Everyone loves a good old joke. And to prove it, here are without a doubt the oldest jokes you’ll ever hear in your life. They come from an ancient Greek jokebook called Philogelos, The Laughter Lover, thought to date back to the fourth century AD.
The book contains 264 jokes and is credited to two authors, Hierocles and Philagrius, about which nothing is known.
Just like the jokes told by modern-day comedians, much of the humour in the collection is topical. Unlike today’s stock lines concerning technology, the Internet and modern relationships; the subjects Hierocles and Philagrius cover included eunuchs, slaves and scholastikos, a stereotype roughly translating to a book-smart, street-dumb intellectual. The scholastikos were the ancient world’s version of the Irish or Australian scapegoat character.
One section of the book concerns medical gags that we’d now refer to as ‘Doctor, Doctor’ jokes, and there’s even a prototype version of Monty Python’s iconic Dead Parrot Sketch—a man buys a slave, who dies shortly afterwards. He complains to the previous owner and is simply told, “Well, he never died when I owned him.” Other chapters concern drunkards, those with bad breath, misers, women haters and the undernourished.
With that, here are some of the better jokes from Ancient Greece. I’ve left the verbiage as it is so you get the full effect.
A friend said to a pedant who was going on a journey, “I wish you to purchase for me two slave boys of fifteen years each.” He replied, “If I do not find such, I shall buy for you one of thirty years.”
A pedant, a bald headed man and a barber were travelling together, and pitching camp in a wild area they agreed that each one should take turns to stay awake on guard. It fell to the barber to watch first. Desiring to play a trick, he shaved the head of the sleeping intellectual, and his watch being finished, he woke up the latter. The intellectual, rubbing his head on awakening and finding himself bare, said, “What a worthless fellow is that barber, he has made a mistake and wakened the bald-headed man instead of myself.”
A certain person coming to a pedant who was a physician said, “Doctor, when I awake from sleep I have a dizziness for half an hour and then I recover.” The physician replied, “Get up after the half hour.”
A man, just back from a trip abroad, went to an incompetent fortune-teller. He asked about his family, and the fortune-teller replied: “Everyone is fine, especially your father.” When the man objected that his father had been dead for ten years, the reply came: “You have no clue who your real father is.”
A pedant whilst swimming almost choked to death. He made an oath that he would not go into the water again until he had first learned to swim well.
A man with bad breath asked his wife: “Madame, why do you hate me?” And she said in reply: “Because you love me.”
A pedant seeing his family physician approaching, hid from him. Upon being asked by one of his companions why he did this, he replied, “I have not been ill for such a long time that I am ashamed to meet him.”
A pedant was on a voyage when a severe storm arose and his slaves were crying out in terror. “Do not weep,” he said, “For I have given you all your liberty in my will.”
A pedant was quarreling with his father and said to him, “You wicked fellow, do you not understand how much injury you have done to me? If you had never been born I should have inherited my grandfather’s estate.”
A misogynist was sick, at death’s door. When his wife said to him, “If anything bad happens to you, I’ll hang myself.” He looked up at her and said, “Do me the favour while I’m still alive.”
Two parricidal pedants were complaining to each other because their fathers were living. One of them asked, “What do you wish? Shall each one strangle his own father?” “By no means,” replied the other, ‘lest we be called parricides. But if you are willing, you shall slay my father, and I will kill yours.”
So, next time someone asks to hear a joke, hit them with some humour from Ancient Greece and you’re bound to be the life of the party.
Originally appeared in the May edition of Inside Entertainment, the monthly membership magazine of the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand Inc.