What Is the Oldest Story Ever Written?
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!
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.
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 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.
- Epic Hero | History & Archaeology | Smithsonian Magazine
How a self-taught British genius rediscovered the Mesopotamian saga of Gilgamesh after 2,500 years.