How Ancient Writing Was Developed For Use in Religion & Magic

Religion, magic, and cultic influences drove many developments in the ancient world, including the creation of these four sacred writing systems.

Feb 25, 2024By Heather Reilly, MSc Ancient Cultures, BA Ancient History
ancient writing developed religion magic

 

The evolution of ancient writing came about through human efforts to record things. The first part of this presents itself in pragmatic, economic, and administrative purposes, such as taxation or bills of sale. On the contrary, writing was also developed to record and conserve cultic practices and religious beliefs. This further progressed into the credence that the written word possessed a ritualistic power of its own; the act of writing the name of a deity or magical entity enabled people to conjure or evoke them in some way.

 

Cuneiform

sargon ii tablet
Sargon II’s Letter to Ashur, 911-612 BCE. Source: The Louvre

 

Cuneiform was created around 3,500 BCE in Sumer in southern Mesopotamia and may have been used until the 3rd century CE. The script was utilized by multiple civilizations and could articulate a variety of languages. There are copious amounts of surviving legal, historical, and commercial documents as well as royal proclamations, stories, mythologies and literature, hymns to the gods, spells and divination, and astrological texts. Moreover, in ancient times, these themes were not seen as separate as they are today. Many royal inscriptions were dedicated to the gods such as Sargon II’s Letter to Ashur which described his military campaign against Uratu. In this, the king routinely praises the Assyrian pantheon and dedicates his successes to them.

 

tablet of shamesh
Cuneiform tablet of Shamash, 860-850 BCE. Source: British Museum

 

The cuneiform script itself was subjected to many phases and styles due to the diverse uses it took on. Under the Sumerians, it was notably pictographic and the symbols shared overt connections to the word they were portraying, for example, the sign for a ruler was a man with a headdress. The Babylonians and Assyrians adapted the pictograms into a more complex script and created texts that now had to be read by specialists. In these later variations, the signs could represent syllables or letters which could be joined to make words independent of their original denotations. Those trained to read and write cuneiform were mainly scribes or priests which to the mainly illiterate populations must have seemed mysterious.

 

tiglath pileser iii
Wall panel of King Tiglath-Pilseser III in his chariot with cuneiform description, 730-727 BCE. Source: British Museum

 

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The spoken name of a magical or religious entity had long been equated to the conjuring of that being. Thus, the invention of cuneiform swiftly inspired the notion of written prayers to the gods as well as curses and spells that appeared on objects from bowls to amulets. Written curses have been found in multiple graves including a famous curse inscribed on the walls of the tomb of Queen Yaba, wife of King Tiglath-Pileser III, which stated anyone who desecrated it would receive no offerings in the afterlife and remain “restless for all eternity”.

 

Hieroglyphs

rosetta stone
The Rosetta Stone, 196 BCE. Source: British Museum.

 

Egyptian hieroglyphic script is thought to have developed independently from the Sumerian cuneiform around the same time in the fourth millennium BCE. Over time, the logograms progressed into greater abstract characters that no longer looked like the object or idea they represented. These scripts, called Hieratic and Demotic, were however more easily transcribed. The original decorative hieroglyphs were still used under ceremonial or cultic circumstances far later than they were used for legal documentation or other practical uses. Whilst Egypt may have lost some political influence towards the end of the New Kingdom due to a host of new competitive empires, namely the Assyrians, it was able to continue significant cultic and cultural influence.

 

The ancient Egyptians believed that words themselves and associated images were instilled with transcendent powers. Within tombs and graves the evidence of protective texts presents itself through spells, often inscribed across tomb walls as well as on hieroglyphic amulets. Amulets or talismans were often used by the living but were also commonly found amongst the dead. A hieroglyph could symbolize something more than the word it was conveying. For example, the Djed pillar encompassed strength and steadiness and the Wadjet or Wedjat eye, generally known as the eye of Horus, represented protection and rebirth.

 

eye of horus amulet
Wedjat eye amulet, 664–332 BCE. Source: Met Museum

 

The importance of a person’s written name is also evident from Egyptian tombs. An individual’s name was always displayed throughout their tomb: on the walls, sarcophagus, and even funerary goods within the tomb. Similarly, iconoclasm, especially pharaonic iconoclasm, or the act of destruction and erasure of a pharaoh and their beliefs can be found predominantly in the demolition of their written names. Tutankhamun’s name, as well as the names of his parents, Akhenaten and Nefertiti, were chiseled out of inscriptions and king lists. While this may seem practical in the erasure of a person, statues and images were similarly defaced, with emphasis placed on damage to the nose and mouth to symbolically prevent the victim from breathing.

 

Greek Alphabet and Numerals

greek altar dedication
Greek limestone altar from Halicarnassus, 3rd century BCE. Source: British Museum

 

The Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet which consisted of 22 symbols. The simplicity of the script made it much easier to memorize and therefore more accessible to the wider population in comparison to the complicated Egyptian hieroglyphs or cuneiform. The Greeks believed in an intrinsic magical association with written scripts and came up with numerology, the belief in divination by numbers. The difference between written numbers and letters did not emerge until the 8th and 9th centuries CE, so Greek numerals used the Greek alphabet.

 

Isopsephy was a practice that has been around since at least the 3rd century BCE and consisted of totaling up the number of values within a word. If two (or more) words possessed the same numerical value, they were said to have some sort of higher connection. This was not unique to the Greeks as the Hebrew tradition of Gematria was identical and even the Neo-Assyrians demonstrated this belief. Pythagoras, the famed mathematician, conceived a theory in which a person’s name and date of birth could reveal one’s characteristics and future. This was done by taking numbers from each. Onomancy, or divination based on the subject’s name, gained immense popularity in medieval Europe and similar practices continue around the globe today.

 

codex Sinaiticus
Codex Sinaiticus, oldest complete copy of the New Testament, 4th century CE. Source: British Library

 

The spiritual significance of the Greek language persisted as a key language of Christianity. The New Testament was originally written in a form of Koine Greek which has kept the language relevant to Christian scholars to this day. It was these Greek texts which were translated into Latin for use by the Catholic Church and into other vernaculars for other denominations over time, especially after the Protestant Reformation. Meanwhile, the original Greek versions are still used by Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians today.

 

Maya Glyphs

square maya vase 8th century
Square vase with animal deities and Maya glyphs, 755-780 CE. Source: Met Museum

 

Originating around 2000 BCE as hunter-gatherers, the Maya reached their zenith from 600-900 CE but survived until the Spanish conquests in the 16th and 17th centuries. During their long-standing civilization, the Maya produced some of the most incredible ancient texts from the unique glyph-based writing system. The script is formed using logograms and syllabic or spoken signs. To begin with, this script was called Maya hieroglyphs due to its similarity with Egyptian hieroglyphs according to 17th and 18th-century European travelers, although there is no connection between the two scripts. The glyphs are complex and artistic, with both writers and artists being labeled t’zib.

 

The famous Maya Haab’ solar calendar is considered among the most accurate from the ancient world. Time was measured and recorded intensely for two main reasons. The first is that the Maya viewed time as cyclical, meaning that both in the short and long term, history would repeat itself. The second reason was due to an intricate system of religious events which manifested in their 260-day Tzolkʼin calendar. Bloodletting was an important ritualistic form of sacrifice in this Maya religious calendar. Royal family members were expected to participate in the practice on specific dates dictated by the calendar. The tools that were used to draw the blood in these rituals were heavily decorated with glyphs.

 

dresden codex
Dresden Codex, ~1200 CE. Source: Saxon State and University Library Dresden

 

The reflection of Maya beliefs and even Maya artwork is often visible in accompanying writing. For example, the Maya believed in a watery underworld, and in some caves, dates are inscribed on the walls that do not make sense. This is because time and space were viewed as warped and incomprehensible to humans. The underworld, as with the upper world, was a supernatural realm and did not adhere to the same conventions as the human domain (or middle world).

 

Sadly, most of the Maya written works were destroyed by the invading Spanish, but three codices survive to this day. Interestingly, all three texts focus on ritualistic timekeeping, deities, and other celestial entities and practices. Astronomical information and ornate illustrations of deities feature heavily in the Dresden Codex whilst the Madrid Codex details sacrifices, divinations, and accounts of warfare. Despite its fragmentary nature, the Paris Codex also describes rituals and Maya celebrations. Imagery of gods is frequent, not just in these codices, but in all Maya artwork. Similarly, these motifs are typically paired with glyph captions, describing the actions of these deities.

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By Heather ReillyMSc Ancient Cultures, BA Ancient History Heather has a BA in Ancient History from Cardiff University and an MSc in Ancient Cultures from the University of Glasgow. She has continually focussed on ancient religions and art from various civilisations, her most specialist areas being New Kingdom Egypt, the Neo-Assyrians and Iron Age Europe yet strives to continue learning. After a brief (and muddy) spell as an archaeologist, she now works in an archive in London.