The Jests of Hierocles and Philagrius

by anon. (tr. Charles Clinch Bubb)

Rating: ★★★

As a child, I had a big jokebook, one of those that purports to hold some ridiculous number of jokes, though even at the time I could see that lots of them were basically the same gag, scattered throughout the book's many pages so you don't notice. It was perfect idle reading, and perhaps the only kind of reading that was acceptable when you had a friend over, because you could take turns flipping through the book at random and reading out jokes you thought were decent. You couldn't read it any other way, because of course there's no point to reading an endless stream of disconnected jokes, you get habituated to it and even the good ones become boring. Riffing on a specific joke is of course fine in conversation, but this dies naturally within a single digit of iterations, and only a stringing narrative can excuse sustained gag delivery, as all stand-up comics demonstrate. Just reading more than 20 jokes together is an insult to the form.

So, biographical digression done with, here's my reaction to reading 264 ancient Greek jokes one after another with no more refreshment of the palate than my own natural attention lapses can furnish: they were alright, actually.

There were a few that were puns that did not survive translation, and a smaller number that weren't obviously puns but made no sense whatsoever. A bunch were the sort of thing I recognise as being in the genre of humour but never found funny (e.g., a bunch were almost literally 'this person's breath smells so nobody likes him'), but that was as true for my childhood book. More importantly, a decent third or so of the jokes were in some way funny, and a few even made me snort with laughter.

The material is mostly fairly timeless and universal, and it was amusing to see the ancestors of things like the 'Doctor, Doctor' format, but the most interesting bits came when the culture gap was exposed by the joke. Some examples:

"A friend said to a pedant who was going on a journey, 'I wish you to purchase for me two slave boys of fifteen years each.' He replied 'If I do not find such, I shall buy for you one of thirty years.'"

(A thirty-year-old slave is not fungible with two young sex-slaves.)

"A pedant visited his mother by night and being beaten for this by his father, he said 'It is only a short time since you were with my mother and you suffered nothing from me, and now you are angry at finding me once with my mother.'"

(Having sex with your wife was a few-times-a-month thing, boys seem often to sleep with their fathers.)

"A father advised a pedant who had a child born to him of a slave woman to do away with the child. He replied, 'First bury your own children before you advise me to destroy mine.'"

(Not the first to highlight this, but the pedant is the butt of the joke, thinking your bastard slave-child counts as a child is worth mockery.)

"A pedant whilst voyaging asked the helmsman what hour it was. Upon his replying that he did not know, he asked how long a time he had steered the boat. He answered three years. 'How is it,' he asked, 'that I having bought a house six months before, when the sun comes into the courtyard guess at the hour, but you are not able to reckon from the boat having steered it for such a long time?'"

(I wonder how many people now could tell you the time from the sun's location on their property.)

I also liked the foreword's quote from this 1803 review by Sidney Smith, explaining a core element of the bull and wit joke genres:

A bull is an apparent incongruity, and a real incongruity of ideas, suddenly discovered. And if this account of bulls be just, they are (as might have been supposed) the very reverse of wit; for as wit discovers real relations, that are not apparent, bulls admit apparent relations that are not real. The pleasure arising from wit proceeds from our surprise at suddenly discovering two things to be similar, in which we suspected no similarity. The pleasure arising from bulls proceeds from our discovering two things to be dissimilar, in which a resemblance might have been suspected... It is clear that a bull cannot depend on mere incongruity alone; for if a man were to say that he would ride to London upon a cocked hat, or that he would cut his throat with a pound of pickled salmon, this, though completely incongruous, would not be to make bulls, but to talk nonsense. The stronger the apparent connection, and the more complete the real disconnection of the ideas, the greater the surprise and the better the bull. The less apparent, and the more complete the relations established by wit, the higher gratification does it afford.

And also this scathing (and accurate) comment on an earlier translation of some of the jokes:

A few jests were translated in 1741 and published in the Gentleman's Magazine for that year. These have been attributed by Lowndes to Dr. Samuel Johnson, and are to be found in an appendix to this work. They form an interesting Johnson item which many bibliographers have overlooked. Doctor Johnson was a contributor to the magazine at that time and if they were not translated by him, they well might have been, judging from their ponderous and involved style which takes the real point out of the joke.

The collection took a couple of hours to read, mostly because I was typing a few quotes to friends. For the time investment, pays off well enough.