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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

William Hayes Ward (1835–1916)

Introduction: The Humor of the East

THE OLDEST literature of the world that has come down to us was said or sung on the banks of the Nile and the Euphrates; but it is not large and varied, like that of Greece and Rome. For Egypt we have chiefly the “Book of the Dead,” very imperfect records of conquests, a story or two, and a collection of moral sayings; but all these are generally of a very serious vein. Yet the ancient Egyptians did not lack humor, as is abundantly shown in their caricatures. That there were stories of the Brer Rabbit sort current more than a thousand years B.C., we know from an Egyptian papyrus, which shows us a cat pompously carrying a shepherd’s crook and driving a flock of geese; then a fox carries a satchel by a stick over his shoulder, after which comes a second fox as guardian. Facing the procession is a lion, as if the animals were in some way presented to the king of beasts, as in the stories of Reineke Fuchs. All sorts of odd contortions of dancers and wrestlers are depicted on the monuments, and even the more serious figures, such as the cynocephalus and the extravagantly squat god Bes, are distinctly grotesque.

In the art and literature of the Babylonians and Assyrians it would be difficult to find a single element of the amusing. They seem to have been a very serious people. To be sure, their records, so far as they are not mere business documents, are chiefly historical or religious, which do not cultivate humor. There may be a bit of it, although it is more bitterness than banter, in the abuse which Gilgamesh throws at the great goddess Ishtar for her behavior to her lovers, the god Tammuz, the lion, the horse, and the eagle, each of whom she had treated with extremest cruelty. The artists and the historians thought it more honor to tell and show how the king impaled conquered princes and gouged out the eyes of kings, like Zedekiah of Judah, than to waste their time and their reeds with vapid jokes.

The Hebrews were not without a sense of humor. They made riddles, and Samson’s riddle cost the Philistines the lives of thirty men of war. They made his wife cajole him into telling her the answer, and then he said:

  • “If ye had not plowed with my heifer,
  • Ye had not found out my riddle.”
  • Hardly can a finer piece of sarcasm be found than that by which Jotham taunts the men who had chosen the worthless Abimelech to be their prince; and equally taunting is the brilliant attack of Isaiah on the worshipers of idols:

  • “He planteth an ash, and the rain doth nourish it. Then shall it be for a man to burn: for he will take thereof, and warm himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread; yea, he maketh a god, and worshipeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto. He burneth part thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied: yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire’: and the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image: he falleth down unto it, and worshipeth it, and prayeth unto it, and saith, ‘Deliver me; for thou art my god.’”
  • The later Hebrew writers in their immense rabbinic literature freely added the touch of humor to their expositions. A midrash on Ecclesiastes tells how a man saw a heron bring a branch and lay it on a dead bird, which immediately came to life. He said, “That is fine; with it I will revive all the dead of Israel.” He started with the branch from Babylon for Palestine. On the way he saw a dead fox, and laid the branch on it. The fox came to life and ran away. Farther on he saw a dead lion on the plain, and he laid the branch on him. He, too, revived, but instead of running away, he ate the man up. The tale is serious, and intended to teach the same lesson that we have in the Garden of Eden, that the tree of life, which gives immortality, is not for man, only for the gods; but the Genesis story is very serious, while this is also amusing.

    If time has strained out nearly all the floating trifles of the perishable literature of papyrus and clay tablets, it has left us the lighter fancies of Arab and Persian and Turkish poetry and prose. The very framework of the “Thousand and One Nights” is amusing, the story left half told each night to save the teller’s life; and surprise and amusement are in half the tales. It was terrible to the poor fisherman when the genie burst from the opened jar, but it is amusing to the reader. It was wearisome to Sindbad, the sailor, to carry the Old Man of the Sea on his shoulders, but Sindbad himself said it made him laugh to tell it. One cannot but laugh at the wicked brother who could not remember to say “Open Sesame.” So the sense of the strange and bizarre seems to run through Arabic story and verse, as it does through the Turkish; and the many tales of Nasir-ed-Din, half wise and half fool, have made generations of Turks merry. The Greek Scholastikos, butt of classic jokes, is matched to-day by the Turk who refused to lend his donkey to a neighbor, declaring that it had been sent to a distant village; and who, when the donkey then brayed behind the partition, and the neighbor reproached him for his lie, indignantly berated the man who would take the word of an ass against that of a pious Moslem.

    But it is among the Persians that we find sentiment mated with wit, till in Omar Khayyam we seem to meet another Lucian, in a sort of Buddhist reincarnation, a glib and impartial mocker of creeds. As gay as the old Greek is he, standing aside to watch amused the game of life, and enjoy it, no more like the zealot of the Koran than Lucian was like the grave and stupidly good Marcus Aurelius, who seemed to say nothing but “Abstine et sustine”—Abstain and endure.

    The mention of incarnation carries us to that other and greater land of the farther East to which, by our race and language, we have a nearer relation—the land of Brahma and Buddha. We can find the origin of more than one of the merry tales of Boccaccio and Chaucer in the six hundred jatakas, wherein Buddha tells the stories of his many incarnations. One of the shrewdest of the stories told on the road to Canterbury, the Pardoner’s Tale of the three robbers who killed each other to possess the treasure, is given much more elaborately in one of the jatakas. But the trouble with these stories is that we are never quite sure whether they are told with a twinkle or in solemn earnest, so close is a smile to the gravity of a Buddhist adage. We may believe, however, that what seems ludicrous to us in the action of monkeys playing as men, did not quite lack humor in the language of those who talked Sanskrit or Pali. The disciples who listened as their master told of the foolish carpenter who smote a mosquito on his father’s bald pate with an ax, must have responded with a smile even though it was a parable to teach the lesson that a foolish friend is worse than a wise enemy. So when they were instructed about the man who earned fabulous wealth in four months out of the profits of the sale of a dead mouse, or about the Mahadeva who, after reigning 252,000 years, and yet having 84,000 years to live, went into pious retirement because he had found the first gray hair in his head; or of the crows who in their anger tried to drink up the sea; or the crane who cozened the fishes by the promise to take them to a larger pool, but was himself cozened and choked to death by a crab; or the monkeys set to water a garden, who pulled up the plants to see if the roots were wet—we may be confident that a hearty laugh went around the circle. Some people warn us that while our Gospels tell us that Jesus wept, they never say that he smiled. We may doubt it, for he took pains to put his opponents in a laughable position; but surely the great Buddha kept his disciples in good humor as he preached to them the suppression of all passions. Religion is no foe to humor. Clergymen are famous for their funny stories. When two young schoolmates of very different temper went as missionaries, early in the last century, to Turkey, one of them wrote from Smyrna to the other at Constantinople, “Dear Brother Goodell, you laugh too much!” The answer came back equally brief, “Dear brother, you cry too much!” And it was the one who laughed who lived for sixty years of most useful service. We may raise the question whether the Buddha’s long life was not preserved by his mirth.

    Even the noblest hymns of the “Rig-Veda,” repeated in solemn worship, had their touch of humor, although it must be admitted that some serious German scholars stoutly deny the smile. Take a few stanzas from the “Hymn of the Frogs,” for the opening of the rainy season:

  • “When the first shower of the rainy season
  • Has fallen on them, parched with thirst and longing,
  • In glee each wet and dripping frog jumps upward;
  • The green one and the speckled join their voices.
  • “They shout aloud like Brahmans drunk with soma,
  • When they perform their annual devotions:
  • Like priests at service sweating o’er the kettle,
  • They issue forth; not one remains in hiding.
  • “The frogs that bleat like goats, that low like cattle,
  • The green one and the speckled give us riches;
  • Whole herds of cows may they bestow upon us,
  • And grant us length of days through sacrificing.”
  • The Sanskrit wit gives itself free scope, however, in the drama, for the drama seems everywhere to have its origin in buffoonery. Every drama has a regular buffoon, who, curiously enough, is always a Brahman. His part reminds one a little of the Gracioso in the Spanish drama, but that is a large subject, to which reference can only be made here.

    So it is in the drama that the Chinese and Japanese literature delights in displaying the grotesqueries in life with which we are so familiar in their art. In Japan, the Buddhist religion has to a considerable degree given direction to their humor, as illustrated in the story, a favorite with Buddhist preachers, of the two frogs, one of which left Tokyo to see the world at the same time that a second left Kyoto on the same errand. They met on the summit of a high hill, and each rested his forefeet on a high stone, and fronted toward the city from which the other had come. “It is no different,” they each said, “from home;” and they turned back by the road from which they had come, forgetting that as their eyes were in the back of their heads each had seen only his own city.

    Let this brief and most imperfect introduction to the wit and humor of the world’s most ancient history and most populous races, from which all literature as well as all religion and culture had its origin, conclude with the wit and wisdom of an Arabian adage:

  • “Man is four:
  • He who knows not, and knows not he knows not—
  • He is a fool; shun him.
  • He who knows not, and knows he knows not—
  • He is simple; teach him.
  • He who knows, and knows not he knows—
  • He is asleep; awaken him.
  • He who knows, and knows he knows—
  • He is wise; follow him.”