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The Oldest Jokes in History

Humor has been integral to the human experience for centuries. Before there were stand-up sets or newspaper comic strips, ancient civilizations such as the Greeks had their own ways of making people laugh.

The Philogelos, a Greek book from the fourth or fifth century CE and the earliest known existing joke collection, contains more than 200 witticisms that find the funny in all kinds of situations, from marriage to death to intellectual shortcomings. Punchlines may not have been as punchy, but the book includes plenty of wordplay, puns, and situational humor, proving that laughter is a common bond that connects us even to humans who lived many centuries ago.

One constant throughout comedy’s evolution is the ability of a well-written joke to reflect societal norms, values, and taboos. Though often deeply unserious by nature, jokes can act as a reliable lens through which to assess the cultural temperature of their time and context.

As long as it continues to exist, humor will remain an effective form of connection and a lighthearted way to reflect on life’s complexities. In this collection of some of the oldest jokes in history, it’s easy to see the styles that have endured over the years and fun to laugh at the stuff that hasn’t quite held up in the same way.

Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.

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In 2008, this ancient Sumerian proverb that dates back to at least 1900 BCE was deemed the earliest recorded joke in history. It’s really more of an observation than a joke, warning husbands about the flatulence of their new brides, but toilet humor is undeniably a timeless comedic quality.

What hangs at a man’s thigh and wants to poke the hole that it’s often poked before? A key.

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The earliest known joke in the English language comes from a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poetry book. The raunchy riddle plays on the listener’s expectation of a crude punchline but relies on surprise and subversion — a recurring element in humor throughout history.

A dog walks into a bar and says, “I cannot see a thing. I’ll open this one.”

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Bar jokes have long been a comedy staple, and this first known instance dates back roughly 4,000 years to an ancient Sumerian tablet. Although the meaning of the joke isn’t exactly clear — even to scholars — some have supposed it to be “more of a New Yorker-style unfunny vignette” of life in Sumer..

How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.

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Gender dynamics have evidently been a part of comedy for as long as jokes have existed. This question-and-answer gag, believed to be coined by Egyptian court magician Djadjamankhn for King Snefru, dates back to roughly 2600 BCE. This is one joke that doesn’t require much explanation or context, as its language paints a pretty clear picture.

Wishing to teach his donkey not to eat, a pedant did not offer him any food. When the donkey died of hunger, he said: “I've had a great loss! Just when he had learned not to eat, he died.”

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The name of the aforementioned oldest known joke book Philogelos translates to "Laughter-lover.” Attributed to two authors known as Hierocles and Philagrius, the ancient Greek text is a treasure trove of funny quips. This slightly morbid one features a twist about a pedant who laments not the loss of his donkey from starvation, but rather that the donkey had finally learned not to eat just before said death.

Patient says to his doctor, “Every morning when I wake up I feel dizzy for a half-hour.” Doctor says, “Get up a half-hour later.”

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A different portion of Philogelos features a character called a "scholastikos," sometimes translated as an "egghead" or "absent-minded professor." This joke perfectly encapsulates the format — a scholastikos doctor providing inadequate medical advice  and an unexpected giggle.

A woman who was blind in one eye has been married to a man for 20 years. When he found another woman he said to her, “I shall divorce you because you are said to be blind in one eye.” And she answered him: “Have you just discovered that after 20 years of marriage?”

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This ancient Egyptian zinger plays on the relationship between a married man and woman, a subject that’s still frequent comedy fodder today. It originated in the Ramesside period and appears to be an early witticism that takes “turning a blind eye” quite literally.

At a dignitary’s funeral in Kyme, someone goes up to the officials and asks, “Who’s the dead guy?” One of the Kymaeans turns around and points: “The one lying in the coffin.”

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This Philogelos joke may seem simplistic, but it boasts a certain flavor of comedic sophistication that still works to this day. In fact, one could imagine the likes of the late Norm Macdonald including this in a comedy routine. It’s basically the ancient predecessor to the modern “dad joke.”

An idiot is returning home from a foreign trip and is absolutely amazed to find himself climbing a steep hill. “When I first came this way,” he says to himself, “it was a nice downhill stroll. How can it have transformed into such a steep climb on my way back?”

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And lastly, here’s yet another joke from Philogelos, this time poking fun at a man who appears not to have a firm grasp on topography. Philogelos, which contains approximately 265 jokes in total, includes many such gags at the expense of the poor “idiot” or “fool.”

Featured image credit: Aletheia Shade/ iStock

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About the Author
Nicole Villeneuve
Nicole is a writer, thrift store lover, and group-chat meme spammer based in Ontario, Canada.
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