No known criterion distinguished epic, myth or any other genre of narrative poem within Mesopotamian culture itself, yet among the surviving works are long hero-poems that are today usually called epics. These works survive because they were written on clay. Perhaps because of this permanence, Mesopotamian writing had extraordinary continuity: tablets of the 6th century BC frequently carry 17th-century BC words – hence it is often impossible to date a work within less than five centuries. It is also possible that entire lost genres were carried on through media other than cuneiform.
The works generally considered oldest are in Sumerian and mostly 18th-century copies of works believed to date from the 21st century. The copious Sumerian Myths vary widely in interest. One, known as Lugal-E, foreshadows the common later myth pattern of a good deity saving the Universe by defeating a much-feared Monster. The modern word "epic", however, is usually reserved to short narratives about Gilgamesh, Lugalbanda and Enmerkar, deified kings of earlier centuries whom the kings of Ur considered relatives. These are hero stories, but rarely battle stories; the best relates a contest of wits between Enmerkar and his foe which ends in the invention of trade. The kings are shown as human but in close contact with the Gods. These poems suffer relatively little from Sumeria's characteristically enthusiastic use of the devices of repetition and simile.
They are called "epics" partly because some of the Gilgamesh ones went on to be incorporated in the Mesopotamian epic par excellence, Gilgamesh. According to Jeffrey Tigay, in The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (1982), the unified epic dates from the early 2nd millennium BC. Although not complete, the extensive parts compose the masterwork of their era, depicting Gilgamesh's Transformation in the face of death, in a world of Demons and jewels growing on trees.
This and other epics of, perhaps, the 18th-16th centuries were written in Akkadian, the Semitic language of Babylonia and Assyria. The others include: Anzu, in the Lugal-E tradition, and a number of Mesopotamia's most interesting hero-stories: Etana, about a king who flies to heaven; Atrahasis, telling of human Creation and of the Flood; and Sargon, King of Battle, a life story of another legendary king. In the Cuthµan Legend of Naram-Sin, Sargon's son is falsely blamed for that dynasty's fall. Only Atrahasis is at all well known from tablets this old. It is strikingly theological. Etana is rather like a folktale and Sargon like boasting royal inscriptions. All, so far as preserved, occupy a world nearly as fantastical as that of Gilgamesh.
In the following centuries, 15th-10th BC, the mature poetic style which dominated Semitic poetry (including Hebrew) throughout the ancient era seems to have crystallized. This used long lines broken by a chiasmus, in which parallelism between half-lines, lines or couplets was a principal device. Narrative flow suffered accordingly. Moreover, outright repetition became increasingly prominent, and older works such as Gilgamesh were revised, replacing parallelisms with repetitions. (Simile did, however, become rather more natural in frequency.) Interest shifted from narrative to wordplay and learning, and Mesopotamian literature grew steadily narrower in its aesthetic outlook.
Very few tablets survive from these centuries aside from fragments of those mentioned above. Others include Nergal and Ereshkigal, a myth of love in the Underworld, and Adapa, about the gods tricking the wisest of men. Another genre, the royal epic, offers the first realistic narratives known from the region (other than relatively terse inscriptions). A further novelty of the era was Eschatology, placed in the mouth of a god or ancient king.
There is also the culmination of the Lugal-E motif, the famous "Epic of Creation" Enuma Eliš. We know this work's purpose – at least in the 7th century, whence the surviving tablets come: it was recited by a priest, alone in a closed temple room, once a year at a festival, and celebrates the rise of Marduk to rule the gods. It excels in precisely those ways ME least appeals to the modern mind, being full of recondite religious information and elaborate punning etymologies, and using repetition as its principal narrative device. Yet the central story of Marduk's fight with Tiamat has appealed to some ever since the work's discovery.
The ancient Semitic poetic style could also be used more naturally, as the myths of Ugarit (circa 1360BC) in Syria show. These, the only surviving literature of the Canaanites, include: Kirta (vt Keret), focusing on the role of the king; the Baal cycle, portraying a brash young storm god and his protective sister as they take over the cosmos and defeat Sea and Death; and Aqhat, the beautifully written story of a beloved son's death.
In the first millennium BC, cuneiform literature gradually lost contact with the increasingly Aramaic-speaking peoples who supported it. Most extant tablets date from this era (including portions of all the aforementioned Akkadian works except Adapa), but there are few original compositions. The only epic among these is the striking Erra and Ishum (vt Irra), in which the lord of the underworld unleashes destruction on mankind (an obsessive Mesopotamian theme), but relents. Like many earlier myths, it is easiest read not simply as a cosmic story but also as describing the ritual actions of idols. This is the work of one Kabti-ilani-marduk, probably writing in the 8th century, who presented it as a sacred revelation. It is extremely innovative in form and style, though in ways opaque to modern readers' concerns, and became popular. Other works first attested in this era include revelations and Theodicies as well as realistic comic prose stories.
Mesopotamia originated many ideas central to Western religious tradition, including, in the epic sphere, the Flood story. Mesopotamian writings provide essential context for reading the Bible; links with Greece, though much speculated on, can rarely be firmly established (> Greek and Latin Classics). Some of the epic characters and motifs survived a millennium to reappear in Muslim legend. In modern times the grimness of the rediscovered Mesopotamian worldview, as exemplified in the story of Tiamat and in Gilgamesh, has perennially fascinated. [JB]