq sums up the Egyptian attitude towards foolishness in an aphorism:
The reward of the fool and the inferior man is the laughter that falls on him.
The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq
M. Lichtheim vol.3 p.205
Woman vomiting

Excesses

    The ancient Egyptians liked their tipple. Beer was drunk by everybody, and, weak as it was, it had its effect on those who overdid it. Overeating was probably not much of a problem among the populace who often had just enough food to survive. Thus when an upper class persons vomited because of excessive drinking and eating, their discomfort must have been especially enjoyable to the man in the street.

Nakedness and Sex

    Neither nudity nor sex were funny in themselves [4]. Workers labouring under conditions where their clothes might get spoiled apparently took them off and were often depicted naked. The phalli of gods and the pudenda of goddesses too were represented in contexts of creation.
    But nudity can also be used in the pursuit of one's aims, and a little laughter can make all the difference. Thus Hathor, in an attempt to expedite the proceedings in the dispute between Horus and Seth, undressed in front of Re-Harakhte:
After a considerable while Hathor, Lady of the Southern Sycamore, came and stood before her father, the Universal Lord, and she exposed her vagina before his very eyes. Thereupon the great god laughed at her.
Phallus It has been suggested that the god's laughter was a euphemism for intercourse, and his mirth was due to sexual gratification. Maybe so, but why would the intercrural intercourse between Seth and Horus be recounted with relish and in quite some detail later on?
    The Erotic Turin Papyrus depicts sex scenes in which the male is caricatured. It will look to most of us like a satire, but some have thought that it must have a deeper, spiritual meaning [1].

"Snow White and the seven dwarfs"
Brooklyn Museum

    This has also been claimed for the little statue on the right to which the nickname of "Snow White and the seven dwarfs" has been given.

Grimaces

Glass     Pulling faces is a time-honoured way for making children laugh (or cry, as the case may be). The grimaces of the god Bes and his pulled out tongue were intended to frighten evil spirits and protect his human charges. The dwarf god was a popular deity spreading good cheer among grown-ups and children alike. According to Scott B. Noegel it was thought that when babies smiled to themselves this was due to Bes making funny faces at them [5].

Glass head
Ptolemaic (UC 22258)
Source: Petrie Museum website

Infirmities and physical peculiarities

    There are depictions of well-respected dwarfs [3] going about their business, and of fat people enjoying the prosperity their obesity suggested. But apparently not all Egyptians were enlightened enough to accept people for their inner worth. These had to be exhorted to mend their ways: Queen of Punt
Do not laugh at a blind man, Nor tease a dwarf.
The Instruction of Amenemope
Lichtheim vol.2 p.160
    The peculiar shape of the queen of Punt, who met the Egyptian traders sent by Hatshepsut, aroused the interest of many and her depiction made by Hatshepsut's artists was copied by people of varying drawing ability. One may surmise that this was not due to an interest in ethnography.

Queen of Punt

    A small donkey depicted close to the queen was described by an inscription: The donkey that had to carry the queen [5]. But the Egyptians, used to donkeys burdened with heavy loads, may have thought less of the incongruity of this rather sizable woman sitting on a scrawny donkey, but rather of a queen riding a donkey at all.
    Weakness, whether physical or moral, was risible. In a world where magic was thought to be as real as matter, there was no place for despondency:
The moment Si-Osire heard these words he laughed for a long time. Setne said to him: "Why do you laugh?" He said: "I laugh because you are lying down with a grieving heart on account of such a small matter! Rise up, my father Setne! I can read the document brought to Egypt without opening it, and I shall learn what is written in it without breaking its seal!"
Setne Khamwas and Si-Osire
Lichtheim vol.3 p.143

Slapstick

    There is a large measure of cruelty involved when we enjoy the misfortune of others. A hammer dropping on a man's head, or someone falling into the water are still funny in our eyes when nobody gets badly hurt - and people in antiquity seem to have enjoyed such little misfortunes happening to somebody else, too.
 
    The ancient Egyptians, to whom beatings were not a last resort when they wanted to convey their displeasure to a subordinate, were perhaps more inured to seeing physical suffering than we are - and more accepting of it. But they set limits to what was permissible and funny. In the fable The Mouse as Vizier a mouse, weak in every respect, was chosen to become vizier to the lion, but after behaving in an excessively cruel way he was deposed and the lion
... proclaimed loudly: "From this hour onward, all mice shall disappear from the fields and shall live underground only!"
Thus the king spoke and thus it happened. This is the reason why mice live in subterranean holes to this day
    Maat was not to be trifled with, though of course it was the powers that be which interpreted it, thus Piye, who saw himself as the rightful king of Egypt and defender of Maat, could laugh at the discomfiture of his enemies, while the mouse, servant of the lion king, became an object of contempt and derision.
 

Footnotes:
[1] And they are not referring to the exclamation of "O god!" which often concludes such proceedings.
[2] M. Lichtheim, The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq, Vol.3 p. 194
[3] Dwarfs seem to have held a special fascination for the ancient Egyptians, perhaps because they looked somewhat like their god Bes, popular as a protective deity. Pepi II, still a child at the time, was all excited at the news that his expedition to the south was bringing with them a dwarf. He wrote in a letter:
Thou (i.e. the leader of the expedition Harkhuf) hast said in this thy letter, that thou hast brought a dancing dancing_dwarfs dwarf of the god from the land of the spirits, like the dwarf which the treasurer of the god Burded brought from Punt in the time of Isesi.
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 351
One of the few ancient mechanical toys to survive is one of three dancing dwarf puppets which can be activated by pulling on strings.
[4] Of course we cannot be completely sure of that. The upper classes who left us most of the records we rely on may have considered naked men labouring in the swamps and fields to be hilarious. But there are no obvious clues to such an attitude in the records themselves.
[5] Scott B. Noegel quoted in Jennifer Viegas, "Ancient Egyptians Were Jokesters," Discovery News, 2.6.2004 (http://dsc.discovery.com/news/briefs/20040531/egypthumor.html)
[6] The tale of Ahmose and the Sailor, Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, G. Vittmann, ed.: Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => literarische Texte => Erzählungen u.a". => Amasis und der Schiffer (P. Bibl. Nat. 215, Vso a)

 
Bibliography:
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt
Emma Brunner-Traut, Tiergeschichten aus dem Pharaonenland, Mainz, Zabern, 2000
Adolf Erman, The literature of the ancient Egyptians; poems, narratives, and manuals of instruction, from the third and second millennia B. C., London, Methuen & co. ltd., 1927
Alan H. Gardiner, Egyptian Hieratic Texts - Series I: Literary Texts of the New Kingdom, Part I, Leipzig 1911
Herodotus, Histories Vol. 2: Euterpe
William Kelly Simpson (ed.), The Literature of Ancient Egypt, 1972
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 1972
Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, , Vol. III, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914

 

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