the global issue
Invention of the literary term "Weltliteratur" is credited to Dr. Goës’ kinsman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832 CE). A prolific writer always hunting new inspirations, Herr Goethe read widely, borrowed from sources composed in a variety of languages, and argued that great literature transcends the local culture in which it happens to be written. Left: Goethe image by J.H.W. Tischbein in Gero von Willpert, Deutsche Literatur in Bildern (Stuttgart: Kroener, 1965).
World literature courses usually are based on this notion that there are some Great Books which should be appreciated by diverse readers across all distances of time and space. However, today’s multicultural World Lit textbooks, however, are more than 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! Huge as these titans are, stuffed with diverse specimens, their content is still far from a statistically significant sample of all of the world's thousands of literatures. Lower right: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel (c. 1563), Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
Dr. Goës does not claim to complete the Tower of Babel. Instead, his inquiry focuses on the most globally significant issue in literary studies: How does literature impact the world? This question is challenge enough for one semester. Some answers will occur to Goës in these notebooks, but all readers must draw their own conclusions.
24 June 2007
1. WORLD LIT
two ancient stories of creation:
the Babylonian Genesis ("Enuma Elish") and Hesiod's Theogony ("Generations of the Gods")
Is the pen mightier of the sword? This much is obvious: texts can and do change minds. For good or ill, literature promotes like-mindedness, or imprinting of common neural memory on receptive brains. As one neuroscientist puts it, "The brain’s structure becomes the information it receives" (John J. Ratley, A User's Guide to the Brain (New York: Random House, 2001) 54). Artificial shared memory is especially impressive through repeated reading or repeated hearing a fixed text, such as a hymn or creed or ad jingle. The collective neural imprint can grow strong enough to express itself in the world as a culture, and compete with other cultures in the world for further minds, as in wars between Jews and Christians, Buddhists and Confucians, Hindus and Muslims, Platonists and Aristotelians, Newtonians and Darwinians, Coke and Pepsi promoters. (There are battles of sectarian interpretation within all cultures, too, but that’s a complication to ponder later.)
The cultivation of artificial memory (aka legend, myth) is obvious in early creation stories like the Babylonian Enuma Elish and Hesiod’s Greek Theogony. They describe physical worlds controlled by gods, and they praise those gods to control worshippers, if not nature itself. Below: US Army forces south of Baghdad, Iraq, in a place anciently known as Ur of the Chaldees in Babylon. Do the troops know where they are? They have entered the ziggurat, where priests went up to pray to Marduk and other gods on behalf of the people. Alas, Marduk, the soldiers are more respectful of mosques. © 2005 U.S. Army
Early writing from Babylon: Enuma Elish
It must have dawned early that literature is useful to control populations. We see this use of writing as far back as Hammurabi's Law Code (cir. 1792-1750 BCE) from the City of Babylon in Mesopotamia (Iraq, home of Marduk in the neo-Babylonian creation story). Hammurabi’s code imprints threatened punishments in Babylonian brains in order to promote, among other desired social outcomes, that aristocrats have business advantages over the lower classes, slaves are denied freedom, women are restrained from extramarital sex, and farmers properly damned are protected from floods.
Hammurabi's code was inscribed in cuneiform, the world's earliest surviving form of literature (letter writing as opposed to picture writing). Perhaps invented by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia by about 3400 BCE, cuneiform was stamped with a wedge (“cuneus”) in wet clay bricks, then exposed to the sun god who baked them. Resulting law tablets thus were god-made and full of light, yet also heavy and quite breakable, as Moses demonstrates with the first ten commandments (see Exodus 24:12 ff. in the Hebrew Bible). Upper right (colorized): a relief from an ancient pillar is thought to show Hammurabi receiving the law from the supreme brick baker, Shamash.
Cuneiform writing continued in use from maybe 3400 BCE until about 100 CE, but alphabetic writing was used at the same time. Image left from eighth century BCE: one scribe uses a cuneus and clay tablet while the other scribe uses a pen on papyrus. As a rule, cuneiform holds up well in a desert, but when any water goddess takes hold of it, she melts the letters away into a chaotic primal ooze, and their impressive power vanishes. If cuneiform writing existed in wet parts of the ancient world, we would have no cuneiform evidence about it today. Given earth's variable climate, no one can prove that the Sumarians or other Mesopotamians invented writing or this form of writing, as history texts today so regularly claim. All we know at present is that the planet's oldest literature that has been preserved appears on Mesopotamian cuneiforms.
Because our evidence of the ancient world is so fragmentary, we seldom can say for certain when or where or by whom any surviving text was composed. The neo-Babylonian creation story known as Enuma Elish came to light in the 19th century when archaeologists dug up the palace library of Ashurbanipal, an apparently literate Assyrian king of the 7th Century BCE, but how much earlier than Ashurbanipal and where and by whom was Enuma Elish composed? There is little evidence, but historians often 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. Right: Ashurbanipal of Assyria (668-626 BCE) upholding the universe or working on the construction of the temple of Esagila in Babylon? This king collected some 22,000 cuneiform texts in his palace. Figure from the British Museum.
A few scholars, however, suggest that the story is very much older, that the generations of the gods in Enuma Elish actually represent the precession of the equinoxes, the 26,000-year cycle of earth's unnerving slow wobble on its axis. According to this theory, as one constellation gradually drives out another in this slow heavenly cycle of precession, so gods succeed other gods in various ancient literatures describing the skies.
Prior to 6480 BCE (spring equinox in our Cancer):
Babylonian god: Apsu/Tiamat
Greek god (from Hesiod): Chaos
Phoenician/Canaanite god: Eliun
Prior to 4320 BCE (spring equinox in our Gemini)
Babylonian god: Anshar/Kishar and then Anu
Greek god (Hesiod): Uranos/Gaia
Phoenician/Canaanite god: Sky/Earth
Prior to 2160 BCE (spring equinox in our Taurus)
Babylonian god: Ea (Enki),
Greek god (Hesiod): Kronos
Phoenician/Canaanite god: El
Hebrew god: Elohim
After 2160 to end of BCE's (spring equinox in our Aries)
Babylonian god: Enlil, Neo-Babylonian Marduk
Greek god (Hesiod): Zeus
Phoenician/Canaanite god: Baal
Hebrew god: Yahweh
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. In order to observe the precession, hundreds of generations of astronomers may have recorded the movement of the stars. Of course, the earliest observations need not have taken place by 6480 BCE, if later observers learned how to calculate what the heavens must have looked like in previous ages. (The Babylonians were expert in rotation and time: they invented the cycles of six: 12 months in the year, 24 hours in the day, 60 minutes in an hour.) They were probably able to project back to see what the heavens looked like long ago, and Enuma Elish and other stories could have come about as they tried to tell what gods were formerly in charge of things, and how they lost their high places. E.g., earlier astronomers may have observed and written about Ea, whose stars were present in the cuneiform age, but they may have projected back to an imagined age of Anu and an even older time of Apsu.
So how old is Enuma Elish? Was it performed and, if so, when and where? These questions might at first glance seem academic or antiquarian, but the answer still matters culturally since it affects the interpretation and understanding of the Hebrew Bible's Book of Genesis which is similarly difficult to date and place in social context. The creation stories in Enuma Elish and Genesis are related. That one borrowed from the other is evident from comparing the two accounts. For instance, where Marduk divides the halves of watery Tiamat to separate the waters above the earth from the waters below, Elohim (god of Genesis) divides tehom, Hebrew word for "the deep." [For other parallels see note 5 in my online page.]
For many scholars, the parallels are strong evidence that Genesis was written or revised during or soon after 587 BCE, when the Jews were taken from Jerusalem into captivity to Babylon. In this interpretation, the Tower of Babel in Genesis is the Ziggurat of Marduk which King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (604-562 BCE) constructed in 600 BCE, just before he destroyed the Jewish temple in 587 BCE. Archaeologists have found the inscription of this Ziggurat's corner stone:
I am Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. I have paved the Babel Street with slabs from Shadu for the Procession of the great God Marduk.
Did the captive Jews in Babylon witness Marduk's procession on Babel Street? Did they hear the Enuma Elish being read or enacted at the great Ziggurat? Did they respond by writing a counter-cultural story that showed their god to be mightier than Marduk--that in fact Marduk was a hoax? This account of Enuma Elish and Genesis is consistent with the available evidence, but of course no one can be sure that it is true.
The cult of Marduk that is promoted by Enuma Elish also has significance in the world outside the realm of Biblical scholarship. Allah has driven Marduk from the sky today (as the star guide of Enuma Elish might have predicted?), but many contemporary Mesopotamians still reflect with pride on the accomplishments of their neo-Babylonian ancestors under Nebuchadnezzar II, including their destruction of the Temple of Solomon and exile of the Jews from that lands that the Jews claimed that 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 and other neighbors off the map once again.
Early Hellenic Writing:
sheep and goats
Writing was known to the Greeks since before the time of the Trojan War (cir. 1100 BCE). For proof, see Homer's story of Bellerophon reproduced below in note 6. It is true that the earliest physical records of Greek writing date back no farther than about 700 BCE, but that physical record is incomplete. Illiterate Greeks could not have competed successfully in the world against literate neighbors for a thousand years (recall that Hammurabi's code dates from before 1700 BCE). Without writing, nobody could have preserved the memory of the Trojan War from 1100 to 700. Illiterate societies simply do not have histories that are more than three generations long.
The origin of Greek writing is described by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (484 - cir 425 BCE). He says that the early Greeks wrote on the skins of sheep and goats. He reports that he personally saw the old style letters in a temple in Thebes, Greece (see The Histories 5.58.1):
Phoenicians who came to Boeotia [central Greek mainland, the home of Hesiod] with Cadmus brought with them, among many other kinds of learning, the alphabet, which in my opinion had not been known earlier to Greek people. The sound and the shape of the letters were changed as time went on. Most of the Greeks living near these Phoenicians were Ionians [Greek speakers living by the coast and on the islands of the Aegean Sea], and after the Phoenicians taught them the letters, the Ionians used them with a few new changes of form. From ancient times they called the characters "Phoenician" since the Phoenicians had brought them into Greece. The Ionians also called sheets of papyrus "skins," since long ago they used the skins of sheep and goats due to the lack of papyrus. Even today many foreigners write on such skins.
[5.59.1] I have seen Cadmean writing in the temple of Apollo at Thebes in Boeotia. It is engraved on certain tripods. The characters look for the most part like Ionian letters.
As Herodotus saw, the Greek alphabet clearly was borrowed from Phoenician. Comparison of the letters makes this borrowing clear:
So who was this 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 Lebanon and Syria.
On the Greek mainland, Cadmus founded the strange Phoenician city of Thebes, tragic Thebes that would become home to Oedipus and Antigone, doomed Thebes that would be destroyed by the Argives at almost the same time as the Argives' sack of Troy. We have these famous old Theban stories only because Thebes was a literate community. Right: design of Oedipus and the sphinx.
Phoenicians inhabited Jerusalem, Ur, Megiddo and other very ancient cities of the Near East from at least 2800 BC. Their culture and government were influenced by Egypt from early times until the end of the Bronze Age and supposed time of the Trojan War. (In Homer's Iliad, Achilles' teacher at Troy is none other than Phoenix. He is a possible original author of the Trojan War story, The Iliad by Phoenix?)
By 1500 BC the Phoenicians had become sea-farers. They extended their colonies across the Mediterranean as far as the region of modern Spain, perhaps beyond. In colonization, trade and piracy, they were the major competitors of the Hellenes, and later Romans, for more than a thousand years. (Rome's great enemy Carthage in North Africa was a Phoenician colony, founded about 900 BCE.)
By the Jews, the Phoenicians were called "Canaanites." Many of the Phoenicians' descendants today we call Palestinians. One of the great ironies in ancient literary history is that the people who spread alphabetic literacy around the Mediterranean do not have their own land and are remembered only because the Jews, Greeks and Romans who took their land also took their alphabet and and wrote unpleasant things about them.
The early Greeks could write, though the physical remains are lacking. The water goddesses turned all the sheepskins and goatskins into rot. And no doubt literature also was destroyed in what Hesiod calls "the battle of the gods and giants," in our lingo volcanic and seismic activity, the Ionian region being among the most active in the world for volcanism.
Relaxing while earth wobbles, simmers and shakes
Environment plays a great role in shaping the literary record. It tends to preserve literature in Babylon but destroy it in Greece. Environment moves people to create a Ziggurat devoted to star watching in Babylon and a mountain shrine devoted to volcano control in Greece.
Threatened environmental catastrophes draw the attention of writers who not only explain the causes of the terrifying phenomena but attempt to control them with chants and songs. Through literary praise of Marduk, maybe the god can be appeased, and the sky will remain stable so that the earth can continue to hold its fixed place in the cosmos. Through literary praise of Zeus, perhaps the god will keep the titans locked down in darkness beneath the earth or, if they break out, he will use his thunderbolts again to quell them. Right: Zeus the lightning thrower, protector of the world.
Ancient literature often arises from awareness that terrible destructive forces threaten the world--an idea that might be useful for more people today to take seriously. While this literature did not save the world, it must have convinced many people that the world could be saved. It sustained cults of superstitious believers, but also seeds of science and environmental management.
The illusion that the horrible energies in the sky and below the ground can be controlled with mere words is not quite as silly as at first it may appear. Whether or not literature is true, it can provide escape, relaxation, mental relief. Ancient literature often presents serious religious expression and playful entertainment side by side, as if the two were perfectly compatible. In Theogony, Hesiod says he is a shepherd (growing skins for writing perhaps?) on the slopes of Mount Helicon (Boeotia, central Greece, not far from Thebes). On top of this mountain there's an altar of Zeus who stops volcanic eruptions with his lightning bolts, and yet this peak at the same time is dedicated to the Muses, Zeus' daughters who inspire songs. The sweet voices of these goddesses (nine styles of music) make the listeners forget their "heaviness and sorrows." The illusion is that all of the catastrophes of earth are more or less under control of Zeus and the blessed gods, and yet Hesiod can joke that some of the Muses stories are false.
Hesiod no doubt knew a great many stories. In his other surviving poem, Works and Days, he mentions that his father moved the family to Boeotia, which is a dreary place, from a previous home in Asia Minor (modern Turkey, frequent home of volcanic and seismic disasters). Families often migrated in the ancient world, due to natural disasters and political instability. They took their local stories and knowledge with them so that few ancient cultures developed in isolation from one another. Below: Mount Helicon in Boeotia, central Greece. Do you see the sleeping titan?