10 Of The Most Ancient Pieces Of Literature Ever Found
While many of humanity's early writings are lost, never to be seen or read by anyone, there are some that have luckily been discovered and preserved, giving us a rare look into the literary works and achievements of ancient cultures.
Here are 10 of the oldest pieces of literature ever found.
1. Tale of Two Brothers, Egyptian, c. 1185 BC In 1857, the Tale of Two Brothers was sold to the British Museum where it was afterwards translated from the hieratic writing with which it was originally composed. It was written during or just slightly after the reign of Seti II, ruler of Egypt from 1200–1194 BC and is considered as the earliest example of a fairy tale. The papyrus' exact date of discovery, however, remains unknown.
You can read a short summary of the Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers here.
2. The Westcar Papyrus, Egyptian, c. 1700 BC The Westcar Papyrus, King Cheops and the Magicians in English, is a collection of five different stories, each one talking about an ancient Egyptian priest or magician and the miracles he performed. The most widely known story is that of Dedi of Dedsnefru, a 110-year-old magician with one special amazing trick: he could reattach severed heads.
The Westcar Papyrus was allegedly discovered by Henry Westcar, a British adventurer. It eventually found its way to a German Egyptologist, who subsequently translated its hieratic text.
3. The Lament For Ur, Sumerian, c. 2000 BC This is one of the earliest examples of poetic literature in the world. It is a dirge (a slow song that expresses sadness or sorrow) composed by the earliest kings of the Isin dynasty who wished to rebuild the destroyed city.
Lament for Ur was written to "calm the angered, anguished soul of the god of Ur, Nanna, a prerequisite for the rebuilding efforts". It was also used to remove the cloud of suspicion that the kings of the Isin dynasty had a hand with the city's destruction.
4. Classic Of Poetry, Chinese, 1000–600 BC Believed to have been compiled by the great philosopher Confucius, the Classic of Poetry (or Shijing), is the oldest existing book of poetry in the history of Chinese literature. The book is part of a group of five separate books, collectively called the Five Classics.
The book contains over 305 poems and divided into three distinct books: Feng (Songs), Ya (Odes and Epics), and Song (Hymns). The poems haven't been attributed to any single author but was most likely written by people living during the rule of the Zhou royal kingdom, a dynasty credited with the foundation of Chinese culture.
Classic of Poetry has been transmitted orally for centuries.
5. The Ipuwer Papyrus, Egyptian, c. 1650 BC The Ipuwer Papyrus is believed to have been written by the eponymous 17th-century BC Egyptian. Originally called The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage, this piece of ancient literature details the state of Egypt at a time when it was plunging into disarray, chronicling plagues raving the land and the Nile turning as red as blood, making its waters undrinkable.
The document's true origin unfortunately can't be determined since the Ipuwer Papyrus is but a copy of an older manuscript.
6. The Story Of Sinuhe, Egyptian, c. 2000 BC The Story Of Sinuhe is widely considered as Ancient Egypt’s greatest literary achievement. The story is set in the aftermath of the death of Pharaoh Amenemhat I, founder of Egypt's 12th dynasty, in the early 20th century BC, and was most likely composed shortly after.
Egyptologists is still debating as to whether or not the story is based on actual events involving an individual named Sinuhe. The nature of the themes, including divine providence and mercy, makes Sinuhe most likely a work of fiction. Sinuhe's anonymous author has been considered as the "Egyptian Shakespeare" whose ideas have parallels in biblical texts.
7. The Story Of Wenamun, Egyptian, c. 1000 BC The story tells the possibly real-life tale of a high official of the temple of Amun, Wenamun. He was sent on a trade mission to Phoenicia (Syria) to find cedar woods for the restoration of the sacred barque with which Amun’s statue was carried during festivals.
It may seem like your usual trade mission but it eventually turned into a lengthy and event-filled journey. The story ends with Wenamun landing in Cyprus where he was almost killed by an angry mob before falling under the protection of a local queen.
The only existing copy of The Story Of Wenamun is in Moscow, in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. This piece of late Egyptian literature is useful for historians since it is one of the only few sources discussing the conditions in Egypt and Phoenicia at the time.
8. The Poor Man Of Nippur, Akkadian, c. 1500 BC ‘The Poor Man Of Nippur’ is one of the earliest examples of a folk tale. It is an Akkadian tale dating from around 1500 BC. It is a story about a man Gimil-Ninurta, so poor he lacks “even a change of clothing.”
9. ‘The Instructions Of Shuruppak’, Sumerian, c. 2500 BC This ancient literature is a collection of lessons and sayings written by a father for Ziusudra, the hero of the Sumerian flood myth. The Instructions Of Shuruppak is perhaps the greatest example of Sumerian wisdom literature. It talks about dozens of helpful tips ranging from practical lessons to moral precepts to ensure Ziusudra would have a good life.
The Instructions of Shuruppak is a popular teaching tool thanks to the vast number of existing copies that have been discovered. With lessons like “don’t rape” and “you shouldn't pass judgment when you drink beer,” it comes as no surprise that the document enjoyed as much staying power as it did.
10. The Maxims Of Ptahhotep, Egyptian, c. 2400 BC This 18-page book of proverbs is a collection of the penned thoughts and ideas of Ptahhotep, an adviser for two different pharaohs, Menkauhor and Assa Djed-ka-Ra. Ptahhotep's writings, much like The Instructions of Shuruppak, were presented as lessons for his son.
"The Maxims of Ptahhotep flows seamlessly between rules about civil obedience and social structure to those regarding personal relationships and sex."