For centuries the beginnings of the literary history of the West were defined by the Hebrew Bible—what most people call the Old Testament— and Homer's epic poems, the Iliad and Odyssey. These texts were once naively imagined to have come about in splendid isolation either as a miracle of divine creation or the spontaneous combustion of the "Greek genius." The mighty stream of words down over the millennia to our own time are so many generations of offspring still somehow beholden to their initial begetters. Thus do we construe Western Literature.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, extraordinary discoveries profoundly altered this literary genealogy. The British Museum had mounted archeological excavations in what is present-day Iraq, and in 1850 and 1853 the first great collection of cuneiform tablets from the royal libraries of Nineveh came to light. Decades of decipherment ensued when, in 1872, the Englishman George Smith made a remarkable discovery while working through the tablets in the Museum; he found a well preserved full account of the Deluge story that paralleled remarkably closely the trials of Noah as presented in the Book of Genesis. Following this assault upon the once unique Hebrew biblical narrative came the discovery of certain tablets that told the story of an ancient king whose adventures, concerns, and life story bore uncanny resemblances to so many themes and details in the narratives of the