What Is the Oldest Story Ever Written?

Gilgamesh (right) and Enkidu offending the gods by slaying the Bull of Heaven.
Gilgamesh (right) and Enkidu offending the gods by slaying the Bull of Heaven. | Source

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Over a thousand years before the Old Testament and the Odyssey, an unknown author composed the first enduring story in the history of mankind. The Epic of Gilgamesh was written on clay tablets in the cuneiform writing style of ancient Sumer (modern Iraq) over four thousand years ago.

Two parts god and one part man, Gilgamesh is thought to have ruled over the city-state of Uruk around 2750 B.C. His story is a mixed journey of perilous endeavors and acquired wisdom, but it also includes a number of familiar myths such as the Great Flood and the original Noah.

Primarily, the epic is a window into the desires and troubles that immersed the thoughts of a semi-divine Sumerian king. More than just a tale of heroism, it is the story of Gilgamesh’s path to wisdom and maturity; the benefits of civilization over savagery, and a lesson for future kings to fulfill their sacred and mundane duties. Perhaps the most pervasive theme is Gilgamesh’s fear of death, a perennial concern that is as salient today as it was thousands of years ago.

The history of the written word

The oldest works of writing were not tales of great kings, nor were they mythological stories about the gods. During the Neolithic age of mankind (12,000 to 5,000 years ago), agriculture allowed our species to transition from hunter-gatherers to settled farmers. Temples dedicated to the gods doubled as centres of commerce and prosperity, where the surrounding land was allotted to prestigious farmers. As these settlements grew into towns and cities it became increasingly difficult for temple managers to remember the division of land and wealth. Writing developed as a means to keep records, reducing the growing number of disputes between wealthy individuals. The first literate humans were accountants!

A fragment of a clay tablet depicting the story of Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven.
A fragment of a clay tablet depicting the story of Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven. | Source
The front cover of the most recent translation of Gilgamesh shows a Persian Winged Bull.
The front cover of the most recent translation of Gilgamesh shows a Persian Winged Bull.

The discovery of Gilgamesh

The age of writing is a distant descendant of the human imagination, and once poets and bards began to immortalize their work, a literary revolution followed. Verbally recounted stories grew into epic compositions, with each successive generation building on the exploits of the last.

The Epic of Gilgamesh began as a collection of poems 4,000 years ago, and grew into the standard version 1,000 years later. It was originally called “Surpassing all other kings” and later became “He who saw the Deep”, epitomizing Gilgamesh’s pursuit of wisdom. This standard version was compiled by Sin-liqe Unninni, an exorcist who’s name means “Oh Moon God, Accept My Prayer!”. Archaeologists have managed to piece together this version from 73 different sources that were discovered in Iraq and other Middle Eastern locations over the past 150 years. Many of the cuneiform clay tablets that provide us with the epic were copied by students learning the Sumerian or Akkadian languages. Those children probably never would have imagined the part they'd play in preserving the epic for such distant posterity.

Despite the continuing work of archaeologists and assyriologists, the most recent compilation of the epic only has 80% of its 3,000 lines intact. This Penguin Classics version comes with a lengthy introduction describing the history of the Sumerian civilization and the quest to recover the clay tablets from Iraq. It is best to avoid this introduction until after the story as it is quite the spoiler! Furthermore, prior to each chapter is a summary of events. It is best to ignore this completely, as it is not required to understand the text.

The Sumerian pantheon may have included as many as 3600 deities.
The Sumerian pantheon may have included as many as 3600 deities. | Source

Pantheon of Sumerian gods

The Sumerian religion was a polytheistic faith in the same model as the later Greek and Egyptian religions. It consisted of a supreme triad, with a number of lesser deities. This triad (emboldened), and the other gods mentioned in Gilgamesh appear with their Akkadian names in the standard version:

  • Anu – Supreme sky god.
  • Enlil – Presides over the affairs of gods and men from his terrestrial temple.
  • Ea – A clever god who dwells in the ocean below.
  • Mother Goddess – Created humans with Ea.
  • Adad – Violent god of storms.
  • Sin – Moon god, son of Enlil.
  • Shamash – Sun god, son of Sin, patron of travellers, and Gilgamesh’s protector.
  • Ishtar – Goddess of sex and war, with a voracious appetite for both.
  • Erishkigal – Queen of Netherworld.
  • Namtar – Minister of Netherworld.

Patrick Stewart imparts the magnificence of Gilgamesh

The travails of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh recounts a king’s struggle with his fear of death, and his foolish quest for immortality. However, as the epic makes clear, Gilgamesh will be remembered for rebuilding the city’s walls on their antediluvian foundations, and restoring the temples of the gods. This realization and how it comes about is the nucleus of the story. It encapsulates Gilgamesh’s journey from impetuous youth to wise king. He learns his place in the great scheme of things, finding wisdom through adversity.

The youthful Gilgamesh is a restless, pugnacious, and tyrannical leader. He terrorizes his people by intimidating and challenging the young men of Uruk, and letting no girl go free to her bridegroom. Gilgamesh is described as a “wild bull on the rampage”, the “tall, magnificent, and terrible”, unsleeping, charming, happy, carefree, handsome by earthly standards, and having “no equal when his weapons are brandished”. However, rather than winning trophies and prestige; he gains wisdom and sagacity. He learns “the sum of wisdom. He saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden”.

The people of Uruk complained about the restless Gilgamesh to the god Anu, who restored peace by creating a wild man to be his companion and equal. The magnificent Enkidu delights in the beasts of the wild, roaming the planes and pulling up hunter’s traps. In another rarity of ancient literature, a harlot is sent to tame him, resulting in quite a graphic sexual encounter. The tragedy of Enkidu’s loss of innocence is a unique and moving journey from savage to “civilized” being.

When Enkidu travels to Uruk, he challenges and fights Gilgamesh, spawning a mutual respect and a deep friendship. What follows are the more traditional deeds of ancient heroes. Together they slay beasts and ogres, and offend the gods before tragedy befalls them. Gilgamesh then begins his quest for the elixir of immortality, wandering the wild with anger and despair in his heart: “When may the dead see the rays of the sun?

Contrasting more recent epics, our hero can be cruel, and he can lose his courage. When Gilgamesh’s dreams betray his optimism, Enkidu interprets them as favourable omens to give his friend courage. When the stature of his foes imbues his heart with fear, Enkidu is again on hand to boost morale.

Gilgamesh’s restless impatience follows him to the ends of the Earth, hindering his progress, and striking fear into those who may help him. Upon reaching his destination, he discloses his original intent to engage his teacher in combat to extract the secret he desires. The wise Uta-Napishti quells his anger and ends his quest with the revelations he imparts.

The story of Noah is borrowed from a much older Sumerian creation myth.
The story of Noah is borrowed from a much older Sumerian creation myth. | Source
The cuneiform clay tablet holding the story of Uta-Napishti, who survived the Deluge. It was written over a thousand years before the Bible.
The cuneiform clay tablet holding the story of Uta-Napishti, who survived the Deluge. It was written over a thousand years before the Bible. | Source

The Gilgamesh flood story

When Uta-Napishti relays his story to Gilgamesh, it becomes clear to the reader that Uta-Napishti is the Biblical character, Noah. Written over a thousand years before the Old Testament, the story of Uta-Napishti tells us of the Great Flood, known to the Sumerians as the Deluge.

The gods tell Uta-Napishti to “demolish the house and build a boat!” and to “take on board the boat all living things’ seed!”. Uta-Napishti follows their instructions: “I set on board all my kith and kin, the beasts of the field, the creatures of the wild”. The gods send a terrible storm that blots out the sky, flooding the world and destroying mankind: “It is I who give birth, these people are mine! And now like fish they fill the ocean!

Uta-Napishti’s boat runs aground on Mount Nimush. After seven days he lets out a dove, but it finds no place to land and returns. A swallow does the same, while a raven finds carrion bowing and bobbing in the water (the dead) and does not return. Uta-Napishti (also known as Atram-Hasis) makes an offering to the gods, who discover him and settle him on a remote island, far from the new generation of men.

The similarities between the stories of Uta-Napishti and Noah are too striking to put down to chance, and the differences make the veracity of the Biblical story questionable. The original story must hold greater value than the reproduction.


Rather than a tale of religious mythology, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a story of what it means to be human. As such, the aspirations and tribulations endured by the hero Gilgamesh resonate today as they did thousands of years ago. It is quite fitting that the oldest story ever written is also the most salient for our species. There is no greater preoccupation for the human mind than our fear of death, and no more captivating narrative than our quest to overcome it.

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Comments 24 comments

Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

This is a great and informative hub! I love mythology and classical studies; I enjoyed reading this, very much!

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 3 years ago from New Zealand Author

Thanks Marcy! It took a long time to write, but I think it was worth it. I've read Gilgamesh twice now, and the level of writing is top drawer for the time. Also it has some welcome differences from the Greek myths and legends, which are often stereotypical tales of heroes slaying beasts.

Petra Vlah profile image

Petra Vlah 3 years ago from Los Angeles

The story of Gilgamesh's journey to the underworld has been verbally shared through the years and has influenced other cultures of the ancient world. Egyptians become obsessed with eternal life and from building pyramids to developing sophisticated methods of embalming they tried to ensure that by preserving the body, the soul will have a place to return to. The story of the flood found its way into the Bible and so did the serpent (with a different meaning and a different set of actions, but always as a deceiving character)

What I did not know is that the first literate people were accountants; that made me smile, because through the years they lost some of their intellectual abilities...

Great writing Thomas, I very much enjoyed it

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 3 years ago from New Zealand Author

Thanks for the comment Petra! I am less familiar with Egyptian religious history but I'm aware they influenced Christianity quite a bit; especially the Jesus myth. I'll have to look out for the serpent story.

I think people these days fail to realise that past religions were almost entirely concerned with overcoming death, and preparing for the afterlife. They come up with theories about how religion began by focussing on the many properties of modern religions instead.

Yes, I was surprised by the accountants too, although they would have had no literary flair at all. Their works would have consisted of lists of people and what they traded or possessed: "John owns two donkeys and a field north of the temple" and things like that.

sanjay-sonawani profile image

sanjay-sonawani 3 years ago from Pune, India.

Thanks again for introduction to the great epic of the ancient past. Quest for the immortality is so deeply rooted that I think no mythology exists that doesn't think of attaining immortality. In my recent novel; "The Awakening" I had handled similar issue. Reading your article made me think there are many aspects of life every society on the globe think similarly. Innate human traits?

jainismus profile image

jainismus 3 years ago from Pune, India

Interesting information, thank you for sharing it.

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 3 years ago from New Zealand Author

Thanks for commenting sanjay and jainismus. I agree we have an innate fear of death. This existential anxiety is necessary for avoiding danger. In the ancient past, those of us who feared death prevailed over those who wasted life, and their genetic material was passed on. Now we all fear death, and religion is probably the most imaginative product of that fear.

starstream profile image

starstream 3 years ago from Northern California

Thanks for sharing your studies and interesting ancient history. This is a great hub!

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 3 years ago from New Zealand Author

Thanks starstream! I believe Egyptian and Greek history is focused on too much, so I'm glad you found this interesting.

Elias Zanetti profile image

Elias Zanetti 3 years ago from Athens, Greece

Mesopotamia is where civilization flourished for the first time. Thank you very much for this super hub, learned a lot!

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 3 years ago from New Zealand Author

Cheers Elias! Indeed, Mesopotamia deserves far more attention because it can teach us about the civilizations that followed.

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 3 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

Enjoyed this read, nicely written and presented. How time changes a country but not the human condition and the need to record experience.

As a drama teacher I've tied to turn some of these older stories and myths into plays - the last one I attempted was the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation story. Fascinating stuff.

Gilgamesh is a wonderful tale, thanks for sharing.

I'll vote for this hub.

KrisL profile image

KrisL 3 years ago from S. Florida

An interesting hub . . . I read the epic a long time ago and this makes me want to re-visit it. Thnaks!

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 3 years ago from New Zealand Author

Thanks for the comments chef-de-jour and KrisL!

chef, I'm sure Gilgamesh would make an excellent play, the costumes could be incredible! I'm surprised Hollywood hasn't made a big blockbuster out of it yet, unless I missed it.

Kris, I read it a second time for this hub. It was certainly worth it as I gained a greater understanding of the story. I would thoroughly recommend it!

Willsummerdreamer profile image

Willsummerdreamer 3 years ago from Marietta, Georgia.

One of my favorite stories. Great hub. *voted up*.

Vanderleelie profile image

Vanderleelie 3 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this hub about Gilgamesh. As you have stated, the story resounds with insight into human nature, with emphasis on strengths and weaknesses. Voted up and interesting.

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand Author

Thank you for your comments Willsummerdreamer and Vanderleelie.

Donald, I find it sad that Jesus has dominated your life to such an extent that you're unable to construct a coherent sentence. A wasted mind is a sad thing indeed. I don't blame you; I blame your religion. I forgive you for the hurtful words in your comment.

Char Diehm 2 years ago

Well done Thomas Swan. It's unfortunate that Donald is so very insecure about his faith that he felt compelled to attack the way he did. I first read this story in a lit class in college and found it illuminating with regard to the Bible, which in all honesty I don't think was intended for the masses as much as it was intended to be a book for Israel. Gilgamesh is the same. It's the writer's attempt to preserve a cultural history, which includes what had to be the verbal remembrance of a massive catastrophic event caused by flooding and what had to seem like endless rain. Humans need to know, and explain, the inexplicable and for most people only a supernatural entity (God or Gods) can explain this type of event.

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand Author

Thanks Char Diehm. I agree that the Bible was relevant for people 2000 years ago in Israel, and it's sad that undue reverence for it has carried the book into a completely alien era. Our need to explain catastrophic events probably is why books like this get written. If anything, it provides a comfort to believe that something other than blind chance caused it. It gives them a belief in having some level of control over the events if they behave themselves and make sacrifices to their deities. I like how Gilgamesh brings in more of a human story though too, like how he matures and learns vital lessons about the limits of his power and the responsibilities of a king.

Mel92114 profile image

Mel92114 2 years ago

Absolutely fantastic hub, Thomas. Such an eye-opening story in how it relates to the Biblical stories...I've not read Gilgamesh in quite awhile, I think it's time to revisit :)

I love your work. Such honest, well researched, interesting information is what it's all about. Rock on!

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand Author

Thanks Mel92114! That's very nice of you to say.

You're right that it's an eye-opening story that has a lot to offer. The Epic of Atrahasis is probably even more indicative of how the Bible plagiarized/adapted the original flood story. Atrahasis is an earlier Akkadian name for Uta-Napishti.

I did a direct comparison of the Epic of Atrahasis and Noah's Ark in my hub "The Sumerian Flood Story". I found some remarkable similarities. I don't believe there was any malice in plagiarizing it; I just think the story was so popular and universally accepted that it had to be incorporated into any new religion at the time.

Mel92114 profile image

Mel92114 2 years ago

I agree, Thomas, I don't think there were any bad intentions on their part to copy such a story or stories at the time. I often and can't help but wonder though, today, how many are aware of it? I know it changed a lot for me when I became aware of such things.

I'm off to read your hub "The Sumerian Flood Story". So glad there are writers like you here :)

Matthew Caudill 10 months ago

It seems as if stories repeats itself and that gossiping will go along way and when you hear about people doing certain things then the mind tries to get you to duplicate it exactly how you were tought by listening. I love stories very much and I will tell others or as i can say teach others as if the "beginner" did for us!

Marlon boweni 8 weeks ago

Never knew the story but now I know

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