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

woman-2534582_1920.jpgThere is an old saying among the women in my family: “strong women laugh”. In my childhood, I would always see my father and my grandfather come home exhausted to be greeted by their wives with  big smiles and some jokes. For years I saw for myself how the men’s faces involuntarily light up, their shoulders relaxed as they slowly turned from the severe, dull people from whom I am always careful to keep my distance to the brilliant men that I recognized again. I’ve also seen the opposite happened when my mother, for example, was not feeling well that day – the mood of family shifted and the whole household lost its sparkle. So, 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 in the past tried to explain it and failed miserably. Herodotus 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 – such an up-beat, positive fellow wasn’t he? But he did have 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. To be honest, I’ve never been much of a fan of Freud and Nietzche. I think it was Jeeves (of P.G Wodehouse’s “Jeeves and Wooster” series which is very funny) who said that Nietzche was “fundamentally unsound”.

I rather prefer Psychologist Robert Provine’s theory, “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 always 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 research altogether, so let’s concentrate on happy laughter for now.


The Creation of the World Started from Laughter

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, intent on shaking things up (she was quite sassy, you see). 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,  they 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.

The Sound of Laughter Lights up the World

peru-336152_1920.jpgAnother 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.”

Kookaburra realized that he could become a hero. He 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, for it is he who saved the light for all.

When a Goddess  Saved the World through Dirty Jokes

Those who practice yoga would understand the deep connection that is shared between mind and body. We try to tap into this connection, clearing our thoughts and strengthening our mind – gently returning ourselves to the present. Laughter is like yoga – it forces 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. They are often vilified as witches or sorceresses. But a better word for them would have been “wild”. These women represented the fun, the sensual and the deep belly laughs. They were the women who really enjoyed life. In Greek mythology, Baubo, the goddess of mirth, was one of these women. Figurines of Baubo  are found in a number of settings, usually with Greek connections. They 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. Isn’t it awesome that our modern day penis jokes may have started from a woman?

Anyway, 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 (incidentally, another flashback of my childhood happens to be my grandmother cheering me up by saying “laugh, darling, or we’ll go crazy”). 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 throaty belly laughs. The laughter revived Demeter and enabled her to continue her search for her daughter.


The Power of Women’s Laughter

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we are trapped in depression. In these cases, a deep belly 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. Of course, we also need masculine energy just as much as we need female energy, but there is just something sacred and powerful about women gathering together and laugh. 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’s a secret many of them do not understand.

These gatherings of women still exist to this day. Evidently, it scared some men 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) 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 weren’t welcome in public coffeehouses. We have more modern versions of this with many names such as “mate date”, “girl talk”, “ladies night” and so on. They were remnants of ancient women’s ritual of being together, talking from the guts, sharing our hearts, laughing ourselves silly until we feel alive again to go and share this energy with the rest of the world.



How Women’s Laughter Could be Dangerous

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 it women’s laughter may have been considered as a sign that the empire is 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.

However, women’s laughter could also take on a sinister turn. In the Indian 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. 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.

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.

If we really believe that women are indeed “the weaker sex”, I suppose Freud was right, then, 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. When a woman laughed at men, therefore, it was like the woman took away the man’s power (no wonder some men found this terrifying). Durga knows this when, in the Devi Purana, she enters the battlefield and laughs at the sight of Mahisha and his asura army.

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 laughs would then feel more powerful and better able to cope with life. When they are laughing at someone, 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 hurt and humiliate. It is, in fact, widely acknowledged that a mark of a strong man is to have a sense of humor and to be able to laugh at himself. Some would not be able to take it – they 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.

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.


Songs of Happiness and Sorrow: The Sad Love Affair of Lady Yang Guifei

I often wish that historians highlight the beauty of events – even if they are sad. Some stories just lend themselves to poetry. The true story of the Lady Yang Guifei and the Emperor Xuanzong of China is one of the great love stories and tragedies of all times, lending inspirations to some of the greatest poets in ancient China, including Li Bo, who wrote “A Song of Pure Happiness”, and  Bo Yuji, with his poem “A Song of Unending Sorrow”. Therefore, in retelling them, it is often better that I step back and let the verses tell the story because, really, how would I even compete with great writers in the ancient world? However, if you prefer the less-romantic retelling of this story, I have written about Yang Guifei as one of the Four Great Beauties of China which you can access here.


“Appreciating feminine charms,
The Han emperor sought a great beauty.
Throughout his empire he searched
For many years without success.
Then a daughter of the Yang family
Matured to womanhood.
Since she was secluded in her chamber,
None outside had seen her.”

Yang Yuhuan, later to become Yang Guifei (713-756 CE), was the daughter of Yang Xuanyan, a census official in Sichuan.  An only child who lost her father early in life, Yang Yuhuan was raised in the household of her uncle, Yang Xuangui. She grew up to be one of the few women whose beauty has caused the downfall of monarchs and nations.

“Yet with such beauty bestowed by fate,
How could she remain unknown!
One day she was chosen
To attend to the emperor.
Glancing back and smiling,
She revealed a hundred charms.
All the powdered ladies of the six palaces
At once seemed dull and colourless.
One cold spring day she was ordered
To bathe in the Huaqing Palace baths.
The warm water slipped down
Her glistening jade-like body.
When her maids helped her rise,
She looked so frail and lovely,
Immediately winning the emperor’s favour.”

In the twenty-second year of the Kaiyuan reign, Yang Yuhuan was chosen to enter the imperial harem. In the twenty-eighth year, the Tang Emperor Xuanzong summoned her to the Huaqing Palace where she first rose to imperial favour.


Her robe is a cloud, her face a flower;  Her balcony, glimmering with the bright spring dew, Is either the tip of earth’s Jade Mountain Or a moon-edged roof of paradise. There’s a perfume stealing moist from a shaft of red blossom, And a mist, through the heart, from the magical Hill of Wu– The palaces of China have never known such beauty– Not even Flying Swallow with all her glittering garments. Lovely now together, his lady and his flowers Lighten for ever the Emperor’s eye, As he listens to the sighing of the far spring wind Where she leans on a railing in the Aloe Pavilion.

Emperor Xuanzong of China had many concubines, but surpassing them all was Lady Yang. “If she but turned her head and smiled, there were cast a hundred spells.” He became absorbed in her to the exclusion of all others, and of affairs of state. “The cloud of her hair, petal of her cheek, gold ripples of her crown when she moved, were sheltered on spring evenings by warm hibiscus-curtains.”

Chogonka_Emaki_by_Kano_SansetsuHer two lovely sisters Guo Guo and Qin Guo were brought to the court and ennobled, her cousin Yang Guozhong was appointed prime minister; her elder brother, Yangxian became an official of the second rank while her younger brother, Yangqi was given an imperial consort as his wife.

Constantly she amused and feasted with him,
Accompanying him on his spring outings,
Spending all the nights with him.
Though many beauties were in the palace,
More than three thousand of them,
All his favours were centered on her.”


There was a general named An Lushan, whom Lady Yang adopted as her son. But in 756 the exiled An Lushan led a revolt against Emperor Xuanzong, driving him from the Tang capital Chang’an.

Emperor Xuanzong fled towards the south- west, taking Yang Guifei with him.

“The emperor’s green-canopied carriage
Was forced to halt,
Having left the west city gate
More than a hundred li.
There was nothing the emperor could do,
At the army’s refusal to proceed.



They had not gone far from the capital when the soldiers refused to go on, demanding the death of Yang Guifei.


The Emperor could not save her, he could only cover his face. And later when he turned to look, the place of blood and tears Was hidden in a yellow dust blown by a cold wind.

Emperor Xuanzong had no choice but to watch Yang Guifei kill herself at the slopes of Mawei village.

“On the seventh day of the Seventh-month, in the Palace of Long Life,
We told each other secretly in the quiet midnight world
That we wished to fly in heaven, two birds with the wings of one,
And to grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”
Earth endures, heaven endures; some time both shall end,
While this unending sorrow goes on and on for ever.

New Release – Time Maps: Matriarchy and the Goddess Culture

book cover 6x9 goddess culture

What happened when women ruled the world?

There are many questions about the Old Culture – a culture even before history was written. Whatever happened to the Great Goddess? When did patriarchy start? How did women become objectified? This book is about the Journey of ancient women with their many glories and challenges. It talks about the gender partitioning which still survived in some cultures today, women as warriors, advisers, goddesses and properties.

Chapters included are:
•The Goddess Paradigm
•Women Warrior
•Dethroning the Queen of Heaven
•The Queen in Exile

Written with a Mathematician’s precision and a Historian’s curiosity, Time Maps covers over millennia worth of developments & impacts of civilizations, migrations, leaders and continents. Illuminating concepts of societies, dynasties, heroes, kings and eras through incisive and thorough research, looking at ideas, theories & world views with a sense of wonder and delight.

Set to publish on 1 January 2018

Now available for pre-order here



Why We are Afraid of Women: The Anima, the Animus and the Great Goddess

“The Life & Age of Woman – Stages of Woman’s Life from the Cradle to the Grave”, a ca. 1849 U.S. print illustrating 11 chronological stages of virtuous womanhood.

The word “feminine” and “feminism”, with its many variations, has become somewhat of a dirty word these days. Young women deny vehemently any suggestion that they are in any way a “feminist”. Some would cautiously say “yes I am a feminist” before quickly adding a qualifier “but I like men” as if not saying that would make them in any way less of a woman. The recently announced actress for the TV Show Dr. Who, the first female to take on the iconic 50+ years character, drew such vitriol online that she had to urge the audience to “not be afraid” of her gender – These are only some mild examples compared to many other situations where an apology, explanation or, at least, an earnest assurance that no harm is being done is required for being a woman.

As with everything else, there are ancient precedents for this distaste for femininity. One source of resistance in Europe stems from the gynophobia of the early Church Fathers of Christianity. The church institutionalized the message that the present position of women in society is better than it has ever been before, and that this is due to Christianity and the church. The institutions of the state concurred in this assessment since it suited them well enough. These views have become entrenched in religion and law, since both the church and state base their powers on the cultural assumption that women are inferior, weaker and dependent, compared with the superior men. However, the reality is that none of these claims has ever been true in the family, the community, religion, or society at large. Aristophanes was aware of this and it is part of the comedy in his play “Lysistrata”, in which the women abstain from sexual relations with their husbands until the men promise to stop making wars and trouble all over the place. It worked for a while but, of course, not completely as planned because most normal healthy women are not saints either.

AMAZONS_EURASIA.jpgAlthough the 19th century Swiss scientist Johann Jakob Bachofen showed that a matrifocal age once existed in Europe, many people still resist this notion. One reason is the, by now culturally embedded, memory of males being the socially dominant and the center of attention. Evidence that this is purely a cultural choice has been interpreted as an attempt to lower the prestige of men in their own eyes, and perhaps reduce their hold on the centers of power. Therefore, it has been strongly resisted.

The nature of the Great Goddess gives us a clue to one of the deepest reasons for the resistance to evidence of matriarchies and other matrifocal cultures. There is no complete list of all the names the goddess has had and still has, but in Europe, the Nile-Oxus Region and North Africa,  she has more than 260 names. She has been called the Triple Goddess, the White Goddess, the Goddess of Creation, the Great Mother, and Goddess of the Sea (the sea represents feelings – deep and untameable). We find that in some cultures with strong traditions of the Sea Goddess a strongly-held belief that marrying the goddess (or at least mating her to a king or a hero) is considered to be the way to “tame” her spirit.

The Great Goddess combines all aspects of the Triple Goddess in one personality – she is nurturing, enchanting and dangerous at the same time. She is both beautiful and terrifying. To have a close encounter with her can be deeply disturbing, even fatal, for a man if he is not guarded and careful. However, women report different reactions, such as reaching a new degree of maturity in their womanhood. They feel empowered, stronger and more certain in who they are and how they can contribute to their society.

goddess -Joy-_sculpture_by_Christine_Baxter_2013The myths and attributes of the White Goddess or Triple Goddess are remarkably similar all over the world, from Ireland to Japan and from Africa to Hawaii. In fact the goddess has all the characteristics of the Jungian Anima. The anima and animus are the two primary anthropomorphic archetypes of the unconscious mind as well as the abstract symbolic sets that formulate the archetype of the Self. Both are described by Jung as elements of his theory of the collective unconscious – that is, a domain of the unconscious that transcends the personal psyche. In the unconscious of a man, this archetype finds expression as a feminine inner personality (anima) and in the unconscious of a woman it is expressed as a masculine inner personality (animus). The anima also influences a man’s interactions with women and his attitudes toward them and vice versa for women and the animus. Jung viewed the anima as being one of the sources of creative ability.

The association of the goddess with the Anima explains many things about her – why she is a source of creativity and destruction, of exaltation and terror; and why most men find it difficult to think about her without becoming emotional, and find it almost impossible to talk sensibly about her at all. This also explains why the prospect of reaching mature womanhood (i.e. being older) is a terrifying prospect for many women. The suppression of the goddess religions, which was often quite irrationally brutal, is also more understandable if one considers it as a reaction by the Animus after a long period of domination by the Anima.

Almost all of the myths of the Great Mother goddess have now been replaced by myths of gods, or, as in the story of Talia, they have been altered so much that the original meaning has been lost. The oldest surviving form of the Snow White story is inseparable from the Sleeping Beauty story. It involves a girl named Talia who is exiled to the forest, gets a poisoned thorn in her finger and goes into a death-like coma. The handsome prince comes along and makes her pregnant. Talia gives birth to two children, a boy and a girl. Of course, this is not the Disney version of the story, but there is another component of the story, now forgotten, that lifts it out of the realm of fairy tales completely – the children’s names were Sun and Moon. Talia was a goddess of creation, and the handsome prince was a god. It is a story of how the universe came into being and Talia is the Great Mother goddess. So, the Great Goddess is not dead as in the stories we read to our children there are still remnants of a tradition that goes back tens of thousands of years.

 “Time Maps: Matriarchy and the Goddess Culture” is coming soon. Meanwhile, other volumes of “Time Maps” can be found through this link.




Titillatio: A Brief Mythology, Ancient History and Philosophy of Tickling


Aristotle defined man as a rational and political animal. But there are also passages in his work that indicate another less remarked upon definition. In Parts of Animals, he writes, “When people are tickled, they quickly burst into laughter, and this is because the motion quickly penetrates to this part, and even though it is only gently warmed, still it produces an independent movement in the intelligence which is recognizable.” He continues to argue that touch is the most primary sense and human beings are uniquely privileged in possessing the sharpest sense of touch because of the delicate nature of their skin. He says that, although other animals have more advanced smell or hearing, a man’s sense of touch is the most fine-tuned. This leads to some of us to think that tickling is a side effect of the hyper-sensitivity of human touch. Thanks to our sophisticated and discriminating access to the world around us, we are particularly vulnerable to tickling.

However, this “privilege” did not last long as many scientific researches have refuted Aristotle’s claim about how tickling could only effect human beings. It has been found that monkeys are ticklish too, and a recorded laughter-like ultrasonic chirping in tickled rats also exists. But, the most famous ticklish animal is the trout as it would fall into a trance-like state when its underbelly is lightly rubbed. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Maria says, while planning to trick Malvolio, “Lie thou there; for here comes the trout that must be caught with tickling.”

Neuroscientist Robert Provine posed a rather elaborate speculation which links tickling with both humorous laughter and the prehistoric birth of comedy. He writes, “I forge recklessly into the paleohumorology fray, proposing my candidate for the most ancient joke—the feigned tickle (Real tickling is disqualified because of its reflexive nature). The ‘I’m going to get you’ game of the threatened tickle is practiced by human beings worldwide and is the only joke that can be told equally well to a baby human and a chimpanzee. Both babies and chimps ‘get’ this joke and laugh exuberantly.” His argument is that proper ticklish laughter is not actually funny because it is too much of an automatic or neurological reaction. To make tickling funny, it needs to be distanced from reflex. It is the suspended gesture that gets a laugh – the real gesture might get one slapped. Therefore, a child will wriggle and squirmed when tickled, but they will actually laugh only if they perceive the tickling as a mock attack, a caress in a mildly aggressive and irritating disguise.

The ambivalence of tickling, a delight that can quickly become excruciating, would seem particularly well suited to describe the concept of pleasure-in-pain that so fascinated thinkers from Plato, Nietzsche, Freud etc. They agree that tickling serves as an alternate way of thinking about pleasure,  as titillation and excitation. Nietzsche put it, “What is the best life? To be tickled to death.” – I hope someone would do a research on whether this man was ever tickled in his life. However, he is not wrong about this. Foot tickling for sexual arousal was used in the Muscovite palaces and courts for centuries. Many of the Czarinas (Catherine the Great, Anna Ivanovna, Elizabeth and others) were participants of this activity. The practice was so popular that eunuchs and women were employed as full time foot ticklers. They developed this skill so well that their occupations brought prestige and good pay. Anna Leopoldovna had at least six ticklers at her feet. While the ticklers performed their task, they also told bawdy stories and sang obscene ballads. This was done to work the ladies up to an erotic pitch so that they could meet their husbands or lovers in a sex impassioned mood.

But can one actually die from tickling? Yes. When children enthusiastically tickle one another, it serves the double purpose of inspiring peer bonding and honing reflexes and self-defense skills. In 1984, psychiatrist Donald Black noted that many ticklish parts of the body, such as the neck and the ribs, are also the most vulnerable in combat. He inferred that children learn to protect those parts during tickle fights, a relatively safe activity. However, the tickling itself can be torture enough. Tickle torture can be an extended act of tickling where the recipient of the tickling would view it as a long time or tickling of an intense nature. This can be due to the length of time they are tickled, the intensity of the tickling or the areas that are being tickled. This can simply be a 30-second tickle applied to the victim’s bare feet, which can seem like a much longer time if the feet are very ticklish.

Mythology is littered with spirits who uses tickling as a torture device. In Inuit mythology, Mahaha is a maniacal demon that terrorized parts of the arctic. This creature is described as a thin sinewy being, ice blue in colour and cold to the touch. His eyes are white and they peer through the long stringy hair that hangs in his face. This demon is always smiling and giggling – taking pleasure in tickling its victims to death with sharp vicious nails attached to its long bony fingers. All of its victim have a similar expression on their dead faces – a twisted frozen smile.

Leshy – Imagine being tickled by him!

A Leshy is a spirit of the Slavic forests. They serve as the protectors of the various forests and its animals, having a close bond with gray wolves and often being accompanied by bears. They naturally are the form of a large human-looking being, but can shape-shift into any plant or animal. They have long hair and beards made of living grass and vines. In the center of a forest, they are a tree-like giant, who camouflage nicely with their long limbs, grassy eyebrows, and no detectable shadows.  A leshy has the ability to imitate voices of people familiar to wanderers.They will cry out and get their victims to wander deeper into forests or caves. Being tickled to death by a Leshy has been known to happen. This is most likely because they don’t know when “fun” is enough and wind up accidentally killing their victims.

Of course, if something exists in mythology, it would also exist, up to a point, in history. Chinese tickle torture is an ancient form of torture practiced by the Chinese, in particular the courts of the Han Dynasty. Chinese tickle torture was a punishment for nobility since it left no marks and a victim could recover relatively easily and quickly. In ancient Japan, those in positions of authority could administer punishments to those convicted of crimes that were beyond the criminal code. This was called shikei, which translates as ‘private punishment.’ One such torture was kusuguri-zeme: “merciless tickling.” Dutch physiologist Joost Meerloo recounts an especially cruel tickle torture employed by the ancient Romans. On the scaffold, the soles of a victim’s feet were covered with a salt solution so that a goat, attracted by the salt, would lick it off with his rough tongue and continually tickle the skin. By so doing, the salty skin was gradually rasped away. Then, the wounded skin would again be covered with the biting salt solution—ad infinitum, till the victim died from the torture.

In Laurent Joubert’s Renaissance treatise on laughter, he reports hearing “of a young man whom two girls were tickling importunately to the point that he no longer uttered a word. They thought he had fainted until, thunderstruck, they realized he was dead, asphyxiated.” A news item in Illustrated Police News, 11 December 1869, recounts the story of a young wife whose husband, his name was Michael Puckridge, claimed that he had a cure for her varicose veins. After he persuaded her to allow herself to be tied to a plank, she found that her husband had instead devised a plan to tickle her into insanity. The plan worked as she was institutionalized as a result of her husband’s diabolical featherwork.

Unravelling Ancient Myths and Legends FREE Ebook

anniversary_ebook_coversideI am very happy to be able to contribute a chapter for Ancient Origins‘ 4 Year Anniversary Ebook, “Unravelling Ancient Myths & Legends” on the lives and symbolism of the kitchen gods in Asian mythology.

“To mark the occasion of our 4 Year Anniversary, Ancient Origins has released our biggest ebook yet – titled “Unravelling Ancient Myths & Legends”. The ebook is a compilation of fascinating articles written exclusively for Ancient Origins which explores the unique history of myths and the familiar legends you THOUGHT you knew. Contributors include guest authors: Carl Johan Calleman, Petros Koutoupis, Armando Mei, Martini Fisher, Brien Foerster, Leonide Martin, Ken Jeremiah, Vincent Ongkowidjojo, Gary A. David, Dustin Naef, Adrienne Mayor, Chris ‘Mogg’ Morgan, Charles Christian and Hugh Newman.”

To get your free copy, please follow this link:

Ancient Origins’ 4 Year Anniversary Ebook: Unravelling Ancient Myths and Legends

Happy anniversary, Ancient Origins. Here’s to many more!



Ancient Valentine: She-Wolf, Politics and Whipping

lupercales-museo-del-pradoRomantics beware: I’m going to ruin your Valentine’s Day. Nah, I’m just kidding. We know Valentine’s Day as a time to celebrate love, romance and cupcakes, but the origins of this day is definitely ancient, likely involved nude people and quite political, because, well, it was ancient Rome.

This holiday that evolved to what we know as Valentine’s Day today was a very ancient pre-Roman pastoral festival to avert evil spirits and purify the city. According to Plutarch, from February 13 to 15, romantic Roman fellows stripped naked, grabbed some goat-skin whips and whipped consenting young maidens in hopes of increasing their fertility.

statue-of-faune-pompeiThis festival was Lupercalia, said to be connected to the ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia and the worship of Lycaean Pan, the Greek equivalent to the Roman god Faunus. The Greek word λύκος (lukos) means “wolf”, so does the Latin word lupus. In Roman mythology, Lupercus was a hunter of wolves associated with the Roman god Faunus, the god of agriculture and fertility. Lupercalia was a festival held in his honor to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of his temple.

However, Lupercus was only a part of the celebration. The Lupercalia festival was best known as a celebration in honor of Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, which explains the name of the festival, Lupercalia (“Wolf Festival”). According to tradition, the legendary twin brothers Romulus and Remus established the Lupercalia with 2 gentes, one for each brother. Each gens then contributed members to the priestly college that performed the ceremonies, with Jupiter’s priest in charge from at least the time of Emperor Augustus. The priestly college was called the Sodales Luperci and the priests were known as Luperci (“brothers of the wolf”).

The Luperci were divided into two collegia, called Quinctiliani (or Quinctiales) and Fabiani, from the gens Quinctilii, representing Romulus and gens Fabii, representing Remus. The Fabii were almost annihilated in 479 CE at Cremera and the most famous member of the Quinctilii has the distinction of being the Roman leader at the disastrous battle at Teutoberg Forest. In 44 BC, a third college, the Julii, was instituted in honor of Julius Caesar, the first magister of which was Mark Antony. Antony offered Caesar a crown during the festival – an act that was widely interpreted as a sign that Caesar aspired to make himself king and was gauging the reaction of the crowd.

Etymologically, Luperci, Lupercalia, and Lupercal all relate to the Latin for ‘wolf’ lupus, as do various Latin words connected with brothels. The Latin for she-wolf was also slang for prostitute.

The festival began with the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog. Then two young patrician Luperci were led to the altar, to be anointed on their foreheads with the sacrificial blood, which was wiped off the bloody knife with wool soaked in milk.

lupa-romulus-remusThe sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs from the skins of the animals, which were called februa, dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats and ran round the walls of the old Palatine city, the line of which was marked with stones, with the thongs in their hands in two bands, striking the people who crowded near. Girls and young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from these whips to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ease the pains of childbirth.

Striking women is thought to have been a fertility measure, but there was also a decided sexual component.  Symbolically, if the act was to ensure fertility, it could be that the striking of the women was also to represent penetration. Of course, the husbands would not have wanted the Luperci actually copulating with their wives, but symbolic penetration, broken skin, made by a piece of a fertility symbol (goat), could be effective. The women may have bared their backs to the thongs from the festival’s inception. After 276 BC., young married women (matronae) were encouraged to bare their bodies. In his time, Augustus ruled out beardless young men from serving as Luperci because of their irresistibility, even though they were probably no longer naked.

lupercali-beccafumiThe cavorting Sodales Luperci performed an annual purification of the city in the month for purification – February. Since early in Roman history March was the start of the New Year, the period of February was a time to get rid of the old and prepare for the new.

By the second century CE, some of the elements of sexuality had been removed from the Lupercalia. Fully dressed matrons stretched out their hands, instead of baring their backs, to be whipped. Later, the representations show women humiliated by flagellation at the hands of men fully dressed and no longer running about. Self-flagellation was part of the rites of Cybele on the ‘day of blood’ dies sanguinis (March 16).

It’s this blend of fun, fertility, and erotic elements, as well as the date, that ties Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day, but Lupercalia is not the direct, legitimate ancestor of the Valentine’s Day holiday. However, the ancient Romans may also be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on February 14 of different years in the 3rd century CE. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day. Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. But that didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love. Coincidentally, around the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatin’s Day. Galatin meant “lover of women.” This was likely confused with St. Valentine’s Day at some point, in part because they sound similar.