On the continuity of laughing at other people’s misfortunes

Some fun with Aristophanes

One fifth-century BC Athenian, the stereotypically uneducated and crude Strepsiades in Aristophanes’ Clouds, has a good laugh at poor Socrates when a gecko poos into his open mouth (Clouds 171-174):


While he was investigating the paths and revolutions of the moon, mouth gaping, looking up, a gecko shat on him from the roof during the night

ζητοῦντος αὐτοῦ τῆς σελήνης τὰς ὁδους
καὶ τὰς περιφοράς, εἶτ᾽ ἄνω κεχηνότος
ἀπὸ τῆς ὀροφῆς νύκτωρ γαλεώτης κατέχεσεν.


I do like a gecko shitting on Socrates
ἥσθην γαλεώτῃ καταχέσαντι Σωκράτους

We know Strepsiades finds this hilarious because he tells us he does, echoing in his response the words used by the Student, and employed a tabooed term for excrement in Greek, chezō/χέζω, ‘shit’. We can reasonably assume that at least some of Aristophanes’ audience might also have lined up with Strepsiades in having a laugh at the philosopher’s expense, whether or not they would have admitted it.

Serious Poo

Lysistrata compares the purging of the city state to combing bits of poo from wool (Aristophanes, Lysistrata 574-5), using one of the many words for different types of animal dung which are recorded – dung with which the everyday inhabitant of the ancient world was much more familiar:

First of all, like washing out a fleece, one must wash the sheep droppings (oispōtē) out of the city in a bath

πρῶτον μὲν ἐχρῆν, ὥσπερ πόκον, ἐν βαλανείῳ
ἐκπλύναντας τὴν οἰσπώτην ἐκ τῆς πόλεως

In contrast to Socrates’ encounter with the gecko, it is important to note that even though this is in Aristophanes, there is likely nothing amusing about the scene: politicians may be being tacitly compared to dried-on sheep poo, but if there is mockery intended here, it’s of Lysistrata’s feminine homespun-wisdom which she tries to apply to the affairs of democratic state.

Amy Coker has a PhD in Classics from the University of Manchester, UK. She taught and held research positions in University-land for the best part of a decade after her PhD, before jumping ship to school teaching (11-18 year olds) in 2018. She still manages to find time to think and write about Ancient Greek offensive words, pragmatics, and historical linguistics. She can be found on Twitter at @AECoker.

A large coprolite (fossilized feces) from South Carolina, USA.

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