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Hermes detail in
“La Primavera” by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

Clown-like characters have been around for thousands of years. Jesters date back at least as far as ancient Egypt. Tracing back the figure of the Jester leads us to the mythological trickster. Tricksters are archetypal characters who appear in the myths of many different cultures. They cross and often break both physical and societal rules, violating principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis. They openly question and mock authority and usually fond of breaking rules and playing tricks on both humans and gods. Hermes plays this role in some Greek myths. He is the messenger of the gods, patron of thieves and the inventor of lying, a gift he passed on to his son Autolycus. The trickster is also unconstrained by form or gender. In Norse mythology,  the trickster Loki is also a shape shifter who could move freely between genders. At one point, he even becomes a mare who later gives birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse .

“Loke” by
Peder Henrik Christian (Kristian) Zahrtmann (1843 – 1917)

In later folklore, the trickster is incarnated as a clever man or creature, who defends himself by using trickery to survive the dangers of the world. For example, typical fairy tales have the king who wants to find the best groom for his daughter through ordering trials. No brave and valiant prince or knight manages to win them, until a simple but clever peasant comes. Instead of fighting, the peasant fools the monsters and villains and dangers and win the hand of the princess.

This leads us to the elusive character of the jester. Early jesters were popular in Ancient Egypt, and entertained Egyptian pharaohs. The ancient Romans also had a tradition of professional jesters called Balatrones who moved freely in the company of the wealthy due to the general amusement they afforded. Perhaps the earliest antecedents of the European court jester were the comic actors of ancient Rome. Several Latin terms used in medieval references to jesters such as scurrae, mimi or histriones originally referred either to amusing hangers-on or to the comic actors and entertainers of Rome. If there was no formal professional jester in Rome, the comic actors fulfilled his functions.

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“Touchtone, the Jester” by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the title minstrel (“little servant”), was the name given to a wide range of entertainers, including singers, musicians, jugglers, tumblers, magicians as well as jesters. Both men and women were employed as minstrels and there is a record of a female jester called Adeline owning land in Hampshire in 1086. In the 12th century, the title of follus or “fool” began to be mentioned in documents, often when these jesters had been rewarded with land as payment for loyal service. A fool named Roland le Pettour was given 30 acres of land by King Henry II when he retired on condition that Roland returned to the royal court every year on Christmas Day to “leap, whistle and fart”.

By the 13th century, some talented jesters were beginning to achieve superstar status. In Europe and India the most eminent jesters were household names, as top-class comedians are today, and stories about their jokes and tricks circulated freely. In India there is even a kind of lentil soup named after Birbal. The star jesters of China may also have enjoyed this celebrity status, as Ban Gu’s biography of Dongfang Shuo suggests that Shuo’s jokes and sallies, his divinations and guesses, shallow and inconsequential though they are, were passed around among the ordinary run of people, and there was no stripling or cowherd who failed to be quite dazzled by them.

An individual court jester in Europe could emerge from a wide range of backgrounds: a university dropout, a monk thrown out of a priory for nun frolics, a jongleur with exceptional verbal or physical dexterity, or the apprentice of a village blacksmith whose fooling amused a passing nobleman. The recruiting of jesters was informal and meritocratic.

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“Landscape with Mandarine Tree”, by
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo  (1727 – 1804)


A dwarf-jester called Nai Teh (Mr. Little) at the court of King Mongkut of Siam (r. 1851-68), described by Anna Leonowens in Anna and the King of Siam, was similarly recruited: He was discovered by one of the King’s half-brothers on a hunting trip into the north and brought to Bangkok to be trained in athletic and gymnastic tricks. When he had learned these, he was presented to the king as a comedian and a buffoon.

Tenali Rama, one of the three superstar jesters of India, is said to have earned his position as jester by making King Krsnadevaraya laugh. According to one story, he contrived for the king’s guru to carry him around on his shoulders within sight of the king. Outraged at the humiliation of his holy man, the king sent some guards out to beat the man riding on the guru’s shoulders. Tenali Rama, smelling impending danger, jumped down and begged forgiveness of the guru, insisting that to make amends he should carry him on his own shoulders. The guru agreed, and when the guards arrived the guru was duly beaten. The king found the trick amusing enough to appoint Tenali Rama his jester.

Of at least equal importance with his entertainer’s cap was the jester’s function as adviser and critic. The jester everywhere employed the same techniques to carry out this delicate role, and it would take a really obtuse king or emperor not to realize what he was driving at. The Chinese records give us an idea of just how effective a jester could be in tempering the ruler’s excesses, as the occasions when his words of warning were either ignored or punished are heavily outnumbered by those when he was listened to and rewarded.

Perhaps the reason for this is that Jesters are generally of inferior social and political status and are not in a position to pose a power threat. They have little to gain by caution and little to lose by candor—apart from liberty, livelihood, and occasionally even life. They are peripheral to the game of politics, and this can reassure a king that their words are unlikely to be geared to their own advancement. The ruler can be isolated from his courtiers and ministers, who might conspire against him. The jester too can be an isolated and peripheral figure somehow detached from the intrigues of the court, and this enables him to act as a kind of confidant.

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” El bufón del rey ” by
Germán Álvarez Algeciras (1848-1912)

The jester could soften the blow of a critical comment in a way that prevented a dignified personage from losing face. Humor is the great defuser of tense situations. Among the Murngin tribe of Australia, it is the duty of the clown to act outrageously if men begin to quarrel. In making them laugh at him, he distracts their attention from their own fight and dispels their aggression

In the medieval period, being the personal jester of a king or nobleman came with a serious health warning; jesters were often required to go to the battlefield with their masters to carry messages between the leaders of warring armies, demanding that a city surrender to a besieging army or delivering terms for the release of hostages. Unfortunately for the jesters, the enemy did sometimes “kill the messenger” as an act of defiance and some used a catapult to hurl the unfortunate messenger, or his severed head, back into his own camp as a graphic illustration of what they thought of the message.

Jesters also had a vital role to play in the battle themselves. In the early Middle Ages their job was to wage psychological warfare, boosting their army’s morale the night before with songs and stories. When the two armies took up their opposing positions in preparation for battle, the jesters would cavort up and down on foot or horseback between them, calming the nerves of their own men by making them laugh at jokes, singing songs and calling out mocking abuse to their enemies in order to hearten their own soldiers and demoralise the opposition. Some even juggled swords or lances in front of the enemy, taunting and baiting them. With any luck, those in the enemy with the hottest tempers will break ranks and charge prematurely to avenge the insult and kill the fool, which would weaken their own defensive position.

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“Grimaldi and Vegetable” by TM Grimshaw (c. 1816)

Modern clowns are strongly associated with the tradition of the circus clown, which developed out of earlier comedic roles in theatre or Varieté shows during the 19th to mid 20th centuries. Many circus clowns have become well known and are a key circus act in their own right. The first mainstream clown role was portrayed by Joseph Grimaldi (1778 – 1837) who also created the traditional whiteface make-up design.

In the early 20th century, with the disappearance of the rustic simpleton or village idiot character of everyday experience, North American circuses developed characters such as the tramp or hobo. Examples include Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp (1914), and Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie based on hobos of the Depression era.  Red Skelton’s Dodo the Clown in The Clown (1953), depicts the circus clown as a tragicomic stock character, “a funny man with a drinking problem”.

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Charlie Chaplin The Tramp debuted in 1914

Now the figure of the clown develops into something a little bit more complicated, The 1980s gave rise to the evil clown character, the attraction of clowns for small children being based in their fundamentally threatening or frightening nature. Batman’s the Joker is an evil clown character. He is known by a number of nicknames, including “the Clown Prince of Crime”, “the Harlequin of Hate”, “the Ace of Knaves”, and “the Jester of Genocide”. How did this happen? Tricksters and jesters may act strange and tell a nasty joke or two, but they were never considered evil and children don’t have nightmares about them. Why is the more colorful and child-friendly clown is so feared?


Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

In recent decades, one of the great advances in the social sciences is the concept of evil as an evoked feature of social situations instead of a disposition of certain individuals. Specific situations were found that people engage in behavior that would be considered “evil,” and there are specific situations that facilitate pro-social behavior in others. 

One of the most important factor that seems to predict anti-social behavior is deindividuation, a state in which one’s identity is hidden. For example, if you are online in an anonymous chat room, you and everyone you come in contact with are deindividuated. If you wear a face covering mask and never reveal your identity, you are deindividuated. Researchers have found that deindividuated individuals are more likely to hurt others, cheat, steal, lie, and even kill under such conditions. Although it was not a requirement of the tricksters and jesters (their “victims” always knew who played the trick on them), deindividuation is one of the hallmarks of clowns. They wear funny outfits, crazy wigs and  full make-up with a fake nose. When one is in their clown outfit, their true identity becomes buried in the minds of anyone observing and their behavior is likely to change. From an evolutionary perspective, we can think of deindividuation as a tool individuals have often used during activities such as warfare. In battles across human history, soldiers have worn all kinds of costumes, uniforms and masks. These take away the individuality of any particular soldier, so they all “benefit” from the effects of deindividuation on social behavior, which leads them to be more OK with killing their enemies. When people are in a state of deindividuation, we can expect them to act at their worst.

“Joker” Study by ROOSDY
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