The Papyrus Lansing is a letter of instruction from the royal scribe (and “chief overseer of the cattle of Amun-Re, King of Gods”) Nebmare-nakht to his apprentice Wenemdiamun. It seems to date from the reign of the pharaoh Senusret III (Sesostris III). The letter conveys a great deal of practical advice to an up-and-coming scribe—as well as warnings about what temptations he must avoid to be successful. While Nebmare-nakht is clearly proud of the status his work has earned him, he also illuminates the specific duties and responsibilities of a royal official in this period.
Translated by A. M. Blackman and T. E. Peet, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 11 (1925): 284–298, as quoted by Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 2, 171–172.
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.
The Bhagavad Gita comprises the sixth book, and is the central component, of the Mahabharata. Because it centers on the struggles between kings and princes, the Mahabharata can be read as a reflection of the ideological components of rulership in ancient India. At its center is a power struggle between the descendants of two brothers, culminating in a comprehensive war that ends in the victory of one branch of the family over the other. Elements of philosophy, religion, and moral behavior appear throughout the poem, and the concepts of dharma (natural law, correct behavior) and chaos are introduced by Krishna, the wise sage who appears at critical moments to explain the wider implications of what seems a simple battle narrative. The speakers in the following excerpt are Dhritarâshtra, a blind king in the midst of a succession crisis; Sañgaya, the visionary narrator of the battle; and Arjuna, one of the five sons of Pandu, the Pandava.
The Bhagavadgita, with the Sanatsugatiya and the Anugita, trans. Kashinath Trimbak Telang (Oxford: Clarendon, 1882), 37, 39–41, 42, 73–75, 87–88, and 91.
Shun was thought to be one of the three “Sage Kings” who ruled China between 2852 and 2205 BCE, after the reign of the “Yellow Emperor.” The achievements of these kings are recorded—though the exact dating of each strand of material is controversial—in the Shujing, or Book of History. The material in the compilation purportedly dates from 2357 to 631 BCE, but, regardless of its precise chronology, the “Canon” attributed to Shun reveals increased sophistication in determining the role and proper behavior of a leader.
James Legge, trans., The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Confucianism, vol. 3 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1879), 38, 40–41, and 44–45.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is the greatest literary work from ancient Mesopotamia. Its roots extend back to the earliest literary traditions at the end of the third millennium BCE (writing in cuneiform itself is attested since around 3000 BCE). Gilgamesh was in fact the name of one of the early kings of Sumerian Uruk, as attested in king lists. As often happens with mythical traditions, a semi-legendary king becomes a hero around whom fantastic stories grow, including ones imbued with epic motifs: the transformation of the hero into a noble king, battles with monstrous creatures, the value of friendship held up and extolled, the harsh consequences of divine punishment, and the inevitability of death.
The stories about Gilgamesh became enormously popular throughout the ancient Near East; they even reached the Greek world. The textual history of what we call The Epic of Gilgamesh,” therefore, is complex, as copies and translations of it circulated throughout the Near East. The texts we have do not form a single version but come from different times and places, often from fragmentary texts. The oldest fragments are written in Sumerian and probably go back to traditions from the Ur III period (Third Dynasty of Ur) at the very end of the third millennium BCE (2094-2047 BCE). These were independent shorter stories about Gilgamesh, and were preserved mostly by later Babylonian writers in the eighteenth century BCE, whose language was Akkadian, but who preserved Sumerian texts because of their prestige and cultural importance for the Babylonians. New versions in Akkadian, in turn, were created during the second half of the second millennium BCE (late Bronze Age), including one known as “Surpassing all other kings.” During this period, the epic was broadly copied, not only as great literature, but even for use in school and sometimes for ritual use. Fragments in Akkadian and in some cases translations in other languages have been found in the Levant and Anatolia. Finally, an even newer version, creatively expanding on the previous ones, appeared in the libraries of Assyria and Babylonia in the early to mid-first millennium BCE. Also written in Akkadian, this text is fairly standardized throughout and thus is known as the “Standard Babylonian Version.” This version forms the basis for most modern translations, with some of its gaps filled by other extant versions.
From Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, trans. Stephanie Dalley. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1989): 50–56, 88–89, 95–116, 118–19, 150–51.
Over 300 poems of various lengths were anthologized and transmitted by Confucius in the early fifth century BCE. Philosophers of the Confucian school cherished the Odes and cited them frequently, and they have continued to entrance readers with their naturalistic imagery and personal voices. Only two samples are given here, but this rich tradition of poetry should be sampled at length.
The Book of Songs, transl. Arthur Waley, edited with additional translations by Joseph R. Allen (New York: Grove, 1996), 27 and 65.
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.
Iron Sword with Jade Handle, Earliest Cast-Iron Object (Western Zhoe), from Henan Museum, Guo State, Sanmenxia City
When this sword was discovered in 1990, it challenged conventional wisdom about when and under what circumstances Chinese people made the first cast-iron object. The dating of the object to the Western Zhou period pushed back the earliest date of this kind of manufacture by over 200 years. The sword consists of an iron blade, a bronze handle core, and a jade handle. Embedded turquoises were also found at the joint of the blade and the handle.
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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
The Odyssey as a literary work is a mixture of fact and fiction. It was composed around 800 BCE, but it may have originated even later. Authorship, composition date, and historical accuracy of this text are all highly controversial subjects among classicists. Our concern here is not with these issues, but with the view The Odyssey provides of gender relations in an aristocratic society. The position of noblewomen in the world of The Odyssey was mixed. The world of The Odyssey was not unlike that of the western Middle Ages (without the castles). Noble lords, who were great warriors, lived on self-sufficient manorial estates, worked by peasants. In that world, as in most aristocratic societies, women were valued because of their bloodlines. Aristocracies traditionally assert their right to rule on the basis of superior ancestry, so it was important to have noble ancestors on both the father’s and the mother’s sides. The noblewomen in this society also had important duties, managing the estates and their household economy, especially during the prolonged absences of the noblemen. In Penelope’s case, for example, she has successfully run the estate for years in Odysseus’s absence.
The passage presented here represents the culmination of both The Iliad and The Odyssey, because it returns Odysseus to the embrace of his wife and household, ending his long absence both at Troy and on the journey back. When he finally reaches home, he does not know what to expect, and he is characteristically cautious, concealing his identity until he has appraised the situation. Despite Odysseus’s long absence, Penelope continues to wait for him. Hers is an unenviable task. Not only does she bear the burden of worry for her absent husband, but she also has to deal with the insistent pressure from the boorish noble suitors. She reveals an enormous strength of character throughout this ordeal.
The Odyssey of Homer, trans. Samuel Butler. New York: Walter J. Black (1944): 287–90.
Recent archaeological discoveries in the Caral-Supé valley have pushed back the timeline of cultural development in the Andes by several millennia. A fixture of later Incan culture, the quipú (or khipu) was an elaborate series of knotted ropes that seemed to serve as a coded system of communication. Excavations have demonstrated that the quipú was used in the region as much as 3,000 years before its earliest previous attestation. Moreover, this quipú was apparently left as an offering on the stairway of a public building when another building was built on top.
© President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM# 2004.24.35177 (digital file# 153390016).
In 1900, Sir Arthur Evans discovered the remains of a vast palace complex on the island of Crete in the southern Aegean Sea. Christening the civilization “Minoan” after the legendary King Minos of Crete, Evans continued to excavate at Knossos and at other sites around the island. The palace at Knossos seems to have contained hundreds of rooms, including a throne room and storage spaces for food and cisterns for the collection of water. The legacy of Evans’s work can be viewed at the visual archive held at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England (http://sirarthurevans.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/), and there is a virtual tour of the site, provided by the British School at Athens (http://www.bsa.ac.uk/knossos/vrtour/).
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. AN.I.31 Plan of the Palace of Minos
“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