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Remembering the Roots of Writing
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For years – decades maybe!—I taught a course on the history of writing, a subject that has long fascinated me and that I found could be very engaging to undergraduate students as well. When I asked them “where does writing come from,” I was usually greeted with blank stares: writing is so ubiquitous, so all around them, that surely it must have always been with us. That’s more true of speech, which developed from communicating through sounds: unless a particular condition prevent it, we develop speech naturally and socially, without being formally taught. But writing, not so much: we must be taught to write, to make the marks that carry meaning.
Writing’s history can be traced back at least 45,000 years ago to cave drawings in Indonesian islands and a bit later in Spain and France. These paintings tell stories about animals and people: they are spellbinding in their vigor and beauty and show how determined people have been to communicate across time and space.
But such paintings did not create systems of writing. Those seem to have grown out of token systems for counting, cataloguing, and trading agricultural products used in 4th millennium BCE Mesopotamia–which led to cuneiform, the Sumerian script that is one of, if not the earliest, known system of writing. And cuneiform is the script used circa 2265 BCE by Enheduanna (whose name means “ornament of heaven”), high priestess of the moon god and daughter of Sargon the Great, who helped link the Sumerian goddess Inanna to the Akkadian goddess Ishtar and, in doing so, helped create a common belief system necessary to the founding of what some consider the world’s first empire.
Enheduanna wrote numerous temple hymns and three long poems dedicated to the all-powerful goddess of love and war, Inanna. But Enheduanna did even more than write poems that were copied out by school children for hundreds of years: she also claimed authorship, the first writer we know of to do so. In her poem “Exaltation of Inanna,” she compares her writing with giving birth:
I have given birth,
Oh exalted lady, [to this song] for you.
That which I recited to you at midnight
May the singer repeat it to you at noon!
And in concluding one of her temple hymns, she says: “The compiler of the tablet [is] Enheduanna. My lord, that which has been created [here] no one has created before.”
The translations of Enheduana’s work, completed only in the early twentieth century, reveal her as a gifted poet, with a strong and commanding voice that weaves personal narrative into her praise for Inanna. Enheduanna’s voice echoes down to us some 4500 years later with haunting clarity, marking one moment in the long history of writing: from exterior to interior and back, from recording information to expressing an embodied agent.
This winter, New York’s Morgan Library has mounted an exhibit about Enheduanna and other women who were actively participating in Mesopotamian society of the time. Called “She Who Wrote,” the exhibit presents nearly 100 artefacts, including cuneiform tablets and wall plaques as well as cylinder seals that show the many ways in which women participated in society at this time—as weavers, bakers, brewers, potters, musicians, and more. In a place and time when women were allowed to own property (think of that!), these cylinders show women sitting with men, perhaps as equals.
Enheduanna captures much about her own life and times, in writing, a legacy that has survived to the present day, providing a haunting reminder of how long and how intricately writing has been entwined with human development. This short post can barely scratch the surface of writing’s history, or of its relationship to how we see, think, feel, and know. But together with speech, which supesedes it, this technology has profoundly shaped us and our worlds.
Amid the current angst over ChatGPT and other advances in Artificial Intelligence, it is wise to recall some of this history, to recall how writing has evolved to meet society’s needs and purposes (often related to business and commerce in the West, to ritual in the East), how It has shifted, changed, and adapted to needs and circumstances, as well as to other technologies. Plato mourned the development of writing, saying it would kill memory and sever connections between speakers and their audiences. In some ways, he was right, though other memory systems stepped in to help (see Mary Carruthers’s riveting account of such systems in her The Book of Memory). And it’s easy to argue that writing did much to bring people together rather than to separate then. But changes to technology have always engendered anxiety and fear, demanding that we attend carefully and thoughtfully to the consequences—both intended and unintended—of such changes.
Today, we are clearly in a period of profound shifts in communication, and it is difficult to see where they will lead. But I am certain that while the capacities and uses (perhaps even the definition) of writing will shift and change, writing will continue to evolve. And writing, we should recall, has been a thoroughly human endeavor throughout its long history. It remains to be seen whether non-human machines can build the same kind of symbiotic relationship—between human mind and written codes—that has brought us into this challenging new territory.
The image used in this post is in the public domain.
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