Heroes and legends • 3000BCE–1300CE
Systems of writing were first used as a means of recording administrative and commercial transactions. Gradually, these systems became more advanced, preserving ancient wisdom, historical records, and religious ceremonies, all of which had previously been memorized and were passed down orally. Throughout the world's early civilizations, in Mesopotamia, China, India, and Greece, the written canon of literature first emerged as history and mythology.
The form that this earliest literature took was a long narrative poem, known as an epic, which focuses on the legends surrounding a great warrior or leader, and his battles to protect his people from their enemies and the forces of evil. The combination of historical events and mythical adventures, told in a metrical verse form, explained the people's cultural inheritance in an exciting and memorable way.
Tales of gods and men
The first known epics, which include the various versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the great Sanskrit epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, often tell of the origin of a civilization, or a defining moment in its early history. Seen through the exploits of a heroic individual or a ruling family, these epics also explained the involvement of the gods, often contrasting their powers with the frailties of human heroes. This was a theme that also appeared in the later epics ascribed to Homer. His heroes Achilles and Odysseus are depicted not only as noble warriors in the Trojan War that established ancient Greece as a great power, but also as very human characters confronting both fate and their own weaknesses. Later, as Greek influence declined, Roman poets developed their own Latin version of the form, even borrowing the story of the Trojan War, as Virgil did in the Aeneid, to produce an epic of the beginning of Rome. The scale and depth of Homer’s epics, and their poetic structure, provided the foundation on which Western literature is built.
Another product of the tradition of storytelling in ancient Greece was drama, which developed from recounting a narrative to acting out the part of a character and thereby bringing the tale to life. Gradually, this dramatic storytelling became more sophisticated, and by the time Athens was established as a democratic nation-state, the theatre was an integral part of its culture, with dramatists such as Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles producing tragedies and comedies which attracted audiences of thousands.
From Europe to Asia
In northern Europe oral storytelling prevailed, and the tales of these cultures were not written down until around the 8th century. The earliest known complete Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, relates history and mythology preserved by the Scandinavian ancestors of the English. The later Icelandic sagas also drew from the Norse legends. Meanwhile, in mainland Europe the nobility were entertained by professional poets. Some poets took their subject matter from the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, while the troubadours of southern France chose stirring stories of Charlemagne and his men in battle with the Islamic Moors and Saracens. The trouvères of northern France, in contrast, recited lyrical and passionate tales of chivalry and courtly love about the reign of the legendary King Arthur of Britain.
Further east, during the “Golden Age” of Islamic culture in the late medieval period when scholarship was held in high esteem, epic narrative tales such as those in the One Thousand and One Nights were valued for their capacity to entertain, although poetry was considered to be the highest form of literature. In ancient China, too, heroic legends were considered more a form of folklore than literature, and the first written texts to be accorded the status of classics were those that preserved the history, customs, and philosophy of the culture. Along with these factual texts, however, was a collection of odes that provided a model for Chinese poetry for centuries, reaching its high point under the emperors of the Tang dynasty.
In the 11th century, Japan, which had been dominated by Chinese culture, produced its own distinctive literature in the Japanese language. Fictional prose accounts of life in the Heian court developed from the ancient chronicles of the ruling dynasties, anticipating the emergence of the novel in Europe.