Short Fiction in Antiquity Analysis


Probably the earliest form of fiction is the folktale in its various forms, including ballad and folk song. A folktale is a short narrative that is transmitted orally, with various tellers introducing modifications as the tale is passed along to a contemporary audience and down to succeeding generations. It is clearly impossible to come into direct contact with this oldest form of narrative as it existed in antiquity, but it is possible to know with considerable assurance what ancient folktales were like. For one thing, folktales still persist; for another, a comparison of extant folktales from around the globe reveals striking similarities and suggests that paleolithic audiences doubtless enjoyed the same fictive themes and patterns that continue to engross their descendants.

Folktales are popular stories that can be understood by most people in a society, whatever their social status and level of specialized knowledge. Though folktales in pure form are difficult to find in ancient writing, they are frequently embedded within seemingly historical narratives. This is true of two tales from ancient Egypt. The tale of Sinuhe (c. 1900 b.c.e.) involves the adventures of an Egyptian who is exiled from his native country. As Donald B. Redford points out in Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (1992), though the story of Sinuhe reflects plausible historical conditions, it is not certain whether or not it is fictional. In any event, the story of Sinuhe, a high-level bureaucrat at the royal court who flees after the ruler he has served is killed, goes off to the desert, where he lives and prospers among less ‘cultured’ peoples, and then triumphantly returns to Egypt in old age, welcomed by the new king, embodies motifs of adventure and wish-fulfillment often to be found wherever stories are told.

The story of Wen-Amon (eleventh century b.c.e.) is, or appears to be, an autobiographical account of an Egyptian merchant who attempts to trade with the nations of the eastern Mediterranean coast. This short narrative contains a distinct historical background, as Egypt has declined in political power, and the name of Egypt no longer inspires awe in its inhabitants. Wen-Amon wanders forlornly, begging the Prince of Byblos, Zakar- Baal, to give him some wood to bring back to Egypt. The prince finally consents, but not before reminding Wen-Amon that the mountain slopes are littered with the tombs of former Egyptian traders. Wen-Amon finally returns home, though the final parts of the story have not survived in manuscript. The Wen-Amon story’s idea of travel and return, combined with the suspense as to its outcome and the vulnerability of its protagonists, is a splendid example of how narrative works in deploying concrete incidents that can be read in the light of general meanings.


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“The narratives of literature,” wrote Northrop Frye in Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature” (1990), “descend historically from myths, or rather from the aggregate of myths we call a mythology.” While perhaps too sweeping a generalization, this statement by a major critic demonstrates how important the study of myth has become. Myths are stories about gods, which humans devise to explain creation, existence, death, and natural phenomena of all sorts. From one point of view, myths are religious truths; from another, they are fictions. These viewpoints are often assumed to conflict, although they do not if it is conceded that fictions can convey truths. Some of the most profound truths can perhaps be conveyed only indirectly. It is sometimes alleged that myths recede as scientific explanations of natural phenomena advance.

The Egyptians and the Mesopotamians were the first literate civilizations to produce imaginative tales that were written down as formal narratives. In Egyptian literature, mythic narratives, insofar as they are available to the modern world, existed largely to explain how the gods manifested themselves within nature. For instance, the story of the sun god Ra and his voyaging in both a day boat and a night boat is an explanation of the workings of the solar cycle and the alternation of light and darkness. Myth often has this conceptual, protoscientific side, where stories are used as modes to explain and speculate upon the cosmos. In Egypt as in other cultures, fictions conveyed truths.

The relation between myth and story in Mesopotamian literature is more complicated. Mesopotamia, the once-fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Iraq, produced the first literate civilization in about 3000 b.c.e. Ancient Mesopotamian literature actually comprises several literatures, that of the Sumerians, the earliest literate Mesopotamian people whose language cannot reliably be linked to any other group, and the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, all of whom spoke Semitic languages somewhat similar to Hebrew and Arabic. Most of the ancient Mesopotamian narratives that survive are in Akkadian or Babylonian and were unearthed by archaeological digs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Self-contained, relatively realistic stories like those of Sinuhe and Wen-Amon are rare in Mesopotamian literature. What is more typical is something like the Atrahasis epic. As Thorkild Jacobsen puts it in The Treasures of Darkness (1976), this is a story of beginnings, a story of the creation of mankind by the gods. The gods create mankind because they are tired of working and feel exploited by their supervisor-god Enlil. Man will take up the slack of laboring. Man does well at his task, so well that he reproduces a hundredfold, and there are so many men that there is a cacophony of noise, disturbing the rest of the gods. To reduce the noise, the gods send successively, plague, drought, and finally a terrible flood....

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Fables and Parables

Of the ancient narrative forms devised to serve a nonliterary purpose, the fable is perhaps the most ingratiating. The fable is usually short, often features animals that portray human weaknesses and vices, and is told to illustrate a moral truth, which may or may not be explicitly stated at the beginning or end. Fables have been found on Egyptian papyruses, among the birth tales of Buddha, and in Sanskrit literature. The fables best known in the Western world, however, come chiefly from Greece, the earliest known being the story of the hawk and the nightingale in Hesiod’s Erga kai Emerai (c. 700 b.c.e.; Works and Days, 1618). About two centuries later, a slave named Aesop composed fables, according to Herodotus (a Greek historian who himself told wonderful stories, sometimes of dubious factual value). Subsequently, Aesop came to be regarded as the originator of virtually all ancient fables, the charm of which, along with their utility in promoting virtuous and sensible behavior, earned for them a popularity that they have retained throughout the centuries. It is a rare child who does not know the story of the fox and the grapes or that of the dog in the manger. Many proverbs are essentially fables in outline form.

Fables have been cultivated by professional writers since classical times, though Greek and Roman writers were inclined to work them into larger literary contexts, an example being the Roman...

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The Babylonian poem called Gilgamesh (c. 2000 b.c.e.; English translation, 1917), based on a Sumerian original, is the earliest work to be called an “epic” by modern literary historians, although it is rather short for an epic. The story of a hero, his self-definition, and his search for immortality, Gilgamesh contains a series of episodes that each illustrates a discrete point, though bound together by the overall theme of the epic. The story of how Gilgamesh meets his friend, Enkidu (whose death spurs Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality), symbolizes the divide between nature and culture, as Enkidu, a wild man, is enticed into entering the walls of the city through the wiles of a...

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Comic and Satiric Fiction

Satire, which ridicules individuals, institutions, and sometimes other literary works for the sake of promoting better ones, also took narrative form in antiquity. Often, satire seems clearly allied with fables and parables in that the story is not told for its own sake, but some satirists are accomplished storytellers. In fact, Northrop Frye, in his influential Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957), identifies Menippean satire as one of the four characteristic forms that fiction has taken in Western literature. It is named for a Greek writer of the third century b.c.e., Menippus, whose works influenced a succession of Greek and Roman writers. The Saturae Menippeae of the Roman...

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Epic was “displaced”—to use W. P. Ker’s term (Epic and Romance, 1897)—by romance in the medieval world, but the distinction between them sometimes blurs, especially in the transitional romances of the early Christian era. The hero of a romance is likely to rival the epic warrior in such traits as strength, courage, and resourcefulness, but he is unlikely to serve as an idealized representative of a people or nation in the manner of, say, Vergil’s Aeneas. Rather, he is a private individual whose adventures do not culminate in the establishment of a state or the winning of a war but in winning a beautiful heroine—a character not generally found in epic. The titles of the early Greek romancesChaereas and...

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The Near and Far East

Medieval Persian poets developed a verse form called mathnavi for long narratives. Niẓmi of Ganja, who flourished late in the twelfth century, composed several of these, including Leyli o-Mejnun (twelfth century; Lailí and Majnún, 1836; also known as The Story of Layla and Majnun, 1966), a tragic poem akin to the courtly European romances of the same era.

Murasaki Shikibu (c. 978-c. 1030) prevails as the most illustrious of early Japanese romancers. Her Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933), composed c. 1004, has been called the oldest novel in the world. It includes a series of delicately crafted love stories and forcefully depicts Japanese court life...

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Albrecht, Michael von. A History of Roman Literature: From Livius Andronicus to Boethius, with Special Regard to Its Influence on World Literature. New York: E. J. Brill, 1997. An exhaustive survey of Roman literature and culture and its influence on modern letters, this volume includes bibliographical references and an index.

Cairns, Douglas L. Aidos: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. A historical and critical look at Greek literature and psychology in literature. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Canepa, Nancy...

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