Friday, February 4, 2011


Alexandre G. Mitchell, Greek Vase-painting and the Origins of Visual Humour. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press,, 2009. Pp. xxiv, 371. ISBN 9780521513708. $95.00.

Reviewed by John Boardman, Oxford University (

Version at BMCR home site

Humour is a serious matter. When we think of Greek humour we think of the stage and Aristophanes, but Greek art offers a yet wider range that literature and the stage. And in a way we judge any community or civilisation as much by any expression it can offer of a real sense of humour as for its more mundane or physical accomplishments.

The author is thorough and I can think of no genre of Greek humour which he has overlooked, and he has been as thorough with the relevant literary evidence as with the representational. The book is very fully illustrated, often with the author's own vectorised drawings in black and white, which allow for distortions due to vase curvature; they look a little old fashioned but are more reliable than most.

He manages his theme mainly by subject, so similar modes of humour (parody, pun, caricature) have to be considered in various contexts: from naughty animals to the behaviour of women, which proves a rich field and reveals the artist as both observant and totally sympathetic to the problems and opportunities of ordinary family life. The gossip, the idlers, the drunkards, are remorselessly observed but not condemned beyond this revelation of their behaviour. This may prove rather an eye-opener to those who believe that the Greek male was either dominant or unsympathetic. Given that there is very little evidence for women as original artists (most likely perhaps in weaving arts) we have to rely on the male for comic commentary on male absurdity.

Foreigners are a special case. Non-Athenians seem not especially distinguished. The negroid is well observed, probably from experience in Egypt and the many foreign visitors to Athens. They have a role in myth – with Memnon and Busiris – but provide the only real example of attempts, usually comic, to represent the non-Greek. Persians are another matter, especially after Marathon, and they are more than once depicted in absurd or degrading situations – a mode that changes as the years pass, and Persian behaviour is selectively adopted at the same time as Persian gold.

Gods and heroes are certainly not immune. Some naturally invite comic treatment, notably Dionysos, as a drunkard and with the common behaviour of his rout of maenads and especially satyrs. The god's return to Olympos raises at least a smile in the viewer; Herakles too, as not quite a god, at times a drunkard and companion of Dionysos, but also given to situations which can easily be turned to comic effect. A special place is awarded to parodies of heroic situations, where an iconographic scheme had been established but can be turned to more common purposes, or the personnel changed. We have to accept that this remarkable people, provided with outstanding artistic representations of their gods and expressions of their religious beliefs, could just as readily tolerate presentations or versions of them which plainly mocked them, behaviour which our less tolerant society pursues in the courts.

Dwarfs have in many societies been regarded as figures of fun. It is clear that in Greece, as in Egypt, they were not, yet the dwarf pygmies who fight the cranes are readily presented as comic figures simply as a result of the incongruity of the encounters.

Degrading deities is probably the least expected of the expressions of Greek humour and barely tolerable in any other ancient culture, yet commonplace on Greek vases though not much practised, I think, in later periods. Pursuits of boys or women are easily guyed. That even Panathenaic amphorae might be parodied is admitted but I am not sure that all the less-than-canonic versions are in fun. An owl dressed as Athena is friendly as well as funny.

Sex is always good for a laugh, and a notable contribution to world views of the matter is the Greek treatment of dildoes, giving them wings (phallos-birds). Grotesque couplings appear too, often admitting satyrs.

Stage comedy might be expected to have a role. The most familiar to us is Attic, Aristophanic, but Attic vases are not a source for comparable illustration, and their art generally tended to shun the strictly contemporary when it came to individual identities, at least until real portraiture became commonplace. There are hints of Aesopian humour but animals playing human roles were commoner in other early cultures than the Greek. We have to turn to South Italy for real theatrical scenes of the comic stage – the Phlyax vases. Athens had its satyr plays, and these inspire some scenes but not a rich repertoire. In Boeotia there are the Kabirion vases, celebrating playlets at the Kabirion sanctuary but also comically demonstrating everyday life. Here we get real parodies of heroic adventures.

Verbal humour in inscriptions is perhaps not to be expected, after all there are few real 'legends' on the vases. But the author thinks so to interpret the placing of a potter signature on a Nikosthenic vase, and there are a few verbal puns like the 'Eurymedon' sexually threatened Persian.

Almost any event in everyday life is capable of a funny expression or interpretation and since this was a good subject for the Attic vase-painter there are many scenes in which there is as much levity as simple reporting of ordinary events – washing, cooking, etc.

In a way this is an excellent example of 'the Greek genius'. No other ancient culture offers so much humour in its arts. Han China comes closest, even with animals; Mesopotamia never, Egypt seldom, the Americas only accidentally, and although the Romans learnt so much from Greece this seems not to have included much by way of a visual sense of humour. In some ways one is reminded of the earlier New Yorker cartoons. It is a facet of the ancient Greeks' character which makes them so well worth studying and not just as an historical exercise, and we should be grateful to Mitchell for reminding us of this and for recording it so thoroughly.


1. Introduction

2. Humour in the City: The World of Men, Women and Animals

3. Humour in the City: Gods, and Myth

4. Satyrs and Comic Parody

5. Caricatures in Athens and at the Kabirion Sanctuary in Boeotia

6. Conclusion: Vases, Humour and Society

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