Before 1000 BCE

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Sumerian Scribes

Our oldest written records come from the civilization of Sumer in what is now southern Iraq. Documents dating back to 3100 BCE have been found. A flourishing Sumerian literature in the centuries around 2000 BCE contains an extraordinary picture of the humanistic values of the Sumerian civilization. Praise poems reveal the values that kings wish to be remembered by: leadership, good government, public works, fairness, humanity, writing skills, ability with languages, musicianship. Laments for the fall of cities depict the horrors of war. Epics show compassion towards the sick and give insight into individual resourcefulness. 


Sumerian Songs

Among the Sumerian inscriptions are love songs, often cast as dialogues between Dumiz (a vegetation god) and Inana (a Moon goddess), which obviously reflect the very human emotions of young lovers. The terms "sister" and "brother" do not imply familial relationship but are terms of endearment. The rich imagery that appears in these verses  and the message from Lu-dingir-ra that follows is seen later in Tamil and Hebrew poetry.   



The Instruction of Ptahhotep to his son is a collection of maxims dealing with human relationships.  For the most part, they touch on the humanistic virtues of kindness, justice, truthfulness, moderation and self-control. A man by the name of Ptahhotep was a vizier under King Isesi of the Fifth Dynasty. If he authored the instruction under this name, then it dates from 2450-2300 BCE. 



The Babylonian King Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE) succeeded in conquering neighboring states in Mesopotamia and establishing a stable empire. In part he achieved this stability by means of a set of laws that he drew up. He stated specifically that he wished by these laws that the strong should not oppress the weak and that the widow and orphan should get justice. 



Sin-leqe-unnini, a scribe living in the Babylonian Kassite period (perhaps around 1600 BCE), authored the Standard Babylonian Version of Gilgamesh. This epic first appeared in the Sumerian oral tradition of the third millennium BCE. It  involves two heroes: Gilgamesh, a city king, and Enkidu, a strong man born in the wild.  In search of fame, Gilgamesh persuades Enkidu to join him in a perilous battle to seize trees in a foreign land. Enkidu dies some time afterwards, possibly from injuries received when rescuing Gilgamesh.  Gilgamesh is so stricken with grief that he  seeks a cure for death. Learning that this is impossible he laments the rashness of his actions that led to death of his friend.


Egyptian Love Poems

Egyptian love poems recovered from pieces of papyrus and fragments of a vase date from the period between 1,500 and 1,000 BCE. Those parts that have survived are primarily praise of the lover or poems of longing.  The similarities between these poems and those from southeast Asia and India suggests that songs of this type may have been part of the oral culture shared via trade routes between the regions in the second millenium BC.



In ancient Egyptian literature Instructions in Wisdom take the form of a letter from a father to his son. They illustrate some of the humanistic values of ancient Egyptian society: honesty, generosity, prudence, justice. The Instruction of Amenemope comes from the period of the Rameses kings, probably around 1100 BC. In the extracts given here, the ideal man is described as tending towards silence and tranquility. He is contrasted to the heated man—a hot-headed agitator who has a lot to say.