As long as man has inhabited earth he has strived to express himself for any number of reasons. Yet over thousands of years the enduring theme of these expressions has been the desire to explain our own existence.
This is especially evident when considering the early Egyptian and Sumerian societies. Beginning with cave paintings in France around 15,000 BC and leading up to the grandeur of the great pyramids the cultures of antiquity demonstrate belief in a connection in the material and spiritual worlds. This connection is evident in the study of that period’s architecture, art, and literature. Since before the beginning of what we know as recorded history mankind has strived to improve on the architectural achievements of generations past.
From towering skyscrapers to churches and cathedrals so breathtakingly beautiful and painstakingly crafted they seem to have fallen to Earth from heaven itself, we as a people continually amaze ourselves with our ability to construct buildings and monuments. With all of our modern day glory however we will be hard pressed to ever match the magnifigance of the great pyramids of ancient Egypt. Using only crude tools Egyptians managed to construct some of the most awe inspiring architectural feats imaginable. The sheer magnitude of these undertakings is the greatest testament of their people’s love and ceaseless devotion not only to their rulers but especially to the gods who created and preserved them. The pyramids were in essence nothing more than grand burial tombs for the pharaohs of the fourth dynasty but their spiritual significance reaches far deeper than just a huge grave, rather they acted as the pharaoh’s earthly connection to the sky.
The first tombs of the ancient Egyptians were nothing more than bodies wrapped in cloth and covered in stones. Later, small clay pyramid-like structures were built called Mastabas. Mastabas were an improvement on the primitive burials in that they protected the body from the elements and could be decorated with paintings and filled with other adornments to ease the transition from mortal life into the afterlife. Around 2500 BC Mastabas gave way to the great pyramids of Geiza (modern day Cairo). When one looks on these immense structures reaching heights of 481 feet it is easy to make the connection between the architecture of ancient cultures and their spiritual beliefs. Art has always played an integral part in our lives.
For thousands of years man has articulated himself with paintings and sculpture for a myriad of reasons. The most prevalent and universal of all artistic motivation however would be that of spirituality and religion. Mankind’s struggle to explain the mysteries of our origins and the idea of a higher power has led artists of centuries past to produce astounding tributes to their god(s). The earliest examples of this can be found around 15,000 BC when the inherent human need for self-expression resulted in the earliest forms of visual art. Paintings dating back to this era have been discovered on cave walls in regions of France that depict bulls and other wild animals.
Scholars have speculated that these paintings did not serve a purely artistic purpose as one may imagine but acted on the spirit of the beast to weaken it therefore making it easier to hunt and kill (Cunningham 4). Just as the Hall of the Bulls depicts the life sustaining spirit of the hunt, other early art such as the Venus of Willendorf represent another central facet of early man’s world- the life giving and nurturing spirit of the woman. These small limestone statuettes are nothing more than tiny faceless women with greatly exaggerated breasts and genitals, yet no arms and scarcely any legs. While this may seem crude to us as modern cultured people, in reality it demonstrates the early artist’s reverence and respect for the feminine spirit. While the early artists of the Paleolithic produced primarily images of basic life functions, artists of ancient Egypt around 10,000 years later focused almost primarily on the gods and their divine guide the pharaoh. Archaeologists have unearthed statues, busts, paintings and countless other treasures brilliantly adorned with precious metals and stones, most depicting the lives of the gods and the pharaohs.
These priceless artifacts will always stand as a testament to man’s unvarying devotion to spirituality. In one form or another literature has been the most enduring form of expressing ideas in every society. An author’s manipulation of the written word, in almost any form, is a powerful medium. Early Egyptian scribes and priests used their picture-writings, or Hieroglyphics, to document the lives and even afterlives of their people.
More important to them at the time however were the writings contained in such documents as The Book of the Dead. This was a group of sacred texts that contained not only instructions for death and burial ceremonies, but also the significance and meaning of the rituals themselves. The Book of the Dead outlined the story of the many gods and their significance in the material world (Cunningham 6). The first true form of writing can be credited to the Sumerians around 3500 BC. Their writing, known as cuneiform, was written by pressing a reed into wet clay tablets that were later baked hard. One of the most historically significant stories of this time is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which documents the travels of the Sumerian ruler Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu.
A central theme in these tales is Gilgamesh’s search for the meaning of his own existence. Somewhat similar to the pharaoh the Sumerian leader Gilgamesh was believed to be one-third divine-an offspring of the gods. After reading through the epic (which contains striking parallels to the old testament) we find though that Gilgamesh’s discovers only his own mortality when he perishes without the secret to everlasting life (Goldberg 536). History has come to show us not only that literature has its roots in spirituality but also that in essence literature was conceived out of necessity to record and broaden the reach of early civilization’s religions and beliefs. We will always question our existence.
Humans seem to posses an inborn desire to comprehend not only the material world but also the spiritual world that has always seemed to coincide with it. It is this desire that drove early people, like people of today, to express these emotions through physical means. From the tiny statuettes of the Venus of Willendorf to the cuneiform tablets of the Sumerians , the cultures of antiquity have expressed their belief in the connection between those two worlds through architecture, art, and literature.
- Cunningham Lawrence S.and John J, Reich. Culture and Values:A Survey of the Western Humanities. Vol. I. 4th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998.
- Goldberg, Donald S. Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World. Vol I. 4th ed.Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1988.