In ancient and modern comedy alike, some themes are evergreen. Most of them are about bodily functions. There is therefore much for a modern audience to laugh at in Attic 5th century comedy. For instance, let’s have a look at Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, which is chockablock with cock jokes…
Lysistrata is an Athenian woman living through the Peloponnesian War, a lengthy and brutal conflict that she doesn’t trust the men to end quickly or satisfactorily. She calls on local women to meet with their female counterparts from the enemy territories in the Peloponnese and Boeotia to collectively discuss her plan to bring about an armistice. Famously, her proposal is for all of the women in Greece to refuse their husbands and lovers any sexual favours until the men agree to declare peace. To make this plan work, the women plan to antagonise their men by looking as desirable as possible, with painted faces and translucent dresses, sat in seductive poses to appear irresistible. Much comedy ensues.
Here is the oath that Lysistrata makes the women swear, before they put their plan into (in)action;
“I’ll take no secret lovers ‘round the back
Though stiff and strong they lure me to the sack,
But stay at home and pass my days unridden
My ample charms in silky robes ill-hidden
So that, on my account, he burns with lust,
Yet never shall I yield unto his thrust!
This girl won’t let her pining lover sate her
Flat on her back nor ‘Lioness on Cheese-grater.’
(Huge thanks to Derek McCann (@colonus_ ) for this translation!)
The Lioness on the Cheesegrater. If you’re like me, your first instinct when you read this was not one of curiosity, but to wince. Pain for pleasure might be common to most humans in varying degrees, but bloody hell, there is a list of kitchen utensils I don’t want anywhere near me, outside of said kitchen. Perhaps ancient cheese graters were mildly less threatening than modern ones? Let’s take a look.
This statuette of a man grating cheese comes from Ritsona. It’s dated to about 500 BC and is on display in the Museum of Thebes. Thanks to Matthew Lloyd (@matthewlloyd85) for use of the photo. I have no idea why the man is grating cheese in the nude.
Another statuette shows a woman grating cheese. This one was found in Boeotia, and dates to the 5th century BC. Thanks to Dan Diffendale (@diffendale) for use of the photo.
So it seems like cheese graters have changed little in 2,500 years. Why mess with a tool that does its job so well? As for lionesses, they’re as large and bitey as they’ve always been. The two are not natural bedfellows.
Lysistrata isn’t a subtle play. One man repeatedly beseeches his wife for some marital fun, and each time he appears on stage his fake erection is a bit bigger. The women declare in numerous ways that they’ll find the sex strike difficult to execute; war isn’t so bad as long as the women get some action of their own. So scholars have read about the lioness perched on a cheese grater and wondered: what position is this and how would one go about performing it? There are a couple of ancient greek sex positions that we do know about and can be fairly sure of what they entail. Kubda is ‘bent over’ – standing doggy, if you will. Athenaeus informs us that this position with a low-rank sex worker costs 3 obols. Keles is ‘the racehorse’ – a rather energetic cowgirl. Neither of these is particularly mysterious, or physically adventurous. They’re also definitely not funny enough for Aristophanes.
But a position as absurdly named as the Lioness ‘pon a Cheesegrater? That stuff writes itself. And historiographically, this particular joke has been the subject of debate since the Hellenistic period. Whole articles and chapters have been written upon it, wondering whether this position was an expensive party trick of elite sex workers, or a standard position in the repertoire of Athenian mistresses, or that one thing Attic wives agreed to do on their husband’s birthdays. Was the woman on top? Did the man lie down or stand up? Which way did she face? Would one use props? Which appendage is supposed to be the cheese-grater? Would attempting this position end up with one or both participants visiting the Asklepieion?
Nothing kills a joke faster than analysing it in forensic detail. And what is scholarship but painstaking forensic detail? Lysistrata is a comedy, meant to be watched and not read. If you want to know the truth, you need to fast-forward 2.5 millennia to a fictional bar in New York City. Do you remember when How I Met Your Mother was a hilarious and popular sitcom? You know, before the writers ruined the entire show with an awful final season that erased any of the fondness most people had for the series, inspiring the Game of Thrones writers to try and top it?
In HIMYM, Robin Scherbatsky is the lone Canadian in her New York friend group. Jokes about Canadian accents and culture pepper the entire show, and none moreso than in S4E18, ‘Old King Clancy.’ Whilst talking with her friends in the bar, Robin casually mentions that she had a near-sexual encounter with a celebrity back home. She won’t go into specifics, particularly about the uniquely Canadian, risqué sex act that the celebrity wanted to do with her that made her run for the hills. Nevertheless, it is clear that this sex act was absolutely scandalous.
Desperate for juicy details, her friends launch an investigation, and ‘hilariously’ misogynistic womaniser Barney Stinson names every Canadian sex position he can think of trying to guess what spooked Robin. He even finds a website called canadiansexacts.org, which the show creators did briefly make a reality. The list includes but is not limited to:
The Sloppy Dog Sled
The Alberta Fur Trapper
A Full Mountie
The Reverse Rick Moranis
A Saskatoon Totem Pole
The Sticky Flapjack (Robin would have actually done that one!)
The Five-legged Caribou
A Newfoundland Lobster Trap
The Manitoba Milk Bag (like a Chicago Moustache, but the person on the bottom is wearing a snowsuit…)
A Two-Handed Zamboni (the only thing the woman is wearing is skates on her hands…)
The Sneaky Snowplow
A Greasy Kayak
The Musty Goaltender
A Montreal Meatpie
Robin’s friends try to guess the celebrity and the sex act for three whole days, growing increasingly frustrated. When she finally relents and tells them about the Frozen Snowshoe and Old King Clancy, her clueless American friends don’t even know which is the celebrity and which is the position. It turns out that the Frozen Snowshoe is a Canadian pro-wrestler, and an Old King Clancy is the American ‘Sacramento Turtleneck’ with the addition of maple syrup. The specifics are never explained.
The episode ends with none of us in the audience any the wiser, on an Old King Clancy or any of the other possibilities. We are left with more questions than answers. Why the maple syrup? It’s a staple of Canadian cuisine and yet will surely only lead to a UTI when used in the bedroom. Who is King Clancy? In a final joke, it’s revealed that it is Robin who eagerly proposed the Frozen Snowshoe give her an Old King Clancy and has even provided her own syrup, and he is so horrified he orders her to leave. What could be so terrible about it? We’ll never know for sure.
And therein is the joke. Everyone watching will have to use their imagination, and like Cards Against Humanity, joy can be found in discovering just how different and shocking our minds work in comparison to that of who we’re sat next to. The Lioness on the Cheese Grater was never something the Athenian audience would have been familiar with. For Aristophanes, I think the fun would have been to look at the audience and their watch their faces. The young lads, keen to prove their virility by pretending they totally, like, do lionesses on cheese graters every night with Actual Girls. The disapproving bores elbowing their family members who giggle. The young innocent virgins blushing furiously. The hopeful husbands making a mental note to ask their wives for it later, because how bad can it be? The men in a dry patch who, upon consideration, would take terrifying sex over none. The old men wistfully reminiscing about their own youthful sexploits, and the men who suddenly fancy a tiropita. The Lioness on the Cheese Grater is whatever you want it to be, and know that Aristophanes is still laughing at you trying to figure out what he meant!