A Brief History Of Literature

Oral narrative was the earliest form of literature. Ancient storytellers composed poems, songs and stories and told them to their children who in turn told them to their children. During our research to write A Brief History Of Literature we found that historians discovered that the oldest writing systems are cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and the alphabet. Cuneiform is the first known form of writing.

Read about the oldest alphabet here.

What is Literature?

Books are older than the word literature, the term ‘literature’ was first used in early 15c., “book-learning,” from Latin literatura/litteratura “learning, a writing, grammar,” originally “writing organized with letters,” from litera/littera “alphabetic letter” also “an epistle, writing, document; literature, great books; science, learning”.

The simple meaning of literature is a body of written works of a language, period, or culture. Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value:

“Literature must be an analysis of experience and a synthesis of the findings into a unity.”

Rebecca West

Literature is the reflection of life, it mirrors the society that generated it. We classify literature according to language, origin, historical period, genre, and subject matter. Traditionally, we apply the name to those imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the perceived aesthetic excellence of their execution.

Initially, literature was a form of entertainment for the people. Over time, it attained the purpose of reform as well. The writers stated highlighting the social issues in their writing. Thus, it became a medium to draw the audience’s attention to certain matters and urge them to think about the reform.

Literature, in the west, originated in the southern Mesopotamia region of Sumer (c. 3200) in the city of Uruk and flourished in Egypt, later in Greece ( the Greek imported the written word from the Phoenicians) and from there, to Rome. Writing seems to have originated independently in China from divination practices and also independently in Mesoamerica and elsewhere.

What are the types of ancient literature?

Literature encompasses forms such as poetry, drama, prose, folklore, epic tale, personal narrative, poetry, history, biography, satire, philosophical dialogues, essays, legends and myths, among others. 

Ancient writers recorded their creations on a variety of media, including stone, clay tablets, papyri, palm leaves, and metal.

  • Religious texts: The Book of the Dead is an important religious work of ancient Egypt.
  • Nonfiction: Scientific texts: The MUL, royal edicts and declarations and agricultural guidelines.
  • Narratives: Aesop’s Fables is a collection of short stories that contain moral lessons.
  • Poems: The Greek poet Homer wrote two of the most famous epic poems: The Iliad and the Odyssey.

The concept of genre begins in the works of Aristotle, who applied biological concepts to the classification of literary genres, or, as he called them, “species” (eidē). These classifications are mainly discussed in his treatises Rhetoric and Poetics. For Aristotle, poetry (odes, epics, etc.), prose, and performance each had specific design features that supported appropriate content of each genre.

Examples of Ancient Literature

Themes of ancient literature largely involved survival, agriculture and husbandry (usually tied to the most visible star of that season), sibling rivalry, sacrifice/bravery and sociopolitical structures.

Examples of Ancient Epics

The world’s oldest Story

Written 5,000 years ago, the epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest recorded story in the world, making the Sumerian culture hero Gilgamesh Joseph Campbell’s very first Hero with a Thousand Faces. The myth represents the emerging consciousness of humankind as it emerged from the Neolithic era. The most famous stories were attached to ‘stars’, Gilgamesh was associated with constellation of Taurus. The stories were a reflection of our lives, variations of the great deluge and Orion the hunter were present in many ancient civilizations around the globe.

The Indian epic Mahabharata (c.800-400 BCE) relates the birth of a nation while the Ramayana (c. 200 BCE) tells the tale of the great Rama’s rescue of his abducted wife Sita from the evil Ravna. The works found in the Assyrian King Asurbanipal’s library (647-627 BCE) record the heroic deeds of the gods, goddesses and the struggles and triumphs of heroic kings of ancient Mesopotamia such as Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh. Scholar Samuel Noah Kramer points out that the early Sumerian works – and, indeed, Sumerian culture as a whole – resonates in the modern day on many levels and is especially apparent in literature.

The first novel

A thousand years ago Murasaki Shikibu, a woman, wrote the epic The Tale of Genji, a story of 11th-Century Japan. Academics have described the Japanese epic The Tale of Genji as the world’s first novel* based on its early use of the experience of intimacy in a narrative form.

*A novel is a narrative work of prose fiction that tells a story about specific human experiences over a considerable length.

Homer’s Iliad recounts the famous ten-year war between the Greeks and the Trojans while his Odyssey tells of the great hero Odysseus’s journey back home after the war to his beloved wife Penelope of Ithaca and this, like the other works mentioned, reinforced cultural values without a concern for what may or may not have happened concerning the war with Troy.

Plato’s Dialogues, while not the first to combine philosophical themes with dramatic form, were the first to make drama work in the cause of philosophical inquiry. Later writers drew on these earlier works for inspiration (as Virgil did in composing his Aeneid, based on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, between 30-18 BCE) and this tradition of borrowing lasted until the time of Shakespeare (1564-1616 CE) and continues in the present day.

Ancient Literature. Tablets inscribed with “The Exaltation of Inanna” in three parts, History Of Literature
Figure 14: Tablets inscribed with “The Exaltation of Inanna” in three parts, possibly Larsa (modern Tell Senkereh), Old Babylonian period, ca. 1750 BC, clay, each 3 13/16 × 2 5/16 × 1 1/4 in. (9.7 × 5.9 × 3.1 cm); Yale Babylonian Collection, purchase; YPM BC 018721/YBC 4656 (lines 1–52), YPM BC 021234/YBC 7169 (lines 52–102), YPM BC 021231/YBC 7167 (lines 102–53). Photo: YBC/Klaus Wagensonner

Examples of ancient religious literature

The Pyramid Texts are the oldest religious literature in the world and make up the principal funerary literature of ancient Egypt. They comprise the texts which were inscribed on the sarcophogi and walls of the pyramids at Saqqara in the 5th and 6th Dynasties of the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE).

The Pyramid Texts tell of the journey of the soul to the afterlife in the Field of Reeds and these works, unlike Mesopotamian Naru Literature, presented the subject as truth. Egyptian religious culture was based on the reality of an afterlife and the role the gods played in one’s eternal journey, of which one’s life on earth was only one part.

Tale of Two Brothers, Egyptian, c. 1185 BC, and translated from the hieratic writing with which it was originally composed, is considered the earliest example of a fairy tale. The papyrus’ exact date of discovery, however, remains unknown.

The first author

The first author of literature in the world, known by name, was the high-priestess of Ur, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE) who wrote hymns in praise of the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Much of the early literature from Mesopotamia concerns the activities of the gods but, in time, humans featured as the main characters in such poems as Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta and Lugalbanda and Mount Hurrum (c.2600-2000 BCE).

Important Religious Texts

The story told in the biblical Book of Exodus (1446 BCE) is considered historical truth by many today, but originally could have been meant to be interpreted as liberation from bondage in a spiritual sense as it was written to empower the worshipers of Yahweh, encouraged them to resist the temptations of the indigenous peoples of Canaan, and elevated the audience’s perception of themselves as a chosen people of an all-powerful god.

The Song of Songs (c. 950 BCE) from the Hebrew scripture of the Tanakh, immortalizes the passionate love between a man and a woman (interpreted by Christians, much later, as the relationship between Christ and the church, though no such interpretation is supported by the original text) and the sacred aspect of such a relationship.

Read more about the oldest story in the world here.




Durant, W. Caesar and Christ. Simon & Schuster, 1980.
Hamilton, E. The Greek Way. W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.
Hesiod. Hesiod. Loeb Classical Library, 2007.
Homer. The Iliad and The Odyssey Translated by Samuel Butler. Buki Editions, 2009.
Sandars, N. K. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin Classics, 1973.
Black, J. , et. al. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Jonker, G. The Topography of Remembrance. Brill Publishing, 1995.
Kramer, S. N. The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. University of Chicago Press, 1971.
Kriwaczek, P. Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012.
Simpson, W. K. The Literature of Ancient Egypt. Yale University Press, 2003.
Various Ancient Authors. Holy Bible, New King James Version. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2009.
Wise Bauer, S. The History of the Ancient World. W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

%d bloggers like this: