The Literature Of The East - Part 2
The Wonderful Library of Ashurbanipal
In The Literatures of the East - Part 1, there was so much more to the story about eastern literature. One of those stories was about an Assyrian monarch, named Ashurbanipal. It was in the reign of Ashurbanipal (699 626 B.C.) that Assyrian learning and art were at their height. Three great chambers in his palace were piled high with records that have been discovered and their contents restored and deciphered. Among them are the hymns to the gods, which are very much like the Hebrew psalms.
There are, besides, two fragments of an epic written around a sun-god, The Deluge and the Descent of Ishtar.
Ishtar was the goddess of love, answering to the Venus of the Romans and the Aphrodite of the Greeks. The object of her descent into the infernal regions was probably narrated in another tablet, which has not been preserved, for no motive is assigned for it here. Possibly she was in search of her beloved Thammuz (Adonis), who was detained in Hades by Persephone or Proserpine. Here is an excerpt:
When Ishtar arrived at the gate of Hades to the keeper of the gate a word she spoke:
"O keeper of the entrance! Open thy gate!
Open thy gate! Again, that I may enter!
If thou openest not thy gate, and I enter not,
I will assault the door: I will break down the gate:
I will attack the entrance: I will split open the portals:
I will raise the dead, to be the devourers of the living!
Upon the living, the dead shall prey!"
The first gate admitted her, and stopped her: There was taken off the great crown from her head.
"Keeper! Do not take off from me, the great crown from my head!"
"Excuse it, Lady! For the Queen of the land commands its removal!"
Anyway, by the time that she gets to the seventh gate, she's pretty much stripped of anything that would set her apart as royalty. If you want to read the rest of this, check out this 1914 translation.
Article space doesn't permit the opportunity to dwell more fully on the inscriptions and clay tablets that relate the history and customs of these plain=dwellers of old. There is still much to be done in the way of excavation and restoration in the "Land Of Two Rivers."
Persia (Iran) has a literature extending from a remote antiquity to the present through many great changes of her language. The earliest Persian tongue, Zend, as seen in the oldest part of the sacred books of the Zoroastrain religion, the Avesta, still the faith of the Parsees of Bombay, was closely akin to the earliest Sanskrit.
That religion symbolizes in the sun a supreme deity from whom comes all good, and it finds expression in outbursts of poetic adoration.
The Mohammedanism (Muslim religion) swept the country, left the followers of Zoroaster only a remnant, and change the language and the national thought.
Firdausi, Persia's Great Epic Poet, and Saadi, Writer Of Odes
The Persian writers who had vitality enough to appeal to the world outside the Persian plateau lived after the Arab-Mohammedan conquest. Conspicuous among them is the epic poet Firdausi, whose Book of Kings, a mine of romantic story, was published in 1011 A.D.
The language of Firdausi may be considered the purest specimen of the ancient Parsee tongue. There are many episodes of great beauty in this long work.
Saadi, a writer of famous odes, who has been called the nightingale of Shiraz, died in 1291. His two greatest works are Bustan (Tree Garden) and the Gulistan (Rose Garden).
Hafiz and Jami
Greatest of all is Hafiz, the supreme lyrical writer of the Persian people, whose sweetness and melody has always attracted notice from not just a few poets of the West.
Hafiz died in 1389. Then there was Jami, who died in 1492. He had the most beautifully rendered story of Yusuf and Zulaikha.
Probably one of the most recognized eastern literature writers is Omar Khayyam. Best known to readers of English, Omar Khayyam, who was also known as the Tent-Maker, he has had great influence. His pessimistic Rubaitat was paraphrased in Victorian days by Edward Fitzgerald with such musical melancholy that in its English dress it out charmed the Persian original and became an English classic.
He was the Eastern poet of fatalism, preaching the test:
"Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die."
Omar Khayyam was not only a poet but a scientist as well. It is possible that Omar was never really a tent maker. Probably he inherited the classification from his father's trade.
He lived a life of thoughtful leisure, pensioned by his sultan as the greatest astronomer and mathematician of his country and time.
He lived with his own thoughts and studies and pleasures, and did not aspire to the official dignities and courtly occupations he might have had. His writings on mathematics, in Arabic, and his astronomical observations gave him such fame that in 1079, when it was deemed advisable to reform the calendar, at the beginning of what is known as the Seljuk Era, the formidable task was assigned to him. His is one of the great names of the Middle Ages.
The literature of ancient Egypt consists only of inscriptions painted or engraved on monuments, or of manuscripts written on papyrus (parchment made from reeds) burried in the tombs or beneath the ruins of temples.
Though the language and the written characters of the Egyptians changed through the centuries, their literature remained the same in its principal features. In the great period of Ramses II, novels or works of amusement were the chief forms of literature.
Under the Ptolemies, historical records became common. In the Coptic period, homilies or church rituals emerged in Egyptian literature.
The Egyptian priests from earliest times kept the annals of their country, but these were all destroyed by the conquering Cambyses (500 B.C.) They were rewritten, however, and important fragments have been unearthed. The historical papyri that have been found are records of kings, or accounts of contemporary events pictured on monuments.
Of the religious literature the most important which survies in the Book of the Dead, a funeral ritual containing prayers, an account of the adventures of the soul after death, and the directions for reaching the Hall of Osiris -- the abode of departed spirits.
There exists about eighty letters on various subjects, dating from the time of Ramses II, which give us a good idea of the style and manners of that age. In fiction, there is The Tale of Two Brothers and The Romance of Setna. There are some remarkable medical papyri also.
The famous Library and School of Alexandria, Egypt belong to a time when Egypt had passed under the influence of Greece. They are not Egyptian in thought or feeling.
The Debt We Owe To Arabic Scholars and Sages
The language in which, apart from the Hebrew, the East has spoken to the world (of course by translations and certain words) is the Arabic. There was a time, during the Dark Ages of Europe, when the most learned books in the world were being written in Arabic.
The practice of medicine, for instance, was governed by five hundred years by the writings of Avicenna, a Persian born at Bukhara in 980, who wrote all his books except one in Arabic.
Then, there was the Spanish Moor, Averroes, born at Cordoba in 1126, who was influenced greatly by the thought of all the Christian world by introducing afresh to its notice Aristotle's system of philosophy.
There are examples of literature once world wide in its power, but now known only to a few.
The Thousand Nights And One Night
An Arabic book that still has a wide circulation throughout the civilized world is The Thousand Nights and One Night. This treasury of romance and adventure which illustrates the Eastern custom of story-telling is now pruned and altered so as to be an amusement for children and adults in a most unrecognizable form from it's original -- The Arabian Nights.
It has no known author, but is a collection of tales from many sources in lands where the spoken story is the commonest from of amusement. The story of Aladdin's lamp is from the Arabian Nights.
The book of books in Arabic throughout the whole of the Mohammedan (Muslim) world of millions of believers is the Koran. It may be questioned whether any other book in the world is as well known by as many people as is the Koran. More people in the Western world may know the Bible in some degree, but what they know of it is usually not known as well as pious Muslim believers know the Koran.
No other book claims to have a similar origin in as simple manner. Mohammed was a religious leader with the most intense belief in his own inspiration. Whether he could read or write is doubtful. When he began his mission, knowledge of Christianity and the Jewish Scriptures had been spreading in the East for over five and a half centuries.
His knowledge of them was probably gained by hearsay, as was then customary.
The Arabs generally were superstitious. Mohammed was deeply impressed by the Jewish belief in One God, and he had heard of prophets who proclaimed with fervor that idea. To a similar proclamation he devoted his life, believing he was inspired from heave as other prophets had been.
He believed the Almighty Creator as great and remote, but all merciful and compassionate, and that an angel came down to him from time to time to tell him the Divine Will, and to guide his conduct.
The message given in these angelic visitations he at once dictated to an attendant scribe, who wrote them down on any writing material he had on hand.
These messages continuing for years and covering many of the practical affairs of Arab life, as well as religious exhortations, form the Koran when they were finally collected. For his book, therefore, it is claimed that it is a direct revelation to a single prophet, and it is regarded by the devout Muslims as an all sufficient guide.
Viewed as a piece of literature produced in strange circumstances, often in the midst of dangers, by an inspired man, the Koran has no equal. It has lofty idealistic, genuine poetry, and true eloquence, mixed with a sense of childhood innocence, Eastern sensuality and frequent contradictions, leading to many interpretations.
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