Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

Feast of funnies from the ancients

[New Straits Times, 1 April 1992]


I loathe seriousness. Fortunately, nobody has accused me of having to much of it. I don't see that seriousness and solemnity do much good in the world, rather more harm. Who are the most serious people? Probably the terrorists. Millions of others who are burning with desire to make the rest of us behave, or do things the right way (which is of course, their own way), show they are not fooling around---without actually throwing bombs or pointing AK-47s---by pulling long faces and loading their words to dish with charges of deadly non-fun.

"Gravity, a mysterious carriage of the body to conceal the defects of the mind."

The way the world goes, I have to put on a front, as I suppose most people do. Once a year---and it happens to be today--the Feast of Fools comes round and we have licence to be frivolous and relish the essential stupidity of things.

The ancient motto was not, as it is usually quoted, "everything in moderation," in other words, "be dull," but rather "nothing too much." Ancient writers, who knew that writing is, after all, just scribbling on paper, took their own advice. The classics are filled with amusing trivia. Without further ado, I would like to string together a number of silly stories and whatnot from antiquity, for your amusement and for mine. 

For some reason, if you were a famous Greek, you were notpermitted to die anything but a weird death. We remember that Aeschylus was brained with a tortoise by an eagle. His younger rival Sophocles, the guy who invented the oedipus-complex, died in two (yes) different ways. First, an actor friend of his returning from tour brought him a bunch of exceptionally large grapes. Sophocles thereupon inhaled one. Then, they say, as he was reciting a favourite passage out of his Antigone, he came to an especially long sentence, and just ran out of breath. Sophocles kicked off at the age of 92, after his son, already in his decrepitude and tired of waiting for his money, tried and failed to get the court to rule his father incompetent.

The other tragic poet Euripides in his old age moved off to the wilds of Macedonia, and was torn limb from limb by a party of feminists who were disgusted at the way he had portrayed women in his tragedies.  Either that, or it was dogs.

Philosophers had no easier time getting off stage. Herakleitos, trying to cure a dropsy, buried himself in cow-dung, and was promptly forgotten among the compost. 

Democritus seems the wisest, who kept himself alive for a few days at the end by sniffing the steam from buns. His sister apparently wanted to attend a festival.

A professor of rhetoric in later times, feeling death not far off, had himself entombed alive as he ranted out his own funeral oration, so that people would say that the sun never shone on him a day when he was not giving a speech.

All of this is, please, absolutely true. It's written down in books, isn't it? 

Everybody agress that sex is nearly as funny as death. Unfortunately, all of the ancient stories are so raunchy that the censors would be on me in a minute if I translated a sample. The Roman poet Martial made a specialty of dirty little poems. I suppose, if it's in the original, I can quote one proto-limerick and hope to scandalize the odd Jesuit who may be lurking in the ulu. It's unbelieveably gross. 

Cum futuis, Polycharme, soles in fine cacare.
    cum paedicaris, quid, Polycharme, facis?

My favorite story-teller from ancient times is Herodotus. Herodotus' Histories (re. the Greek-Persian wars) is the first big book of prose in a western language. Let's forget the history. The fun part is the miscellaneous information mixed in. Herodotus loved a good story. In his travels he collected a lot of them.

Egypt was especially rich in weirdness. For example, the Egyptians all love animals. In some cities, if a crocodile dies, public mourning is declared and the corpse is mummified and deposited in the temple. Elsewhere they eat them. When a house catches fire in Egypt, says Herodotus, the fire brigade arrives--not to exstinguish the flames. No, they set up a cordon around the house, to try and save the cats, who by any means will jump over the firemen or run between their legs and leap back into the burning building. When this happens, the Egyptians are afflicted with great grief.

Meanwhile up in the Caucasus, the Scythians have a tree that bears these kind of fruits. The Scythians come together and have a party and light a fire. Then they sit around it in a circle and throw the fruits onto the fire, and when they smell the odor that arises from the fruits, they get drunk just like Greeks do on wine, and get up and start dancing and singing. "And," says Herodotus, "this is said to be their daily way of life."

I get the greatest pleasure out of Herodotus' masterpiece, the first recorded shaggy-dog story. In his sixth book, Herodotus talks of an aristocratic family called the Alkmaeonidae, whose fortune was founded on embezzling the Lydian treasury. 

Kleisthenes, then tyrant of Sikyon, had a daughter whom he wanted to marry to the best man in Greece. He announced this at the Olympic Games, where he won the chariot race, and invited anyone who thought he met the standard to show up at his house within sixty days. While prospective sons-in-law began to arrive, Kleisthenes built a running track and a wrestling arena. There came Smindyrides from Italy (noted for his luxury), and also Damasos the son of the philosopher Amyris. And from the mainland, Amphimnestos, and Males the strongest man in Greece, and Leokedes the son of the arrogant tyrant of Argos, and quite a few other of the glitterati, including Hippokleides (an Alkmaeonid) from Athens. 

When they all arrived, Kleisthenes began by asking them their city and parents, and then tested them all with regard to their manly virtues, their character, their education, and their general accomplishments and behavior, both one by one, and in company. The younger ones he took to his gymnasium; but the biggest test was how they behaved at dinner. All this went on for a year, under conditions of lavish entertainment.

By the end of it, Kleisthenes was most inclined to pick Hippokleides. On the day he was due to announce his choice, Kleisthenes threw a giant party, not only for the suitors, but for all the most prominent people of the city. At this final test, there were competitions in polite entertainment, singing and conversation.

Hippokleides outdid all the other suitors in these, and as the drinking went on, he asked the flute player to play a certain tune, and he began to dance. Future father-in-law now began to have doubts. Hippokleides ordered a table to be brought, and began to dance on top of it, now in Spartan style, now in Athenian, and at last, he stood on his head and continued to dance making gestures in the air with his feet.

In those days, all that Greek men wore was a single loose shirt, with no undies on beneath.

When Kleisthenes saw Hippokleides (sorry about these names) kicking away in the air, with parts of him dangling, he could not contain himself and said, "O Hippokleides, you have danced away your marriage."

The young man replied, "No problem for Hippokleides!" and kept on dancing. The phrase became popular all over Greece.

Have a nice day.