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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

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steepholm steepholm
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People of the Book
I'm sure this must be a much-written about subject, but I'd be interested to know if anyone can recommend a particular treatment.

I've been wondering about the relationship between religion and the development of writing and early literacy. At least in the Middle East and the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, the idea of sacred writings seems to have been prominent from early times, and has at least two aspects. First, the notion that God dictates commandments, laws, scriptures - whether to Hammurabi, Moses or Mohammed - and that they assume thereafter a divine, perhaps infallible character in their written form. Second, the control of writing becomes associated with a priestly caste, using hieratic scripts, symbols and magic - something I associate particularly with Egypt, though no doubt it appears elsewhere too (in Babylon, for example?).

With both these developments, but especially the first (because magic can be performed without script) religion isn't just facilitated by writing - it's virtually identified with it: the Good Book, Holy Writ, the Law. To this day the invention of writing is the prerequisite for a vast amount of what we recognize as religious practice - from Golden Dawn ceremonials to scripture-quoting Southern Baptist preachers. I suppose it's uncontroversial to say that it must have been impressive for illiterate societies, from ancient Britain to the Aztec Empire, to find that a piece of paper could talk and carry messages - but even after the novelty has worn off (as it must have done by now) the written word appears to be valorized to what seems a slightly weird degree. I can't think of any other technology that has embedded itself so firmly into the DNA of religious experience.

Anyway - as I say, I'm just wondering whether there's a standard/classic/interesting treatment of this subject out there that my sapient friends list might be able to recommend?

It's not the general treatment which it sounds like you are really looking for, but you might get some value out of Mary Beard (1991), 'Writing And Religion: Ancient Literacy and the Function of the Written Word in Roman Religion' in J. Humphrey, ed. Literacy in the Roman World (Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series No. 3), pp. 35-58. She does draw comparisons between the using of writing in Roman religion (which never had sacred texts but did use writing to record and commemorate rituals) and Christianity, but I don't think she casts her net any wider.

Thanks - that's certainly a start!