Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a dog walks into a bar, but he doesn’t see anything. And so he asks: shall I open one?
Once you’ve picked yourselves up off the floor and wiped the tears of laughter from your eyes, I shall attempt to explain. This is among the oldest jokes in the world, and certainly the oldest recorded bar joke which has survived.
And we can only guess what they were laughing at.
A Joke so Nice They Told it Twice
The above joke was found written on two separate tablets in the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur in what is now Iraq. Excavated over a hundred years ago, it was included in a list of proverbs and advice and is thought to be around 4,000 years old.
The tablet comes from the Old Babylonian period, which puts it after the fall of the great Sumerian city of Ur for the third time and the collapse of Sumerian power. The joke itself is probably much older however, and the Babylonians must have rushed to capture these morsels of Sumerian hilarity before they were lost forever.
A more proper translation of the text has been provided by Edward Gordon, an expert on the ancient Sumerians and their language. His version goes as follows: “A dog, having entered an inn, did not see anything, (and so he said): ‘Shall I open this (door)?’.”
It’s the way you tell them, hey? It would seem that the joke itself relies on a familiarity with ancient Sumerian customs and their way of life, something which we have lost to time and will have to piece together ourselves.
Several suggestions have been offered as to how this joke works. For example, Gordon himself suggested that the bar the dog entered may have doubled as a brothel, and therefore the dog was looking for this second, more clandestine activity “behind closed doors”.
Other suggestions include a play on words regarding the word “open” which could refer to both the need to open a new bar, as this one was empty, and the need for the dog to open its eyes as it could not see anything in the bar. This would gloss as “a dog entered a bar, and could not see anything, so he opened his eyes.”
Doesn’t really work in English, does it? It’s possible it was also not very funny in the ancient Sumerian, and was included in the list of proverbs as advice rather than humor. The moral of the story would therefore be that you should be mindful of your surroundings or you, like the dog, will miss the true purpose of the bar as a brothel.
But if this joke does rely on some quirk of ancient Sumerian or Babylonian habits which we have lost, could we piece together what that might be? For example, were bars mocked in ancient Mesopotamia as houses of worship for the sodden, with the dog bowing his head as if entering a temple and therefore not seeing anything when he walked in?
Many people will rush to focus on the more physical, monolithically impressive side of archaeology. But it is in the little things like this that the ancient world comes to life. The pyramids may be awe-inspiring, but we find more human value in the graffiti left behind by the commoners who built them than in the lavish decoration inside the tomb of the pharaoh.
Top Image: Maybe the Sumerians found the joke funny, or the Babylonians. Source: Applejuice / CC BY-SA 4.0.
By Joseph Green