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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On the Origins of Writing

I'm taking a class on the development of writing in Greece and Italy this semester, and recently we looked at several examples of ancient theories on how writing starting. One particularly intrigued me- Hyginus tells a story that the Fates were the first to write- they created the vowels and the letters B and T.  Why the vowels and those letters? It seemed to me that those would the sounds used in singing. That, coupled with the fact that many early writing examples are found on weaving implements led me to create the following myth. After the myth is the excerpt from Hyginus that inspired it. 

The women of Kercis’* town, like all women, sang as the worked. They sang as they drew the wool into strands, sang as the spun the strands into yarn, and sang as they wove the yarn into cloth. And the songs they sang were all the same. As they shared their work, they shared their music.

But when it came time for Kercis to marry, she did not marry a man from her town, but from another, and when she went to live him, she found she did not know the songs of the women there. And so she would work by herself, singing the songs of her town, while the other women sang their own.

It was a long time before Kercis learned the songs of the other women, and joined them in their work and singing, and she wondered what would happen if she had a daughter who married a man from another town. For it was a lonely thing to work and sing on your own.

So, one night, Kercis prayed to Athena. “Oh goddess,” she said, “You who gave us the loom and taught us to weave, you have given all women one work, and yet we have many songs. Should we not all sing together, even as we all labour at the same task?” And though Athena did not answer her that night, she heard the prayer, and wondered at it, for it troubled her.

Sometime later, when the moon was thin in the sky, Hermes came to Kercis one night. “Athena heard your prayer,” he told her. “It troubled her, and so she has sent me to take you to the Fates, for it is they who first made songs while at their work”. He offered her his hand, and Kercis took it, picking up her spindle as she did so, for a woman’s work is never done.

Hermes flew with Kercis to where the Fates lived, and Kercis heard them singing. Clotho sang as she spun the threads of lives, Lachesis sang as she measured the threads, and Atropos sang as she cut them. And all three of them sang the same song.

As Kercis walked towards them, the fates looked up from their work, their singing ceased, and they spoke. “What is it you have come to ask?”

“I have come to learn the song you sing, so that I might teach it to the other women, so we may all sing the same song while we work. For we share in one work; should we not share in one song?” This was Kercis’ reply.

The Fates answered her, “We shall teach you our song, and more than that, though you did not ask. We shall teach you shapes that mark the sounds of our song, so that you might teach women our song even when you are not near them.”

Then the Fates took Kercis’ spindle, and on the shaft they scratched shapes, and taught her which shape was for which sound, and how to sing their song.

So Kercis took her spindle back to the women she worked with, and she taught them the song and shapes. And those women taught other women, who taught other women, until all the women who worked at the loom sang the same song and knew the shapes the Fates had taught Kercis.

And one day, much later, a man named Palamedes, who was more observant than most, noticed that all the women, even those in different towns, sang the same song while they worked. And when he asked his wife about this, she showed him the shapes that made up the song, and explained how by learning the shapes, women all over the land had learned the song.

Palamedes was very taken by this idea, so he made up shapes for the sounds that weren’t in the song, and taught them to men, that they too might teach one other even when far apart.

And so it happened that while men will say it was they who made the alphabet, we who weave, we women, we know the truth. 

*Greek for "spindle"

Hyginus, Fabulae 277
Transl. Mary Grant

The Parcae, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos invented seven Greek letters - A B H T I Y.
Others say that Mercury invented them from the flight of cranes, which, when they fly, form letters.
Palamedes, too, son of Nauplius, invented eleven letters; Simonides, too, invented four letters – Ó E Z PH; Epicharmus of Sicily, two - P and PS. 
The Greek letters Mercury is said to have brought to Egypt, and from Egypt Cadmus took them to Greece. Cadmus in exile from Arcadia, took them to Italy, and his mother Carmenta changed them to Latin to the number of 15.
Apollo on the lyre added the rest.

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