The First Book
The first book ever written is believed to be The Epic of Gilgamesh: a mythical retelling of an important political figure from history. It came from ancient Mesopotamia and is the earliest surviving notable literature and the second oldest religious text, after the Pyramid Texts. Written: c. 2100-1200 BCE, it is the oldest-known fictional story that can be called a book.
Picture Credit: “File:The Newly Discovered Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Meeting Humbaba, with Enkidu, at the Cedar Forest. The Sulaymaniyah Museum, Iraqi Kurdistan.jpg” by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Books have been a part of our daily lives since ancient times. They have been used for telling stories, archiving history, and sharing information about our world. Although the ways that books are made have evolved over time – whether handwritten, printed on pages, or digitised online – their need remains timeless. The invention of writing marks the boundary between pre-history and history. The first written language that we know of was archaic cuneiform. It is believed to have appeared around 3400 BC during the early period of ancient Sumerian civilisation located in the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers in what is now modern-day Iraq.
The first bound parchment books, or codices, were the Bibles of the early Christian church, like the 4th century AD Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus. The ‘Codex Vaticanus’ is regarded as the oldest extant manuscript of the Greek Bible. The Codex is named after its place of conservation in the Vatican Library, where it has been kept since at least the 15th century. It is written on 759 leaves of vellum in uncial letters and has been dated paleographically to the 4th century. The literal meaning of ‘Codex Sinaiticus’ is the Sinai Book. The word ‘Sinaiticus’ comes from the fact that the Codex was preserved for many centuries at St Catherine’s Monastery near the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt.
Before books, humans had stories, the telling and retelling of which was a communal way of sharing joy and keeping bad dreams away. This is how fairy tales began and how language and spoken words found their power. But the earliest examples of “writing” – either on stone slabs or impressed onto pieces of bark – were more to record numbers, lists, or convey information, than anything else.
Writing on Different Material
In 1454, the German Johannes Gutenburg built his very own (and the world’s first-ever) mechanical movable-type printing press to print on paper. Before this, the materials used were:
- Clay Tablets: the first written form of communication was found in Mesopotamia in the 3rd Millennia BC.
- Papyrus Writing: Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs used Papyrus as books. The first evidence of a book is from the account books of King Neferirkare Kakai, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, the third king of the 5th Dynasty (about 2400 BC).
- Wood and Silk: The first printing of books started in China (during the Tang Dynasty, an imperial Dynasty ruling from 618 to 907 AD, but exactly when is not known. Printing is considered to be one of the Four Great Inventions of China that spread across the world. A specific type of printing called mechanical woodblock printing on paper started in China during the Tang Dynasty before the 8th century AD.
When the first books were printed in different languages is as follows:
- 1377: Jikji is the abbreviated title of a Korean Buddhist document, Selected Teachings of Buddhist Sages and Seon Masters, the earliest known book printed with movable metal type.
- 1455: The Gutenberg Bible was the first major book printed in Europe with movable metal type by Johannes Gutenberg.
- 1461: Der Ackermann aus Böhmen printed by Albrecht Pfister, is the first printed book in German, and also the first book illustrated with woodcuts.
- 1470: Il Canzoniere by Francesco Petrarca is the first book printed in the Italian language.century
- 1472: Sinodal de Aguilafuente was the first book printed in Spain (at Segovia) and in Spanish.
- 1474: Obres e trobes en llaor de la Verge Santa Maria was the first book printed in the Catalan language at Valencia.
- c.1475: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye was the first book printed (by William Caxton) in the
- English language.
- 1476: La légende dorée, printed by Guillaume LeRoy, is the first book printed in the French language.
- 1476: Grammatica Graeca, sive compendium octo orationis partium, is the first book written entirely in Greek by Constantine Lascaris.
- 1477: The first printed edition of the Geographia, in Bologna, was the first printed book with engraved illustrations.
- 1477: The Delft Bible was the first book printed in the Dutch language.
Some of the World’s Oldest Books
Before the evolution of the printing press and the emergence of the Gutenberg Bible, each text was a unique handcrafted article, personalised through the design features incorporated by the scribe, owner, bookbinder and illustrator. Apart from books already referred to earlier, the following will be of interest:
- Etruscan Gold Book: Although not much is known about this book, it may be the oldest book in the world as it dates back to around 600 BC. The entire book is made out of 24 carat gold and consists of six sheets bound together, with illustrations of a horse rider, a mermaid, a harp, and soldiers. The finder of the book, donated it to Bulgaria’s National History Museum.
- Prygi Gold Tablets: were found during an excavation of the ancient port town of Pyrgi, Italy, in 1964 and date back to around 500 BC. The tablets are notable because they are written in two different languages: two of the tablets are written in ancient Etruscan, and the third one is written in Phoenician. Due to the bilingual text, researchers have used their knowledge of Phoenician to interpret the Etruscan tablets.
- The Nag Hammadi Library: this collection of thirteen codices buried in a sealed jar were found in 1945 by a farmer in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. The writings found in the codices are mostly about Gnostic treatises but also contain works belonging to the Corpus Hermitcum as well as a partial translation or alteration of Plato’s Republic. One of the codices includes the only known complete text of the Gospel of Thomas. The codices are believed to date back between the 3rd and 4th centuries.
- The Garima Gospels: these are two gospel books from the Abba Garima Monastery in Ethiopia and are the oldest known complete illuminated Christian manuscripts. Recent carbon-testing shows that the books date to between 330 – 650 AD. The books were written by Abba Garima, a Byzantine royal who founded the monastery.
- The St. Cuthbert Gospel: this is the oldest surviving European book and dates back to around the 7th century. The book is a copy of the Gospel of St. John and was named for St. Cuthbert, in whose coffin the book was placed sometime after he died in 687AD. The book has been on loan to the British Library in London since 1979, and they are now the current owners.
- The Book of Kells or the Book of Columba: this is one of Ireland’s greatest treasures – an illuminated manuscript dating back to about 800 AD. The book was named for the Abbey of Kells, where it was housed for many centuries – it is currently on permanent display at Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland. The book features four Gospels from the New Testament and consists of 340 folios made from calfskin vellum.
The Pyramid Texts
The Pyramid Texts are the oldest ancient Egyptian funerary texts, dating to the late Old Kingdom. They are not books as such but are the earliest known corpus of ancient Egyptian religious texts. Written in Old Egyptian, the texts were carved onto the subterranean walls and sarcophagi of pyramids at Saqqara from the end of the 5th Dynasty, throughout the 6th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, and into the 8th Dynasty of the First Intermediate Period.
History of Books
Before the evolution of the printing press, made famous by the Gutenberg Bible, each text was a unique handcrafted valuable article, personalised through the design features incorporated by the writer, owner, bookbinder, and illustrator. Analysis of each component part of a book reveals:
- its purpose
- where and how it was kept
- who read it
- ideological and religious beliefs of the period
Even a lack of evidence of this nature leaves valuable clues about the nature of a book.
The history of books started with the development of writing and various other inventions such as paper and printing on tablets, scrolls, and sheets of Papyrus:
- Clay Tablets: were used in Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC. A calamus, an instrument with a triangular point, was used to inscribe characters in moist clay. Fire was used to dry the clay. Such tablets continued to be used until the 19th century in various parts of the world, including Germany, Chile, the Philippines, and the Sahara Desert.
- Cuneiform and Sumerian writing: Writing originated as a form of record-keeping in Sumer during the 4th millennium BC with the advent of cuneiform. Many clay tablets have been found that show cuneiform writing used to record legal contracts, create lists of assets, and eventually record Sumerian literature and myths. Archaeologists have found scribal schools from as early as the 2nd millennium BC, where students were taught the art of writing.
- Papyrus: After extracting the marrow from the stems of Papyrus reed, a series of steps (humidification, pressing, drying, glueing, and cutting) produced media of variable quality, the best being used for sacred writing. In Ancient Egypt, Papyrus was used as a medium for writing surfaces, maybe as early as the 1st Dynasty – the first evidence is from the account books of King Neferirkare Kakai of the 5th Dynasty (about 2400 BC). A calamus, the stem of a reed sharpened to a point, or bird feathers were used for writing. Papyrus books were in the form of a scroll of several sheets pasted together, for a total length of 10 metres or more. Some books, such as the history of the reign of Ramses III, were over 40 metres long. Books rolled out horizontally; the text occupied one side and was divided into columns. The title was indicated by a label attached to the cylinder containing the book. Papyrus was a common substrate used as notarial documents, tax registries, legal contracts, etc.
It is commonly held that ‘Tom Sawyer’, written by Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), was the first novel written on a typewriter. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but you can judge for yourself: visit Open Culture or Circadianoesis and judge for yourself.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and is regarded as the earliest surviving notable literature and the second oldest religious text, after the Pyramid Texts.
Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his companion Enkidu are the only heroes to have survived (well, immortalised) from the ancient literature of Babylon. Together they journey to the Spring of Youth, defeat the Bull of Heaven and slay the monster Humbaba.
The literary history of Gilgamesh begins with five Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, dating from the 3rd Dynasty of Ur. The poem was in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian and Hittite, all written in cuneiform script. In Tablet 1, Enkidu appears, after which most of the story unfolds from Gilgamesh’s perspective. Utnapishtim narrates the flood story in Tablet XI. The Old Babylonian tablets (c. 1800 BC) are the earliest surviving tablets for a single Epic of Gilgamesh narrative.
The original was written a long time ago – circa the 20th to the 10th century BC. It runs to nearly 2,000 lines. The ancient authors of the stories that compose the poem are anonymous. The latest and most complete version found so far was written c 600 BC and was signed by a Babylonian author and editor named Sin-Leqi-Unninni.
The characters in the poem include:
- Gilgamesh – a major hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology and the protagonist of the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered to be the historical King of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk;
- Enkidu – the wartime comrade and friend of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk;
- Utnapishtim – tasked by the God Enki (Ea) to create a giant ship to be called Preserver of Life in preparation for the coming flood expected to decimate all life;
- Humbaba – surnamed the Terrible, was a monstrous giant of immemorial age raised by Utu, the Sun. Humbaba was the guardian of the Cedar Forest, where the gods lived, by the will of the God Enlil, who assigned [Humbaba] “as a terror to human beings”;
- Shamhat – a sacred prostitute who plays a significant role in bringing the wild man Enkidu into contact with civilisation;
- Gugalanna – the first husband of Ereshkigal, the queen of the underworld. His name probably (originally) meant “canal inspector of An“;
- Shamash – the son of Sin. As the solar deity, Shamash exercised the power of light over darkness and evil. He became known as the God of justice and equity and the judge of both gods and men. Legend has it that the Babylonian King Hammurabi received his code of laws from Shamash;
- Dumuzi – later known by the alternative form Tammuz, was an ancient Mesopotamian god associated with shepherds, who was also the primary consort of the goddess Inanna (later known as Ishtar);
- Ishtar – Ishtar was the goddess of love and war. She has a small, devastating role in the Epic, letting fire and brimstone loose, which leads to a clash with Enkidu and Gilgamesh, which leads to Enkidu getting the death penalty from the gods – which in turn sends Gilgamesh off on his failed quest for immortality.
The Epic originated as a series of Sumerian legends and poems in a cuneiform script dating back to the early 3rd or late 2nd millennium BC and later gathered into a longer Akkadian poem (the most near-complete version existing today), preserved on 12 clay tablets, dating from the 12th to the 10th century BC.
It follows the story of Gilgamesh, the mythological hero-king of Uruk, part divine and part human, and his half-wild friend, Enkidu. Together, they undertake a series of dangerous quests and adventures. Gilgamesh searches for the secret of immortality after the death of his friend. There is mention of a great flood akin to Noah’s story in the Bible and elsewhere. Gilgamesh is described as blessed by the gods with strength, courage and beauty, and the strongest and greatest King who ever existed. The great city of Uruk receives praise for its glory and its strong brick walls.
Gilgamesh: Hero mastering a lion. Relief from the façade of the throne room, Palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (Dur Sharrukin), 713–706 BCE.
Picture Credit/Attribution: Louvre Museum, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ed/Hero_lion_Dur-Sharrukin_Louvre_AO19862.jpg
Most of the epic poem is told by an objective, unnamed narrator who never directly criticises Gilgamesh, always talking of him in the most heroic terms, albeit with some irony.
At first, Gilgamesh pays no heed to death, even to the point of rashness, while in the second part, he is obsessed with death to the point of self-paralysis.
In the first part of the poem, Gilgamesh bonds with his friend Enkidu and sets out to build an enviable reputation. In doing so, he incurs the wrath of the gods. In the end, Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh becomes obsessed with his mortality. He sets out on a quest to find Utnapishtim, the ‘Mesopotamian Noah’ who received eternal life from the gods, in the hope that he will tell him how he too can avoid death.
In time, Gilgamesh dies, and the people of Uruk mourn his passing, knowing that they will never see anyone like him again.
Relationship to the Bible
Various themes, plot elements, and characters in the Hebrew Bible correlate with the Epic of Gilgamesh – notably, the accounts of the Garden of Eden, the advice from Ecclesiastes, and the Genesis flood narrative.
The Tablet XI of Gilgamesh was first translated into English and published in 1872. The first comprehensive scholarly translation published in English was by R Campbell Thompson in 1930.
Read the Epic
The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Maureen Gallery Kovacs, electronic edition by Wolf Carnahan, I998, is available as a pdf here.
Sources and Further Reading
Torah scroll at old Glockengasse Synagogue (reconstruction), Cologne
Picture Credit/Attribution: HOWI – Horsch, Willy, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/54/K%C3%B6ln-Tora-und-Innenansicht-Synagoge-Glockengasse-040.JPG
- Source: https://artsandculture.google.com/story/a-brief-history-of-books/OAXR-SPrQmOCew?hl=en ↑
- Cuneiform was originally a pictographic language gradually becoming syllabic and composed of wedge shaped characters (the word, “cuneiform,” comes from the latin term cuneus, meaning wedge.) Source: https://andyrossagency.wordpress.com/tag/first-book-ever-written/ ↑
- Being the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing. ↑
- Source: mostly from https://www.quora.com/Who-wrote-the-very-first-book-in-the-world ↑
- See: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albrecht_Pfister ↑
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petrarch ↑
- See: https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?entryid=1752 ↑
- Source: https://www.oldest.org/culture/books-ever-existed/ ↑
- Sources: (1) Allen, James P. (2000). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-77483-7. (2) Allen, James (2001). “Pyramid Texts”. In Redford, Donald B. (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Volume 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 95–98. ISBN 978-0-19-510234-5. ↑
- A sarcophagus (plural sarcophagi or sarcophaguses) is a box-like funeral receptacle for a corpse, most commonly carved in stone, and usually displayed above ground, though it may also be buried.↑
- Sakkara (or Saccara in English) is an Egyptian village in Giza Governorate, that contains the ancient burial grounds of Egyptian royalty, serving as the necropolis for the ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramid_Texts ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Intermediate_Period_of_Egypt ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_books ↑
- Sumer is the earliest known civilisation in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia (south-central Iraq), emerging during the Chalcolithic and early Bronze Ages between the sixth and fifth millennium BC. It is also one of the first civilisations in the world, along with ancient Egypt, Elam, the Caral-Supe civilization, the Indus Valley civilisation, the Minoan civilisation, and ancient China. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumer ↑
- Cuneiform is a logo–syllabic script that was used to write several languages of the Ancient Near East. The script was in active use from the early Bronze Age until the beginning of the Common Era. It is named for the characteristic wedge-shaped impressions (Latin: cuneus) which form its signs. Cuneiform was originally developed to write the Sumerian language of southern Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Along with Egyptian hieroglyphs, it is one of the earliest writing systems. ↑