Religion and humour

Part of the function of humour is to subvert the accepted order of things. Whenever an individual or a group take themselves too seriously, humour — especially satire — cut them down to size. For example, humour was really important for subverting the Puritan hegemony in 17th century England.

In ancient paganism, there were feasts and processions which inverted the accepted order. Men wore large fish-shaped penises in one ancient Greek procession. The Roman festival of Saturnalia had an element of misrule, and masters were expected to serve their slaves for one day. This was a sort of safety-valve to let off steam and prevent revolution.

In the Middle Ages, the whole 12 days of Christmas were given over to feasting and merriment, and a Lord of Misrule was chosen at random. In Northern France, there was a church service at Christmas dedicated to the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem, and everyone brayed like donkeys as part of the liturgy. Churches elected boy bishops to perform a similar function to the Lord of Misrule. As with the ancient custom of Saturnalia, this temporary inversion acted to relieve societal tensions.

Kings kept a fool because they needed one person who would tell them what they actually thought, instead of sucking up to them and telling them what they thought they wanted to hear.

I would not join any religion that couldn’t laugh at itself. In the Wiccan text The Charge of the Goddess, written by Doreen Valiente, it says, “Therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you”. I think the inclusion of mirth in this list of virtues is really important.

It is quite noticeable that liberal religions spend a lot of time laughing at themselves. I used to have a book of Jewish jokes, written by Jews, and they were brilliant. If you visit any Unitarian Universalist church website, they pretty much all have a UU jokes page. Pagans are no exception – search for Pagan humour and you will find a lot of it. I would even go so far as to say that the sign that a religion is liberal is its ability to laugh at itself.

Pagan mythologies were probably intended to include humour. One use of humour that springs to mind is the story of Baubo, who found Demeter weeping and wailing for her lost daughter Persephone, and by dancing lewdly and making fun, got Demeter out of her depression and got her to do something.

The novelist Tom Holt has suggested that what Prometheus stole from the gods was not fire, but humour. In his novel Ye Gods, there are many parallel worlds, some where humour has been discovered, and some where it hasn’t. In the worlds where there is no humour, the people are oppressed and miserable.

I actually think that religions that are sex-positive, inclusive, don’t take texts literally, and can laugh at themselves, are a different kind of thing than the religions that don’t. This is especially true of Paganism with its esoteric components of initiation and magic, and its celebration of the body and the erotic. But the main point here is that you cannot be completely oppressed if you have the weapon of satire at your disposal.

The belly-laugh and the orgasm both involve loss of control, release into Dionysiac pleasure and union with the Divine – something that the more legalistic religions actually seek to prevent. That is perhaps why Baubo is both sexual and funny, because she represents the Dionysiac side of life.

6 thoughts on “Religion and humour

  1. Sacred comedy is seen in American Indigenous religions as well. Pueblo clowns, who take the role when donning the mask of a clown kachina, act as fools, shock agents, and satirists in some Hopi rituals.

    The Lakota also have a role of sacred clown, called a heyoka. The details are far too complex to write down here, but I found it absolutely fascinating. In John Fire Lame Deer’s book “Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions” he discusses what it means to be heyoka. There are online resources as well, but I recommend his book, as it’s wonderful.


  2. Yes, I am sure that there is a role for humour in native American religion.

    John Fire Lame Deer (1903 – 1976) was a genuine heyoka, according to the Wikipedia entry on him, at least.

    However, his son, Archie Fire Lame Deer appears to be peddling a non-authentic version of Native American traditions; for instance, he has created a “Native American Tarot deck”.

    The reasons that this kind of thing is deeply problematic are explored in my earlier post on cultural appropriation.

    Also beware of Harley “Swift Deer” Reagan, who is not genuine.


  3. “I would not join any religion that couldn’t laugh at itself. ”

    I look forward to the day when the Unitarian Universalist “religion” will loudly and publicly laugh at itself for falsely accusing me of the archaic crime of blasphemous libel on the unfounded basis that I have made “unfounded and vicious allegations to the effect that ministers of the Association engage in such despicable crimes as pedophilia and rape.”

    Now *that*’s a U*U joke if ever there was one. . .


    • The text of that letter speaks for itself, Robin. I have nothing more to add.

      “Blasphemous libel” is an odd choice — but sexually harassing ministers goes way beyond your original brief of complaining about your treatment by one particular church.


  4. While I agree with all that you’ve said, there’s a common misunderstanding of the term “satire” when it comes to certain European cultures, e.g. the Irish culture and the function of the fili and the satirist. They were not there just to make fun of people who had done wrong; they were there to literally poison their existence, to make the universe reject the person whose actions were dishonorable. Yes, laughter at such people is useful and important, but it was also deeply upsetting and disturbing to the cosmic cohesion of reality to have such dishonorable individuals loose in the world, and thus their social as well as metaphysical death was a necessity, unless they corrected their mistakes. A “bardic” satire was not the equivalent of Stephen Colbert or Bill Maher; it was the equivalent of George Carlin plus Darth Vader’s ability to choke someone from three ships over.

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  5. > A “bardic” satire was not the equivalent of Stephen Colbert or Bill Maher; it was the equivalent of George Carlin plus Darth Vader’s ability to choke someone from three ships over.

    Now that’s an evocative image…


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