Native American Oral Literature

The languages, political economies and religious beliefs of Native American peoples are extremely diverse, and so are their tales, orations, songs, chants and other oral genres. Oral works include trickster tales, jokes, naming, grievances and many genres have a spiritual or religious dimension. Most works were not translated into alphabetic forms until long after the arrival of Europeans. Writings before whites arrived was limited and/or later destroyed by the colonizing society. Non alphabetic texts share some of the mnemonic and narrative functions of literature. All literature has roots in the oral arts. From first contact, Europeans were intrigued by indigenous oral performances and sought to translate them into alphabetic written forms. The archive of Native American oral genres continues to expand as new instances are identified in the written record or transcribed in a modern form. Selections for the ninth edition represent some common genres before 1820. All Native peoples have stories of the earliest times. Trickster tales are also among the most ancient elements of Native American cultures. Tricksters can be wandering, bawdy, gluttonous, obscene and a threat to order. They can also be cultural heroes who helped establish the order of the world, thus contributing to creation tales. Tricksters an both create and destroy order. Oratory was the first Native American genre that Europeans recognized as a verbal art. The formalized modes of address that Native Americans used in their early encounters with Europeans were often lavishly described in narratives. Renaissance-era writers included moving and aesthetically pleasing speeches based more or less loosely on memory and other sources. They are reconstructed works of narrative drama. Transcribe author took indigenous forms from their ritual or other performance contexts and brought them in written form to non-Native audiences.



[Prologue: The Rise of the Danish Nation]

Describes a line of family who are leaders from whom Hrothgar is a descendant. Hrothgar orders a great mead hall (Heorot) be built. This is more than just a bar; it is Hrothgar’s throne and a place to distribute the spoils of war.

[Heorot Is Attacked]

There is a great demon who cannot stand to hear the happy sounds of comradery in Heorot. Grendel has lived in misery with other banished monsters. For the killing of Abel, the Lord exacts a price; they are the evil ones that God later kills in the flood. Grendel creeps into Heorot after the men have fallen asleep. He carries 30 of them back to his lair. All the remaining men go into mourning and feel helpless. They can see the demon’s trail. Grendel strikes again. The hall stands empty. Twelve years of woe follow. No one, young or old, is safe. Grendel takes over Heorot, but he cannot sit upon the throne being God’s outcast. The Lord was unknown to the people; they would only learn of him after death.

[The Hero Comes to Heorot]

People freak out with terror after dark. We meet Beowulf who is the mightiest man on earth. He set out to find the king in need and takes a small army of 14 by boat. One of Hrothgar’s men meets them on the shore. Beowulf explains that they have come to help slay the monster; won’t this man guide them to his leader? Tatchman agrees to lead Beowulf’s army to Hrothgar.  The army makes it to the mead hall and take a rest. The party announce themselves and request a meeting with Hrothgar. Hrothgar had known Beowulf as a boy; knew his parents. Hrothgar grants them entry. Beowulf explains how news of Grendel had come across the sea. He says he resolved to come help and the Geats supported his decision because he was such an awesome warrior. Beowulf says he is ready to face Grendel and take him down in a single combat. Beowulf has heard that Grendel doesn’t use weapons, so neither will he; hand-to-hand combat will be the valiant way to go. Whoever dies will be the judgment of God. Beowulf requests that if he dies Hrothgar send his breast-webbing back to his homeland as remembrance. Hrothgar doesn’t like that everyone knows he needs help, but he accepts it, and there is a feast at Heorot.

[Feast at Heorot]

At the party, Unferth asks Beowulf if the legend of the swimming contest is true. They learn that Beowulf’s challenger won the swimming contest; now they feel Grendel may win his. “So Breca made good his boast upon you and was proved right. No matter, therefor, how you may have fared in every bout and battle until now, this time you’ll be worsted; no one has ever outlasted an entire night against Grendel.” The gauntlet is thrown. You’ve had your say, Unferth, but you must be tipsy. “Breca could never move out farther or faster from me than I could manage to move from him.” A sea monster pulled me under, but I was wearing armour. “My sword plunged and the ordeal was over.” “From now on sailors would be safe, the deep sea raids were over for good…my sword had killed nine sea-monsters.” “…but worn out as I was, I survived, came through with my life.” “I cannot recall any fight you entered, Unferth, that bears comparison.” “The fact is, Unferth, if you were truly as keen or courageous as you claim to be Grendel would never have got away with such unchecked atrocity, attacks on your king, havoc in Heorot and horrors everywhere.” “He knows he can trample down you Danes to his heart’s content, humiliate and murder…But he will find me different.” “So the laughter started, the din got louder and the crowd was happy.” Hrothgar’s wife comes to thank and welcome everyone. Hrothgar leaves for bed. “‘Never, since my hand could hold a shield have I entrusted or given control of the Danes’ hall to anyone but you…’.”

[The Fight with Grendel]

“And before he bedded down, Beowulf, that prince of goodness, proudly asserted: ‘When it comes to fighting, I count myself as dangerous any day as Grendel.’” “…he does possess a wild strength. No weapons…unarmed he shall face me if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit.’” As they lay down to sleep, none of them expect to ever see home again. “Through the strength of one they all prevailed; they would crush their enemy and come through in triumph and gladness. The truth is clear: Almighty God rules over mankind and always has. Then out of the night came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift.” Grendel!  “In off the moors, down through the mist-bands God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping. The bane of the race of men roamed forth, hunting for a prey in the high hall.” He sees the men sleeping, but unbeknownst to him, Grendel’s fate has changed. Grendel attacks and eats a man. “Venturing closer, his talon was raised to attack Beowulf where he lay on the bed…” Beowulf grabs Grendel in a death hold. “…it was the worst trip the terror-monger had taken to Heorot…the two contenders crashed through the building.” Beowulf and Grendel tear up the place. “Then an extraordinary wail arouse, and bewildering fear came over the Danes…the howl of the loser, the lament of the hell-serf keening his wound.” As Beowulf fights with his hands, his army uses their swords, but to no avail. “…no blade on earth, no blacksmith’s art could ever damage their demon opponent.” “The monster’s whole body was in pain; a tremendous wound appeared on his shoulder…Beowulf was granted the glory of winning; Grendel was driven under the fen-bands, fatally hurt, to his desolate lair.” “…the whole of Grendel’s shoulder and arm,” were ripped off by Beowulf’s “ awesome grasp.”

[Celebration at Heorot]

The next day everyone can see Grendel’s bloody path of retreat. “With his death upon him, he had dived deep into his marsh-den, drowned out his life and his heathen soul; hell claimed him there.” The men begin to eulogize Beowulf’s worthy fight. “The man started to recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf’s triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines.” Later…”evil entered into Heremod.” Because of his defeating Grendel, Beowulf has now become immortal, for his story will live forever. A crowd is looking at Grendel’s left-behind body part. “Everybody said there was no honed iron hard enough to pierce him through, no time-proofed blade that could cut his brutal, blood-caked claw. Then the order was given for all hands to help to refurbish Heorot immediately.” “No group ever gathered in greater numbers or better order around their ring-giver.” “Inside Heorot there was nothing but friendship.” Beowulf is showered with gifts. “…each man on the bench who had sailed with Beowulf…received a bounty.” They shouted “…words and music for their warrior prince.”

(There is a nested tale explained in the footnotes.)

“The bright court of Heorot has been cleansed and now the word is that you want to adopt this warrior as a son…bask in your fortune…” Beowulf is given golden necklaces and rings. “She moved then to her place. Men were drinking wine at that rare feast; how could they know fate, the grim shape of things to come, the threat looming over many thanes as night approached and King Hrothgar prepared to retire to his quarter?” “It was their habit always and everywhere to be ready for action.”

[Another Attack]

“They went to sleep. And one paid dearly for his night’s ease…” “…an avenger lurked and was still alive…Grendel’s mother, monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs.” [Notice that this female character is never given a name. She is only known as Grendel’s mother. The loss of identity and naming are worthy theme in literature.] “But now his mother had sallied forth on a savage journey, grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge.” Grendel’s mother has one of Hrothgar’s most beloved men in her grip. “She had pounced and taken one of the retainers…To Hrothgar, this man was the most beloved of the friends.” Mother took Grendel’s bloody hand. “Beowulf was elsewhere. Earlier, after the award of the treasure, the Geat had been given another lodging…She had snatched their trophy, Grendel’s bloodied hand.” “…the old lord…was heartsore and weary when he heard the news: his highest-placed adviser, his dearest companion, was dead and gone.” “Where she is hiding, glutting on the corpse and glorying in her escape, I cannot tell; she has taken up the feud because of last night, when you killed Grendel.” “…this force for evil driven to avenge her kinsman’s death.” “Now help depends again on you and on you alone…I will compensate you for settling the feud.”

[Beowulf Fights Grendel’s Mother]

“…let us immediately set forth on the trail of this troll-dam. I guarantee you: she will not get away.” They are on the mother’s tracks. “…a hurt to each and every one of that noble company when they came upon Aeschere’s head at the foot of the cliff.” Beowulf suits up for battle. There is a detailed description of all the armor and weapons needed for the battle. “If this combat kills me, take care of my young company, my comrades in arms.” He leaves a verbal will. “With Hrunting I shall gain glory or die.” “…without more ado, he dived into the heaving depths of the lake.” Grendel’s mother “…sensed a human observing her outlandish lair from above. So she lunged and clutched and managed to catch him in her brutal grip; but his body, for all that, remained unscathed: the mesh of the chain-mail saved him on the outside.” “…for all his courage he could never use the weapons he carried” even though “…droves of sea-beasts… attacked with tusks and tore at his chain-mail.” Beowulf lands a mighty blow on her head, yet the sword does not phase her. “…the decorated blade came down ringing and singing on her head…his battle-torch extinguished; the shining blade refused to bite.” Beowulf throws the sword away and is ready for hand-to-hand combat. “Then, in a fury, he flung his sword away…he would have to rely on the might of his arm.” “But the mesh of chain-mail on Beowulf’s shoulder shielded his life, turned the edge and tip of the blade.” Beowulf sees a huge, ancient sword in her collection. He chops her neck. “Then he saw a blade that boded well, a sword in her armory, an ancient heirloom from the days of the giants, an ideal weapon, one that any warrior would envy, but so huge and heavy of itself only Beowulf could wield it in a battle. So the Shieldings’ hero hard-pressed and enraged, took a firm hold of the hilt and swung the blade in an arc, a resolute blow that bit deep into her neck-bone and severed it entirely, toppling the doomed house of her flesh; she fell to the floor.” Beowulf sees Grendel’s corpse and cuts off its head. People are giving up on waiting for Beowulf to return. “The Geat captain saw treasure in abundance but carried no spoils from those quarters except for the head and the inlaid hilt embossed with jewels.” He swims to the surface. “His thanes advanced in a troop to meet him, thanking God and taking great delight in seeing their prince back safe and sound.” “It was a task for four to hoist Grendel’s head on a spear…” Hrothgar speaks of how men can take the high road or the low road.  “Tomorrow morning our treasure will be shared and showered upon you.” “Happiness came back, the hall was thronged, and a banquet set forth…”

[Beowulf Returns Home]

“Warriors rose quickly, impatient to be off: their own country was beckoning…” Beowulf swears friendship with the camp of Hrothgar. Regarding Beowulf: “You are strong in body and mature in mind, impressive in speech.” Hrothgar says that he hopes Beowulf will one day become King of the Geats. Helping equals friendship. Here, there is a bit of foreshadowing: “…the good and gray-haired Dane…kissed Beowulf and embraced his neck, then broke down in sudden tears…nevermore would they meet each other face to face.” Weapons are viewed as status symbols. The story follows Beowulf home where he is given gold, a magnificent house and a wife. “A queen should weave peace, not punish the innocent with loss of life for imagined insults.” “Beowulf’s return was reported to Hygelac as soon as possible.” Beowulf tells his story to Hygelac after returning home. Beowulf then tells of how Grendel’s mother came for revenge. “…Hrothgar’s treasures…these, King Hygelac, I am happy to present to you as gifts.” “…thus Beowulf bore himself with valor; he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honor and took no advantage…” “…the best example of a gem-studded sword in the Geat treasury. This he laid on Beowulf’s lap…rewarded him with land as well…a hall and a throne.”

[The Dragon Wakes]

Hygelac dies and Beowulf rules for fifty years without incident “…until one began to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow where he guarded a hoard…” “The intruder who broached the dragon’s treasure and moved him to wrath had never meant to. It was desperation on the part of a slave fleeing the heavy hand of some master…” “…somebody now forgotten had buried the riches of a highborn race in this ancient cache.”  The dragon found this underground lair and stayed there for three centuries. “When the dragon awoke, trouble flared again.” The dragon begins to terrorize the land. “The first to suffer were the people on the land, but before long it was their treasure-giver who would come to grief.” “…the Geat nation bore the brunt of his brutal assaults and virulent hate.” The dragon burns many homes to the ground, including Beowulf’s, “…so the war-king planned and plotted his revenge.” He has an awesome shield made and reminisces about a past victory. It is explained how Beowulf ascended to the throne. “Heardred lay slaughtered and Onela returned to the land of Sweden, leaving Beowulf to ascend the throne.” Beowulf and his men find the one who stole the dragon’s cup and make him work for them. They want him to lead them to the dragon’s lair. Beowulf “was sad at heart, unsettled yet ready, sensing his death.” He reflects on past rivalries and battles.


[Beowulf Attacks the Dragon]

“Now I am old, but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight…” “But I shall be meeting molten venom in the fire he breathes, so I go forth in mail-shirt and shield.” He doesn’t want his army to help. Beowulf shouts at the dragon. “The hoard-guard recognized a human voice, the time was over for peace and parleying.” Both man and beast were scared “[y]et his shield defended the renowned leader’s life and limb for a shorter time than he meant it to: that final day was the first time when Beowulf fought and fate denied him glory in battle.” Although he “struck hard at the enameled scales,” he “scarcely cut through.” “Beowulf was foiled of a glorious victory.” “…he who had once ruled was furled in fire and had to face the worst…that hand-picked troop broke ranks and ran for their lives to the safety of the wood.” Oh! Thanks, guys! But in his darkest hour, one dude had Beowulf’s back. “His name was Wiglaf…a well-regarded Shylfing warrior.” “He could not hold back: one hand brandished the yellow-timbered shield, the other drew his sword…” Seeing Wiglaf’s bravery, Beowulf “bequeathed to Wiglaf innumerable weapons. And now the youth was to enter the line of battle with his lord, his first time to be tested as a fighter. His spirit did not break and the ancestral blade would keep its edge, as the dragon discovered as soon as they came together in combat. Wiglaf gives a rousing battle speech. He promises to stand by Beowulf, but Wiglaf’s shield is destroyed. Beowulf shares his. “…the war-king threw his whole strength behind a sword stroke and connected with the skull. And Naegling snapped. Beowulf’s ancient iron-gray sword let him down in the fight.” Beowulf had never had much luck with swords; he always fought better with his bare hands. “When the chance came, he caught the hero in a rush of flame and clamped sharp fangs into his neck. Beowulf’s body ran wet with his life-blood.” Wiglaf “saw the king in danger at his side and displayed his inborn bravery and strength.” Wiglaf’s “decorated sword sank into its belly and the flames grew weaker.” Beowulf also stabbed a knife in the dragon’s flank, dealing the deadly blow. “…partners in nobility, had destroyed the foe. So every man should act, be at hand when needed…this would be the last of his many labors and triumphs in the world.” “Beowulf discovered deadly poison suppurating inside him” causing nausea. They washed his wounds although “…his allotted time was drawing to a close, death was very near.” Because he knows he has lived an honorable life, he feels he will go to heaven. Right before Beowulf’s death scene there is this: “I give thanks that I behold this treasure…I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die. Now that I have bartered my last breath to own this fortune, it is up to you to look after their needs…construct a barrow on a headland on the coast, after my pyre has cooled.” Call it “Beowulf’s Barrow.” He dies.

[Beowulf’s Funeral]

Regarding the cowards who abandoned the fight: “Before long the battle-dodgers abandoned the wood, the ones who had let down their lord earlier, the tail-turners, ten of them together. When he needed them most, they had made off.” “Then a stern rebuke was bound to come from the young warrior to the ones who had been cowards.” “…when the worst happened too few rallied around the prince. ‘So it is good-bye now to all you know and love on your home ground, the open-handedness, the giving of war-swords. Every one of you with freeholds of land, our whole nation, will be dispossessed, once princes from beyond get tiding of how you turned and fled and disgraced yourselves. A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame.” We have to always assume that our enemies are ready to attack. There is a description of how the Geats became at odds with the Swedes. “…they will cross our borders and attack in force when they find out that Beowulf is dead.” “That huge cache, gold inherited from an ancient race, was under a spell–which meant no one was ever permitted to enter the ring-hall unless God Himself, mankind’s Keeper, True King of Triumphs, allowed some person pleasing to Him–and in His eyes worthy–to open the hoard.” “The highborn chiefs who had buried the treasure declared it until doomsday so accursed that whoever robbed it would be guilty of wrong and grimly punished for their transgression, hasped in hell-bonds in heathen shrines. Yet Beowulf’s gaze at the gold treasure when he first saw it had not been selfish…’Often when one man follows his own will many are hurt…’.” The village gathers wood for the funeral pyre. Some begin to think about the dragon’s treasure that is now unguarded: “hurry to work and haul out the priceless store…and backwash take the treasure-minder. Then coiled gold was loaded on a cart in great abundance, and the gray-haired leader, the prince on his bier, borne to Hronesness.” Many people were so sad that they began to moan and wail. One woman freaks out about their uncertain future. “…high and imposing, a marker that sailors could see from far away…their hero’s memorial…” “they let the ground keep that ancestral treasure…” The last lines read like this: “They said that of all the kings upon earth he was the man most gracious and fair-minded, kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.”

Beowulf 9th century Introductory Material

This text survived as a tattered document written in Old English. It describes an heroic age of heroes, dragons and monsters; family, enemies, song and celebration. It celebrates the culture of the past that by the year 1000 had all but disappeared. The book can be dated to 1000 a.d. and is called Anglo-Saxon literature. There are other tales in the book that was found. They varied by genres, but all contained monsters and heroes. There are three monsters in Beowulf: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. This shows medieval English culture and its ability to integrate pagan Germanic history within frameworks of the Christian Middle Ages. The poem must be older than the book, for the copying of the story contains copying errors. These tales are known among the Scandinavians with the poem’s setting taking place sometime in the 6th century. Oral tradition of the tale would have existed first. It is an English poem, but not about English people. The character, Beowulf, is Swedish and serves in a Danish court. In the setting, England is only beginning to be settled by Germans. The Christian audience would have heard of a pre-Christian world where fate (wyrd) governs life events. Yet in the poem, Christianity is left ambiguous; Grendel is one of “Cain’s clan.” Beowulf first fights Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, returning home a celebrated hero. Decades later he confronts a dragon and Wiglaf comes to help Beowulf. The monsters are complex. Grendel is combination monster and man; a forlorn outcast. Grendel shows human emotions. Grendel’s mother is motivated by the desire to avenge her son’s death—viewed as an appropriate response. When Beowulf fights the dragon, our hero is the one who is invading the dragon’s territory. Every clash is couched in terms of equality and balance.

Another level of the story explores kinship, tribe, warrior and lord. Beowulf goes from one of an army of Geats to moving up into the ranks of Hrothgar. Later he returns to rule the Geats. The most valuable gift here is that of community. Heorot, the meeting place, is seen as the heart of community. Swords and weapons also link warriors over time and space. Rings, or golden collars, carry both material and social value and they mark loyalty between individuals and groups. Material possessions can be passed on to others to represent connections. Weapons are instruments of warfare and a symbol of continuity. Heroic songs are also a communal ritual connecting the past to the present and building bonds of friendship. In its original form, the poem had a strong rhythmic quality with an alliterative and songlike quality.

Confessions by Augustine

From Book I  [Childhood]

Discusses attempts at communication before he was able to speak. As he grows he observes how others use words to express themselves. He finds school lessons torturous, yet if he doesn’t learn he is beaten. It seems like no one thinks whipping children is horrible except him. Parents and teachers seem to think punishing him is no big deal. He loves to play which is punished, but he notes that grown men do the same things and are rewarded. He dislikes learning, especially when forced, but that is exactly what happens. No one does well when they are forced to do something—even if it is for their own good. God was right for punishing me because I eventually did learn, and that is the only way my education would have happened. “…every disorder of the soul is its own punishment.” He feels he is supposed to be more enmeshed in the stories he is learning in school than he is within his own life. As a boy I was wrong to love the empty and hate the useful. When I was able to interpret a piece of work better than others in the class I would win great applause. Was all that not just smoke and mirrors?


From Book II  [The Pear Tree]

As a teenager I was bent on sinning. I had a strong appetite for flesh and was a horny youth. My parents cared less about my morals and more about me being able to give fine speeches. I ran with a gang and we would steal stuff just for the thrill of it. I loved the evil within me; I loved being bad for its own sake. It wasn’t that I needed pears because I had better pears of my own. Once I stole them I threw them away. Perhaps it was the thrill of acting against God’s law. I found pleasure in the forbidden only because it was forbidden.


From Book III  [Student at Carthage]

I loved the thought of love. I wanted sex with no commitment. I hated the very thought of God. I was polluting my relationships but trying to cover my debased feelings and desires. I fell in love but made myself unhappy with jealousy. I wonder why the most popular plays are the ones that make us cry? We want to be joyful. Do we get some sort of thrill from being able to pity others? Everyone in my day wanted to be a lawyer. I thought the less honest I was the more famous I would be. As I studied I found much of my classmates’ behaviors disgusting. I would study Cicero to learn rhetoric, but what I really sought was immortal wisdom. While studying the book of Cicero I began to have thoughts beyond the book; it made me shift interests. When I read the bible at this time it seemed dumb and simplistic compared to Cicero and other authors I’d read.


From Book V  [Augustine Leaves Carthage for Rome]

I was invited to Rome for more prestige and money, but the real reason was because I heard the students behaved better. I made the place I was living seem worse and the place I was going sound better than it really was. My mother cried when I left. In the bigger picture, my going away was to bring her more happiness than she could predict.


From Book VI  [Earthly Love]

Mother had come to be with me. She was upset I wasn’t yet a Christian. At least I’d stopped being Manichean. I became engaged. Mom picked out the girl, but I had to wait because she wasn’t yet old enough to be married. About ten friends and I would debate how to make a better world. We became very excited about living in a communal house. Then we remembered our wives and knew they wouldn’t go for such a thing, so we dropped it. My girlfriend left and left the baby with me. My heart was ripped out. Then I realized that I didn’t want marriage, I just wanted sex. I took another woman, but my heartache did not go away.


From Book VIII  [Conversion]

Continuing to sin was more comfortable than the way of the Lord I had not tried. My mind was telling me that I couldn’t break out of my old habits. I knew that I should go in a new direction, but I was so scared. I saw so many men, women and children turning toward Christianity. Why not me? The message was that I must turn away from my sin—stop my ears to my sinful desires. My buddy, Alypius, saw me struggling and crying. Will I forever have to apologize to God? Why not end all of my uncleanliness right now? I heard a voice on the wind that seems to say “Take and read” and I felt this message was about the bible. Whatever I read first will be a sign: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.” From that moment on I was totally changed. Mother was overjoyed.


From Book IX  [Death of His Mother]

On our way back to Africa mother died. My mother was the one that brought me to God. Over time, Mom became a big fan of wine. When she once got into an argument with another woman, Mom was called a drunkard. It hit her so hard that she never drank another drop. Mother treated her husband as her god and accepted all his actions with patience. Mother would not stand for servants speaking against her or disrupting the harmony of her family; they would be punished. She was a peacemaker. She did not tell people anything negative she had heard about them. Not only should we never use words to harm, we should speak kindly to engender peace. She converted her husband toward the end of her life. She treated everyone like she was their mother. We were discussing the presence of Truth—just us two alone. She said that she had attained all her goals and that there was really nothing on earth to keep her here. She asked her sons to remember her at every altar they may visit. She didn’t mind where she was buried because she would always be the same distance from God. My son (about 16) began to cry. We didn’t want to be sad because she had not died miserably, nor did she wholly die. My heart grieved because the situation was so new. When I was taking care of her she called me a good, dutiful son. We had always lived together. In front of others I would hold my emotions, but God knew my heart was crushing. I had a good cry session alone with God. I know my Mom is in heaven. I remind you of her good deeds and pray for her sins. Please keep her in your protection.

Augustine 354-430 B.C.

Born between antiquity and the medieval millennium, his autobiography, Confessions, draws on Roman orators such as Cicero, yet reaches forward to explore how the word of God had been lodged within his soul all along.

Life and Times

Augustine was born in North Africa during a time of war along with cultural and religious transitions. Mystery and cult religions were popular. Augustine was able to travel over Northern Africa and into Italy. His interest was captured by Manicheanism, a dualistic religion that resembled early Christianity: life of the mind, spiritual purity. Augustine became a teacher of grammar and established a school of rhetoric. In Italy he became the Chair of rhetoric and wrote speeches that were used at court. He then became interested in Neoplatonism: a philosophy and a quasi-religious form of mysticism, yet he slowly became increasingly drawn to Christianity. Bishop Ambrose and his mother, Monica, teamed up to bring Augustine in to the Christian faith, which he did when he was 32. Both his mother and son died. He returned to Africa alone, surrounded himself with other Christians and turned his home into a monastery. Augustine gained a reputation as a spiritual leader and later became an ordained priest.


Augustine probably began his autobiography around age 43. Writing Confessions opened up the floodgates; he went on to write tons of stuff. Augustine began the autobiographical genre. He wants Confessions to turn his reader inward and contemplate the journey toward the divine. Augustine had one girlfriend for years with whom he had a son, Adeodatus. His mother arranged a marriage to another woman, but Augustine’s relationship with God took over his life. His journey was his search for the self. By revealing his deepest self and his struggles, others began to seek out his works.

Circling the Mediterranean: Europe and the Islamic World

The Mediterranean Sea brought together Europe, North Africa and the Near and Middle East. Not only commodities, but also stories and songs continually circulated from place to place, crisscrossing the water to link nations. The opposition of “the Islamic world” and “Europe” is a modern invention: it was not the way medieval people described themselves or the world.  The cultural ferment of the Islamic world was an essential element in the emergence of the early modern West. The story of pre-modern history and literature is, therefore, above all a story of connections, interaction, and mutual influence. In other words, the Middle East helped shape what we consider European texts.

Christianity and Platonism

The influence of the Roman Empire was spreading which worried other cultures. The expansion of the Roman Empire culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and scattering (or “diaspora”} of the Jewish community. About three centuries later this heterogeneous collection of new religious orientations became codified as a single Christian doctrine. Augustine’s autobiography, the Confessions, worked as the lynchpin between Roman philosophies and new Christian ideals. These moments illustrate the imaginative pull of classical literature which persisted during the period of Christianity’s emergence. The written works and other customs began to transform as Christianity grew in popularity. The yearning for a mystical faith that would provide a sense of purpose was ubiquitous in the late Roman Empire. In the 4th century Christianity became Roman state religion. It was an empire so vast that it had two capitals. The waves of invasions of Italy by Germanic tribes came to a head in the fifth century, when Rome endured a series of weak rulers. Augustine and Boethius, writing in the 5th and 6th centuries, bear witness to the decay of Rome and to the birth of something entirely new, as a Christian culture, various and diffuse, rose out of the ashes of empire. The simultaneous emergence of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity can be described as a kind of twin birth, both of them formed in the crucible of Roman aggression in the first century. The Jewish diaspora laid the groundwork for many Christian “beginning” stories.

The Spread of Islam

The dissemination of the Qur’an by Muhammad in the 7th century and the formation of an Islamic community affected the development of Mediterranean culture. In Ibn Ishaq’s account of Muhammad’s life, we find a community struggling to meet the expectations found in the Qur’an, and to the exemplary life of its prophet, Muhammad. The revealed book and the life were the religious guidelines of an empire that grew almost overnight to dominate large swathes of the Middle East and North Africa. Islamic rule extended westward through Spain into southern France and Persia to India. The spread of Islam took place not only through cultural and religious means, but also through direct military conquest. The most important of the many religious divisions is of the Sunni from Shi’a Islam: the former centers on a strict conformity to the exemplary life of the Prophet Muhammad and a literal reading of the Holy Book; the latter, instead, prescribes a special veneration of the family of the Prophet, especially his daughter Fatima, her husband and their sons. There was a later medieval emergence of Sufi mysticism.

Internal squabbling finally gave way to utter chaos with the invasion of the Mongols in the early 13th century and their seizure of Baghdad in 1258. Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo—the various nations yoked under Islamic rule, shared one crucial element: the Arabic language. Arabic was the standard language of conversation, administration, and poetic composition, not only for Muslims, but also for Christians and Jews who lived in regions under Islamic rule, such as al-Andalus. Arabic language served to unify diverse populations, in much the same way as Greek had done in the ancient eastern Mediterranean and Latin would do in medieval Europe. Poetic traditions in Arabia before the revelation of the Qur’an had placed special value on recitation and the musical quality of verse, its rhythmic repetitions and use of end rhyme. Because the Qur’an itself conformed to many of these pre-Islamic norms, it became a standard model for poetic excellence while maintaining its preeminent theological value. Persia came under Islamic influence and offered gifts as well. The Ottomans held Persian language, art, and poetics in high esteem, and imported painters as well as writers to serve their imperial court. Finally, the marriage of religious devotion and an exquisite poetic sensibility, so finely expressed in the lyrics of Attar, Rumi, and Hafez, would come to be a crucial part of the literary legacy of Islam, widely disseminated not only among the community of Muslim readers, but also among the diverse modern audiences of world literature.

A productive feature of medieval culture was the intersection of poetics and philosophy. In these strikingly parallel cases, Platonic philosophy supplied the means to express a religious worldview that focuses particularly—whether in Christian or in Islamic terms—on how the individual soul can come to experience the divine presence. Avicenna began to interpret the literal journey metaphorically or even mystically, understanding the singular ascent of the Prophet as a model for the journey that every soul must make toward God. This text, known as the Libro della Scala (or Book of the Ladder) was widely disseminated, providing a vision of the layered heavens that would inspire European Christian writers, including Dante. The influence of Islamic literature was felt not only through the exalted union of philosophy and theology with poetics but also on a more mundane, vernacular level. The vibrant tradition of frame-tale narratives, in which an outer layer organized a series of nested narratives that are contained within the frame like the layers of an onion, had a long history in the Mediterranean region. The genre took off in Persian and Arabic literatures. Other collections and their frame-tale form served as the inspiration for many European manifestations of the genre.


The Invention of the West

The idea of the West as a synonym for Christian Europe—which seems so natural and familiar to modern readers—did not even begin to emerge until the late Middle Ages. Christian European Jews were only sporadically tolerated, and Muslims were virtually unknown. Latin was used for religion and politics. Latin’s cultural hold was stronger: medieval Christians used it exclusively to compose their philosophical and scientific works, while both Arabic and Persian functioned as languages of literature and learning for Muslims. Beginning in the 9th century, however, and with increasing frequency from the 12th century onward, vernacular languages such as English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish became more common vehicles for poetic composition.

The medieval map, with its deeply religious imaginative geography and central focus on Jerusalem, illuminates the ways in which the repeated cycles of European warfare around the Mediterranean and into the Middle East—called “Crusades,” after the cross (Latin crux) sewn by the warriors onto their garments—functioned not just as actual military campaigns, but also as symbolic assaults designed to reclaim control of the spiritual homeland of the medieval Christian. The Crusades functioned mainly as opportunities for economic development and international cooperation among the nations of Europe, helping to unify these disparate Christian nations through their shared opposition to the Muslim enemy. Anti-Muslim violence in the form of crusades was therefore closely linked with the persecution of Jews and the early emergence of anti-Semitism. The opposition of Christian and non-Christian, so fundamental to the ideology of the crusades, permeates the epic literature of the Middle Ages. Metaphorically, the victory of Christian over pagan is presented as a template for all holy war.

The epic genre began to emerge, originally in oral form. Epic, whether in England or in Persia, creates a sense of national identity by evoking a common historical origin, but it also grafts upon the rootstock of native myth new forms of identity—especially religious forms imported from outside the borders of the nation. Epic is often opposed to romance: the former is portrayed as a masculine genre dedicated to the deeds of knights and the matters of war; the latter as a feminine genre that focuses on the relations of the lady and her lover, confined to the domestic sphere of the court. Both genres, which rose to prominence in the 12th century, share the idealized image of the knight: if he expresses his chivalry on the field of battle, the work is epic, but if his prowess is displayed in the private space of the bedchamber, the work is romance. The French origins of the romance genre are closely tied to the emergence of French as a literary language. Latin was unquestionably the primary language of scholarly learning, but vernacular or spoken languages increasingly came to be the first choice for poetic composition. In the 12th century, French was the first of the European languages to be elevated in this way; by the 14th century, other vernaculars had also begun to be widely used. Latin was still trying to hold on and expand out into literature. Petrarch is considered Renaissance—and used early 14th century Latin and Italian. Boccaccio is considered medieval—mid-14th century Italian/Latin. The example of these two contemporaries illustrates the ways in which period divisions, like geographical divisions, sometimes obscure the profound continuities that underlie literary history.

Even medieval authors longed for classical antiquity, even though we associated this idea with the Renaissance. While we can read Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan in the context of the emergence of Latin humanism, they can also be seen as central participants in the late medieval European flowering of the frame-tale genre. Transmitted from India to Persia, then disseminated throughout the Islamic world and across the Mediterranean, frame-tale narratives such as the Thousand and One Nights were widely popular, both in written and in oral form. Petrus Alfonsi’s work is just one of the first in a long series of frame-tale narratives. The age of Boccaccio and Chaucer also witnessed the rise of yet one more genre centered on the crossing of cultural boundaries: the travel narrative.

Summer Reading Part 5: Walden, or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau Chapter 3: Reading

[What better ways to spend leisure time in the woods? You know I freaked out that Thoreau dedicated an entire chapter to reading!]
“Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. It is not enough even to be able to speak the language of that nation by which they are written, for there is a memorable interval between the spoken and the written language, the language heard and the language read. The one is commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers. The other is the maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue, this is our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak” (81).
There are differences between the spoken and the written word. “No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;–not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech. Two thousand summers have imparted to the monuments of Grecian literature, as to her marbles, only a maturer golden and autumnal tint, for they have carried their own serene and celestial atmosphere into all lands to protect them against the corrosion of time. Books are the treasured wealth of the road and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind. When the illiterate and perhaps scornful trader has earned by enterprise and industry his coveted leisure and independence, and is admitted to the circles of wealth and fashion, he turns inevitably at last to those still higher but yet inaccessible circles of intellect and genius, and is sensible only of the imperfection of his culture and the vanity and insufficiency of all his riches, and further proves his good sense by the pains which he takes to secure for his children that intellectual culture whose want he so keenly feels; and thus it is that he becomes the founder of a family.”
One must be aware when reading a translation of the changes that occur between another language and your own.
“…reading as a noble intellectual exercise…this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-top to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.
“I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives. Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading” (83-4). [Here, Thoreau goes into a discussion on light reading.] “The result is dullness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general delirium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties” (84).
When you read a good book there is no one to talk to about it. [This is a sensation often felt by first generation college students as they progress in their studies. The higher they go, the tighter the circle becomes regarding who will be interested in your studies. This is why classrooms and study groups are so important. In these spaces, one can what I call “use ALL your words” and discuss the depth of the text and concepts with people who have been experiencing the same thing. Once outside that bubble, the number of people interested becomes much smaller. This can make higher learning an insular process.] “One who has just come from reading perhaps one of the best English books will find how many with whom he can converse about it? Or suppose he comes from reading a Greek or Latin classic in the original, whose praises are familiar even to the so-called illiterate; he will find nobody at all to speak to, but must keep silence about it. Indeed, there is hardly the professor in our colleges, who, if he has mastered the difficulties of the language, has proportionately mastered the difficulties of the wit and poetry of a Greek poet, and has any sympathy to impart to the alert and heroic reader; and as for the sacred Scriptures, or Bibles of mankind, who in this town can tell me even their titles? Most men do not know that any nation but the Hebrews have had a scripture. A man, any man, will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; but here are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of;–and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers and class-books, and when we leave school, the ‘Little Reading,’ and story-books, which are for boys and beginners; and our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.
“I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced, whose names are hardly know here. Or shall I hear the name of Plato and never read his book? As if Plato were my townsman and I never saw him,–my next neighbor and I never heard him speak or attended to the wisdom of his words. But how actually is it? His Dialogues, which contain what was immortal in him, lie on the next shelf, and yet I never read them. We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects. We should be as good as the worthies of antiquity, but partly by first knowing how good they were. We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper” (85-6).
Somewhere there is a book that speaks directly to your situation. “It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life. Moreover, with wisdom we shall learn liberality. The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes into silent gravity and exclusiveness by his faith, may think it is not true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, traveled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal, and treated his neighbors accordingly, and is even said to have invented and established worship among men. Let him humbly commune with Zoroaster then, and through the liberalizing influence of all the worthies, with Jesus Christ himself, and let ‘our church’ go by the board” (86).
Never stop learning! Each village should have books and wise men to teach year-round whatever we want to learn.