Ancient Babylonia , Literature & Poetry

With origins that trace back to the Sumerian culture of the 3rd millennium BC, the ancient civilization of Babylonia first exhibits literary advancements during what was known as the Old Babylonian Period. The first flashes of literature were seen in the work of Babylonian scribes, who spent their time translating Sumerian literature into their own language. This is why some Babylonian texts highlight Sumerian writing in the Akkadian language.

School for Scribes

During ancient Babylonian times, it was a great honor to become a scribe , one who would write and edit older compositions. For this reason, schools were set up for scribes who would look after compositions. Tablets were numbered for each composition with each tablet showcasing numbered lines. Catalogs were then created and each scribe would sign their work using the name of the individual heading the scribal school. Training of scribes and other workers (like archivists and secretaries), Babylonians followed the Sumerian system of formal education. This meant that the schools were regarded as the centers of culture.

Scribes went on to learn the art and skill of copying and memorizing not only what was presented in textbooks, but also the pages of Sumero-Babylonian dictionaries. Within these dictionaries, long lists of words and phrases were found. Trees, animals, birds, insects, countries, cities, villages, and even minerals were part of the curriculum. Scribes were also given information on mathematical tables and problems. When studying literature, students would copy and reproduce different kinds of hymns, myths, epics, and proverbs in not only the Babylonian language, but also in Sumerian.


Prose and poetry played an important role in Babylonian literature. A striking feature of Babylonian poetry was their use of parallelism, which presents an idea in two different ways , side by side. It was commonplace to group poetic lines in couplets, with some forms of expression being presented in singlets and triplets. Poetry did not rhyme during this time, as it was not known at this time.

Ancient Babylonians also did not separate their literature into different genres), but as modern scholars look back, they have detected distinct categories: prayers and hymns, epics and myths, and wisdom literature and historiography. The historical epic was viewed as a sub-genre.

In ancient Babylonia, when a particular story gained popularity amongst the people, the theme or entire plots were repeated in more than one composition. Let’s take the tale of the Flood for example that appears in the Gilgamesh Epic and other texts. To explore some of the most well known of epics and myths regarding ancient Babylonia, consider the following texts:

·    Gilgamesh
·    Atra-hasis
·    Adapa
·    Nergal and Ereshkiga
·    When Above
·    Descent of Ishtar into Hades
·    Anzu
·    Etana and Era

If you are interested in learning more about ancient Babylonia text, check out the article titled, ‘Ancient Babylonia , Cuneiform, Music, & Hymns.’