Literature of Mesopotamia

The literature of Mesopotamia is one of its finest cultural achievements. Though there are many modern anthologies and chrestomathies (compilations of useful learning), with translations and paraphrases of Mesopotamian literature, as well as attempts to write its history, it cannot truly be said that “cuneiform literature” has been resurrected to the extent that it deserves.

However, ‘cuneiform literature’ had not been resurrected to the extent it deserves. There were many reasons for it. The main reason was the inadequate knowledge of the languages and the insufficient acquaintance with the vocabulary.

A further reason is the inadequate knowledge of the languages :insufficient acquaintance with the vocabulary and, in Sumerian, major difficulties with the grammar. Consequently, another generation of Assyriologists will pass before the great myths, epics, lamentations, hymns, “law codes,” wisdom literature, and pedagogical treatises can be presented to the reader in such a way that he can fully appreciate the high level of literary creativity of those times.

The Gilgamesh Epic of ancient Mesopotamia began as at least five Sumerian stories detailing Gilgamesh’s adventures: Gilgamesh and Akka; Gilgamesh and Humbaba (two version); Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven; Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld; Death of Gilgamesh. Sometime in the Old Babylonian period, the five Sumerian stories were translated into a literary Akkadian dialect but still remained as episodic noncanonical stories. While mere fragments of the Sumerian originals have been found, Akkadian translations have been found of the latter four stories; likely more existed but await discovery.

Translation styles have varied from a literal word-for-word correspondence following the word order of the original, to a poetic paraphrase flowing through lacunae. The two main works which were sufficiently preserved to be translatable from the early days were the Epic of Creation and the Epic of Gilgamesh.

In fact the former is written in an archaic style, whereas the latter is more colloquial, but this is seldom apparent in translation. Stephen Langdon’s 1923 translation of the Epic of Creation was fluent, but he included such archaic usages as ‘verily not shall we sleep’, feeling, as many translators did, that such ancient literature should be translated in a manner that alluded to its great antiquity.

Mesopotamian literature originated with the Sumerians, whose earliest known written records are from the middle of the 4th millennium B.C. It constitutes the oldest known literature in the world.; moreover, inner criteria indicate that a long oral literarytradition preceded, and probably coexisted with, the setting down of its songs and its writing.