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What Is the Oldest Story Ever Written?

Dr. Thomas Swan has a PhD in psychology from the University of Otago. He specializes in the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion.

A legend is born: King Gilgamesh (center) wrestles leopards in this sculpture from ~2500 BCE, Iraq.

A legend is born: King Gilgamesh (center) wrestles leopards in this sculpture from ~2500 BCE, Iraq.

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 first written on clay tablets in the cuneiform writing style of ancient Sumer (modern Iraq) over four thousand years ago (2100 BCE).

Two parts god and one part man, Gilgamesh is thought to have ruled over the city-state of Uruk around 2750 BCE. His story is a journey of perilous quests and acquired wisdom, but it also includes several familiar myths, including the Great Flood (and the original Noah) and the search for an immortality elixir.

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.

In one of their quests, Gilgamesh (right) and Enkidu offend the gods by slaying the Bull of Heaven.

In one of their quests, Gilgamesh (right) and Enkidu offend the gods by slaying the Bull of Heaven.

A Brief 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, and this move toward civilization made writing a necessity.

In ancient civilizations, temples that were dedicated to the gods doubled as centers for commerce and prosperity, while 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, which helped to reduce the growing number of disputes between wealthy individuals. In other words, the first literate humans were accountants and administrators!

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.

The Discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh

The age of writing is a distant descendant of spoken tales and the human imagination that spawned them 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 in 2100 BCE, was first combined into a complete narrative in 1800 BCE, and became the standard version in about 1100 BCE. 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 whose name means “Oh Moon God, Accept My Prayer!”

Archaeologists have managed to piece together the standard 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 school children learning the Sumerian or Akkadian languages at the time. Those children probably never would have imagined the part they would 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. In the Penguin Classics version, there is also 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!

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

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

The Pantheon of Sumerian Gods

Several Sumerian gods appear in the Epic of Gilgamesh. 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 (bold text) and the other gods mentioned in Gilgamesh appear with their later Akkadian names in the standard version. They include:

  • Anu: He is the supreme sky god.
  • Enlil: He presides over the affairs of gods and men from his terrestrial temple.
  • Ea: He is a clever god who dwells in the ocean below.
  • Mother Goddess: She created humans with Ea.
  • Adad: He is a violent god of storms.
  • Sin: He is the Moon god, son of Enlil.
  • Shamash: He is the Sun god, a son of Sin, patron of travelers, and Gilgamesh’s protector.
  • Ishtar: She is the daughter of Sin and the goddess of sex and war with a voracious appetite for both.
  • Erishkigal: She is Queen of the Netherworld.
  • Namtar: He is a Minister of the Netherworld.
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The Story of Gilgamesh

According to the author, Gilgamesh will be remembered for rebuilding the walls of Uruk on their antediluvian (pre-Flood) foundations and for restoring the temples of the gods. However, the narrative primarily recounts Gilgamesh's dispute and subsequent "bromance" with Enkidu, the beasts they slay together, Gilgamesh's fear of death, and his realization that his quest for immortality is foolish when his true calling is to be a great king. The progression of this realization 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 story portrays the youthful Gilgamesh as a restless, pugnacious, and tyrannical leader who 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.” By the end of the story, however, he wins wisdom and sagacity rather than trophies and prestige. He learns “the sum of wisdom. He saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden.

In the story, the people of Uruk complain about the restless Gilgamesh to the god Anu, who restores peace by creating Enkidu, a wild man of equal strength. The magnificent Enkidu is said to delight in the beasts of the wild, roaming the planes and pulling up hunter’s traps. A harlot is sent to tame him, resulting in quite a graphic sexual encounter, and Enkidu’s loss of innocence is portrayed as a tragic and moving journey from savage to “civilized” being.

When Enkidu travels to Uruk, he challenges and fights Gilgamesh, which leads to a mutual respect and a deep friendship. What follows are the more traditional deeds of ancient heroes. Together they slay beasts and ogres, and they offend the gods before tragedy befalls them (see video below). 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?

Patrick Stewart imparts the magnificence of Gilgamesh

Unlike other ancient literature, our hero can be cruel and he can lose his courage. When Gilgamesh’s dreams shake his usual optimism, Enkidu interprets them as favorable 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 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.

The Gilgamesh Flood Story

When Uta-Napishti relays his story to Gilgamesh, it immediately becomes clear 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 then 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 superficial differences suggest that the Old Testament version was plagiarized.

Summary

Rather than a tale of religious mythology, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a story of what it means to be human. The aspirations and tribulations endured by the hero Gilgamesh resonate today as they did thousands of years ago. It is 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.

© 2012 Thomas Swan

Comments

Lynne Harriton on January 07, 2020:

This is an excellent description of the Gilgamesh. It is interesting to learn that the main theme is fear of death. I was swept away by Gilgamesh’s love of Enkidu, and saw him as mastering a normal fear of death because he missed Enkidu so strongly that nothing to him was more important than bringing Enkidu back. Nowadays we’d call their relationship “a bromance,” but a bromance is still a love story and Gilgamesh, the first story ever written was a love story, a romance.

Have a Good Day on November 09, 2018:

*Or theism. That's much more comforting, I think. anyways, you don't need to be a Christian to read the Bible. You don't have to agree with what it says to take interest in it. You could read Ezekiel, for one thing. Again, you can moderate this comment, and that's fine, but I'd like to say that I care about you, and that, if anything, you're the wiser person in the room. This is your territory. But I'd like to help, that's all. One last thing: "For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, being understood from what has been made. So that they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Probably Radically Underinformed Person on November 09, 2018:

I do think it is comforting to believe in something other than blind chance. I don't believe, though, that it's not self-entitled to think that we could just exist. Isn't the point of postmodernism and the like to feel miserable and unimportant in a vast sea of meaninglessness? Whether we were chanced into existence or not, I think I'll stick with deism. Postmodern tangents aren't really comforting thoughts for an advanced consciousness to turn over, alone, I would think.

Random person on October 15, 2018:

Could Noah have been a real, living person that became mythologized in this Epic? Of course, the Epic of Gilgamesh was written before the Pentateuch, but does the Biblical account seem more or less “real” ? Anyways, this was still a very good, informative article.

Archangel on August 02, 2018:

disgusting and foolish attack on the Bible. You did not "disprove" the Bible. If you were wise this should do nothing but confirm the truths within the Bible. All cultures share these same stories meaning they are all true just with a different twist. Some of these twist are the clues or bigger picture to other versions that may be lacking info. The Bible proves itself time and time again yet the silly disbeliever still has learned nothing. The locations, people, etc in the Bible can be visited today. Nothing has been disproved in the Bible. NOTHING. Its a collection of world history and truth not only on the surface level but following the tradition of the "mysteries" a lot of it is heavily coded thus keeping the "pearls from swine" and retaining the promise for those who have EYES TO SEE AND EARS TO HEAR. I pray for your wicked souls to find God and turn away from sin. Archaeology, science, etc pretty much all groups that try their hardest, even dedicating there life to the cause of "disproving God"...all attempts have still turned up UNSUCCESSFUL. Much to their dismay ALL ROADS LEAD TO GOD and what you see as a crutch for your stance against the Most High, the UPRIGHT and JUST see it as proof and confirmation that the BIBLE in itself IS IN FACT TRUE AND GODS WORD IS LAW.

Mohamed Isa Hasan on November 16, 2017:

Beautifully written and very informative.Thank you.

Anita Lewis on May 11, 2017:

Do you know of the Annunaki

s.satish kumar on December 01, 2016:

Beautifully written and very informative.Thank you.

Marlon boweni on August 31, 2016:

Never knew the story but now I know

Matthew Caudill on December 12, 2015:

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!

Mel92114 on September 26, 2014:

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 :)

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on September 25, 2014:

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 on September 25, 2014:

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 (author) from New Zealand on March 20, 2014:

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.

Char Diehm on March 20, 2014:

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 (author) from New Zealand on March 18, 2014:

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.

Vanderleelie on June 12, 2013:

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.

Will English on May 09, 2013:

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

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 11, 2013:

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!

KrisL from S. Florida on March 11, 2013:

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

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on March 11, 2013:

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.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 08, 2013:

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

Elias Zanetti from Athens, Greece on March 08, 2013:

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

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 08, 2013:

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

Dreamer at heart from Northern California on March 08, 2013:

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

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 08, 2013:

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.

Mahaveer Sanglikar from Pune, India on March 08, 2013:

Interesting information, thank you for sharing it.

Sanjay Sonawani from Pune, India. on March 07, 2013:

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?

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on December 23, 2012:

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.

Petra Vlah from Los Angeles on December 22, 2012:

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 (author) from New Zealand on December 18, 2012:

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.

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on December 17, 2012:

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

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