Excerpt: 'The Book of Lost Books'
c. 75,000 b.c.e. — c. 2800 b.c.e.
The very origins of literature are lost.
An oblong piece of ocher, found in the Blombos Caves on the southern coast of present-day South Africa, is crosshatched with a regular pattern of diamonds and triangles. It is 77,000 years old. Whether these geometric designs are supposed to be symbolic, whether they are supposed to mean anything at all, they present us with one irrefutable fact. A precursor of modern humanity deliberately engraved marks onto a medium. It was a long way yet to the word processor and text messages, but a first step of sorts had been taken.
The period around 45,000 to 35,000 years ago in humanity’s evolution has been called the Upper Paleolithic Revolution or, more catchily, the Creative Explosion. More complex tools were fashioned, from fishhooks to buttons to needles. Moreover, they are decorated, not only with schemata of lines and dots: a lamp contains an ibex, a spear tip transforms into a bison. There are also statuettes with no immediately discernible use: squat figurines of dumpy women. Is it possible to have slings but not songs, arrows but not stories?
Looking at the cave paintings from Lascaux, Altamira, and Chavette, created some 18,000 years ago, it is overwhelmingly tempting to try and read them. Do these images record successful hunts, or are they imagined desires and hopes? Is this “Yesterday we killed an aurochs” or “Once upon a time there was an aurochs”? What do the squiggles and zigzags, the claviforms and tectiforms over the animal images signify? Occasionally, looming out from an inconceivably distant time, a human handprint appears, outlined in pigment. A signature, on a work we cannot interpret.
Where did writing come from? Every early culture has a deity who invents it: Nabu in Assyria, Thoth in Egypt, Tenjin in Japan, Oghma in Ireland, Hermes in Greece. The actual explanation may be far less glamorous—accountants in Mesopotamia. All the earliest writing documents, in the blunt, wedge-shaped cuneiform style, are records of transactions, stock-keeping, and inventories. Before cursives and uncials, gothic scripts and runic alphabets, hieroglyphics and ideograms, we had tally marks.
But, by the first few centuries of the second millennium b.c.e., we know that literature has begun, has begun to be recorded, and has begun to spread. It was not until 1872 that the first fragments of The Epic of Gilgamesh resurfaced in the public domain after four millennia. The excavation of ancient Nineveh had been undertaken by Austen Henry Layard in 1839. Nearly twenty-five thousand broken clay tablets were sent back to the British Museum, and the painstaking work of deciphering the cuneiform markings commenced in earnest. The Nineveh inscriptions were incomplete, and dated from the seventh century b.c.e., when King Ashurbanipal of Assyria had ordered his troops to seek out the ancient wisdom in the cities of Babylon, Uruk, and Nippur. These spoils of war were then translated into Akkadian from the original Sumerian.
Over time, the poem was supplemented by more ancient versions discovered in Nippur and Uruk, as well as copies from places as far apart as Boghazköy in Asia Minor and Megiddo in Israel. Gradually, an almost complete version of The Epic of Gilgamesh was assembled out of Hittite, Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Old Babylonian.
Who first wrote it? We do not know. Was it part of a wider cycle of myths and legends? Possibly, even probably, and there is a slim chance that further archaeological research will answer this. What, finally, is it about?
Gilgamesh is a powerful king of Uruk. The gods create an equal for him in the figure of Enkidu, a wild man, brought up among beasts and tempted into civilization by sex. They become firm friends, and travel together to the forest, where they slay the ferocious giant Humbaba, who guards the cedar trees. This infuriates the goddess Ishtar, who sends a bull from Heaven to defeat them. They kill and sacrifice it, and Ishtar decides that the way to harm Gilgamesh is through the death of Enkidu. Distraught, Gilgamesh travels through the Underworld in search of eternal life, and eventually meets with Utnapishtim at the ends of the world. Utnapishtim was the only human wise enough to escape the Flood, and, after forcing Gilgamesh through a purification ceremony, shows him a flower called “The Old Are Young Again.” It eludes his grasp, and Gilgamesh dies.
The themes resonate through recorded literary endeavor. Gilgamesh wrestles with mortality; he declares he will “set up his name where the names of the famous are written.” Death is inevitable and incomprehensible. Even the giant Humbaba is given a pitiable scene where he begs for his life. Prayers, elegies, riddles, dreams, and prophecies intersperse the adventure; fabulous beasts sit alongside real men and women. The fact that we can discern different styles and genres within The Epic of Gilgamesh hints that unknown versions existed prior to it.
All the earliest authors are anonymous. A legendary name, an Orpheus or Taliesin, serves as a conjectural origin, a myth to shroud the namelessness of our culture’s beginnings. Although anonymity is still practiced, it is as a ruse to conceal Deep Throats, both investigative and pornographic. It is a choice, whereas for generations of writers so absolutely lost that no line, no title, no name survives, it is a destiny thrust upon them. They might write, and struggle, and edit, and polish, yet their frail papers dissipate, and all their endeavor is utterly erased. To those of whom no trace remains, this book is an offering. For we will join them, in the end.
Excerpted from The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly. Copyright © 2006, Stuart Kelly. Reprinted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.