Sorry if the question sounds confusing, not sure how to ask my question but I was reading an article about how Western literature is built in part on Greek and Roman mythology, on works like Homer's Odyssey for instance. Those earliest works go back to a few centuries BCE I believe.

Assuming that's the earliest extant books of mythology in Western literature, are there equivalents for the Eastern literature of the same time or actually earlier? What would that be, are there specific Indian, Persian, Chinese, Japanese...works that have been equally influential for "Eastern literature", assuming one can use that generalization? Do we have to go even earlier, maybe to Egyptian mythology or Sumerian or something else?

If you look at the list of greatest books of Western lit, be it listed by some bookstore or website or college course here in US, they usually mention books like The Odyssey or Iliad or Metamorphoses. I'm basically looking for equivalents for Eastern lit. Thanks.

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    I'd just like to call out the East/West dichotomy as not a very useful generalization. It's a (dubious) 20th century idea that may not work so well with earlier time periods. Hellenistic Greece is called the birthplace of Western culture, so back then the East would presumably be "not the Greeks", and before that just "everybody"? You can try to trace this rationalistic tradition of Western culture, but there is no such guiding tradition for the "East". The Persians, for instance, were in direct contact with the Greeks, and culturally shared a lot more with them than they did with China.
    – femtoRgon
    Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 15:51
  • @femtoRgon I have to disagree. Confucius is a little earlier than Socrates, and there is a very distinct tradition involving his ideas predominantly, and others schools (legalism, etc.). Additionally, Buddhism is quite distinct from Christianity, although both may be said to be, at their root, about compassion. But Buddhism is ultimately atheistic, in that everything is impermanent, and ultimately, an illusion. The histories surrounding the Three Kingdoms, and the subsequent classical novels, are distinct from the tradition that arose out of the Homer and Hesiod.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 21:20
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    @DukeZhou - Yes, there are some clear guiding principles in what you might call Sinic culture, but is there some guiding philosophy that links the traditions of Confucianism in China and Hinduism in India and the Achaemenid Persians and Islam and Zoroastrianism? "The West" is a phrase used to refer a rationalistic philosophy, and the many features that arise from it. "The East" is a simple negation. It's a phrase The West uses to describe those other people. This map shows kinda what I'm talking about.
    – femtoRgon
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 22:16
  • @femtoRgon I understand your point now. You've clearly thought about and researched this issue much more deeply than myself, and I have to agree with your assertion. In collecting older books about Chinese mythology, I find them rife with jingoistic and derogatory ideas. (Thus their value may be said to be confined to sociological analysis of the author's mindset and misconceptions.) Thank you for clarifying!
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 22:30

2 Answers 2


It would be helpful if you could link to the article.

High level answer without seeing the article would be the Upanishads for India, and the Book of Songs for China.

In terms of the Mesopotamian material, that is very old indeed, but difficult to link directly to existing cultures. Nevertheless, the Gilgamesh is believed to be the earliest surviving work of literature and the first epic.

It is worth noting that in the Chinese tradition, mythology and history are conflated until the 20th century, so much of the mythology comes out of histories by authors like Sima Qian and Chen Shou.

The Chinese tradition is quite distinct in that the gods are relatively minor in the literary canon, which tends to be focused on sages and the conduct. Figures such as Lao Tzu are mythologized and become gods. The Book of Songs is said to have been compiled by Ji Dan, the sage credited with the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, and subsequently deified. Lord Guan is elevated not for his military prowess so much as his impeccable conduct that made him a figure of veneration. Xuande, whose restoration of the Han is the subject of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, can be said to be the the central figure in Chinese mythology, again, esteemed for his impeccable conduct. (Compare to Lü Bu who, despite his legendary martial prowess, dies an ignominious death.) In the warrior epic Water Margin, the central figure is Timely Rain (about the best epithet one could have in the agricultural society of China, where rain is the domain of dragons, and the name can be understood as the greatest of good fortunes). Timely Rain is the weakest fighters among the Outlaws of the Marsh, but becomes the leader because the heroes all venerate his conduct and sagacity. He fights with a jian, but is also a scholar. (Jin Yong titled one of his Wuxia novels The Book and the Sword, which can be taken as a metaphor for the Chinese tradition.) Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, is a scholar and a sage, credited with innovation such as the calendar and mathematics. Similarly, his grandson, Emperor Yu, who developed a system of flood control, regarded as the single most important factor in the development of Chinese civilization, which is continuous over 3000 years. In this sense, the Book of Songs leads to a mythological tradition that is quite distinct.

For the Indian material, you may find the religious texts difficult to get through, due to the repetitions, but William Buck has excellent translations of the Vālmīki Ramayana and Mahabarata specifically adapted for Westerners interested in the stories.

On element that distinguishes Hindu mythology is that the Hinduism is still the dominant religion in the culture. This is distinct in the West, where Christianity supplanted the earlier, polytheistic traditions.

  • @Gibet although the story itself clearly resonated, and can be found in variations throughout mythology. Achilles/Patroclus can be said to be a form of the story. I do make the point that "it is difficult to link to existing cultures" but that doesn't necessarily mean it had no influence.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 21:14
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    @Gibet Indeed, there are tons of parallels between Gilgamesh and the Iliad. Even the name persisted, as it was found in Aelian and among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It disappeared, yes, but not before leaving its mark.
    – cmw
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 3:00
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    @Gibet Sure, it died, though all I was arguing was that it didn't die before passing on certain scenes to Greece, e.g. Aphrodite's wounding by Diomedes and Ishtar insulted by Gilgamesh. It had its influence and then passed into obscurity (as, I'm sure, quite a few other works might have done that have not been found).
    – cmw
    Commented Mar 15, 2017 at 18:41

The Eastern Vedic texts which details out spiritual philosophy, histories and stories are extremely old. Here is a timeline of Hindu texts I came across on Wikipedia. The Vedic texts themselves declare that they are the oldest of all knowledge as it's eternal with no influence of time and made available during each creation cycle.


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