Babylonian literature

Babylonian literature

Babylonian literature is one of the world's oldest. Drawing on the traditions of Sumerian literature, the Babylonians compiled a vast textual tradition of mythological narrative, legal texts, scientific works, letters and other literary forms. As a scribal society, Babylon placed great prestige on its great literary works and on the practice of philology.

Literature in Babylonian society

Most of what we have from the Babylonians was inscribed in cuneiform with a metal stylus on tablets of clay, called "laterculae coctiles" by Pliny the Elder; papyrus seems to have been also employed, but it has perished.

There were libraries in most towns and temples; an old Sumerian proverb averred that "he who would excel in the school of the scribes must rise with the dawn." Women as well as men learned to read and write, and in Semitic times, this involved a knowledge of the extinct Sumerian language, and a complicated and extensive syllabary. The Babylonians' very advanced systems of writing, science and mathematics contributed greatly to their literary output.

Relation to other ancient literatures

A considerable amount of Babylonian literature was translated from Sumerian originals, and the language of religion and law long continued to be the old agglutinative language of Sumer. Vocabularies, grammars, and interlinear translations were compiled for the use of students, as well as commentaries on the older texts and explanations of obscure words and phrases. The characters of the syllabary were all arranged and named, and elaborate lists of them were drawn up.

Assyrian culture and literature came from Babylonia, but even here there was a difference between the two countries. There was little in Assyrian literature that was original, and education, general in Babylonia, was mostly restricted to a single class in the northern kingdom. In Babylonia, it was of very old standing. Under the second Assyrian empire, when Nineveh had become a great centre of trade, Aramaic — the language of commerce and diplomacy — was added to the number of subjects that the educated class was required to learn.

Under the Seleucids, Greek was introduced into Babylon, and fragments of tablets have been found with Sumerian and Assyrian (i.e. Semitic Babylonian) words transcribed into Greek letters.

Notable works

Many Babylonian literary works have survived to this day.


One of the most famous of these was the Epic of Gilgamesh, in twelve books, translated from the original Sumerian by a certain Sin-liqi-unninni, and arranged upon an astronomical principle. Each division contains the story of a single adventure in the career of Gilgamesh. The whole story is a composite product, and it is probable that some of the stories are artificially attached to the central figure.

Another epic was that of the "Creation" Enûma Eliš, whose object was to glorify Bel-Marduk by describing his contest with Tiamat, the dragon of chaos. In the first book, an account is given of the creation of the world from the primeval deep, and the birth of the gods of light. Then comes the story of the struggle between the gods of light and the powers of darkness, and the final victory of Marduk, who clove Tiamat asunder, forming the heaven from half of her body and the earth from the other. Marduk next arranged the stars in order, along with the sun and moon, and gave them laws they were never to transgress. After this, the plants and animals were created, and finally man. Marduk here takes the place of Ea, who appears as the creator in the older legends, and is said to have fashioned man from clay.

The legend of Adapa, the first man — a portion of which was found in the record-office of the Egyptian king Akhenaton at Tell-el-Amarna — explains the origin of death. Adapa, while fishing, had broken the wings of the south wind, and was accordingly summoned before the tribunal of Anu in heaven. Ea counselled him not to eat or drink anything there. He followed this advice, and thus refused the food that would have made him and his descendants immortal.

Among the other legends of Babylonia may be mentioned those of Namtar, the plague-demon; of Erra, the pestilence; of Etanna and of Anzu. Hades, the abode of Ereshkigal or Allatu, had been entered by Nergal, who, angered by a message sent to her by the gods of the upper world, ordered Namtar to strike off her head. She, however, declared that she would submit to any conditions imposed on her, and would give Nergal the sovereignty of the earth. Nergal accordingly relented, and Allatu became the queen of the infernal world. Etanna conspired with the eagle to fly to the highest heaven. The first gate, that of Anu, was successfully reached; but in ascending still farther to the gate of Ishtar, the strength of the eagle gave way, and Etanna was dashed to the ground. As for the storm-god Anzu, we are told that he stole the tablets of destiny, and therewith the prerogatives of Enlil. God after god was ordered to pursue him and recover them, but it would seem that it was only by a stratagem that they were finally regained.


The origins of Babylonian philosophy can be traced back to early Mesopotamian wisdom, which embodied certain philosophies of life, particularly ethics. These are reflected in Mesopotamian religion and in a variety of Babylonian literature in the forms of dialectic, dialogs, epic poetry, folklore, hymns, lyrics, prose, and proverbs. These different forms of literature were first classified by the Babylonians, and they had developed forms of reasoning both rationally and empirically. [Giorgio Buccellati (1981), "Wisdom and Not: The Case of Mesopotamia", "Journal of the American Oriental Society" 101 (1), p. 35-47.]

Esagil-kin-apli's medical "Diagnostic Handbook" written in the 11th century BC was based on a logical set of axioms and assumptions, including the modern view that through the examination and inspection of the symptoms of a patient, it is possible to determine the patient's disease, its aetiology and future development, and the chances of the patient's recovery.H. F. J. Horstmanshoff, Marten Stol, Cornelis Tilburg (2004), "Magic and Rationality in Ancient Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman Medicine", p. 99, Brill Publishers, ISBN 9004136665.]

During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Babylonian astronomers began studying philosophy dealing with the ideal nature of the early universe and began employing an internal logic within their predictive planetary systems. This was an important contribution to the philosophy of science.D. Brown (2000), "Mesopotamian Planetary Astronomy-Astrology ", Styx Publications, ISBN 9056930362.]

It is possible that Babylonian philosophy had an influence on Greek, particularly Hellenistic philosophy. The Babylonian text "Dialog of Pessimism" contains similarities to the agonistic thought of the sophists, the Heraclitean doctrine of contrasts, and the dialogs of Plato, as well as a precursor to the maieutic Socratic method developed by Socrates. [Giorgio Buccellati (1981), "Wisdom and Not: The Case of Mesopotamia", "Journal of the American Oriental Society" 101 (1), p. 35-47 [43] .]

Other genres

Besides the purely literary works, there were others of varied nature, including collections of letters, partly official, partly private. Among them the most interesting are the letters of Hammurabi, which have been edited by Leonard William King.

See also

* Babylonia and Assyria
* Art and architecture of Babylonia and Assyria
* Social life in Babylonia and Assyria
* Code of Hammurabi
* Cuneiform
*Literature Portal




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