Over the last few months, we have harped about quite a few world’s oldest historical artifacts and institutions, ranging from the oldest known song to the oldest operating library. Well this time around, we have decided to present yet another pillar of human culture – literature, and how it started out from the perspective of history. To that end, quite unsurprisingly, like many man-made achievements (including wheels and law codes), literature had its origins in ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. In fact, the development of literature was a direct effect of the invention of written language, an achievement generally attributed to the Sumerians circa 3400 BC. And while these ‘written’ cuneiform texts, inscribed on clay tablets and reliefs, started out as recording devices for administrative purposes, over time Sumerians also copied literature pieces that presented tales, myths and essays. In that regard, the world’s oldest known literature pieces pertain to two such surviving specimens – the Kesh Temple Hymn and the Instructions of Shuruppak.
The Kesh Temple Hymn (also known as the Liturgy to Nintud) is basically relates to a series of Sumerian clay tablets that were inscribed circa 2600 BC. From the archaeological perspective, several fragments of the tablets were discovered in early 20th century, mostly from the temple library at ancient Sumerian city of Nippur. Since then experts have been able to compile much of the myth by various translations, along with analytical and comparative procedures that entailed the assessment of similar (yet different versioned) tablets. To that end, the Kesh Temple Hymn possibly consists of around 134 lines, divided into eight songs referred to as ‘temples’.
As for the core content of this ancient literature piece, the narrative (comprising the hymn) mainly revolves around how Enlil, the Sumerian god of breath and wind, heaps his praise upon the city of Kesh, since the settlement’s temple is chosen for the assembly of the gods known as Ekur. Interestingly enough, the hymn itself is attributed to yet another divine being – Nisaba, the goddess of vegetation, writing and literature. In essence, the Kesh Temple Hymn was presented as the work of gods, possibly to endow it with an air of legitimacy (and sanctity) during the ancient times. The first paragraph of the ancient literature piece roughly reads like this –
The princely one, the princely one came forth from the house. Enlil, the princely one, came forth from the house. The princely one came forth royally from the house. Enlil lifted his glance over all the lands, and the lands raised themselves to Enlil. The four corners of heaven became green for Enlil like a garden. Kesh was positioned there for him with head uplifted, and as Kesh lifted its head among all the lands, Enlil spoke the praises of Kesh.
The other literature work that is generally considered among the oldest in the world (and possibly the world’s oldest surviving written text) pertains to the Instructions of Shuruppak. Touted as one of the better examples of Sumerian wisdom literature, the ‘piece’ comprises a group of cuneiform tablets dating from around 2600-2500 BC, originally discovered at Abu Salabikh (around 12 miles from ancient Nippur). Now in accordance to Sumerian traditions and annals of kings, Shuruppak was the son of Ubara-Tutu, the last king of Sumer before the deluge – the flood myth that has its parallel in many ancient tales ranging from Gilgamesh (Babylonian), Manu (Indian) to Noah (Biblical). In the Sumerian version, it was Ziusudra (also known as Utnapishtin in Akkadian) who survives the flood, and he is designated as the son of Shuruppak (or grand-son of Ubara-Tutu).
Coming back to the ‘Instructions of Shuruppak’, the extant Abu Salabikh tablet along with other surviving copies, contains a list of counsels that are presented like proverbs – comprising one to three lines of cuneiform. The range of wisdom offered by a father to his son (and eventual hero) oscillates between simple practicality to upholding morality. For example, some of the practical instructions say –
You should not locate a field on a road.
You should not make a well in your field: people will cause damage on it for you.
Other philosophical and morality based counsels talk about –
A loving heart maintains a family; a hateful heart destroys a family.
You should not play around with a married young woman: the slander could be serious.
Do not pass judgment when you drink beer.
Lastly, it should be noted that while these aforementioned tablets are the oldest surviving pieces of literature, the world’s oldest known complete tale (and epic) probably pertains to the renowned Epic of Gilgamesh. The story in itself entails a series of mythic poems that were possibly composed by 2100 BC; though the most complete version of the entire tale was compiled by the Babylonians circa 12th century BC.
Book Reference: The Literature of Ancient Sumer (By Jeremy A. Black)