Barbarians! What do you think of when you hear that word? If you follow the media depiction, including our titular character, Conan, we think of violent, powerful people, possibly of nomadic tribal culture, always carrying huge weapons, capable of much carnage, and whose intelligence is somewhat limited. Surprisingly, the media picture hasn’t changed much in the past three thousand years. This is how the ancient Greeks described pretty much anyone who wasn’t Greek. Heck, they even called other Greek city states barbarians just to make fun of them like we do with neighboring cities’ football teams.


So what are Barbarians?

Originally, barbarians were any people who weren’t Greek. More specifically, they were anyone who didn’t speak Greek. Imagine you’re an ancient Greek, Hercules isn’t even a gamete in Zeus’ nutsack, and you’re exploring the world like a game map under a fog of war. You really have no idea what’s out there and are quite literally the first people of your culture putting things down on a sheepskin map. You come upon the Etruscans and they wave at you. You walk over (more like strut—you have to make a good impression, after all) you flex a little bit, play your penis games, then if everything works out and you don’t gut each other, you maybe trade a little and walk away making fun of their accents.


This is actually what the Greeks did. They walked away making fun of peoples’ accents, a la Rush Limbaugh’s infamous “ching chang chong” chinese imitation. That’s right, racist rants are as old as humanity. The ancient Greeks walked away rofling about how everything those guys said sounded like “Bar bar bar bar.” Ask John Greene, he knows the poop (check about 20 seconds into the video.)

That’s right, the word “barbarian” is the punch line to what is possibly the world’s most successful joke.  It has all the creativity and nuance of watermelon and fried chicken, just as you’d expect from something nearly three thousand years old.  Just slightly older than “pull my finger,” which I believe was perfected by Aristotle as a punctuation to a particularly savage dialectic.


Considering the fact we still use the word “barbarian” today, there must be something to this joke.  It’s not particularly funny, but it does display something common to all humans.  Yes, that’s right, the need to compensate for small cultural peens by making fun of others.  The ancient Greeks were racist douches, but then so is about one third of the current population of the world.  We still use the word “barbarian” or “barbaric” to describe someone who is crude, savage, or culturally “lesser.”  The only real difference between “barbarian” and the N-word, K-word, Ch-word or any of the multitude of racial slurs is that it has the benefit of having been used by the Greeks and is therefore acceptable.  At least we can still say Irish.


Conan the Barbarian (novel)

Conan the Barbarian (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Barbarian (Photo credit: glecoquierre)


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