Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



Supplications from earth dwellers to divine powers mark the world's earliest literature of empires. Both meaningful and mystical, whether recorded in GREEK DRAMA, the Hindu Atharva Veda (Lore of the fire priests, 800 B.c.), the Sufist verse of RUMI, or the scriptures of Abyssinians, Aztecs, Buddhists, Egyptians, Christians, Jews, Quechuans, and Zoroastrians, expressions of spirituality and confession pervade the human relationship with the unknown. In the Hittite empire of ancient Anatolia (present-day Turkey), from 1460 to 1180 B.c., propitiation of gods at feasts, magic exorcisms, and state cult ceremonies includes blessings on royal brides and grooms, oaths of devotion, chants accompanying libations and sacrifices of oxen on holy altars, intercessory petitions, and thanksgiving for military victory. Recovered clay tablets record straightforward appeals and offerings to the sun deities of the underworld to deflect evil gossip, slander, and curses from enemies. A ruler indicated his humility by kneeling and exclaiming, “Incline your good eyes, lift your thousand eyelashes, and look kindly upon the king” (quoted in Singer 2002, 22). The prayers acknowledged the divine right of kings, which derived solely from the Hittite pantheon, headed by the storm deity Teshuba and his consort Hebut, goddess of the sun.

Babylonian prayers in the Sumero-Akkadian tradition reprised texts calling on the aid of Shamash, the Assyrian god of light and justice. An entreaty for mercy from Prince Kantuzzili from around 1425 B.c. speaks to the sun god, the great judge, of the anguish of a lethal medical problem. The suppliant claims to be “the servant of your body and your soul” and begs absolution of sins (32). Early in his reign, dictating to the court scribe, the boy king Mursili II (ca. 1321-1295 B.c.) composed multiple invocations to the sun god Arinna that called down protection from the epidemic that killed his brother Arnuwanda and asked for victory over Assyrian forces from the Upper Tigris River that were besetting the Hittite realm. To appease the benevolent spirit, Mursili's priest asks that “the sweet odor, the cedar and the oil, summon you” (50). Mursili prayed to Lelwani, queen of the underworld, to cure his wife, Princess Gassuliyawiya, of sickness in exchange for constant devotion and praise to the holy goddess. The emperor boasts, “To you, my goddess, there are temples only in Hatti, but in no other land is there anything for you” (73). The I-thou relationship of a petitioner with the divine emphasizes the sense of fervent communication with invisible celestial powers.

An existential plea recognizes the sins of the fathers as an ongoing curse on humankind. Like the cries of the Hebrew Job, the Hittite suppliant asks if the divine “takes vengeance on his wife, his children, his descendants, his family, his male and female slaves, his cattle and sheep together with his crop? Will he not destroy him utterly?” (quoted in Bryce 2002, 140). Mursili II begs forgiveness for court impiety in past administrations and asks for an assurance of future prosperity and grace. On Mursili's behalf, paid temple reciters entreat the gods to offer the emperor an idyllic afterlife in a meadow, a parallel to the Hebrew Eden in GENESIS (ca. 500 B.c.), the Roman Elysian Fields described in VIRGIL'S AENEID (17 B.c.), and the Gardens of Paradise in the KORAN (A.D. 633). The Hittite text seeks an end to struggle in a sunny place where “cows, sheep, horses, and mules graze for him” (183). The subtext indicates the stabilizing influence of herding on nomadic hunter-gatherer clans.

Self-Empowering Invocation

Jewish mysticism, an obscure and controversial branch of ritual that emerged from unwritten Babylonian and Egyptian folklore, relies on the Kabbala (Tradition), a system of thought that employs arcane methods of knowing the infinite. To satisfy curiosity and longing to learn the secrets of nature and creation, early Kabbalists speculated on ecstatic worship and methods of escaping the physical boundaries of the visible world. Despite the danger of damnation, they longed to look God in the face. Because of the dangerous conditions of Jewish residency in hostile or apathetic empires in Babylonia, Syria, Persia, Spain, Rome, and Egypt, Kabbalists paid little heed to the society around them and honored only the power of Yahweh (God). Through specific rabbinic versions of invocations, hymns, cosmology, and written enigmas, the devout opened channels to the god whose image provided the model for humankind. By strengthening their faith, Kabbalists sought to rid themselves of pride and hatred of the rulers who tormented followers of minority religions.

Kabbala was based in oral tradition that was written down in several texts over the centuries. These texts outline hidden links to creation and to marvels and enchantments that unlock the heart and plan of the universe. In Jerusalem, Rabbi Akiba (or Akiva) ben Joseph, a martyr to Roman oppression, produced a work on mysticism, Hekhalot zutarte (The smaller book of celestial palaces, ca. A.D. 100), a handbook for the seeker of godly wisdom through human selfempowerment. A subsequent prayer manual, Sefer yetzirah (Book of Creation, A.D. 200-500), expanded on sacred numerology, formulae, and spells as psychic means of secret communication with God. In A.D. 905, an Egyptian Kabbalist named Saadiah ben-Joseph (882-942) journeyed from Jerusalem to Persia in the Ghaznavid Empire to establish a yeshiva (academy) of disciples. As goan (principal) and director of curriculum, he translated the Torah into Arabic, compiled a dictionary, and wrote Kabbalistic texts that legitimized peasant myths about God through scientific law and analysis. Among his most-used works was the Siddur (Prayer book, ca. 940), a compendium of invocations, confessions, and thanksgivings that he compiled while living in Baghdad, Syria. His followers researched scholasticism, dream interpretation, confession and atonement, the ascetic lifestyle, charms and magic phrases, and extreme forms of prayer and supplication.

Imperial Prayers

A monument to Japan's Nara culture, the 20- book MANYOSHU (Ten Thousand Leaves, ca. 759) includes the works of an ostensible poet laureate, KAKINOMOTO NO HITOMARO. Among the 4,500 verses illustrating courtship protocols, naming taboos, journeys, and life passages, Hitomaro's farewell prayers cover a variety of losses, from a mother's nostalgia for her recently married daughter to a threnody in which parents sorrow over the death of a child lost to plague. In the latter, the speakers describe a ritual plea for a cure before a mirror and futile prostrations on the hearth. Like the disconsolate personal verses on Roman tombstones, the Japanese odes admit that humankind has little choice but to accept suffering and grief. The choice of the mirror and hearth imply that the speaker must look inward for truth and anchor family life to a homesite, an emblem of permanence and protection constructed with human hands rather than a shelter in nature provided by the creator.

Hitomaro's many prayers for travelers stand out as emotive entreaties during separation, especially sea voyages. The Japanese text acknowledges the control of the gods over human events, but the poet feels compelled to plead for the wanderer's safety and fortune. The compulsion to beg for divine intervention pours from the poet's spirit like waves caressing a rocky shore, a cyclical pounding of crags by water. The verse itself becomes a mantra, a verbal amulet rich with empathy for the one who departs from a familiar setting. The traveler conveys his own urge to renew his spirit at mountain passes, geological representations of the cleavage between life and death. As he journeys on, he looks back on a dismaying sight: “My home farther and farther recedes” (Ten Thousand Leaves 1981, 81). Such visual images break the continuity of home and realm and emphasize the frail tether that links humans to their clan and motherland.

Another travel poem regresses to old-world superstition for solace on the departure of an imperial ambassador on a mission to the Chinese court. The speaker summons myriad protective spirits and asks “The great deities who dwell / Between heaven and earth / And especially [the god] Okunitama / Of Yamato” to perch on the ship's prow or fly overhead to guide the traveler safely (101). The ritual of summoning protective gods requires that the traveler clap his hands before embarking from Cape Chika for home at Mitsu Harbor in Otomo (present-day Okoyama on the island of Honshu, Japan). With a touch of wishful thinking, the poet envisions the sea journey as being straight as a taut black rope, a hint at the voyager's intent to make no detours with a subtextual linking of the traveler and his home. In the closing lines, the suppliant begs for both luck and a speedy return. The traveler finds comfort in the first sight of the capital city of Nara, a subtle connection between the beneficence of the gods and the sovereignty of the emperor.

Travel prayers favor women's perspectives, especially those from Japan's east coast. Poems by female writers list the wife's obligations to custom—leaving their hair uncombed and floors unswept until the voyager returns. The avoidance of such tasks implies disorder in a household when the husband's absence upsets the domestic balance. A more intimate gesture is the placement of “a sacred sake bottle” (189) by the bedside as a plea for the husband's physical and spiritual wholeness. In one of Hitomaro's travel poems, the voyager thanks his wife and parents for observing the appropriate separation ritual. As a romantic gesture, he promises to keep tied the traveling sash that his mate wove him for the trip, a subtle suggestion of sexual fidelity.

Prayer and Nationalism

Supplication on behalf of the state and its rulers is a standard in the literature of empires. The verbal connection between divinity and sovereignty implies heavenly blessing and approval of the state and an appropriate humility in the ruler, who expresses an overt gratitude for the divine right to govern. Models permeate BIOGRAPHY and chronicle—for example, Einhard's memories in Vita Caroli (The Life of Charlemagne, A.D. 830) of Pope Leo III's crowning of the Carolingian king Charlemagne as the first emperor of the Romans (Holy Roman Emperor) and the blessing of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, called El Campeador (the champion) in the Spanish epic El Cid (ca. 1150), for defending Iberians against Muslim invaders. During the final decades of a Japanese occupation of Korea that began in the 1870s, the intellectual and modernist author YI KWANGSU (1812-1950) published allegorical fiction and historical works that appeased the ruling government while stirring patriotism in Koreans.

Yi incorporated old-fashioned duty and patriarchy in the nation's first modern novel, Mujong (The Heartless, 1917), a bestselling allegory of turning points in Korean history. When the protagonist, Hyong-sik, an instructor in English at a Seoul middle school, proposes liberal Western notions of betrothal to Yong Chae, an obedient traditionalist, she is dumbfounded at the concept of romantic love. Representing an old-fashioned nation faced with an inevitable advance into modernism, she turns to prayer to ease their estrangement. She pleads for forgiveness, guidance, and defense from temptation and concludes, “Make me love my husband with all my heart” (Yi 1990, 7). Through the couple's contretemps, Yi demonstrates an element of Confucian self-discipline in the bride-to-be, who has no expectation of immediate affection for the groom, a symbolic situation that Koreans face as captives of imperial Japan. Hyong-sik, a modernist, astounds his male friend by declaring that he “cannot deny his wife's freedom to do as she wishes (8),” a libertarian view imbued with the author's fervor for civil rights.


Bryce, Trevor. Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Plutschow, Herbert E. Chaos and Cosmos: Ritual in Early and Medieval Japanese Literature. Amsterdam: Brill, 1990.

Roberts, Elizabeth, and Elias Amidon, eds. Earth Prayers from Around the World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Singer, Itamar. Hittite Prayers. Amsterdam: Brill, 2002. The Ten Thousand Leaves. Translated by Ian Hideo Levy.

Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Yi Kwang-su. Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology. Translated by Peter H. Lee. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.