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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: Oriental Literature

By Frederick Augustus Vanderburgh (1847–1923)

THE PAST century has been favorable to the bringing forth of literatures that had become lost. Writings inscribed on stone, appearing as inscrutable enigmas, have been translated. Literatures of civilizations that had perished, hidden under the ground like precious metals, have been dug up and read. Such a literature is a revelation from a people that lived long ago. It tells us what they were and what they did; we learn their commercial habits, their laws, their mode of warfare, their religion and how they buried their dead, their poetry, their songs, their stories, and what they have done in art; we know how feeble was their organization, or how finely they were organized; we note the progress of their rise and decline.

Social organisms die, but their literatures live on. Literature in the broader sense includes all the composition produced by one people. Literature in the narrower sense means those writings that have artistic form, or are of an imaginative or emotional nature. Some peoples early invent a system of signs and commit their sayings to writing. Others carry their compositions in memory and hand them down orally from one generation to another, finally perhaps stealing a script from some other nation. Composition can only be called literature when it has been cast into written form.

The social unit in the early stage of human existence, consisting of a little group or clan, wandering about from place to place, without homes and more or less unclothed, living on wild fruits and herbs wherever such things could be found, doubtless had a very meager vocabulary of speech. Its members slept where they happened to be; perhaps they knew how to build a fire to warm themselves and cook a little game. They would not need many terms to express all their wants.

The subsequent tribal life was a little more complex. People dwell in tents. They remain in one locality for some time, raise a few crops, and keep flocks and herds. They grow into large tribes and have many internal commotions, to say nothing of the struggle of tribe with tribe. In this nomadic life there may be developed an abundance of unwritten speech, which later on may find expression in real literature of high merit.

Still later comes the life lived in villages and cities, the formation of the state, and the organization of states into a great nation. With the massing of wealth and the development of commercial, religious, and military needs comes the growth of literature of all kinds. This makes the real historical stage of human development, the literary stage. The Egyptian, the Arabic, the Assyro-Babylonian, the Persian, and the Indian literatures may not be the expression of so high a state of culture as that attained in Greece and Rome, yet they have been found to possess rare merit and beauty.


Egypt, the black land, “Kemet,” in distinction from the red land of the desert, beginning with the fan-shaped Delta at the Mediterranean, included the narrow strip of country watered by the Nile as far south as the First Cataract, fringed on either side by rocky ridges which extend on the east to the Arabian and on the west to the Libyan Desert. Although really in Africa, Egypt was sometimes reckoned as belonging to Asia, and we see how it may be said to be one of the oriental lands.

The country consisted of two parts, Lower Egypt in the north and Upper Egypt in the south; in fact, there were three parts, if we consider the northern section of Upper Egypt as Middle Egypt, which was once the case. The geographical division into Lower, Middle, and Upper Egypt is probably the basis of the political designations of Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom, each of which developed in its time as empire made its way towards the regions of the upper Nile.

Egypt had a national unity during a period of thirty-one dynasties, beginning about 3500 B.C. and ending at 30 B.C.; this schedule includes the Hellenistic period of dominion. About ten dynasties, as most historiographers look at it, belong to the Old Kingdom with Memphis as the capital. With the eleventh dynasty the Middle Kingdom gained a footing, which it held through seven or eight dynasties, from about 2000 to 1350 B.C., the government having passed to Thebes. With the eighteenth dynasty Egypt became a conquering nation, and the New Empire came into being, which continued on till the end of Egypt’s national life. It was during the period of the New Kingdom that Egypt became an empire; Thebes was the capital.

Old Egyptian. Each of the three kingdoms of Egypt had its own literary development. The literature of the Old Kingdom is written in hieroglyphics and is called Old Egyptian. The time of literary growth in the Old Kingdom was during the fifth and sixth dynasties. Then there followed a period of obscurity. The advance of literature in this bright period was connected with the building of pyramids, so the literature of the kingdom is called pyramid literature. Real pyramids began building in the third dynasty. The pyramid of Cheops, built in Gizeh in the region of Memphis in the fourth dynasty, though the greatest of pyramids, illustrates the chief features of this architectural type. This pyramid is still standing. Its present height is four hundred and fifty feet; it rests on a base seven hundred and fifty feet square. The granite of which it is composed was quarried in the hills twenty miles east of the Nile. The blocks are about three feet high, and each course of blocks forms a step, as one ascends towards the summit of the pyramid. Within the pyramid lies the broken red granite sarcophagus of Cheops. The theory of Lepsius was that the formation of a pyramid was like the growth of a tree. About the core, which consisted of chambers, there was built each year during the life of the king to whom the pyramid belonged, a layer of stones. A pyramid might have chambers for the mummies of the king and queen. In the fifth dynasty the nobles, having become powerful, had themselves buried in pyramidal tombs, and also went so far as to have the walls of the tombs sculptured with pictures of industrial life. In the sixth dynasty it became the custom to have religious hieroglyphic texts, often long inscriptions, inscribed on the inner chambers of the royal pyramids and biographical records written on the interior of the lesser tombs.

Middle Egyptian. The literature of the Middle Kingdom is called Middle Egyptian. The writing material was papyrus, the writing was cursive, and the characters were hieratic. The literature of this kingdom came from two classes, the kings of the twelfth dynasty and the princes of the thirteenth and fourteenth dynasties. The achievements of Usertesens III. in his policy of conquest in the south, and of Amenemhet III. in his internal improvements on behalf of agriculture, furnished some material for royal inscriptions. In the decline of the Old Kingdom and the addition of new territory on the south, social changes were radical. Powerful families outside of the royal line established themselves in local princedoms; each great prince maintained a court and an army resembling that of the king, but on a smaller scale. After the removal of the necropolis from Memphis, the practice of erecting memorial “stelæ” came into vogue, and monuments of untitled persons began to appear in great numbers. The rise of the princes in the land had also the effect of dividing the country into principalities and of dissipating the strength of the united kingdom, so that Egypt became an easy prey to the Hyksos who came in from the east and ruled the land for a hundred years. When the demand was made that the Egyptians should give up the worship of their gods and worship after the fashion of the Hyksos, a mighty king arose who swept the Hyksos from the land and the beginning of the New Kingdom was ushered in. Here we have the dividing line between the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom.

Neo-Egyptian. The literature of the New Kingdom is called Neo-Egyptian. The cursive writing has taken the so-called demotic form. In literature this period of the New Kingdom was the most productive of all the kingdoms. Some of the literature consisted of reproductions of older models. There was of course a lull in production for some time after the expulsion of the Hyksos, but a little later, the golden age of Egyptian literature arrived. This resulted in part from the riches brought into the country by the conquests in the east as well as in the south. Literary monuments arose over all parts of the land, but most care was taken of those in the neighborhood of Thebes. Thutmose III., who gained the final victory over the Hyksos, was the chief factor in bringing Egypt to the zenith of strength which it enjoyed in this period. An obelisk of Thutmose III. now stands in Central Park, New York City. Amenhotep III., who carried on friendly correspondence with kings and governors of western Asia by means of the Semitic Babylonian cuneiform mode of writing, also figured in this flourishing dynasty. In the after part of this prosperous period came the production of religious hymns, Egypt’s best religious literature, as the result of the reform instituted by the heretical King Amenhotep IV., who introduced the worship of the sun-disk with rays sculptured as ending in hands. After Rameses II., the greatest figure of the nineteenth dynasty, who fought the Hittites and gained the supremacy over Syria, Egypt began to decline. The centre of power moved from Thebes, and there followed what may be called the Deltaic dynasties and then the Ethiopian dynasty. Under the invasions of Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, step by step, Egypt went down.

Egyptian Writing. The Egyptian style of writing is truly picturesque. The oldest writings are pictures of sacred import carved on stone; hence the writing has been called hieroglyphic, from the Greek word “hieroglyph,” meaning “sacred carving.” The hieroglyphs are pictures of all kinds of objects and possess both ideographic and phonographic values: if ideographic, the ideogram might need the help of a determinative syllable or letter to show how it was to be pronounced; if phonographic, the phonogram might need the help of a determinative ideogram to show what the idea was; for example, a phonogram used as a verb of motion should be followed by a picture of a pair of legs. Ideograms, when their value is known, may be used as phonograms. Determinatives are not pronounced. The Egyptian employed more than a thousand characters; ordinary composition, however, used only about five hundred. Hieroglyphs were usually written to be read from right to left; sometimes, however, they were written to be read conversely. In any case, they are to be read from the side towards which the hieroglyph faces. Sometimes, the characters are written in a vertical line to be read from the top downwards. The hieroglyphic system is devoid of vowel representation; the vowel must be supplied by the reader; hence the unfortunate lack of uniformity among translators in the vocalization of Egyptian names. The Egyptian writing consisted not only of hieroglyphics carved on stone, but of a cursive handwriting with ink on prepared papyrus, made of sliced papyrus stalks, with the slices pasted together. They used both black and red ink. Cursive writings are divided into hieratic and demotic. The hieratic is an abbreviated form of the hieroglyphic; the characters are trimmed for swifter writing. This hieratic is the hand used by the priests. Its use begins in the Old Kingdom and extends well into the New Kingdom. The demotic is a popular abbreviation of the hieratic. The demotic signs have almost entirely lost their pictorial character. This is the common script, used most generally in the later period of the New Kingdom.

Modern reading of Egyptian began with the translation of the Rosetta Stone, discovered at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Greek parallel which the stone contained gave the key to the decipherment of the literature, which consists of religious writings, history, stories, and poetry.

Religious Writings. There is much religious literature. It begins with the endless texts inscribed in the pyramids of the Old Kingdom, is continued in the coffins of the Middle Kingdom, and culminates in the Book of the Dead of the New Kingdom, which is the conglomerate accretion of long ages, taken from the walls of temples and tombs and from the sarcophagi of the dead. Piety manifested itself in extraordinary care bestowed on the dead and objects considered divine, and was served by an hereditary priesthood, robed in white linen and with shaven heads, who besought the deity with magical formulæ, compelling the “favorable nod” for the gift of things desired. Magic, however, was chiefly employed in securing safe passage through the perils of the underworld. At death, the dead were judged by Osiris, the king of the dead, and, if condemned, devoured by demons; but if a man was justified, he was awarded to fields of more than earthly fruitfulness. Upon death, if duly buried, a man might become divine, but his divinity was identified with that of Osiris. There were, however, rare exceptions. In the case of Imhotep, the architect of Zoser, and Amenhotep, the son of Hap, separate personality was preserved and they were acknowledged as gods.

History. Historical texts are not numerous. They consist of brief accounts of individuals and of kings and are divided into two classes: lists of kings engraved on temple walls, and a royal papyrus giving the names of the kings and the lengths of their reigns.

Stories. It is in the writing of tales that the Egyptians excel all other oriental nations of antiquity. Most of these tales come from the period subsequent to the Hyksos invasion. They were written in simple prose. Speeches and letters are often injected as if intended for literary adornment. The older stories, said to be prose, appear to be poetic in form. While the language is antique, the style is artificial and grotesque. The Egyptian is certainly at his best in story-telling. The professional story-teller would seem to have been a familiar figure in ancient Memphis and in Thebes. Tales are apt to attach themselves to famous historical personages. For example, a collection from the Middle Kingdom introduces King Cheops, who is suffering from insomnia and calls upon his sons to entertain him with stories. The princes obey their father’s summons and narrate in turn tales of wonder wrought by famous magicians.

Poetry. Poetic writing is closely allied to tales. Specimens from the older periods are valuable as showing the origin of folk-song. In the more artistic productions of later times alliteration was frequently practiced and plays on words were carried to some length. The parallelism of members is frequent and sometimes quite artistic. The only epic poem that survives celebrates the victory of Rameses II. over the Hittites at Kadesh on the Orontes. It contains some spirited passages, though the long and lurid declamation in which the king boasts of his superhuman prowess is somewhat wearisome. The lyric poetry is more successful. There are many fine hymns and the few love songs are graceful and pleasing.

Reading Recommended. In the LIBRARY., Francis Llewellyn Griffith, the famous Egyptologist of Oxford, has given us the best collection of Egyptian literature that can be found. Writers on Egyptian literature seem to contradict each other in some points in a most perplexing way, and there are translations in use that should be taken with great reserve. What Mr. Griffith says on Egyptology or presents in translation, however, must be considered as perfectly trustworthy. His collection in the LIBRARY. consists chiefly of Egyptian tales and poems, such as hymns, songs, and proverbs. The stories he gives are very fascinating. The story is a form of Egyptian literature that may be said to correspond to the modern novel. Some of the Egyptian tales, however, are true stories.


The Arabic is an oriental, but not a very ancient literature, which existed during a period of about 700 years. No existing Arabic document can show an earlier date than that of 500 A.D., and the last feeble breath of Arabic literary life was smothered out when the Mongol ruler of Persia burned Bagdad and put the last Abbasid caliph to death in 1258. This literary demise occurred just after Ferdinand had burned the Umayyad library of Cordova in 1236.

The flower of Arabic literature is poetry, and the poetry of the Arabic literature is a beautiful flower, which budded in the desert of northern Arabia, in the atmosphere of the freedom of tribal life, in the pre-Islamic age. Writing was unknown. Literature was, therefore, oral and was handed down from mouth to mouth to a later day.

The first collector of pre-Islamic poems appears to have been Hammad-al-Rawia, a rhapsodist from the Umayyad dynasty of Syria, living in the early part of the eighth century A.D. He called his collection a ‘Mu ’allakât.’ Von Kremer described a ‘Mu ’allakât’ as being a “series of poems written down from oral dictation.” Perhaps a more literal designation would be that of A. Mueller, “pendents like pearls strung on a necklace.” Hammad’s ‘Mu ’allakât’ contained the poems of seven poets, of whom Imr-al-Kais, the grandson of one of the kings of Yemen that was slain early in the sixth century, seemed to be the greatest. Mohammed called him “their leader to hell-fire.” Other ‘Mu ’allakât’ of this period are those of Amr-ibn-kulthum and Harith-ibn-Halliza. Besides these ‘Mu ’allakât’ there were still other collections of the pre-Islamic poetry as well as single poems. Collections became abundant under the care of Moslem scholars in the early Abbasid period.

The person who recited poems was called a “rawi.” This function was distinct from that of being a poet. The reciter committed the poems of the poet to memory and handed them down to younger men. These reciters were the libraries of poetry till the age arrived for committing literature to writing. There were single reciters who held in the pages of their memories practically all the poetry composed in the pre-Islamic period. Some were able to recite a thousand or more poems at a sitting. This power to hold in mental solution the fine traditional literature of generations and the capacity of precipitation on occasion became a professional work by which these artists often earned a living and even carried on a lucrative business.

The ancient poet of the Arabs was held to be endowed with supernatural knowledge; he was a wizard in league with some spirit on whom he was dependent for magical power. He was called a “sha’ir.” The beginning of this conception is unknown. He was the oracle for the men of his tribe, their guide in peace and companion in war. To him they turned for counsel when seeking pastures new. At his word they would pitch their tent or strike it. He was the inspirer of their fountain songs, their love songs, and their war songs. In tribal feuds his magical rhymes were weapons as fatal as arrows. At a later period his satire gave place to the lampoon with which the poet reviled his foes and held them up to shame.

The oldest form of poetic speech among the Arabs was rhymed prose. It was composition having rhyme without metre; all the lines of the whole piece were expected to end with the same rhyme. The next step in the evolution of poetry was the formation of the “rajaz”; here the rhymed prose has taken on metre, and the composition then has both rhyme and measure. The metre used in the “rajaz” is an iambic of either four or six feet; other measures were also employed, even those that were quite complex. Rhyme and metre may have been resorted to in the beginning to aid the memory in reciting, although they seem to give additional charm to the composition. The finished form of Arabic poetry is the “kasida,” which continued to be the model even as long as Arabic literature was produced. The “kasida” is an ode, consisting of any number of verses between twenty-five and one hundred. The two halves of the first line end with a rhyme and the same rhyme is continued at the close of each line throughout the poem. The “kasida” is not necessarily an organic whole, but rather a series of pictures by the same hand.

The magnificent odes of the pre-Islamic days are the finished products of poetic art. Poetry must have been cultivated for long years, to have reached the high state of perfection attained by the bards of the Arabian desert. Their brilliant sayings expressed in forms of beauty must have been things of long growth. They are the products of a cultured race that emerged slowly from a cruder age. They imply generations of development anterior to the pre-Islamic age.

Arabic poetry might be employed incidentally in penciling the face of nature, in describing animal life, or in delineating human customs, but its great theme was character. The poet was interested in those qualities that work for good to humanity. The sentiment that made family ties most sacred had respect also for the bonds that held the tribe together. The same sentiment worked for national unity. The fundamental virtue to this end was honor. Bravery in battle, patience in misfortune, persistence in revenge, protection of the weak, and defiance of the strong were the traditional qualities held to be noblest and most utilitarian.

The advent of Islam in the life of the Arab had its effect upon Arabic literature, but the influence of the Arabic literature on Mohammed and his immediate followers was greater. Literary activity in accordance with former models was checked, but not smothered. The old poets did not lose their place in the hearts of the Arabs and in the literary field of the future. While Mohammed did not call himself a poet, the method of the Arabic poet was his. Over against the idea of being a wizard, he was sincerely convinced that he was a divinely inspired prophet. He made free use of rhyming; the Koran is for the most part rhymed prose. Besides, the “suras” usually consisted of separate units, following the “kasida” as a pattern. Again, the Koran was designed to be committed to memory and repeated by a reciter. This was actually done by his followers in their work of making converts, so much so that the caliphs reigning at Medina made little progress in literature outside of the religious field.

When the organization of Islam had attained stability, Arabic literary activity revived. Poets arose striving to follow in the footsteps of the ancients, but the urban environment of Damascus was not a soil from which so beautiful a flower could be produced as grew in the outdoor air of northern Arabia. The laureates of the imperial court could not equal the nomad minstrels of the desert. There was a growing disposition to slough off the conventionalism in which the rural poetry of the past was dressed, as unsuited to picturing the newer social conditions. The result was that the luxury of city life was productive of many love songs which were very popular and rather beautiful, while the clashing of different parties brought forth many satires. The strife of contending factions ended in the downfall of the Umayyad dynasty in Syria in 750 and the triumph of the Abbasids in Persia.

Three sorts of influence worked strongly in literature during the Abbasid period of five centuries. The religious spirit of the times found vent in reflective and didactic poetry. Not so elevated was the panegyric of the court poet, which degenerated into an ornate style of extravagant expression, due to the fact that the poet was so often dependent upon the capricious bounty of the caliph for livelihood in his art. Persian influence, on the other hand, was conducive to the raising of poetry to the high state of development realized by the poets of the pre-Islamic age. This poetry, however, did not exhibit the invigorating freedom and the inimitable freshness of the Bedouin songs. Persian blood brought into poetry depth and tenderness of feeling, elegance of diction, and a rich store of ideas. The people had come to be no longer Arabs, but Persians, who filled the court and ruled the land as Moslems.

It is rather singular that, as Arabic literature began to decline, literary composition went back to the rhymed prose, a form that Arabic literature assumed in the beginning of its growth. It was in the eleventh century that the ‘Makamat’ of Abu Mohammed al-Hariri was composed, which consisted of fifty pieces called “assemblies,” because the composition was supposed to be narrated in an assembly. In this series of most fascinating tales, one Abu Zeid is the chief character, who has been driven from a comfortable home to the exiled life of a wandering minstrel, because his native town had been plundered by the Greeks and his daughter made a captive. In dramatic and impromptu style, the hero with his wit and wisdom, the beauty and variety of his stories and discourses fails not to charm an assembly wherever he goes. In this romance is shown forth the richness and variety of the Arabic language.

The real life of Arabic literature was not seriously affected, but rather benefited by contact with the nationalism and Christianity of Spain. The amalgamation of the Aryan and the Semitic left its mark on literature for good. The rule of the Umayyad caliphs in Spain contemporaneous with that of the Abbasid caliphs in Persia was on the whole beneficent. Institutions of learning were encouraged and literature flourished. Although the centre of culture was within the court, the common people were also given the privilege of education. In the country, especially in Portugal, it is said that the man standing behind his plough could, if asked, recite verses on any subject demanded. Poetry was carefully cultivated and some new types of verse invented. There was in those days “verse beautiful as the bud when it opens to disclose the flower.” Many charming lyrical and descriptive pieces have been collected by anthologists.

Reading Recommended

  • Arabic Literature (R. Gottheil)
  • Arabian Nights (R. Gottheil)
  • Koran
  • The Koran (J. W. Draper)
  • Antar (550–615)
  • Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980–1037)
  • Solomon ibn Gabirol (Avicebron) (1021?–1058)
  • Averroës (1126–1198)
  • Babylonia

    That the gods of the Sumerians wore thick hair and long beards, like the Semitic people, is not proof to all minds that the occupancy of the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates by the Semites was prior to the coming of the Sumerians into the same land. The original home of the Sumerians seems also to be an unsolved problem. That they came from the hills on the east may be true; but we cannot trace them back into earlier homes. We are inclined to connect them with other peoples speaking an agglutinative speech; so we have felt safe in saying that it was from the Ural-Altaic highlands that the Sumerians migrated to the west into the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates in search of richer lands. Here they founded a civilization of high culture, developed a literature that is still extant, and handed out a script in which other races wrote their literatures. The Semites came from the Arabian desert on the west, the original source of all Semitic blood, and still the home of the purest Semites.

    When history first dawns upon the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, two races are fighting each other for the supremacy of the land, which was being divided up into city-states, some in the south occupied by the Sumerians, and others in the north by the Semites. For generations apparently the contest was equal; neither fighter seemed to be outclassed by the other. History was a record of the rise and fall of dynasties. At length, the southern part of what we may call Babylonia became known as Sumer and the northern part as Accad. Later on, it was evident that the Semite was the stronger man. The cities of the south fell before the rulers of the north. Sumerian civilization had lived its day. Finally, on the ruins of the smaller dynasties as a foundation was built the Babylonian empire; Babylon, the centre of wealth and culture, was the capital. Semitic blood after a time was polluted with the blood of invaders, such as the Cassites, pouring down into the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates from the hills on the east. Again, purer Semitic stock formed a centre of civilization farther up the valley of the Tigris; first, Asshur was the capital and later Nineveh. For centuries Assyrian kings ruled the whole of western Asia and made temporary conquests in Egypt. Then, the Assyrian civilization began to degenerate, and the hordes of Barbarians from the northeast threw the city of Nineveh into ruins. Babylon, with new infusion of Semitic blood, again arose, with greater glory than ever, as the capital of the Chaldean empire, but the time was approaching when the Semitic civilization in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates was to fall before the Aryan. The rise of Cyrus in the east meant the final doom of Babylon, so that, after a career of about 3,000 years, this great branch of the Semitic race, which had been resuscitated from time to time with new life from its original source in the west, utterly perished.

    The chronological literature of the Sumerian and Assyro-Babylonian civilization contains important and interesting material. Sumerian inscriptions tell us of dynasties existing before the time of Hammurapi, the dynasties of Opis and Kish, the reign of Lugalzaggisi, the dynasties of Agade and Erech and those of Ur and Isin. These dynasties cover a period of 775 years during which fifty-three kings ruled one after another. Whether these dynasties overlapped one another, or whether time unaccounted for elapsed between these dynasties we do not know. Outside of this line, city and dynastic rule, like that, for example, of Lagash and the dynasty of Larsa, existed at times. The above schedule, however, which may be expanded or contracted as new material shall be discovered, is the workable basis of the chronology for the first period of history in the Euphrates Valley. The Babylonian empire which came next after this line consisted of ten dynasties of about one hundred and ten kings including the dynasty of the Chaldean empire. Of the length of some of the dynasties there is considerable conjecture, especially in those times when the light of empire shone very dimly. But we may say that we have, counting the preceding line, practically a continuous historical line of Sumerian and Semitic rulers in Babylonia from about 3000 B.C. to 538 B.C. Assyrian history began a little before 2000 B.C. and is synchronous with Babylonian history which it overshadows. We get its early chronology from contemporaneous Babylonian writers and from what the later Assyrian kings say of their ancestors. The early Assyrian ruler was a “patesi,” a priest-king. But in time, the throne was seized by a purely secular king. Later Assyrian chronology was fixed with great exactness by the Eponym lists which give the name of an officer, like the Greek archon, for every year of Assyrian history from Tukulti-Ninib II. to Asshurbanipal. The king always assumed the office of archon during the year in which he was enthroned. Hence the chronological value of the Eponym list, since it is not difficult to fix the dates according to the calendar of the Christian era.

    The degree of culture achieved by the Babylonians and Assyrians is doubtless best shown by the literature produced in their elaborate temple services. The hymns were in Sumerian. Services were generally modeled on the ritual evolved at Nippur, the city of Enlil, who was the all-powerful deity in early Babylonian history. A slight redaction made the ritual suitable to the cult of any city. The hymns of the temple service were mostly lamentations, which grew out of local calamities. They were addressed to the divinity who was supposed to have decreed the calamity. Service was conducted by salaried temple singers who played on instruments in accompaniment. There were three kinds of instruments, the flute or “ershemma,” the lyre or “balaggu,” and the bagpipe or “mesima.” The flute was most used in the early period, before the longer services were developed. A service usually consisted of several tablets of which there might be as many as seven. How many series may have existed we do not know; we possess several however. ‘Like the sun arise’ or ‘Babbar-dim e-ta,” appears in a copy made by Asshurbanipal, as a lament over the devastation of Nippur; in part it is bilingual; some of the tablets were executed to bagpipe music. The series entitled ‘She whose city was destroyed,’ or ‘Urugulage,’ consists of six tablets, lamentations over Isin, addressed to the goddess Bau; in the last tablet sighing is accompanied by the lyre. ‘The bull to his sanctuary,’ or ‘Ama-baranara,’ is a great Nippurian temple service used mostly in Babylonian cities. Hymns of praise were also used in the liturgy. There are noble hymns in both the Sumerian and Assyro-Babylonian literatures. Those addressed to Enlil are perhaps the best, some of which have been translated and published by myself. Incantation literature was used almost entirely in private at the homes of the sick.

    The Creation Epic and the Gilgamesh Epic have been described in other articles of the LIBRARY, but there is still an important poem classified as epic, which has not been mentioned. The poem is Sumerian, a six-column tablet, seven and a half inches from top to bottom and five inches across. The upper part of the reverse is rather badly damaged. The tablet is from Nippur. The title of the poem, according to the colophon, is ‘Hymn of Praise.’ It was first translated by Dr. Stephen Langdon of Oxford University as a ‘Sumerian Epic of Paradise, the Flood, and the Fall of Man.’ It has since been discussed and translated by Professor J. Dyneley Prince of Columbia University under the title ‘The So-Called Epic of Paradise.’ It may be noted that there is some difference of opinion as to the real nature of the poem. According to the interpretation of the first writer, we have in the so-called epic, first, a flood which destroys the human race, a few pious persons only being saved, and secondly, the affliction of mankind with bodily weakness and disease for eating of the forbidden tree, which is virtually the fall of man. Paradise is placed on the isle of Dilmun, where there is no sin and man never grows old, the flocks are not disturbed by beasts of prey, and storms never rage. The ruler of the island is Enki with his consort Damkina, who plan the destruction of man by flood. For nine months the flood prevails, brought about by Nimtud, the consort of Enlil, the creator of the world. The Noah of this flood is Tagtug, who, with a few of his companions, escapes in a boat. Tagtug in his new environment becomes a gardener versed in the care of plants and fruit trees. But he eats of the tree which had been forbidden to him, he becomes afflicted with disease, and suffers the loss of long life. According to the second interpretation, the poem seems to be a ritual, adapted to the Enki-cult, rather than an epic. The purpose of the poem is to give honor to Enki, known in Semitic Babylonian as Ea, the god of the deep, for bringing sufficient rain upon the land after the long annual drought. The tablet is claimed to be clearly antiphonal. That the land described is meant to be pictured as a paradise and that the inundation is meant to be one of destruction for mankind cannot be maintained is the opinion of the interpreter. The gardener is introduced in the second part of the poem as an aid in the advance of irrigation and agriculture. The curse connected with the forbidden tree means that all transgressors lose the privilege of life after death. The glorification of Enki, built upon the calamity of the annual drought and wrought out in the changes of the different antiphonies, culminates in the acknowledged reverence of the gods who are near the close of the poem mentioned by name.

    In the British Museum there are two or three duplicates of the story of the Babylonian Deluge, which is narrated in the eleventh tablet of the Assyrian copy of the Gilgamesh Epic. In the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania there is also a duplicate of the second tablet of this Epic, recently translated by Dr. Stephen Langdon of Oxford University. In the Gilgamesh Epic the poet deals with the old pessimistic problem of the evil lot of mankind, treated in some form in the literature of almost every great civilization. In the early part of the Epic a story is given of the struggle between the oppressive ruler and the oppressed people. The scene is laid in the city of Erech, ruled according to the Semitic account by Nimrod. The king of the city in the Epic bears the Sumerian name Gilgamesh, formerly read as Izdubar. He assumes a mythological form, two thirds god and one third man. As a demi-god he placed superhuman burdens upon the people in the building of the city walls. They appeal to the gods for deliverance. A wild satyr is created to oppose Gilgamesh. The goddess Aruru washed her hands, took a piece of clay and spat upon it. Enkidu, in Semitic Eabani, a lofty hero, she created. But he was a barbarian of the fields; he was clothed with hair and ate grass like the gazelles. By the love of a woman, however, he was enticed to the city and induced to assume the rôle of a citizen in civilized society, where he met Gilgamesh. Except for the discovery of Dr. Langdon we should be in ignorance of the manner of the meeting between Enkidu and Gilgamesh, because of the fragmentary condition of the first five tablets of the Assyrian copy of the Epic, in which the story of their struggle may not have been told. Finally the contest came, as the new tablet shows. Enkidu and Gilgamesh met in the wide park; they grappled with each other, goring like oxen. The threshold they destroyed; the wall they demolished. Enkidu and Gilgamesh strove with each other that the land might have repose. After the battle they became friends as the Assyrian inscription tells us, and dedicated their arms to adventures related further on in the Epic.

    Reading Recommended. For more detailed discussion of the literature of the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Chaldeans the reader is referred to ‘Accadian-Babylonian and Assyrian Literature’ and ‘The Literature of the Euphrates Valley.’ Professor Toy, in his contribution, has reproduced in English somewhat at length a number of fine Babylonian and Assyrian selections.


    The Aryans are the people of the Indo-European race who for a period dwelt in central Asia, east of the Caspian Sea, and then became divided into two groups, one finding its way into India, and the other going to the southwest as Iranians and developing into the Medes and the Persians. The Persian empire, beginning with the triumph of Cyrus in 538 B.C. and ending with the eastern victories of Alexander the Great in 336 B.C., was doubtless the most extensive and exercised the most just and humane government known to the ancient world. The statement of Darius the Great in the Behistun inscription would indicate that he was a devout follower of Zoroaster: “On this account Ahuramazda brought me help, because I was not wicked, nor was I a liar, nor was I a tyrant, neither I nor my line; I ruled according to righteousness.”

    Zoroaster in his search for religion observed the struggle going on in life between good and evil. The good became to him a divine person whom he called Ahuramazda. The evil seemed to be a great spirit which he called Ahriman. It is said that in his travels as a preacher he succeeded in miraculously healing the king’s crippled horse. The king became a Zoroastrian convert and Zoroaster’s success seemed assured. The Avesta, containing the teachings of Zoroaster, is sometimes called the Zoroastrian “Bible.” It is claimed with some semblance of authority that the Avesta, consisting of twenty-one books, inscribed in gold letters upon 1,200 cowhides deposited in the library of Persepolis, was burned by the Greeks upon the fall of the Persian empire.

    Aside from the writing in which the religious literature had been copied, the Persians had an earlier writing in cuneiform script. With an alphabet of thirty-nine characters they wrote Persian. Clay tablets were used. Cuneiform Persian was also used in official documents, the most important of which is the record of the chief deeds of Darius the Great, engraven in an inscription of 1,000 lines on the face of the Behistun mountain rock which rises 1,700 feet above the plain on the road near Ecbatana. The Persian of this inscription is accompanied by a Babylonian and a Susian translation, each using the cuneiform character. As the use of cuneiform began to decline among the Persians they made use of the Aramaic speech, writing on papyrus with pen and ink, for the transaction of business, especially with reference to tax collection in the western provinces.

    From the period when Persia was under the rule of the Greek dynasty of Seleucidæ and that of the Parthian dynasty of Arsacidæ, 323 B.C. to 226 A.D., no Persian literature has been preserved. Zoroastrian religion maintained only a lingering existence. But upon the rise of the Sassanidæ, true Zoroastrian monarchs of Persian blood, the Zoroastrian religion was restored to its former glory and flourished until the crushing blow came in the Mohammedan conquest of 651 A.D. During this period came the production of the Pahlavi literature, which is about the same in amount as the Old Testament. Though the language is Persian, it presents a strange non-Iranian appearance. It is a curious admixture of Semitic and Iranian elements. Pahlavi when written is chiefly Semitic, but when read it was pronounced with Iranian words. The Pahlavi alphabet has only fourteen letters to discharge the duty of a complete alphabet. Owing to this paucity, a single sign has to assume a number of offices. While the symbols, on account of the elements that may be combined in the ligatures, are difficult to decipher, the language is comparatively simple and the meaning not obscure. The literature consists of about one hundred books. The chief monument in the literature is the Pahlavi version of the Avesta.

    The nature of the Zoroastrian teachings was quite unknown to the western world till about one hundred and fifty years ago. The first attempt, which was comparatively successful, to open the records of Zoroastrianism was made by Anquetil-Duperron in 1754. He went to India as a soldier, but was given liberty to carry out his purpose to obtain first hand from the Persian priests themselves a knowledge of their sacred books. He learned the modern Persian and induced the Parsee priests to impart to him the language of the sacred books and to let him have manuscripts and even to initiate him in some of the rites and ceremonies of the religion. He lived seven years among the Parsees, true Zoroastrian Persians who had escaped the persecutions of the Mohammedans, and returned to Europe in 1761. In 1771 he published his translation of the sacred books of the Parsees, the first to appear in a European language. To some scholars the work seemed in part to lack genuineness. This was due to the fact that the traditional teaching had lost some of its original meaning and become defective. At the present day, through the help of a Sanscrit translation of a portion of the Avesta and a more scientific study of the Pahlavi translation, scholars have reached a very clear idea of the contents of the Avesta.

    Reading Recommended

  • The Avesta (A. V. W. Jackson)
  • Firdawsī (c. 940–1020)
  • Omar Khayyám (1048–1131)
  • Nizami Ganjavi (1140/1–1202/3)
  • Sa’dī (c. 1213–1291)
  • Jalāl-ad-dīn Rūmī (1207–1273)
  • Hafez (c. 325–c. 389)
  • Jāmī (1414–1492)
  • India

    India, the central one of the three great peninsulas of southern Asia, has the shape of a triangle with its base resting upon the Himalayan Mountains and its apex projecting into the ocean. Into this land came the Aryans through the passes of the mountains from their earlier homes in the north. This fair-skinned people found a dark-skinned people occupying the land. Little by little the Dravidians were driven to the far south or absorbed, and the great plains of Hindustan came into possession of the Aryans, who dominated the history of India for many centuries.

    The literature of India comes to us in two parts, the Vedic and the Sanskrit. The Vedic and the Sanskrit hold about the same relation to each other that the poems of Homer hold to classical Greek. The Veda is earlier than the Sanskrit literature. Vedic composition was certainly going on as early as 1500 B.C. and the Sanskrit as early as 300 B.C., the Vedic and the Sanskrit periods overlapping each other somewhat. The Vedic is entirely a religious literature; the Sanskrit, secular. Neither literature represents the common people; the Vedic is priestly, and the Sanskrit also represents a small educated class. Brahmanism and Buddhism also stand related to each other as parent and child. Brahmanism is the religion of the Vedic period as developed by the priestly caste. In the decadence of Brahmanism, Buddhism sprang up from the teaching of one leader. Sanskrit reached its full development later on.

    The Veda is thoroughly poetic and, in spite of its primitive nature, exhibits marked refinement of thought. The subject matter consists of prayers to the gods by the priests, sacrificial formulas, charms for witchcraft, medicine manipulation, and philosophic and theosophic speculations; rules for the conduct of daily life are also given. At the base of the Vedic literature of more than one hundred books may be found four Vedas, which in later times were named, the ‘Rig-Veda,’ the ‘Yajur-Veda,’ the ‘Sama-Veda,’ and the ‘Atharva-Veda.’ The ‘Rig-Veda’ is the oldest and the most important of the Vedas. It contains stanzas of praise with blessings and cursings. More than a thousand hymns are arranged in ten books, the nucleus of the collection being the family books. Each book is the work of a single seer and his descendants. The hymns are for the most part priestly, rendered to the gods of the Vedic pantheon during sacrifice offered on fire. The ‘Yajur-Veda’ represents the growth of ritualism and sacerdotalism. The chief purpose is no longer devotion to the gods themselves; the sacrifice has become the centre of thought and its mystic power reckoned as a thing of final importance. The ‘Sama-Veda’ contains stanzas known as melodies in which the systems of accent in song stand out strongly. It may be characterized as a civilized rendering of savage Shamanism. The attempt seems to be made to change the natural order of things by shouts and exhortations. The ‘Atharva-Veda’ is popular rather than hieratic. In it we have a picture of the lower life of the Hindu, not simply as a devout adherent of the gods, but as a performer of pious practices including charms for various purposes.

    The Vedic literature is a revelation of the growth of the Brahman caste in the life of the Hindu. In the early Vedic age prior to the contact of the Aryan with the aborigines, social life was simple. Caste, however, is an Aryan growth. The fundamental element working to this end was that the father was the chief religious representative of the family. Already also there were growing up among the Aryans themselves distinctions marking three classes: first, the priests, or “Brahmans”; secondly, warriors, or “Rajanyas”; and thirdly, merchants and agriculturists, or “Yaisyas.” Next, race helped to make another class. The Sanskrit word for “caste” means color. The proud light-hued Aryans looked down upon the dark-skinned aborigines as a lower caste, called “Sudras,” so that finally there were four castes in Hindu society, springing respectively, as a later section of the ‘Rig-Veda’ puts it, from the mouth, the arms, the thighs, and the feet of Purasha. The priesthood was open to any one from the three classes of Ayrans, provided that he had become “twice born,” that is, brought to a teacher when a boy and initiated in the doctrines of the Veda and afterwards continuing to invoke the sun every morning and evening. The Brahman, by following a certain course might attain “beatitude.” From the time of initiation till marriage he should be a “religious student”; after marriage, a “householder”; when his skin became wrinkled and his hair gray, an “anchorite”; and when all earthly passions were subdued, a “religious mendicant.”

    Buddhism is supposed to have been founded by a prince of the name of Siddhartha, who by meditation discovered a religion that would deliver mankind from its miseries. By study he came to the conclusion that the doctrines of Brahmanism were unsatisfactory. He set about by abstraction to solve his problem. For weeks he sat plunged in thought “If we were not born, we should not be subject to old age, misery, and death; therefore the cause of these evils is birth. But whence comes birth and continued existence?” His ultimate conclusion was that ignorance was the real cause of existence; therefore with the removal of ignorance, the anxieties and miseries of life would be eliminated. In his own experience by successive stages of contemplation he reached the state of the perfect wisdom of Buddha, the “wise,” a word which in Sanskrit comes from “budh” to know. The tree under which he sat when he attained this wisdom was called the “bo tree.” After a while he began preaching this salvation to others. The sovereign of Magdha, whose dynasty continued long to patronize the new faith, was one of the early converts. For forty-four years he preached his gospel in northern India, making many converts.

    The study of Sanskrit has thrown much light upon the course of civilization among the different peoples of the Indo-European race. Its literature is divided into epic, lyric, and dramatic. Yet each form has a decidedly lyric cast. Throughout we find the same poetic endowment, ornate figures of speech, luxuriant richness of coloring carried over into literary composition from the gorgeousness of nature’s surroundings, and also the subtle miniature delineation of every sensation and emotion in human experience. This literature is very important, but a detailed discussion cannot be undertaken here.

    Reading Recommended

  • Indian Literature (E. W. Hopkins)
  • The Vedas and Their Theology (J. W. Draper)
  • Vishnu Sharma (Pilpay) (c. 1000 B.C.?)
  • Indian Epigrams
  • Kālidāsa (c. 4th Century)
  • Jayadeva (c. Twelfth Century)
  • Babur (1483–1530)
  • Toru Dutt (1856–1877)
  • China

    Confucius is a great character in the literature of China. He gathered up national traditions and gave to them literary form, laying emphasis on the material side of life and at the same time putting the spiritual in the shade. For example, ambition was represented as an unworthy incentive. Such teaching had a tendency to break down the main spring to progress. The advancement of civilization has been blocked and China has long been behind the rest of the world in any forward movement.

    Chu Hi, the modern apostle of Confucius, 1130–1200 A.D., has long been considered a standard authority on orthodoxy and education in China. He expounded the doctrines of Confucius as a philosophical system rather than as a ritual and manual of ethics. His exposition treats of the nature of man, the origin of good and evil, and the principle of creation. Near the close of the Ming dynasty Chinese scholars began to feel that Chu Hi’s system was too narrow to hold all the truth. His system, however, even in this twentieth century still holds its own, yet rather precariously in the face of the assaults of the most modern radical reformers, who have been sovereign advisers. The Manchu conquest stimulated criticism on the existing system. Contact with occidental science and speculation has also incited a desire for reform which has been checked somewhat by the Boxer uprisings.

    For an extended exposition relating to this subject, the reader is referred to the article by Robert K. Douglas on the ‘Literature of China.’ For purposes of comparison, he is also referred to the article on ‘Japanese Literature.’