ABSTRACT

The earliest fragmentary remains of written epic constitute a subset of writing in general. However, enough cuneiform versions of various stories remain to enable a provisional reconstruction of an epic tradition to be made. The stories are first encountered in Sumerian versions, which then pass into wider currency later on, especially with the rise of the Akkadians. The prestige of the older language remains, particularly because of its association with the first major cities in Mesopotamia. The cities produce literacy and bureaucracy in equal measure, and the emergence of a scribal priestly class of scholars and officials helps to cement a literary culture. There are always variations as well as similarities. Multiple

versions emerge due to local concerns that may result in the emphasis of different parts of the same general literary tradition. In addition, local frames of reference are expected of the performer who narrates an epic tale. The earliest epic forms are nonetheless inscribed within a very specific relationship between the verbal and the written, between the culture that produces an epic tale and that which writes it down; the two need not necessarily be coterminous. But at the same time the peculiarities of this

relationship need not be ascribed to a simple opposition between speech and writing; indeed what emerges is a dynamic relationship between the two that can be oppositional at times, but can also be complementary.