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What is the oldest known work of fiction that we know was meant to be taken as fiction? I mean to exclude mythologies; the audience of these was meant to believe they were true. What is the oldest work of fiction where its truth was never considered?

An example of what I'm looking for: Lysistrata is a work of fiction, and it's audience knew that. The Egyptian creation myth is a work of fiction, but its audience did not know that.

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    The problem with your question is that communication has two partners: A sender and a receiver, who encode and decode, respectively. A piece of mythology (and that would be as old as mankind) may only meant to be conceived as true for some receivers. Then there is the problem of truth. Many Christians would maintain that the bible is true in a deeper sense than superficial factualness; a notion that would apply to other myths as well. So your question is pretty fuzzy when you look at it closely ;-). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Mar 26 at 6:51
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    @PeterA.Schneider : No, the question is not fuzzy at all, maybe except for some people trying to push the agenda that religious texts are completely indistinguishable from fiction. The OP made it perfectly clear that religious and mythological texts (where there is at least some probability that the authors intended for the audience to accept it as truth) should not be considered. Whether some of the audience might have questioned the factual accuracy of those texts, is completely irrelevant. – vsz Mar 26 at 7:11
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    @vsz Yes, the OP excludes mythology (which is fine) because "the audience of these was meant to believe they were true" (which probably isn't). Some myths were probably conceived and disseminated with an agenda, which included that the common people believe it. That other audiences (e.g. the educated, the nobility) were possibly not meant to believe it is not irrelevant but invalidates the author's distinction. It's like my mother in law telling one of her family stories. Am I to believe them? Are others? Btw, an interesting question nontheless. Just a bit fuzzy. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Mar 26 at 8:43
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    @vsz As an example for the fuzziness consider the Australian Aboriginal stories. Are they religion? Myths? Fiction? They contain a lot of important true information, but not at face value, so they are true but not true -- and then, what is "face value" to an Aborigine? (I know that these stories are outside the OP's question because they exist just because they were never written down, but they are a good example of the problems I mentioned in my original remark). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Mar 26 at 9:04
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    I don't think there is the bright line you describe between fiction and fact. I don't think that the Egyptian Creation myth was intended to be either, and I don't think that there was consensus on whether it was fiction or fact. I think the question is based on a premise that is unsupportable. IIRC the first acknowledged work of fiction is the Tale of Genji. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 26 at 9:44
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If folktales count, then The Poor Man of Nippur (c. 1500 BCE) probably beats the Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers by at least a few centuries. It's certainly not mythological in any modern sense, being a simple trickster tale of a clever beggar exacting revenge on an ungrateful mayor by tricking him three times (and consequently beating him up worse and worse every time).

Whether it was "meant to be believed to be true," of course, is another matter. While modern readers would certainly assume The Poor Man of Nippur to be fictional, and ancient audiences were probably no different in this respect, the tale contains no supernatural or otherwise obviously unrealistic elements that would clearly mark it as such. For all we know, maybe there really was a poor man named Gimil-Ninurta in ancient Nippur who was mistreated by the mayor and took revenge on him, even if the details of the story might have been somewhat embellished in the telling.


Still, 1500 BCE is kind of late as far as Mesopotamian history and culture goes. Surely we can find something earlier? After all, Sumerian literature goes back to around 2500 BCE in its earliest written forms (and probably much further via oral tradition, even if we can't really tell how far).

The problem here becomes one of deciding which tales count as "mythology" and which don't. Does it matter if a god briefly appears in the story? Does it matter if the hero of the story is described as "two parts god, one part man", as Gilgamesh famously was in some versions of his epic, or is deified in later myths? Does it matter if the story contains or references elements (such as the flood myth) that have obvious parallels in later religious texts like the Old Testament?

Still, even if we discount all the Sumerian epic tales of Enmerkar, Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh (not to mention the numerous tales of Inanna, even the ones where she's portrayed as little more than an ordinary young woman) as too mythological, there are also more down-to-earth kinds stories in Sumerian literature that I feel should probably qualify.

One such genre of stories are the so-called E-dubba texts, which are basically ancient children's literature. Written in Sumerian, but dating from the Old Babylonian period (c. 2000–1600 BCE), when Sumerian was still taught in scribal schools as a literary language (much as Latin was until recently taught in western schools, and sometimes still is), they describe the life of a scribal student and were meant to be copied by those very students as learning exercises.

Their content often features a moralistic and motivational tale of success through hard work and learning, as in the E-dubba A ("Schooldays") text, where a student struggles in school (and gets beaten a lot for his failures) and is about to give up his studies before receiving praise from his father and his teacher for his perseverance. That said, they also often had a humorous side, as in the E-dubba B text, a.k.a. "The Scribe and his Perverse Son" (which I unfortunately couldn't find a good online translation for), which features a long and colorful litany of Sumerian insults (including such gems as "a dog who licks his own penis" and "smelly buttocks that stink and make everything stink") that must surely have appealed to the students in their early teens who would have been tasked with copying the text.

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    "Sumerian literature goes back to almost 3000 BCE"? I'm intrigued. Do you have any examples from that date? The Sumerian cuneiform script certainly dates back to that point, as, indeed does the Egyptian language), but I'm not aware of anything that would be described as 'literature' (and certainly nothing that might be described as 'fiction') surviving from that early in either culture. – sempaiscuba Mar 26 at 13:06
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    @sempaiscuba: I was deliberately a bit hand-wavy there, since it all depends on what you count as "literature", as well as which chronology you follow, and I honestly don't have any specific "first" example in mind. But I would definitely consider the Instructions of Shuruppak, some versions of which have been dated to 2500-2600 BCE, to be literature. The Kesh temple hymn also dates from the same period. But maybe I should change that to "around 2500 BCE" just to be conservative. – Ilmari Karonen Mar 26 at 13:20
  • Good points: also, "new" religious texts like the Old Testament are built on several old stories, which may or may not be originally religious or mythical stories. Not all the stories in the Bible about miracles and God speaking this and that: many may have been "reappropriated" from old tales, just as the Christian religion has reused old stories, myths from other religions or reappropriated local stories to creat myth for their saints. – Greg Mar 27 at 6:52
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I remember being taught that the oldest known work of fiction was the Ancient Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers.

The story was one of those found on the Papyrus D'Orbiney, which has been dated to the 19th Dynasty (c 1215 BCE) and is now owned by the British Museum:

Two brothers

  • Image source British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The text is written in hieratic script, but a translation is available in Miriam Lichtheim's Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume II: The New Kingdom, pp 203-211.


Edit - Definitions

Since the question of definitions has been raised, I should probably make it clear that Ancient Egyptian literary genres like Instructions & Teachings or 'Wisdom Texts', Biographies & autobiographies, or Ancient Egyptian poetry ('fiction' being defined as being a prose genre) are generally excluded when discussing texts that might have been considered 'fiction' by contemporary readers.

In addition, while it is certainly possible that other texts that we usually classify as "Narrative tales and stories" might have been considered to be fiction by a contemporary Ancient Egyptian audience, it is just as possible they were considered to be a preserved record of actual events.

A good example here is the so-called 'Tales of Wonder from King Khufu's Court', preserved on the Westcar Papyrus (and one of my personal favourite works of Ancient Egyptian literature). Dating the papyrus remains a matter of some controversy. Many (perhaps most) Egyptologists would accept Miriam Lichtheim's dating to the Hyksos Period (c. 1630–1520 BCE), although Verena Lepper argues for a rather earlier date.

Given that the subject matter involves magic and magicians, one might expect that a modern audience would consider this to be unequivocally a work of fiction (evidence to the contrary as - for example - the followers of television show like Ancient Aliens not withstanding!).

However, we know from other sources that most Ancient Egyptians considered 'magic' to be real (not least in the field of Ancient Egyptian medicine), so did they consider the story to be a work of fiction? More importantly, did the author(s) intend it to be taken as a work of fiction?

The answer is, of course, that we cannot know. As a result, works like this must be excluded here by the definition in the question.

This leaves us with a much smaller group of texts. Of that much smaller group, our tutor maintained that the Tale of Two Brothers is the earliest where we can be reasonably certain the intended audience knew that they were reading / hearing fiction.

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    Is that fiction or a religious document? The Wikipedia article notes that the Ennead show up part of the way through, and the story seems to have some similarities with the story of Osiris (e.g. genital amputation followed by resurrection). – nick012000 Mar 26 at 6:42
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    @nick012000 As the British Museum page notes, the modern view is that it was a work of fiction, although exactly where it fits within that category is a matter of scholarly debate - it has been variously interpreted as a "... fairy tale, a historical allegory and a political satire, among others". – sempaiscuba Mar 26 at 7:42
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    I thought Gilgamesh? Unless it was not considered a work of fiction? Not sure to be honest – ChatterOne Mar 26 at 9:03
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    @ChatterOne Ryan_L wants to exclude mythologies. – Vladimir F Mar 26 at 10:02
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    @ChatterOne What we can say is that we cannot know it "was meant to be taken as fiction" (as stated in the question), and so it cannot be an answer here. As to the wider question, from what little we know from other sources, the historical king appears to bear little resemblance to the hero of ancient Mesopotamian mythology (the character in the epic). My view, for what it's worth, is that the story is mythology, that it formed an important element of the Mesopotamian religious cosmology, and that contemporaries believed that myth to be true, but it is not yet a settled issue by any means. – sempaiscuba Mar 26 at 20:28

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