Mythologies of writing

It is a curious fact that there are no ancient myths about writing and reading, although writing had been invented during an age rich in the production and transmission of mythology. One of my favourite ‘myths’ of writing is that of the reader who’s able to read a book simply by touching it. But this myth, if a myth it may be, appears, as far as I know, in the 19th century. Of our era, of course.

Ancient mythologies are the stuff of orality. They emerge in oral societies, circulate orally and seem completely oblivious to the exigencies of writing. The gods and heroes of ancient myth are illiterate, great talkers, great feelers, but strangers to script. The gods of ancient Greece and Rome have no interest in the quill or the inscribed stele.

In the Greek-speaking Mediterranean, Plato was the first mythograph to link myth to writing. In the Phaedrus, Socrates tells of Theuth, the god who offered the gift of writing as a cure against forgetfulness – not without some pushback from the recipients.

But in the Old Testament, Jahweh had already revealed himself as a literate God, one that wished to set his decrees in stone, literally. A god of the written word, the word of the written-down god.

Writing means permanence, but also restriction. Quod scripsi, scripsi, what I’ve written, I’ve written, said Pilate. Myths fly up, but writing stays down, and in the long run, myths lose their wings and their ability to fly, to pollinate and to spread their stories to the four winds.

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