Laughing Gods, Weeping Virgins: Laughter in the History of Religion

Article excerpt

Laughing Gods, Weeping Virgins: Laughter in the History of Religion. By Ingvild Salid Gilhus. New York: Routledge, 1998. vii + 173 pp. $69.95 (cloth).

Religious traditions address the universal human impulse to laughter on a spectrum from inclusion to exclusion; consequently, they provide us with a wide range of images, from the belly-laughing Dalai Lama to the unsmiling, stoic monk. In this intriguing study, Gilhus examines laughter as "a cultural product and an historical subject, connected to the human body as a symbol" (p. 6). As a symbolic cultural construction expressed in myth and ritual, laughter can be life-giving or destructive. As an eruptive, bodily force, it can be controlled or exploited. As a manifestation of the divine-human relationship, it is a prime indicator of power and control.

Gilhus focuses on three overarching social-scientific models ("superiority," "incongruity," and "relief") and three Western cultural periods (her "dominant interpretive contexts") in analyzing laughter as it is inscribed in religious discourse, myths, rituals and festivals. Put simply, the Ancient Near East and Classical Greek world embraced cosmic laughter; the Hellenistic and Western Christian world fluctuated between contempt for bodily loss of control and a "laughter culture" manifest in religious theater and medieval carnivals; and the modern world has come to associate laughter with human rationality and thereby with health, happiness and knowledge. …