Mesopotamian Literature: Characteristics, Authors, Historical Context

The Mesopotamian literature is the artistic heritage represented in literary works that left to humanity the integration of the cultures of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian peoples who dominated the territory of ancient Mesopotamia, today Iraq and Syria.

Mesopotamian civilization flourished as a result of the mixture of these cultures and has been called Mesopotamian or Babylonian literature in allusion to the geographical territory that such cultures occupied in the Middle East between the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Mesopotamian Literature: Characteristics, Authors, Historical Context Cuneiform writing on clay tablet

Today Mesopotamian literature is studied as the most important precedent of universal literature.

Characteristics of Mesopotamian Literature

-The main characteristic of Mesopotamian literature is the radical change it represented in the history of humanity.

- It was a writing for protoliterary purposes: the inhabitants of these lands went from using the writing for purely administrative purposes related to the community, to use it to transmit legends, explain facts, news and changes.

-The cultures that shaped it developed the first known forms of writing.

His works were carved in stone and clay and the writing used was the cuneiform (cuneus, wedge in Latin): wedges of different thicknesses arranged in different directions and angles to express different ideas.

- The signs of his writing had syllabic and ideological value, for that reason, deciphering them was a complex work.

- The presence of the mythological element, religious and legendary in their stories, in which alludes to the life, personality and features of their gods, mythical origins and the work of the creation of man.

Authors and outstanding works

The most outstanding authors of the Mesopotamian civilization were the emperors Nebuchadnezzar II and Nabopolasar.

Here are the most representative works of the literary movement:

- The Enuma Elish: religious poem that tells how the world was created.

- The epic of Erra: story about the great battles of the primordial chaos and the cosmic order.

-The poem of Atrahasis: narrates the story of a great deluge, considered years later by the specialists like the story that inspires the biblical work of Noe.

-The Gilgamesh poem: a Sumerian epic that recounts the adventures of the demigod Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu fighting against monsters in search of immortality.

-The poem of Zú: the story of an evil bird that steals the tablets of destiny to the gods and the warrior Ninurta, who undertakes the struggle to recover them.

-The Hammurabi Code: composed of 282 articles in which the main features of Babylonian society, the regulation of family law, trade activities, agriculture and sanctions for transgressions are narrated. This work is the first known code in the history of mankind.

Historic context

Mesopotamian literature originated in the ancient kingdom of Babylon, approximately in 3000 BC.

The coexistence between Akkadians and Sumerians led to the writing from being a pictographic to being phonetic to later derive in the writing common to both languages, the cuneiform.

Sumerian oral literature was the forerunner. His first and most famous account was the"Poem of Creation"(7th century BC), a work of cosmogonic character that shows how Marduk, the main God of the Babylonian people, realizes the creation of the world and of man.

Their stories corresponded to 3 categories:

- Myths: stories about their gods (Enlil, Ninhursag and Enki).

-Himnos: of praises to their gods, kings and their cities.

- Lamentations: songs about catastrophic events such as destruction of cities, wars, abandonment of temples and floods.

In Akkadian literature appears towards the second century BC. and his stories were:

-Religious: poems to their gods (Enuma Elish, Erra and Atrahasis)

- Epics: Gilgamesh's poem, one of the earliest writings of universal history

Babylon at the height of its culture was conquered by the Emperor Nebuchadnezzar II. The city was rebuilt and this resulted in it becoming the largest city of Mesopotamia, an important point for the expansion of his literary works towards Assyria and other surrounding kingdoms.


  1. Alvarez, B.A. (2001). Eastern Literature. Obtained from Ebrary:
  2. Epic of Creation. (s.f.). Retrieved on October 06, 2017 from Metropolitan Museum of Art:
  3. Mark, Joshua. (August 15, 2014). Mesopotamian Naru Literature. Obtained from Ancient History Encyclopedia:
  4. Oppenheim, A. Leo (1964, 1977). Ancient Mesopotamia Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Obtained from The University of Chicago:
  5. Von Soden, Wolfram. (s.f.). An Overview of Mesopotamian literature. Retrieved on October 6, 2017, from Gatesways to Babylon:

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