The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: Using Writing to Get Rid of your Enemies

The ancient world was a dangerous place, with potential enemies at every turn, as well as a wide array of monsters, demons and illnesses waiting to prey on the unwary. Fortunately, there were many ways to fight back, including writing and related practices. By coincidence, I recently learned about three of these in two days. Continue reading “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: Using Writing to Get Rid of your Enemies”

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Reading the Runes: Writing Systems for Wizardry and Witchcraft

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Karswell had borne ill-will to my brother… and now his book seemed to me to be a very sinister performance indeed. One chapter in particular struck me, in which he spoke of “casting the Runes” on people, either for the purpose of gaining their affection or of getting them out of the way — perhaps more especially the latter: he spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge.

M. R. James – ‘Casting the Runes’

Writing has always had an association with magic. As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s easy to see how in a world of limited literacy, people might attribute supernatural qualities to these strange signs that allow initiates to recall the lore of times past or speak things they had never personally been told. It’s likely that abecedaries sometimes had magical significance in the ancient world, and we have examples of magical spells written down as early as Bronze Age Mesopotamia.

People have also often looked back to the writing systems of earlier periods, believing them to have special powers and connections to the lost secrets of elder times. As the title of this article suggests, Germanic runes have been one of the more popular examples, having enjoyed a particular resurgence in the 18th to early 20th centuries and being especially associated with divination. They’re not the only one, though. Unsurprisingly, given the particular affinity many modern would-be mages feel for Celtic traditions, the Ogham script of early mediaeval Ireland has also been widely embraced, as have Mesopotamian cuneiform and, of course, Hebrew. The use and reception of these ancient systems in modern magical beliefs could easily fill a lengthy blog post, if not an entire book, but it’s not what I’m going to focus on today. Instead I want to look in particular at those writing systems created specifically for magical purposes.

Continue reading “Reading the Runes: Writing Systems for Wizardry and Witchcraft”

Writing in the Sand: An upcoming event celebrating Coptic writing, language and culture

Writing and society go hand-in-hand: almost all writing is intended to be read by another person or by a group of other people. That is to say, that writing presupposes that people want to communicate with each other, and that they want, in some way, to relate to one another. It is no surprise, then, to find that writing is often used as a means of identifying oneself in respect of another group. This may be in terms of national, ethnic or linguistic identity, but it may also be in terms of religious identity.

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In an earlier post, I looked at the Ancient Egyptian writing system, that we know as hieroglyphics. In a future post I will be talking about how vowels are (occasionally) represented in that writing system. However, for now I want to look at another writing system also used to write the Egyptian language, but a much later variety, known as Coptic. Unlike other Egyptian writing systems (hieratic, demotic), which are related to hieroglyphics, Coptic is based on the Greek alphabet, with some letters added in for Egyptian sounds that did not exist in Greek. This is particularly interesting for my own research project in CREWS, since it means that, unlike the other Egyptian scripts, the vowels are written down. Continue reading “Writing in the Sand: An upcoming event celebrating Coptic writing, language and culture”

What’s in a name? Samuel Pepys and the problems of decipherment

Last week I had the pleasure of going on a tour around the Pepys Library at Cambridge’s Magdalene College, where the book collection of famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys is kept – including his famous diary itself. Pepys wrote his diary in a sort of code, which got me thinking about how we decipher coded texts, a problem closely related to working with undeciphered ancient writing systems.

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The bookplate Samuel Pepys carefully pasted into the books in his collection. By permission of the Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Continue reading “What’s in a name? Samuel Pepys and the problems of decipherment”

Writing Gods & Myths V: East Asia

Since Robert and I attended last August a special symposium on Japanese, Chinese and Korean writing during the AWLL workshop in Japan, I think it would be fair to continue this series of posts with these cultures.

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Fuxi and Nüwa with measuring tools

We will start with Fuxi, the first of the mythical emperors of China. He is often pictured as half man and half snake, like his wife Nüwa, and he is a mythical civilising character who brought hunting, fishing, cooking and marriage rituals among other things to his descendants: the Chinese people.  Although it was never used as a real means of written communication, he created the written signs of pa kua or ba gua, the trigrams used as the base of the I Ching, the most important divination text in Chinese culture. According to legend he was inspired to create the trigrams by the marks on the back of a tortoise he saw by the Yellow river. Continue reading “Writing Gods & Myths V: East Asia”

Ancient Literacy and Cypriot Mercenaries

Earlier this week, Natalia’s post on Cypriots and Iberians told us a little about the Cypriot Syllabic script, which up to now has not featured very much on the CREWS blog. In fact, as someone who has been working on the languages and writing systems of ancient Cyprus for years, this is a subject close to my heart! In this post I wanted to pick up on the question of literacy in ancient Cyprus – and as you will see, the movements of Cypriot mercenary soldiers are an important part of the puzzle.

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Relief sculpture with Cypriot Syllabic inscriptions. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/241924

Continue reading “Ancient Literacy and Cypriot Mercenaries”

What did Cypriots and Iberians have in common?

Did you know that Iberian and Cypriot scripts share the shapes of some signs? Although Iberian scripts do not really fall into the research of the CREWS project, they are fascinating and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to make them appear in our blog. In spite of the long distance between the Iberian peninsula and Cyprus, which were not directly connected in the 5th century BC (approximate date of the first written samples in Iberian), indeed, there are some signs both in Iberian and Cypriot scripts that have the same shape, but with different values. How was this possible?

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Iberian inscription on lead from Ullastret.

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The Bulwer tablet, with Cypriot syllabic writing. Trustees of the British Museum.

Continue reading “What did Cypriots and Iberians have in common?”

Cats in the Aegean Scripts

I just discovered that it is International Cat Day – which is unusually relevant to my research at the moment! But why should someone who works on ancient writing be so interested in cats all of a sudden? Well, we need to travel back in time to the ancient Aegean to discover the reason.

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Cretan Hieroglyphic seal made of carnelian, showing a cat figure. Image from HERE. Continue reading “Cats in the Aegean Scripts”

Learning Hieroglyphics!

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the Bloomsbury Summer School in Egyptology, where I developed my reading in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was a very rich experience, and it certainly improved my knowledge of Middle Egyptian. I wanted to do this because Middle Egyptian hieroglyphics omits almost entirely the writing of vowels. This is the same characteristic in Phoenician and Ugaritic writing systems that I am investigating for my part in the CREWS project.

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Detail from coffin of Khnumnakht, Middle Kingdom. Met Museum New York, Rogers Fund, 1915 (http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544326).

The fact that these three writing systems do not (in principle at least) record vowels is at odds with other notable second millennium BC writing systems, namely Linear B (for Greek) and (non-Ugaritic) cuneiform, which do record vowels. A priori it therefore seems plausible that there should be a link, either genetic or typological, between the Egyptian writing system and that of the early north-west Semitic alphabetic writing systems. Before exploring some possible links in future blog posts, for those who are not necessarily familiar with the Egyptian writing system, I thought in this blog post I would lay out some of the basic principles of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system. Continue reading “Learning Hieroglyphics!”

Ancient Sages and Arcane Texts: The Myth and Magic of the Phoenician Alphabet

Hermes_mercurius_trismegistus_siena_cathedralLet me tell you a story of the forgotten wisdom of the ancients, preserved in secret libraries of elder ages and deciphered by visionary sages, let me tell you about men who became gods and gods who became men. Let me tell you the strange mythology linking the origins of the Phoenician alphabet with the birth of the Western occult tradition.

The origins of writing systems are fascinating, but sometimes it can be just as interesting to lay the reality to one side and look at where the people of the ancient world thought their writing systems came from. My colleague Natalia has been doing this with her series of blog-posts looking at myths about writing. Here, though, I want to look in a bit more depth at the stories told about the development of the Phoenician alphabet.

Because they get a bit weird. Continue reading “Ancient Sages and Arcane Texts: The Myth and Magic of the Phoenician Alphabet”