This is the showing-forth of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that neither what has come to be from man in time might become faded, nor that great and wondrous deeds, those shown forth by Greeks and those by barbarians, might be without their glory; and together with all this, also through what cause they warred with each other. Herodotus, Histories c.440BC
When Herodotus wrote these words, writing as a concept had been around for over a thousand years, first as a tool to help traders with accounting, then gradually as a broader means of communication. As he writes, it is a way in which important events, thoughts and deeds can be immortalised. The written word as a means of relaying information is indisputable. Used initially as a verification system to record quantities with representative symbols, methods developed to include wider concepts using pictograms.
Small clay tokens were used to count measures of goods like grain or oil, represented by different shapes. To try to ensure honest trading, the correct number and variety of tokens could be dropped into what can be described as a clay envelope – a round, enclosed vessel with small holes at the top, similar to a money-box – but as the owner of the goods or recipient of the envelope couldn’t see the contents without first breaking the container, traders developed a system of impressing the shapes and quantity of the tokens onto its still-damp surface before dropping them inside. These shapes took on the meaning of the tokens themselves, eventually replacing the need for them.
With the introduction and development of pictograms, news of alliances, wars and important events could now be communicated without fear of embellishment or distortion. Laws could be literally ‘written in stone’.
The good house of the lofty untouchable mountain, E-kic-nu-jal, was entirely devoured by large axes. The people of Cimacki and Elam, the destroyers, counted its worth as only thirty shekels. They broke up the good house with pickaxes. They reduced the city to ruin mounds. From the Lament for Ur, c.2000 BCE
If a man stealthily cultivates the field of another man and he raises a complaint, this is however to be rejected, and this man will lose his expenses. From the Code of Ur-Nammu; the oldest known written law code.
One area in which writing began to move on from the merely instructional was epitaphs and funerary inscriptions. To record the details of lives of those who have died was seen as extremely powerful, enabling the dead to live on in some way. Hopes and hypotheses about an afterlife also formed part of these writings. This was not nostalgia but can be seen as the beginnings of literature; the human need to remember and envisage possibilities for what can’t be known. In common with the discovery of bronze and the beginnings of bronze sculpture, this is evidence of the development of symbolic thinking.
Sacred stories, philosophies and oral histories could also be recorded without loss of detail. Records indicate writing originated in three geographical places independently around the same time period; early forms of script have been found from the Olmecs of the Mexican gulf and the Chinese of the Shang dynasty but the system of cuneiform lettering found in the Near East is understood to be the precursor of the Latin alphabet.
In the region of what is now Lebanon, a system was developed by standardising pictograms as symbols for vocal sounds; the word for ox, alpu, became a simplified ox symbol, which represented the ‘a’ sound in any word, and so on. Phoenician traders brought this system to Greece with them and the Greeks refined it, adding open-ended vowel sounds, beginning the series of symbols with alpha and ending with omega. This alphabet was in use by the Etruscans and later the Romans, who altered and further refined the letters, bringing it with them throughout Europe and North Africa.
Although literacy travelled rapidly it remained the preserve of particular sections of society. Written information had great value – the words of kings were written down by trained scribes; laws and religious texts were jealously guarded. In Western Europe, with few exceptions it took until 1517, when Martin Luther wrote of (among other similarly inflammatory things) the benefits of teaching women to read in their own tongue, for reading and writing to become more widely available skills. Well into the Victorian era in Britain the idea prevailed that the mental effort required in order to be properly literate may well be enough to drive women out of their tiny minds entirely. Abundant proof of the reverse of this was more than evident – from the writings of Hildegard of Bingen up until Mary Wortley Montagu, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Brontes and Jane Austen, I could go on…
More immediately specific than painting, drawing or sculpture, writing embraces everything from the most insignificant everyday minutiae to humankind’s greatest philosophical and intellectual achievements and all of human experience in between. From instructions and news in order to widely disseminate information and opinion, to letters, meant for the eyes of one reader – the most personal thing. To read a book is a unique experience in that, while it creates a world in the mind of each individual, not shared and not shareable, it is available for whoever might pick it up – their version of what it contains lying dormant in their own mind.