These days, it may seem like you see a new meme every time you log onto the Internet. Whether it’s Sarcastic Spongebob or Blinking White Guy or Distracted Boyfriend, there’s always some new image, video, or phrase that takes the Internet by storm and is suddenly seen pretty much everywhere.
Think back to the earliest memes you remember. You’re probably picturing one of the classic image macros with white and black text over it. Something like this Bad Luck Brian meme:
It wasn’t until 2012 that the word “meme” skyrocketed into mainstream usage as the term for image macros like this one. But while this may be the earliest type of meme you remember, it’s far from the first meme that ever existed. For that, we have to go back a lot further than anything you remember on the Internet. In fact, the first meme wasn’t on the Internet at all.
Let’s start by defining what a meme is. The term “meme” was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He described memes as being “tunes, ideas, catchphrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” He said that “memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” In other words, memes are to culture what genes are to humans: they’re the building blocks that make up the whole.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see that memes existed well before Bad Luck Brian and his image-macro counterparts. Even on the Internet, there were memes well before Bad Luck Brian made his appearance in 2012. There was the “Mr. T Ate My Balls” meme that inexplicably took over the web in 1997. Before that, there was the Dancing Baby you probably recognize best from Ally McBeal.
And while a TV show from the mid-’90s is pretty darn old, the Dancing Baby (also known as Baby Cha-Cha) isn’t even close to being the oldest meme in the world. For that, we need to go way back to the ancient Roman empire, when everyone was obsessed with death.
If you were hanging out with the ancient Romans, there’s one phrase you’d hear constantly: Memento Mori. It’s Latin for “Remember that you have to die” and is meant as a reminder that life is brief, so one should make the most of their ephemeral existence. This sentiment was typically accompanied by skulls and crossbones, as well as other visual reminders of mortality.
The idea of Memento Mori made an appearance in nearly every culture on the planet and was still in use well into the 17th century. As a meme, Memento Mori had some serious staying power. In fact, one could argue that we’re still under its influence today. After all, isn’t YOLO basically the exact same reminder to live life to the fullest? In some ways, Memento Mori is not only the oldest meme, but also the longest-standing one. Well before Richard Dawkin put a name to the concept in 1976, and before white and black text was ever emblazoned over an evocative image, Memento Mori was there, a constant reminder that this too shall pass.