Irony in Greek culture


By Dimitra Tsourou, published in ADELAIDE Independent Monthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Mensal, New York

This article stems from my dissatisfaction with the available interpretations of irony in Greek culture. A further difficulty in understanding “Greek irony” results from the inability to express its full meaning when translating from Greek into other languages. The main purpose of this article is to clarify the particularity of each type of irony and to draw conclusions about its significance in Greek culture.


The multiple forms in which irony appears in Greek culture do not allow for a single definition. From Homer and the Tragedians to Socrates and Plato, irony has been employed in various ways; however, all instances of irony entail a contradiction or antithesis between words and meanings, acts and results, illusive and objective reality, expectations and outcomes.


The most famous type of irony is “dramatic irony”. The term was coined by C. Thirwall in 1833 and has been consolidated since. Dramatic irony appears in two forms: verbal irony and situational irony. “Dramatic verbal irony” is found mostly in the Tragedians, and occurs when the characters use words whose meaning is ambiguous to the audience. A clear example is in Sophocles’ “Oedipus the Tyrant” when the old soothsayer visits the king. Oedipus ridicules the man because he is blind, and the outraged Tiresias tells the king that, while he can see, he is “blind” to the truth. When Oedipus becomes blind, he finally understands the meaning of the old man’s words.

Artful and articulate, Homer, the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, was adept at using “dramatic situational irony” – a form of irony that stems from the plot itself and occurs when the characters ignore what the audience already knows. Essentially, it is based on the antithesis between ignorance and knowledge. When Odysseus and Telemachus meet, Odysseus’s son is unable to recognize his father in disguise. However, the audience knows everything.

In this form of irony, characters are not able to understand their situation and thus act contrary to logic. The outcome of this ignorance is that the character pursues and eventually expedites his/her self-destruction. Oedipus, for instance, insists on discovering Laios’ murderer, without realizing that he is searching for himself – a detail that the audience already knows.


The multilinear dimension of irony does not end here. In the philosophical sphere, irony takes on a different usage. When Socrates opens a dialogue, he feigns ignorance of the issue in question, challenging both others and his own intelligence. Socratic irony is hence based on the idea that a man feigns ignorance in order to elicit responses from his discussants or to steer the dialogue in a certain direction.

Socrates’ conscious statement of ignorance, in conjunction with his deep thirst for knowledge and his belief in lifelong learning, explains why Plato envisages such a strenuous educational system in his “Republic”. Plato’s use of irony, meanwhile, is revolutionary in many respects. The oxymoron inherent in Platonic irony is that truth emerges from myth. Thus, the paradoxical narration of “The Allegory of the Cave” is transfigured into a logical, realistic, cruel truth about the human condition. It is a conscious choice by the philosopher to show that the myth is in fact the truth. Plato achieves this with eloquence, avoiding pompous expressions or platitudes. His myths are written in simple Greek, not the language of philosophers, and are distinguished by a lack of technical terms. Plato’s fluency and simplicity are two virtues that make his writings attractive and readable, even to newcomers to philosophy.


There is a long history of irony in Greek culture. The internationally renowned poet Constantine Peter Cavafy used irony as an essential tool in his poems. Many have characterized him as a modern philosopher, with irony as the protagonist of his “philosophical” poems. At times, he uses Homeric irony; at others, dramatic irony. The astonishing feature of Cavafy’s irony, however, is the unique way that it conveys his message to his readers. In his poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”, Cavafy presents a whole community looking forward to their surrender, anticipating the Barbarians’ mercy and a return to the simple life. All the leaders, kings, legislators and judges are ready to relinquish their authority to the Barbarians. However, the Barbarians never appear, and the people’s expectations are dashed: the irony is created through refutation. Irony is also used in the poem “Alexandrian Kings”, when Cavafy implies that there is no value in impressive structures. In her ambitious ceremony, Cleopatra apportions all the territories once conquered by Alexander the Great to her children in an attempt to stupefy the Alexandrian kings. However, the audience already knows the fate of both Cleopatra and her son and can see the futility behind the lavishness. The poem’s beautiful images thus leave a bitter taste.


In the modern era, we experience every form of irony. Irony has become more topical than ever in this period of endless relativism and simulated realities where the boundaries between the fictive and the real are increasingly blurred. Irony uncovers the human illusion in every context and in every form. Irony in Greek culture is thus not merely a tool of philosophy or poetry. Rather, it is a philosophy in itself, an ideology, or even a state of being. At times, a sense of unexpectedness, human fragility, self-harm or illusion emerges; at others, irony reveals the absolute un-idealized truth at its most naked and occasionally cruel. The diachronic meaning of irony encompasses the full spectrum of human nature, from naivety to tragedy. In these postmodern, ungrounded times, irony reveals the power of realism.

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