Category: 6th century BC and earlier

18. The Homeric Hymns (c. 520 BC)

Plot: A collection of 33 hymns, each praising a specific Greek god or demigod. Each hymn is sung to a god or goddess to praise them and request good fortune in return for the singer.
My thoughts : Not now believed to be penned by Homer, most are quite short and all were easy to read. My copy was a second edition translated by Apostolos Athanassakis (a nice genuine Greek name) and published by Johns Hopkins University Press (ISBN 0801879833). This translation was certainly more modern and approachable, and brought the gods to life with less of their overwhelming stature and more of their fun and humanity.
Favourite lines/passages: My own personal fondness for certain gods and goddesses influenced which hymns I favoured, particularly Pan, Artemis the huntress and Selene the moon goddess. But the best was hymn #3 to Hermes, as he steals Apollo’s cattle in the evening of the day he is first born, then pretends to be just an innocent babe when the angry god tracks him down (page 34)
“when Zeus and Maia’s son saw Apollon, the Far-Shooter, angered about his cattle,
He snuggled into his sweet-scented swaddling-clothes; ….
Into a small space he huddled head, hands and feet, like a freshly bathed babe courting sweet sleep,
But in truth still awake and holding the lyre under his arm,
The son of Zeus and Leto did not fail to recognise the beautiful mountain nymph and her dear son,
Though he was a tiny child steeped in crafty wiles, …..”

hermes-apollo-cattle-1

Personal rating : 7/10
Next : Studied by military men down through the ages, the sixth century BC Chinese classic The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is next.

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17. The Mahabharata

Plot: Some similarities to the Ramayana, as five princes undergo exile in the forest before waging a war with their cousins, although in this case, to regain their kingdom.
Within the great expanse of text, there are many side stories, including the tale of the Ramayana read earlier, and a whole section discussing dharma (the correct way to live) of kings and warriors which has gained its own title – the Bhagavad Gita, and has had a deep impact on Hinduism.

mahabharata-01
My thoughts : The Mahabharata is the very definition of epic. The abridged version I read still ran to over 790 pages, but the original in Sanskrit can run to 32 volumes.
I felt that the Mahabharata was much more gritty and less fantastical than the Ramayana, despite the presence of gods, demons, supernatural weapons and superhuman stamina and abilities of the various heroes and their anatagonists. Much of the story centres on the battles of the war, with each encounter between heroes showering each other with thousands of arrows; and chariots, horses, elephants and drivers destroyed in their hundreds of thousands.
Favourite lines/passages:
“his weapon…. was as unbearable as a flesh-eating ghoul” p. 523 – What??!!!
“ Bhrgu’s son Cyavana performs [religious] austerities for so long that he becomes an anthill” p. 189. This has to be the most bizarre and random opening line of a chapter in the whole of world literature!

And finally, not so much a favourite as a jaw-dropping image repeated several times descibes a battle so ferocious that …”with his torrents of sharp arrows the wearer of the diadem set a dreadful river flowing on that battlefield: its water was blood from the wounds of weapons on men’s bodies, its foam human fat ….. corpses of elephants and horses formed its banks, the entrails, marrow and flesh of men its mud. Ghosts and great throngs of demons lned its banks. Its waterweed was hair attached to human skulls, its billows severed pieces of armour … fragments of the bones of men, horses and elephants formed the gravel of that fearful destructive, hellish river ; crows, jackals, vultures and storks, and throngs of carrion beasts and hyenas were approaching its banks from every direction”  p.377.
Diversions/digressions : When reading a 800 page epic with a huge cast and lots of repetition of circumstances and similes, everything else in life is a distraction
Personal rating : plenty of great ratings for the Mahabharata on http://www.goodreads.com, so I don’t feel too guilty giving this only 4/10. Just too long to enjoy (as The Prince said to Mozart in Amadeus), and I didn’t feel the ‘heroes’ demonstrated true dharma – quite the opposite : Arjuna burning the Khandeva forest and killing 1000s of animals, Yudhisthira lying to Drona in the midst of battle, telling him that his son was dead to demoralise and defeat him, the five Pandava heroes not acting to protect their shared wife from the humiliation and torment of the Kauravas. Or maybe I still don’t understand the true concept of dharma.
Next : The Homeric Hymns – not written by Homer, but are they hymns?

16. Elegies by Theognis

Contents : Many short verses attributed to Theognis survive. They form the second half of the Penguin publication Hesiod and Theognis which I have kept nearby since reading Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days.

My thoughts: While Aesop and Hesiod loved to pass on advice in fables or poetry, they mostly succeed because the reader is convinced that they mean well. On the other hand, Theognis comes across as a vain and self-pitying old trout who is desperate to keep his boy lover’s regard, yet his advice is petty and inconsistent. Let’s move on, as no doubt his toy boy Kurnos did.

Personal rating : 1/10

15. Aesop’s Fables

aesop

Contents: Short tales often embodying a moral or lesson, the Fables attributed to Aesop often feature talking animals who display all the foibles and shortcomings of humans. Legend insists that Aesop was a slave who won his freedom by his clever advice and stories. The collection I read for this project (0330245333) was first published in 1912, and is charmingly illustrated with line drawings and colour plates by Arthur Rackham.

My thoughts : i remember reading Aesop in  school, and of course some of the fables are so entrenched in our culture we know the stories and morals perhaps without realizing their source (The Tortoise and the Hare, Androcles and the Lion, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, The Grasshopper and the Ants)

Favourite lines/passages:  Many of the fables are very clever and yet very brief. My favourites include the well known ones listed above of course, but also the donkey who thinks if he acts like a small dog and jumps all over his  master, he will be rewarded (not likely!) ;  the Wind and the Sun competing to part a man from his coat ; and the Mouse who repays the Lion for sparing his life by later gnawing through the ropes binding him.

Diversions/digressions:  I must admit that I didn’t get diverted by the content of the fables, but diverted away from them as there were over 300 in this book, and with each barely a paragraph, it is difficult to get a head of steam up for the job and read many of them in one sitting. Reading these is probably best done in small doses between other tasks.

Personal rating :  5/10

Kimmy the Lit-Terrier’s rating : With so many animals doing some strange things, Kimmy gives this 4/5
Next  : Theognis’ Elegies

14. The Ramayana by Valmiki

Plot :  A young prince Rama, his beautiful wife Sita and his loyal brother Lakshmana agree to 14 years’ exile in the jungle on the eve of Rama’s coronation as King of Asoyada. In the last year of exile, Sita is kidnapped by the king of demons Ravana,  and it is Rama’s destiny to kill Ravana. He is aided by a race of magical monkeys (vanaras), bears and other demons (rakshasas)

ramayana

My thoughts : A truly epic masterpiece, ranking in terms of literature with western classics such as The Lord of the Rings, yet with a very strong moral centre and a host of admirable and godlike individuals. Even the villain Ravana is described in noble and praiseworthy ways, and the reader has to be reminded how evil he is, when it is easy to sympathise with his Fate to love Sita leading him and many of his subjects to their doom.

I read a modern English version written by Ramesh Menon which was extremely approachable despite hundreds of unfamiliar Indian words (a glossary is provided in the back of the book, but the reader soon becomes in tune with the words and accepts their approximate meaning so as not to disrupt the story too much). Menon uses a great many small chapters within the original seven book structure, and it took me a long time to read the almost 700 pages.

Favourite lines/passages : In such a long epic, there are many scenes which stand out. Ravana’s gigantic brother Kumbhakarna who must sleep all but two days per year as his massive appetite would devour the world, and must be woken carefully with great piles of food and drink, and willing women, to satisfy all his hungers at once, was a wonderful villain, and his ravenous attack on the monkey army was chilling to read. The marvellous and wise vanara Hanuman, who flew to the Himalayas not once but twice to carry a mountain of medicinal herbs to the battle at Ravana’s citadel in Lanka (Sri Lanka), and his other magical tricks, was also a favourite.

Diversions/digressions : As Rama and Sita are human incarnations of Vishnu and Lakshmi, it would be appropriate to learn more about the Hindu pantheon. It was also interesting to speculate on the flying machine, the Pushpaka vimana, which Menon describes as a flying disc, bigger on the inside (able to carry the thousands of monkey-like vanaras at one time back to Rama’s coronation), and transparent from the inside.

Personal rating : Enjoyed immensely 8/10.

13. The Upanishads

Content : Roughly translated as “lessons at the foot of the Master”, The Upanishads are spiritual lessons originally written in Sanskrit, mostly between 800 BC and 400 BC.

Although there are over one hundred recognized Upanishads in Sanskrit (some over one hundred pages long), my copy is a selection from twelve of the older Upanishads, translated by Juan Mascaro, and published by Penguin (0140441638)

My thoughts: Far more spiritual than the Rig Veda, The Upanishads are about seeking union with the Spirit (Brahman) and despite the existence of other God figures (Siva, Vishnu, Krishna) in this pantheon, the Lessons are  much more monotheistic – indeed, there is a strong idea that all gods/religions are really coming from one source. Instead of praying for worldly advantage, there is a strong emphasis on attaining perfection via good deeds, and glorifying and rejoicing in God/Brahman.  Indeed, freeing oneself from earthly desires and longings is crucial to becoming one with the omniscient, omnipresent Spirit of the Universe by moving to a higher state of Self and Consciousness.  Faith is valued above seeking knowledge and the concepts of karma and reincarnation arise.

“The soul is born and unfolds in a body, with dreams and desires, and the food of life. And then it is reborn in new bodies, in accordance with its former works. The quality of the soul determines its future body : earthy or airy, heavy or light. Its thoughts and its actions can lead it to freedom, or lead it to bondage, in life after life”  Svetasvatara Upanishad, p. 94

 Favourite lines/passages:  “thus they realize the ineffable joy supreme”  Katha Upanishad, p.64

“At the end of the worlds, all things sleep; he alone is awake in Eternity. Then from his infinite space new worlds arise and awake, a universe which is a vastness of thought. In the consciousness of Brahman the universe is, and into him it returns”    Maitri Upanishad, p, 101

Diversions/digressions:  Despite the religious theme of the work, a piece of scientific/anatomical knowledge slipped in which is quite accurate and surprising for its time, regarding the circulatory system down to capillary level and its role in carrying oxygen through the body:

“In the Heart dwells the Atman, the Self. It is the centre of a hundred and one little channels. From each one of them comes a hundred channels more. Seventy two thousand smaller channels branch from each one of these. In all these millions of little channels moves the power of Vyana [Air]”

Personal rating:  5/10

Next : The epic Ramayana

12. Poems and Fragments, by Sappho, c. 600 BC

sappho3sappho1

Plot : The few remnants of Sappho’s poetry are largely love poems to young women of her society, with some bridal choruses, and mythological retellings. Of around one hundred examples, many fragments are only a few words long. Sizable sections have only survived from two or three poems.
My thoughts : The first named female author, Sappho of Lesbos gave her name to ‘lesbian’, but her poems are about desire and sadness in rejection as much as returned affection. My copy was the recent Cambridge University Press edition translated by Rayor and Lardinois (9781107023598)
Favourite lines/passages :
Fragment 31
To me it seems that man has the fortune
of gods, whoever sits beside you
and close, who listens to you
sweetly speaking

and laughing temptingly. My heart
flutters in my breast whenever
I quickly glance at you –
I can say nothing.

My tongue is broken. A delicate fire
runs under my skin, my eyes
see nothing, my ears roar,
cold sweat

rushes down me, trembling seizes me ,
I am greener than grass.
To myself I seem
needing but little to die.

Yet all must be endured, since …

Fragment 52
I don’t expect to touch heaven …
Personal rating 5/10, which might have been higher if more writings had existed to enjoy