During both the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1556-1046 BCE; 1046-256 BCE) families, both noble and common, worshipped and sacrificed to their ancestors. These sacrifices were of the utmost importance and any neglect would bring about misfortune and calamity, since ancestors had the power to aid or punish their descendants.
The selections that follow are from the Books of Songs (the Shih Jing) the oldest collection of Chinese poems, dating to the 11th century BCE. The Book of Songs was one of the five definitive Confucian classics that formed the backbone of Chinese culture and education for centuries.
From The Book of Songs: The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry, Arthur Waley, trans. (London: Allen/Unwin, 1937).
Composed in Akkadian and consisting of 480 lines distributed over four tablets, this poem is a protest against one man’s undeserved suffering. The author is tormented but cannot determine the cause, and he feels that the god Marduk is not responding adequately to his lamentation. Because he has always been faithful to his god and assiduous in his worship, the Sufferer begins to speculate that the gods are not concerned with human pain at all. Even more, they may engage in this sort of torment for their own benefit. The figure of the “Righteous Sufferer” is frequently compared to the Biblical figure Job. While this “Babylonian Job” is eventually delivered from his sufferings, perhaps his complaints linger on.
Nels M. Bailkey and Richard Lim, eds., Readings in Ancient History: Thought and Experience from Gilgamesh to St. Augustine, 6th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2002), 20–22.
This hymn to the Egyptian sun god Aten has been attributed to King Akhenaten (“the devoted adherent of Aten”), the Pharaoh formerly known as Amenhotep IV. While Akhenaten’s experiment in monotheism was short-lived, the poem reflects the connections this revolutionary religious thinker attempted to forge between himself and an all-powerful deity. Note that he also solicits the blessings of Aten for himself, as leader of the Egyptian people, and for his wife, the famous Nefertiti.
Translated by J. A. Wilson, as quoted by Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 2, 96–99.
The Rig Veda is the oldest of the Vedic texts, and consists of 1028 hymns. It was transmitted orally for centuries, and probably assumed its present shape c. 1200 BCE. There are three other Vedas, two of which contain material from the Rig Veda, thus making the Rig Veda the foundational text for the entire Vedic tradition and its successors, including Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. Most of the hymns in the Rig Veda relate to the rituals of the Aryan religion, although a few explore more theoretical questions “Purusha” can be translated as “cosmic giant”.
From Sources of Indian Tradition. Theodore de Bary, ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.
The worship of Agni, as the fire principle animating a burnt offering to the gods, features prominently in the Rig-Veda. The voice of Agni was thought be heard in the crackling of the fire beneath a sacrifice, and it was a crucial element of Vedic tradition that the priest perform the ritual correctly. Fire was conflated with the emanations of the sun, and the priestly varna, or caste, was thought to be the community’s best representative to the god.
The Hymns of the Rigveda, trans. Ralph T. H. Griffith (Benares: E. J. Lazarus, 1889), 333–338.
Thomas R. Trautmann
Few things are more tantalizing to historians than an undeciphered script. Hundreds of broken and intact Harappan seals have been discovered in numerous sites throughout the Indus Valley, many that combine a line of symbols assumed to be text with an image of an animal. Denoting them seals, historians have determined that most were used to identify someone involved with an object (owner, craftsmen, or merchant). It is also possible that the seals, and other examples of the Indus script, were protective in nature, operating as a talisman. However, without the ability to read the symbols, how the seals and other objects with writing were used to convey information is a matter of speculation. It is hard to understand how a text is used if one cannot read the content. In the excerpt below, historian Thomas Trautmann, a leading specialist on ancient India, provides an overview of the mysterious Harappan seals.
The most intriguing artifacts of the Indus sites are rectangular steatitei seals, because of the writing on them. These seals, little more than an inch square, generally bear an incised image, beautifully carved, of which the humped bull is a common type. Other animals (tiger, elephant), composite mythological beasts, and the rare human form are figured on other seals. They also bear a short inscription across the top, in a script that has defied many attempts to decipher it. This script contains more than four hundred signs, too many to be purely alphabetic or syllabic because no language is known to have more than a hundred phonemes. Although many of the signs are obviously pictographic, other elements act as modifiers, perhaps as word endings, and others are clearly numerals. The seals were meant to be pressed into soft clay as a mark of ownership, in all likelihood. The inscriptions are short, presumably recording little more than the owner’s name. The language of the script is unknown; a Dravidian language would be our best guess because of islands of Dravidian language in the Indus and Ganga valleys, but other languages cannot be ruled out. We do not have a bilingual inscription, like the Rosetta Stone by which the Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered, or the Greek and Prakrit inscriptions on coins by which the inscriptions of Ashoka were read. However, because the Indus people were involved with seagoing trade with other literate people, especially the Elamites and perhaps the Mesopotamians, there is a chance that a bilingual inscription will be found one day…
From India: Brief History of a Civilization. Thomas R. Trautmann. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 22-27
“Laozi” is a title meaning “Old Child;” little is known about the historical reality that lay behind that accolade. It is perhaps fitting that Laozi is a mysterious figure, as the dao that he spoke of was equally enigmatic. If there was a Laozi, he probably lived in the early seventh century B.C.E., which would make him a near contemporary of Confucius. That is also appropriate, as both schools of thought deal with similar concepts, such as the dao, although they have vastly different understandings of what those terms mean. For Laozi and the Daoists, the dao was a universal force that transcends all. It is essentially unknowable. For Confucius, the dao was a recognizable and knowable force that governed the world and led humanity to strive for moral behavior. The following verses are taken from the Daode Jing, the classic of Daoist thought.
Lao Tzu. “The Unvarying Way.” Tao Te Ching, trans. by Arthur Waley, 1934