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The Oldest Written Stories of History

Humans have been telling each other stories since, presumably, we first learned to speak. Our imagination endows us with great potential for the codifying idle thought into complex fantasy, that oftentimes seems as real as the physical world around us.

These verbal stories, however entrancing, are now mostly lost to the mists of time. Ancient languages crumbled and forgotten, like the buildings of the civilizations that spoke them. Only the written word survives, and these are the three oldest stories ever written.

Instructions of Shuruppak

Although it is essentially a moral tract, filled with ‘thou should nots’ and ‘thou musts’, the writer of this Ancient Sumerian tablet framed his instructive text around a discussion between an (even more) ancient king, Shuruppak, and his son Ziusadra.

This qualifies it, somewhat loosely, as a story – and therefore the oldest work of literature known to modern archaeology. Dating to around 2500BC this four-and-a-half-thousand year old story is packed with millennia-aged wisdom that still rings true today. Examples include “insults and stupid speaking receive the attention of the land” or “pass judgment when you drink beer” – which is something many of us could apply to our modern lives.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

More certifiably a story, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a mighty tale of giants, gods and seekers of immortality. Although it was probably written in around 2100BC, the only (mostly) complete set of tablets telling this particular story are from 1800BC. Lost to history for many thousands of years, the twelve complete tablets were rediscovered by Austen Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam in the Library of Ashurbanipal, near modern-day Mosul in Iraq, in 1853.

The Epic recounts the story of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and Enkidu – a wild man birthed by the Gods to usurp Gilgamesh and save the people of Ancient Sumeria. However, Enkidu and Gilgamesh become friends and together they slay Humbaba the giant. The goddess Ishtar calls forth a mighty bull from heaven to kill Enkidu, and a penitent Gilgamesh spends the rest of his life travelling the land in search of the key to immortality.

The Debate Between Bird and Fish

Possibly written around 2100BC, this Ancient Sumerian text is one of seven such ‘debates’ that have been discovered by modern archaeologists. Others include The Debate Between Winter and Summer and The Debate Between Sheep and Grain.

In each, the two interlocutors give their pitch before a God – who then rules in favour of one or the other. In this case, the Bird and the Fish debate who is the more worthy species. The Fish says that the Bird “squawks in the marshes” and ‘fills the courtyard with [his] droppings”. The Bird points out that the Fish is ‘bereft of hand and feet’, while he ‘the beautiful and clever bird’ is considered ‘a decoration in the courtyard.’

In the end, the demi-god Culgi, son of the Wind god Enlil, decides that the Bird has the more prescient argument. Unlike the straightforward morality of Shuruppak, we’re not sure what to make of this aged tale. Why not let us know in the comments?

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