Heroes and legends • 3000BCE–1300CE
EGYPTIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD
(16TH CENTURY BCE)
Illustrated and written on papyrus, the Egyptian Book of the Dead is a compilation of around 200 chapters of magic spells and formulas that were written by various authors for use in the afterlife. Scribes made copies, which were buried with the mummy and believed to be read by the deceased on their journey to the Underworld, as a source of protection and a guide through the hazards that lay ahead. A famous example is The Papyrus of Ani, now in the British Museum, London.
(C.725—675 BCE), HOMER
An epic Ancient Greek poem in 24 books (more than 12,000 lines), composed for oral performance, the Odyssey is traditionally attributed to Homer. The poem is in part a sequel to Homer’s other great work, the Iliad. Its hero is Odysseus, king of Ithaca, who is described wandering the seas, homeward-bound after the end of the 10-year Trojan War. He has vivid adventures, which include encounters with supernatural creatures and temptations of the flesh. Both his son Telemachus and wife Penelope despair for Odysseus’s return — he has been absent for two decades. Penelope has to deal with a series of suitors, whose fate at the hands of the disguised Odysseus forms the dramatic denouement of the tale.
(C.700 BCE), HESIOD
The 1,022-line epic poem Theogony, or “Birth of the Gods”, was written by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod (8th—7th century BCE), and is one of the earliest mythic accounts of the origins of the cosmos and of the gods. Beginning with the formation of the Earth (Gaia) out of Chaos (the primordial Abyss), the poem goes on to detail the birth and overthrow of successive generations of gods, ending with the triumph of Zeus. At its centre, Theogony engages with some of the core themes that haunt the human imagination, including creation, the struggle between fathers and sons, and humanity’s place in the universe.
DAO DE JING
(6TH—3RD CENTURY BCE), LAOZI
Traditionally attributed to the legendary Chinese sage Laozi, the Dao De Jing (Classic of the Way and Virtue), the main sacred text of Daoism, is a compilation of 81 verse chapters giving enigmatic advice on how to live harmoniously by following the Dao (“Way”). Its compelling, mysterious, poetic aphorisms — such as “Do nothing, and there is nothing that will not be done” — illustrate the practice of wu wei, or non-action.
(458 BCE), AESCHYLUS
Written by Aeschylus, the first of the great dramatists of classical Athens, the Oresteia is a trilogy (the only classical Greek example to survive) telling the tragic story of the house of Atreus. The first play portrays the return of King Agamemnon from war and the plot upon his life by his unfaithful spouse, Clytemnestra. The second play deals with revenge by the king’s daughter Electra and his son Orestes; the third concerns its consequences. The cycle of bloodshed is finally supplanted by the rule of law, under the influence of the goddess Athena.
The seven complete tragedies that remain to us of the work of Aeschylus — who is estimated to have written between 70 and 90 plays — attest to his mastery of the genre. Thought to have been born in Eleusis near Athens in 525 or 524 BCE, he lived in the early period of the Athenian democracy, and played a part in the fight against the invading Persians — specifically at the battle of Marathon. As well as tragedies he wrote “satyr plays” in a light, burlesque style. Both genres were presented in competitions at the foremost dramatical contest in Athens, the annual festival of Dionysus, and Aeschylus was a regular winner. One exceptional year he lost to the younger tragedian, Sophocles. He died at Gela in Sicily in 456 or 455 BCE.
458 BCE Oresteia
472 BCE The Persians
467 BCE Seven Against Thebes
5th century BCE Prometheus Bound
(431 BCE), EURIPIDES
A tragedy by the Greek dramatist Euripides (c.484—406 BCE), Medea is a compelling play about injustice, jealousy, and revenge. With only two actors on stage at any time, it is based on the legendary tale of Princess Medea and her ruthless persecution of her husband Jason (hero of the Argonauts myth), after he abandons her for the daughter of the king of Corinth. Despite Medea’s cruelty, and in particular her savage treatment of her own children with Jason, Euripides nevertheless elicits the audience’s sympathy for her.
(422 BCE), ARISTOPHANES
One of the world’s great comedies, by Greek dramatist Aristophanes (c.450—c.388 BCE), Wasps satirizes the legal system in ancient Athens by demonstrating how it could be exploited by a corrupt demogogue. The play’s action centres around an ill-tempered old man who is addicted to serving on juries. The play is a classic of the Old Comedy, which is characterized by the use of a chorus, scathing inventive, ribald humour, outspoken social criticism, and elements of fantasy. The play takes its title from the chorus, a swarm of jurors.
"No, I know no more how to acquit than to play the lyre."
(5TH—4TH CENTURIES BCE), VALMIKI
One of the great works of Indian literature and rivalling even the Mahabharata, the Ramayana (meaning “Rama’s journey”) is a Sanskrit epic of 24,000 couplets in seven books. Its moral purpose is the presentation of ideal role models — for a king, brother, wife, servant, and so on — within a narrative framework. The story describes the actions of the god Rama, with the help of the monkey-general Hanuman, against a demon-king who has abducted his wife, Sita. The Hindu sage and poet Valmiki, the reputed author, makes an appearance in the work.
Known as the “first poet” of Sanskrit poetry thanks to his invention of the classic sloka (“song”) verse form, Valmiki was a sage who, according to Hindu belief, lived in India at some point between the 6th and the 1st century BCE. Once a murderous highway robber named Ratnakara, he became a holy man after meditating for many years as penance after attempting to rob Narada, a divine sage. During his meditation, an ant hill grew up around him, from which he gained his name “Valmiki” (Sanskrit for “one born out of ant hills”). He reportedly composed the Ramayana at the command of the Hindu god Brahma.
5th—4th century BCE Ramayana
SONGS OF CHU
(4TH CENTURY BCE)
A compilation of verse from the southern Chinese state of Chu, Songs of Chu contains many pieces attributed to exiled minister Qu Yuan (c.339—c.278 BCE), a literary innovator who introduced greater formal variety into poetry. Many of the poems here are influenced by shamanistic folk rites and by local legends. The first piece, “On Encountering Sorrow”, is a long, melancholic reflection that helped to establish a tradition of romanticism in Chinese literature.
(C.8 CE), OVID
Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE—18 CE) brought together an array of lively mythological tales in his verse epic, Metamorphoses. The work marks a shift in popular taste from war to love as an appropriate subject for poetry. The stories are linked by the theme of transformation, often resulting from love or desire. Their subjects include some of the best-known legends of ancient Greece and Rome. Metamorphoses has had a huge impact on both literature (including Shakespeare and Dante) and the visual arts, notably painting.
THE GOLDEN ASS
(2ND CENTURY CE), APULEIUS
Written by Apuleius (c.124—c.170 CE), a Numidian Berber who benefited from the opportunities offered by Roman rule, The Golden Ass is the only work of fiction in Latin to have survived in its entirety. It tells of the adventures of a young man whose fascination with magic results in his transformation into a donkey. In this new guise, he passes from owner to owner until the goddess Isis breaks the spell and frees him. The tale’s principal ingredients include satire, slapstick, bawdiness, allegory, moral reflection, and, above all, humour. The idea of the transformation of humans into animals has remained a major theme in world literature.
An anonymous work in Old High German verse, the Hildebrandslied (“Song of Hildebrand”) was found on the flyleaves of a theological codex, and copied by scribes between 830 and 840 CE. Only 68 lines have survived; the alliterative poem (probably intended for oral transmission) is likely to have been no more than 100 lines originally. The subject is an occasion when the warrior Hildebrand comes face to face with his son in combat and seeks to hide who he is, while ensuring the youth is not harmed.
The Byzantine epic hero Basil, known by his epithet Digenis Akritas (meaning “two-blood border-lord”), is the protagonist of the most famous of the so-called Akritic folk ballads, which were celebrated in vernacular Greek. Digenis Akritas is also the name of an anonymous, blank-verse epic that describes Basil’s lineage, boyhood, and heroic later life. The son of a Saracen emir who converted to Christianity, Basil shows great strength and courage and valiantly defends the Byzantine Empire from its enemies. The epic was further developed between the 12th and 17th centuries.
THE PILLOW BOOK
(C.1000), SEI SHŌNAGON
In the Japanese tradition, a pillow book was a collection of personal musings supposedly written in the bedroom. The best-known example is that of Sei Shōnagon, a lady of the Heian-kyō court. The entries, which were arranged thematically rather than in chronological order by scribes for circulation among the Japanese court, offer observations on people and nature, ranging from caustic wit to appreciation of the finer things in life. The reader gains glimpses into the minutiae of court life, such as flutes, disobedient dogs, and ladies betting on how long it would take a mound of snow to melt.
Diarist-essayist Sei Shōnagon was born c.966 CE, the daughter of the scholar and waka poet Kiyohara Motosuke. She joined the Japanese court to serve Empress Teishi (Sadako) in the city that was later known as Kyoto. Her The Pillow Book is an engaging picture of court life in the Heian dynasty around 991—1000 CE. Partly due to her wit and intelligence, she was disliked by a number of her contemporaries. Her rivals included Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote The Tale of Genji. After her patroness died, Sei Shōnagon is reported to have left the court and married, becoming a Buddhist monk in her widowhood. She is thought to have died around 1025 CE.
c.1000 CE The Pillow Book
The earliest example of prose literature in Britain, Mabinogion is a collection of 11 anonymous Welsh prose tales, some of which reveal Celtic and French influences. Its two source manuscripts date from the late 14th century. There are elements of supernatural fantasy, probably deriving from an ancient oral storytelling tradition. Diverse in form and content, some of the tales feature the legendary king Arthur. The most sophisticated stories are the “Four Branches”, which include giants, magical white horses, and incest, betrayal, and redemption.
CANTAR DE MIO CID
The earliest surviving epic poem in Spanish literature, Cantar de Mio Cid (Song/Poem of the Cid) tells of the exploits of the real-life Castilian hero El Cid (1043—99) in the attempt to recapture Spain from the Moors. The poem focuses on military and diplomatic prowess as well as El Cid’s relationship with King Alfonso VI, using a realist tone to describe the hero’s efforts to regain lost honour. The authorship of the epic, which may have been intended for public recital, has never been established — the only surviving manuscript is signed Per Abbas, but the identity of the writer has never been verified.
THE TALE OF IGOR’S CAMPAIGN
(LATE 12TH CENTURY)
An anonymous epic poem in the Old East Slavic language, The Tale of Igor’s Campaign describes an unsuccessful raid by a prince of the “land of the Rus”, named Igor Svyatoslavich. Igor’s heroic pride leads him to face overwhelming odds, and he is taken captive by his enemies, but escapes. The tale has elements of both epic and lyric, with political overtones too. It has become a Russian national classic.
"…lives are laid out on the threshing floor, souls are winnowed from bodies."
The Tale of Igor’s Campaign
The main characters of this work have become internationally known through Wagner’s Ring cycle of operas. The Nibelungenlied, or “Song of the Nibelungs”, is a richly imagined anonymous epic poem in Middle High German. Medieval German literature had turned to courtly refinement, but the Nibelungenlied looked back to older, more visceral notions of honour and vengeance. It tells of stolen treasure (Rhine gold) and magic powers (including invisibility); of the dragon-slayer Siegfried and his wooing of the princess Kriemhild; and of Kriemhild’s revenge against the Nibelungen (Burgundians) after the murder of Siegfried by one of their most prominent warriors, the king’s brother Hagen. Some characters — including the powerful queen Brunhild — and some of the narrative are rooted in Old Norse sagas.
ROMANCE OF THE ROSE
(C.1225—1280), GUILLAUME DE LORRIS AND JEAN DE MEUN
Frenchman Guillaume de Lorris (c.1200—c.1240) wrote 4,058 lines of the Romance of the Rose; Jean de Meun (c.1240—c.1305) took it to more than 21,000 lines. Based on Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), the poem is one of the most popular French examples of the late Middle Ages. It is a dream allegory of the wooing of a young lady, symbolized by a rosebud, within courtly society, represented by the garden. De Meun gives opinions on topics of the day. The first 1,705 lines were rendered into English by Geoffrey Chaucer.
CANTIGAS DE SANTA MARÍA
(1252—1284), ALFONSO X
One of the largest collections of medieval solo songs, the Cantigas de Santa María (“Canticles of Holy Mary”) were written in medieval Galician-Portuguese, probably (at least in part) by Alfonso X, king of Castile, León, and Galicia. Every song, or canticle, refers to the Virgin Mary, whose miracles — including local events prompted by her intercession — provide narrative content; every 10th song is a hymn in her honour. The songs — written with musical notation — have great metrical variety, with lines ranging from two to 24 syllables.
Born in 1221 in Burgos, the capital of Castile (in the north of modern-day Spain), Alfonso X was a scholarly and wise king who encouraged learning and the arts. His reign began in 1252 following the death of his father Ferdinand III, who had greatly expanded Castile and fought the most successful campaigns of the Reconquista against the Moors. Inheriting a wealthy and stable land, Alfonso commissioned and personally oversaw a range of texts, from law and astronomy to music and history, ensuring that Castilian would be the forerunner of modern Spanish. He died in Seville in 1284.
1252—84 Cantigas de Santa María
c.1255—65 Siete partidas
1264 Premera crónica general