The oldest story in the world

What is the oldest story in the world? How can we possibly know what the first story was? What would it have looked like? Would we recognise it as a story, and would anything in it mean anything to us today?

These are questions that in all probability cannot be answered definitively, but I’m going to try to make a case here for what the original story was, and then (eventually) talk a little about my new book, The Ghosts of Heaven.

It might seem like an impossible task to go so far back in time – it’s even hard to find the original version of stories that we know, or think we know, well. This is something I found out when writing My Swordhand is Singing. I was trying to find the oldest vampire story, the very first one. In terms of printed, published books, it’s relatively easy to drift back before Stoker, Le Fanu, and even Polidori and Byron to Ossenfelder’s poem The Vampire of 1748, but once we realise that since all these tales were inspired by existing folk stories, it becomes much harder to pin down their origins. I followed vampire stories back to their origins in Eastern Europe, but the truth is that vampire-like stories have been told in most cultures, all around the world, since time immemorial (what a great phrase – “unremembered time”).

Looking at really old stories, like Bible stories, we might think we know roughly when and who wrote them – for example, Noah and the flood, until we learn that that story was based on an even older flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh, of Mesopotamian legend. This story is based on sources that are over four thousand years old according to some.

The tablet in the British Museum recounting the story of Gilgamesh and the flood.

And once we start to discover that many cultures around the world have some version of a flood story, we might begin to wonder whether that’s just coincidence or whether there was a indeed a great flood event, or events, that inspired people to tell these kinds of tales. We might also start to realise that we have probably been telling the same stories over and over again, throughout our history, recast in different ways, depending on the times in which we’re living.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and nothing so amazing about that, in itself, but I do love the implication of this idea; that stories we know well today have unbelievably ancient origins. Let’s look, for example, at stories from Greek mythology, such as Theseus and the Minotaur, or Orpheus in the underworld. We know that the Greeks began to write their stories as long as 2,700 years ago, but once again, that many elements were based on even older stories from earlier cultures. What the stories of Theseus and Orpheus have in common is the notion of a journey into a dark space, in order to confront death. As they say, the Greeks had a word for it, and that word is katabasis. But once again, we find that the Sumerians had beaten them to it; Gilgamesh himself made a voyage to the underworld on his quest for immortality.

What’s striking here is that these are not just old stories that we get told in primary school and then, unless we become an archaeologist, anthropologist or Assyriologist, forget all about. The proof of that is to be found in the number of modern retellings of a story like Orpheus in the underworld; from the 13th century Breton ‘lay’ Sir Orfeo, to what is regarded to be the very first opera, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, through to modern times; Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (which gave us the tune now known commonly known as the can-can), to Jean Cocteau’s film trilogy, even to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge which (with a nod back to Offenbach) the director saw as a being a parallel to the ancient Greek story – the hero has to enter the ‘underworld’ (in this case, Montmartre during the Belle Epoque) in order to rescue his doomed love.

Why do such stories last? Why are they so powerful? For me, it’s all to do with Darwin. Just as species thrive or fail under the pressures of natural selection, so must stories; the good ones survive, the weak ones are told no more. What makes a good story is of course an question for another day, but one essential element must be that they tell us about ourselves in some way. They tell us what it is to be human, to experience human emotion, and so on. It’s a fair assumption then that the old stories that stood the test of time are ones which directly related to our experience of being human, to our earliest and most primal emotions and fears.

So what is the oldest story? What does it look like? I’m guessing that it looked something like this:

As we sat around a fire-pit, there must have been some powerful primal experiences that we were driven to encounter, and one of them will have been to venture into a cave. We know that many early hominids lived in and around caves. Our earliest examples of art are the extraordinary paintings of places such as Chauvet, Altamira, or Blombos, where engraved ochre dated to as old as 100,000 years before the present day has been found.
Chauvet, France
Altamira, Spain
Blombos, South Africa
We needed the cave, as a place of safety and of shelter, and yet, venturing in for the first time must have been always been a tense moment of fear; what would be found inside? A cave lion? A bear? Or perhaps, nothing, and a new safe place to camp would have been welcomed.
Think of Theseus venturing into the dark labyrinth to fight the beast inside. Think of the connotations of the cave as being the entrance to the underworld, and Orpheus venturing to confront Death itself. Think of a stone age homo sapiens entering the dark cave, to return triumphant, or to meet a terrible death. That story must have been told and retold, round the fire-pit, since the very earliest days of Mankind.

If you’re still with me, here’s a video that captures the flavour of The Ghosts of Heaven, one quarter of which is set in the world I have just been describing; a stone age community. Since it’s now known that a lot of the cave art was made by juveniles’ children and teenagers, the section of the book called Whispers in the Dark takes a young woman as the hero, a young woman who is on the verge of doing something vital to the development of our species. She’s about to make the connection between the spoken word and a mark, be it a mark on a cave wall with a piece of charcoal, or in the sand by the fireside. When she does that, she will have made the first steps on the road to the development of writing, and without writing, there can be no civilisation. Writing enables us to do several things; it allows us to pass meaning on to people either distant in space, or in time. It enables us to remember. It enables us to instruct, to educate and to copy: and copying is essential to civilisation too, because without copying we could not build on what our ancestors had achieved before us, something that is the utmost foundation of civilisation.
So here’s The Ghosts of Heaven:

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