A Sumerian Walks Into a Bar…

Ben Thomas on 2016-05-24

An (obviously NSFW) history of dirty jokes

As I was saying… a Sumerian walks into a bar. Doesn’t really have to be a Sumerian, actually. A guy. Any guy.

Guy walks into a bar, orders a drink, tries to join in on the conversation. But none of the regulars seem to be telling stories or jokes. One of them just says a number — “243!” — and everyone laughs. Then somebody else answers, “17!” and everybody laughs at that.

Guy asks the bartender, “What the hell’s goin’ on in here?”

The bartender explains. “These guys have been comin’ in here so long,” he says, “they’ve told all the same stories and jokes so many times, everybody’s heard all of ’em. Now we just call ’em by their numbers.”

Guy says all right. Looks over at the regular next to him, says, “76.”

But the regular doesn’t laugh.

Guy looks back at the bartender, says, “I thought you said — ”

Bartender says, “Yeah, man, but you gotta tell it right.”


Yeah, I know. Lame joke. But I told it for a reason.

How do you think that joke would play in ancient Egypt or Greece? And what might “243” and “17” have been in a Sumerian tavern?

Get ready for several thousand years of very dirty jokes.

I really tried to keep this PG-13, but I couldn’t. This is probably NSFW. Unless you work somewhere really cool.

1 The world’s oldest known “joke book” comes from the Sumerians. It dates from around 1,900 B.C. — before the golden age of Babylon — and it’s actually more a list of riddles; some of them funny, some clever, others just plain hard to make sense of.

Here’s one famous joke from that text:

What’s something that has never occurred since time immemorial? A young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.

Now, as we all know, nothing kills a joke faster than explaining it — but a little explanation will help us here. The fact that the ancient Sumerians found this funny tells us that a) they shared our idea that polite young women don’t fart in public, and b) they could easily exchange knowing looks with us about how it feels when a relationship gets to “that stage.”

Which, when you remember these people lived nearly 4,000 years in the past, is honestly pretty amazing.

Oh and by the way, that same list also includes this epic burn:

Who is it that has intercourse with your mother? [No answer.]

That’s right — the Sumerians invented the “yo mama” joke. I don’t even know what to say.

Time's Orphans Have Names A journey into the furthest depths of ancient history thestrangecontinent.com

The ancient Egyptians, as you might expect, immortalized their sense of humor in stone. In the Temple of Hatshepsut — Egypt’s first female pharaoh — at Deir el Bahari on the west bank of the Nile, artists engraved an image of the Queen of Punt, who clearly suffers from some kind of disease. Close behind her comes a donkey — with an inscription that says, “this poor donkey had to carry the queen.”

I do find it kind of ironic, though, that the royals of the Eighteenth Dynasty think it’s amusing to mock the disabled, given that their own beloved King Tutankhamun was “feminine-hipped and inbred” —National Geographic’s words, not mine.

If you’ve read my article, “Fear and Loathing in World History” —which, if you want to read about Adolf Hitler high on methamphetamine, I highly recommend you do — you’ll remember our friend Herodotus, the inventor of “finding stuff out,” a.k.a. historia, a.k.a. history. That’s the guy who heard this next little tidbit from one of his Egyptian tabloid sources.

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A thousand-odd years after that business with King Tut and the Queen of Punt — yeah, Egyptian history is a really really really long time — the pharaoh Apries sent a big military force to attack Greece. Things went badly for the Egyptian soldiers — as they tended to in Apries’ “spectacularly” inept campaigns — and most of them died. The families of these dead soldiers were understandably furious, and an officer named Amasis whipped them all up into a rebellion against the pharaoh.

Well, the pharaoh Apries was starting to get a little nervous now, so he sent a trusted courtier out to the rebel camp, to bring Amasis back to the palace for a serious chat.

Now, keep in mind, the Egyptian pharaoh is regarded as a literal god in the flesh. But when the courtier — a guy named Patarbemisshows up and summons the rebel leader Amasis into the pharaoh’s divine presence, what does Amasis do? Well according to Herodotus’ source:

Amasis, sitting on horseback, raised his leg and farted, telling the messenger to take that back to [the pharaoh].

Look at that photo!

You can still see the smirk on that bastard’s face 2,500 years later.

He and his army ended up crushing the pharaoh Apries, and he ruled Egypt for another 44 years. Who’s the pharaoh now?

Well, no one. But still.

2 There are entire volumes of Greek and Roman comedy that are too obscene to print here — for example, things like this — but the Romans do seem to have given us the basic structure of the modern joke.

Here’s an old staple from Rome: A man sells a horse to his friend. A week later, the friend comes back complaining that the horse has died. “That’s ridiculous!” says the seller. “He never did that when I owned him!”

Waka waka !— except in the Roman version, it’s a human slave who dies, not a horse. But you know. Hey, if he was a Norse slave — which they did have in ancient Rome — maybe he really was “pining for the fjords.”

What, too soon? Hey, where are you all going? Come back here!

Speaking of dead Greco-Romans, the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus of Soli — who, based on his mugshot, does not exactly look like the world’s silliest man— was alleged to have literally died of laughter.

The biographer Diogenes Laertius — not to be confused with the infamous ancient Greek punk-rawk performance artist Diogenes the Cynic, who used to run around town peeing on people he didn’t like, who once told Alexander the Great to “stop standing in my sunlight,” who would regularly masturbate in public while crying, “If only it were this easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly!” oh yeah and what was it we were saying about not printing ancient Greek obscenities?— right, so not that Diogenes, but another Diogenes, the biographer Diogenes Laertius, tells a weird little story about Chrysippus.

Apparently Chrysippus was pretty drunk one night, and was watching a donkey eat some figs, which he thought was a hilarious sight. So he says to this old woman slave of his, he says, “Hey! Hey old woman. The donkey li— hic — the donkey liked the figs. How ab — hic — how about you give him a drink of wine to wash ‘em down?”

And apparently Chrysippus laughed so hard at his own stupid joke that he asphyxiated and died. As we say in my family, “he tickled himself!”

3 One of my personal all-time favorite jokes happens to be the oldest recorded joke in the English language:

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

Yes, “life was interesting and fun during the medieval times,” as this website tells us. Sometimes your children even survived!

In Florence, a young woman, somewhat of a simpleton, was on the point of delivering a baby. She had long been enduring acute pain, and the midwife, candle in hand, inspected her “secret area,” in order to ascertain if the child was coming. “Look also on the other side,” said the woman.

“For my husband has sometimes taken that road.”

That’s from Facetiae by Poggio Bracciolini — one of the best known medieval joke books. Poggio wrote about everything from Roman history to biology — but he says he wrote the Facetiae because “It is proper, and almost a matter of necessity commended by philosophers, that our mind, weighed down by a variety of cares and anxieties, should now and then enjoy relaxation from its constant labour, and be incited to cheerfulness and mirth by some humorous recreation.”

There Is No Yesterday An interactive experience in speaking with people from the past thestrangecontinent.com

What were these “cares and anxieties” weighing down Bracciolini’s mind? Maybe it was all those pesky arguments where he had to defend his decision to marry a seventeen-year-old girl when he was 56. After all, he gave us this joke, too:

A friar was preaching to the people at Tivoli, and was thundering against adultery. “It is such a horrible sin,” said he, “that I had rather undo ten virgins than one married woman!”

Many men among the congregation agreed with him.

It’s in the European Middle Ages that we start to see a new trend in dirty jokes. Whereas impolite bodily functions have— clearly — always been funny, medieval joke books are strikingly heavy on the wink-wink references to non-procreative sex.

Oh, the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians and Greeks and Romans had sex jokes aplenty — but when you read these medieval joke books, you start to get an overwhelming sense of, “Everybody’s doing it, but it’s scandalizing to talk about it.”

That’s new.

4 Luckily for all of us, Europe soon entered a new age of exploration, in which brave thinkers took bold new strides into uncharted territories of filthy humor.

One of the cleverest and most infamous Elizabethan dirty-jokers was none other than William Shakespeare, who took up the hallowed Sumerian “yo mama” tradition with this little exchange in Titus Andronicus:

CHIRON: Thou hast undone our mother. AARON: Villain, I have done thy mother.

And let’s never forget this timeless couplet from Romeo and Juliet:

O Romeo, that she were! Oh, that she were An open arse, and thou a poperin pear.

Shakespeare’s having Mercutio make two fruit-related puns for the price of one there. “Open arse” was actually a slang term for the medlar fruit — because, well, honestly, I mean, look at it; and Poperinghes were a Belgian breed of pear — which Willie purposefully spells “poperin” as a pun on “pop ‘er in.” Yeah, I know, it’s not funny anymore now that I’ve explained it. Sorry.

Mozart — whose full name was, I kid you not, Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart — was another big fan of arse-related humor. The most famous example is his piece K. 231, Canon in B Flat for 6 Voices, better known as Leck Mich im Arsch; literally “lick me in the ass,” which basically means “kiss my ass” in German. Its lyrics start with the line, “Lick me in the ass, quickly, quickly!” and it pretty much goes on from there.

Though Mozart wrote this tune as a party piece for his friends, he thought it’d be hilarious to submit it to his publisher — who couldn’t really turn it down, since Mozart was at the height of fame and royal favor at the time. The publisher rewrote the lyrics to read, “Let us be glad!” which somehow makes the whole thing even funnier.

This piece wasn’t a one-off for Wolfgangus Theophilus, either. His other classics include Bona Nox (You Are Quite an Ox) and of course Difficile Lectu Mihi Mars, whose lyrics make no sense in Latin, but are written to sound like — you guessed it — “Leck du mich im arsch.”

When he wasn’t trying to sneak more weird ass-puns past his publisher, Mozart was busy writing obscene letters to his friends and family — like this one, written to his cousin and possible love interest Betsie:

I now wish you a good night, shit in your bed with all your might, sleep with peace on your mind, and try to kiss your own behind. Oh my ass burns like fire!

How did the man ever find the time to write his Requiem Ass in D Minor? The world may never know.

5 The first limericks began to appear in the early 1700s, but these little rhymed verses really hit the mainstream in the early 1800s — and right from the beginning, most of them described bizarre sex acts:

There was a young man from Peru, Who had nothing whatever to do; So he took out his carrot, And he buggered his parrot And sent the result to the zoo.

If you lived in Victorian London, you might pick up a copy of The Pearl — a magazine full of dirty limericks and bad erotic fanfiction — at your less-reputable drugstores and newsagents. The magazine’s full name was The Pearl: A Magazine of Facetiae and Voluptuous Reading — note the reference to Bracciolini’s medieval joke book — and some of its little jokes provide quite a window on Victorian life.

Take, for example, the scandal of Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, two young men who became well known as drag queens — under the names “Fanny” and “Stella,” respectively — in 1860s London. Their love letters are genuinely touching — they clearly had their circle of admirers — but most ordinary Londoners responded with a sort of nervous mockery.

When the pair were arrested and tried for “attempt to commit sodomy” in 1870 — how they must have laughed at the wording of that charge — they disappeared from public life; but oddly enough, ten years later in 1880, The Pearl printed this limerick:

There was an old person of Sark, Who buggered a pig in the dark; The swine, in surprise, Murmured “God blast your eyes, Do you take me for Boulton or Park?”

Maybe the magazine’s editors were starting to run out of material. Most of the limericks they printed are about what you’d expect, and The Pearl was shut down for obscenity a year later, just a month after publishing their first-ever special Christmas issue.

Other limerick writers, on the other hand, were respectful enough to pay tribute to the ancients. Isaac Asimov — prolific science fiction author and creator of the Three Laws of Robotics — published hundreds of dirty limericks, including this one, titled Temptress of the Nile:

Cleopatra’s a cute little minx With a sex life that’s loaded with kinks Marcus A. she would steer amid The palms and Great Pyramid And they’d screw on the head of the sphinx.

Interesting fact that may or may not be relevant here: Cleopatra actually wasn’t Egyptian. She was Macedonian — her name is Greek, and means “Glory of the Father” — and she was a descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s bodyguards, Ptolemy, later known as Ptolemy Soter, “Ptolemy the Savior.”

At any rate, she really was infamous as a seductress— she lured both Julius Caesar and his arch-rival, Mark Antony (“Marcus A.” in Asimov’s limerick) into bed.

And although the Great Sphinx of Giza wasn’t exactly Make-Out Point in Cleopatra’s day, it does have a pretty wild history of its own. Nobody knows who built it, but it was probably constructed around 2,500 B.C. — about 500 years before that Sumerian fart joke — and was devoured by the desert sand over time.

The first recorded archaeological excavation of the Sphinx was in — get ready for this — 1,400 B.C., commissioned by the pharaoh Thutmose IV, who belonged to the same dynasty that made fun of the Queen of Punt and her donkey. Ramesses II (a.k.a. “The Great”) may have attempted another excavation 200 years after that, but nobody managed to dig the whole thing out for another 3,200 years — in 1817.

Like I said, Egypt has been around for a really really really long time.

6 Certain kinds of dirty jokes never seem to get old —the “yo mama” joke clearly being one example — but sometimes, a form of joke appears, flourishes in all kinds of variations for a short while, then vanishes just as suddenly.

Little Audrey jokes are a perfect example. If you’d lived in 1930s England or America, you and your friends would definitely have been swapping these. Your elders might remember a few of them today. They generally go something like this:

Little Audrey was sitting on the porch with her younger brother when she said, “Look, there’s a quarter in the street!” Her brother jumped up and ran into the street to get the money and was promptly squashed by a truck.

Little Audrey laughed and laughed, because she knew it was only a nickel.

Nobody seems to have any idea where these jokes came from — but around World War One, they were suddenly everywhere; and if you’ve got a darker-than-dark sense of humor, they age remarkably well. Here’s another:

One day, Little Audrey was playing with matches. Her mother told her she’d better stop before someone got hurt. But Little Audrey was awfully hard headed and kept playing with the matches, and eventually she burned their house down. “Oh Little Audrey, you are sure gonna catch it when your father comes home!” said her mother.

But Little Audrey laughed and laughed, because she knew her father had come home early to take a nap.

Little Audrey never really went away — her subsequent life is, if anything, even more bizarre. Paramount Studios made a series of cartoons about her from 1947 to 1958 — apparently because they didn’t want to pay to renew their license on the fictional character Little Lulu. By the 1950s, Little Audrey’s dark streak was gone for good — she starred in a children’s comic strip, appeared in a few TV series, and still pops up from time to time in Paramount’s animated movies.

Her story fits the pattern of a lot of these classic jokers — they’ve been cleaned up and made presentable, and hardly anybody talks about ancient Egyptian fart humor or medieval sex-joke books or Victorian transvestites or Mozart’s letters about shitting the bed.

And that’s a shame, because most of these people —Diogenes and Chrysippus, Bracciolini and Mozart, and even Shakespeare himself, if they were here with us today — would clearly be on the couch watching South Park and Family Guy, laughing so hard they could barely breathe.

They’d get it. They’d love it.

It’s not the noblest art in the world, or the most clever. But that’s really not the point. These jokes are what every single one of us — from pharaohs and musical geniuses to tavern-keepers and ten-year-old kids — laugh at, because we can’t help it.

Like every bodily function, they’re just part of being human.