Tim Brookes is the founder and executive director of the Endangered Alphabets Project and the author of Endangered Alphabets, the Endangered Alphabets Word Search Book and the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets.
Early in my carving work on the Endangered Alphabets, I felt more and more strongly that I was carving into the very heart of the tree, as if I were not inserting writing but finding it, revealing it.
Eventually I found myself imagining a creation myth. I saw a deity — Athena, perhaps, or Saraswati, some god or goddess of wisdom — taking a chosen human, well-intentioned and brave but a bit dim, into a sacred grove. She points a finger at the nearest tree and draws it downwards, splitting the tree in half. In the heart of the tree are curious marks, incomprehensible but somehow patterned, intentional.
“This,” says the goddess, “is called writing. Use it from now on. Use it for everything.”
For a while I thought this was just a fancy of my own, but then I started discovering that many cultures thought, or think, of writing as a divine creation, a gift.
In Egypt, the god Thoth was held to be the inventor of writing, the creator of languages, the scribe, interpreter, and adviser of the gods. Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, and speech, is often thought of as, in the words of one poet, pouring “radiance on the implements of writing, and books produced by her favor.”
Here’s what I didn’t understand for a long time: These creation stories were a sign that back in the day, as it were, people were much more aware of the value and importance of writing — so aware that they couldn’t imagine it as a human invention.
We in the West take writing for granted, seeing it as a useful human invention, like the transistor. Once I started journeying out into the endangered alphabets, though, I began to see things very differently.
The Zhuang are an ethnic minority of southern China. Their script-creation epic tells of a primordial god named Baeu Rodo, who gave the Zhuang not one script but two: sawgoek, or “root script,” and sawva, or “insect script.” He also gave them the gift of fire.
So much generosity proved to be too much, too soon. The Zhuang, not understanding fire, stored both fire and writing together … in a hut with a thatched roof. The building burned down, and with it the Zhuang lost the knowledge of writing.
This is by no means the only writing-creation narrative in which a culture is given the divine gift of writing, but then, out of ignorance or carelessness, squanders or loses it. For me, the most interesting aspect of this story is that it depicts writing not only as a divine gift, but one that is on a par with fire — an extraordinary status. We think of the invention/discovery of fire as being one of the elemental historical features of civilization, the vital evolutionary step that distinguished us from the great apes. But the Baeu Rodo narrative implies that the Zhuang considered writing to not only have a divine genesis, but to be as essential to human evolution and survival as fire.
The Mandaeans have one of the most extraordinary alphabets in the world, a deeply spiritual conception in which each letter has a mystical meaning and every word is charged and radiant with enlightenment. One of their origin stories concerns the structural development, so to speak, of the alphabet, which is seen not merely as a series of symbols in an arbitrary sequence but as a series of building blocks that create a self-sustaining spiritual union. The first letter is also the last, thus repeating the sequence over and over infinitely.
“Only then did it become possible to name all things and speak every mystery, because language is not possible without this indivisible republic of letters.”
That amazing phrase, “this indivisible republic of letters,” shows how the Mandaeans understood that completeness of understanding is analogous to, and impossible without, the set of letters that can be used to convey that understanding.
That understanding is not simply, as we might assume, information about the physical world. The Mandaic alphabet (and possibly other scripts, especially in the past) embodies a profound understanding of how writing bridges the material world with the immaterial. It invites us to think of writing as a miraculous transaction, analogous to the act of creation itself. In creating the physical universe, according to many traditions, the creator took a thought, something invisible and insubstantial, and made it visible, solid, habitable. Likewise, the act of writing takes an invisible, insubstantial thought and makes it visible and available to all.
The Mandaeans convey their awe and appreciation of the written word by elevating writing to a status even higher than the Zhuang do. In another of their spiritual texts, the divine creator himself, known as the Light King, sees writing for the first time and is so impressed and astonished he utters: “Who created these [letters]? I did not, therefore there must be one mightier than I!”
In other words, writing must have been created by a divinity mightier than the divinity who created the world itself.
We in the West have lost this view of writing: We think of it as such an everyday commodity, scribbled down as grocery lists or shot off as texts, discussed in terms of data and information management, it’s almost impossible for us to step back and think in such spiritual terms. But in fact, there’s a creation myth built right into the heart of Judaeo-Christian tradition.
In the book of Exodus, Moses rescues the Israelites, leading them out of Egypt. Once free of bondage, though, they fall into a kind of limbo, wandering here and there, arguing among themselves, disputing Moses’ leadership, grumbling, wishing they had stayed in Egypt. They are forever arguing amongst themselves, challenging Moses for the leadership, and if any other gods come along, then they’re pretty tempted to worship those. In other words, they are just one of many disorganized nomadic or semi-nomadic people of the region.
Everything changes when God introduces writing. In the Book of Exodus, God takes Moses aside and establishes his covenant — that is, contract — with mankind, written on “tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:18)
As it turns out, Moses takes the tablets down from the mountain and discovers the Israelites have melted down all of their gold and jewelry, fashioning it into a calf they worship. And Moses is so mad he breaks the stone tablets. All the same, God doesn’t give up on humanity. He gives Moses dictation, and Moses writes down the covenant on the tablets. Writing itself is still divine, but the role of writer has been symbolically handed over from God to man.
“Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. The tablets were the work of God, the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.” (Exodus 32:16)
This story, I contend, is a writing-creation myth. I’m sorry if I seem heretical to those of you who believe the Bible is literally true word by word, but I see it as a way of saying: This is the beginning of civilization. This is the beginning of how we became an organized, civilized, God-fearing people. This is what translated us from this bickering rabble to God’s chosen people who now, literally, have law and order.
Time and time again, all over the world, we see this potent combination arising together: writing, religion, and the establishment of social order. The birth of civilized humankind. These cultural narratives imply that writing is so important, its effects so profound and long-lasting, that it has the permanence of stone.
Of course, it would be easy to dismiss these narratives as superstitious and even primitive, because we in the West don’t tend to believe in creation — we believe, instead, in evolution. But describing the development of writing as a process of evolution is also, in its way, a kind of myth. We’ll examine the myth of evolution in my next column.