Millions of years have gone by with each generation telling its tales to the next one. The world being a blank slate, each tale brought with it, a new concept raising varied beliefs for individuals. All that we are today is an accumulation of these years. We’re lucky enough to have the resources to store the history that we create but in the case of the ancient world, reciting and singing poetic compositions was the way stories were told. People were, in fact, employed for this, partly to remember oral history, geology, and law.
The earliest recognized poems came from the Sumerian community in the form of hymns and chants. The poetry of the past has taught us a lot about religion, culture, and prayers but also daily activities, love stories, and historical accounts.
Here are a few beautiful poems and excerpts from the long-gone past:
This poem belongs to the Sumerian era. Since the Sumerian Civilization was the first civilization to develop a written language, this poem is considered to be the oldest love poem to have ever been written. It was a part of a yearly ritual known as “sacred marriage”. In this love song, a female speaker Innana (goddess of love and fertility) expresses her love and desire in form of erotic praises for the Sumer King Shu-Sin (Dumuzi).
Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you.
Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber,
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you.
Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber.
Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey-filled,
Let me enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey.
Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.
Your spirit, I know where to cheer your spirit,
Bridegroom, sleep in our house until dawn,
Your heart, I know where to gladden your heart,
Lion, sleep in our house until dawn.
You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses,
My lord god, my lord protector,
My Shu-Sin, who gladdens Enlil’s heart,
Give my pray of your caresses.
Your place goodly as honey, pray lay your hand on it,
Bring your hand over like a gishban-garment,
Cup your hand over it like a gishban-sikin-garment
It is a balbale-song of Inanna.
(Translated by Samuel Noah Kramer)
Belonging to the Augustan period, Virgil was one of the greatest Roman poets to have ever lived. “So, you traitor” is an excerpt from his epic, The Aeneid (IV) which tells the tale of Aeneas, a Trojan who traveled to Italy and became the ancestor of Romans. Here, Virgil describes the parting of Aeneas from his lover Dido, since he must carry on his mission. This leads to Dido committing suicide after having her heart broken.
“So, you traitor, you really believed you’d keep
this a secret, this great outrage? Steal away
in silence from my shores? Can nothing hold you back?
Not our love? Not the pledge once sealed with our right hands?
Not even the thought of Dido doomed to a cruel death?
Why labor to rig your fleet when the winter’s raw,
to risk the deep when the Northwind’s closing in?
You cruel, heartless — Even if you were not
pursuing alien fields and unknown homes,
even if ancient Troy were standing, still,
who’d sail for Troy across such heaving seas?
You’re running away — from me? Oh, I pray you
by these tears, by the faith in your right hand —
what else have I left myself in all my pain? —
by our wedding vows, the marriage we began,
if I deserve some decency from you now,
if anything mine has ever won your heart,
pity a great house about to fall I pray you,
if prayers have any place — reject this scheme of yours!
Thanks to you, the African tribes, Numidian warlords
hate me, even my own Tyrians rise against me.
Thanks to you, my sense of honor is gone,
my one and only pathway to the stars,
the renown I once held dear. In whose hands,
my guest, do you leave me here to meet my death?
‘Guest’ — that’s all that remains of ‘husband’ now.
But why do I linger on? Until my brother Pygmalion
batters down my walls? Or Iarbas drags me off, his slave?
If only you’d left a baby in my arms — our child —
before you deserted me! Some little Aeneas
playing about our halls, whose features at least
would bring you back to me in spite of all,
I would not feel so totally devastated,
(Translated by Robert Fagles)
This excerpt from the Indian epic Ramayana narrates the life of Prince Rama who was in exile for fourteen years. It depicts Sita’s Swayamvar, a ceremony held in royal families where the girl chooses a husband for herself among a set of suitable candidates. Sita’s father claims that whosoever can lift the divine bow and string it shall be married to Sita. While a whole lot of men from various parts of the land tried and failed miserably, Prince Rama did not.
Janak monarch of Videha spake his memage near and far,
He shall win my peerless Sita who shall bend my bow of war,
Suitors came from farthest regions, warlike princes known to fame,
Vainly strove to wield the weapon, left Videha in their shame.
Viswa-mitra royal rishi, Rama true and Lakshman bold,
Came to fair Mithila’s city from Ayodhya famed of old,
Spake in pride the royal rishi: “Monarch of Videha’s throne,
Grant, the wondrous bow of Rudra be to princely Rama shown.”
Janak spake his royal mandate to his lords and warriors bold:
“Bring ye forth the bow of Rudra decked in garlands and in gold,”
And his peers and proud retainers waiting on the monarch’s call,
Brought the great and goodly weapon from the city’s inner hall.
Ferdowsi was a Persian poet who wrote one of the longest epics known to date, the Shahnameh meaning Book of Kings. Here, in “Alas for youth,” he explains the significance of youth in one’s life. He mentions that people often forget about their capability to do things during a young stage of life leaving it for when they get older and ultimately fail. He expresses his regret for wasted youth trying to convey that it should always be filled with joy and not sorrow.
Much have I labored, much read o’er
Of Arabic and Persian lore,
Collecting tales unknown and known;
Now two and sixty years are flown.
Regret, and deeper woe of sin,
’Tis all that youth has ended in,
And I with mournful thoughts rehearse
Bu Táhir Khusrawáni’s verse:
“I mind me of my youth and sigh,
Alas for youth, for youth gone by!”
(Translated by R. A. Nicholson)
Dante is one of the most famous Italian poets. He was the first poet ever to establish the use of vernacular language in written literature, which otherwise, could only be understood by the highly educated. In this sonnet, Dante highlights the opposite feelings of love and sorrow and tries to join them like two halves of a whole.
Upon a day, came Sorrow in to me,
Saying, ‘I’ve come to stay with thee a while’;
And I perceived that she had ushered Bile
And Pain into my house for company.
Wherefore I said, ‘Go forth — away with thee!’
But like a Greek she answered, full of guile,
And went on arguing in an easy style.
Then, looking, I saw Love come silently,
Habited in black raiment, smooth and new,
Having a black hat set upon his hair;
And certainly the tears he shed were true.
So that I asked, ‘What ails thee, trifler?’
Answering, he said: ‘A grief to be gone through;
For our own lady’s dying, brother dear.’
(Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)
Hailing from ancient Mesopotamia, the Epic of Gilgamesh was one of the world’s first works in the field of literature. It recites the story of a Sumerian King on a quest to find the secret to immortality. Gilgamesh was a cruel king and people were terrified of him. He used to sacrifice warriors whenever he felt like fighting, raped women, and threatened everybody.
When the people of Uruk complained to the gods that a king should not be unjust to its people, the gods listened. They then told Aruru, the god of creation, that since she made Gilgamesh, she must also make someone strong enough to stand up to him. This led to the coming of Enkidu.
He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation
who knew, was wise in all manners!
Gilgamesh, who saw the deep, the country’s foundation,
who knew, was wise in all matters!
and learnt of everything the sum of wisdom.
He saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden,
he brought back a tale of before the Deluge.
He came a far road, was weary, found peace,
and set all his labors on a tablet of stone.
He built the rampart of Uruk-the-Sheepfold,
of holy Eanna, the sacred storehouse.
See its wall like a strand of wool,
view its parapet that none could copy!
Take the stairway of a bygone era,
draw near to Eanna, seat of Ishtar the goddess,
that no later king could ever copy!
Climb Uruk’s wall and walk back and forth!
Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork!
Were its bricks not fired in an oven?
Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundation?
Gilgamesh the tall, magnificent and terrible,
who opened passes in the mountains,
who dug wells on the slopes of the uplands,
and crossed the ocean, the wide sea to the sunrise;
who scoured the world ever searching for life,
and reached through sheer force Uta-napishti the Distant;
who restored the cult-centers destroyed by the Deluge,
and set in place for the people the rites of the cosmos.
Who is there can rival his kingly standing,
and say like Gilgamesh, ‘It is I am the king’?
Gilgamesh was his name from the day he was born,
two-thirds of him god and one third human.
It was the Lady of the Gods drew the form of his figure,
While his build was perfected by divine Nudimmud.
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1. The Love Song of Shu-Sin translated by Samuel Noah Kramer
2. So, you traitor translated by Robert Fagles
3. Mithila and the Breaking of the Bow by Valmiki
4. Alas for youth translated by R. A. Nicholson
5. Upon a day, came sorrow into me translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
6. Gilgamesh: Tablet I. The Coming of Enkidu
- The Epic of Gilgamesh by Archeology.
- “The Love Song of Shu-Sin” poem pressed in fired clay. Image By Andriy Makukha (Amakuha)
- Marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi by TangLung.
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|Present location||Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient|
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The Epic of Gilgamesh
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