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.

Deus Lunus: the Men of the Moon

Due to the influence of the Greek Artemis-Selênê and the Latin Diana-Luna, we generally associate the moon with femininity. Indeed, I have written many articles on different aspects of the moon and, in one article, I have tried to cover both the masculine and feminine aspect of the moon, including its association with rabbits. I have to admit, though, that associating the moon with masculinity is rather challenging. Personally, I’m used to thinking of the moon as feminine and, research-wise, records of moon gods are just a little trickier to put together. However, the idea of concentrating on the masculine side of the moon is intriguing and worth attempting.

The Sun Goddes, Sol, and the Moon God, Mani

Among the Germanic nations the moon is masculine and the sun feminine. It is the daughter of Sôl, the Norse Sun-goddess, who in the regenerated world shall ride on her mother’s track when the gods are dead; and it is the god Mâni, who at Ragnarok, ‘the-Twilight-of-the-gods,’ shall be devoured by the Wolf of darkness, Managarmr, ‘Moon-swallower,’ a reduplication of the terrible wolf Fenrir.

In Egypt, Chons is the personification of the moon, and in this character he is called Chonsaah or Chons the moon. His name seems to mean “the chaser,” or “pursuer”. He is said to be personified as the Unicorn who chases the Lion-sun – I really have to research this further because this sounds awesome. Another Kamic-lunar personage is Thoth, the weighing and measuring god as well as the lord of knowledge and writing. The crescent is found followed by the figure of Thoth in several hieroglyphic legends, with the phonetic name Aah.


Arabian mythology consider the moon masculine, and not feminine – a belief that survives to this day. In Sanskrit the most current names for the moon, such as Kandra, Soma, Indu, Vidhu, are masculine. The names of the moon are frequently used in the sense of month, and these and other names for month retain the same gender.

Yue Lao (“old man under the moon”), is a god of marriage and love in Chinese mythology. He appears at night, and “unites with a silken cord all predestined couples, after which nothing can prevent their union.” He is immortal and is said to live either in the moon or in the underworld.

During the Tang Dynasty, there was a young man named Wei Gu. Once he was passing the city of Songcheng, where he saw an old man leaning on his pack reading a book in the moonlight. Being amazed at it, Wei Gu walked up and asked what he was doing. The old man answered, “I am reading a book of marriage listing for who is going to marry whom. In my pack are red cords for tying the feet of husband and wife.” When Wei Gu and the old man came together to a marketplace, they saw a blind old woman carrying a three-year-old little girl in her arms. The old man said to Wei Gu,” This little girl will be your wife in the future.” Wei Gu thought this was too strange to believe and he ordered his servant to stab the girl with his knife.

Yue Lao

Years later, a high official offered his daughter in marriage to Wei Gu who happily accepted and pleased that he finally found a wife. On the wedding night, he noticed a scar between her eye brows and enquired about it. His new wife told him about an incident where she was stabbed by a man in the City of Song. Wei Gu realized his wife was that little girl whom he tried to kill – perhaps understandably, he never told his wife that he tried to have her murdered.

The cult of the Moon-god Mên in Asia Minor was widely established in Asia Minor. The Augustan History has the Roman emperor Carcalla (r. 198–217) venerate Lunus at Carrhae. This masculine variant of the feminine Latin noun luna (“Moon”), has been taken as a Latinized name for Mēn. The same source records the local opinion that anyone who believes the deity of the moon to be feminine shall always be subject to women, whereas a man who believes that the moon is masculine will dominate his wife.

Bust of Men

Carcalla is also said to have visited the temple of Sin, the Babylonian and Assyrian Moon-god. The expression, ‘From the origin of the god Sin,’ was used by the Assyrians to mark remote antiquity; because as chaos preceded order, so night preceded day, and the enthronement of the moon as the Night-king marks the commencement of the annals of cosmic order.

The Akkadian Moon-god, who corresponds with the Semitic Sin, is Aku, ‘the Seated-father,’ as chief supporter of kosmic order, styled ‘the-Maker-of-brightness,’ En-zuna, ‘the-Lord-of-growth,’ and Idu, the-Measuring-lord,’ the Aïdês of Hesychios. Amongst the Finns Kuu is the male god of the moon,  and exactly corresponds with Aku. It is singular to find also Kua as a moon-name in Central Africa.

Among the Mbocobis of South America, the moon is a man and the sun his wife. Amongst the Mexicans, Metztli, the Moon, was a hero. According to an Australian legend, Mityan, the Moon, was a native cat [male], who fell in love with some one else’s wife, and was driven away to wander ever since. The Khasias of the Himalaya say that the moon [male] falls monthly in love with his mother-in-law, who throws ashes in his face, which explains the spots we see on the moon.


Now on Kindle: “Introduction to Mahabharata: Lessons on Life and Businesses”

Following the successful launch of the online course by the same name, “Introduction to Mahabharata: Lessons on Life and Businesses” is now available in eBook form.

We seldom look at mythology as something that has practical lessons to make our life easier. Yet, it is closer to real life than we imagine. The Five Pandava Brothers of the ancient Hindu Epic Mahabharata represents many facets of ancient and modern lives from imperfections to ideal business leaders.

Martini Fisher introduces a different way to look at the Ancient Epic Indian Literature that is Mahabharata and presents its practical lessons for the modern audience.

3 Ancient Philosophical Reflections on Fame and Reputation: Light Weekend Readings

YANGCHU_YANGCHUThe warring states period of the Chinese Empire (480 to 230 B.C.) embraced practically all of the philosophies of China, and it ran paralleled with the rise of philosophy in Greece under something of a similar condition.

Yang Chu was a philosopher of this classic age, thought to have lived in the 300’s BCE. He has been associated with the Taoists since the rise of official Confucianism and the mutation of what we recognize these days as ‘Taoism’. But, this is not exactly true. Yang Chu, Chuang Tzu, and Lao Tzu are quite different and they were not considered to be members of a single school in ancient times.

Yang Chu is concerned mainly with enjoying life to its fullest, allowing a person’s individual character the fullest expression possible and not interfering with natural processes. It wasn’t Taoism, but it became a part of the Taoist philosophy.


YANGCHU_PIKEMEN.jpgYANG CHU, when travelling in Lu, put up at Meng Sun Yang’s.

Meng asked him: “A man can never be more than a man; why do people still trouble themselves about fame?”

Yang Chu answered: “If they do so their object is to become rich.”

Meng: “But when they have become rich, why do they not stop?”

Yang Chu said: “They aim at getting honours.”

Meng: “Why then do they not stop when they have got them?”

Yang Chu: “On account of their death.”

Meng: “But what can they desire still after their death?”

Yang Chu: “They think of their posterity.”

Meng: “How can their fame be available to their posterity?”

Yang Chu: “For fame’s sake they endure all kinds of bodily hardship and mental pain. They dispose of their glory for the benefit of their clan, and even their fellow-citizens profit by it. How much more so do their descendants!

Meng:   How then can fame be disregarded, and how can fame come of itself?

Yang Chu:  The ignorant, while seeking to maintain fame, sacrifice reality. By doing so they will have to regret that nothing can rescue them from danger and death, and not only learn to know the difference between ease and pleasure and sorrow and grief.


YANG CHU said:

“The world praises Shun-Yu, Duke Chow, and Confucius, and condemns Chieh and Chow. Now Shun had to plough in Ho-yang and to burn tiles in Lei-tse. His four limbs had no rest, and rich food and warm clothing were unknown to him.

“His parents and his kinsfolk did not love him, and his brothers and sisters did not bear him affection.

“In his thirtieth year he was obliged to marry without telling his parents.

“When he received the empire from Yao he was already an old man and his mental powers were declining. His son Shang-Chun having no talents, he left the imperial dignity to Yü. Still he had to toil and slave till he died.

“Of all mortals he was the most pitiable and miserable.

“Kun’s services in regulating the water and earthworks being impracticable, he was put to death on Mount Yu Shan.

“Yü, his son, continued his task, served his enemy, and spent all his energy on the earthworks. When a son was born to him he could not take him in his arms, nor in passing his door did he enter. His whole body became withered, his hands and feet hardened by toil. When Shun yielded the empire to him he still lived in a small house and wore only an elegant sash and a coronet. He also had to toil and slave till he died. Of all mortals he was the most overworked and fatigued.

“When King Yü died Cheng was still of tender age, and Duke Chow became Prince Regent.”

“The Duke of Chow was dissatisfied, and spread evil rumours about Chow throughout the empire. Chow stayed three years in the east, caused his elder brother to be beheaded and his younger to be banished, and nearly lost his own life. Till he died he had to toil and slave.

“Of all mortals, he was the most menaced and terrorised.

“Confucius was well acquainted with the principles of the old emperors. He accepted the invitations of the princes of his time. But a tree was felled over him in Sung and his footprints were wiped out in Wei. In Shang and Chow he came to distress, was assaulted in Chen and Tsai, humiliated by Chi and insulted by Yang-hu.

“Till he died he had to toil and slave.

“Of all mortals he was the most harassed and worried.

“All these four sages, while alive, had not one day’s pleasure, and after their death a reputation lasting many years.

“Yet reputation cannot bring back reality.

“You praise them and they do not know it, and you honour them and they are not aware of it. There is now no distinction between them and a clod of earth.

“Chieh availed himself of the wealth of many generations, and attained to the honour of facing south as king. His wisdom was sufficient to restrain his many subjects, and his power great enough to shake the land within the four seas. He indulged in what was agreeable to his eyes and ears, and fulfilled his heart’s desires. He was gay and merry till death.

“Of all mortals he was the most reckless and dissipated.

“Chow also availed himself of the wealth of many generations, and became King.

“Everything yielded to his will.

“Abandoning himself to his desires through the long night, he indulged in debauchery in his seraglio. Nor did he embitter his life with propriety and righteousness.

“He was merry and gay till he was put to death.

“Of all mortals he was the most licentious and extravagant.

“These two villains while alive took delight in following their own inclination and desires, and after death were called fools and tyrants. Yet reality is nothing that can be given by reputation.

“Ignorant of censure and unconscious of praise, they differed in no respect from the stump of a tree or a clod of earth.

“The four sages, though objects of admiration, were troubled up to their very end, and were equally and alike doomed to die.

“The two villains, though detested and hated by many, remained in high spirits up to the very end, and they too were equally doomed to die.”



“There are four things which do not allow people to rest:

“Long life. Reputation. Rank. Riches.

“Those who have them fear ghosts, fear men, power, and punishment. They are always fugitives. Whether they are killed or live they regulate their lives by externals.

“Those who do not set their destiny at defiance do not desire a long life, and those who are not fond of honour do not desire reputation.

“Those who do not want power desire no rank.

“Those who are not avaricious have no desire for riches.

“Of this sort of men it may be truthfully said that they live in accordance with their nature. In the whole world they have no equal.

“They regulate their life by inward things.

“There is an old proverb which says:

“Without marriage and an official career a man would be free from half of his yearnings.

“If men could do without clothes and food there would be no more kings or subjects.”

From “Wisdom of the East: Yang Chu’s Garden of Pleasures” (London, 1912)


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