Only the gods dwell forever in sunlight • The Epic of Gilgamesh - Heroes and legends • 3000BCE–1300CE

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Only the gods dwell forever in sunlight • The Epic of Gilgamesh
Heroes and legends • 3000BCE–1300CE




Bronze Age literature


30th century BCE Systems of writing first emerge in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

c.2600 BCE The earliest known texts — although not literary ones — are written on tablets, in the Sumerian language, at Abu Salabikh, Mesopotamia.

c.2285—2250 BCE The earliest known author, Akkadian princess and priestess Enheduanna, lives and works in the Sumerian city of Ur.


c.1700—1100 BCE The Rig Veda, the first of the four Hindu sacred texts known as Vedas, is written in northwestern India.

c.1550 BCE The Egyptian Book of the Dead is the first of the Egyptian funerary texts to be written on papyrus rather than the walls of tombs or coffins.

Writing first appeared in Mesopotamia at the beginning of what is now known as the Bronze Age (c.3300—1200 BCE). Cuneiform symbols, originally devised as a means of recording commercial transactions, had evolved from numerals into representations of sounds, which offered a means of writing down the Sumerian and Akkadian languages.

Among the fragments of texts discovered in 1853 by the Assyrian archaeologist Hormuzd Rassan are tablets inscribed with tales of the legendary King Gilgamesh of Uruk, which are some of the earliest examples of written literature. The stories had probably been passed down orally in a form that combined history and mythology.

"The life that you seek you never will find."

The Epic of Gilgamesh

From tyrant to hero

The Epic of Gilgamesh, as the collected tales are known, tells how the oppressive ruler of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk is taught a lesson, and goes on to become a local hero. To punish Gilgamesh for his arrogance, the gods send the “wild man” Enkidu, formed from clay, to torment him. After a fight, however, they become friends, and embark on a series of monster-slaying adventures. Angered by this turn of events, the gods sentence Enkidu to death. Gilgamesh is distraught at the loss of his companion, but also becomes aware of his own mortality. The second half of the tale tells of Gilgamesh’s quest for the secret of eternal life and of his return to Uruk — still a mortal, but a wiser man and more noble ruler.

See also: MahabharataIliadBeowulfNjal’s Saga