What is the earliest evidence of pop culture/viral trends throughout history? By pop culture I mean music, theater etc... Basically "gangam style" of the olden days. I understand that any sort of trends would be much more localized than nowadays, but does anyone have any good examples of this sort of pop culture?

  • 6
    I'm gonna guess looking at funny cats. Why ELSE would someone domesticate the bloody nuisances all those thousands of years ago?
    – DVK
    Commented Mar 3, 2013 at 0:56
  • 1
    Well, that would explain the ancient Egyptian cat obsession...
    – eskimo
    Commented Mar 3, 2013 at 1:25
  • 1
    @eskimo - google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.duatdesigns.com/gallery/…
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 3, 2013 at 13:24
  • 1
    This is not earliest evidence, but I think about Renaissance. Although artists like Michelangelo or Leonardo created mainly for nobility, but William Shakespeare would be a very good example of "mass culture".
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 7:43
  • 1
    define "pop culture" - there has been music and theatre from before recorded human history. google provides two conflicting definitions - the first emphasizes mass media and young people (thereby limiting the question to after the invention of mass media) and the second suggests that it is cultural creations designed to appeal to the masses - which once again would extend the boundary back to pre-history. Without a definition of the term, the question is eternally mired in opinion.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 11:03

4 Answers 4


Probably the oldest examples of this that we still have are the epic poems. Poems like the Iliad or Mahabharata or Epic of Gilgamesh long before being written down were recited orally (most likely sung) by people who had the entire work memorized. In this way, early bards would have combined the roles of entertainer, historian, cultural propagandist, and sometimes priest. (They also clearly had to have an amazing memory)

There were certainly other popular songs (just as there are today) but most of the shorter ones wouldn't have achieved the cultural importance required for somebody to bother to write them down. Some of the few that did can be found in Psalms, and in much of our recorded ancient Tamil poetry.


At first I was thinking about mythology, but I'd definitely count Aesop's Fables becoming one of the first virals, with such epigons as Babrius or Phaedrus in ancient times, spreading later across nations and languages as their own fairy tales or poetry.

  • +1. Hower, according the wikipedia entry, Aesop's fable are much older than Aesop (if he ever existed). " Modern scholarship reveals fables and proverbs of "Aesopic" form existing in both ancient Sumer and Akkad, as early as the third millennium BCE." They where already virally spreading accorss nations before Aesop ! Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 13:44

Was going to comment, but trying to break that habit. Much later than the Iliad, which is a good answer. The first thing which came to my mind was William Shakespeare. In his time, before his plays transcended the transient nature of Pop culture to become a leading high-water mark of more elevated distraction.

Specifically the appearance of Sir John Falstaff in the Merry Wives of Windsor. I was thinking of Falstaff the fat man, comical figure who appeared in 4 Shakespeare Plays.

  • Henry the IV(part1)
  • Henry the IV(part2)
  • Henry the V(where he dies),
  • finally in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

It is widely taught and conventional wisdom that Queen Elizabeth commissioned the play "Merry Wives of Windsor", specifically because she wanted to see a play where the popular comical character was married. Even though technically Falstaff was killed off in Henry the V a previous play.

Which always screamed the beginning of pop culture to me.

The Queen and Pop Culture to support my answer in the comments be low.

The Queen and James Bond on Global TV during the 2012 Olympics. enter image description here

The Queen and Maryland Monroe when they were both 30. enter image description here

The Queen and Lady Gaga enter image description here

  • I'm not sure that a play commissioned by royalty is "pop culture". OP refuses to define pop culture, but that seems to be the opposite of pop culture in my mind.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 17:49
  • 1
    @MarkC.Wallace I refute your point. Just because the Queen is tacitly associated(believed to have commissioned) the Merry Wives of Windsor doesn't transform the playwright or play to high brow culture. When James Bond escorted Queen Elizabeth into the Olympics in 2012, nobody was conflating James Bond with "Citizen Kane" or "The Battleship Potemkin". Likewise Maryland Monroe, The Spice Girls and Lady GaGa with similar exposure to the queen do not today share equal billing with Brahams. ( No reason this can't be fun.... :) )
    – user27618
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 18:21
  • Your refutation establishes my point. "pop culture" is undefined, it is a humpty dumpty word and can simultaneously hold multiple conflicting valid interpretations. </grin> Battleship Potemkin has to be pop culture because the Soviets had no elites, but it cannot be pop culture because all Soviet Art was ideological/socialist realism. Or perhaps all Socialist Realism is pop culture because it educates the masses. James Bond is a tool used to shore up the patriarchy and therefore not pop, but is very profitable, and therefore pop.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 18:28
  • @MarkC.Wallace, I bow to your superior witticism in the genre of history and await the day we can all put on tuxedo's and watch the three stoges.
    – user27618
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 18:39

I think, despiet being imprecise definition of "pop culture" in your question, it is implied that this is a phenomena of bourgeois culture to the masses, stating there commercialization of cultural goods in high levels of market, with these products available in electronic medias.

Failure to consider it obscures any attempt to pinpoint the earliest manifestations of pop culture, allowing them to speculate that tell tales around the campfire is prehistoric pop culture, what sounds somewhat incredible.

For my part I think a lot of pop culture manifestation in time is indented Billie Holyday, but we must also mention Carlos Gardel.

  • 1
    Deleted some comments that were explaining the downvote, but were not up to our standards of interpersonal interaction. As I understand it, the user does not like the word "bourgeois" due to its unrelated communist associations in English, and felt that if nothing else Shakespeare clearly counts, and in general just strongly disagreed with the definition of "pop culture" this answer appeared to be using.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 13:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.