Posted by: gdevi | January 21, 2010

Earliest Literatures Lecture Notes

Dr. G. Devi

English 220

Lecture Notes

Reading 1: The Invention of Writing and the Earliest Literatures/ Background Terms and Concepts

Civilization: cognate of Latin civis, which means a citizen, a resident of a city; all great civilizations originated in cities

Ancient Egyptian civilization: Nile river delta and the Nile river valley; primary deity was the Egyptian Sun (this is why Sun was worshipped as a God in agricultural civilizations—you need sun to grow crops); great cities and civilizations of Thebes and Memphis in Egypt; 3000 BCE (Before Common Era) Egyptian pharaohs built the great temples and pyramids and recorded their political and administrative acts in hieroglyphic script. Here is an Egyptian song. Don’t you just love Tarantino? And here is the original rembetiko song.

Fertile Crescent civilization: The great rivers Euphrates and Tigris flow through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, (modern) Israel, Jordan, parts of Turkey and Iran. Iraq was the center of this ancient civilization. Important city: Nineveh and Babylon. Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians recorded their laws in cuneiform script.

(The other great civilization from the antiquity is the Indus Valley civilization [2600 – 1900 BCE] that flourished in the western part of the Indian subcontinent along the basin of the River Indus. In modern geography this civilization existed along western Punjab through Pakistan and into southeastern Afghanistan and the easternmost parts of Iran. Very advanced in city planning, irrigation and trade and the Harappan civilization traded with the Mesopotamian (Iraqi) cities. There are no extant records of writing from the Indus valley civilization. The system of writing unearthed from the ruins of the Indus valley does not constitute a linguistic system; they are properly understood as non-linguistic signs.)

Cuneiform script: First instances of writing developed in the Euphrates/ Tigris river valley, 3300-2900 BCE; pictographic marks made on clay tablets with a pointed stick and baked in the sun; change from full pictograms to marks by 2800 BCE (slow evolution eh?); Latin cuneus means “a wedge.” First texts? List of food items, textiles, cattle. Full length Sumerian poem Gilgamesh written in cuneiform.

Hieroglyphic script: Greek for “sacred carving.” Pictograms carved on the walls of temples and public monuments; 3200 BCE

Phoenician/Hebrew alphabet: Modern Greek alphabet is derived from the script developed by the Semitic people on the Palestine coast with twenty two simple signs for consonants; Hebrews borrowed the Phoenician script to record their history; 8 BCE-2 BCE First five books of the Bible or the Pentateuch of the Old Testament; idea of one God; the Phoenician/ Hebrew alphabet had only consonants (this is why the Jewish God is YHWH – we do not know what the vowel sounds are really; we think it is Yahweh or Jehovah); vowels supplied by the Greeks (8 BCE-9 BCE); Romans borrowed the alphabet (aleph the sign for ox and beta the sign for house) from the Greeks and the rest is history; this text that you are reading right now, that is.

Ancient Egyptian Poetry: 1500-1200 BCE. Surviving in scattered, difficult fragments written in hieroglyphic script, many inscribed in the pyramids to help the Pharoah’s soul in its journey to the other world.

Akhenatan’s Hymn to the Sun: Earliest example of Egyptian lyric poetry; Pharoah Akhenatan (1375-1358 BCE) elevated the worship of the Sun over all other deities; built the city of Heliopolis (City of Sun) called it Akhet-Aten ; return to the royal sun cult of the pyramid builders; an emerging trend in monotheism.


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