Lost Works Imagined

Fragment of the Epic of Atrahasis, Akkadian, Mesopotamia, First Dynasty of Babylon, reign of King Ammi-saduqa, c. 1646-1626 BCE, clay, MLC 1889, Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Photo Credit: Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In deciphering ancient history, scholars must rely on the relatively few artifacts preserved today in museums and private collections, including copies and interpretations of earlier lost works. Clay tablets featuring inscriptions and translations of important literary texts, for example, often harken back to even earlier lost models.

The Old Babylonian version of the flood story, the Epic of Atrahasis, is well known from surviving clay fragments. The earliest dated Akkadian text, held in the Morgan Library and Museum, includes an inscription identifying the work as a copy by a junior scribe. Other Old Babylonian tablets have been found, as well as later copies and translations spanning over a millennium, providing a wealth of details about the Akkadian story in its early written forms as well as subsequent variations.

Like the Sumerian flood stories that preceded it, the Akkadian narrative was ultimately based on earlier lost works—spoken tales performed before live audiences—fueling oral traditions about mythological history, and eventually inspiring written inscriptions in clay. While the stories evolved and diverged over time, some key elements of the narrative persisted, like the drama of the storm which raged for seven days and seven nights. But each performance was itself a unique entity, never to be truly replicated, ephemeral in its passing, within a series of lost works imagined.

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