Childish Humor In Greek Mythology

Before I dive in, I'm sorry this one is a bit late! The last few weeks of work have been a bit hectic, so I'm banging this out almost entirely on Labor Day. Apologies again for the delay, and enjoy!

I've loved Greek myths pretty much from the moment I've been able to read them. I'm serious about this; while most kids in elementary school might have been reading any number of young readers books before bed (The Magic Tree House series was another favorite of mine), I was plowing through my copy of D'auleire's Book of Greek Myths over and over until the cover straight up fell off of it. It's a fascination, for both mythology in general and greek mythology in particular, that remains with me to this day, inspiring a lot of both my reading and writing. But, as with most of the works that I'm covering in this series, I soon realized with shock that most people found them less than a joy to read, that they considered the myths boring or difficult. There is, of course, some validity to this. The Greek myths, like all religions, contain more than their fair share of bizarre plot points, overcorrected characters, and downright inscrutable ideas. But I also think that part of this is that we've been conditioned to think of the Greek myths, and Greek heroes in particular, as tragic and serious. These are the people who pretty much invented tragedy, after all, and taking stock of the system's most famous characters - Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus, Theseus, and so many more - is to go down a checklist of truly horrific struggles and saddening fates. As a result, I think that a lot of the humor in the Greek myths slips through the cracks when we read it, something which doesn't just make them harder for audiences to connect with, but that also takes away from the crucial messages that these myths were made to deliver.

No post about humor in Greek mythology would be complete without paying attention to all the bizarre births the myth system makes mention of. And I'm not just talking about the fact that a woman gave birth to a half-man, half-bull creature, that pegasus sprang from the severed neck of Medusa, or that centaurs came into existence because a human somehow managed to impregnate a cloud. The gods, too, have absolutely bonkers births. This is the family, after all, in which the goddess of wisdom, Athena, sprang forth fully-formed from the skull of Zeus after Hephaestus cracked his skull open to investigate the thunderer's pounding headaches, in which Dionysus gestated in Zeus's thigh after the former's mother was killed, and in which Aphrodite was born from the kiss of the sea and the sky and the froth of sea foam. In a very real way, these stories read as any of the possible answers that first graders could imagine to the question "where to babies come from?" On the one hand, you could argue that this has the effect of making the gods as inscrutable to human beings as adults are to children in order to set them unreachably far above mortals, but this argument neglects the most important fact about children: they become adults one day. In actuality (and this will be a theme) this humor has the effect of making the gods more like us. They tell us that, as weird as sex as sometimes is for us, it's just as much so for the gods. Their odd births and conceptions could sit side-by-side with stories of that person you know who gave birth in the taxi on the way to the hospital, or who got pregnant through some bizarre, accidental failure of birth control.

More explicitly sexual humor also abounds in the mythology of the ancient Greeks, of which I'll give two quick little anecdotes. The first is of Phyrne, a prostitute put on trial for impiety, the sentence for which would have been death if she was found guilty. While she was a real person whose real trial likely unfolded in a more traditional way, there is a mythological account of it far more important to this blog post. Depending on whichever teller of the tale you listen to, Phyrne escaped a death sentence by baring her breasts to either her human judges or the gods, who were so entranced by their beauty that they deemed it a crime to destroy something so miraculous and a person so clearly blessed by Aphrodite. The second tale is far more raunchy, and involves Zeus's impregnation of the woman Danaë, mother of the hero Perseus. The story goes that he did so while in the form of a golden rain, which on the one hand is hilarious just on the face of it, the idea that one could get knocked up by standing under a rain shower. However, it also has a much nastier comic meaning, one that children today all over the world repeat today when they run around under rain clouds screaming out "God is peeing on us!" It's as raunchy and dirty as comedy gets, but it's certainly an unavoidable implication of the story. As an added bonus, there's something comical in how often sex is used as a motivator for the plot in ancient Greek mythology. Far more often than not, stories begin with one of the gods (usually Zeus) looking to get laid, and the context, results, and sheer logic of these situations often read as if they're comedies written by a clutch of sixth graders who are just coming to grips with both dirty words and sexuality.

Then, of course, there's a wonderful story that feels as if it's been pulled directly from the imagination of a five-year-old, involving Apollo. The god - along with his twin sister Artemis - was the result of one of Zeus's many dalliances, this one with a daughter of two Titans named Leto. Hera, knowing her husband had sired the children Leto was pregnant with, made sure that ever piece of land in the world denied her refuge to give birth on, until Leto stumbled upon a floating island that had escaped Hera's notice and which only anchored itself to the sea floor once Leto gave birth there. However, for the first portion of his life Apollo was confined to that island and the waters around it, which he naturally tried to escape. On the third day of his life, after having just matured to adulthood, Apollo was exploring the waters around the island in the shape of a dolphin when he witnessed a ship in distress due to a massive storm that had swept over it. Leaping aboard the vessel still in the shape of a dolphin, the nascent god captained the ship until it was safe, at which point he promptly leapt back into the ocean and swam off. In a canon so rife with sadness, this is a wonderfully childish and silly story, one that's perfectly ripe for the minds of children.

So all this humor exists in Greek mythology. What, then, are we supposed to do with that? What greater purpose can the project be said to serve, and what meaning can the humor of it present us with? I think that a lot of this can be found in the difference between the Greek myths and many of the myth systems that came before them. Unlike their predecessors, who had largely envisioned their deities as forces of nature (it's no coincidence that the Egyptian gods, for example, all had the heads of animals), the Greeks conceived of their gods as essentially human, with human foibles and flaws as well as human emotions and motivations. One of the biggest differences in between the human and natural world is that of humor, and the Greeks embraced humor wholeheartedly as a signifier of humanity. This is, after all, the culture that not only pretty much invented the comedic drama (the words satire and satyr bear an obvious similarity for a reason), but also worshipped a goddess named Baubo, a deity of bawdy, irreverent, and profane humor. Humor, for them, went hand in hand with tragedy, the two encompassing the incredibly broad range of human life, both essential to understanding out nature. The humor in their mythology, then, was not just a way to accentuate the essentially human nature of their gods (one that probably led directly to the conception of god descending into human form that currently forms the basis of the world's most dominant religion), it was a way to speak about what it meant to be human, the vast range of experience that conflated humanity and divinity. It was a way to make their gods more human, and thus to remind us that there is in all of us, even sometimes in our most ridiculous and absurd moments, worth respect, something that makes all that ridiculousness and silliness meaningful. Something divine. 

With excitement and optimism,

Alex