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\HE history of literature really begins long before men
learned to write. Dancing was the earliest of the arts.
Man danced for joy round his primitive camp fire after the defeat and slaughter of his enemy. He yelled and shouted as he danced, and gradually the yells and shouts became coherent and caught the measure of the dance, and thus the first war song was sung. As the idea of God developed, prayers were framed. The songs and the prayers became traditional and were repeated from one generation to another, each generation adding something of its own.
As man slowly grew more civilised, he was compelled to invent some method of writing by three urgent necessities. There were certain things that it was dangerous to forget, and which therefore had to be recorded. It was often necessary to communicate with persons who were some distance away, and it was necessary to protect one's property by marking tools, cattle, and so on, in some distinctive manner. So man taught himself to write, and having learned to write purely for utilitarian reasons, he used this new method for preserving his war-songs and his prayers. Of course, among these ancient peoples, there were only a very few individuals who learned to write, and only a few who could read what was written.
The earliest writing was merely rude scratchings on rocks, and it is supposed that these rock inscriptions were traced by a
scribe, and then actually cut by a stonecutter, who probably had no idea of the meaning. Presently, man began to write with a stylus on baked clay tablets. Specimens of these clay books were discovered in Chaldea. One of them is now in the British Museum, and is an account of the Flood. George Smith found this tablet in 1872 in Koyunjik. This is probably the oldest existing example of writing. It was inscribed about the year 4000 B.C., and there is reason to believe that the Hebrews founded the story of the Flood in the Book of Genesis on the Chaldean narrative written thousands of years before the Bible. The Chaldeans used what are called cuneiform characters. The word "cuneiform” is derived from the Latin cuneus, which means a wedge. Each character is composed of a wedge or a combination of wedges written from left to right with a squarepointed stylus.
Scribes and Priests
The Chaldean scribes were in the pay of the Court. When the king went to war, the scribe was an important member of his staff. It was his business to note the number of cities captured, the number of enemies killed, and the amount of the spoils, and, incidentally, to accent the prowess of the king. The priests who wrote the Chaldean religious literature also received salaries from the royal treasury. In addition to war records and prayers, Chaldean clay tablets have been found dealing with agriculture, astrology, and politics. It has been suggested that the clay tablets discovered by Smith and other archæologists were part of the library of Sennacherib at Nineveh. Sennacherib died in the year 681 B.C.
Egyptian literature is next to the Chaldean in antiquity. The Egyptian books were written on papyrus, a material made from the pith of a reed that grew in the valley of the Nile, with a reed pen made from the stalk of grasses, or from canes and bamboos. The earliest Egyptian book of which we know, The
THIS ENGRAVING, TAKEN FROM A DRAWING IN GELL'S Pompeiana, CONSISTS OF A UNION OF ALL THE IMPLEMENTS OF WRITING, COLLECTED FROM A GREAT
NUMBER OF ANCIENT PAINTINGS IN POMPEII AND HERCULANEUM On the left is a circular wooden or metal case, with a lid, containing six books or volumes rolleá up and labelled, each according to its contents, so as to be easily distinguished. Below this lies a stylus and a pentagonal inkstand. In the centre is a pen made of reed, and called a calamus. Next to the case of books is the tabella or tabulæ, joined together as with hinges, and sometimes, perhaps always, covered with wax. Another sort is hung up above this, where the stylus serves as a pin to suspend it against the wall. A sort of thick book of tablets, open, lies to the right of the last. In the centre are single volumes in cases. On the right are four volumes, lying in such a manner as to want no explanation, two of which have their titles, one attached to the papyrus itself, and the other from the umbilicus or cylinder of wood in its centre.