A century and a half ago, unnamed Japanese artists immortalised the fart wars that plagued the country. Or something.
According to academic circles, the oldest joke in recorded history (which dates back to 1900 BC) was a fart joke: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”
Ha, ha, ha.
However, the brownest of notes appears long in the annals of lit history, as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has a man called Nicholas, who, in an act of revenge, protrudes his rear to “let fly a fart with a noise as great as a clap of thunder, so that Absalom was almost overcome by the force of it.”
Even the Bard was a fan, as Shakespeare’s play The Comedy of Errors, has the following declaration: “… a man may break a word with you, sir; and words are but wind; Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind.”
But that mob can be cast into the nearest bin, as Japan has typically out-grossed everyone else.
Over 150 years ago a group of anonymous artists created a 34-ft long scroll titled He-Gassen (屁合戦), literally: “Fart Battle.”
The scroll, created during the Edo Period (probably around 1846) in Japan, consists of roughly 15 different scenes depicting people directing their farts at other people or objects. It’s kind of like Hieronymus Bosch, but after a night on the sauce and a morning with a kebab.
There are people farting at each other. There are people farting through objects. There are people combating farts with fans. There are bags of farts being released. Trees and cats get blown away by farts. And the scroll culminates with a divine gust of flatulence knocking over a ceremony and causing complete and utter chaos.
So why, Lord why? One theory believes the ‘art’ to be a social jab at the anti-foreigner sentiment that washed over Japan as it emerged from isolation. I’m unsure if that makes us the farts, the smell or the conflict, but there’s a message in there somewhere. Perhaps because art is art and farts are funny.
There were many artists practicing Ukiyo-e – woodblock prints that emerged as a form of low-brow entertainment – who took up flatulence as a way to gain laughs. Several of these prints even resurface at auction houses every once in a while.
For the overly curious, the scroll in its entirety has been digitised by Japan’s Waseda University and can be seen in hi-res format.