Origin of the name Agelastos


One of the unusual privileges of membership in the Agelasto family is the very meaning of our name and its historic context.  It could be said that the name Agelasto traces its origin to festivities called the Eleusinian Mysteries (λευσίνια Μυστήρια).


Begun in the Mycenean period (c. 1500 BC) and maintained for nearly 2,000 years, the Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated each year as initiation ceremonies by the Cult of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility.  The secret rites became a major festival during the Hellenistic era and were often the subject of ancient paintings and sculptures as seen in the 5th century BC relief showing Demeter and Persephone blessing King Triptolemus.


National Archaeological Museum of Athens


According to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (c. 650 BC), the goddess Demeter disguised herself as an old woman to search for her daughter Persephone who had been carried off by Hades (Pluto in Roman mythology), the god of the Underworld.  During her journey she arrived at Eleusis during the reign of King Celeus and sat down in despair near the Well of Parthenos.[1]  She came to rest on a “mirthless stone” on the eastern side of the road to Eleusis.  In a later version of the Hymn to Demeter (c. 270 BC), Callimachus identified the rock as Agelastos Petra (Αγέλαστος Πέτρα).[2] 


Today Agelastos Petra can be visited at the archaeological site of Eleusis in modern Elefsina, located 30km northwest of Athens.  It continues to inspire many scholars of the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Cult of Demeter.  In 2000 Filippos Koutsaftis produced an award-winning documentary film of the modern city and ancient site.


Scene from the documentary film Agelastos Petra (2000)


The word agelast, pronounced AY-jel-ast, has permeated the English language as an adjective used to describe someone who never laughs (The literal Greek is non-laughing.)   It is sometimes used to refer to a person who can't get any joy or happiness out of life.  It has become a common descriptor to comedic characters such as Cappadox in Plautus’ Curcurlio and Iago in William Shakespeare’s Othello.[3]   In Ben Jonson's 1629 play, The New Inn,[4] The Host says:


My guest, my guest, be jovial, I beseech thee.
I have fresh golden guests, guests o'the game,
Three coach-full!  Lords and ladies, new come in! 
And I will cry them to thee, and thee to the,
So I can spring a smile but i'this brow,
That like the rugged Roman alderman,
Old Master Gross, surnamed Agelastos,
Was never seen to laugh but at an ass.


--Parker Agelasto, 2 March 2008



[1] Helene P. Foley. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Text, Translation, Commentary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) p 42.

[2] Neil Hopkinson. Callimachus: Hymn to Demeter (Cambridge University Press, 1984)

[3] Erich Segal. Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)

[4] Ben Jonson, Martin Butler, Johanna Procter, The Selected Plays of Ben Jonson (Cambridge University Press, 1989), The New Inn, Scene V, p 322.