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HISTORY OF LITERATURE
 
 


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Mesopotamia: 3rd millennium BC

The earliest uses of writing are strictly practical - lists of commodities, temple accounts, details of a contract. Such documents are short and not too daunting to a Mesopotamian scribe, writing with a reed stylus on a tablet of damp clay. For centuries it seems unthinkable to write down an entire epic poem, familiar to these societies only in the form of recitation.

When writing is first developed, an oral poetic tradition is already a feature of civilized life. Eventually the scribes get round to the task of recording some of this material. Mesopotamia provides the world's two earliest surviving works of literature.
 









They are Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Both probably date back in their oral form to the middle of the third millennium BC. Both are known from fragments of clay tablets of the second millennium and from more complete texts in the library of Ashurbanipal.

Enuma Elish, a creation story of considerable complexity, is not very rewarding if read as literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh, by contrast, is a masterpiece - worthy of being spoken of in the same context as the Homeric poems. Homer is on a far grander scale, but is more than a millennium later.
 






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