Anonymous Literature: Mysteries Behind Authorship

Who are the authors of anonymous literature, and what it is that makes art without a creator so fascinating in the history of literature?

Jul 18, 2020By Hazel Anna Rogers, BA English Literature, Shropshire Young Poet Laureate Award (2015)
egyptian stela gatekeeper maati
Egyptian Stela of the Gatekeeper Maati, ca. 2051–2030 B.C., The Met Museum

Anonymous authorship in early history marks the beginning of literature. As ancient stories, myths, and poems made their way from verbal storytelling to more physical reproductions like engravings or ink on paper, authorship didn’t have such great importance. Read on for more about anonymous literature in early history and their unnamed authors.


Where It All Started: Anonymous Authors Of Mesopotamia

groom tributary procession
Foreign groom in a tributary procession, Mesopotamia ca. 721-705 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art


In the latter half of the 3rd Century BC, a myth was created on clay tablets by the humans that founded our language of today. This place was Mesopotamia, and it was here that humanity birthed the very beginning of literature. A civilization founded between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, Mesopotamia created many of the foundations for modern civilization. These included advanced naval building, early scientific and mathematical concepts, and experimental writing forms.


The first known example of literature from this period is the ‘Debate between bird and fish’, a 190-line philosophical argument between a fish and a bird. The text is prefaced by a discourse that suggests the land and all its riches were given to man by the gods. Aside from its cultural significance, the work is remarkably satirical. It seems to indicate an understanding of the dangers of the natural world against humanity within a humorous context. The fish calls the bird ‘shameless’ and the bird retorts by calling the fish’ mouth ‘flabby.’ In the end, the bird wins. 


Why is this text important? As an authorless text, there is no evidence as to who wrote it, how many were involved, and how circulated the myth was. The mystery of who created the tablets, and who started the myth is part of the myth itself. In a sense, the authors of the story are irrelevant and the story does all the telling itself.

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Who Was The First Known Author?

enheduanna disk
Calcite Disk of Enheduanna, ca. 2300 B.C., The Penn Museum


That would be Enheduanna, or, the High Priestess of An, who lived from 2285-2250BC. Not only was Enheduanna the first writer to be known and celebrated by name, but she was also an incredibly influential political power over Mesopotamia and on Mesopotamian religion.


Being an authorial figure gave Enheduanna something greater even than her transcendental goddess status. She gained a direct mode for communication with her people, and a legacy in her name. Being an author became a mode of connection, a way to share joy, and a way to influence a population. The age of authorship had begun.



The First Authored Novel in the History of Literature 

gilgamesh hero
The Hero Overpowering a Lion, ca. 721-705 B.C., Musee du Louvre


So, we’ve heard about authored poetry, but what about books? Again, the earliest example of an authored novel has Mesopotamian origins. By establishing a settlement that had relative economic and social stability, Mesopotamia had the potential for creating a wealth of art and literature. Like Enheduanna’s works, The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in cuneiform, a writing system utilizing clay tablets that is recognizable by its grooved marks. 


Though the text is likely to have been authored by several writers, the complete version created before 612BC was edited by Sin-Leqi-Unninni. Not much is known about Unninni except their role as a scribe and Priest Exorcist, but this version of the epic includes an uncommon instance of first-person narration. This prefaced engagement between author and reader that we know today. 


Who Was Homer? Mythical Authors In Classical Literature

homer engraving hieronymus wierix
Homer engraving by Hieronymus Wierix, 16th C, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


The epic poems The Odyssey and The Iliad are notorious for their influence on modern-day literature. They’re even as notorious as their author, Homer. But did he really write these epics single-handedly, and if not, what was the benefit of giving these works a single author?


Homer has no fixed biography, no stable history, no real documented evidence suggesting he ever lived. But in a world fixated on the author as writer, celebrity, and protagonist in their own story, it is not implausible that Homer was created to satisfy a public urge to define a story by its writer. 


Homer acts as the embodiment of an oral tradition condensed into the singular texts we know today. But the real story of Homer’s works is far more elusive and is the product of hundreds to thousands of years of retellings. In short, Homer acts as the face of a shared literary evolution within a culture of anonymous literature. Would these texts even be known today if they weren’t spearheaded by a mystery icon at the helm of their collective history? 


Beowulf: The Anonymous Celebrity of Medieval Literature

beowulf original manuscript
Beowulf Original Manuscript, The British Library


Perhaps no other unknown author has become as infamous as the anonymous creators of Beowulf. Just like The Iliad and The Odyssey, Beowulf is believed to have developed from widespread retellings. To keep the story alive for future generations, it was penned down from its oral beginnings onto paper. The complete tale exists on a manuscript that was likely created somewhere between the 10th to 11th centuries. 


Despite its anonymity, the text became prolific and is still told around the world to this day. Perhaps the distinguishable style and expertly crafted narrative have a role to play in its celebrated status. Or maybe there is something amazingly mysterious about an author we don’t know. Maybe it lends us the chance to delve deeper into the historical value of the literature because as an authorless text it almost becomes biblical, it becomes an artifact. As an artifact, the stories told in Beowulf might be considered less as mere folklore, but as historical evidence. 


There is some dispute as to whether Beowulf was written by one author. Some claim the style of the text is so unique compared to others of its time that collective authorship would be improbable, if not impossible. Is this argument founded in logic, or is there an aspect of anonymous literature that is difficult to swallow, that we just cannot let go of?


Arabic Literature: The Wonder Of Arabian Nights

the arabian nights
The Arabian Nights Entertainments, ca. 1811, British Library


More commonly known in the form of children’s entertainment, The Arabian Nights or One Thousand and One Nights is a multi-origin compilation with roots in Middle Eastern, Indian, and African fairytales and folklore. The tales told in the book are all framed within a narrative surrounding Shahryār, a Persian Prince, and his wife Scheherazade. The stories are violent, sexual, and complex, unlike their Disney counterparts. 


It was originally translated into French by Antoine Galland, bringing the 8th-century work into the 17th century and further. The authorless text brings up issues of mystery in its history: Who collected these stories together? How did such a variety of different cultures become combine into a singular text? But even under all this speculation, the sheer breadth of creativity in the characters, plots, and imagery of the book enabled it to remain a timeless classic. 

The Book That Started Fantasy Fiction

Cynon ap Clydo
Cynon ap Clydno approaching the Castle of Maidens from the tale of Owain, ca. 19th C, British Broadcasting Corporation


Around the 14th century, a wealth of stories coming from all parts of the Welsh landscape were gathered into manuscripts and bound, not to be shared with the world until 1838. This book became known as the Mabinogion.


The stories in the book are richly diverse, with earliest depictions of King Arthur and his knights thrown in with Celtic folklore and mythology. The tales are likely to have been passed down the ages by traveling Welsh bards. The text was originally written in the Middle Welsh language. It is probable that the stories themselves are much older than the manuscripts we attribute them to due to the traditions of oral storytelling that spanned thousands of years.


Who translated the text? In 1838-45, a bilingual edition (in Welsh and English) of the complete stories was edited and published by Lady Charlotte Guest, an English aristocrat, and gifted linguist. She was also an avid collector of many items for museums, including games and porcelain. She became known for her collecting as well as translating skills.


It is difficult to say whether fantasy fiction would have developed so abundantly without these stories of chivalry, fantasy, philosophy, and love to pave the way before them. And certainly, all of our favorite childhood tales of knighthood, honor, and magic would have been lost in time. The wizard Merlin, King Arthur, and his Knights of the Round Table might have stayed in the 14th century. The efforts of Lady Charlotte and fellow translator of the Mabinogion, William Owen Pughe definitely paid off. 


The Japanese Hermit Who Never Existed: Ancient Japanese Literature

thirty six views of mount fuji
Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, Katsushika Hokusai, ca. 1831, Japan, Victoria and Albert Museum


Han-shan is the Japanese hermit who wrote his poetry on rocks, bamboo, and mountain faces, and who we don’t know even existed. His T’ien-t’ai mountain home on China’s east coast has long been celebrated as an integral area for Buddhist Pilgrimages in China. It is here, during the 8th and 9th centuries, that Han-shan is believed to have spent his solitary day, writing poems for no one but himself. 


The collected works of his poetry are called ‘The Cold Mountain Poems’, translated by Gary Snyder into English. The mystical existence of Han-shan has long been the subject of eastern art, and his poetry is revered throughout the world for its beautifully honest descriptions of nature and loneliness. 


han shan and shi de
Han-shan and Shi De, Ink on Paper by Kensai, ca. 7th-8th C, The British Museum


There is something different about Han-shan’s anonymity than the other authors we have discussed here; Han-shan, unlike the mysterious Homer, is accepted as a legend and celebrated as a fantasy figure. His anonymity is a defining trait of the poetry attributed to his name. In a sense, he has become a myth in himself, a man who didn’t wish to be known, who left civilization to follow a path away from the constraints of modern life. 


Perhaps we can learn something from his poetry. Perhaps we begin to question whether the celebrity of an author is synonymous with talent. Maybe we should acknowledge lesser-known works for their merit, not just because they have names we know. Look at the graffiti on our sidewalks, our buildings, and our motorways. We don’t know who wrote and drew these works, but often they can be beautiful and thought-provoking. An artist without a name is an artist all the same, and this is the fascinating mystery of anonymous literature. 

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By Hazel Anna RogersBA English Literature, Shropshire Young Poet Laureate Award (2015)Hazel is in her third year of English Literature at the University of Brighton. She studied one year of French and Japanese at the University of Leeds, and since worked abroad in Paris and Greece. She became Shropshire Young Poet Laureate in 2015 after which her poetry was published. She enjoys writing both creatively and academically, and has particular interests in non-English literature, Art History, Music, Anthropology, Literature of Antiquity and Philosophy. Her native tongues are English and French. She is also a passionate classical piano player and cold water swimmer.