The Invention of Writing and the
Earliest Literature
And a Little About Gilgamesh
In the Beginning
• Before the invention of writing, stories and
songs were transmitted orally from generation
to generation.
• Without written documents of this oral
tradition, there was always the risk of its
literature being irrevocably lost due to
cataclysms such as foreign conquest or natural
• Writing was not invented for the purpose of
preserving literature;
– the earliest written documents contain commercial,
administrative, political, and legal information.
– They were created by the first "advanced" civilizations in
an area that Westerners commonly call the Middle East.
• These ancient civilizations were agrarian, developing
in the valleys of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates
rivers. Cities began as centers for administration of
irrigated fields, but they soon became centers for
government, religion, and culture.
• The Egyptians built temples and pyramids in Thebes
and Memphis; the Sumerians, Babylonians, and
Assyrians build palaces and temples in Babylon and
The Oldest Writing
• The oldest writing was pictographic, meaning
that the sign for an object was written to
resemble the object itself; later, hieroglyphic
and cuneiform scripts were invented to record
more complicated information.
• The oldest extant texts date from 3300 to 2990 B.C.
and consist mostly of lists of foodstuffs, textiles, and
• Though such lists were well served by pictographs,
by 2800 BC scribes began to make marks in a script
that was later called cuneiform—the Latin cuneus
means "a wedge"—to record more complicated
information such as historical events.
– This form of writing survived more than two
– In Egypt, scribes developed a
different form of writing.
– Named at a later date after the Greek
words for "sacred" and "carving," hieroglyphs also
developed in more cursive versions for faster writing.
• Gilgamesh was reintroduced to the
world when a portion of it,
Utnapishtim‘s Story of the Flood, upon
which the biblical story of the flood is
based1, was accidentally discovered in
1872. Written 4000 years ago
• Since then, tablets containing other
parts of Gilgamesh have been found at
sites throughout the Middle East in
various cuneiform languages.
1. This is the opinion of the editors
of Norton and thus should be taken
as just that—an opinion
• Begun in 2700 B.C. and written down about 2000 B.C.,
the first great heroic narrative of world literature,
Gilgamesh, nearly vanished from memory when it was
not translated from cuneiform languages into the new
alphabets that replaced them.
• Though the identity of its author and context are now
lost, its stories, with their astonishing immediacy,
appeal to modern readers. (apparently the Babylonian
poet who compiled the stories did sign his name—
”Shin-eqi-unninni” making him the earliest recorded author)
• It was originally titled “He who Saw the Deep” (Sha
naqba īmuru) or “Surpassing All Other Kings” (Shūtur
eli sharrī). Gilgamesh was probably a real ruler in the
late Early Dynastic II period (ca. 27th century BC).
• With this profound familiarity, there is also
something infinitely strange and remote about
• The narrative is concerned chiefly with
Gilgamesh's friendship with Enkidu, his quest
for worldly renown and immortality, and his
• It is “an epic” like the Iliad,
the Odyssey and Beowulf.
A long narrative poem
Done in formal style
About an extraordinary hero. . .
who represents his culture.
Universalities Within Gilgamesh
Sacrifice and Responsibility
Grief and Stoicism
Major Balance Points in Gilgamesh
• When Gilgamesh sets himself right; he sets the
world right.
Between wilderness and city
Individual and society
Gods and men
People and leaders
When Gilgamesh sets himself
right, he sets the world right.
Sites Cited
• The British Museum
• The Norton Web for World Literature
• YouTube Gilgamesh
• Gill N. S “Who is the First Named Author?”
About.Com: Ancient History.
• “Introduction to Gilgamesh” Audio Commentary to a
Slideshow Internet Archive.
• “The Epic of Gilgamesh” Wikipedia, the free
encyclopedia. 2 Sept. 2010.

The Invention of Writing and the Earliest Literature