Lucian’s Laughing Gods

Religion, Philosophy, and Popular Culture in the Roman East
Inger N.I. Kuin
The first English-language monograph about religion and Lucian of Samosata


No comic author from the ancient world features the gods as often as Lucian of Samosata, yet the meaning of his works remain contested. He is either seen as undermining the gods and criticizing religion through his humor, or as not engaging with religion at all, featuring the gods as literary characters. His humor was traditionally viewed as a symptom of decreased religiosity, but that model of religious decline in the second century CE has been invalidated by ancient historians. Understanding these works now requires understanding what it means to imagine as laughing and laughable gods who are worshipped in everyday cult.
In Lucian's Laughing Gods, author Inger N. I. Kuin argues that in ancient Greek thought, comedic depictions of divinities were not necessarily desacralizing. In religion, laughter was accommodated to such an extent as to actually be constituent of some ritual practices, and the gods were imagined either to reciprocate or push back against human laughter—they were never deflated by it. Lucian uses the gods as comic characters, but in doing so, he does not automatically negate their power. Instead, with his depiction of the gods and of how they relate to humans—frivolous, insecure, callous—Lucian challenges the dominant theologies of his day as he refuses to interpret the gods as ethical models. This book contextualizes Lucian’s comedic performances in the intellectual life of the second century CE Roman East broadly, including philosophy, early Christian thought, and popular culture (dance, fables, standard jokes, etc.). His texts are analyzed as providing a window onto non-elite attitudes and experiences, and methodologies from religious studies and the sociology of religion are used to conceptualize Lucians engagement with the religiosity of his contemporaries.

Inger N. I. Kuin is Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Virginia.

Praise / Awards

  • “An erudite, exciting, and methodologically sophisticated book that explores the variety of methodological issues that readers of Lucian need to grapple with. It will be essential for anyone interested in religion, philosophy, intellectual performance, or humor in the Roman Empire, or anyone interested in Lucian’s narrative voices or personae.”
    —Pamela Gordon, University of Kansas

  • “A systematic, sophisticated examination of Lucian’s treatment of the gods and religion across his corpus. Combining impressive scholarship and excellent writing, Kuin offers a markedly different approach from her main non-English predecessors to the surprisingly under-studied subject of religion in Lucian.”
    —Kendra Eshleman, Boston College

  • “Today, humor and religion can be a dangerous combination. It was different in antiquity, although the combination often puzzles modern students. Inger Kuin convincingly shows how Lucian uses humor and laughing to critique the gods, their worshipers, and the ongoing philosophical conversations. A highly readable and timely book!”
    —Jan N. Bremmer, University of Groningen, Netherlands

  • “The gods function, by turns, as Lucian’s comic allies, satirical targets, or characters for contemplation. Kuin’s lively book offers the first comprehensive study of Lucian’s multifarious deployment of the gods as central figures in his comic fictions, revealing their literary complexity and the surprisingly varied forms of laughter they elicited from audiences then as now. This is an erudite but accessible study that will be essential reading for anyone interested not only in Lucian and Roman Imperial literature, but in all forms of comic writing.”
    —Ralph M. Rosen, University of Pennsylvania

Product Details

  • 304 pages.
  • 1 table.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2023
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-22097-7

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  • theodicy; anthropomorphism; humor; belief; dialogue; oratory; performance; class; social criticism; oracles; magic; Second Sophistic; Roman Syria; ethnicity; ancient Greek literature; atheism; religion studies; monotheism; polytheism; sacrifice; cult; prophecy; Max Weber; Aristophanes; Homer; Philogelos; rhetoric; deixis; Peregrinus; sexuality; pantomime; fable; Diogenes of Oenoanda; Dio Chrysostom; Seneca; Aelius Aristides; Babrius; Oenomaus of Gadara; Menippus of Gadara; satire; Menippean satire; early Christianity