The first known literature in the world was created almost five thousand years ago in southern Mesopotamia, in the area occupied by the modern state of Iraq. These myths, hymns, epics, proverbs, omens, spells as well as many other kinds of texts were written on clay tablets using the cuneiform script. The poems were composed in various languages, primarily in Sumerian and Akkadian (Babylonian), but we will be reading these texts in modern English translations and no knowledge of the ancient languages is required.
Cuneiform was invented around 3300 BC and was used widely until the first centuries of the modern era. Archaeologists and plunderers have unearthed hundreds of thousands of inscribed clay tablets providing us with a fairly complete picture of this long-lived literature of ancient Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia.
The Poem of Gilgamesh is a summary of five older Sumerian poems compiled by Babylonian and Assyrian clerks. The Sumerian poems were named Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish, The Death of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh and the land of the living ones, Gilgamesh and the celestial bull, and Gilgamesh Enkidu and the hell. This summary also includes a Babylonian version of an older Sumerian universal flood poem. The Poem of Gilgamesh tells of the hero Gilgamesh, ruling the Sumerian city of Uruk in the 28th century B.C.
Stories and poems about Gilgamesh were also written in Akkadian which was a Semitic version of the prevailing Sumerian tongue spoken by common people. Akkadian was the favorite language for official purposes and was also preferred for literary pursuits as well. Our knowledge about Gilgamesh has come from the various writings and epic poems penned during the period in ancient Mesopotamia.
Some of the Sumerian songs or poetry served an erotic function. There were also lullabies and praise poems, as shown in the last two extracts. In the latter, a royal courier is asked to convey Lu-dinger-ra's salutations to his mother in Nippur . The text is a hymn of praise to the mother, detailing as it does five signs that identify the beauty of the mother so that the messenger can recognize her. As Nippur was the ancient religious capital of Sumer, it is possible that the "mother" is a goddess at a temple there.
One of the poems of Mesopotamia is The Creation of humans. This poem begins with a description of how the gods had to work for their bread by digging out irrigation canals:
The gods were dredging the rivers,
were piling up their silt
on projecting bends--
and the gods lugging the clay