Potens Risus: Creation, Destruction and The Ancient Power of Women’s Laughter

On a personal level, I always associate a smile or a laughter with leadership, especially by women. It is a great power to be able to light up our surroundings by a smile.  Laughter just might be the most contagious of all emotional experiences. It is also a full-on collaboration between mind and body as well as one of the most mysterious features we have as human beings, mainly because the little act of laughter has a complicated mechanism behind it and can encompass so many things.

The great men of the past tried to explain it and failed miserably. Herodotus – the upbeat, positive fellow – said that laughter can be distinguished into three types: Those who are innocent of wrongdoing but ignorant of their own vulnerability, those who are mad and those who are overconfident. However, Herodotus has a point as he was convinced that laughter tells the reader something about the future and/or the character of the person laughing. This would have been fine except for the fact that in about 80% of the times when Herodotus speaks about laughter it is followed by a retribution because “men whose laughter deserves report are marked, because laughter connotes scornful disdain, feeling of superiority, and this feeling and the actions which stem from it attract the wrath of the gods”.

   Later, a general theory that explains laughter is called “the relief theory”. Sigmund Freud summarized it in his theory that laughter releases tension and psychic energy which explains why laughter can be used as a coping mechanism when one is upset, angry or sad. The perpetual ray of sunshine Friedrich Nietzche suggested laughter to be a reaction to the sense of existential loneliness and mortality that only humans feel.

   Psychologist Robert Provine’s theory is that, “Laughter is a mechanism everyone has. It is a part of universal human vocabulary. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter in pretty much the same way.” Babies have the ability to laugh before they ever speak. Children who are born blind and deaf still retain the ability to laugh. In other words, when you have nothing else, you will still have the ability to laugh.

   We can continue, of course, to other functions of laughter. It is a highly sophisticated social signaling system which helps people bond and negotiate. It is used as a signal for being part of a group— signaling acceptance and positive interactions with others. Laughter is also contagious, and the laughter of one person can itself provoke laughter from others as a positive feedback. It can also be triggered by embarrassment and other social discomforts which would take a whole lot of other less pleasant research altogether.

File:Farancia erytrogramma (rainbow snake).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

   One Australian aboriginal creation myth believed that, in the beginning, we were all sleeping and dreaming, and the world was silent and empty. The first thing to awake was a rainbow serpent, and she emerged from the ground. She started waking creatures up, one by one, starting with the frogs. Still, she realized that this new world needed water, all of which was contained in the bellies of the frogs. Therefore, the serpent quickly came up with a solution.

   The rainbow serpent tickled the frogs until they all began to laugh. Because they laughed so hard, the frogs began to cough up water. The water flowed, creating plants and awakening many other animals. Any animal who kept the laws the rainbow serpent laid out would become a human, whereas anyone who broke the laws became stones, which we see all over Australia today.

Kookaburra - Simple English Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Another Aboriginal myth says that a long time ago, only the moon and stars lighted the Earth. No one had ever felt the warmth or seen the light of the sun. The spirits who lived in the sky looked down on all the birds and beasts, concerned that the creatures were not happy. One day they decided that the world needed more light. So they collected wood and began to stack higher and higher and higher. When the wood was stacked so high they could no longer see the top, the spirits light a fire.

   “The creatures of the Earth will delight in our light,” the spirits said, “but we must announce its arrival.” The spirits sent a star out into the sky — the first morning star — and instructed it to announce the arrival of the light that would soon warm the world. The star shimmered and sparkled, but few noticed it there in the dimly lighted sky, and when the birds and beasts first saw the light of the great fire, they were so shocked that many of them died of fright.

   The spirits then decided they must need a noise to announce the dawn. Something loud. Something unusual, something startling. They began to consider the creatures one by one. Should the crane be granted the power to wake the world? What sounds could other creatures make that might wake everyone? Perhaps the bandicoot could loudly squeak, or the lorikeet could screech. Maybe the kangaroo could make a sound, or even the platypus. It was very confusing. All the creatures of this Earth were special, but how would they decide who would be granted this honor?

   Then one day, just after the morning star began to shine, the spirits heard a most amazing sound. Kookaburra peered down at the ground and spied a mouse. He launched himself from his perch in the treetops and pounced upon that mouse, and when he had conquered his prey, he began to laugh. It was a sound like no other. When the spirits heard that sound, they knew that Kookaburra must become the world’s morning trumpeter. That very night the spirits visited Kookaburra in his home inside the gum tree. “Kookaburra,” they said, “every day, just as the morning star begins to fade, you will laugh as loudly as you can. It is your laughter that will wake all the sleepers before our fire lights the sky.”

File:Laughing Kookaburra Juvenile Front.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

   Kookaburra realized that he could become a hero. He would be important and respected. So the very next day, just as the morning star began to fade, Kookaburra looked up at the sky and began to laugh. When the spirits heard that sound, they lighted their fire and slowly the Earth below began to glow from the light above. The warmth seeped down slowly, building as the fire blazed higher and higher. The flames leapt higher and burned for many hours. And then the fire began to die until, at long last, only embers remained, and the day grew dim at first, and then darkness came again.

   The spirits gathered the last of the embers in the clouds, and used these to start their fire the next day, just after they heard Kookaburra’s laugh. Many years later, Kookaburra laughed loudly every morning, and every morning the spirits lighted the fire to warm the Earth below. When the Creator brought people into the world, the spirits instructed them to never tease Kookaburra. The elders instructed their children, “If Kookaburra hears you making fun of him, he will never laugh again. Then we will no longer have light or warmth.” So all the people learned, just as the beasts and birds had learned, that Kookaburra must be respected because he saved the light for all.

   In Buddhism, laughter was also an expression of enlightenment. Buddha’s laughter is a state of release from inner tensions into inner harmony. The Buddha’s laughter is said to be  the laughter of compassion, an amusement at the interplay of knowledge and ignorance that makes up the joys and sorrows of life.

   Those who practice yoga understand the deep connection that is shared between mind and body. Laughter is like yoga – it connects our minds and our bodies, forcing us to remain present. Consider the intense sensation of a deep belly laugh. When we feel it, we can think of nothing else.

   Ancient cultures often told stories of women dedicated to the the sensual. Although they are often vilified as witches or sorceresses, a better word for them would have been “wild”. These women represented the fun,  the sensual and the laughter. They were the women who really enjoyed life. In Greek mythology, Baubo, the goddess of mirth, was one of these women. Figurines of Baubo were mass-produced in a number of styles, but the basic figure somehow always exposes the vulva in some way. She was portrayed as a plump woman with her legs held apart, gesturing to her exposed vulva, a naked splay-legged figure holding a harp on the back of a boar, a naked headless torso with the face in the body and the vulva in the chin of the face, or a naked squatting figure with her hands on her genitalia –  our modern day penis jokes may have started from a woman.

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Walter Crane’s “The Fate of Persephone” (1877)

   Baubo made an appearance in the story of Persephone and Demeter. In ancient versions of the story, Hades abducted Kore (later Persephone), dragging her into the underworld, thus sending Demeter into a violent and tearful frenzy as she searches for her child. Demeter was unsuccessful, and in her despair she neglected her work of nurturing the crops and morphs into a crazed woman. While Demeter was in this state, the trees and flowers die. No one was able to console her until Baubo arrived.

   Baubo entertained the nearly-lifeless Demeter, humorously shaking her hips and wiggling her breasts until she saw a little smile on Demeter’s face. Encouraged by this, Baubo began telling a series of bawdy  jokes until Demeter chuckled, giggled and finally gave in to laughter. The laughter revived Demeter and gave her the strength she needed to continue her search for her daughter.

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“Demeter mourning Persephone” by Evelyn de Morgan (1906)

   Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we are trapped in depression. In these cases, a laugh helps, and many of these laughs come when we surround ourselves with a group of female friends. The energy of women together is different than that of men. Although masculine energy is just as necessary as the female energy, there is just something sacred and powerful about women gathering together and laugh. This is something beyond men’s understanding and this may be why we often hear men talking about “gathering of women” in rather peculiar tones – sometimes mocking, suspicious, but often bewildered and wishful. This misunderstanding led to images of scary witches and covens, and the infamous witches’ cackles. It is a secret many men do not understand.

   These gatherings of women still exist to this day. Evidently, it scared some people enough for them to naturally try to control it (to this day, every girl or woman would have heard variations of  “you’d look so much prettier when you smile” from well-meaning older men). Some ancient authors tried to impose rules to laughing for both men and women such as “Don’t laugh too much, neither with many things, nor too loud.” (Epictetus) or “Untimely laughter creates is bad luck for mortals.” (Menander). Some even tried to put a stop to them altogether. Kaffeeklatsch (Kaffee ‘coffee’ + Klatsch ‘gossip’) was an informal event in the early 20th century when German women began gathering in small groups at one another’s houses because they were not welcomed in public coffeehouses. We have more modern versions of this with many names such as “girl talk”, “ladies night” and so on. They were remnants of ancient women’s ritual of being together, talking from the guts, sharing their hearts, laughing themselves silly until they feel alive again to go and share this divine energy with the rest of the world.

Women Sitting On A Couch

   Now we know why in the works of the classical Sanskrit writer Kalidasa (c. 4th – 5th century CE) we hear descriptions of women being invited to the king’s garden to sing, dance, play and laugh. Women’s laughter was an expression of their sense of security and happiness, therefore hearing women’s laughter may have been considered as a sign that the empire was doing well. Legend has it that the laughter of women would make the trees burst into flowers. The sound of women’s laughter was captured on temple walls and borders of Buddhist stupas, creating a ring of positive energy and keeping out the negative. We also know that men tend to like a woman who laughs at his jokes. Indeed, this is a rather often-cited reason for a successful marriage.

   However, women’s laughter could also take on a sinister turn. In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Draupadi laughed when she saw Duryodhana slip and fall into a pool. Duryodhana felt so humiliated that he vowed to retaliate and humiliate Draupadi in public one day, thus triggering the great Kurukhsetra war.

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“Draupadi dragged from her chamber” by Evelyn Paul (1911)

   In the Nath-sampradaya (c. 9th – 12th century CE), a princess called Mainakini of Sinhala-Dvipa once looked up at the sky and saw a male celestial being on a flying chariot. The wind caused his clothes to slip from his waist enabling her to see his genitals from below – Mainakini burst out laughing. Humiliated, the deity cursed her to spend the rest of her life in Triya Rajya, the land of women where she would have no access to men, and therefore no male genitals that would make her laugh. In both stories, women who laugh at men are cursed. This is an often repeated story in mythology. The idea of a woman laughing at a man is seen as the most humiliating act – enough even to justify her abuse. Women can laugh, but not at men.

   If we really believe that women are indeed “the weaker sex”, then perhaps Freud was right in saying that laughter can be used as, among many other things, a coping mechanism. Laughter would have been women’s way of gaining power, because laughter strips the object of laughter of power and gives power to the one who laughs. In patriarchal societies, when a woman laughed at men, therefore, it was like the woman took away the man’s power. The goddess Durga knows this when, in the Devi Purana, she enters the battlefield and laughs at the sight of Mahisha and his asura army.

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Goddess Durga

   When comics make fun of something, their jokes are, in effect, criticisms highlighting a social issue or a family reality. They invite their audience to laugh at the sometimes depressing and ridiculous lives that they live (corrupt politicians, nagging spouses, etc) The ones who laugh would then feel more powerful and better able to cope with life. When they are laughing at someone in particular, the one who is laughed at is usually told to “take a joke” because, although making other people laugh is a good thing, every joke has an underlying psychological violence. A joke can humiliate and humiliation hurts. It is, in fact, widely acknowledged that a mark of a strong man is having a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at himself. Some who could not take it would retaliate and demand a ban on jokes. Anger is amplified especially when the joke was told by a woman. Hence, the common put-downs: women comics are too shrill, too bitter, too vulgar, etc. In short, women are not funny.