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 ancienttexts.org.
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?