The first stories on earth exist as song and often through ritual. This is known as the Oral Tradition. Many storytellers had to memorize hundreds or thousands of lines and recited these stories for hours for an audience.
The first written languages, Cuneiform, was created around 4000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, also known as the Fertile Crescent. It later evolved into the modern day writing still used in that region.
Mesopotamia was also a region rich with scientific and mathematical knowledge, architectural advancements, religious systems, and even complex legal systems such as Babylonian ruler Hammurabi’s “Code of Hammurabi.” (“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”) The Great Library of Nineveh was one of the first great sources for literature.
The Origins of Story and Writing
Most ancient cultural stories contain the following sacred narrative elements:
- An Origin Story
- Creation Stories
- Epic Hero
- Animals - A great flood
- Symbolic colors and numbers
The majority of Hebrew writing is contained within the 24 chapter Hebrew Bible called Tanakh named after the three categories of books contained in it: the Torah (Law), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).
The Hebrew Bible differed from other ancient religions in that it was approached as a “sacred history” of God’s interaction with his people, unlike myths that typically distanced the gods from mankind in a “pre-history” sense.
The Book of Ruth is a simple, realistic story about ordinary people in Israel. It places importance on the decisions of women, as well as the Hebrew law and sense of community.
Book of Ruth Review
1. How does Boaz meet Ruth? What must Boaz do to redeem the land and marry Ruth? Why?
2. From this narrative we learn that David, the greatest king of Israel, is descended from Ruth. What is ironic about this detail?
3. To some feminist critics, Ruth and Naomi are courageous women who defy social conventions and make their own decisions, taking control of their own lives in a male-dominated society. Male characters are seen as playing relatively minor roles in the narrative. Do you agree or disagree with this view of the Book of Ruth? Explain.
The Kingdoms of Egypt lasted for twenty-seven centuries. The pharaoh was the single ruler who was viewed as a god on earth.
Egyptians developed one of the first forms of paper from papyrus reeds. Their civilization developed rapidly because they could easily keep records and share ideas.
Hieroglyphs were viewed as “divine words.”
Almost all Egyptian writing pertained to their religion, such as the Book of the Dead, but over time lyrical poetry also became prominent.
Great Hymn to the Aten Review
Apostrophe – a figure of speech in which a writer directly addresses a thing, concept, or absent person.
1. List three examples of apostrophe used in the Great Hymn. How does the use of apostrophe convey a deep reverence for Aten?
Epithet – a brief descriptive name, title, or adjective that characterizes a person, place, or thing (ex: “living Aten, creator of life!”
2. Find two more epithets in the poem. What do the epithets tell you about the relationship between Aten and his people?
The religion of the Scandinavian regions, pre-Christianity. These tales are important, as they come from the Anglo-Saxons, the originators of the English language. Their stories followed them to England.
There are nine separate worlds, each one being the home of a different race: the gods’ home Asgard, the humans’ home Midgard, the giants’ home Jötunheimr, etc.
(The races and many of the terms used in Lord of the Rings come from Norse mythology.)
Norse mythology key terms and figures
* Yggdrasil – the “world tree”
* Ragnarok – a series of pre-destined disasters that will bring the end of most of the magical races
* Valhalla – an enormous mead hall where the greatest warriors go after they die
* Odin – King of the Asgardians, traded his eye for ultimate wisdom
* Thor – Son of Odin, known for his strength and hammer, Mjolnir
* Loki – Antagonist. A shape-shifting, part-giant, shape-shifting god.
* Ymin – A giant, the first being in the world
* Sigurd (Siegfried) – epic hero
Norse Creation Myth + Baldur’s Death Review
1. From the Creation Myth, find three elements that are seen in the story of the Garden of Eden. Compare/contrast how these elements are presented in Norse mythology vs. the Old Testament.
2. Is there a moral to the “Death of Baldur”?
3. “The Funeral of Balder” reveals the origin of what?
Look at your Norse family tree, choose a god, research them, complete the following:
1. Is it a god, a goddess or something else (if something else, then what)?
2. How is he/she related to the other gods (only the close family as in mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, children)?
3. What are the special traits of this person?
4. Do you find the person likeable? Why?
5. What are the physical traits of the person?
*** Make a drawing of how you think your god would look like. Worth up to 5 bonus points.
At the fall of the Egyptian empire, great civilizations started to spring up throughout the African continent, marking the Golden Age of African culture.
Despite using writing systems for record keeping and other practical purposes, African literature before the 20th century was primarily an oral tradition.
Many African languages are unique in the importance of their tonal qualities. One word can have numerous meanings depending on the tone used when it is spoken.
Proverb – a short saying that expresses a common truth or experience
Alliteration – repetition of consonant sounds
Parallelism – repetition of words, phrases, or sentences that compare or contrast ideas
1. How is Anaanu an example of a trickster archetype?
2. Find three examples of parallelism in the African proverbs. What does the use of parallelism achieve?
Middle Eastern Literary History
The creation of the religion of Islam in 622AD spawned a rich literary history in Arabic culture. Scholars and poets were highly respected in the Middle East – the Arabic word for poet, sha’er, translates as “he who knows.”
Scholars were sent all over the world, during the Dark Ages in Europe, and preserved the great (and neglected) Greek and Roman texts by translating them to Arabic. -- AD 800-1200
Arabs have a long oral literary tradition that took place before Islam. Poets often gathered and had contests – reciting Arab proverbs or poetry.
Once formed into the Islamic empire, there was a boom of cultural growth in the Middle East. With a thriving civilization, and scholars venturing out of the kingdom to study the knowledge of the world, literature branched out in all directions. Poetry, secular and non-secular prose, fables, philosophy, history – all were developed and perfected.
“Anecdotes and Sayings of Saadi” Review
Anecdote – a brief story that focuses on a single incident, often to make a point or teach a lesson
Sufism – the inner, mystical dimension of Islam that focuses on developing the mind above all else – often withdrawing from the material world to do so
Frame story – A story or stories told within another story
The Thousand and One Nights was developed over several centuries. Many stories came from the oral tradition, many were taken from tales brought by travelers from China and India (the Panchatantra).
The frame story of The Thousand and One Nights follows a sultan, Shahriyar. His wife is unfaithful and he has her executed. After that he takes a new wife each day and has each executed at dawn the following day because he no longer believes any woman to be faithful.
This changes when he takes Scheherazade as his wife. She is a clever storyteller, telling the sultan a new tale every night but delays revealing the ending until the following night. The sultan is always too captivated by her stories to kill her, and after 1,001 nights he abandons his plans to kill her and they remain happily married.
1. The evil Vizier tells King Yunan, “He who does not weigh the consequences of his acts shall never prosper.” In what ways might this statement apply to the jinnee, King Yunan, and King Sinbad? Explain.
2. What do these tales reveal about the daily life and culture of the medieval Muslim world? Explain your response, citing examples.
A mixture of three early cultures – Indus Valley, Dravidian, and Aryan – contributed to India’s Hindu civilization.
Hinduism is one of the oldest existing religions. It appears polytheistic, having hundreds of gods, but it is actually monotheistic. The many gods are all parts of one whole, Brahman.
Central to Hinduism is the caste system:
Brahmins (scholars and priests)
Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors)
Vaisyas (merchants, farmers, artisans)
Sudras (menial laborers)
Excluded from society altogether are the untouchables. Hindus believe that you are born into your caste based on the kharma built up in your previous life.
Islam and Buddhism were other prominent religions of India. Metalworking, medicine, and frescoes were all greatly developed. The mathematical concept of “zero” came from Indian Buddhist philosophy.
Indian Literature and Rig Veda
Indian Literature encompasses: epics, religious hymns and sacred texts, dramas (plays), poems, and love lyrics
Emphasis is placed upon the language of Sanskrit. It was viewed by the Indian people as sacred. The inner workings of the language are admired by linguists still today.
The Rig Veda is the oldest surviving record of Indian religion. It is a book of hymns, not systematic religious ideas. It served as the foundation for Hinduism.
Aryans (Central Europeans) created the Rig Veda back in 1,400 B.C. and there’s no known authors. The Rig Veda portrays natural phenomena as godlike beings. They are praised for their power, beauty, and the prosperity they bring.
The Bhagavad-Gita, literally “Song of the Lord”, that takes place in the middle of the epic Mahabharata.
The premise of the Bhagavad-Gita is that warrior Arjuna does not wish to kill his relatives who are on the opposing side of a major battle. He asks for the advice of his brother-in-law Krishna, who happens to be one of the incarnations of the god Vishnu.
This ancient poem is divided into eighteen teachings that deal with the nature of the body and the soul, and the relationship of human beings and the divine.
This poem inspired the philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi.
Paradox – an apparent contradiction that is actually true
1. From stanzas 4-8, what can you infer about Arjuna’s values? How have these values contributed to his dilemna?
2. In the Mahabharata, the hero Yudhistira, Arjuna’s brother, says that the highest duty is to refrain from injuring others. In the Bhagavad-Gita, however, Krishna tells Arjuna that it is his sacred duty to fight. How do stanzas 18-21 help to resolve this paradox?
The Ramayana is India’s other great epic and it better resembles the epics of the Western world. The lead character is half-god but the story is incredibly human.
Most of the story focuses on Rama’s quest to regain his throne and his wife Sita.
“Rama and Ravana in Battle” Review
1. What support do the gods give Rama? What doubts does Rama have about the chariot, and who reassures him?
2. How do the details in the first paragraph establish the main external conflict in the episode? What details show Ravana’s internal conflict?
3. What heroic values does Rama embody? How does Ramana’s treatment of the defeated Ravana emphasize these values?
4. What is the significance of Ravana’s face changing after his death? What do you think this says about Indian culture?
China has gone through many mighty dynasties with few rebellions overthrowing one dynasty for the next. Writing developed in the Shang dynasty.
Chinese literature dwarfs the literature of any other country. More than half of all books ever written are Chinese. Having extensive knowledge of classic texts and the ability to write poetry were requirements for employment in imperial bureaucracy.
Refrain – a repeated word, phrase, or group of lines in a poem or song
* * *
1. In “Song 103”, why does the speaker tell the oriole of her desire to go home?
2. Point out three lines in “Song 130” that state the speaker’s concerns. Paraphrase these concerns in your own words.
3. Thoroughly explain what you think “To ‘Note After Note’” is about.
To Turn In: In a two- to three-paragraph essay, compare and contrast “What Plant is Not Faded?” with the classic folk song “Where have all the Flowers Gone?” by Pete Seeger. End your essay with a comment about the qualities Seeger’s song shares with the selections from The Book of Songs you have just read. Make a generalization about the relevance of these ancient Chinese poems.
Confucius had an extraordinary love of learning that took him from a childhood of poverty to the position of most learned teacher in all of China.
He was the first person in recorded Chinese history to believe in education for all and to regard teaching as a life’s work.
Confucius tried to reform society according to a traditional code of personal ethics. He sought out rulers who were willing to rule according to the code instead of personal gain.
Analects, Tao te Ching, and Taoist Anecdotes Review
1. In Analects, which of the Master’s sayings is most like the Bible’s golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? What is the main difference between Confucius’s saying and the golden rule?
2. One of the maxims in the Analects states, “A gentleman is distressed by his own lack of capacity; he is never distressed at the failure of others to recognize his merits.” Paraphrase this maxim. Do you agree with it?
3. In passage 29 of the Tao te Ching, how does Laotzu advise readers to approach the world? What does Laotzu mean when he says the world cannot be improved?
4. What does “Wagging My Tail in the Mud” reveal about Chuang-tzu’s character? How does the tale reflect Taoist beliefs about the need to be true to oneself?
Journey to the West (Wu Cheng En)
The most widely-known Chinese novel.
The story of an incredibly powerful monkey, a Buddhist monk, a pig, and a water demon’s journey to the Western Heavens to return sacred scriptures.
Journey to the West (Wu Cheng En)
1. What is the Monkey King’s greatest flaw? Give three examples from the story that demonstrate this flaw.
2. How is the Monkey King punished in the end?
Most of Japanese politics was based on family and clan divisions until warlords took power in the 12th century.
Shintoism gave Japan a rich folklore of divine spirits (kami).
Early Japan was greatly inspired by China and took their form of writing, politics, as well as their love of poetry. Officials competed with their poetry in Japan as well. Tanka and haiku are both forms of poetry developed in Japan.
Many fantastical tales came to life thanks to Noh and Kabuki theatre. Noh was drama that focused on Zen Buddhist tradition; Kabuki was theatrical over-the-top plays full of singing, dancing, and spoke to a general audience.
Classical Japanese prose occurred during the Heian period (A.D. 794-1185). Women had a leisurely life at court and were well-educated. That, in addition to scandalous stories, gave court ladies perfect backgrounds to write romantic novels, such as the first novel ever written – The Tale of Genji.
Zen Buddhism is more a form of inner meditation than a religion. It focuses on emptying the mind, suppressing the ego, and finding a inner enlightenment.
Zen appealed to people of all walks of life: Japanese warriors, politicians, and artists lived according to its principles. It also worked its way into the culture: like tea drinking, simplistic architecture, and gardening.
The Zen Parables were originally used to teach aspiring monks. The parables focus on confusing students to force them to abandon preconceived ideas. Zen masters want their students to realize how dangerous and misleading words can be.
Zen Parables Review
1. In “A Parable,” what might the precipice, the tigers, and the mice symbolize? What is the significance of the man eating the strawberry? What lesson about life do you think this parable teaches?
2. Why do you think the thief becomes the disciple of Shichiri Kojun? What values does this parable teach?
3. Describe Banzo’s unconventional teaching methods. What do you think he is teaching Matajuro about the art of swordsmanship?
The Pillow Book (Sei Shonagon)
Shonagon wrote this book just as personal notes on court life. A “pillow” was a wooden drawer where aristocrats wrote and stored letters and journals, much like a diary today.
The Pillow Book is an insight into the aristocrats of her time (10th century Heian Japan): quick-witted, repulsed by working people, with unusual court etiquette.
Style – the unique manner in which writers use language to express their ideas
* Diction – word choice (plain or fancy, abstract or concrete)
* Syntax – the way sentences are constructed (long or short, simple or complex)
* Tone – the attitude a writer takes toward his subject (sarcastic, tender, melancholy,..)
The Pillow Book Review
1. In “Pleasing Things,” what role do reading and writing seem to play in Shonagon’s life? Cite four examples to support your view.
2. What is Shonagon’s attitude toward people of very high rank? Give two examples to support our opinion.