What are the origins of literature?

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If we examine the most ancient works of literature in the world, those found in Mesopotamia and dating from the third millennium B.C.E., we find two impulses which run through all of literature to the present day, though they are present in their purest and most exclusive form before the...

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If we examine the most ancient works of literature in the world, those found in Mesopotamia and dating from the third millennium B.C.E., we find two impulses which run through all of literature to the present day, though they are present in their purest and most exclusive form before the Common Era: the desire to record and the desire to celebrate.

The first of these may be expressed in something as mundane as a set of accounts or a business contract, which appear to be the use to which the Sumerians first put their cuneiform script, but these are soon followed by hymns (which focus on the desire to celebrate), myths and epic poetry (in which the two impulses are united). The “Kesh Temple Hymn” and the “Instructions of Shuruppak,” both of which seem to have been composed around 2500 B.C.E., are two of the oldest extant pieces of literary writing. The former is obviously a devotional work, the latter a piece of what we have come to call 'wisdom literature', written with the aim of inculcating virtue and piety.

The first work of fiction, and the first major work of world literature, "The Epic of Gilgamesh", is probably not very much later than these, perhaps dating to around 2100 B.C.E., though there are several different versions. "The Epic of Gilgamesh", like the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey", was almost certainly sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments and combines the purposes of recording tribal history and celebrating great deeds, as noted above.

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The origins of literature are one and the same with the very origins of civilization. These origins can be traced all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia along with the wheel and written law. There, around 3000 B.C, we can see a form of writing known as cuneiform come into common practice. This writing was used largely for administrative and instructional writing, though some forms of written song and poetry date back to this time. One of the oldest known examples of written poetry is the "Kesh Temple Hymn," which is a Sumerian hymn dating around 2400 B.C.

In regard to the beginnings of literature as we know it, the oldest known work of fiction is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which first appears around third millennium B.C.

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I think from very early on, human beings have been storytellers in one form or another.  They told stories of their lives, they created stories to explain the natural phenomena around them, and they created stories of heroes and heroines.  To be human is to imagine, and to be human is to create a narrative of one's world and one's life. Before they had writing, humans told stories in the form of pictures, for example, in cave paintings, and probably in rhyme, since the rhythm of poetry made it easier to remember a story. Once people acquired writing, they used writing to keep records, certainly, but they also used writing to tell their stories.  The oldest writings in the world that we know of are from the Middle East and go back to approximately 2600 BC.  These include poetry and stories. It is possible that there is earlier written literature, but none has been found so far.  So, the origins of literature are to some degree lost in the mists of time, but we do know that people have been telling stories from their earliest days and will continue to do so as long as humans exist as a species. 

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