History of  Literature





The Beginnings of Literature. Myths and Legends

Classical Myth

Myth and Mystery


Hebrew literature

Ancient Greek literature

Ancient Greek literature. Greek theatre

Ancient Greek literature. Philosophical prose

Latin (Roman) literature

Latin (Roman) Literature. The Silver Age

Latin (Roman) Literature. Renaissance

Modern Italian Literature

The Middle Ages Literature

The Middle Ages. Elizabethan England

The Restoration

The Rise of the Novel

Cervantes and Spanish literature

The Enlightenment


Classicism and Naturalism

The 19th century - Prose

The 20th century - Modernism

The 20th century - The Political Novel

The Beginnings of Literature


The Beginnings of Literature

Egyptian Myth
The Creation - Osiris, Isis and Horus - Re, the Sun God

"Book of the Dead" (PART I, PART II)

"The Epic of Gilgamesh"  (PART I, PART II)

Legends of Quetzalcoatl

The Hero Twins

The Beginnings of Literature


Most of the many forms of literature characteristic of Western civilization would have been familiar to a citizen of Athens in the 5th century B.C. Although only a small proportion of the writings of the ancient Greeks has survived, it is mostly of the highest quality, and you do not have to be a classical scholar to read it with pleasure although, for most of us nowadays, that means in translation. Until recently most Western literature was written by people who were familiar with the works of the Greeks and could safely assume that their readers were too. Ignorance of the classical (i.e. Greek and Roman) tradition, and of the mythology that forms the subject matter of most Greek poetry and drama, not only leads to missing out on a great experience, but also raises problems in understanding the allusions of writers active over 2,000 years later.


A form of writing called 'cuneiform', with symbols representing objects and concepts, developed in Ancient Mesopotamia (roughly, modern Iraq) about 3100 B.C. Cuneiform means 'wedge-shaped', so called because such symbols were easy to make on the clay tablets that served as paper. Writing was at first used for things like grocery lists — how much corn in the barn, etc.

The earliest surviving epic, Gilgamesh
 ("The Epic of Gilgamesh"), which tells of the adventures of a kind of super-hero, was first written down in cuneiform script about 1,000 years later.

Meanwhile the Egyptian  (
Egyptian Myth, "Book of the Dead")    had invented a better material than clay tablets for writing, made from pressed sheets of papyrus reed.

Their hieroglyphic script, like Chinese  (The Ten Suns of Heaven,
The Eight Immortals, E. T. C. Werner "Myths and Legends of China"), developed from picture-symbols. By about 2000 B.C. they were writing text books, poems and even stories.

A full writing system requires an alphabet, providing a sign for every sound in the language. Along with other eastern Mediterranean people, including the
Arabs and the Hebrews (Old Testament), the Phoenicians had a syllabic system before 1000 B.C., with signs for the different syllables, and the alphabet followed on from that.

The Greeks (Greek and Roman mythology)   borrowed this system and made the final step of dividing consonants from vowels and writing each one separately, thus inventing the modern alphabet. All alphabets were derived from theirs.


Myths and Legends


Once a civilization has become established, the myths that formed it may dwindle into superstition or entertainment, but even so, they never lose their intrinsic power. For the world's mythologies enshrine all the poetry and passion of which the human mind is capable. From ancient Egypt to Greece and Rome, from West Africa to Siberia, from the Hindu concept of Brahman and the endless cycle of creation to the eternal Dreaming of the Australian Aboriginals, the same themes recur, as humankind engages with the great mysteries of life and death. The best definition of myth is Maya Deren's in her book on the Voodoo gods: "Myth," she writes, "is the facts of the mind made manifest in the fiction of matter."


The First People

This West African carving shows the world in the form of a calabash, with the first man and woman and the cosmic serpent. The Fon call this serpent Aido-Hwedo, and he carried the creator in his mouth when the world was made. Aido-Hwedo is said to have accompanied the first man and woman to earth.


What is Myth?

The word myth derives from the Greek mythos, signifying "word" or "story". A myth has different meanings for the believer, the anthropologist, the folklorist, the psychologist, the literary critic. That is one of myth's functions - to celebrate ambiguity and contradiction. There is no more point expecting a myth to offer a single, clear, consistent message than there is in trying to turn one of Shakespeare's sonnets into plain prose. Like poetry, mythology offers a way of understanding the world through metaphor. Stories adapt and change according to the teller and the context; myths are not fixed and dogmatic but fluid and interpretive.


The Eternal Wheel of Time

This Aztec calendar stone, found beneath the central plaza of Mexico City, is a wheel of time commemorating the five world creations, of which the latest is the current world. The fifth sun, Nahui Ollin, was made by the gods at Teotihuacan (just north of modern Mexico City), which was also the birthplace of the gods themselves. The stone is not a fully-functioning calendar; the complex Aztec calendar was based on a 52-year cycle known as the calendar round, which reconciled the concurrent 260-day and 365-day years.


Legends of Quetzalcoatl
The Hero Twins

Myth and Time

Many mythologies start before the dawn of time, with the coming into consciousness of a creator god, such as the Egyptian Re. Re himself is described as the awareness of an all-encompassing divine being, Nebertcher, the lord without limit.

Mythological time, unlike clock time, is cyclical rather than linear. It presupposes what the writer Mircea Eliade called "the myth of the eternal return". It is set going by a particular event -in Egypt, the call of the Benu bird as it alighted upon the first land. It will come to an end eventually, and the cycle of creation will begin again.

The mythology of the Aztec and Maya, and of Native American nations such as the Navajo, describes this world as being the fifth one. For the Navajo, the first four worlds were beneath this one, from which humanity climbed up in the myth of the emergence. For the Aztec, four suns had shone on previous creations before this, the world of the sun Nahui Ollin, which is blown across the sky by the breath of the god Quetzalcoatl.

The Maya believed that this current cycle of creation began on August 13, 3114 ВС. Although they projected events forward until at least AD 4772, they did not think it would continue forever. Their sacred book, the Chilam Balam, tells us: "All moons, all years, all days, all winds, reach their completion and pass away. So does all blood reach its place of quiet, as it reaches its power and its throne. Measured was the time in which they could praise the splendour of the Trinity. Measured was the time in which they could know the sun's benevolence. Measured was the time in which the grid of the stars would look down upon them; and through it, keeping-watch over their safety, the gods trapped within the stars would contemplate them."

Even the dualistic philosophy of Zoroastrianism, with its opposing gods of good and evil, Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, was set in motion when the god of eternal time, Zurvan, gave birth to the twin gods.
Our notion of time, the limited time of creation, is merely a trick of Ahura Mazda's to limit the power of Ahriman. At the end of time, all will be purified, and - as in Norse mythology - a fresh, new creation will arise.


Noah and the Flood

Noah's ark rides the flood after the biblical deluge, in a wood-engraving from the Nuremberg Bible of 1483. God decided to destroy humanity because of its wickedness, but warned the pious Noah of the coming flood, and told him to build the ark and take on board two of every living creature. After the ark had grounded on Mount Ararat, God sent the rainbow as a symbol of his covenant never again to destroy the creatures he had made. Noah lived to be 950 years old.

The Flood


Just as many mythologies look forward to the destruction of this world in a catastrophe, such as the Norse cataclysm called Ragnarok, so many record a time, within this creation, when the gods grew angry with humankind, and attempted to destroy them with a flood. The biblical story of the delude is one of many such accounts, and owes much to the Sumerian/Babylonian account in the "The Epic of Gilgamesh", in which the Noah figure is named Utnapishtim.


"The Epic of Gilgamesh"  (PART I, PART II)

The ancient Greeks told how Zeus tried to destroy mankind with a flood, but Prometheus warned Deucalion and Pyrrha. Manu was saved from the Hindu deluge Vishnu in the form his fish avatar, Matsya. Flood myths can be found in Peru and in China, among the Australian Aboriginals and in many Native American cultures, including the Mandan myth of Lone Man. Even in the 19th century, folklorists could still collect in Serbia a cycle of Slavonic-myths about the great flood from which the sole survivor Kranyatz was preserved by the trickster god of wine, Kurent.


Vishnu the Preserver

Vishnu and his wife Lakshmi (or Shri) are shown riding on their mount, the celestial bird Garuda. Vishnu, the wide-strider", measured out the cosmos in three strides. He is regarded as the protector of the world, and because of his compassion for humankind, descends to earth in various avatar forms, such as Prince Rama, to fight evil. Whenever Vishnu is incarnated, so is Lakshmi, to be his bride. Here, Garuda is taking the loving couple to their own heaven, Vaikuntha.


The Churning of the Ocean
The Avatars of Vishnu
Shiva and His Family
Rama and Sita
"Hymns of the Samaveda"
The Ramayan of Valmiki 
Illustrations by Raja Ravi Varma

The Creator

One thing that all mythologies agree on is that the world was created by the deliberate act of a divine being, and that men and women were created especially to live in it.

In the Mandan creation myth, First Creator and Lone Man send a mud hen down to fetch sand from the bottom of the primeval flood, in order to make the land. The Ainu of Japan tell how the creator Kamui sent a water wagtail down from heaven to accomplish the same task. According to the Yoruba people in West Africa, the world was made when Obatala, the son of the great sky god Olorun, threw earth from a snail shell, and got a pigeon and a hen to scatter it. The supreme gods of Africa tend, like Olorun, to withdraw from their creation leaving the main work to their successors. In the original myth preserved by the priests of the Fon skycult, it is the androgynous deity Nana-Buluku who creates the world, and then gives it into the keeping of his children Mawu and Lisa; but Nana-Buluku is now almost forgotten, and the work of creation credited to Mawu.

The Ashanti tell how the supreme god Onyankopon (or 'Nyame) used to live near men, but moved to the top of the sky because he was constantly annoyed by an old woman who used to knock him with her pestle as she pounded yams in her mortar. When the old woman realized what had happened, she told all her children to gather mortars and pile them on top of the other. At last they had a pile that nearly reached to Onyankopon. They only needed one more mortar. So the old woman told them to take the mortar from the bottom, and put it on the top. When they did so, the whole pile collapsed,
killing them all. So the lesser gods, the abosom, act as intermediaries between the sky god and humanity.

Often, as with the Yoruba god of fate, Eshu, such intermediaries may be tricksters who introduce an element of chance, play, and humour into humanity's relationship with the gods. Obatala, the creator, is hymned by the Yoruba as the father of laughter, who rests in the sky "like a swarm of bees". The Mandans believe that First Creator actually turned into the trickster god Coyote. Such tricksters, whose mischief may lead them into wickedness, are found throughout mythology, from the Greek Dionysus to the Norse Loki to the Japanese Susano.

But another theme is the Creator's care for the beings he has made. It is this care that leads Vishnu, the Hindu preserver of the world, to take on his many avatar forms in order to help humanity in times of crisis. His final avatar, Kalkin, the white horse, will appear at the end of this era, to usher in a new age.

Neolithic Mother Goddess

The Venus of Willendorf, a stone figurine of a fertility goddess found at Willendorf in Austria, dates from the neolithic period. The breasts and belly are deliberately exaggerated in this representation of the great mother goddess.



The Great Mother

Creator gods tend to be male, but much of the work of creation may be delegated to a goddess. Fоr example, among the Keres of the American Southwest, Utsiti, the creator god, who made the world from a clot of his own blood, sent his daughter Iatiku with her sister to make the earth fruitful. latiku sends her son to lead the people up into this world, and then Iatiku and her sister sing a creation song, all the while casting seeds and images of their song out of a basket given them by Spider Woman. We still talk of "mother earth". Native Americans consider this as a fact. Smohalla, the Wanapam founder of the Dreamer religion in the mid-19th century, said:

"You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my mother's hair?"

An Anglo-Saxon charm beseeches the favour of "Erce, Erce, Erce, Mother of Earth" with similar fervour. Yet, despite the obvious connection between agricultural and human fertility, the earth is not always female. The Egyptians, for example, worshipped Geb as god of the earth, and his sister-bride Nut as the goddess of the sky.

Nowhere has worship of the eternal female been so strong as in India, where various goddesses are worshipped under the enveloping spell of Mahadevi, the great goddess. Devi is the consort of the god Shiva, and is worshipped as benign Parvati or Uma or as ferocious and vengeful Durga or Kali. Sankara wrote of her in the 9th century, "Your hands hold delight and pain. The shadow of death and the elixir of immortal life are yours."

The combination of "delight and pain" is not confined to India. The great goddess of ancient Mesopotamia, variously called Ishtar and Inanna, also combined the roles of goddess of love and goddess of war. These dual aspects are explored in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which she first desires Gilgamesh and then, when he rejects her, exacts a terrible revenge.

The Egyptian Isis became absorbed into Roman myth, and it is she who speaks, with the unmistakable voice of the great goddess, to Lucius, the hero of Apuleius' novel The Golden Ass, when he is initiated into her cult: "I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are."


Nut, the Egyptian All-Mother

The Egyptian sky goddess Nut arches over the earth in this ancient tomb painting. She is about to swallow the evening sun, which is shown again on her upper arm as it starts its night journey. Nut became regarded as the mother of all, for even the sun god Re entered her mouth each night to travel through her body and be reborn next morning. A figure of Nut inside Egyptian coffin lids promised the same nurture and rebirth for the souls of the dead.


Egyptian Myth

"Book of the Dead"

Holding the World Together

In the Mysteries of Eleusis in ancient Greece, the great goddess formed the central focus of Greek religion. These rituals, open only to the initiated, related to the myth of the corn goddess Demeter, and her daughter Persephone, the ineffable maiden. Those who witnessed the rites were assured of a new birth in death. The Mysteries were thought by the Greeks to "hold the entire human race together".

Such a belief illustrates the crucial importance of myth in holding the world together, just as the cosmic serpent coils securely around the earth in the Fon creation story. Australian Aborginal stories about the Dreamtime, such as the Gunwinggu story of Lumaluma, are not just entertainments or nursery tales -they are sacred charters for existence. To understand them fully one must enter eternal time. Similarly the myths underlying Navajo rituals such as Mountainway, and its sandpaintings of the Holy People, define and express what it means to be Navajo. At the end of such a ritual, "The world before me is restored in beauty." When Jasper Blowsnake revealed the sacred Winnebago Medicine Rite to anthropologist Paul Radin (published under the title The Road of Life and Death), he was unveiling a mystery as great and as secret as that of Eleusis. "Never tell anyone about this Rite," ran the ritual. "Keep it absolutely secret. If you disclose it the world will come to an end. We will all die." The absolute secrecy required of initiates into the Mysteries of Eleusis was so strictly kept that we are left to guess from fragments of evidence both what the rituals were and what they meant.




Triptolemus, Culture Hero

Triptolemus, who taught mankind how to use the plough, stands between the two goddesses of the Eleusinian Mysteries, Demeter, and Persephone. Demeter is handing him a golden ear of grain (now lost). This marble relief of the second half of the fifth century ВС was found at Eleusis, probably in the temple of Triptolemus.

The Hero Heracles

This Greek vase shows Heracles killing the Stymphalian Birds, the sixth of his 12 labours in which he killed or captured several ogres and monsters. Before performing the last of his labours Heracles had to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. On his death, he ascended to Olympus to live with the gods.


Greek and Roman mythology

Berens E.M. "Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome"  (PART I-VIII)
Hamilton Edith. "Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes"

Culture Heroes

One of those fragments is the moment in the Demeter myth when, having taken a position in a royal household while searching for her daughter, the goddess places the royal prince, her charge, into a divine fire to burn away his mortal parts and give him eternal life, but is interrupted before she can complete the ritual. The same incident occurs in Egyptian mythology, when the goddess Isis becomes nursemaid to a prince while searching for her husband, Osiris. In the Egyptian story the prince dies, but in the Greek, the boy, Triptolemus, became a benefactor of humankind -a culture hero - when Demeter gave him corn, a plough, and the knowledge of agriculture to teach to humankind. Triptolemus had his own cult and temple at Eleusis.

The role of the gods in giving the gift of knowledge to humankind is found in every mythology. Greek Prometheus, Aboriginal Ancestors, Mandan Lone Man, Aztec Quetzalcoatl, Polynesian Maui - all are revered for teaching us how to live in the world.

Alongside such figures stand the heroes who teach us by their example - their bravery, virtues, persistence and, sometimes, their flaws. The exploits of the Greek heroes such as Heracles and Theseus, who are half-human, half-divine offer a pattern after which the wholly human can model themselves. The Indian story of Rama, still inspires the devotion of all Hindus, and his story has even been adopted as the national epic of Buddhist Thailand.

The Celtic hero King Arthur is the centre of similar legends, in which Celtic myth and the aspirations of medieval Christendom meet.

Taoist myths of the Eight Immortals show how human beings can aspire to the divine. In their search for perfection, the Immortals earn not long life on earth, in linear time, but everlasting life in heaven, in eternal time.


Hermod Descends to the Underworld

This 18th-century manuscript illustration shows Hermod, the son of Odin, descending to the underworld on Odin's eight-legged steed Sleipnir to try to rescue his brother Balder, who had been slain through the treachery of the god Loki. Hel agreed to let Balder go if all the world wept for him; but Loki refused. As a result, the gods hunted Loki down and tied him up in torment - but at Ragnarok, Loki will break loose, and lead the hordes of the dead to war in a ship made from dead men's nails.


Sir Thomas Malory  "King Arthur and of his Noble Knights"
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
Knowles James  "The Legends of King Arthur"  PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV
Illustrations by Lancelot Speed


Death and the Underworld

For most of humanity, the moment when linear time stops is at death. All mythologies hold out the hope that was so dear to the initiates of Eleusis, that there may be a new life beyond this one. The Egyptians hoped to be reborn to live a new life in the Field of Reeds, which was a perfected version of the Egypt they knew. They were sustained in this belief hy the daily rebirth of Re, the sun. The Vikings believed that warriors who died in battle would feast in the golden-roofed hall of Valhalla among the gods, before fighting for Odin, the lord of hosts, in the final battle of Ragnarok.

The Roman poet Virgil tells us how the hero Aeneas found his father Anchises in the fields of Elysium in the underworld. But when he tried to embrace him, he was as insubstantial as air. When he then saw souls flocking to drink the water of oblivion to forget their former lives, and be born again, he asked Anchises what was happening. Anchises explained that in the beginning the world was pure spirit, but we become bound to life by love and fear. Only a few are able to rest quiet in the afterlife, waiting for the circle of time to be completed, when they will become pure spirit once more. Most people hunger for the world again.
The Guarayu Indians of Bolivia tell of the soul's quest after death, when it is faced with the choice of two paths to reach Tamoi, the Grandfather, who lives in the west. One is wide and easy, the other narrow and dangerous. The soul must choose the hard path and overcome many trials before reaching its destination and being welcomed and refreshed. Once washed in Grandfather's restoring bath, the soul will be young once more, and able to laugh, hunt, live, and love once again in the land of the west.

Myths tell not only of what happens after death, but of how death arrived in the world - according to the Zulus, it was all a mistake. The Great One sent the Chameleon, Unwabu, to tell people they would live forever, but he lingered, and was passed by Intulo the Lizard, with the message that all people must die. There are also stories of heroes who tried to conquer death - Maui, Gilgamesh, the Mayan hero twins.

In his search for the secret of everlasting life, the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh crosses the ocean of death in search of Utnapishtim, the sole survivor of the great flood. But Utnapishtim tells him: "There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep for ever, does the flood-time of rivers endure? It is only the nymph of the dragon-fly who sheds her larva and sees the sun in his glory. From the days of old there is no permanence."

Utnapishtim's lesson is repeated in a haunting little Aztec poem, addressed perhaps to the lord of life Quetzalcoatl, who descended to the underworld to restore humanity to life:

"Can it be true that one lives on earth?
Not forever on earth; only a little while here.
Be it jade, it shatters.
Be it gold, it breaks.
Be it a quetzal feather, it tears apart."

In a world where the only certainty is uncertainty, the great myths offer us wisdom and comfort to prepare us for our own journey to the Grandfather, into the hands of the unknown god.

Neil Philip


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