I now blog over at The Eyre Guide! This blog is an archive of my past posts.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Refined Reader (5) The Very First Book

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

The Epic of Gilgamesh is often thought of as the first book ever written.  Although it is not in book form but written on tablets.  And we will probably never know for sure whether or not this is the very first book ever written, but it is the oldest work of fiction that we know now.

It was written four thousand years ago, in the style of an epic poem and chronicles the life of Gilgamesh, a great ruler of Babylonian times.  It seems that there was a real person named Gilgamesh who was a king in Mesopotamia, but the Gilgamesh of the story has god-like powers and consorts with other gods in accord with the polytheistic beliefs of the time. In case you don't know the plot - this is the synopsis from Goodreads:

A great king, strong as the stars in Heaven. Enkidu, a wild and mighty hero, is created by the gods to challenge the arrogant King Gilgamesh. But instead of killing each other, the two become friends. Travelling together to the Cedar Forest, they fight and slay the evil monster Humbaba. But when Enkidu is killed, his death haunts and breaks the mighty Gilgamesh. Terrified of mortality, he resolves to find the secret of eternal life...

That sounds like a good read, right?  It was written in cuneiform on 12 tablets and was first discovered by archaeologists in 1853 with the first modern translation published in 1870.  There was considerable damage to the tablets when they were found so there are many translations that take liberties with the story.  But what I find the most interesting is that this story contains some parallels to the Bible.  It was written almost 1000 years before the Old Testament Bible and features striking similarities in their versions of the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah's flood and Samson and Delilah.  Obviously, that can mean different things to different people - for some it might validate the events of the Bible as true history, and for others (myself included) it seems to indicate that the Bible is a collection of stories and can not always be taken literally.  But that's a whole other discussion.

I think for most people it is hard to imagine what these ancient dates really mean.  It's hard to picture just how wondrous it is (at least I think it is amazing) that we have such an ancient story preserved.  So I made this little (hopefully accurate) timeline to visualize just how ancient this text is:

(As a complete aside - I came across this in my internet research and was just delighted by this ancient picture of a bookworm!  From Pompeii, AD 79)

Is anybody interested in reading The Epic of Gilgamesh and seeing what life was like in c 2000 B.C.?  Do you like to read books from our historical past and imagine what it was like for the author to actually live in that time?

(The translation by Andrew George is commonly thought of as the best.)

Exploring Ancient World Cultures
Chronology of Ancient Literary Works

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  1. I almost fainted when I saw this! Ok, I'm exaggerating a little, but still, I WAS SO EXCITED! Finally someone who has read the Epic of Gilgamesh! I first discovered it at University (studying Greek and Latin you just HAVE to know this epic story) and just loved it! Last year I took the time to read the entire story (different versions where there were gaps) and I found so many things in it. I see the Biblical items the same way as you see them! I love it how Gilgamesh is our big hero, but in fact he's like a little kid and very naïve... If you like this story, I think you might like the story of "Barlaam and Joasaph" too. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2231092.Barlaam_and_Ioasaph?ac=1 This too is a beautiful story about a "hero" discovering life.

    If you like Pompeii and you haven't read this book: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4678790-the-fires-of-vesuvius?from_search=true

    I recommend it!

    So happy you are interested in these kind of things! :D (I'm a nerd when it comes to ancient things and history :p )

  2. I haven't read it yet unfortunately but I want to! And your enthusiasm for it is making me want to read it very soon! So many of the posts for this feature just starts with me wondering about something and looking up the answer (in this case it was 'what was the first book?') So I really appreciate your informative comment! Gilgamesh does sound a bit naive - if only because he can't get over the death of his friend which is something everyone has to come to terms with. I haven't heard of Barlaam and Josasph so I'll definitely check it out!

    I love learning all about ancient history so if you have any ideas for The Refined Reader I welcome them! Or even if you would like to do a guest post for this with something bookish and interesting you've learned I would be so happy! :)

  3. Oh that's really nice :D I will think about it, maybe I can come up with something I saw in my classes a few years ago. Would be great! If you need a recommendation for a good edition of "The Gilgamesh Epic", let me know :) The one I read was pretty good :D

  4. Oh yay! Just let me know if you think of something! And yes, please give me your recommendation for a good edition of Gilgamesh! It's daunting that there are such different versions out there!

  5. I find it interesting that people can still read this. I too want to know the edition to read!

  6. I am a total geek and I learned about Gilgamesh from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not in the way of it being the first book but just the story - they told it in an episode and it always stuck with me.

  7. I love this feature! So fascinating to learn about this history. I really appreciate the research it must take for these topics.

  8. Wow!! I had never heard of this but it sounds so great! To be a reader and never read the first book ever??! I need to remedy that!

  9. WHAT!! I'm just in the second season of TNG, so I haven't come across that episode yet but now I'm really looking forward to it! I wish I had known earlier - I would have watched it and found a way to work it into this post. :)

  10. Thank you! I probably do less research than I should, but I think it is fun to look up the answers to my questions and then try to talk about it as simply as possible. :)

  11. That's exactly how I feel! I feel like this is an origin point for books, and I should know all about it! :)

  12. Oh thank you! I heard Andrew George was the best translation - glad that you liked his version too!

  13. I think it's really fascinating too - and it would be so crazy if another older book was found now! It's pretty mind-boggling to think there are things that have survived for so long undiscovered!

  14. The Epic of Gilgamesh is something I've always wanted to read. Mythology <3 I don't know much about Babylonian mythology, and only studied Mesopotamia a little at university, so it would be nice to improve on that.

    I loved The Iliad, and it's insane to think that it was written nearly 3000 years ago. And then to think that the Epic of Gilgamesh was ancient even then!

    Also - the Pompeii fresco: isn't it just gorgeous? It still astounds me how 'new' some ancient works of art and artefacts look. I've worked with Roman pottery that was 2000ish years old, and looked like it could've been made yesterday.

  15. Most things I've been reading lately about the beginning of bookish history revolves around Mesopotamia so I am thinking I need to brush up my knowledge on that time as well.

    Good art can be pretty timeless - it's amazing too to think of the person who made these things and how they are still being seen today! I wish I could create something so lasting! Um, wow, 2000 year old pottery!! Now that I think of it, I think I would have panic attacks if I had to be the one to help clean up those ancient artefacts! LOL

  16. you've got a ways to go - it's not until season 5 (episode 2) but it's really good. That is so cool that you're watching TNG :)

  17. I read an excerpt from The Epic of Gilgamesh wayyy back in high school, but we spent little, if any, time on the history of the text itself. Its origins are just fascinating, and it's so fortunate that those tablets were discovered!

  18. I checked my copy and it's the penguin classics edition. I really enjoyed it. The extra information was a little boring at first, but it's interesting too ;) Here's the link to it: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/617495.The_Epic_of_Gilgamesh
    I hope you'll both enjoy it :D