Soon, April Fool's Day will be upon us, and everybody will be covering your stapler in glue. When it comes to prankster holiday sin, though, our modern version pales a little compared with some of the others produced throughout history. Humans, it seems, have always enjoyed playing jokes on one another, though perhaps it's a blessing that April 1 doesn't necessarily involve showing your genitals to people from a river boat.
Some historical figures were particularly prone to pranks, though it's not entirely clear that they were sane at the time. Dr. Samuel Collins, writing in 1671, wrote of Ivan the Terrible that he had a strange sense of humor: apparently he once tried to get his servants to fill a hat with fleas, and after seeing women laugh at one of his pranks at a festival, he demanded that they be stripped naked and then threw huge bowls of peas at them. The problem with a leader who's inclined to pranks is that you rather have to laugh along with them; Henry VIII apparently surprised his first wife Katherine of Aragon by jumping into her room dressed as Robin Hood, and was so astonished when she was terrified and confused that he threw her a giant party to say sorry. What he would have made of April Fools Day doesn't bear thinking about. Lots of sinister jokes about imminent beheadings, probably.
Here's a brief history of mischievous holidays.
Lewd Dancing & Pranks For A Cat Goddess
The ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet is largely remembered for being represented by a cat, and for the Egyptian reverence for cats that led them to mummify them regularly. The festival devoted to her, however, seems to be an example of some very feline behavior, if you count "flashing your genitalia" as intensely cat-like. (Everybody who's ever owned a cat will back me up on that one.)
The festival of Bastet, it's reported, often involved extensive processions down the Nile on boats towards her shrine at Bubastis, during which women would shout lewd jokes and bare their lower halves to people on shore. One historian notes that ""women were freed from all constraints during the annual festival at Bubastis. They celebrated the festival of the goddess by drinking, dancing, making music, and displaying their genitals." Taunting and innuendo were apparently the key element of the situation, though what they were meant to achieve and why is lost to history. Pity.
Ancient Greek Comedy Festivals
The ancient Greeks were masters of the bawdy and bonkers, and one of their greatest achievements is the original comedy festival, in which wits and comedians came together to compete for prizes by being the funniest and weirdest acts onstage. Comedies were, for the Greeks, a chance to go completely mad; they involved huge dance numbers with gigantic costumes, a gigantic central argument between two characters (called an agon), and multitudes of quick-changes and ridiculous plot points. The public flocked to see various playwrights mount three or five days of competing comic nonsense, often as part of the Dionysia, a huge festival celebrating the god Dionysus. People in the audience were also likely called in to participate onstage, and ten voters would in the end decide choose who'd won.
They weren't the first Greek comic plays, though; those were the "satyr plays," early drama that was basically all about pranksters. In satyr plays, mischievous drunken woodland gods with goat's legs got involved in Greek myths and utterly derailed them, though in the end they managed to make sure that everything came right again. Nobody did joking quite like the Greeks.
Slaves Insulting Masters In Ancient Rome
The month of December in ancient Rome was largely devoted to charming celebratory fun, though it wasn't entirely appreciated; one Roman writer found the whole raucous celebration so tiring he tended to retreat to a country villa outside of the city. The feast-month itself was known as Saturnalia, though successive emperors would reduce the length of the festival to five or three days depending on how puritan they were feeling. It was a period of revelry, gift-giving, wearing ridiculous clothing, and generally indulging (not that different, after all, from modern Christmas). In one important respect, though, it was a decidedly mischievous occasion.
Saturnalia, like many later versions of Carnival and the medieval European twelve days of Christmas, was a time of "misrule," a period in which social hierarchies dissolved. Ranks within Rome were normally scrupulously observed, but during Saturnalia slaves could run riot, criticize or order their masters around, and generally act like lords, with all the facetiousness that implies. They didn't, however, dare to do anything particularly outrageous; like April Fool's, the end of the festival meant everything returned to normal, and a slave who'd pushed his master into a pond or something would obviously be punished.
Priests Dressing Goats As Bishops
Even the clergy need to let off steam sometime. That was the perspective behind the Feast Of Fools, an ecclesiastical holiday popular in Northern France that ended up being banned in 1431 because it had gone so off the rails. It was allegedly inspired by an episode in the Holy Byzantine Empire in which the emperor dressed up one of his friends as the head of a church, sat him on a donkey, and led everybody in obscene songs and finished by letting the man fart on the empress. The Feast Of Fools was held yearly on January 1, and was accepted by the Christian Church for several centuries, allowing everybody involved in a church to go a bit bonkers. Max Harris explains:
"Celebrating the biblical principle that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor. 1:27), the feast allowed low-ranking subdeacons to assume leadership roles in worship, usually reserved for the bishop or the cantor."
It was basically a day of parody, in which religious institutions poked a bit of fun at their roles and rituals, and allowed a normally tightly regulated place to release its tensions a little. And yes, that would involve a little dress-up, including the possibility of finding a farm animal and putting it in bishop's vestments.
Holi's Origin In Taunting Milkmaids
The modern Indian festival of Holi, in which colored powder and paint are thrown around huge crowds and bonfires are lit, apparently has its origins in a prankster god, and it's something that remains a strong part of the holiday. Youtube is crammed with "epic Holi pranks," but it's not a festival of mean-spirited jokes; it's focussed on the coming of spring, repairing relationships, and playing games as a community. While there are various stories about how Holi may have originated, one of the most fun involves angry milkmaids. Yes, you read that right.
According to Hindu myth, the god Krishna was raised by cowherds. He was a joking sort of child, and at one point drenched the local milkmaids with colored water. One would assume they didn't take this too badly, as he's also referred to as the "lover of the milkmaids," and his dances with them in the moonlight are meant to reflect the soul's relationship with holiness. No hard feelings, then.