Is “The Epic of Gilgamesh” the first work of horror?

GilgameshPhoto by Samantha from Indonesia, Sydney Uni., 2006
Photo by Samantha from Indonesia, Sydney Uni., 2006

I have been wondering about what the first work of horror actually is.  The standard answer I find on the Internet is, of course, that the first horror novel is The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1764, but that doesn’t satisfy me.  I have read a lot of Greek mythology since my early teens and I know they are filled with the kinds of horror that would make Clive Barker shudder and they were written probably 2,000 years before Walpole.    Then I recalled The Epic of Gilgamesh. 

The Epic of Gilgamesh is perhaps the oldest written story in any language.  It is a long poem, probably written about the 18th century B.C.    I read The Epic of Gilgamesh a few years ago, and although not lengthy, it is difficult to summarize.  In essence, it is the story of a Mesopotamian king named Gilgamesh who builds many wonders but is cruel to his people.  To teach him a lesson, the gods create a wild man named Enkidu in the wilderness who later becomes a close friend of Gilgamesh and with whom Gilgamesh goes on many adventures fighting demons and monsters only to lose Enkidu to disease later.   After Enkidu’s demise, Gilgamesh seeks out Utnapishtim (the Mesopotamian version of Noah) to see if he (Gilgamesh) can have eternal life, but the answer is no.  Gilgamesh returns to his kingdom a wiser man.   Here is a link to a more detailed summary at Spark Notes.   There are several translations in hard copy, but if you are curious about the original form, here is one that can be found at

The Epic of Gilgamesh could perhaps best be described as a myth expressed as an epic poem with elements of horror.  It was probably written more to express a certain philosophy or to record a myth than to entertain, which is the ultimate goal of horror novels and films.    Nonetheless, it does contain elements of horror, particularly supernatural horror, and in the modern age, if it is read outside of a classroom, I think it will be read mostly for entertainment.   So, while it was not written as a novel, would it be accurate to say that The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first work of horror?    If it is, then aficianados of the horror genre could state with pride that the first written work in any language was a work of horror.

What do you think?

More on ETA Hoffmann

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann1776-1822
Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann

I am up late tonight and thought I would just throw together a few additional tidbits on one of the earliest masters of horror:   ETA Hoffman.

Here is an interesting paragraph from The Literary Gothic:

24 January 1776 – 25 June 1822

You know the “Nutcracker” ballet, the one that every local ballet troupe is obligated to perform at Christmas?  This isn’t the guy — Tchaikovsky wrote that music in the 1890s, using the translation by Alexander Dumas (pere) rather than Hoffmann’s original.  But Hoffmann wrote the short story that lies behind it,  and it’s a short story that’s very unlike the charmingly sentimental puffery that little kids get dragged to every December.  Very unlike…  Hoffmann, a brilliant music critic and respectable composer as well as writer, is one of the major figures of German Romanticism, and  a powerful and disturbing writer — and disturbed, according to many; Sir Walter Scott, in his extended discussion of Hoffmann and literary supernaturalism, concludes that Hoffmann needs medical attention more than he needs literary criticism, and no less a student of dysfunctional minds (which I guess is just about everyone’s) than Sigmund Freud made Hoffman’s “The Sandman” the center of his essay on “The Uncanny.”  Hoffmann, although strongly influenced by Gothic literature, is probably best regarded as a fantasist rather than a “Gothic” or “horror” writer, although Freud’s term is perhaps the most apt.


This link leads to a rather lengthy article on Hoffmann and German Romanticism at  I haven’t read it yet, but to a fan of German literature like myself, it looks fascinating.  I hope to find time to read it soon.

Here is a link to the text of “The Sandman“, one’s of Hoffmann’s most famous works. says about it:

“The classic — and widely anthologized — tale of a boy and his automaton — and, according to Freud, who discusses this work in his essay “The Uncanny,” castration anxiety.  Automata, by the way, were a happening phenomenon in the C19 — check out Edgar Allan Poe‘s “Maelzel’s Chess Player” and Hoffmann’s own “Automata” for other Gothic-tradition examples; for a general discussion of automata, check out The Automata Gallery or this History of Automata.”

Here is a link to the article on Hoffmann.   And from there here are two interesting quotes from Hoffmann:

Why should not a writer be permitted to make use of the levers of fear, terror and horror because some feeble soul here and there finds it more than it can bear? Shall there be no strong meat at table because there happen to be some guests there whose stomachs are weak, or who have spoiled their own digestions?”  ETA Hoffmann

“There are… otherwise quite decent people who are so dull of nature that they believe that they must attribute the swift flight of fancy to some illness of the psyche, and thus it happens that this or that writer is said to create not other than while imbibing intoxicating drink or that his fantasies are the result of overexcited nerves and resulting fever. But who can fail to know that, while a state of psychical excitement caused by the one or other stimulant may indeed generate some lucky and brilliant ideas, it can never produce a well-founded, substantial work of art that requires the utmost presence of mind.” 
―    E.T.A. Hoffmann,    Die Serapions Brüder: Gesammelte Erzählungen Und Märchen In Vier Bänden

Another link to another lengthy article on Hoffmann, but this one deals with Hoffmann’s treatment of “the uncanny”.

Another interesting summary of Hoffmann’s talent, this one from

“Hoffmann is one of the master novelists of the Romantic movement in Germany. He combined with a humor that reminds us of Jean Paul the warm sympathy for the artist’s standpoint towards life, which was enunciated by early Romantic leaders like Tieck and Wackenroder; but he was superior to all in the almost clairvoyant powers of his imagination. His works abound in grotesque and gruesome scenes — in this respect they mark a descent from the high ideals of the Romantic school; the gruesome was only one outlet for Hoffmann’s genius, and even here the secret of his power lay not in his choice of subjects, but in the wonderfully vivid and realistic presentation of them. Every line he wrote leaves the impression behind it that it expresses something felt or experienced; every scene, vision or character he described seems to have been real and living to him. It is this realism, in the best sense of the word, that made him the great artist he was, and gave him so extraordinary a power over his contemporaries.”

That’s it for tonight.  I am off to the land of dreams.