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Greek Laughter and TearsAntiquity and After$
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Margaret Alexiou and Douglas Cairns

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781474403795

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474403795.001.0001

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Laughter and Tears in Early Greek Literature

Laughter and Tears in Early Greek Literature

(p.27) 2 Laughter and Tears in Early Greek Literature
Greek Laughter and Tears

Richard Seaford

Edinburgh University Press

This chapter discusses, in a wide range of pre-Hellenistic authors, passages based on the similarity between – or even the indistinguishability of – tears of grief and tears of joy or of laughter. The contexts in which this combination of negative with positive emotion occurs are not random. They often involve a fundamental contradiction, or fundamental transition, pertaining to personal identity (between family and community, death and life, married and unmarried). Several passages of tragedy exploit the combination of negative with positive emotion that occurred in rites of passage (mystic initiation and wedding ritual). But whereas in the actual practice of rites of passage the transition is positive, in tragedy the transition tends to fail, allowing enhancement of the pathos inherent in the ambivalence of tears. The ambivalence is not confined to ritual. Homer and Xenophon are both struck by the resemblance of tears of joy to tears of grief. In two famous passages, in Herodotus and Thucydides, weeping seems to acquire special status by prefiguring eventual military catastrophe.

Keywords:   laughter, tears, joy, grief, rites of passage, mystic initiation, wedding ritual, tragedy, unity of opposites

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