On the Literature of Ancient Sumer

by Esteban

” … Now let us compare this date with that of the various ancient literatures known to us at present.

In Egypt, for example, one might have expected an ancient written literature commensurate with its high cultural development. And, indeed, to judge from the pyramid inscriptions, the Egyptians in all probability did have a well developed written literature in the third millennium B. C.

Unfortunately it must have been written largely on papyrus, a readily perishable material, and there is little hope that enough of it will ever be recovered to give a reasonably adequate cross-section of the Egyptian literature of that ancient period.

Then, too, there is the hitherto unknown ancient Canaanite literature which has been found inscribed on tablets excavated in the past decade by the French at Rash-esh-Shamra in northern Syria.

These tablets, relatively few in number, indicate that the Canaanites, too, had a highly developed literature at one time. They are dated approximately 1400 B. C., that is, they were inscribed over half a millennium later than our Sumerian literary tablets. 21

As for the Semitic Babylonian literature as exemplified by such works as the Epic of Creation, the Epic of Gilgamesh, etc., it is not only considerably later than our Sumerian literature, but also includes much that is borrowed directly from it. 22

We turn now to the ancient literatures which have exercised the most profound influence on the more spiritual aspects of our civilization. These are the Bible, which contains the literary creations of the Hebrews; the Iliad and Odyssey, which are filled with the epic and mythic lore of the Greeks; the Rig-veda, which contains the literary products of ancient India; and the Avesta, which contains those of ancient Iran.

None of these literary collections were written down in their present form before the first half of the first millennium B. C.

Our Sumerian literature, inscribed on tablets dating from approximately 2000 B.C., therefore antedates these literatures by more than a millennium. Moreover, there is another vital difference.

pl04

"To judge from the script, the Nippur cylinder illustrated on this plate 
(8383 in the Nippur collection of the University Museum) may date as early 
as 2500 B. C. Although copied and published by the late George Barton as 
early as 1918, its contents, which center about the Sumerian air-god Enlil 
and the goddess Ninhursag, are still largely unintelligible. Nevertheless, 
much that was unknown or misunderstood at the time of its publication is now 
gradually becoming clarified, and there is good reason to hope that the not 
too distant future will see the better part of its contents ready for 
translation."

-Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 1944, p. 18.

The texts of the Bible, of the Iliad and Odyssey, and of the Rig-veda and Avesta, as we have them, have been modified, edited, and redacted by compilers and redactors with varied motives and diverse points of view.

Not so our Sumerian literature; it has come down to us as actually inscribed by the ancient scribes of four thousand years ago, unmodified and uncodified by later compilers and commentators.”

Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology, 1944, pp. 19-20.