The world’s oldest story – and astronomical text book
By Bob Trubshaw
‘The Epic of Gilgamesh is alive and wriggling. You might as well try and catch hold of an eel in the water as imagine you can get hold of the Epic.’
So starts Robert Temple’s attempt to restore the oldest story in the world. Set in what is now Iraq, the Epic of Gilgamesh has its origin in the Sumerian era c.3,000 BCE. What has come down to us are various clay tablet fragments written around 1,800-1,600 BCE onwards in the Akkadian cuniform script, from which academics argumentatively put together a more-or-less coherent whole. How far back the tales stretch into oral tradition we can only speculate, but the enormities of time are overwhelming. Undoubtedly, this is the world’s oldest surviving story.
Arguably it is the world’s best selling story, too, as the Epic remained in circulation for at least 1,500 years. Judging from the numbers of fragments of tablets in different places, it seems to have been the standard text for training pupils in the Akkadian scriptoria. Gilgamesh’s saga develops into those of Hecules or even Odysseus in Classical Greece. Aspects of Plato’s writings can also be seen to have been seeded by the Sumerian saga. Furthermore, in the Gilgamesh legends is the story of a Deluge and a carefully constructed cubic ark of sacred measurements – the prototype of the Biblical tale, although the cuniform tablets predate the biblical tale by at least a millenia and a half.