Ancient World Literature-15th Century

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Aristophanes

Greek writer ((448-380 BC) and comtemporary of Sophocles and Euripides. Was the "Father of Comedy" - used satire and fantasy to challenge problematic situations. Most famous: The Archarnians and The Lysistrata. combines poetry, obscenity, farce, and wit to satirize institutions and personalities of his time. Though parodic in tone, the work often carries serious undertones, thus adding to the rich diversity of writings from the ancient Greek world.

Lysistrata

Aristophanes' anti-war, Greek comedy, written in 411 BC, has female characters, led by the eponymous Lysistrata, barricading the public funds building and withholding sex] from their husbands to secure peace and end the Peloponnesian War. In doing so, Lysistrata engages the support of women from Sparta, Boeotia, and Corinth. All of them are at first aghast at the suggestion of withholding sex, but they finally agree and swear an oath to support each other. The woman from Sparta, Lampito, returns home to spread the word there.

The Frogs

By Aristophanes: tells the story of how the god Dionysus , despairing of the state of Athens' tragedians , travels to Hades to bring Euripides back from the dead to rescue the Athenians. However, in the underworld, a small "civil war" is going on. Euripides, who had only just recently died, is challenging the great Aeschylus to the seat of 'Best Tragic Poet' at the dinner table of Pluto. A contest is held with Dionysus as judge. Dionysus eventually chooses Aeschylus, although he had originally set out to retrieve Euripides, because he knew "from the depth of his heart" that the traditional and morally sound Aeschylus was the only tragic poet for the job.

The Gilgamesh Epic

Begun in 2700 B.C. and written down about 2000 B.C., the first great heroic narrative of world literature, Gilgamesh, nearly vanished from memory when it was not translated from cuneiform languages into the new alphabets that replaced them. Gilgamesh was reintroduced to the world when a portion of it, Utnapishtim's Story of the Flood, upon which the biblical story of the flood is based, was accidentally discovered in 1872. Since then, tablets containing other parts of Gilgamesh have been found at sites throughout the Middle East in various cuneiform languages. Though the identity of its author and context are now lost, its stories, with their astonishing immediacy, appeal to modern readers. With this profound familiarity, there is also something infinitely strange and remote about Gilgamesh. The narrative is concerned chiefly with Gilgamesh's friendship with Enkidu, his quest for worldly renown and immortality, and his death.

Even before ancient literature

Before the invention of writing, stories and songs were transmitted orally from generation to generation. Without written documents of this oral tradition, there was always the risk of its literature being irrevocably lost due to cataclysms such as foreign conquest or natural disaster. Writing was not invented for the purpose of preserving literature; the earliest written documents contain commercial, administrative, political, and legal information, and were created by the first "advanced" civilizations in an area that Westerners commonly call the Middle East. These ancient civilizations were agrarian, developing in the valleys of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers. Cities began as centers for administration of irrigated fields, but they soon became centers for government, religion, and culture. The Egyptians built temples and pyramids in Thebes and Memphis; the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians build palaces and temples in Babylon and Ninevah.

The oldest texts

The oldest writing was pictographic, meaning that the sign for an object was written to resemble the object itself; later, hieroglyphic and cuneiform scripts were invented to record more complicated information. The oldest extant texts date from 3300 to 2990 B.C. and consist mostly of lists of foodstuffs, textiles, and cattle. Though such lists were well served by pictographs, by 2800 BC scribes began to make marks in a script that was later called cuneiform—the Latin cuneus means "a wedge"—to record more complicated information such as historical events. This form of writing survived more than two millennia. In Egypt, scribes developed a different form of writing. Named at a later date after the Greek words for "sacred" and "carving," hieroglyphs also developed in more cursive versions for faster writing.

Biblical Themes

According to Hebrew religious attitudes, God created a perfect and harmonious order; physical and moral disorder is a consequence of Adam and Eve's disobedience. As the stories in the Bible expound, unlike polytheistic religions in which gods often battle among themselves for control over humankind, the sole resistance to the Hebrew God is humankind itself. The exercise of free will, which may be used for both good and evil, is in some mysterious way a manifestation of God's will. Hebrew teachers later carried on the story of the Fall and developed the concept of a God who is as merciful as He is just, who brings about the possibility of atonement and reconciliation. This concept is highlighted in the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, among others. The stories of the Bible teach lessons about humankind's proper relations to God, which themselves are a generational process that concentrates on the origins and development of the Hebrews as God's chosen people.

The ancient Greeks

Significance of Homer: Though the origin of the Hellenes, or ancient Greeks, is unknown, their language clearly belongs to the Indo-European family. Named after the mythical king Minos, the Minoan civilization flourished on the island of Crete in the second millennium B.C. In the same period, the Myceneans developed a wealthy and powerful civilization on mainland Greece. At some point in the last century of the millennium, the great palaces were destroyed by fire. With them, the arts, skills, and language of the Myceneans vanished for the next few centuries, a period called the "Dark Age" of Greece. Much of what we know about them is based on the body of oral poetry that became the raw material for Homer's epic poems, the Iliad and Odyssey.

Significance of Homer

By serving as a basis for education, the Iliad and Odyssey played a role in the development of Greek civilization that is equivalent to the role that the Torah had played in Palestine. The irreconcilable difference between the Greeks gods of Olympus and the Hebrew god led to a struggle from which only one survived. For those raised under monotheistic religions or cultures, the Greek gods and their relation to humanity may seem alien. Whereas the Hebrews blamed humanity for bringing disorder to God's harmoniously ordered universe, the Greeks conceived their gods as an expression of the disorder of the world and its uncontrollable forces. To the Greeks, morality is a human invention; and though Zeus is the most powerful of their gods, even he can be resisted by his fellow Olympians and must bow to the mysterious power of fate.

The Iliad

Composed around 8th century b.c. by Homer. Agamemnon and Achilles of Sparta besiege Troy because Paris of Troy stole married Helen of Sparta. Achilles's best friend dies as the Trojans beat back the Spartan Greeks (including Odysseus). Achilles avenges his death by killing Paris's brother Hector. (begins in medias res)

The Odyssey

Composed by Homer: Odysseus tries to return home after sacking Troy (from the Iliad). Cursed by Poseidon, he drifts at sea for ten years, has various adventures, and finally gets home to find wife Penelope fending off avid suitors. He and son Telemachus get rid of the lot.

Virgil

greatest poet of the Golden Age, called the "Homer of Rome" because the Iliad and the Odyssey served as models for his epic, the Aeneid; focus on Patriotism; it took 10 years to write

The Aeneid

The Aeneid is a Latin epic written by Virgil in the 1st century BC (between 29 and 19 BC) that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who traveled to Italy where he became the ancestor of the Romans. It is written in dactylic hexameter.

Sappho

the Greek lyric poet of Lesbos, (born ca. 612 B.C.E.) One of the great poets of the ancient Greeks; her poetry developed the complexities of the inner workings of human beings and love. Though Sappho's lyric poems give us vivid evocation of the joys and sorrows of love, we have only fragments left.

Sophocles

one of the great tragedians of ancient Greece (496-406 BC); wrote Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.

Oedipus the King

The Oracle prophesies that King Laius will have a song who will kill him and marry Queen Jocasta. But instead of killing newborn Oedipus to avoid the prophesy, they give him up for adoption. Grown-up Oedipus solves a sphinx's riddle and marries the Queen. When the incest is revealed, Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus blinds himself.

Oedipus at Colonus

Oedipus goes to Colonus with daughters Antigone and Ismene. His sons fight each other to death for his vacated throne.

Antigone

Despite penalty of death, Antigone attempts to bury her brother Polyneices. King Creon, her uncle, banishes her to a cave, where she hangs herself. Creon's son Haemon, her lover, stabs himself in grief.

The Vedas

While it is known that the Indus River Valley civilization flourished (ca. 3000-1500 B.C.), the writing of the period found in Mohenjo Daro and Harappa has not yet been deciphered. The first known writings, originating from the Aryans, are the Vedas. They are the primary scriptures of Hinduism and consist of four books of sacred hymns that are typically chanted by priests at ceremonies marking rites of passage. They are considered divine revelations and are often recited in the form of mantras, or sacred utterances.

Ovid

Roman poet remembered for his elegiac verses on love (43 BC - AD 17) (the metamorphoses): Ovid's extraordinary subtlety and psychological depth make his poetry second only to Virgil's for its influence on Western poets and writers of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and beyond.

The New Testament Influence

The teachings of Jesus were revolutionary in terms of Greek and Roman feeling, as well as the Hebrew religious tradition. Unlike Greek and Roman religions, which were outward and visible, Christianity was inward and spiritual, emphasizing the important relationship between the individual and God. The Hebrew conception of God was broadened from one who was personal, non-anthropomorphic, omnipotent, omniscient, and infinitely just to one who was also infinitely merciful in his justice.

At the time of Jesus' birth, four languages were spoken in Judea: classical Hebrew by priests and other educated people, Aramaic by the general population, and Greek and Latin by Jews who had entered the administrative or commercial milieux under the Hellenistic and Roman empires. The four Gospels were written in Greek about forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain a central core of material that is believed to have come from a now-lost source, known today as the Q document. Each of these Gospels addresses a different audience: Matthew wrote for a Jewish public, Mark for a Gentile audience, and Luke for cultured Greek readers. The Gospel of John draws upon different sources. The four Gospels were collected with other documents to form the New Testament, which pope Damasus had translated from Greek to Latin by the scholar Jerome in 393-405. This translation soon became known as the Vulgate, the "common" or "popular" version.

The Qur'an

القرآن central religious text of Islam. Muslims believe the--to be the book of divine guidance and direction for mankind, and consider the original Arabic text to be the final revelation of God. God's revelations were first received around 610 by the prophet Muhammad, whose followers later collected them into the Koran, which became the basis for a new religion and community known today as Islam.

Significance: With the rise of Islam, Arabic shifted from a little-known tribal language to the lingua franca for the Muslim world. Though most of the pre-Islamic literature of Arabia was written in verse, prose became a popular vehicle for the dissemination of religious learning. In the ninth century, Baghdad was established as a center of translation, where Greek science and philosophy, Indian mathematics, Chinese medicine, and Persian literature and natural sciences were translated into Arabic. In Baghdad, poetry began to change form, moving from democratic short verses that were easily memorized by anyone who understood Arabic to the aristocratic adab, or "polite learning," which required extensive knowledge of classical and modern poetry as well as a familiarity with subjects as diverse as theology and agronomy. Due to the Koranic intolerance of fiction, works of popular entertainment, such as the Thousand and One Nights, are generally excluded from the classical canon of Arabic literature.

Lao-Tzu

6th century BC Chinese philosopher; reputed founder of Taoism.

He wrote the Tao Te Ching. Also known as the Tao, this text was written by Lao Tzu, the keeper of the Imperial Library, who was asked to share his wisdom for coming generations. The result is this text, known as a source for many famous Chinese sayings.

Li Po

(700-762) Chinese poet living in Tang Dynasty . He is best known for the extravagant imagination and striking Taoist imagery in his poetry.

Li Po is hailed as one of China's two greatest poets; it is said that he and his T'ang dynasty contemporary Tu Fu together in their poetry cover the whole range of human nature. A rebel and wanderer, Li Po was as much known for his fondness for wine and revelry as for his love of nature and unrestrainedly spirited verses. His boldness and originality come from his capacity to elevate traditional themes and forms to their highest level with unparalleled grace and eloquence. His poems are characterized by an immediacy and spontaneity of feeling, a childlike wonder and playfulness, and a facility for language. Li Po is perhaps best known for his dream poems, many of which invoke subtle Taoist images and powerful emotions of fear and exhilaration. In many of these pieces he promotes the idea that he would rather forget than confront reality, and there emerges from them a picture of a wild, Bohemian artist unfettered by convention. It is generally agreed that, with Tu Fu, Li Po raised the shih or lyric form to a height of power and expressiveness that has not since been surpassed in Chinese poetry.

Murasaki Shikibu

Lady Murasaki (English), was a Japanese novelist, poet, and a maid of honor of the imperial court during the Heian period. She is best known as the author of The Tale of Genji, written in Japanese between about 1000 and 1008, one of the earliest novels in human history.

Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji, arguably the first significant novel in world literature, was written in the early eleventh century. Written by a woman in the lower ranks of the aristocracy, the work is an ambitious undertaking that focuses on the lives of men and women in courtly Japan. Telling the tale of former Prince Genji, Murasaki's novel supposedly focuses less on the external world of political power and more on the larger "universal" issues about life that revolve around the depth and range of human experience.

Omar Khayyam

Persian poet and mathematician and astronomer whose poetry was popularized by Edward Fitzgerald's translation (1050-1123)

Rumi

(1207 - 1273 C.E.) was a mystical thirteenth century Persian Sufi poet, jurist, and theologian. He wrote over 65,000 verses of intoxicated poetry on the Sufi path of love and spiritual understanding. His ecstatic and wondrous spiritual writings left a lasting impression on Sufism, the mystical practice of Islam.

Rumi's importance is considered to transcend national and ethnic borders. His poems have been translated into many of the world's languages and have appeared in various formats. The Persian world, from Turkey to India, looks upon Rumi as one of the greatest spiritual poets in history. He has had a significant influence on both Persian and Turkish literature throughout the centuries. Over the last century, Rumi's poetry has spread from the Islamic world and into the Western world. The lyrical beauty of his outpourings of love for the Divine have also helped to make him one of the most popular and best-selling poets in America.

Rumi founded the Mevlevi Order, better known as the "Whirling Dervishes," who believe in performing their worship in the form of dance.

Dante Alighieri

an Italian poet famous for writing the Divine Comedy that describes a journey through hell and purgatory and paradise guided by Virgil and his idealized Beatrice (1265-1321)

Thirty-one of Dante's early lyrics are collected in a work called the Vita nuova or New Life, as it is sometimes called in English. These poems recount his love for Beatrice, the name that the poet gave to a young woman who died in 1290. Through poetry, Dante Alighieri transcended human love and invented a new form of poetry. By writing his Divine Comedy in the vernacular rather than in Latin, he helped to make possible the various national traditions of postmedieval literature in Europe. The Divine Comedy offers Dante's controversial political and religious beliefs within a formal and cosmological framework that evokes the three-in-one of the Christian Trinity: God the Father; God the Son; and God the Holy Spirit. The Comedy itself follows a threefold pattern with three canticles: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Moreover, the Comedy is written in terza rima, a verse style that Dante created, with three lines interlocked by a repeated rhyme word—a verbal equivalent to the three-in-one of the Trinity. Though Virgil serves as Dante's guide, there are many examples of the way in which Dante marks the difference between his own Christian beliefs and Virgil's pre-Christian ones. One of the most marked features of the work is the punishment of sinners in the Inferno. Rather than being subjected to retribution that merely fits the crime, they are condemned to commit their sins for eternity, as taught by Augustine in his Confessions. The endless act of sinning becomes the punishment. As they address Dante, the sinners simultaneously reveal and conceal their moral corruption.

T'ang Dynasty

a period where Chinese poetry flourished

Son-Jara

The founding of the Mali empire is attributed to Son-Jara Keita, whose life and exploits are the subject of the Son-Jara, the national epic of the Manding people. The rise of ancient Mali in the thirteenth century is closely associated with the spread of Islam into the region, which had begun in the seventh century. The principal custodians of the oral tradition are professional bards, known among the Manding as dyeli or belein-tigui. The epic of Son-Jara developed by accretion, which together with its oral transmission may account for its three distinct generic layers. The ideological function of the epic is the construction of a Manding common identity under a founding hero.

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