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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

What's so funny?




We mortals are forced, though it may hurt us
to bear the gifts of the gods. For the yoke lies on our necks. – Homeric hymn to Demeter

Herodotus recorded the obscure origin of today’s schoolboy insult: “He tells us that Sesostris, king of Egypt, raised columns in some of the countries that he conquered, on which he caused to be figured the female organ of generation as a mark of contempt for those who had submitted easily,” according to Knight’s discourse on the worship of priapus. But as Knight adds: May not these columns have been intended, if we knew the truth, as protections for the peole of the district in which they stood, and placed in the position where they could most conveniently be seen?”



Speaking of the female organ of generation gets us to the second myth that figures in Vernant’s essay: Death in the Eyes: Gorgo, figure of the Other. I want to place this myth next to Athena throwing away the flute – consider them as two paintings. This is the myth of Ceres and Baubo.

Some background: when Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, was ravished by the God of the underworld, Ceres went wandering about the world in mourning. Thus, she came to the small village of Eleusis. And, as we know from Arnobius, one of the Christian father’s who quoted at length from the Orphic hymns in order to discredit them (thus preserving them – such are the unexpected results of hatred), the scene in Eleusis consisted of some peasant swineheards and huts, in one of which Demeter entered to rest. The old woman in the hut, Baubo, sees that the goddess is in pain. She offers her some spiced wine. Here’s the translation from Arnobius, which seems a bit bowdlerized:

“The goddess in her sorrow turns away from the kindly offered services, and rejects them; nor does her misfortune suffer her to remember what the body always requires.16 Baubo, on the other hand, begs and exhorts her—as is usual in such calamities—not to despise her humanity; Ceres remains utterly immoveable, and tenaciously maintains an invincible austerity. But when this was done several times, and her fixed purpose could not be worn out by any attentions, Baubo changes her plans, and determines to make merry by strange jests her whom she could not win by earnestness. That part of the body by which women both bear children and obtain the name of mothers,16 this she frees from longer neglect: she makes it assume a purer appearance, and become smooth like a child, not yet hard and rough with hair. In this wise she returns16 to the sorrowing goddess; and while trying the common expedients by which it is usual to break the force of grief, and moderate it, she uncovers herself, and baring her groins, displays all the parts which decency hides;16 and then the goddess fixes her eyes upon these,16 and is pleased with the strange form of consolation. Then becoming more cheerful after laughing, she takes and drinks off the drought spurned before, and the indecency of a shameless action forced that which Baubo's modest conduct was long unable to win.”

Now, the question for LI is: why did Demeter find Baubo’s flashing her so funny? Part of the joke that doesn’t come through in the Arnobius account is that Baubo painted the face of a man on her belly. That’s sorta funny. But what is the joke about flashing? Apparently, it is an important one. In Laurie O’Higgins Women and Humor in Classical Greece, there is a whole chapter on cultic obscenity emphasizing all women cults and the apparent ritual of obscene jests and sketches that enlivened reverencing the goddess. Of course, according to O’Higgins, the philosophers were intent on curbing this kind of obscenity – just as Athene throws away her flute, because it makes her cheeks bulge out when she blows into it. Actually, Aristotle reads this as a commentary on the wildness associated with the pipes. O’Higgins points to the festival of the Thesmophoria, a celebration of Demeter in which women in Athens temporarily separated from men, built huts and celebrated the Goddess. Obviously, the Baubo story indicates what the jokes were about. But LI doesn’t understand the joke in the first place. So we will come back to this in another post, and use that most inappropriate of all instruments, reason, to try to take apart the meaning of the joke.

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