Humor doesn’t always translate across time and geography and language barrier — what’s funny in 1820 China might not be humorous in 1984 Canada, for example. Nonetheless, some 3,500 years ago, six riddles were inscribed on a clay tablet in Iraq that could very well have been laughed out loud funny in their time — and one may even contain the oldest “Yo Mama” joke known to man. But in our time, we’re having a bit of trouble.
The jokes were believed to have been written by a Babylonian student about 1500 B.C. The damaged tablet was discovered in 1976 by archaeologist J. J. van Dijk. The tablet has since vanished, but van Dijk preserved what was written on it.
Scholars Michael Streck and Nathan Wasserman studied the riddles, translated them, and several years ago published their findings in the journal Iraq, put out by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq.
The tablet displayed a half-dozen riddles, which Wasserman and Streck analyzed. Though they call the tablet an example of “wisdom literature,” meaning these were metaphors meant to impart truths, at least a few of the riddles sounded like some attempts at a joke.
The riddles’ subject matter? Politics, sex, beer, and a joke about a mom.
The mother joke is fragmentary and cryptic: “…of your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?”
Another sexual “joke”: “The deflowered girl did not become pregnant. The undeflowered girl became pregnant. What is it? [Answer] Auxiliary forces.”
The blog io9 said, “Admittedly, that one is a bit conceptual. It’s also possible that we’ve discovered the ancient Babylonian answer to Andy Kaufman. Either way, I want to see ‘auxiliary forces’ as everybody’s go-to punchline starting…NOW.”
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The researcher Wasserman admitted that he doesn’t get this joke. Auxiliary forces are often below-average soldiers, “and they are not really trustworthy, sometimes they run away in the middle of the battle.”
The one that might be easiest for modern minds to grasp is this one: “In your mouth and your teeth, constantly stared at you, the measuring vessel of your lord.
[What is it?] Beer.” One researcher helpfully theorized that “in your mouth and your teeth” could mean “urine.”
Never let it be said that the Babylonians were afraid to speak truth to power. Here’s a political jab: “He gouged out the eye. It is not the fate of a dead man. He cut the throat: A dead man [Who is it?] The governor.”
“This riddle describes the power of a governor, namely to act as a judge who punishes or sentences to death,” Streck, a professor at the Altorientalisches Institut at Universitat Leipzig, told The Media Line.
The jokes’ text was written in Akkadian, and cuneiform script. It was a language used by the Babylonians. “This is a relatively rare genre — we don’t have many riddles,” Wasserman told LiveScience.
After the wars in Iraq and the museum’s pillaging in 2003, the tablets’ current whereabouts are unknown. Streck told reporters that he and Wasserman used photographs to decipher the tablets.
“We copied them by hand, which is no easy task, and deciphered them and translated them and put them into historical context,” Streck said in an interview.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Streck said that the riddles were designed to communicate truths about life and were probably making the rounds orally before scribes recorded them. He said the scribe responsible for the six tablets was probably a student — and he doubted that he was one at the top of his class since they were poorly written.
Some of the words were missing and, according to van Dijk, they showed “very careless writing.”
The riddles are among many texts studied in a project called “Sources of Early Akkadian Literature: A Text Corpus of Babylonian and Assyrian Literary Texts from the third and second millennia BC.” Only several hundred people in the world can read and understand this ancient writing, Streck said.
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.