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And of course there are also ethnic stereotypes that betray the
Greek disregard of anything like political correctness. We’ll probably
never know just why the poor Abderites, Sidonians, and Kymaeans
were legendary for their stupidity, any more than we can explain why
people of Poland or of New Jersey have been singled out in modern
times to be the butt of ethnic jokes.
For the most part, however, the jokes serve to remind us that the
world of ancient Greece, no matter how we may like to compare it
to our own world, was fundamentally different from ours. Take the
culture of the public bath, for example — the great social leveller
where all appeared naked before all (though the sexes were
segregated). On a daily basis, you were exposed to the sight of
human deformities, some of them hideous, some only appalling.
Someone else’s hernia cannot be a pretty thing to behold, but
Philogelos takes it in stride — not ignoring it, of course, but loudly
proclaiming it. And if it occurs on a eunuch, all the better. It fills the
once empty scrotum as if the castrated manhood had been restored
in spades, and, to Philogelos, that’s terribly funny.
Eunuchs, with or without hernias, were a common sight in the
baths. Slaves were sometimes castrated to keep them from sexual
distractions as they served their masters; supposedly, the eunuch
was a more faithful and trusted servant than the normal randy male.
And people sometimes castrated themselves — it was perfectly
acceptable to do so in a religious context, both pagan and Christian,
to “free” the spirit from corruption of the senses. In any event, you
got to see the physical result in the baths, and joke about it to your
heart’s content.
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