Most of the major cuneiform tablet discoveries date from the 1840s and later. Cuneiform was used to write several languages, including Sumerian (a language isolate according to the current state of knowledge) and Akkadian (a Semitic language). There are now a number of anthologies of literature in those languages, e.g. The Harps that Once...: Sumerian Poetry in Translation, edited by Thorkild Jacobsen, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, edited by Stephanie Dalley, and Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature edited by Benjamin R. Foster.

The most famous cuneiform text is probably the Epic of Gilgamesh (see on this site). However, literature was not the only type of text written down in cuneiform, since that was not what the writing system was invented for. This leads me to the following question: what percentage of the cuneiform texts that have been discovered in the Near East actually contain literature? "Literature" can her refer to epics, myths, wisdom compositions, laments, hymns, literary letters, stories, love poetry and even magic spells.


If you're looking for an exact number, I can't give that to you. But I can give you a rough idea: the overwhelming majority of clay tablets are financial records.

Let me put this into perspective: in the 1930s a French archeological team discovered about 30,000 clay tablets at Larsa -- all of these were records of items deposited at the temple or removed from the temple over the years Larsa was inhabited. None of these were literary. A similar number were found at other ancient cities, although often a given collection of tablets might number in the hundreds.

While the number of tablets in the "Library of Ashurbanipal" is given as 30,000, this number includes fragments of tablets: if a given tablet had broken into 3 pieces, for example, it was counted as 3 tablets. Moreover, many of these tablets were legal tracts, foreign correspondences and engagements, aristocratic declarations, and financial records. When all is said & done, only ten contained material that could be considered "literary".

This is not an unusual proportion. Papyrus with writing recovered from ancient Egypt is mostly financial records, business correspondence, & other materials of interest only to historians. (And sometimes not even to them.) And the majority of literary papyrus that has been recovered are parts of Homer's Iliad. (Not only was he very popular with the ancient Greeks, he was required reading in every school.) Hundreds of wooden tablets have been recovered from sites in Britain, yet to the best of my knowledge only one could be considered literary -- a schoolboy's copying exercise from Vergil's Aeneid.

Up until the last few centuries, most literature was oral -- folk tales, songs, recited poems, jokes -- not written. Writing was a skill known only to a few, who used it for business reasons, or to preserve "serious" literature like the Bible, Homer's poems, & so forth.

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In his book Die Babylonier. Geschichte, Gesellschaft, Kultur (2004; 3rd, revised edition 2015), Michael Jursa (Professor of Assyriology at the University of Vienna) writes that the following categorisation of cuneiforms texts has established itself:

  1. Archival texts are texts that belong to the sphere of daily life. They include contracts, letters, administrative documents/notes, settlements of accounts, etcetera. They constitute the majority of cuneiform texts (tablets and fragments):

    Grob geschätzt fallen 80% der schriftlichen Überlieferung Mesopotamiens in diese Kategorie.

    I.e. roughly 80% of Mesopotamian texts that have come down to use fit into this category. These texts constitute a unique source of information about the social and economic history of Mesopotamia, since no other civilisation from the same period (except for Egyptian papyri from late Antiquity) has left us a similar corpus.

  2. Monumental texts are mainly royal inscriptions on buildings and objects, and other texts intended for public display. These can sometimes include useful historical information, but they tend to glorify the ruler who ordered the construction or creation of the object on which the inscription can be found. Jursa does not give an estimation of the share of these texts in the overall corpus.
  3. Canonical texts are those texts that were studied in by scribes in "schools" (these were not public institutions like modern schools) and passed on from generation to generation. The category of texts can be subdivided into scientific texts and literary texts. "Scientific texts" are those that were used by certain professions, such as scribes, evocators, diviners and doctors. (In the chapter on "Babylonian science", Jursa also discusses lexical lists used for scribal training.) In the chapter on Babylonian literature, Jursa explains that modern readers may be more interested in the literary texts, but this does not change the fact that it is the more practical texts that constitute the core of the "canon". Jursa does not give an estimation of the share of canonical texts in the overall corpus.

Michael Jursa and Juan Carlos Moreno García also discussed this classification in Chapter 4 "The ancient Near East and Egypt" in Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States (edited by Andrew Monson and Walter Scheidel, Cambridge University Press, 2015). The categorisation appears to have been proposed by William W. Hallo, who used also used it in a three-volume work he co-edited: The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions, Monumental Inscriptions and Archival Documents from the Biblical World.

However, in Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History, Marc Van de Mieroop points out that

We have no simple criterion to differentiate between literary and non-literary texts, as style is a difficult concept to use in a textual tradition so alien to ours, and as the Mesopotamians themselves did not indicate a generic categorization of their writings which would help us.

So the percentage of cuneiform texts (clay tablets or fragments) that can be categorised as literature is definitely below 20%, but it is not clear from the above sources how much below 20%.

Update 06.03.2020: In the article "Großes Fach Altorientalistik: Der Umfang des keilschriftlichen Textkorpus" (Mitteilungen der deutschen Orientgesellschaft zu Berlin, 2010), Michael P. Streck published estimations of the size of the text corpus of Ancient Near East texts that have come down to us. This obviously does not cover all texts that were ever written down in the Ancient Near East until 300 A.D. (since much has been lost), nor texts that have not been discovered yet. The estimations are based on word counts, not the number of tablets or tablet fragments. Chapter 3.10 of his article discusses "canonical texts" (see Hallo's categorisation, above).

For literary texts, he offers an estimation of around 100.000 words. (For comparison, he adds in a footnote the word counts for Iliad and the Odyssey, namely 115.477 and 87.765 words, respectively.) After the discussing the share of "scientific texts", which is much greater, and the shares of different genres represented in the libraries at Sippar and Kalhy, he adds the following comment (my translations):

[These numbers] mean that the mythic-epic texts and the hymns and prayers, which are categorised as literary texts, constitute 9 to 18% of the total corpus. When adding the pseudo-historical texts, which we already counted as literary texts, the share of literary genres may increase to 10 to 20%.

Note that many cuneiform tablets and tablet fragments in museum collections have not yet been published or even categorised. (The British Museum alone owns 130.000 clay tablets and tablet fragments.) The available text corpus in the Akkadian language is the second biggest of the available corpora in ancient languages; only the Greek text corpus is bigger. However, the corpora in Akkadian and Sumerian (and other languages that used cuneiform) is much more likely to grow significantly than those in Greek or Latin.

When combining Jursa's information with that provided by Streck, the conclusion seems to be that literary texts may constitute at most 20% of the available canonical texts, which constitute less than 20% of the total corpus (i.e. roughly 20% minus the share of "monumental texts"). In other words, literary texts constitute less than 4% of the total corpus.

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A small percentage. Most likely writing was invented for writing, rather than for recording transactions. But it proved important for recording transactions which is why so much of what has come down to us is in this form. Archaeologists regard them as useful, not as transactions per se, but what they reveal about the society that then existed.

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    Welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Please be aware that this site is not a forum and that answers are expected to actually answer the question. "A small percentage" is unhelpful. What is "small"? 0.1%? 30? 50%? Something in between those figures? – Tsundoku Mar 5 at 10:52
  • Spartakus, it can take some time to familiarise yourself with the idiosyncrasies of our site, so don't be discouraged by a few initial downvotes. We expect answers to be authoritative additions to our library rather than personal opinion; the difference is often down to the addition of supporting evidence such as references and links. Read How to Answer for further guidance, and be sure to take the Lit Tour. :-) – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Mar 5 at 22:52

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