Writing of various kinds is an important background element of In a Milk and Honeyed Land. What is known about this?
The earliest writing appears before 3000 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Both areas used signs that differed a great deal in appearance – hieroglyphs and cuneiform – but were built around the same idea of representing whole syllables rather than individual letters. This meant that the number of separate signs was large. The number of people who could read and write to a high standard was very small. However, it seems likely that at least in Egypt, where the signs were clearly linked to real-world objects, a larger group of people was semi-literate in the sense that they could recognise a number of important signs or words, without having either a complete knowledge or the ability to produce clear writing themselves.
During the second millennium there were several attempts to produce simpler systems. These had several features in common, including the crucial innovation that a sign represented a letter, not a syllable. This meant that they used a much smaller number of signs, typically 20-30. Also the letter names were chosen after a common everyday object that happened to start with that letter. This system is still used in teaching English – “A is for Apple-pie, B is for Bear”. All modern alphabets descended from Greek or Latin come out of this invention, which took place around 1800 BC or so.
These new scripts originally showed no vowel markers at all, only consonants, a pattern still followed in written Arabic or Hebrew. Rather later on, ways were developed of showing the vowel sounds expected, but for early inscriptions, we cannot always be certain what shade of meaning the original author intended.
During most of the 20th century it was assumed that since the new alphabetic writing had so few signs, it could be easily learned and so the rate of literacy might be much higher. This does not seem to be the case. Writing was still a minority skill, and a scribe still went through lengthy training. As well as the basics of making letters, a scribe would have learned how to reproduce them reliably with care and skill. It was also crucial that they could read and write in the older cuneiform writing, since official business was still carried out using this. Finally, a scribe must know other skills such as accounting, navigation, and logistical planning in order to satisfy the needs of his ruler or wealthy patron.
From what we can tell, there was as clear sense that some kinds of writing must be matched correctly with some kinds of material. For example, at Ugarit both traditional cuneiform and a new alphabetic form were used side by side, together with other scripts belonging to nearby nations. A scribe at Ugarit would need to be very well trained. Official letters and accounts were still written in the older syllabic forms, and the new alphabet was used for religious poems and similar material. This situation only changed later on, after the year 1000 BC, when the new alphabetic scripts finally began to achieve supremacy. Cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing, and variations of these, did not immediately disappear, but slowly dwindled in use.
In In a Milk and Honeyed Land, as well as village priest and seer, Damariel has the beginnings of a scribal training. It is unlikely that a small town would have opportunity to offer promising youngsters a complete training, but I have assumed that his apprenticeship would have included many of the elements of this. So he learns route lists in order to navigate around the land, and as well as the Kinahniy (Canaanite) alphabetic signs he learns enough of the older formal cuneiform writing to be able to draft a letter to the regional governor. However, he is not fluent enough to pick up and read straight through the portion of the Gilgamesh story that Kothar finds for him at the market in Bayth Shamsh. During Qetirah’s shorter apprenticeship, she would also have started to master the same skills, along with medical or practical talents of value to the community. Nepheret, meanwhile, although brought up in Egypt, cannot read hieroglyphic or hieratic writing to any real degree. She is able to recognise her name and a few other key words and signs. It is easy to imagine that many people in her position would be able to identify key signs such as “man”, “woman”, “town” and one or two of the names of gods of particular importance in their home town. Damariel is intrigued by the Mitsriy (Egyptian) picture writing he sees from time to time, and starts to use it with Nepheret as a spoken language, but never has the chance to learn to write it.
Towards the end of the story, the chief has cause to circulate several messages to the four towns. Since he cannot read or write, these messages are dictated to the priest Eli, who makes four copies and has them carried to each village. Committal to writing makes the matter more serious and less able to be ignored by the other seers. However, it also gives Eli the opportunity to add his own brief annotation, which the chief is unaware of.
The materials used for writing were extremely varied. At one extreme we find carefully executed royal or religious inscriptions carried out with great attention to detail. At the other, we find scraps of writing scratched on old broken pieces of pottery. Stone, leather, wood, pottery, papyrus, and wax – all of these were used at times. Some pieces of writing were clearly intended to last for generations, but others were very casual, and the original authors might be astonished – or amused – to hear that some of their writings have survived for over 3000 years.
So, writing is important to Damariel, but only for communicating with fellow scribes or others of similar training. He has no need to write to people living in the town, and they would not be able to read it if he did. Like many other cultures of low levels of literacy, oral tradition and skills of memory are highly prized and highly used. The personal and collective memory of the town functions in a similar way to written records in another age. A rare occasion when Damariel is asked to write something “ordinary” is when his brother Baruk asks for a copy of the agricultural calendar to be put up in the olive patch. Had he lived, Baruk would most likely never have been able to read this, but he would have memorised the contents and know exactly what it said. Sadly, he never had this opportunity.
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