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.

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New Roman writing tablets from Vindolanda

Recent excavations at Vindolanda, a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall, have turned up some wonderful finds – some of the most exciting of which are newly discovered writing tablets. This week a press release revealed some juicy details about the new inscriptions, which have yet to undergo conservation and careful palaeographic study.

All pictures in this article are ones made available by the Vindolanda Trust in their press release and on Twitter, unless otherwise stated.

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Handwriting in Roman London

A couple of months ago a major epigraphic discovery was announced: a number of wooden writing tablets, dated to the 1st century AD, had been found in an excavation in London. This was a considerable archive, with 405 tablets of which 87 have been analysed and translated by Dr Roger Tomlin of Oxford. A picture of one is shown in Figure 1 below.57 AD tablet

Figure 1. Wooden writing tablet from Roman London dated to 8th January 57 AD.

Why should we get excited about this find? Well, for one thing these objects allow us a rare chance to observe Roman handwriting. We have plenty of surviving Latin but the vast majority has come through one of two routes: either through being copied down over and over again since ancient times (which is why a lot of our earliest copies of Classical authors date from the medieval period) or through being written on a durable medium such as stone or pottery that has survived to be read today. Neither of these gives us access to what Latin looked like when it was written down by hand directly by an ancient Latin speaker him/herself.

One of the reasons why Roman handwriting is hard to find has to do with the materials that were usually written on. One place to look for handwriting is in graffiti, such as have been found on the walls of Pompeii – a favourite example of mine is shown as a drawing in Figure 2 (labyrinthus hic habitat Minotaurus written around a depiction of a labyrinth). But graffiti on walls are rare and you are much more likely to find a scrawled graffito on a sherd of pottery than on a wall, with Pompeii representing an unusual chance to observe mural graffiti.

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Figure 2. Minotaur graffito from Pompeii.

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