Literature, that is.
Because of the cuneiform writing system and the scribes who could write in it, the Sumerians left us a beautiful gift: the first ever epic poem, Gilgamesh.
We have this treasure because of a disaster—the library at Nineveh burned to the ground. But here’s the good news: the cuneiform books and records were written on clay tablets and so they were fired in the blaze. They became as hard as pottery and lasted though the ages.
Gilgamesh is the hero of this story. He’s semi-divine—both god and human. Gilgamesh has been translated into modern English. You can likely find a copy at your library. Parts of Gilgamesh are rated R so you probably shouldn’t read it until you’re at least 30. But, because I’m a prince of a fellow, I will tell you the entire (cleaned-up) epic poem in one sentence—
Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third man he’s the super strong handsome king of Uruk a Sumerian city he built towers and walls and orchards well he didn’t he made everybody else do all the back-breaking work because Gilgamesh is a cruel king who goes around kissing other people’s wives of course nobody is happy about this so the people pray to the gods and the gods create a man-beast Enkidu who is strong enough to teach Gilgamesh a lesson Enkidu is a hairy wild savage he lives in the forest with the animals a hunter finds Enkidu and brings him to a temple where a priestess gives Enkidu a kiss and all his hair falls off and all the animals reject him because now he’s civilized Enkidu goes to Uruk and has an almighty wrestling match with Gilgamesh afterwards Gilgamesh and Enkidu are best buds they go to the forbidden cedar forest and fight and kill the terrible monster Humbaba who was guarding it when they get back to Uruk the goddess Ishtar chooses Gilgamesh to be her boyfriend but Gilgamesh says no thank you ma’am your boyfriends tend to die unpleasantly so Ishtar is pretty steamed and sends the Bull of Heaven to punish him Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the Bull and kill him the gods say this is a problem and decide Enkidu must die Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh is heartbroken so he sets off to find the meaning of life and achieve immortality he needs to meet Utnapishtim who is immortal Gilgamesh travels to the mountain Mashu and convinces 2 gigantic scorpions to let him through the tunnel under the mountain on the other side is a beautiful garden Gilgamesh meets Siduri who owns a restaurant she tells him to give up looking for immortality and just enjoy his life but Gilgamesh isn’t convinced so Urshanabi the ferryman takes Gilgamesh on a boat across the Sea of Death to Utnapishtim who tells Gilgamesh all about the Flood and how the gods decided to destroy humankind but Ea the god of wisdom warned Utnapishtim and told him to build a really big boat Utnapishtim built it and loaded his family and every kind of animal into the boat after the flood was over the gods said okay that was a bad idea sorry dude we’ll never do that again and they gave Utnapishtim immortality Gilgamesh says I want to live forever too so Utnapishtim says okay hotshot you can be immortal if you can stay awake for a week but Gilgamesh can’t do it so Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh back home Utnapishtim’s wife tells Gilgamesh about a plant of Eternal Life Gilgamesh finds the plant and means to take it with him but a snake eats it so Gilgamesh returns to Uruk with nothing bupkis nada but he’s older and wiser and he realizes that Kansas isn’t so bad after all.
Gilgamesh isn’t merely the first epic story. It’s a blueprint for all the stories that followed. Every great story has an arc—a character moves from Point A to Point Z and undergoes a transformation. His character is fundamentally changed. Gilgamesh starts out a selfish bully and ends humbled by his experiences, and wiser. The same kind of arc happens to Lightning McQueen in the Pixar movie Cars. Lightning is a selfish and self-centered user; an accident resulting from his selfishness forces him to spend time with characters in a place way outside his narrow world; in the end Lightning values and cherishes his new friends and his life is richer for them. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale is unhappy with her dull life on a Kansas farm; when her dog’s life is threatened she and Toto run away from home; she has a whirlwind adventure in Oz; when Dorothy returns she realizes how blessed her life is—and maybe now has the moral strength to stand up to Miss Gulch and protect her little dog.
Gilgamesh is about a hero who refuses to accept life without meaning. That theme is universal, which means we all feel that way. Everybody wants to leave something behind. Gilgamesh left behind towers and walls and orchards, but the story he left behind is the most enduring.
Side note: You alert readers will have noticed one or two details that can be found in the Hebrew Bible: a beautiful garden, a global flood and the man who preserves creation by putting a pair of every species in a big boat, a Tree of Life (and a treacherous serpent nearby). It’s no secret. The Bible uses themes from ancient Middle Eastern story-telling. The big difference is that—unlike Gilgamesh—the heroes of the Bible are all regular schmoes. No immortals, no demigods. The God of Abraham linked His destiny with ordinary people like you and me.
Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.