Writing Gods & Myths IV. Norse mythology

We continue our journey through different mythologies to find all the stories about writing. This time it’s the turn of Norse mythology and the invention of runes. In the Poetic Edda, we are told that the god Odin (dedicated to wisdom and magic, among other things) hung himself on the tree Yggdrasil for nine nights, not receiving any kind of food or drink. This was a kind of self-sacrifice to himself that granted him the revelation of the runes. Since then, runes were used not only as a writing system, but also in magic and divination.

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Odin fan art, taken from: https://odindevoted.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/giving-blood-to-the-runes/

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Writing Gods and Myths III: Egypt

Legend has it that it was the Egyptian god Thoth who created writing or, as the Egyptians called it, medu netjer “the words of the gods” (this is what we refer to as hieroglyphics, after the Greek ἱερός “holy” and γλύφω “to carve”). His intention was to give wisdom and a better memory to the Egyptians, but the god Re thought that writing would have the opposite effect, making people rely on written documents for wisdom and memory. However, Thoth still gave writing to a restricted group: the scribes. For this reason, scribes honoured Thoth as their patron.

 

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The god Thoth with writing tools.

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Writing Gods and Myths II: Mesopotamia

Today we will continue our journey through the myths about writing and its patron gods in Ancient Mesopotamia. This area is especially important, as it is in the Sumerian city of Uruk where we have the first attestations of writing in the form of pictographs c. 3200 BC. Later, Sumerians would develop from these pictographs what we call “cuneiform” writing (which consists of abstract wedge-shapes representing words or syllables).

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Mesopotamian pictograms. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/329081

One of the Mesopotamian stories that talks about the creation of writing involves Enmerkar, one of the mythological kings of Uruk. According to the Sumerian King List he was the second king of the First Dynasty of Uruk and the builder of the city. In the epic poem that narrates the conquest of Aratta by king Enmerkar it is said that his messenger, who had the task to transmit the messages between the two kings (Enmerkar and the king of Aratta), was failing to remember these messages. Therefore, Enmerkar had the idea of writing them down on clay.

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Writing Gods and Myths I: Greece and Rome

Ancient cultures gave great importance to writing as a civilising tool. However, the origins of writing are full of mystery, and they already were for these civilisations. Maybe for these reasons they created myths around the creation of writing and gave gods the attribute of writing. In this and other future posts we will look at some of these divinities and myths related to writing. Pippa already mentioned goddess Reitia, a Venetic goddess of writing, in a previous post of the CREWS blog HERE, and now we will continue with myths and gods from Greece and Rome.

All the stories point to the same hero as introducer of the alphabet in Greece: Cadmus. But he was not himself the creator of the script. He brought it from Phoenicia (or Egypt, depending on the version of the myth) to Boeotia, where he founded Thebes.

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Figure 1. Cadmus and the Ismenian serpent. Image from 4th century BC calyx krater, Musée du Louvre (HERE).

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Reitia, Venetic goddess of writing

I have been promising for a while to say something about the Venetic goddess of writing. Last term, my colleague Dr Katherine McDonald gave a short seminar series on the Venetic language, which was used in the Veneto area of Italy in the second half of the 1st millennium BC (at least, this is when most of the evidence for it dates from).

The Venetic language has clear affiliations with other Italic languages, which can be seen for example in some words that look very similar to what we find in Latin (such as ego for the first person pronoun “I”). It was written in an alphabet that seems to have been derived from an Etruscan alphabet (itself derived from the Greek alphabet), although it has some peculiarities of its own, including a complex system of punctuation for syllables.

You can see what the Venetic alphabet looks like in the ‘inscription’ shown in Figure 1 – which is not in fact the original inscription but a delicious cake version of it baked by my colleague Dr Anna Judson for the seminar!

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Figure 1. Venetic inscription cake, baked by Anna Judson – see more HERE.

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