“Once upon a time”: when did works of fiction appear around the world? Interrogating Seshat to make global historical comparisons.

Stories have seemingly always inspired people — examples such as the epic of Gilgamesh, 13th century Icelandic sagas, or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey show us their apparently ubiquitous character. To what extent is storytelling a core part of the human experience?

“If we begin to look at the emergence of written fiction in a comparative perspective, interesting research questions pop up: for instance, could we entertain the possibility of  fiction being one of the ‘human universals’ (while recognising the  particularity of local contexts?).” Within anthropological thinking, debates have raged between proponents of ‘universality’, of a ‘shared human grammar’ such as Lévi-Strauss, and advocates of individual local historical trajectories such as Boas. As an archaeologist, I consider context to be key in understanding past human actions. Because of the way we are trained, historians and archaeologists tend to specialise regionally and gain in-depth expertise of a distinct area or period. Context is needed to understand the emergence of idiosyncrasies as well as their relevance and impact. However, there is much to be learned from making comparisons across time and space: what are the conditions that surround the emergence of a specific human characteristic? Are there even necessary conditions without which a given characteristic could not develop, or sufficient conditions that guarantee its existence? Is there a ‘typical’ trajectory that can be observed in several times and places leading to the emergence of such characteristics?  Theories about human development can also be tested against empirical data, and go beyond the case studies or cherry-picked examples usually proposed by scholars when offering new explanations for the emergence of social complexity.

One of the main strengths of the SESHAT dabatank is that Seshat facts come with context since they are situated within dedicated pages focusing on discrete historical geopolitical formations. Besides, the way they are coded allows for more than information about presence or absence but also specific empirical measurements and explanatory paragraphs (for more details see “The Anatomy of a Seshat Fact” ); To complement this context-rich approach, the structure of the database also enables us to compare variables easily across time and space. Thus, we can gain easy access to a breadth of data without losing the nuance needed to understand how certain traits evolved in particular localities with particular histories.

Fiction writing appears to be one of these ‘universals’ that can be witnessed at different times around the world. Using Seshat, we can trace when stories started to be transcribed. Although writing existed in Egypt since the Naqada III period (3300-3200 BCE), the first attested examples of fictional tales are found in the Middle Kingdom (2016-1700 BCE), around the time that the great Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh appeared in Mesopotamia. The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor recounts the tale of a man returning to his king after a sea voyage in which he encountered a talking serpent who gave him precious gifts. Traveling stories seem to be popular in this period, and the Tale of Sinuhe describes a man’s exile to the East and his adventures there before his eventual return to Egypt. Many more tales exist in the Middle Kingdom, including ‘wisdom literature’ and biographies, and it seems that a significant number of them were written in verse.

The first page of the Shijing or Book of Odes, copied by the Qianlong Emperor of China's Qing Dynasty in the 18th century CE. Source: Npm.gov

The first page of the Shijing or Book of Odes, copied by the Qianlong Emperor of China’s Qing Dynasty in the 18th century CE. Source: Npm.gov

Fiction and verse go hand in hand in these Eastern Mediterranean examples, but the Western Zhou of China (1040-771 BCE) offer a prime example of non-epic poetry, concerned with lyricism rather than narrating an epic. The Shijing, or Book of Odes, started to be compiled in the 11th century BCE and songs and poems kept on being added until the 7th century BCE. It has retained extreme cultural significance, being regarded as one of the canonical texts of Confucianism.

In India, epics and poetry also developed, albeit a few centuries after the Vedas, which are symbolic and religious texts. Two epics were completed during Ashoka’s reign, in the 3rd century BCE: while the Mahabarata spins tales of divine wars, the Ramayana focuses on the trials of one man, Rama.

Some of the world’s first novels emerged in Greece, such as Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, a pastoral tale written in the 2nd century CE. Outside the Greco-Roman world, one of the earliest examples of a ‘modern’ novel, written primarily in prose and concerned with the development of its main character, would be the Tale of Genji, written by noblewoman Murasaki Shipibu in 11th century CE Japan. This account of the times and life of a Heian courtier does include poetical excerpts, but pertains to a genre which focuses on the lives of individuals rather than epic deeds and is still considered a classic today. Again, writing appeared in Japan early in the 5th century CE, but was not used for fictional prose until a few hundred years later.

Scenes from three chapters of the Tale of Genji, illustrated in the 17th century. Source: Wikimedia

Scenes from three chapters of the Tale of Genji, illustrated in the 17th century. Source: Wikimedia

Gathering such data highlights gaps in our knowledge: for instance, why do some societies with an abundance of written records have no known examples of fictional texts? Of course, the loss of evidence is a very likely scenario, especially as some of these societies are primarily known from an archaeological perspective, with the preservation problems that this entails. However, other interesting questions could be raised. As we see in most of these cases, there is a discrepancy between when writing first emerged and the appearance of fiction. For instance, there is no evidence yet that Old Kingdom Egyptians recorded fictional stories. Perhaps one of the earliest applications of writing was economic recordkeeping, and it only became considered a suitable format for stories later, moving from the spoken to the written word. Maybe stories were first confined to the private sphere before being recorded by scribes in a more formalised setting.  This harks back to the question of where fiction comes from: did it develop independently or did it go hand in hand with the diffusion of writing?

Fiction emanates from the creative use of an already existing medium, in this case writing, to convey well-known oral stories: could this idea also diffuse? Writing seems to have emerged independently in several areas of the world, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India and Mesoamerica, before spreading across the globe. Fiction, as we have seen, developed much later than writing in areas such as Egypt or India, and did so in a seemingly haphazard fashion. Sometimes writing only appeared through exposure to new religions, but fiction did not automatically follow.  Norwegian missionaries were sent to Iceland and the catholic religion was rapidly implanted in the 11th century CE. From the 12th and especially the 13th century, Icelanders began to write sagas such as the Eyrbyggja saga. It does seem that even when writing appears through diffusion, the idea to write down stories could be a later development, which may have stemmed from individual initiative.

The fact that fictional works of prose seem to have evolved independently in the areas that we have briefly touched upon tells us a lot about the human propensity to weave tales and record them so that they may endure through time. Hence, perhaps it is indeed an intrinsic human quality, with various speeds of adaptation to the relatively new technique that was writing. This technique did not come as a neat package, but was creatively used depending on the local context.

As the Seshat databank grows, we hope to code more Natural Geographic Areas  and doubtlessly our views on this question will change as more data comes to reinforce or disprove these ideas. It will be particularly interesting to get insights from Central America, an area that was completely disconnected from the rest of the world before the conquest but where fictional tales such as the Maya myth of the Hero Twins appeared. A similar approach can be conducted on many other variables, not just fiction. Seshat, hence, proves to be a formidable analytic tool, which can examine fundamental questions about humans across a variety of regional and temporal specialisations through a new lens.



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T. Greer
April 14, 2016

Why is the The Book of Odes considered fiction?

April 18, 2016

In keeping with the above, the article, while a good overview of the development of written storytelling in many different cultures, is not specific enough in how it defines fiction. Fiction, as opposed to stories, is a work whose author and readers both understand is not true, never was, and never will be. Did the ancient Mesopotamians believe this of The Epic of Gilgamesh? How are we to tell? Many such legends were more or less believed by those who kept them, and often were seen to explain fundamental aspects of the social order, even if not taken as fully true.

I suspect the line between written stories, and explicit fiction as we understand it today, remained fuzzy for much longer than the author implies–just as the line between history and rumor-reporting was long unclear.

    Agathe Dupeyron
    April 24, 2016

    Thanks for your comments! I agree with you, it completely depends on how fiction is defined – here we used a very broad category that also included legends, epic or narrative poetry, and myths. In a way, we used it in opposition to nonfiction written records (lists, tables, classifications, practical literature, history, philosophy, sacred texts and their commentaries…).

    I took the example of the Book of Odes to outline that poetry seems to have been tied to epics in many cultures but interestingly became its own genre very early in China. Perhaps I should have been more explicit. Epics have been categorised as “fiction” for now but the next iteration of the Databank will have two categories; one for poetry and one for fictional prose narratives.

    I agree that we will never know the extent to which myths were believed to be true by the people who narrated them and their audiences. The line between certain epics and ‘sacred texts’ can be particularly fine. Perhaps some people were strong believers while others interpreted them as mere stories, who knows? It does make it harder to define ‘fiction’ in the broad terms that we have used; and in that case the Graeco-roman novels and the Tale of Genji would perhaps be the first acknowledged (by all parties) works of fiction. One could also look at the role that ‘fiction’, broadly defined, plays in society: it can provide origin myths or a common cultural framework that help to create an ‘imagined community’, for instance. Truly, this blog post is only a small foray into a very large and very interesting topic! Thanks for reading.