Ancient Literature
(myths, origins, and traditions)
The Origins of Story and Writing
• 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
- God(s)
- Epic Hero
- Duality
- Morals
- Animals - A great flood
- Symbolic colors and numbers
Ancient Hebrew
• 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
• 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 “prehistory” 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
• 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 maledominated 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.
Ancient Egypt
• 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
• Almost all Egyptian writing pertained
to their religion, such as the Book of
the Dead, but over time lyrical poetry
also became prominent.
Akhenaten’s Legacy
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?
Norse mythology
• The religion of the Scandinavian
regions, pre-Christianity. These tales are
important, as they come from the AngloSaxons, the originators of the English
language. Their stories followed them to
• 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
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
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.
African Stories
• 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.
- Example: cameroon means
“payment” if said with a high
tone and “crossroads” if said
with a low tone.
Spider Tale and African Proverbs Review
• 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
• Dervish – the holy men who practice Sufism
• 1. What is the moral of each
of the anecdotes you read?
The Thousand and One Nights
• 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
• 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
The Thousand and One Nights Review
• Folk tales – stories passed down by word of mouth from
generation to generation
• 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
Indian Culture
• 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
• 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.
Bhagavad-Gita Review
• 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
• 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
Ramayana (Valmiki)
• 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?
Chinese 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
• Chinese writing had many sources of inspiration:
- Confucianism
- Taoism
- Buddhism
The Book of Songs Review
• 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
• 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.
• Key words: scholarly, tradition,
obedience, justice
• Taoism (“The Way”), according to
legend, was founded by an old wise
man named Laotzu.
• Laotzu wrote the Tao te Ching – a
collection of sayings and poetry that
teach the nature of Taoism. Taoism
teaches a joyful acceptance of life and
a willingness to become one with the
natural world.
• Numerous other Taoist philosophers
reinterpreted the Tao te Ching’s
concepts over the years. Chuang-tzu,
for example, wrote quirky stories that
exemplified Taoist ideals.
• Key words: harmony, fluidity, truth,
paradox, passive
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 Chuangtzu’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?
Japanese Literature
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 welleducated. 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 Parables
• 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
• 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
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.
• 3. Describe Shonagon’s writing
style – describe her diction,
syntax, tone.
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