10 Oldest Jokes Ever Told

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Comedy and humor are ageless and not bound by time. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that humankind has been telling jokes for about as long as a language has existed to tell them with! A few years ago, the University of Wolverhampton successfully researched and discovered some of the oldest jokes mankind has ever known[1]. While not all of these jokes have aged well, we can certainly appreciate the similar ideas and notions we’ve carried with us through the centuries. Here are the world’s ten oldest jokes ever told.

10. At the Barber’s

Place of origin: Greece
Year:  4th or 5th Century AD
Found in:  Philogelos

This joke is one that’s sure to resonate with introverts everywhere. Even back then, many people valued silence and their alone time!

Asked by the court barber how he wanted his hair cut, the king replied: “In silence.”

Like the previous joke, this one is also taken from Philogelos. It was among several jokes tested out in front of a modern audience by comedian Jim Bowen[11]. Surprisingly, this and a few others hold up today and are still pretty funny!


9. Teaching An Old Donkey New Tricks

Place of origin: Greece
Year:  4th or 5th Century AD
Found in:  Philogelos

This odd joke centered around a person of questionable intelligence and his donkey reads a little bit like a joke for children.

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.”

This joke, among many others, was found in Philogelos, which translates to Laughter-Lover, a text which is the first ever joke book ever compiled and made. It contains around 265 jokes[10], and although not all of them translate well in the modern day, some do hold a striking resemblance to newer jokes!


8. Augustus’ Resemblance

Place of origin: Ancient Rome
Year:  63 BC – 29 AD
Found in:  Credited as being said by the Emperor Augustus

This might only be the world’s eight oldest joke, but it’s certainly the oldest “your mom” joke ever told! Even ancients enjoyed this style of humor, it seems.

Augustus was touring his Empire and noticed a man in the crowd who bore a striking resemblance to himself. Intrigued he asked: “Was your mother at one time in service at the Palace?” “No your Highness,” he replied, “but my father was.”

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about this joke’s origins either, but it certainly packs a bit of a rude punch. We hope that no sassy citizen truly ever did dare to say this to the Emperor!


7. Of Donkeys and Men

Place of origin: Egypt
Year:  304 BC – 30 BC (Ptolemaic Period)
Found in:  The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq

As it turns out, jokes of a sexual nature are far from a modern invention. This amusing statement suggests that prostitution as a business has been around since ancient times.

Man is even more eager to copulate than a donkey – his purse is what restrains him.

This joke was found on the 28-page long papyrus known as The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq, which was notably humorous in nature[9]. It is now on display in the British Museum.


6. The Riddle of Man

Place of origin: Athens, Greece
Year:  429 BC
Found in:  Oedipus Tyrannus

Perhaps one of the most famous riddles of all time, and one that may be the most frequently quoted in pop culture, this joke is more of a brain buster.

Question: What animal walks on four feet in the morning, two at noon and three at evening? Answer: Man. He goes on all fours as a baby, on two feet as a man and uses a cane in old age.

The riddle was performed as part of the play Oedipus Tyrannus, otherwise known as Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King, which was written by ancient playwright Sophocles. You may know the play best for being the text that gave the Oedipus Complex its name. The play is considered one of the greatest of its time and to be a true masterpiece, even by great historical figureheads like Aristotle[8].


5. How Odysseus Defeated Cyclops

Place of origin: Ancient Greece
Year:  800 BC
Found in:  Homer’s The Odyssey

Found in the elite and renowned poetry of The Odyssey by Homer, this line might remind you a bit of modern day dad jokes.

Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his real name is nobody. When Odysseus instructs his men to attack the Cyclops, the Cyclops shouts: “Help, nobody is attacking me!” No one comes to help.

The Odyssey is an epic Greek poem that spans over several “books”. It is believed to have been composed not by writing, but in an oral tradition, which may suggest it was meant to be read aloud and performed instead of studied silently[7].


4. The Blind Wife

Place of origin: Ancient Egypt
Year:  1100 BC
Found in:  Late Ramesside Letters

While royalty has been the butt of early jokes, they can certainly dish out their own brand of humor, too.

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!?”

The joke was recovered from the letters of King Djehutymes, also known as King Tjaroy, and he had quite a reputation for telling jokes. His amusing personality and character are a well-documented part of history, in fact! Officially, these letters are compiled as the Late Rammesside Letters, published as Volume IX of “Bibliotheca Aegyptiaca”.


3. The Three Ox Drivers

Place of origin: Unknown (likely Mesopotamia)
Year:  1200 BC
Found in:  Unknown

This joke is more of a riddle, although there doesn’t seem to be a known answer to it:

Three ox drivers from Adab were thirsty: one owned the ox, the other owned the cow and the other owned the wagon’s load. The owner of the ox refused to get water because he feared his ox would be eaten by a lion; the owner of the cow refused because he thought his cow might wander off into the desert; the owner of the wagon refused because he feared his load would be stolen. So they all went. In their absence the ox made love to the cow which gave birth to a calf which ate the wagon’s load. Problem: Who owns the calf?!

Very little is disclosed about this joke’s origins. Adab was a region in Mesopotamia, which would correspond to modern day Iraq. While it will be a chore to figure out who that calf belongs to, the three ox drivers should probably be more concerned that the newborn calf could eat an entire wagon-load of food in such a short time!


2. A Bored Pharaoh

Place of origin: Ancient Egypt
Year:  1600 BC
Found in:  Westcar Papyrus

Even royals were not left out from being the butt of jokes. This one features a pharaoh, rumored to be King Snofru, and a suggestive nature.

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.

The joke was found in the Westcar Papyrus, which is an Ancient Egyptian text written in hieratic script and told in twelve columns. Originally translated as “King Cheops and the Magicians”[3] and “The Tale of King Cheops’ Court”[4] in English and “The Fairy Tales of Papyrus Westcar”[5] in German, the text contains five tales of miracles from magicians and priests. The stories are believed to have been recited at Pharoah Cheops’ royal court by his sons. Today, the papyrus is displayed in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin[6].


1. Farting Wives

Place of origin: Sumer, Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq)
Year:  1900 BC – 1600 BC
Found in:  Sumerian Proverb Collection 1.12-1.13[2]

You might expect the world’s oldest joke to be something sophisticated or clever. That is, however, not the case. Instead, it’s a joke about flatulence. Apparently, toilet humor is something humans have never gotten tired of! The joke goes:

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

The joke was found in the Sumerian Proverb Collection, which is also known as Instructions of Shuruppak to his son Ziusudra. Does this mean that this quip about a farting wife is to be taken as fatherly advice? We’ll never know for sure.

So what exactly does this joke mean? It’s open to interpretation. The double negative makes it a bit confusing, but a safe conclusion can be drawn that farting will probably never not be funny.


[1] https://www.wlv.ac.uk/about-us/news-and-events/latest-news/2008/august-2008/the-worlds-ten-oldest-jokes-revealed.php
[2] Taylor, Jon. “The Sumerian proverb collections.” Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale 99.1 (2005): 13-18.
[3] Simpson, William Kelly. (1972). The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry. Edited by William Kelly Simpson. Translations by R.O. Faulkner, Edward F. Wente, Jr., and William Kelly Simpson. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-01482-1. Page 15.
[4] Parkinson, R.B. (2002). Poetry and Culture in Middle Kingdom Egypt: A Dark Side to Perfection. London: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-5637-5. p. 295–96.
[5] Adolf Erman: Die Märchen des Papyrus Westcar I. Einleitung und Commentar. In: Mitteilungen aus den Orientalischen Sammlungen. Heft V, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin 1890. page 10 – 12
[6] Verena M. Lepper: Untersuchungen zu pWestcar. Eine philologische und literaturwissenschaftliche (Neu-)Analyse. In: Ägyptologische Abhandlungen, Band 70. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2008, ISBN 3-447-05651-7, pp. 41–47, 103 & 308–310..
[7] D.C.H. Rieu’s introduction to The Odyssey (Penguin, 2003)
[8] Aristotle: Poetics. Edited and translated by St. Halliwell, (Loeb Classical Library), Harvard 1995.
[9] “Papyrus from the Instruction of Ankhsheshonqy”. British Museum.
[10] Laes, Christian (2005-09-18). “M. Andreassi, Le facezie del Philogelos. Barzellette antiche e umorismo moderno”. Bryn Mawr Classical Review.
[11] http://metro.co.uk/2008/11/13/dead-parrot-sketch-is-1600-years-old-145569/

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