The world’s oldest ‘yo mama’ joke

Researchers decipher works of Babylonian-era cut-ups, but don’t always understand them.

February 9, 2012 17:45
4 minute read.
Clay tablet with Akkadian writing [illustrative]

Clay tablet with writing in the Akkadian language 390. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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What do virginity, beer, execution and ‘Yo Mama’ have in common?

They are all the subjects of six 3,500-year-old riddles from ancient Babylon that researchers have deciphered but in many cases are still struggling to understand.

The riddles were written in Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language used by the Babylonians and Assyrians and recorded in logograms. They were found in present day Iraq years ago but had been forgotten until a German and Israeli professor, two of just a few-score people in the world today who understand the ancient tongue, translated them.  

And it turns out not much has changed over the millennia. Even in ancient Mesopotamia, people enjoyed crude jokes about politicians, alcoholic drinks and references to (someone else’s) mother’s sex life.

For instance:

He gouged out the eye:
It is not the fate of a dead man.
He cut the throat: A dead man

And the answer: The governor.

"This riddle describes the power of a governor, namely to act as a judge who punishes or sentences to death,” Michael Streck, a professor at the Altorientalisches Institut at Universitat Leipzig, told The Media Line. Streck worked with Nathan Wasserman, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in translating the tablets, where are believed to have been written around 1,500 B.C.

“It wasn’t surprising to read the riddles because we have known for a long time that they existed. It is difficult to understand them, I admit,” Streck said. “But there’s a big gap between our understanding and these ancient writings,”

Another brainteaser reads:

Like a fish in a fish pond,
like troops before the king.

The answer: A broken bow.

According to the researchers, “A possible interpretation of the riddle is that a broken bow is as useless as a fish, which is not caught but still swims in the well, or as troops who do not fight in battle but remain in front of the king.”

Some of the brainteasers are less obvious:

In your mouth and your teeth (or your urine)
constantly stared at you
The measuring vessel of your lord.

Answer: Beer.

Streck said the riddle tablets are extremely rare.

“There are some half a million ancient tablets that have been unearthed,” he explained. “Most of these deal with records of daily activities, diplomatic letters or monument text, in other words, royal propaganda. Only about a dozen of these tablets are riddles.”

He speculated that they may have been “writing exercises” by young scribes in the ancient world because they were clearly written by an inexperienced hand.

The tablets are believed to have been uncovered in southern Iran near the Gulf. They were originally studied in 1976 by the scholar J.J. van Dijk when they were housed at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. But following the two Gulf Wars and the museum’s pillaging in 2003, the tablets’ current whereabouts are unknown. Streck said he and Wasserman used the 35-year-old 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. 

“They sometimes say something about morale and what people think about in daily life and politics,” he said.

One mind-bending riddle poses a contradiction to solve:

The deflowered girl did not become pregnant
The undeflowered girl became pregnant

The answer: Auxiliary forces.

“This is difficult. I must admit we don’t understand this riddle,” Streck said. “There is some sexual connotation here, and it is also political.”

Another conundrum appears to be the first “Yo Mama” joke and it reads:

… of your mother
is by the one who has intercourse [with her]

The Answer: That will have to be left to the reader’s imagination. The tablet was found damaged and the solution to the riddle has been lost to posterity.

Streck said riddles were designed to communicate truths about life and were most likely making the rounds orally before scribes recorded them. He said the scribe responsible for the six tablets was most likely a student - and probably not one at the top of his class - since they were poorly written.

Akkadian was written in logograms – visual symbols representing words rather than the sounds that make up the words.  Some of the words were missing and according to van Dijk, they showed “very careless writing.”

The riddles are among many fascinating 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.

“Riddles, like proverbs or fables, provide us an intimate insight into ancient people's minds, beyond the monolithic worldview of royal ideology and official religious beliefs,” he said. “It is, therefore, not surprising, perhaps even comforting, to find that we are immediately connected to texts of these rare genres.”

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