Fraudulant Attribution: Gilgamesh, Moses, the Apostle Matthew—and Ancient Authorship

The Epic of Gilgamesh began perhaps around 2500 BCE as stories told orally, and were not written down until perhaps 1200 BCE.

The version we have (discovered by archeologists in Ashurbanipal’s Nineveh library) dates to 700 BCE.

Nevertheless, it claims Gilgamesh himself as the epic’s author—as the one who wrote it onto stone and left it within the city walls of Uruk “for all to read” (even though almost nobody in these societies could read).

This ancient authorial move of attributing texts to heroes seems rather dishonest of the actual authors, and it raises the question, Why did they do it? 

One reason, no doubt, is that kingly, or legendary, authorship would have improved the chances of the tablets being copied.

The authors of the Bible did the same thing—as for example, attributing to Moses the authorship of Genesis to Deuteronomy, even though Deuteronomy contains an account of Moses’ death.

Write a book in the name of a hero, god, king, prophet, or apostle and you have a greater chance of having your ideas read and copied and circulated.

We might call this “the memetic temptation.”

These were, if you will, the ancient tags that attracted a greater number of “hits” or copies. And like with species, reproduction of texts means survival.

Perhaps the notion of individual, guy on the street, authorship as we understand it, unassisted by gods and coming out of your own genius, did not even exist in ancient societies.

Of course a god spoke through you if you are a lowly prophet.

Of course a king first recited the stories you are copying down. You’re just redacting a bit for narrative smoothness, for you are (to paraphrase the poet James Fenton, from his poem, “Jerusalem”):

A worm, a thing of scorn–

I cry impure from street to street,

And see my degredation

In the eyes I meet.  

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Fraudulant Attribution: Gilgamesh, Moses, the Apostle Matthew—and Ancient Authorship

  1. Terry says:

    Exactly. The author of the work is Gilgamesh. The author is also Moses.

    Historical events were passed on by spoken word.

    People spread out all over the place. The stories that had been passed to them evolved along with the languages and cultures where they went. The entire continental US was occupied by people who spread across it in less than 250 years. They had nothing faster than a horse. In 1,000 years, people can get pretty far.

    Claiming the events did not happen because they are copied into different cultures is the opposite of the logical conclusion. These events were experienced by people who told the stories. Those stories were respected as historical fact and told and re-told through generations. People fortunate enough to acquire writing materials could record the stories as THEY heard them. Every copy had to be a hand-written copy of the original. (I’m going to leave this paragraph out…) These stories of heroism began to be attributed to the leaders of the day.

    That does not mean the author of the original story is not who he claims. It only means copies of it were not readily available and people had to rely on hearing the stories over and over. One can decide which version they regard as the most legitimate.

  2. At Terry. Gilgamesh is not also Moses. Moses was born just a human, but Gilgamesh was born half man and half god. You boys don’t read too well.

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