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The Literature of Ancient Mesopotamia


The Literature of Ancient Mesopotamia English II – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: The Literature of Ancient Mesopotamia

The Literature of Ancient Mesopotamia
English II
Mesopotamia - The land between the rivers
  • Mesopotamia is the name given by the Greeks to an
    ancient area of the Middle East now known as
    modern-day Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.
  • This region is also known as the Fertile
    Crescent, an agriculturally rich land watered by
    the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Map of Ancient Mesopotamia
The Sumerians were the first people to dominate
this region, settling here sometime between 5000
and 4000 BC.
The Sumerians
  • Grew crops and raised cattle for a living
  • Were successful merchants and traders
  • Were known for their stonework, metalwork, and

The Sumerians lived in city-states, much like the
  • City-states were walled for protection against
    invaders (credited to be the inventor of the
  • Pyramid-like temples, called Ziggurats, were the
    center of the cities
  • The priests of the ziggurats were considered the
    earthly representatives of the gods

Sumerian society was based upon a strict Class
  • Upper Class priests, government officials
  • Middle Class merchants, artisans,
  • Lower Class peasants, farmers, slaves

The Sumerians achieved a high level of culture
and learning
  • Knowledge of architecture
  • Developments in science, math, astrology
  • Created one of the worlds first systems of
    writing, known as cuneiform, consisting of a
    wedge-shaped marking made with a stick on clay

The Summerians contd
  • The Summerian culture produced the worlds oldest
    literature of record.
  • It was written on clay tablets between 2100 and
    1650 BC
  • There have been over 400 works of Summerian
    literature discovered.

Writing in Mesopotamia
The largest city-states, such as Ur, Uruk, and
Lagash, had populations in tens of thousands.
  • Many city-states were in sight of each other
  • But the Sumerians never organized a strong
    central government
  • They often competed against each other for land
    and resources
  • This made it easy for stronger enemies to capture
    and control them later

Because the Sumerians failed to form a unified
government, they were vulnerable to the attacks
of different nations
  • Akkadians (2500 BC)
  • Babylonians (2000 BC)
  • Hittites (1600 BC)
  • Assyrians (900 BC)
  • Chaldeans (612 BC)
  • Persians (539 BC)

It was during the reign of the Babylonians that
the story of a great king called Gilgamesh
became translated and preserved
  • The story was written 4000 years ago
  • It takes the form of an epic poem
  • Tells of a king who actually reigned over the
    city-state of Uruk sometime between 2700 and 2500
  • The story was originally found on broken Sumerian
    tablets and restored / translated by the

The epic tells of the superhuman adventures of
the legendary king
  • Legend has it that Gilgamesh is two parts god and
    one part human, thus possessing both supernatural
    powers and human weaknesses
  • Though he was a great leader of a mighty city, he
    suffered from excessive pride (hubris).
  • His anger at the gods over the death of a friend
    leads him to seek eternal life
  • Though he confronts obstacles along the way, he
    must ultimately accept his human limitations

The selections of Gilgamesh we will read are
based upon 12 clay tablets of cuneiform script.
  • These tablets were among 25,000 discovered in
    modern Iraq at Ninevah in the buried ruins of the
    library of King Assurbanipal of Assyria
  • The original tablets were damaged in a fire
    during a Persian raid around 612 BC, but recent
    discoveries of older versions of the epic helped
    to reclaim the parts of the story that were

The epic was so widely known that scholars
believe it served as an archetype, or model, for
hero myths around the world
  • Greece, India, and Persia would later model
    characters and adventures after those portrayed
    in Gilgamesh
  • The epic reveals a great deal about the ancient
    Mesopotamians sometimes pessimistic (negative)
    views of existence
  • But it also shows us the sensitivity and humanity
    of these ancient peoples, who are not unlike us
    in their joys, sorrows, and strivings

Archetype of Gilgamesh
Archetype Review
  • They are the basic building blocks of stories
    that all writers use to create a world to which
    readers can escape. Also an archetype is a basic
    plot, character, symbol or idea that recurs in
    the literature of many cultures.
  • In Gilgamesh, a heroic king searches for the
    secret of immortality (heroic quest)

Background of the Sumerian Beliefs reflected in
the Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Though they were advanced for their time, the
    Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations were
    powerless against ever-present threats of floods,
    droughts, and invaders.
  • They worshipped a pantheon, or family, of
    unpredictable gods and goddesses who could bring
    misfortune as well as favor.
  • Regardless of social status or level of goodness,
    there was no joyful afterlife to look forward to.
  • No wonder these people had a negative outlook on

Myth of the Flood
These pessimistic (negative) beliefs are evident
in the Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Gilgamesh, in spite of his great powers, suffers
    a life-changing loss. When the person who means
    the most to him dies, the proud Gilgamesh must
    come to terms with the reality that he himself
    will not live forever.
  • Because, in the Sumerian view, death offers only
    emptimess, Gilgamesh rebels against it, and sets
    off on a quest to attain immortality (eternal

Gilgamesh is the earliest known of the Epic Heroes
  • All epic heroes are human beings
  • All have supernatural strength and spiritual
  • All are mighty leaders of their people
  • Most of them are of mixed divine and human birth
  • Most of them possess human weakness, which forces
    them to accept human limitations in spite of
    their power

Why are Epic Heroes so important to us?
  • We admire them for their divine, supernatural
    powers, and often wish to be like them
  • We sympathize with them because their human
    weaknesses and difficulties remind us of our own