Finger of God

The First Literature

"No matter how one chooses to interpret the epic's conclusion, it is in itself a testament to its longevity and power, that we today, 3000 years after it was written, still discuss this story."

"In better understanding Sumerian literature, information concerning its origin can be beneficial. Although the proverbs and stories most likely existed before they were written, the development of edubbas (Sumerian schools) seemed responsible for writing down this existing literature and developing new literature. Clay tablets intended for practice in writing have been found that are dated as early as 3000 b.c.(9) Writing may have been used first for administrative records, but creative writing is where the Sumerians excelled.
Much of Sumerian literature is written in a poetic form. Although meter and rhyme were unknown concepts, other devices such as metaphors, simile, and repetition were used. Authors did not write with constructive plots, but rather tended to ramble in a disconnected fashion. Unlike stories of today, Sumerian stories seemed to lack emotion and suspense and therefore had no climax.(10)
Although Hebrew and Egyptian proverbs each held the rank of being the oldest known, Sumerian proverbs now hold that honour. This should not be surprising since the Sumerians were responsible for the invention of writing. The oldest tablets with written proverbs were found in Nippur and are dated from the eighteenth century b.c.(11) The proverbs from this ancient time, though dissimilar in language, are related in idea to modern proverbs. A common modern saying such as "blood is thicker than water" can be seen in the Sumerian proverb "Friendship lasts a day, Kinship lasts forever."(12) Although this is an ancient civilization, their proverbs hold very comparable ideas to today.

"Another type of Sumerian literature is the animal fable. As with proverbs, the origin of animal fables was also misplaced. Aesop wrote such fables in the sixth century b.c. and was considered the first, yet new evidence points again to the Sumerians who predated Aesop by a millennium. Although much of the text is broken, many fables still exist. Two hundred and ninety five proverbs and fables have been translated and include references to 64 different species of animals, with dogs and domestic cattle topping the list.(13) In fact a reference to horseback riding in these fables is the earliest known reference to the domestication of horses. These animals have certain characteristics associated with them. For example, the fox was considered to be conceited, yet a coward and exaggerated his worldly position: "The fox gnashes its teeth, but its head is trembling."(14)

There is more than one version of the "Epic of Gilgamesh". Although the basic content of the myth is believed to be of Sumerian origin, it was the Babylonians who connected the stories. Though the Babylonian version follows much of the plot, it differs greatly in detail. The first eleven tablets of the epic can be said to be of Semitic origin (the twelfth is a direct translation from an original Sumerian poem entitled "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World"). For example, with respect to the story of the deluge the Sumerian version is concerned with the immortalisation of Ziusudra who easily gave Gilgamesh his answer to immortality. In contrast, the Babylonian version takes this opportunity to have Utanapishtim (their equivalent to Ziusudra) tell the story in the first person before answering Gilgamesh. There are portions of the "Epic of Gilgamesh" that have no known source in Sumerian text - whether this translates to the sections not being of Sumerian origin or that they have not survived the passage of time is unknown though existing evidence suggests a Babylonian origin. The stories concerning the forging of friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu and the death and burial of Enkidu are available only in the Babylonian version.(15)
Nine Sumerian epics have been identified and five of them concern Gilgamesh. "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven" and "The Death of Gilgamesh" are both incomplete while the other three are well preserved - "Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish", "Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living"and "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World".(16) Gilgamesh was portrayed as a hero, a great man and was believed to be one-third man and two thirds god. The poems written about him are significant since they are centred on a man rather than on a god which was the standard for Sumerian epics. Though Gilgamesh is two thirds god, it is his actions as a man which are considered important; the gods, though present, are not the focus of the poems.(17)
In "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether World" the love-goddess Inanna had rescued a huluppu-tree from being washed away by the Euphrates. She returned to her city of Erech and planted this tree in her garden with the intention of using it to make a seat and a couchwhen it had matured. When she went to harvest it, however, she found it occupied by a snake, a bird who had built a nest for its young and Lilith who had made a home in it. Inanna told her brother, the sun-god, what had happened and Gilgamesh, who overheard this, came and vanquished the snake. The others, after witnessing this, fled the tree and Gilgamesh and his men cut it down so Inanna could build her furniture. Inanna, however,fashioned a drum and drum stick from the tree and gave them to Gilgamesh. These gifts were soon to fall into the nether world because of complaints by the young women of Erech against Gilgamesh. He was unable to retrieve them himself so Enkidu volunteered.Gilgamesh warned him of the taboos associated with venturing into the Netherworld:
Do not put on clean clothes,
Lest like an enemy the (nether world) stewards will come forth,
Do not anoint yourself with the good oil of the bur-vessel,
Lest at its smell they will crowd about you.(18)

Enkidu ignored these warnings and was captured by Kur. Gilgamesh asked gods for help in freeing his friend and Enlil ordered Utu to open a hole in the nether world which allowed Enkidu to escape.(19) Gilgamesh as a man is the focus of this myth. As a man he helps the love goddess Inanna and asks the gods to help Enkidu. He is also vulnerable to making human mistakes and getting in trouble for them.

Another biblical parallel is the story of the Noah's flood found on a tablet dated as being from roughly 1967 b.c. Although the text is incomplete and broken in sections it tells of a man named Ziusudra who must have been instructed by the gods to build a boat to survive the deluge. This text, though not part of the "Epic of Gilgamesh", was incorporated into it.
As Gilgamesh is searching for immortality he comes upon Ziusudra who tells him the deluge story.(23) As has been noted this section of the Gilgamesh story may be more of a Babylonian creation rather than a Sumerian one.

Sumerian literature represents some of the oldest known stories to exist. Although writing began for administrative purposes, creative writing flourished in the hands of these people. It not only impacted their own culture, but influenced others as well as is evidenced from the Babylonians and their Epic of Gilgamesh and the parallels present in the bible. Ranging in type from proverbs and animal fables to myths or stories, Sumerian literature varies from fifty to near one thousand lines. It was written on clay tablets that had to be uncovered by archaeologists and deciphered by cuneiformists. Although many of these tablets were damaged, with the assistance of Sumerian schools and their practice of copying, much of the literature remains today. Not all of the existing literature is fully understood and there is a high probability that there exists more yet to be found. Though these people existed thousands of years ago, we have their literature to help us understand their culture, and it has even influenced our own."

Paradise and a Great Flood
"Clinging to their belief in the goodness and power of their gods and wondering about their sin and the toil and strife with which they lived, the Sumerians imagined a past in which people lived in a god-created paradise. This was expressed in the same poetic tale that described the conflict between the king of Uruk and the distant town of Arrata -- the earliest known description in writing of a paradise and the fall of humankind. The poem describes a period when there were no creatures that threatened people -- no snakes, scorpions, hyenas, or lions -- a period in which humans knew no terror. There was no confusion among various peoples speaking different languages, with everyone praising the god Enlil in one language. Then, according to the poem, something happened that enraged the god Enki (the god of wisdom and water who had organized the earth in accordance with a general plan laid down by Enlil). The clay tablet on which the poem was written is damaged at this point, but the tablet indicates that Enki found some sort of inappropriate behavior among humans. Enki decided to put an end to the golden age, and in the place of the golden age came conflict, wars and a confusion of languages.

On another clay tablet, surviving fragments of a poem describe the gods as having decided that humans were evil and the gods as having created a flood "to destroy the seed of humanity," a flood that raged for seven days and seven nights. The tablet describes a huge boat commanded by a king named Ziusudra, who was preserving vegetation and the seed of humankind. His boat was "tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters." When the storm subsided, the god Utu -- the sun -- came forward and shed light on heaven and earth. The good king Ziusudra opened a window on the boat and let in light from Utu. Then Ziusudra prostrated himself before Utu and sacrificed an ox and a sheep for the god."

To read the translation of Gilgamesh click here: Gilgamesh, the epic

Back to Intro
free webpage counters