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Cuneiform Writing # Kingdoms of Sumeria

Script is any particular system of writing or the written means of human communication. In the West, writing begins in Sumeria over 4,000 years ago and the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh is a stunning example of what the written word can produce. The Sumerians considered writing a gift from the god Enlil as, later, the Babylonians would also claim from their own version of the god Nabu. Script originated as simply a means of communicating spoken language over long distances as necessitated by trade. As cities rose in Mesopotamia, and the population expanded, more goods were required which could not be obtained locally. Long distance trade, therefore, became the means by which necessities, or luxuries (such as Lapis Lazuli), were made available to the people of Mesopotamia. In time, this basic form of communication, which began simply as lists of goods, evolved into a more sophisticated means of conveying thoughts and feelings and this, in time, became the script in which the literature of the culture was set down. The historian Will Durant notes:

Literature is at first words rather than letters, despite its name; it arises as clerical chants or magic charms, recited usually by the priests, and transmitted orally from memory to memory. Carmina, as the Romans named poetry, meant both verses and charms; ode, among the Greeks, meant originally a magic spell; so did the English rune and lay, and the German Lied. Rhythm and meter, suggested, perhaps, by the rhythms of nature and bodily life, were apparently developed by magicians or shamans to preserve, transmit, and enhance the magic incantations of their verse. Out of these sacerdotal origins, the poet, the orator, and the historian were differentiated and secularized: the orator as the official lauder of the king or solicitor of the deity; the historian as the recorder of the royal deeds; the poet as the singer of originally sacred chants, the formulator and preserver of heroic legends, and the musician who put his tales to music for the instruction of populace and kings. (77)

This same paradigm of the use of script is seen in other ancient cultures. In ancient Egypt the god Thoth (not surprisingly, the patron god of scribes) created script. Thoth "was considered skilled in magic and became the patron of all scribes throughout the nation. Thoth appears in the Horus legends and was depicted in every age as the god who `loved truth and hated abomination'" (Bunson, 264). This association of the scribe with truth, with writing as truth, remains a constant in other cultures.

In China, script began during the Shang Dynasty around the year 1200 BCE through the use of oracle bones in the practice of divination.

In China, script began during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) around the year 1200 BCE through the use of oracle bones in the practice of divination. Questons were carved into the shell of a turtle or bone of an animal and that object would then be exposed to intense heat. The resultant cracks in the shell or bone would provide the diviner with an answer to the question posed. This answer, however, came not from the mortal diviner but from the divine realm and, thus, was irrefutable truth. From this beginning, script evolved into the written expression of the spoken language of China which, once set down, became the truth, as in the truth of historical events as interpreted and set down by a writer such as Sima Qian or the records of the court or those of merchants' transactions.


In Greece, writing begins with the Myceneaen Civilization and the only partially decipherable Linear B script of Crete. The Linear A script, which was the written language of the Minoans of Crete, remains undecipherable. Written language, which originated in Mesopotamia, spread first to Egypt and then to other regions, including Crete and then Phoenicia. The alphabet of most modern languages originated in ancient Phoenicia and first came to Greece sometime before the 8th century BCE, from whence it spread. Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, written around the 8th century BCE, are early examples of the Greek use of the Phoenician alphabet, as are the classics Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod. Durant provides insight into the dissemination of script in noting:

As trade connected tribes of diverse languages, some mutually intelligible mode of record and communication became desirable. Presumably the numerals were among the earliest written symbols, usually taking the form of parallel marks representing the fingers; we still call them fingers when we speak of them as digits. Such words as five, the German funf and the Greek pente go back to a root meaning hand; so the Roman numerals indicated fingers, `V' represented an expanded hand and `X' was merely two `V's' connected at their points. Writing was in its beginnings a form of drawing, an art. (76).

This art of script would come to produce some of the most meaningful pieces of writing in the history of the world. From The Epic of Gilgamesh to the Hymns of Enheduanna to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the great Greek epics of Homer, The Mahabharata of India, the Aeneid of Virgil and, more modestly, the letters written by the people of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece, India, Rome, and all the other nations of the ancient world, script has communicated the most important, most heroic, and also the most practical and basic, aspects of the human condition.

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