The Invention of Writing
Preparing for Parousia 3
The Invention of Writing:
Relating Differently to the Heavens and the Cosmos
This month we continue the story of how we human beings gradually separated ourselves from the World in which we had been an integral and benign part for as much as 300 thousand years. In the bulk of the Paleolithic we had lived within nature and the cosmos, not over and against it. This tradition did in fact continue down to more or less our own day in hunter/gatherer groups, but, initially in the middle east some 12,000 years ago, and then throughout the world, we settled in larger groups and began domesticating animals and growing crops. Our spirituality and religion changed from ancient shamanic forms to hierarchical forms centred in a multitude of gods who inhabited both the heavens and the earth, in the heavens often associated with constellations of stars, and on the earth as great idols that focussed sacrificial worship, initially fellow human beings and later animals.
The next important stage in this process came with the invention of writing. The earliest writing is dated to around 3,400 BC, in Sumeria. It was a cuneiform script that developed widely. In Egypt a hieroglyphic script developed and later, around 1500 BC an alphabetic script. But the final word in the development of writing came with the development of mathematics, and it was mathematics that allowed the systematic exploration of the cosmos to really begin.
The period we are considering follows Jo Marchant’s third chapter of her book The Human Cosmos. It begins with the first writing and goes down to the writings of Ptolemy in the first century after Christ. It was his mathematical analysis of the cosmos, the relationships of the planets and stars to each other and to planet Earth at the Centre, that became the accepted understanding in western civilisation down to the renaissance and the work of Copernicus and Kepler. She entitled her chapter ‘Fate’ because during this period one of the dominant understandings of our relationship with the heavens and the cosmos was that our lives are written in the stars, and what happens on earth is dictated by heavenly powers outside our control. However, signs are given in the stars and it was for an elite, priestly cast to read these signs, and suggest ways to avoid negative connotations and disasters. These omens were written on clay tablets which became major resources in navigating life, especially for kings and those in authority. Perhaps the most famous compendium of such omens is called Enuma Anu Enlil, and was found on clay tablets in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. It dated back to possibly the second millennium BC but with material much older than this.
What this archive reveals more than anything, though, is a society built around a fascination, if not an obsession, with the heavens. The tablets describe the movements of the sun, moon and planets as a divine script, carrying messages from the gods which shaped behaviour and decisions in every area of human life. (45)
Submitting to the fates as revealed in the heavens was one of the major ways we humans related to the heavens and the cosmos in this period. But with the development of mathematics, both by the Greeks and the Babylonians, we began to make measurement an essential part of our observations of the heavens. And with measurement, a new precision emerged that allowed predictions to be made about the movement of the planets and the stars that were confirmed by observation. Our human mental powers began to take grasp of the mystery and understand it in a new way. This was the second major way we humans began to relate to the heavens and the cosmos in this period. One became established as astrology and the other astronomy.
Both astrology and astronomy flourished in the centuries before Christ, and then through to the modern period. Astrology became increasingly focussed on the individual. Horoscopes became commonplace. People believed that their lives were subject to the stars, and could only be circumvented with great difficulty. Even astronomers could also be astrologers, and this remained so until the modern period.
For these founding fathers of astronomy, the idea that the stars influence our fate was still embedded in their motivation and world view. Galileo regularly made astrological predictions for rich clients, and drew up horoscopes for his illegitimate daughters. Kepler hoped to strengthen and reform the discipline… (62)
But around 1800 BC a third way of relating to the heavens and the cosmos had emerged that eventually changed the world. Marchant does not deal with this third way, but for me it is essential. A pastoralist travelling with his flocks and family looked up into the heavens one night and heard a voice within him inviting him to try and count the stars. The voice then promised that his descendants would outnumber the stars. He believed what he heard. Tradition has it that this pastoralist to this point had worshiped the Canaanite god El but had already disowned any idols associated with El or any other god. He began to worship this god now who had revealed himself, this invisible god, and he became known as the God of Abraham, and eventually the God of the Habiru or Hebrews. He was eventually named Yahweh, which meant ‘I Am’ or ‘Being’, not to be represented by anything but to be called upon and related to personally. For Abraham and the tradition he founded the heavens and the cosmos in all their splendour were invitations into personal relationship with the cosmos and with the Ever Present Origin that made it possible. Not Fate, not Control but Relationship, two way relationship.
Much else happened in this 3000 year period of course. All holy and sacred scriptures and texts, bar the Quran, came into existence. Law became a part of religion alongside ritual sacrifice. The gods were present both in the heavens, often as constellations of stars, and as idols set up in ritual places. Philosophy emerged and money was invented. To name a few! But in terms of our sense of relationship with the heavens and the cosmos, Fate, Control and Relationship perhaps describe the three fundamental ways we can understand ourselves and the cosmos. In one we surrender our sense of self, in another we assert our sense of self, and in the third we enhance our sense of self. It was the second of these that has prevailed in materialist science. We are now confronted with how we address this and balance our knowledge with wisdom.
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David has been a member of Open Sanctuary since its early days. His primary interest is in the re-interpretation of Christ for the 21st Century.