Farming’s Critical Role in the Emergence of Literature

When thinking of old books, I recall my farm mother’s home library that consisted of three or four shelves built by my father to hold a couple dozen of her Book of Month volumes. Since those days I have marveled at truly ancient and illuminated medieval manuscripts in libraries worldwide. Just this week here at the museum we received a New England bookdealer catalogue offering a first edition of American explorer Charles Wilkes’ 1840s expedition around the world that includes an account of travels to the Columbia Plateau. And for just $100,000 we could own the set! No surprise that we passed on acquiring those volumes.
How interesting that among humanity’s earliest extant literary works from early third millennium BC are Sumerian hymns in which Nisaba, Enlil, and other deities relate the origins of farming through verse that speaks of the cultural foundation of grain harvest. The love poem Hymn to Inanna (Assyria’s Ishtar) describes the goddess’s courtship in which the barley and flax of Enkimdu the farmer prevail over the offerings of Dumuzid the shepherd god.

In order to make barley and flax grow in the furrows, so that excellent corn can be admired, …and making
barley shoot forth at the harvest…. —”Hymn to Inanna”
[T]he earth will produce prosperity. Your word means flax, your word means grain. —”Hymn to Enlil”
From sunrise to sunset, may the name of Grain be praised. —”The Debate Between Grain and Sheep”

The world’s oldest literary tale, The Epic of Gilgamesh, composed about 2000 BC but based on older material, relates the story of the eponymous Sumerian king who ruled a thousand years earlier. Tablet XI of the account tells of Gilgamesh’s encounter with his ancestor Utnapishtim, survivor of the Great Flood, who encourages his younger relative in the promise given him long before by the god of creation, Enki (Ea):

Upon you he will pour down rich blessing.
He will grant you fowl in plenty and fish in abundance,
Herds of cattle and an abundant harvest.

The earliest extant manual on annual farming operations, the Nippur “Almanac” Tablet (c. 1600 BC) is composed of thirty-five lines of text on a small clay tablet that is part of a larger document made by the farmer for his son. The artifact predates Hesiod’s Works and Days by nearly a millennium and opens with detailed instructions on field irrigation, tillage, and seeding. The advice includes prayers “of the mown barley” and “of the uncleaned barley” along with the practical directions for harvesting and threshing that could describe the process followed in many parts of the world well into the twentieth century with reference to reaping and binding, sledge-threshing and winnowing, and rules for gleaning:

When you are about to harvest your field, do not let the barley bend over [lodge] on itself, [but] harvest it at the moment of its strength. A reaper, a man who bundles the mown barley, and a man who [sets up the sheaves] before him—the three shall do the harvesting for you. The gleaners must do no damage; they must not tear apart the sheaves….[lines 73-80]