What is the oldest known piece of literature?

What is the oldest known piece of literature?

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As with the wheel, cities and law codes, the earliest examples of written literature appear to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerian civilization first developed writing around 3400 B.C., when they began making markings on clay tablets in a script known as cuneiform. Their texts usually consisted of economic and administrative documents, but by the third millennium B.C., Sumerian scribes were also copying down essays, hymns, poetry and myths. Two of their oldest known literary works are the “Kesh Temple Hymn” and the “Instructions of Shuruppak,” both of which exist in written versions dating to around 2500 B.C. The former is an ancient ode to the Kesh temple and the deities that inhabited it, while the latter is a piece of “wisdom literature” that takes the form of sagely advice supposedly handed down from the Sumerian king Shuruppak to his son, Ziusudra. One of Shuruppak’s proverbs warns the boy not to “pass judgment when you drink beer.” Another counsels that “a loving heart maintains a family; a hateful heart destroys a family.”

While Shuruppak’s fatherly wisdom is one of the most ancient examples of written literature, history’s oldest known fictional story is probably the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a mythic poem that first appeared as early as the third millennium B.C. The adventure-filled tale centers on a Sumerian king named Gilgamesh who is described as being one-third man and two-thirds god. Over the course of twelve clay tablets’ worth of text, he goes on a classic hero’s journey that sees him slay monsters, rub elbows with the gods and search for the key to immortality—all with predictably tragic results. The Epic of Gilgamesh started out as a series of Sumerian poems and tales dating back to 2100 B.C., but the most complete version was written around the 12th century B.C. by the Babylonians. The story was later lost to history after 600 B.C., and it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that archaeologists finally unearthed a copy near the Iraqi city of Mosul. Since then, scholars have hailed the 4,000-year-old epic as a foundational text in world literature.


Literature (from the Latin Littera meaning 'letters' and referring to an acquaintance with the written word) is the written work of a specific culture, sub-culture, religion, philosophy or the study of such written work which may appear in poetry or in prose. Literature, in the west, originated in the southern Mesopotamia region of Sumer (c. 3200) in the city of Uruk and flourished in Egypt, later in Greece (the written word having been imported there from the Phoenicians) and from there, to Rome. Writing seems to have originated independently in China from divination practices and also independently in Mesoamerica and elsewhere.

The first author of literature in the world, known by name, was the high-priestess of Ur, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE) who wrote hymns in praise of the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Much of the early literature from Mesopotamia concerns the activities of the gods but, in time, humans came to be featured as the main characters in such poems as Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta and Lugalbanda and Mount Hurrum (c.2600-2000 BCE). For the purposes of study, Literature is divided into the categories of fiction or non-fiction today but these are often arbitrary decisions as ancient literature, as understood by those who wrote the tales down, as well as those who heard them spoken or sung pre-literacy, was not understood in the same way as it is in the modern-day.


The Truth in Literature

Homer's soaring odes to the grandeur of the Grecian fleet sailing for Troy or Odysseus's journey across the wine-dark sea were as real to listeners as his descriptions of the sorceress Circe, the cyclops Polyphemus or the Sirens. Those tales which today are regarded as myth were then considered as true and sacred as any of the writings contained in the Judeo-Christian Bible or the Muslim Quran are to believers. Designations such as fiction and non-fiction are fairly recent labels applied to written works. The ancient mind understood that, quite often, truth may be apprehended through a fable about a fox and some unattainable grapes. The modern concern with the truth of a story would not have concerned anyone listening to one of Aesop's tales what mattered was what the story was trying to convey.

Even so, there was a value placed on accuracy in recording actual events (as ancient criticism of the historian Herodotus' accounts of events shows). Early literary works were usually didactic in approach and had an underlying (or often overt) religious purpose such as in the Sumerian Enuma Elish of 1120 BCE or the Theogony of the Greek writer Hesiod of the 8th century BCE.


One of the earliest known literary works is the Sumerian/Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh from c. 2150 BCE which deals with themes of heroism, pride, nationality, friendship, disappointment, death, and the quest for eternal life. Whether what happened in the tale of Gilgamesh 'actually happened' was immaterial to the writer and to the listener. What mattered was what the audience was able to take away from the tale.

The best example of this is a genre known as Mesopotamian Naru Literature in which historical figures feature in fictional plots. The best-known works from this genre include The Curse of Agade and The Legend of Cutha, both featuring the great Akkadian king Naram-Sin (r. 2261-2224 BCE), grandson of Sargon of Akkad (r. 2334-2279 BCE, father of Enheduanna). Both of these works have Naram-Sin behaving in ways which are contradicted by physical evidence and other, more factual, writings. The purpose of Naru Literature, however, was not to relate what `really' happened but to emphasize a moral, cultural, and religious point.

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Examples of Ancient Literature

The Pyramid Texts of Egypt, also considered literature, tell of the journey of the soul to the afterlife in the Field of Reeds and these works, unlike Mesopotamian Naru Literature, presented the subject as truth. Egyptian religious culture was based on the reality of an afterlife and the role the gods played in one's eternal journey, of which one's life on earth was only one part. Homer's Iliad recounts the famous ten-year war between the Greeks and the Trojans while his Odyssey tells of the great hero Odysseus's journey back home after the war to his beloved wife Penelope of Ithaca and this, like the other works mentioned, reinforced cultural values without a concern for what may or may not have happened concerning the war with Troy.

The story told in the biblical Book of Exodus (1446 BCE) is considered historical truth by many today, but originally could have been meant to be interpreted as liberation from bondage in a spiritual sense as it was written to empower the worshipers of Yahweh, encouraged them to resist the temptations of the indigenous peoples of Canaan, and elevated the audience's perception of themselves as a chosen people of an all-powerful god.


The Song of Songs (c. 950 BCE) from the Hebrew scripture of the Tanakh, immortalizes the passionate love between a man and a woman (interpreted by Christians, much later, as the relationship between Christ and the church, though no such interpretation is supported by the original text) and the sacred aspect of such a relationship. The Indian epic Mahabharata (c.800-400 BCE) relates the birth of a nation while the Ramayana (c. 200 BCE) tells the tale of the great Rama's rescue of his abducted wife Sita from the evil Ravna. The works found in the Assyrian King Asurbanipal's library (647-627 BCE) record the heroic deeds of the gods, goddesses and the struggles and triumphs of heroic kings of ancient Mesopotamia such as Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh. Scholar Samuel Noah Kramer points out that the early Sumerian works - and, indeed, Sumerian culture as a whole - resonates in the modern day on many levels and is especially apparent in literature. Kramer writes:

It is still apparent in a Mosaic law and a Solomonic proverb, in the tears of Job and a Jerusalem lament, in the sad tale of the dying man-god, in a Hesiodic cosmogony and a Hindu myth, in an Aesopic fable and a Euclidean theorem, in a zodiacal sign and a heraldic design. (5)

Originality in Ancient Literature

Most early works were written in the poetical metre which the writer had heard repeated over time and, therefore, the dating of such pieces as the Enuma Elish or the Odyssey is difficult in that they were finally recorded in writing many years after their oral composition. The great value which modern-day readers and critics place on 'originality' in literature was unknown to ancient people. The very idea of according a work of the imagination of an individual with any degree of respect would never have occurred to anyone of the ancient world. Stories were re-tellings of the feats of great heroes, of the gods, the goddesses, or of creation, as in Hesiod and Homer.

So great was the respect for what today would be called 'non-fiction', that Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155 CE) claimed his famous History of the Kings of Briton (which he largely made up) was actually a translation from an earlier text he had 'discovered' and Sir Thomas Malory (1405-1471 CE) famed as the author of the Morte D'Arthur, denied any original contributions to the work he compiled from earlier authors, even though today it is clear that he added much to the source material he drew from.


This literary tradition of ascribing an original work to earlier, seemingly-authoritative, sources is famously exemplified in the gospels of the Christian New Testament in that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, understood by many believers to be eye-witness accounts of the ministry of Jesus, were written much later by unknown authors who chose names associated with the early church.

Literature encompasses forms such as poetry, drama, prose, folklore, epic tale, personal narrative, poetry, history, biography, satire, philosophical dialogues, essays, legends and myths, among others. Plato's Dialogues, while not the first to combine philosophical themes with dramatic form, were the first to make drama work in the cause of philosophical inquiry. Later writers drew on these earlier works for inspiration (as Virgil did in composing his Aeneid, based on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, between 30-18 BCE) and this tradition of borrowing lasted until the time of Shakespeare (1564-1616 CE) and continues in the present day.

Origins of 'Beowulf'

Little is known about this famous epic poem's origins, unfortunately. Many believe that "Beowulf" may have been composed as an elegy for a king who died in the seventh century, but little evidence indicates who that king may have been. The burial rites described in the epic show a great similarity to the evidence found at Sutton Hoo, but too much remains unknown to form a direct correlation between the poem and the burial site.

The poem may have been composed as early as around 700 C.E. and evolved through many retellings before it was finally written down. Regardless, whoever the original author may have been is lost to history. "Beowulf" contains many pagan and folkloric elements, but there are undeniable Christian themes as well. This dichotomy has led some to interpret the epic as the work of more than one author. Others have seen it as symbolic of the transition from paganism to Christianity in early medieval Britain. The extreme delicacy of the manuscript, the perceived two separate hands that inscribed the text, and the complete lack of clues to the identity of the author make a realistic determination difficult at best.

Originally untitled, in the 19th century the poem was eventually referred to by the name of its Scandinavian hero, whose adventures are its primary focus. While some historical elements run through the poem, the hero and the story are both fictional.

The oldest story ever written

By Laura Miller
Published April 24, 2007 10:41AM (EDT)


There's no better illustration of the fragility and the power of literature than the history of "The Epic of Gilgamesh," the oldest known literary work, composed in Babylonia more than 3,000 years ago. About 400 years later, after one of the ruthless, bloody sieges typical of that time, the epic was buried in the ruins of a Mesopotamian palace. There it lay, utterly forgotten along with the name of the king who once reigned in that palace, until a British archaeologist and his Iraqi assistant unearthed it not far from the modern city of Mosul in 1840.

David Damrosch's artful, engrossing new history, "The Buried Book," relates how "The Epic of Gilgamesh" was lost and found -- or rather how it was found and lost, since he tells the story backward, from the present to the past, in an archaeological fashion. It's a risky narrative gambit, and Damrosch is gifted enough to pull it off, no small feat. Think of it: He asks you to be excited about what the characters in his story are discovering even before you know quite how important it is. But that, after all, is the nature of archaeology and what gives the discipline its distinctive thrill. What you're excavating is probably just another empty Egyptian tomb, stripped clean by grave robbers hundreds of years ago. Or you could be Howard Carter on the best day of his life in 1922, prying open that tiny breach in the left-hand corner of a doorway, catching a whiff of air unbreathed for thousands of years, shining in a light and telling your companions that you see, "Yes, wonderful things!"

The recovery of the "The Epic of Gilgamesh" was less dramatic, mostly because it was drawn out over decades, but the prize was even more fabulous than the treasures of King Tut's tomb: the oldest story ever told -- or, at least, the oldest one told in writing. It is the tale of a king, and full of sex, violence, love, thievery, defiance, grief and divine retribution. It's the first buddy picture, the first depiction of the Underworld, the precursor to the legend of Noah and his ark. If it were like hundreds of other great and ancient stories -- the death and resurrection of Osirus, the quest of Orpheus, Sigurd's slaying of the dragon Fafnir -- it would have reached us through countless retellings, gradually morphing and splitting and fusing with other stories over the years. Those stories come to us like the DNA of our ancestors, still present within us, but reshaped by generations of mutations and ultimately as familiar as our own faces.

Instead, "The Epic of Gilgamesh," preserved on 12 clay tablets, fell into a kind of time capsule in the fabled cradle of civilization. When archaeologists dug it up again it was like one of those movies in which a caveman captured in permafrost gets thawed out to meet the modern world. True, some bits of the epic have embedded themselves in other stories -- most notably the Old Testament -- and then have been handed down from one storyteller to the next through the ages. But much of the epic feels both fresh and alien, a piece of the past all Westerners (and many Asians) share, unsmoothed by the passage of the centuries.

Its hero, Gilgamesh, is the regal son of a man and a goddess, a lineage that makes him one-third human and two-thirds divine. At the beginning of the epic, Gilgamesh is a dreadful king, rampaging through his city-state of Uruk, forcing the young men of his kingdom to engage in endless contests and, worst of all, insisting on the droit de seigneur -- or the right of a lord to deflower his community's virgins on their wedding nights. The women of Uruk protest this violation to the gods, who respond in an exceptionally roundabout way by making a man out of clay, Enkidu, and letting him loose in the wilderness, where he lives alone, befriending the animals and ripping apart the traps hunters set for them. The hunters retaliate by asking Gilgamesh to send a temple prostitute to the wilderness to seduce and civilize Enkidu. She succeeds -- but not before Enkidu manages to sustain an erection for an impressive seven days and seven nights.

The priestess persuades Enkidu to move to a village, where he meets a wedding party lamenting the forthcoming rape of the bride by Gilgamesh. The outraged Enkidu storms into Uruk, confronts Gilgamesh and an earthshaking wrestling match ensues. The two men battle to a draw, whereupon Gilgamesh realizes that he has finally met his equal and new best friend. In fact, Enkidu is the very man whose coming Gilgamesh's mother has prophesied: "Like a wife you'll love him, caress him and embrace him." (The blatantly homoerotic dimension of this great friendship doesn't figure in the very earliest Sumerian legends about Gilgamesh it was added to the now-standard Babylonian version of the epic, written down 1,000 years later.)

Enkidu moderates Gilgamesh's "restless spirit," but even he cannot dissuade the king from launching a timber raid on a cedar forest outside his borders. The timber (a valuable commodity in arid Mesopotamia) is guarded by the fearsome ogre, Humbaba. In the midst of this expedition, for reasons not entirely clear, Enkidu suddenly switches strategies and stops restraining his friend. Instead, he eggs Gilgamesh on, encouraging him to slaughter the defeated Humbaba, and bringing the ogre's terrible curse down upon them both.

After that, things go downhill. The love goddess Ishtar attempts to seduce Gilgamesh, but he rejects her haughtily. In vengeance, the gods send the Bull of Heaven to plague Uruk, but Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay it and Enkidu taunts Ishtar with the beast's hindparts. This is the last straw the gods set aside their previously rather indirect methods and kill Enkidu. After mourning his friend for an entire tablet, Gilgamesh sets off in search of a distant ancestor, Uta-napishtim the Faraway, the sole survivor of a great, primeval flood and the only man to be spared death by the gods. Uta-napishtim refuses to help him, and he must return to Uruk empty-handed and still doomed to die. Back home, he comforts himself with rejoicing in the magnificence of his city. (A final tablet, a kind of appendix, describes how Enkidu once stumbled into the underworld -- the "House of Dust" -- and, after being rescued by the gods, told Gilgamesh everything he saw there.)

As Damrosch points out, although the epic was lost for millennia, some threads from Gilgamesh's story survived in other myths. Enkidu, who loses his ability to commune with the beasts after succumbing to the temple prostitute, is like Adam and Eve cast out of the Earthly Paradise and estranged from the state of nature. But for the Mesopotamians, Damrosch goes on to explain, this didn't constitute a fall from grace as they saw it, Enkidu graduated from savagery to a civilized existence, a step up. The friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu resembles that of Achilles and Patroklos in "The Iliad," and that's no coincidence, according to the classicist M.L. West, who has argued that "poet-singers were likely performing 'Gilgamesh' in Syria and Cyprus during the period in which the Homeric epics were first being elaborated."

In the Victorian era, however, the most sensational aspect of "The Epic of Gilgamesh," was its description of the "great deluge," a catastrophe occurring on the threshold between myth and history. When a self-educated assistant curator named George Smith first deciphered these passages in 1872, the cuneiform tablets had already been sitting around the museum's collection for 30-odd years. Although not as dramatic as Carter's opening of Tutankhamen's tomb in Luxor, the moment when Smith first puzzled out the lines is enough to thrill any writer: "I am the first person to read that," Smith said to a colleague, "after two thousand years of oblivion."

The announcement that some of those old, broken slabs of clay seemed to confirm the biblical story of the flood and Noah's Ark made headlines and instantly catapulted the brand-new discipline of Assyriology to public attention. Prime Minister William Gladstone even turned up to hear Smith speak on the subject, "the only occasion," one of the scholars observed, "on which the British Prime Minister in office has attended a lecture on Babylonian literature." Finally, when the British Museum refused to cough up the funds to send Smith to the Middle East to dig up more tablets, the Daily Telegraph newspaper raised the money.

Smith, too, seized upon the scenes of the flood as validation of the Old Testament account many early archaeologists were obsessed with biblical verification. Not everyone agreed, however. The New York Times suggested that the inscription "may be regarded as a confirmation of the statement that there are various traditions of the deluge apart from the Biblical one, which is perhaps legendary like the rest." (In fact, stories of global floods crop up in all sorts of disconnected mythologies.) Certainly, the epic didn't point to human sinfulness as the cause of the flood, as the Bible does. According to Uta-napishtim, the gods wiped out humanity because the exploding population was making too much noise and disturbing their sleep.

It was the excitement over the religious implications of the fragments, though, that helped fund further expeditions to Nineveh, the site of the buried palace of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king who had completely vanished from the historical record, largely because he wasn't mentioned in the Bible. Damrosch describes the unearthing and the translating of the epic largely through the stories of Smith and Hormuzd Rassam, a native of Mosul who fell in love with archaeology while assisting on the first excavations of the ruins of Nineveh, which lay right across the Tigris from his hometown. The working-class Smith and the Iraqi Rassam (a Chaldean Christian) make appealing underdog protagonists for Damrosch, who takes pains to point out the bias they both faced in a field dominated by well-born European amateurs.

The villain of the piece (besides the usual run of unsupportive administrators, and racist explorers) is one E.A. Wallis Budge. Despite his obscure origins, Budge became a kind of celebrity Egyptologist and friend of various aristocrats and literary figures, including H. Rider Haggard and E. Nesbit. (Nesbit based a character on Budge in her children's novel, "The Story of the Amulet.") This prolific man also wrote several books on the history of Assyriology in which the character and contributions of both Smith and Rassam were belittled, and he even removed Rassam's name from placards and other museum documentation. Rassam made the disastrous decision to sue Budge for slander after learning that Budge had been blaming him for the disappearance of artifacts from museum digs. Rassam won his case, but it was one of those lawsuits that proves ruinous even in victory.

"The Buried Book" is an exhumation in its own right Damrosch hopes to rescue the Iraqi archaeologist's reputation from Budge's calumny. The book is rich in felicitous parallels or analogies, such as Damrosch's comparison of Smith to Henry Morton Stanley, whose expedition to Central Africa in search of the explorer-missionary Dr. David Livingstone was similarly championed and funded by London newspapers. Damrosch has a good eye for the details that make his occasionally stuffy material breathe -- like mentioning that Lewis Carroll carefully clipped out a newspaper story about Smith's discovery and pasted it into his scrapbook or that Rassam charmed Arab nomads with a gift of cake, something they'd never tasted before: "they exclaimed to each other, 'bread flavored with sugar and butter!'"

This knack really comes in handy when Damrosch writes about the reign of Ashurbanipal, the great Assyrian king in whose library the tablets containing "The Epic of Gilgamesh" were found. Assyrian potentates were a boastful lot, but digging beneath all the fanfaronades and self-aggrandizement, Damrosch has found letters that vividly sketch court life in Nineveh. Ashurbanipal's father, Esarhaddon, apparently suffered from a chronic illness (some scholars have suggested it was lupus). He was also depressed and paranoid, provoking his counselors to write nagging notes ("Is one day not enough for the king to mope and eat nothing? For how long?") and his oracles, speaking for the goddess Ishtar, to dissuade him from losing heart ("I will make you overcome anxiety and trembling"). There's even a message from one of Esarhaddon's sons explaining how a wheel of his chariot came to be broken and imploring, "Now let my lord the king give an order, so that they may do the work on it."

Perhaps the only really unconvincing chapter in "The Buried Book" is the last one, in which Damrosch attempts to show how the literary legacy of "The Epic of Gilgamesh" lives on in contemporary fiction. His examples -- a bad Philip Roth novel ("The Great American Novel"), about a baseball player turned Soviet agent inexplicably named Gil Gamesh, and one of Saddam Hussein's romantic potboilers, about an isolated king advised by a beautiful commoner -- don't touch on what actually resonates in the story. It's a tale of the power of deep friendships and the futility of denying mortality, told with a stoicism profoundly at odds with our own relentlessly optimistic popular culture. I see more of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the "Lethal Weapon" action movie franchise than in Roth's Cold War parable, but the fatalism and resignation of the poem is a quality alien to our time.

The story of the story, though, is something else again. Luck most definitely played a role. Had a roof beam or a column fallen a different way during the sacking and destruction of Ashurbanipal's palace in 612 B.C., the tablets might not have been left broken but largely intact. (Epics composed during the Assyrian king's reign were pulverized and are now known to us only in rumor and fragment.) Had "The Epic of Gilgamesh" been taken to another library, the tablets might have been worn out by use and discarded or lost in other disasters like the burning of the great Library at Alexandria Damrosch reminds us that only seven of Aeschylus' 90 tragedies have survived to modern times. Without the work of dedicated Assyriologists we might have the tablets but be unable to read them.

To the ancient Mesopotamians, it probably seemed impossible that one day Gilgamesh would be forgotten -- for us, that would be like forgetting Heracles or Superman or Little Red Riding Hood. After a while, people stopped telling his story, and if it weren't for those buried tablets and the men who dug them up, his name would have vanished forever. In a way, Gilgamesh got his immortality after all.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Literature and writing, though connected, are not synonymous. The very first writings from ancient Sumer by any reasonable definition do not constitute literature—the same is true of some of the early Egyptian hieroglyphics or the thousands of logs from ancient Chinese regimes. Scholars have often disagreed concerning when written record-keeping became more like "literature" than anything else the definition is largely subjective.

Moreover, given the significance of distance as a cultural isolator in earlier centuries, the historical development of literature did not occur at an even pace across the world. The problems of creating a uniform global history of literature are compounded by the fact that many texts have been lost over the millennia, either deliberately, by accident, or by the total disappearance of the originating culture. Much has been written, for example, about the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in the 1st century BC, and the innumerable key texts which are believed to have been lost forever to the flames. The deliberate suppression of texts (and often their authors) by organisations of either a spiritual or a temporal nature further shrouds the subject.

Certain primary texts, however, may be isolated which have a qualifying role as literature's first stirrings. Very early examples include Epic of Gilgamesh, in its Sumerian version predating 2000 BC, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was written down in the Papyrus of Ani in about 1250 BC, but probably dates from about the 18th century BC. Ancient Egyptian literature was not included in early studies of the history of literature because the writings of Ancient Egypt were not translated into European languages until after the Rosetta stone was deciphered in the early 19th century.

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey date to the 8th century BC, and mark the beginning of Classical Antiquity. They also stand in an oral tradition that stretches back to the late Bronze Age.

China Edit

The Classic of Poetry (or Shijing) is the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry, comprising 305 works by anonymous authors dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC. The Chu Ci anthology (or Songs of Chu) is a volume of poems attributed to or considered to be inspired by Qu Yuan's verse writing. Qu Yuan is the first author of verse in China to have his name associated to his work and is also regarded as one of the most prominent figures of Romanticism in Chinese classical literature.

The first great author on military tactics and strategy was Sun Tzu, whose The Art of War remains on the shelves of many modern military officers (and its advice has been applied to the corporate world as well). Philosophy developed far differently in China than in Greece—rather than presenting extended dialogues, the Analects of Confucius and Lao Zi's Tao Te Ching presented sayings and proverbs more directly and didactically. The Zhuangzi is composed of a large collection of creative anecdotes, allegories, parables, and fables a masterpiece of both philosophical and literary skill, it has significantly influenced writers and poets for more than 2000 years from the Han dynasty to the present.

Among the earliest Chinese works of narrative history, Zuo Zhuan is a gem of classical Chinese prose. This work and the Shiji or Records of the Grand Historian, were regarded as the ultimate models by many generations of prose stylists in ancient China.

Hebrew Literature Edit

The books that constitute the Hebrew Bible developed over roughly a millennium. The oldest texts seem to come from the eleventh or tenth centuries BCE, whilst most of the other texts are somewhat later. They are edited works, being collections of various sources intricately and carefully woven together.

The Old Testament was compiled and edited by various men [1] over a period of centuries, with many scholars concluding that the Hebrew canon was solidified by about the 3rd century BC. [2] [3] The works have been subject to various literary evaluations (both secular and religious). Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “In the Jewish Old Testament, there are men, things and speeches in so grand a style that Greek and Indian literature have nothing to compare to it. One stands with awe and reverence before these tremendous remnants of what man once was. The taste for the Old Testament is a touchstone of 'greatness' and 'smallness'.” [4]

Classical antiquity Edit

Greek literature Edit

Ancient Greek society placed considerable emphasis upon literature. Many authors consider the western literary tradition to have begun with the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, which remain giants in the literary canon for their skillful and vivid depictions of war and peace, honor and disgrace, love and hatred. Notable among later Greek poets was Sappho, who defined, in many ways, lyric poetry as a genre.

A playwright named Aeschylus changed Western literature forever when he introduced the ideas of dialogue and interacting characters to playwriting. In doing so, he essentially invented "drama": his Oresteia trilogy of plays is seen as his crowning achievement. Other refiners of playwriting were Sophocles and Euripides. Sophocles is credited with skillfully developing irony as a literary technique, most famously in his play Oedipus Rex. Euripedes, conversely, used plays to challenge societal norms and mores—a hallmark of much of Western literature for the next 2,300 years and beyond—and his works such as Medea, The Bacchae and The Trojan Women are still notable for their ability to challenge our perceptions of propriety, gender, and war. Aristophanes, a comic playwright, defines and shapes the idea of comedy almost as Aeschylus had shaped tragedy as an art form—Aristophanes' most famous plays include the Lysistrata and The Frogs.

Philosophy entered literature in the dialogues of Plato, who converted the give and take of Socratic questioning into written form. Aristotle, Plato's student, wrote dozens of works on many scientific disciplines, but his greatest contribution to literature was likely his Poetics, which lays out his understanding of drama, and thereby establishes the first criteria for literary criticism.

The New Testament is an unusual collection of texts--John's Book of Revelation, though not the first of its kind, essentially defines apocalypse as a literary genre.

Latin literature Edit

In many respects, the writers of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire chose to avoid innovation in favor of imitating the great Greek authors. Virgil's Aeneid, in many ways, emulated Homer's Iliad Plautus, a comic playwright, followed in the footsteps of Aristophanes Tacitus' Annals and Germania follow essentially the same historical approaches that Thucydides devised (the Christian historian Eusebius does also, although far more influenced by his religion than either Tacitus or Thucydides had been by Greek and Roman polytheism) Ovid and his Metamorphoses explore the same Greek myths again in new ways. It can be argued, and has been, that the Roman authors, far from being mindless copycats, improved on the genres already established by their Greek predecessors. For example, Ovid's Metamorphoses creates a form which is a clear predecessor of the stream of consciousness genre. What is undeniable is that the Romans, in comparison with the Greeks, innovate relatively few literary styles of their own.

Satire is one of the few Roman additions to literature—Horace was the first to use satire extensively as a tool for argument, and Juvenal made it into a weapon.

Augustine of Hippo and his The City of God do for religious literature essentially what Plato had done for philosophy, but Augustine's approach was far less conversational and more didactive. His Confessions is perhaps the first true autobiography, and it gave rise to the genre of confessional literature which is now more popular than ever.

India Edit

Knowledge traditions in India handed down philosophical gleanings and theological concepts through the two traditions of Shruti and Smriti, meaning that which is learnt and that which is experienced, which included the Vedas. It is generally believed that the Puranas are the earliest philosophical writings in Indian history, although linguistic works on Sanskrit existed earlier than 1000 BC. Puranic works such as the Indian epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata, have influenced countless other works, including Balinese Kecak and other performances such as shadow puppetry (wayang), and many European works. Pali literature has an important position in the rise of Buddhism. Classical Sanskrit literature flowers in the Maurya and Gupta periods, roughly spanning the 2nd century BC to the 8th century AD. Classical Tamil literature also emerged in the early historic period dating from 300 BC to 300 AD, and is the earliest secular literature of India, mainly dealing with themes such as love and war.

Europe Edit

After the fall of Rome (in roughly 476), many of the literary approaches and styles invented by the Greeks and Romans fell out of favor in Europe. In the millennium or so that intervened between Rome's fall and the Florentine Renaissance, medieval literature focused more and more on faith and faith-related matters, in part because the works written by the Greeks had not been preserved in Europe, and therefore there were few models of classical literature to learn from and move beyond. What little there was became changed and distorted, with new forms beginning to develop from the distortions. Some of these distorted beginnings of new styles can be seen in the literature generally described as Matter of Rome, Matter of France and Matter of Britain.

Although much had been lost to the ravages of time (and to catastrophe, as in the burning of the Library of Alexandria), many Greek works remained extant: they were preserved and copied carefully by Muslim scribes.

In Europe, hagiographies, or "lives of the saints", are frequent among early medieval texts. The writings of Bede—Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum—and others continue the faith-based historical tradition begun by Eusebius in the early 4th century. Playwriting essentially ceased, except for the mystery plays and the passion plays that focused heavily on conveying Christian belief to the common people. Around 400 AD the Prudenti Psychomachia began the tradition of allegorical tales. Poetry flourished, however, in the hands of the troubadours, whose courtly romances and chanson de geste amused and entertained the upper classes who were their patrons. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote works which he claimed were histories of Britain. These were highly fanciful and included stories of Merlin the magician and King Arthur. Epic poetry continued to develop with the addition of the mythologies of Northern Europe: Beowulf and the Norse sagas have much in common with Homer and Virgil's approaches to war and honor, while poems such as Dante's Divine Comedy and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales take much different stylistic directions.

In November 1095, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont. The crusades would affect everything in Europe and the Middle East for many years to come and literature would, along with everything else, be transformed by the wars between these two cultures. For instance the image of the knight would take on a different significance. Also the Islamic emphasis on scientific investigation and the preservation of the Greek philosophical writings would eventually affect European literature.

Between Augustine and The Bible, religious authors had numerous aspects of Christianity that needed further explication and interpretation. Thomas Aquinas, more than any other single person, was able to turn theology into a kind of science, in part because he was heavily influenced by Aristotle, whose works were returning to Europe in the 13th century.

Islamic world Edit

The most well known fiction from the Islamic world was The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), which was a compilation of many earlier folk tales told by the Persian Queen Scheherazade. The epic took form in the 10th century and reached its final form by the 14th century the number and type of tales have varied from one manuscript to another. [5] All Arabian fantasy tales were often called "Arabian Nights" when translated into English, regardless of whether they appeared in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, in any version, and a number of tales are known in Europe as "Arabian Nights" despite existing in no Arabic manuscript. [5]

This epic has been influential in the West since it was translated in the 18th century, first by Antoine Galland. [6] Many imitations were written, especially in France. [7] Various characters from this epic have themselves become cultural icons in Western culture, such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba. However, no medieval Arabic source has been traced for Aladdin, which was incorporated into The Book of One Thousand and One Nights by its French translator, Antoine Galland, who heard it from an Arab Syrian Christian storyteller from Aleppo. The popularity of the work may in part be due to greater popular knowledge of history and geography since it was written. This meant that the plausibility of great marvels had to be set at a greater distance of time ("long ago") and place ("far away"). This is a process that continues, and finally culminates in fantasy fiction having little connection, if any, to actual times and places. A number of elements from Arabian mythology and Persian mythology are now common in modern fantasy, such as genies, bahamuts, magic carpets, magic lamps, etc. [7] When L. Frank Baum proposed writing a modern fairy tale that banished stereotypical elements he felt the genie, dwarf and fairy were stereotypes to avoid. [8]

A number of stories within the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) also feature science fiction elements. One example is "The Adventures of Bulukiya", where the protagonist Bulukiya's quest for the herb of immortality leads him to explore the seas, journey to the Garden of Eden and to Jahannam, and travel across the cosmos to different worlds much larger than his own world, anticipating elements of galactic science fiction [9] along the way, he encounters societies of jinns, [10] mermaids, talking serpents, talking trees, and other forms of life. [9] In another Arabian Nights tale, the protagonist Abdullah the Fisherman gains the ability to breathe underwater and discovers an underwater submarine society that is portrayed as an inverted reflection of society on land, in that the underwater society follows a form of primitive communism where concepts like money and clothing do not exist. Other Arabian Nights tales deal with lost ancient technologies, advanced ancient civilizations that went astray, and catastrophes which overwhelmed them. [11] "The City of Brass" features a group of travellers on an archaeological expedition [12] across the Sahara to find an ancient lost city and attempt to recover a brass vessel that Solomon once used to trap a jinn, [13] and, along the way, encounter a mummified queen, petrified inhabitants, [14] lifelike humanoid robots and automata, seductive marionettes dancing without strings, [15] and a brass horseman robot who directs the party towards the ancient city. "The Ebony Horse" features a robot [16] in the form of a flying mechanical horse controlled using keys that could fly into outer space and towards the Sun, [17] while the "Third Qalandar's Tale" also features a robot in the form of an uncanny boatman. [16] "The City of Brass" and "The Ebony Horse" can be considered early examples of proto-science fiction. [18]

Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, considered the greatest epic of Italian literature, derived many features of and episodes about the hereafter directly or indirectly from Arabic works on Islamic eschatology: the Hadith and the Kitab al-Miraj (translated into Latin in 1264 or shortly before [19] as Liber Scale Machometi, "The Book of Muhammad's Ladder") concerning Muhammad's ascension to Heaven, and the spiritual writings of Ibn Arabi. The Moors also had a noticeable influence on the works of George Peele and William Shakespeare. Some of their works featured Moorish characters, such as Peele's The Battle of Alcazar and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus and Othello, which featured a Moorish Othello as its title character. These works are said to have been inspired by several Moorish delegations from Morocco to Elizabethan England at the beginning of the 17th century. [20]

Arabic literature Edit

Ibn Tufail (Abubacer) and Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288) were pioneers of the philosophical novel. Ibn Tufail wrote the first fictional Arabic novel Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (Philosophus Autodidactus) as a response to al-Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers, and then Ibn al-Nafis also wrote a novel Theologus Autodidactus as a response to Ibn Tufail's Philosophus Autodidactus. Both of these narratives had protagonists (Hayy in Philosophus Autodidactus and Kamil in Theologus Autodidactus) who were autodidactic feral children living in seclusion on a desert island, both being the earliest examples of a desert island story. However, while Hayy lives alone with animals on the desert island for the rest of the story in Philosophus Autodidactus, the story of Kamil extends beyond the desert island setting in Theologus Autodidactus, developing into the earliest known coming of age plot and eventually becoming the first example of a science fiction novel. [21] [22]

Theologus Autodidactus deals with various science fiction elements such as spontaneous generation, futurology, the end of the world and doomsday, resurrection, and the afterlife. Rather than giving supernatural or mythological explanations for these events, Ibn al-Nafis attempted to explain these plot elements using the scientific knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology known in his time. His main purpose behind this science fiction work was to explain Islamic religious teachings in terms of science and philosophy through the use of fiction. [23]

A Latin translation of Ibn Tufail's work, Philosophus Autodidactus, first appeared in 1671, prepared by Edward Pococke the Younger, followed by an English translation by Simon Ockley in 1708, as well as German and Dutch translations. These translations later inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, a candidate for the title of "first novel in English". [24] [25] [26] [27] Philosophus Autodidactus also inspired Robert Boyle to write his own philosophical novel set on an island, The Aspiring Naturalist. [28] The story also anticipated Rousseau's Emile: or, On Education in some ways, and is also similar to Mowgli's story in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book as well as Tarzan's story, in that a baby is abandoned but taken care of and fed by a mother wolf. [ citation needed ]

Among other innovations in Arabic literature was Ibn Khaldun's perspective on chronicling past events—by fully rejecting supernatural explanations, Khaldun essentially invented the scientific or sociological approach to history. [ citation needed ]

Persian literature Edit

Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, the national epic of Iran, is a mythical and heroic retelling of Persian history. It is the longest epic poem ever written.

From Persian culture the book which would, eventually, become the most famous in the west is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The Rubáiyát is a collection of poems by the Persian mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyám (1048–1122). "Rubaiyat" means "quatrains": verses of four lines.

Amir Arsalan was also a popular mythical Persian story, which has influenced some modern works of fantasy fiction, such as The Heroic Legend of Arslan.

Examples of early Persian proto-science fiction include Al-Farabi's Opinions of the residents of a splendid city about a utopian society, and elements such as the flying carpet. [29]

Ottoman literature Edit

The two primary streams of Ottoman written literature are poetry and prose. Of the two, divan poetry was by far the dominant stream. Until the 19th century, Ottoman prose did not contain any examples of fiction that is, there were no counterparts to, for instance, the European romance, short story, or novel (though analogous genres did, to some extent, exist in both the Turkish folk tradition and in divan poetry). Until the 19th century, Ottoman prose never managed to develop to the extent that contemporary divan poetry did. A large part of the reason for this was that much prose was expected to adhere to the rules of sec' (سجع, also transliterated as seci), or rhymed prose, [30] a type of writing descended from the Arabic saj' and which prescribed that between each adjective and noun in a sentence, there must be a rhyme.

Jewish literature Edit

Medieval Jewish fiction often drew on ancient Jewish legends, and was written in a variety of languages including Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic. Liturgical Jewish poetry in Hebrew flourished in Palestine in the seventh and eighth centuries with the writings of Yose ben Yose, Yanai, and Eleazar Kalir [31] Later Jewish poets in Spain, Provencal, and Italy wrote both religious and secular poems in Hebrew particularly prominent poets were the Spanish Jewish poets Solomon ibn Gabirol and Yehuda Halevi. In addition to poetry and fiction, medieval Jewish literature also includes philosophical literature, mystical (Kabbalistic) literature, ethical (musar) literature, legal (halakhic) literature, and commentaries on the Bible.

India Edit

Early Medieval (Gupta period) literature in India sees the flowering of Sanskrit drama, classical Sanskrit poetry and the compilation of the Puranas. Sanskrit declines in the early 2nd millennium, late works such as the Kathasaritsagara dating to the 11th century, to the benefit of literature composed in Middle Indic vernaculars such as Old Bengali, Old Hindi.

China Edit

Lyric poetry advanced far more in China than in Europe prior to 1000, as multiple new forms developed in the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties: perhaps the greatest poets of this era in Chinese literature were Li Bai and Du Fu.

Printing began in Tang Dynasty China. A copy of the Diamond Sutra, a key Buddhist text, found sealed in a cave in China in the early 20th century, is the oldest known dated printed book, with a printed date of 868. The method used was block printing.

The scientist, statesman, and general Shen Kuo (1031–1095 AD) was the author of the Dream Pool Essays (1088), a large book of scientific literature that included the oldest description of the magnetized compass. During the Song Dynasty, there was also the enormous historical work of the Zizhi Tongjian, compiled into 294 volumes of 3 million written Chinese characters by the year 1084 AD.

The true vernacular novel was developed in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD). [ citation needed ] Some commentators feel that China originated the novel form with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong (in the 14th century), although others feel that this epic is distinct from the novel in key ways. [ citation needed ] Fictional novels published during the Ming period include the Water Margin and the Journey to the West, which represent two of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature.

Japan Edit

Classical Japanese literature generally refers to literature produced during the Heian Period, what some would consider a golden era of art and literature. The Tale of Genji (early 11th century) by Murasaki Shikibu is considered the pre-eminent masterpiece of Heian fiction and an early example of a work of fiction in the form of a novel. It is sometimes called the world's first novel, the first modern novel, the first romance novel, or the first novel to still be considered a classic.

Other important works of this period include the Kokin Wakashū (905), a waka-poetry anthology, and The Pillow Book (990s), the latter written by Murasaki Shikibu's contemporary and rival, Sei Shōnagon, as an essay about the life, loves, and pastimes of nobles in the Emperor's court. The iroha poem, now one of two standard orderings for the Japanese syllabary, was also written during the early part of this period.

The 10th-century Japanese narrative, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, can be considered an early example of proto-science fiction. The protagonist of the story, Kaguya-hime, is a princess from the Moon who is sent to Earth for safety during a celestial war, and is found and raised by a bamboo cutter in Japan. She is later taken back to the Moon by her real extraterrestrial family. A manuscript illustration depicts a disc-shaped flying object similar to a flying saucer. [32]

In this time the imperial court patronized the poets, most of whom were courtiers or ladies-in-waiting. Editing anthologies of poetry was a national pastime. Reflecting the aristocratic atmosphere, the poetry was elegant and sophisticated and expressed emotions in a rhetorical style.

Had nothing occurred to change literature in the 15th century but the Renaissance, the break with medieval approaches would have been clear enough. The 15th century, however, also brought Johann Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press, an innovation (for Europe, at least) that would change literature forever. Texts were no longer precious and expensive to produce—they could be cheaply and rapidly put into the marketplace. Literacy went from the prized possession of the select few to a much broader section of the population (though by no means universal). As a result, much about literature in Europe was radically altered in the two centuries following Gutenberg's unveiling of the printing press in 1455.

William Caxton was the first English printer and published English language texts including Le Morte d'Arthur (a collection of oral tales of the Arthurian Knights which is a forerunner of the novel) and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. These are an indication of future directions in literature. With the arrival of the printing press a process begins in which folk yarns and legends are collected within a frame story and then mass published.

In the Renaissance, the focus on learning for learning's sake causes an outpouring of literature. Petrarch popularized the sonnet as a poetic form Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron made romance acceptable in prose as well as poetry François Rabelais rejuvenates satire with Gargantua and Pantagruel Michel de Montaigne single-handedly invented the essay and used it to catalog his life and ideas. Perhaps the most controversial and important work of the time period was a treatise printed in Nuremberg, entitled De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium: in it, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus removed the Earth from its privileged position in the universe, which had far-reaching effects, not only in science, but in literature and its approach to humanity, hierarchy, and truth.

A new spirit of science and investigation in Europe was part of a general upheaval in human understanding which began with the European discovery of the New World in 1492 and continues through the subsequent centuries, even up to the present day.

The form of writing now commonplace across the world—the novel—originated from the early modern period and grew in popularity in the next century. Before the modern novel became established as a form there first had to be a transitional stage when "novelty" began to appear in the style of the epic poem.

Plays for entertainment (as opposed to religious enlightenment) returned to Europe's stages in the early modern period. William Shakespeare is the most notable of the early modern playwrights, but numerous others made important contributions, including Molière, Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson. From the 16th to the 18th century Commedia dell'arte performers improvised in the streets of Italy and France. Some Commedia dell'arte plays were written down. Both the written plays and the improvisation were influential upon literature of the time, particularly upon the work of Molière. Shakespeare drew upon the arts of jesters and strolling players in creating new style comedies. All the parts, even the female ones, were played by men (en travesti) but that would change, first in France and then in England too, by the end of the 17th century.

The epic Elizabethan poem The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser was published, in its first part, in 1590 and then in completed form in 1597. The Fairie Queen marks the transitional period in which "novelty" begins to enter into the narrative in the sense of overturning and playing with the flow of events. Theatrical forms known in Spenser's time such as the Masque and the Mummers' Play are incorporated into the poem in ways which twist tradition and turn it to political propaganda in the service of Queen Elizabeth I.

The earliest work considered an opera in the sense the work is usually understood dates from around 1597. It is Dafne, (now lost) written by Jacopo Peri for an elite circle of literate Florentine humanists who gathered as the "Camerata".

The 17th century is considered the greatest era of literature both in Spain, where it is called the Spanish Golden Age (Siglo de Oro), and in France, where it is known as the Grand Siècle (Great Century). The most famous French authors, beside playwrights, include Jean de La Fontaine and Charles Perrault known primarily for their fables.

Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote has been called "the first novel" by many literary scholars (or the first of the modern European novels). It was published in two parts. The first part was published in 1605 and the second in 1615. It might be viewed as a parody of Le Morte d'Arthur (and other examples of the chivalric romance), in which case the novel form would be the direct result of poking fun at a collection of heroic folk legends. This is fully in keeping with the spirit of the age of enlightenment which began from about this time and delighted in giving a satirical twist to the stories and ideas of the past. It's worth noting that this trend toward satirising previous writings was only made possible by the printing press. Without the invention of mass-produced copies of a book it would not be possible to assume the reader will have seen the earlier work and will thus understand the references within the text.

The new style in English poetry during the 17th century was that of the metaphysical movement. The metaphysical poets were John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell and others. Metaphysical poetry is characterised by a spirit of intellectual investigation of the spiritual, rather than the mystical reverence of many earlier English poems. The metaphysical poets were clearly trying to understand the world around them and the spirit behind it, instead of accepting dogma on the basis of faith.

In the middle of the century the king of England was overthrown and a republic declared. In the new regime (which lasted from 1649 to 1653) the arts suffered. In England and the rest of the British Isles Oliver Cromwell's rule temporarily banned all theatre, festivals, jesters, mummers plays and frivolities. The ban was lifted when the monarchy was restored with Charles II. The Drury Lane theatre was favorite of King Charles.

In contrast to the metaphysical poets was John Milton's Paradise Lost, an epic religious poem in blank verse. Milton had been Oliver Cromwell's chief propagandist and suffered when the Restoration came. Paradise Lost is one of the highest developments of the epic form in poetry immediately preceding the era of the modern prose novel.

Other early novelists include Daniel Defoe (born 1660) and Jonathan Swift (born 1667).

Diamond Sūtra

A Buddhist holy text, the Diamond Sūtra is considered to be the oldest surviving dated printed book in the world.

Found in a walled up cave in China along with other printed materials, the book is made up of Chinese characters printed on a scroll of grey printed paper, wrapped along a wooden pole.

The book was copied by a man called Wong Jei, in May 868 AD, on the instruction of his parents, which is noted at the end of the text.

Estimated age: 1,145 years old.

What Might Be Considered as the World’s Oldest Writing?

The biggest question facing archaeologists is when does an ancient symbol, or a doodle, become writing? The ArcheologyinBulgaria.com article claims “variably” that the marks are “written signs”, “possibly the world’s oldest writing (i.e. pre-alphabetic writing ).

But the paradox they face in “authenticating” their find as “the world’s oldest writing” is that if their “zig-zags” are “an advanced form of communication” and “possibly the world’s oldest writing " then it can be argued that so is the zigzag engraving on the famous clam shell discovered in Indonesia dated to half-a-million-year-old, as reported by nature.com. So too might the zigzag on the 18000-year-old mammoth bone bracelet which is hypothesized to be a lunar calendar .

Supporting their claim, that they may have discovered “the world’s oldest writing,” the Bulgarian specialists theorize that the zig-zag symbols might represent the “agricultural cycles of life” and a “ritual calendar.” However, because the stone doesn’t show classic groupings of 12 or 13 marks, which might represent solar and lunar months, other explanations must be considered and it might be no coincidence that the stone was found alongside “36 fishing tools” including “decorations, loom weights, fishing net weights, and ceramic figurines.”

Of course, archaeologists hold a flame of hope that they have indeed found “the world’s oldest writing” but at the back of their minds they must be considering it as part of a Neolithic fishing kit. It was found “on a river bank” and could have served as a decorated fishing weight, or a spool to wrap animal hair line around, or a charm to place under a river rock, and the list of fishing applications goes on. Only time will tell if this is “the world’s oldest writing” or fishing tackle, but I, like the Bulgarian archaeologists have everything crossed for the former.

The 8,000-year-old ceramic slab with “possibly the world’s oldest writing” has been made part of the collection of the Sliven Regional Museum of History and is to be exhibited in its permanent exhibition.

Top image: Tablet hypothesized to be the oldest writing ever discovered. Image: Sliven District Administration

What Is the Oldest Book in the World?

At Bulgaria's National Museum of History, there lives a book comprising six pages of beaten 24-carat gold covered with Etruscan script, one of the few writing systems scholars have yet to decipher. It features illustrations of a horse-rider, a mermaid, a harp and soldiers [source: BBC News].

According to reports, the book, exhibited in 2003, was estimated at about 2,500 years old. It was found along the Strouma River in southwestern Bulgaria in an old tomb, and was donated to the museum by the finder, who remained anonymous. Its age and authenticity were confirmed by two independent scientists, whose names also remain unknown.

This book is often cited as the world's oldest book because it is the oldest book containing several pages that we know about. There are older pages around but not bound together in a book. But the case isn't closed.

The question of what is the oldest book in the world will likely never be answered. First, there's the question of what exactly is a book. Books are slippery artifacts. Think of your favorite novel. It has a physical presence, a specific shape and form that fits on a shelf and requires dusting.

It also has a nonphysical form — the story itself, what it means to you and the memories and enjoyment it conjures. So is the book a mere physical presence, or is the content more important than the shape? Or do they both play a role? Take it a step further and ask what if your favorite book wasn't printed but handwritten, would it still be a book? What about if you read it on an electronic device?

If printing defined what a book was, then the oldest book would be the Gutenberg Bible, printed in about 1450. Of course, that was printed with moveable type. Chinese cultures were printing pages of booklike structures using carved wood plates and simple presses hundreds of years before Gutenberg.

Now take the Egyptian pharaohs. Their scribes were creating songs and prayers to them close to 3,000 years ago, but these were on papyrus scrolls, which could be considered a book, albeit with only one very long page.

"These are questions scholars are still wrestling with," said Laurent Ferri, curator of rare books and manuscripts at Cornell University whom we interviewed in 2010. "For me, a book would be defined by having a binding and supporting a world view."

By this definition, the collection of clay tablets maintained by Cornell — also the largest collection in the world — wouldn't be considered the world's oldest books. They aren't bound, and most are legal proceedings or financial accountings and do not espouse a worldview.

With his own definition in mind, Ferri said his bet on the oldest books in the world would be Homer's "Iliad," and the "Epic of Gilgamesh." Indeed, the British Museum's version of the Gilgamesh tale, written on clay tablets, dates to about the seventh century B.C.E. However, the tablets aren't bound, so they're technically not a book, but they do come close, especially in the sense they propose a certain view of the world. But we don't really know when the stories started or how they evolved.

"This is another situation to consider," Ferri said. "These (two stories) are the product of a very long oral tradition. We know roughly when the text was fixed, but the stories pre-existed the physical book."

And so the questions turn. Some people think the Bible was written shortly after the world was created, making it the oldest book. Yet biblical scholars know the books that make up the Bible were written over many centuries and that many of the stories included in it were set down centuries after the events they recorded happened.

Bringing religion, or worldviews, into the question begets more twists and turns. The I Ching, the foundation book for Taoist philosophy, was allegedly written by Lao-Tze more than 2,000 years ago. Pharaonic texts exist with a similar vintage. There are likely other more obscure religions that claim to have a toehold in centuries further in the past and that their more recent printings are merely modern manifestations of ancient texts.

For Ferri, the quest for the world's oldest book is just that — a quest.

"If you find the oldest book you find the oldest truth, the oldest revelation," he said. "This is a revelation of original things this is what humans always look for. So, we ask the questions again and again, 'What is the oldest?"

So, the question of what is the world's oldest book will likely never be answered conclusively, and this may not be a bad thing. The simple asking of the question seems to lead to insight, whether from an archaeological perspective or a philosophical perspective. And it addresses the ultimate point of books (whether they're on clay tablets or online), summed up by Ferri: "We wouldn't be human without books."

The Epic of Gilgamesh:

Predating the Homeric Epics by c.1500 years, The Epic of Gilgamesh is by far the most famous Epic poem of all time. Based on the semi-mythic King of Uruk, this poem tells the story of the Assyrian King: Gilgamesh. Tackling themes of everything from humanism to mortality, it is no wonder this is one of the greatest oral epics ever told.

Oldest Leather Shoe

(A 5,500-year-old leather shoe found in an Armenian cave. Credit: © RFE/RL /Demotix/Demotix/Corbis)

In 2010, archeologists found an extremely well-preserved, moccasin-like leather shoe in an Armenian cave. The shoe—which was stuffed with grass and preserved in sheep dung—fits a modern women's size seven, though archeologists aren't sure which sex the shoe was intended for. While the shoe isn't the oldest ever found (that honor goes to a 10,000-year-old shoe made of sagebrush fiber found in Fort Rock Cave, Oregon) it is the oldest leather shoe ever found (and the oldest shoe on display).

What makes the Armenian shoe remarkable, scientists note, is its wholly modern design—it's made from a single piece of cowhide, a technique that fetches top dollar in today's shoe market. The two layers of leather seem to have been cut to fit the foot, then stitched with more leather, resulting in a shoe that looks like a traditional Balkan shoe known as an opanke (still worn for special festivals).

Early writing tablet

  1. A tablet inscribed with cuneiform. It contains details of beer rations. © Trustees of the British Museum
  2. Cuneiform signs were pressed into tablets made of clay using a wedge-shaped tool. © Trustees of the British Museum
  3. Map showing where this object was found. © Trustees of the British Museum

This piece of clay contains some of the earliest writing in the world. It's called 'cuneiform,' which means wedge-shaped. This tablet is a record of the daily beer rations for workers. Beer here is represented by an upright jar with a pointed base. The symbol for rations is a human head eating from a porridge bowl. The round and semicircular impressions represent the measurements. All the signs were produced by a cut reed.

The oldest known example of writing comes from Mesopotamia and dates to about 3300 BC. In time different-looking writing appeared in the river valleys of Egypt, the Indus Valley, China and Central America. We cannot yet be certain whether writing spread from Mesopotamia, or developed independently in these civilisations. As Mesopotamian society became more complex, writing allowed administrators to keep an account of who had been paid and what had been traded. The earliest cuneiform tablets are almost all records of accountancy.

Ancient Mesopotamian maths was based on 60, which is why we have 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour

The beginnings of a state

This tablet is amazing. For me it’s a first sign of writing but it also tells you about the growth of the early beginnings of a state. You’ve got a civil service here, starting to come into place in order to record what is going on. Here is very clearly the state paying some workers for some work that’s been done. They need to keep a track of the public finances, they need to know how much they have paid the workers and it needs to be fair.

What’s amazing for me is that this is a society where the economy is in its first stages, there is no currency, no money. So how do they get around that? Well, the symbols tell us that they have used beer - beer glorious beer, I think that is absolutely tremendous there is no liquidity crisis here, they are coming up with a different way of getting around the problem of the absence of a currency and at the same time sorting out how to have a functioning state. As this society develops you can see that this will become more and more important and the ability to keep track, to write things down, which is a crucial element of the modern state – that we know how much money we are spending and we know what we are getting for it – that is starting to emerge.

This tablet for me is the very equivalent of the cabinet secretary’s notebook, it’s that important.

This tablet is amazing. For me it’s a first sign of writing but it also tells you about the growth of the early beginnings of a state. You’ve got a civil service here, starting to come into place in order to record what is going on. Here is very clearly the state paying some workers for some work that’s been done. They need to keep a track of the public finances, they need to know how much they have paid the workers and it needs to be fair.

What’s amazing for me is that this is a society where the economy is in its first stages, there is no currency, no money. So how do they get around that? Well, the symbols tell us that they have used beer - beer glorious beer, I think that is absolutely tremendous there is no liquidity crisis here, they are coming up with a different way of getting around the problem of the absence of a currency and at the same time sorting out how to have a functioning state. As this society develops you can see that this will become more and more important and the ability to keep track, to write things down, which is a crucial element of the modern state – that we know how much money we are spending and we know what we are getting for it – that is starting to emerge.

This tablet for me is the very equivalent of the cabinet secretary’s notebook, it’s that important.

Gus O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the British Civil Service

Oldest language speaks of…beer

A tablet with beer allocations – a good 5,000 years old – pinned up in a glass case like a butterfly for all to see. What can be interesting in that beyond the fact, obvious enough when you think about it, that hard-working individuals throughout history have always wanted their glass of beer?

Well, this most ancient document – like all its neighbours in the British Museum – deserves more than a quick glance.

It is written in cuneiform, the oldest known writing in the world, a non-alphabetic kind of writing that grew out of a simple system of pictographs into a flexible medium with which the Sumerian (unrelated to anything) and Babylonian (related to modern Hebrew and Arabic) languages could alike be recorded.

And all this began before 3,000 BC. From the outset the writing was done on clay, a most fortunate decision because tablets survive in the ground for millennia even when unbaked. A cascading waterfall of inscriptions has gradually become available, accounting for more than 3,000 years of history. Only a handful was originally intended to survive long-term the remainder are more or less ephemeral documents that cover many aspects of life in Mesopotamia, state and private – from beer rations to heroic literature with every kind of document in between.

In the British Museum we have a treasure-store of such writings, about 130,000 of them. They represent a marvellous challenge. One hard-to-learn script, two hard-to-learn languages and the whole of ancient Mesopotamia is at your feet.

A tablet with beer allocations – a good 5,000 years old – pinned up in a glass case like a butterfly for all to see. What can be interesting in that beyond the fact, obvious enough when you think about it, that hard-working individuals throughout history have always wanted their glass of beer?

Well, this most ancient document – like all its neighbours in the British Museum – deserves more than a quick glance.

It is written in cuneiform, the oldest known writing in the world, a non-alphabetic kind of writing that grew out of a simple system of pictographs into a flexible medium with which the Sumerian (unrelated to anything) and Babylonian (related to modern Hebrew and Arabic) languages could alike be recorded.

And all this began before 3,000 BC. From the outset the writing was done on clay, a most fortunate decision because tablets survive in the ground for millennia even when unbaked. A cascading waterfall of inscriptions has gradually become available, accounting for more than 3,000 years of history. Only a handful was originally intended to survive long-term the remainder are more or less ephemeral documents that cover many aspects of life in Mesopotamia, state and private – from beer rations to heroic literature with every kind of document in between.

In the British Museum we have a treasure-store of such writings, about 130,000 of them. They represent a marvellous challenge. One hard-to-learn script, two hard-to-learn languages and the whole of ancient Mesopotamia is at your feet.

Irving Finkel, Curator, British Museum

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