Belief systems began forming in ancient civilizations as man began to question humanity’s existence and continued to evolve throughout each period. Beliefs included both religious and philosophical ideas. Belief systems, “…begin to turn into something more ethical, more philosophical, even more scientific; but there will be uninterrupted continuity between this and its savage beginnings” (Lewis, 1994). Each civilization offered a different, yet similar, belief systems. While the gods were prominent in ancient cultures, Christianity became the dominant faith at the end of the classical period. Therefore, the belief systems changed to represent the majority of believers. The change in religious views also brought about a change in values, morals, and beliefs in society. Literature documented these changes through literary masterpieces such as Theogony, The Apology, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Analyzing the literature from different periods allows readers to see how each era’s belief system evolved into a society of morals, ethics, and values in which we live today.
Evolution of Belief Systems
The ancient period was a time of polytheism in which people believed that multiple gods were responsible for different events in the world such as the creation, flood, afterlife, and apocalypse. It began around 8000 BCE and was the start of a religious period that would extend through each civilization. The beliefs of this time were based on the power of the gods and were repeated orally through storytelling. The co-existence of humanity and the gods formed beliefs showing their relationship to the earth. Hinduism evolved from polytheism in the Indian civilization at some time around 2000BCE. Research shows, “Aryan priest recited hymns that told stories and taught values and were eventually written down in The Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism” (historyhaven.com, 2014). Famous literature such as The Ramayana and The Mahabharata taught moral values and beliefs in that society. From Hinduism came Buddhism at some point around the 6th century BCE. The main beliefs evolved around The Four Noble Truths of suffering in life, desires, removing suffering and following the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment (historyhaven.com, 2014). The Eightfold Path to Enlightenment was a spiritual path to enlightenment by, “a change in thoughts and intentions, followed by changes in lifestyle and actions, that preclude a higher thought process through meditation” (historyhaven.com, 2014) on a path to Nirvana. These beliefs are still practiced today in Buddhism. China offered the next emerging of religion with Confucianism around 400 BCE. It consisted of the notion that China had fallen into chaos and had to establish a system to emerge from that state. The belief system of Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism all became essential belief systems during this time. This policy established an order of existence that believed in harmony, order of existence, and obedience to end the chaos and establish their society. Laozi founded Daoism around the 4th century BCE to promote harmony. Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of the Chinese Dynasty, established Legalism. He did not believe so much in a religious society as much as a legal and just one. He promoted a legal system that believed in following rules and punishment if not. After his death, the Chinese Dynasty returned to a Confucianism society. The next great religion was Judaism. This religion was the first to believe in God and the beliefs of the Ten Commandments. Judaism was directly credited as an influence on Christianity. However, Judaism was credited with forming a belief system of rules for humanity on the belief of one God. Judaism would lead to the most significant and most dominant religion still in existence; Christianity. Christianity adopted much of the religious beliefs of Judaism. The Bible tells of the Messiah named Jesus, his birth, teachings, death, and resurrection. Christianity taught beliefs and morals that believers were expected to follow.
Christianity was believed to have started in Rome. Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th Century CE and it spread to other parts of the world. Christianity became the dominant religion toward the end of the classical period as previously dominant societies began to collapse. All of these religious periods helped to establish a system of beliefs and philosophical ideas that helped to cultivate a society into one with rules, laws, and structure.
Comparison of Belief Systems in Literature
Polytheism civilizations described the origin of religion and beliefs that were often documented in different genres of ancient literature. Ancient civilization was a time in which believers wanted to please their gods. Storytellers repeated these tales orally. Hesiod was one of the first authors to write his literature instead of verbally as others did. Hesiod wrote Theogony, which translates to “origin of the gods” (Powell, 2002), to explain the origin and existence of the Greek gods. The gods were the dominant subject in most ancient literature. His choice of vocabulary allows readers to understand the powers of the gods as he said,
“Come thou, let us begin with the Muses who gladden
the great spirit of their father Zeus in Olympus with their songs, telling of things that are and that shall be and that were aforetime with consenting voice” (as cited by Evelyn-White, 2014).
The use of the words describing Zeus as a great spirit helped readers to understand he was a god among gods. It helped to establish a difference between mortal and immortal beings. The stories helped to document the beginning of moral behaviors and social structure within ancient civilizations. Hesiod wrote about the war between the Titans and Zeus. However, it is the lineage of Zeus that promotes the value of family, spirituality, and religious beliefs. Hesiod helped to document the belief in multiple gods showing how ancient civilizations believed gods were responsible for humanity’s connection between the gods and the earth.
The classical era produced Greek authors such as Plato and Sophocles. There was a change in religion at that time where people were beginning to question the existence of the gods. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates defended his views as he said,
“But far more dangerous are these, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear, the better cause”(as cited by Jowett, 2009).
Plato’s use of words in this sentence shows the shift from ancient civilizations to the classical period. At this point, Christianity had not yet formed, but this poem helped to document how people began to question both religious and social beliefs during this time. The belief systems were starting to change. Socrates was not only defending his words, but he was also defending his beliefs within society against an older system such as the gods. It also showed classical civilizations adopted social structures of law and punishment as early as this period. As he questioned Melatus, he used words like corruption, indictment, perjury, and defense to show an established legal system within the classical era. Plato said of the judge,
“For his duty is, not to make a present of justice, but to give judgment; and he has sworn that he will judge according to the laws, and not according to his own good pleasure; and neither he nor we should get into the habit of perjuring ourselves – there can be no piety in that” (Jewett, 2014).
His words showed a structured culture that believed in laws. This belief system is found in society today because laws continue to promote a social structure or order.
Christianity took its place in society at the end of the classical period and literature reflected that change. The quest of the hero in literature showed humanity’s quest for self-knowledge. The hero, “involves a process by which the hero leaves the ordinary world of waking consciousness, enters the dark world of the supernatural, overcomes those that would destroy him there, and then returns to the ordinary possessed of powers and new knowledge for his people” (Leeming, 1990).
Adventures such as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight helped to teach morals and values. Gawain’s journey fulfills a quest that involved chivalry, bravery, loyalty, and deception. Like many other literary pieces at that time, Christianity had become the dominant religion that most of the society believed. Gawain stepped forward as an untried knight to face a challenge by the Green Knight to partake in a beheading game. The rules were that Gawain would trade any gifts with the Green Knight for one year and then would allow the Green Knight to behead him. Gawain accepts the challenge and begins the quest. He received kisses and a scarf as gifts from the Queen. Gawain gives these gifts to the Green Knight except the scarf that would protect him from death. In the end, Gawain discovers that he was part of the game to test his values. He begs for forgiveness after his deception is discovered and must wear a scarf as punishment. This story helped the medieval period focus on morals and values of man as the beliefs in Christianity evolved. The reference to Adam, Solomon, Delilah, and Bathsheba also shows the religious influence of the Bible during this time. It also showed that rules were important in medieval times and that self-preservation could cause men to make dishonorable choices.
The language used in each of these literary masterpieces helps readers distinguish the periods and social structure in which people lived. As belief systems evolved, so did the use of language in literature. Lewis noted, “A language has its own personality; implies an outlook, reveals a mental activity, and has a resonance, not quite the same as those of any other” (Lewis, 1994). Hesiod used language that helped readers understand that gods were a dominant factor in ancient civilizations that often controlled the beliefs and actions of its believers. Even though man became more of a focus in classical and medieval literature, morals were still an important element to each story. Each civilization helped to create a new era of morals and beliefs that society has used to evolve. Literature helped scholars develop a pattern to study and learn about these beliefs. It also shows how humans evolved from gods to heroes as the ancient and classical periods evolved into the medieval period. The changes can be related to the evolution of humanity as it developed in history. Morality, ethics, and values were beliefs that were often needed in each era to define how humanity should act in the quest for good versus evil. Literature often promoted a moral theme or belief that helped readers grow philosophically and spiritually.