OUT OF DARKNESS
Clay and skin
Invention of the term "Weltliteratur" is credited to my fellow GoŽs, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832, portrait left). Prolific, always hunting inspiration for his own writing, Goethe admired works that attract readers far beyond the locale where they happen to be written. He had lived through the climax of the age of discovery, and in the shrinking world of his old age, a global readership for the first time seemed within reach. Great books soon would travel everywhere, he imagined.
The world today is awash in books, as Goethe predicted, but even the most traveled ones are rarely great. The Tower of Babel remains unfinished, but not for lack of babbling. (Image right: Tower of Babel, Genesis 11, portrayed by Bruegel. ) "Of making many books there is no end" (Ecclesiastes 12:12).
So which books are great? What belongs on everybody's standard world reading list? What texts, if any, should be taught in schools everywhere, and what should everybody learn about them? Because there is not even slight agreement on these questions, world literature anthologies are diversity-driven, and very very very fat. No course can cover even a representative sample of their contents.
literature, culture and multiculturalism
What is selected for us to read is important because texts change minds. Like other arts, literature promotes like-mindedness, or imprinting of common neural memory on receptive brains. As one neuroscientist puts it, "The brainís structure becomes the information it receives" (Ratley 54). Memory grows in synaptic strength especially as a result of repeated reading, reciting or rehearing a fixed text, such as a hymn, song, creed, scripture, pledge or ad.
Repetition to others makes memory infectious. When a neural imprint is distributed to a sufficiently large group of host brains, it can be noticed in the world as a culture, and it can compete against other cultures for additional members. And so it is that texts have inspired Muslims vs. Jews, Taoists vs. Confucians, Hindus vs. Buddhists, Platonists vs. Aristotelians, royalists vs. roundheads, creationists vs. Darwinians, Coke vs. Pepsi addicts, etc. and vice versa.
So the great books of world literature might be defined objectively as the ones with the greatest headcount--those that have been imprinted in the greatest numbers of brains, or those that have programmed their readers most powerfully. They are not at the top of any current list of best sellers. They would be at the top of the all time list, if such were available.
Cultures routinely fall for non-literary reasons, and the enchantments of their great texts fade away. If you know Genesis, or the Qur'an, or Darwin, you may be confused by obscure accounts of creation like the ancient Babylonian Enuma Elish or the early Greek Generations of the Gods, though these may have been popular enough in their day. We may find these texts difficult, and yet all of us have capacity to fit different readings into the context of existing imprints in our minds. This brain-building from diverse texts is the essence of multicultural education.
Early writing from Babylon:
It has been known for a long time that literature promotes like-mindedness. It dawned early that literature is useful to control populations, as seen in Hammurabi's Law Code (cir. 1792-1750 BCE) from the City of Babylon (in Mesopotamia or modern Iraq, home of Marduk in the neo-Babylonian creation story). Hammurabiís code imprints in its readers' understandings that dams will protect against flooding, that aristocrats will be advantaged over lower classes, that slaves will be denied freedom, and that wives will be restrained from extramarital sex. (Samples of this remarkable text are shown below in note 4.)
Hammurabi's code was inscribed in cuneiform, the world's longest surviving form of letter writing. "Cuneiform" technology was in use by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia by about 3400 BCE, though the word derives from the much later Latin word "cuneus," meaning wedge. Cuneiform writing was stamped with a wedge in wet clay bricks, which then were exposed to the sun god who baked them. Resulting law tablets thus were god-made and full of light, yet also heavy and easily breakable, as Moses demonstrates by shattering the first copy of the ten commandments in Exodus 24:12 ff.
Cuneiform holds up well when buried in an arid desert, but if any water goddess finds it, she muddies up the wedge marks and melts them down into primal ooze, where their power to impress brains is lost forever. If cuneiform writing anciently existed in flooded or wet parts of the world, we would be unlikely to have any remaining samples of it today. For this reason, it can be questioned whether Mesopotamians invented writing, or whether they first developed this form of writing, as school texts nowadays so regularly state. Damrosch (A59) for instance says that the Babylonians had writing for 1,000 years before the Jews and Greeks. This is possible, but very unlikely, as technological secrets are not easily kept. All we know for sure is that there are few water goddesses in Mesopotamia, compared with much of the rest of the world, and the planet's oldest known literature has been found buried there in the dry sands.
our records of the ancient world are so fragmentary, we seldom can
prove when or where or by whom any surviving ancient text was composed.
Enuma Elish came to light in the 19th century when
British archaeologists dug up the demolished palace library of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king of the 7th century BCE--but how much earlier than
Ashurbanipal was Enuma Elish composed? Nobody knows, but some historians theorize that
the story must go back some five or eight centuries before Ashurbanipal to the old Babylonian Empire
and a great Ziggurat temple that once must have stood in the capital.
That would have been Marduk's house, where Marduk's story plausibly may have originated.
Left (colorized): a relief from an ancient pillar is thought to show Hammurabi receiving the law from the supreme brick baker, Shamash (the sun).
Cuneiform writing continued in use from at least 3400 BCE until about 100 CE, but alphabetic writing was used at the same time. Image left from eighth century BCE: taking dictation, one scribe uses a cuneus and clay tablet while the other scribe uses a pen on papyrus. All papyrus texts have been lost.
Left: Ashurbanipal of Assyria (668-626 BCE) holding up the universe or else constructing a temple-- interpretations differ. To help conquer Babylonians, this Assyrian king gathered up some some 22,000 Babylonian cuneiforms and imprisoned them, resulting in the world's earliest known library. Figure from the British Museum.
Who remembers so long ago? How were the records of those very ancient times preserved? Over many thousands of years, scores of generations of astronomers may have recorded the slow apparent movement of the stars through the precession. But probably not.
The Babylonians invented the cycles of six: 12 months in the year, 24 hours in the day, 60 minutes in an hour. With their expertise in time and rotation, they appear to have learned how to roll back the heavens to imagine what stars must have ruled the sky in the distant past, prior to any recorded time. Enuma Elish and other Babylonian stories may have come about as they storied those gods that formerly must have been in charge of things and how those old gods fell from their high places. Astronomers before the time of Marduk may have observed and written about Ea, whose stars were present in the cuneiform age, but they also may have projected back to an imagined age of Anu, and an even older time of Apsu, when there were no cuneiform records, either because cuneiform had not been invented or because the tablets had washed out.
Table left: adapted from Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T Barber, When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Princeton: Princeton Press, 2004.
Left: precession occurs as earth's axis slowly wobbles, shifting the horizon and the pointers of the north and south poles in 26,000-year cycles.
The precession cycle currently figures in many predictions that the world will end on December 21, 2012, when the planet and sun are aligned with the center of the galaxy.
Left: Marduk slays the water goddess Tiamat in an ancient Babylonian relief.
For many scholars, the parallels are strong evidence that Genesis was written or revised after 587 BCE, when the conquered Jews of Jerusalem were taken as captives to Babylon. In this interpretation, the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is an image of the Ziggurat of Marduk which King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (604-562 BCE) was constructing when he invaded Palestine and destroyed the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem (587 BCE). Archaeologists have found the inscription of this Ziggurat's corner stone:
Did the captive Jews in Babylon witness Marduk's procession on the Babel Street? Did they hear Enuma Elish being recited and enacted in a strange language around the great Ziggurat while it was still under construction? Did they respond by writing a counter-cultural story that showed their god Elohim to be mightier than Marduk?
The cult of Marduk promoted by Enuma Elish also has current cultural significance outside of the world of Biblical scholarship. Allah has driven Marduk from the sky today, but some contemporary Mesopotamians still reflect with pride on the accomplishments of their neo-Babylonian ancestors under Nebuchadnezzar II, including his destruction of Jerusalem and his exile of the Jewish people from the lands that they claimed Yahweh had given them. The great neo-Babylonian king was a hero to the late Saddam Hussein of Iraq whose dream was to regain the Babylonian Empire and take Israel, Persia and other local competitors off the map once again.
Above: engraving of the great king Nebuchadnezzar II as a terrified animal (1795, illustrating Daniel 4.33) by Christian mystic William Blake of London. This work is now in the British Museum, along with many ancient cultural artifacts taken from Mesopotamia during the time of its occupation by the British Empire. The recent Iraq War continued the long-standing culture conflict when the Anglo-American invasion resulted in the destruction of many of the antiquities of the Baghdad Museum.
Early Greek Writing:
Our English word "literature" comes from Old French lettre, which comes from Latin littera, which ultimately comes from Greek diphtherā, meaning hide, leather, or writing surface. This etymology and other evidence indicate that our English literary heritage began with skins.
Archaeologists have not yet found any physical
records of Greek writing prior to ceramics painted in about 700 BCE, but
skins are not clay, and the wetness of the Greek world quickly rots them. Writing
almost certainly was known to Greeks since at least the time of the
Trojan War (cir.
1200 BCE). Some scholars theorize that the detailed stories of that war which are preserved in
the texts of
must have been memorized in about 1200 (before writing) and then repeated
orally until about 700 (when writing came in), but this idea is
very unlikely. (Homer's Iliad in fact contains a reference to writing: see below in
So who was this Phoenician letter-giver Cadmus? His name, in Greek, simply means "from the east." His language was Phoenician, and Phoenicia (meaning the land of Phoenix, the place of sunrise from the Greek point of view) stood at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, in the region of modern Israel, Lebanon and Syria.
According to the lore of legend, Phoenician Cadmus founded the Phoenician colony of Thebes on the Greek mainland. This is tragic Thebes that would become home to Oedipus (portrayed right) and Antigone, doomed Thebes that would be destroyed by the Argives at almost the same time as the sack of Troy. It appears that we have these famous old Theban legends today only because some Theban literature survived the fall of the city, and it was copied or rewritten by later Greek writers, fragments of whose writings still remain today for us to read.
Phoenicians were prominent among those whom the ancient Hebrew scriptures call "Canaanites." Some of their descendants today are called Palestinians. No ancient Phoenician literature remains for us to read, but are there traces of it to be detected in early Greek texts? In Homer's Iliad, Achilles' teacher at Troy is an old eastern exile named Phoenix. Could this Phoenician have been the original author of the Trojan War story, The Iliad by Phoenix? The claim is often made that "western literature" begins with Homer, but were Homer's poems based on Phoenician sources? Ancient literary history is full of such questions.
The early Greeks must have had writing, though the physical remains have disappeared. From later references, we infer that they had satiric literature written on smelly goatskins, pastoral literature on sheepskins, and heroic literature on the hides of bulls. All the old skins vanished as water goddesses rotted them or sun gods baked them to dust, so there had to have been early Greek traditions of copying the old stories, scribal traditions perhaps similar to the monastic preservation of old manuscripts on parchment in medieval Europe. In this transmission by frequent copying, decades-old texts are likely to have been modernized or garbled by scribes who disliked or misunderstood the meanings of old words. Given the adverse physical conditions for written records in Greece, and later plunderings of Greece by Romans and other enemies, the survival of early Greek literature in any form today is a wonder.
based on an archaic Greek statuette of
Zeus. Altars of Zeus were
placed on mountain tops so that, in the event of an eruption, the god
would bring his lightning bolts to destroy the rising "titan."
Extremely intense lightning-like flashes and sonic booms can accompany the
clouds of dust and ash above an active volcano. The impression is
that a tremendous thunder storm is fighting to extinguish the eruption.
In Greek mythology many-armed gods assisted Zeus against the infernal enemies by pouring
out rocks to bury them as securely deep as possible.
Relax with music
Why do people, even some seemingly sensible ones, expose their brains to imprinting by literature? An obvious answer lies in cultural conformity, the common desire to think as others think, or follow the herd, but that's not the whole answer. Literature attracts host brains with the prospect of escape, relaxation, mental relief. It offers a way out, though the sky may be falling or earth erupting (and the Ionian region is among the most active in the world for volcanism). The pastoral Theogony or Generations of the Gods is a case in point, addressing huge geophysical disasters from the point of view of a simple country swain raising sheep on the slopes of potentially dangerous Mount Helicon in rural Boeotia. (Right: Greek good shepherd cir. 235 AD.)
Hesiod's tales, sometimes crude or humorous; are wondrous or tall. A naive shepherd may not be able to shed light on the problem of volcanism, but at least he can make light of it. Atop Helicon, where if prayers come true Zeus will put down any future volcanic eruption, there is beside the god's altar a place of amusement. There, whether or not they tell the truth, the lovely Muses make Hesiod and other listeners forget all heaviness and sorrows. Music provides a soothing illusion that the dangerous powers within the earth are more or less under control of Zeus and the rest of the Olympian gods, who are just like everybody else we know--moody, vain, vengeful, lusting, silly, and yet sometimes well-meaning, sometimes remorseful, frequently caring and approachable. These erratic but often friendly Olympians have bound the vicious titans deep underground, so that once-terrifying volcanoes seem likely to remain inactive, especially if praise is lavished on the gods for their helpful deeds.
There's at least one further purpose of literature, beyond its cultural and entertainment purposes. It can stimulate creativity. A frightening problem in astronomy is solved imaginatively with the Marduk-concept, a cosmological warrior that can keep order in the sky, no matter what disruptions may arise up there. A terrifying problem in earth science is resolved similarly, with Zeus, a thrower of lightning bolts capable of holding the surface of earth together when it is being forced apart by gigantic forces attempting to emerge from beneath.
Obviously these literary creations are not working solutions, but nevertheless they may be prototypes. Science fiction has often imagined devices that later were produced by inspired inventors (cell phones from Star Trek, for example, or the atom bomb from H.G Wells). To keep the earth habitable in spite of supermassive attacks from above and below, we could use Marduk and Zeus. They could in fact save the world, if anyone is ingenious enough to realize them. Below: Marduk battles Tiamat.
The anxieties of ancient peoples often led to religious superstitions, such as Marduk-worship and Zeus-worship. Yet they also created a Ziggurat devoted to astronomy in Babylon and a mountain lookout devoted to volcano watch on Helicon. Literature was associated not only with the temples but also with hopeful efforts to control the environment.
the sleeping titan, Mount Helicon, in Boeotia, central Greece.
1. How it all began: the readings for this lesson tell how our world began and developed. How are these stories similar to and different from a story that you might tell about the origin and early phases of the world?
2. Identity: you and I are shaped by the literature we have experienced. What literature has been most impressive to you? How has it influenced your identity? How are you different because of it?
3. Course texts: Readings typically included in world literature courses may be texts that have begotten or provoked other texts (many call these "classics"), or they may possess outstanding merit of some kind in the teacher's opinion ("masterpieces"), or they may provide special insight into local affairs ("windows on the world"). In any case, there are far too many world class books to be sampled in any given course or set of courses. The standard multicultural world literature textbooks in use in America today are not just Great Books. They are Giant Books: 3,000 pages in the "condensed" versions, and at least twice that many pages in the six-volume standard editions! They are wonderful reads if you have a year or two to devote to them.
Three 3-volume sets currently available in the USA include:
For a "condensed" textbook see The Longman Anthology of World Literature, Compact Edition. ed. David Damrosch et al. New York: Pearson/Longman 2007.
4. Hammurabi's Code (a selection translated by L. W. King (1915): Anu and Bel named me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind. . . .
15. If any one take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates [to escape], he shall be put to death.
16. If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the [police], the master of the house shall be put to death. . .
53. If any one be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the [grain] which he has caused to be ruined.
54. If he be not able to replace the [grain], then he and his possessions shall be divided among the farmers whose corn he has flooded. . .
108. If a [female barkeeper] does not accept [grain] according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water [This is a form of trial by ordeal. It was believed that the Euphrates River would act as judge of people accused of various crimes. If, when thrown into the river, the accused floated, she was considered innocent; but if she sank, the river had found her guilty. For a Hebrew parallel, see Numbers 5:11 31.]
109. If conspirators meet in the house of a [female barkeeper], and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court, she shall be put to death.
110. If a "sister of a god" [nun] opens a tavern, or enters a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death. . .
129. If a man's wife be surprised [having intercourse] with another man, both shall be tied and thrown into the water, but the husband may pardon his wife and the king his slaves.
130. If a man violates the wife (betrothed or child-wife) of another man, who has never known a man, and still lives in her father's house, and sleeps with her and is surprised [caught], this man shall be put to death, but the wife is blameless.
131. If a man bring a charge against his wife, but she is not surprised with another man, she must take an oath, and then she may return to her house.
132: If the "finger is pointed" at a man's wife about another man, but she is not caught sleeping with the other man, she shall jump in the river [to prove her innocence] for the sake of her husband
133. If a man wishes to separate from his wife who has borne him no children, he shall give her the amount of her purchase money and the dowry which she brought from her father's house, and let her go. . .
141. If a man's wife, who lives in his house, wishes to leave it, plunges into debt [to go into business], tries to ruin her house, neglects her husband, and is judicially convicted: if her husband offer her release, she may go on her way, and he gives her nothing as a gift of release. If her husband does not wish to release her, and if he take another wife, she shall remain as servant in her husband's house.
142. If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: "You are not congenial to me," the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, and she shall take her dowry and go back to her father's house. [The right of women to initiate divorce proceedings is extremely rare in ancient civilizations.]
143. If she is not innocent, but leaves her husband, and ruins her house, neglecting her husband, this woman shall be cast into the water. . .
195. If a son strike his father, his hands shall be taken off. [Hebrew law prescribed the death penalty for such an act (Exodus 21:15) and extended its scope to protect mothers.]
196. If a nobleman puts out the eye of another nobleman, his eye shall be put out.
197. If he break another [noble-]man's bone, his bone shall be broken.
198. If he put out the eye of a [commoner], or break the bone of a [commoner], he shall pay one [silver] mina.
199. If he put out the eye of a man's slave, or break the bone of a man's slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.
200. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.
201: If he knock out the teeth of a [commoner], he shall pay one-third of a [silver] mina. . .
In future time, through all coming generations, let the king, who may be in the land, observe the words of righteousness which I have written on my monument; let him not alter the law of the land which I have given, the edicts which I have enacted; my monument let him not mar. If such a ruler have wisdom, and be able to keep his land in order, he shall observe the words which I have written in this inscription; the rule, statute, and law of the land which I have given; the decisions which I have made will this inscription show him; let him rule his subjects accordingly, speak justice to them, give right decisions, root out the miscreants and criminals from this land, and grant prosperity to his subjects.
Hammurabi, the king of righteousness, on whom Shamash has conferred right (or law) am I. My words are well considered; my deeds are not equaled; to bring low those that were high; to humble the proud, to expel insolence.
5. Enuma Elish and Genesis. Scholars have noted that the six days of creation in Genesis generally parallel the six generations of gods in the Enuma Elish. The type of god that is created in Enuma Elish (e.g., a god of land) generally compares to what is created or happens on the corresponding day in Genesis (i.e. the waters are gathered together to expose dry land).
Further parallels with Genesis are found in other very early Mesopotamian literature. The account of the Flood in tablet 11 of the Babylonian Epic or Gilgamesh (pages A122-A127 in Damrosch) is very similar to the Noah story of Genesis 6-9.
6. Homer's story of Bellerophon and the baneful letters, composed sometime between 1200 BCE and 700 BCE, is one of the earliest surviving references to writing . . . In this story, writing on wax tablets serves as a secret code that is used to control those who cannot read. Homer's moral is unsurpassed on two counts: (1) if you don't read, it could kill you; (2) if you do read, don't kill a stranger because of what it says. Left: Homer is unusual among ancients in skepticism, a quality he bequeathed to later Greeks.
THE ILIAD of Homer
translated by Samuel
from SCROLL 6
 There is a city in the heart of Argos [southern Greece], pasture land of horses, called Ephyra, where Sisyphus once lived, who was the craftiest of all humankind. He was the son of Aeolus [god of winds], and he had a son named Glaukos, who was father to Bellerophon, whom heaven endowed with the most surpassing comeliness and beauty. But Proetus devised Bellerophon's ruin, and being more powerful, drove him from the district of the Argives, over which Zeus had made him ruler. For Antaea, wife of Proetus, lusted after Bellerophon, and she would have had him lie with her in secret; but Bellerophon was an honorable man and refused her, so she told lies about him to Proetus.
ĎProetus,í she said, Ďkill Bellerophon or let me die! He would have had conjoined with me against my will!í
The king was angered, but shrank from killing, so he sent Bellerophon to Lycia bearing baneful signs [sÍmata], written inside a covered tablet and containing much ill against the bearer. To have the man killed, he directed Bellerophon to show these signs to his father-in-law in Lycia. So Bellerophon set out, and the gods conveyed him safely.
 He reached the river Xanthos in Lycia. The king received him with all goodwill, feasted him nine days, and killed nine heifers in his honor, but when rosy-fingered morning appeared upon the tenth day, he questioned him and desired to see the written signs [sÍmata] from his son-in-law Proetus. When he had received the wicked written signs [sÍmata] he first commanded Bellerophon to kill that savage monster, the Chimaera, who was not a human being, but a goddess, for she had the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent, while her body was that of a goat, and she breathed forth flames of fire; but Bellerophon slew her, for he was guided by signs from heaven. He next fought the far-famed Solymoi, and this, he said, was the hardest of all his battles.  Thirdly, he killed the Amazons, women who were the peers of fighting men, and as he was returning from thence the king devised yet another plan for his destruction; he picked the bravest warriors in all Lycia, and placed them in ambush, but not a man ever came back, for Bellerophon killed every one of them.
Then the king knew that this must be the valiant offspring of a god, so he kept him in Lycia, gave him his daughter in marriage, and made him of equal honor in the kingdom with himself; and the Lycians gave him a piece of land, the best in all the country, fair with vineyards and tilled fields, to have and to hold.
7. The thunderbird and the whale. A huge earthquake along the Cascade fault measuring .9 on the Richter scale recently has been postulated as the cause of the giant tsunami that devastated the American northwest coast and that also struck Japan on January 26, 1700. Quilleute, Hoh and other native Americans tribes from Alaska to Oregon appear to have described this catastrophe in various stories of the thunderbird and whale.
Tens of millions of Americans continue to live in the Cascade disaster area today, despite the thunderbird warnings AND despite the new scientific explanation of the region's unstable geology. Ancient and modern stories say it is only a matter of time before Microsoft and the rest of Seattle is destroyed. That could be the end of our web course, folks! Is anybody paying attention to the stories old or new? If not, then what has happened to the classic power of literature to create like-mindedness?
Left: "totem pole" in Tongass National Forest, Alaska has nothing to do with totems but is instead an urgent warning. The thunderbird shakes the earth when it flaps its wings, and it carries whales deep into the woods. When you see this sign, you could be hit by a whale carcass falling from the sky even though you are far inland. So please pay attention!
8. Clay and Skin. On this page I've discussed a few aspects of clay and skin as writing materials. What writing materials are we using today, and how do they compare? Does it matter whether or not our literature will be read by anybody 3,000 years from now?
Left: memorial sculpture of the uneven battle between thunderbird and whale. University of Washington Department of Earth and Space Sciences. "Native American Legends of a Cascadia Megathrust Earthquake."