The Art of Writing

Wiccan Rede * Autumn 1982 by Morgana Sythove

Writing has been described as ‘a mysterious and magical art’. It is a language in its most manifested form, and the ancient alphabets were revealed to man by the gods. The ‘discovery’ of writing certainly created a turning point in man’s intellectual development and can be described as the beginning of recorded history. In many cases, although we do not know how ancient man communicated verbally – the sounds he uttered – we do have remnants of written language albeit in the form of drawings and symbols.

The cave paintings of ancient man indicate early man’s attempts to convey concepts and ideas, usually of a magic-religious content. It is quite probable that other members of the tribe would easely understand the symbols painted on the cave walls although it is also possible that this form of communication was reserved for the ‘leaders’ of the tribe – an idea we find in later history when it was only the priests and kings who would be able to translate the symbols and codes of manuscripts, stone tablets etc. For many centuries, and to some extend even today, the ability to write has been reserved for the ‘educated’ classes.

We have already noted that the early cave paintings communicated various ideas and concepts, but the first evidence of the art of writing is to be found on the temple records discovered in Mesopotamia. From this region of the near East the cuneiform script was also discovered on clay tablets. It formulas, invocations and myths. Various materials have been used in the past for writing, the most ancient is the use of stone, which was probably used for the permanent and monumental records. Since the easiest way to mark the stone was by chiselling from right to left we see that the later form of writing retained this general direction. Something which we stil find in the semitic languages – Hebrew, Arabic. Other materials were used as well, e.g. metal, although this was quite rare owing to the expense of the material. Occasionally gold was employed, for royal extravagances, whilst bronze or copper was more commonly chosen. The Romans, for example used bronze to record treaties and decrees and also the military honours of the Roman soldiers. Incidentally lead was used as well, but only for special purposes: that of cursing!

We come across wood too – whitewashed boards (the so called ‘album’) were used by the Greeks. Once the notice was out of date the board could be whitewashed and re-used. Wood of course is not as permanent as stone or metal and the records inscribed on wood were mostly of a temporary nature. Another material for more temporary inscription was wax. Wooden frames covered by wax were held together by rings to form the so called ‘codex’. A sharp instrument was used to inscribe the letters, the ‘stylus’- a word we remember when we talk of an authors ‘style’.

A very common material for writing upon was ostraca (Greek for potsherd). Inscriptions on the sherds of pots have proved to be virtually indestructible. Many inscriptions on these fragments have been excavated and have given us many indications on political and economic life in the ancient world. Incidentally our word ‘ostracise’ comes from ostraca since the names of persons who were banished or ostracised from society were recorded on these sherds.

Another common form of writing material was the clay tablet. At first the tablets were used to record temple property and later became a general material for writing. A ‘cunus’ or wedge was used for inscribing the tablet, which gave rise to the particular form of writing we know as ‘cuneiform’. At first cuneiform was a pictorial form of communication but later the figures were an abbreviation of the original pictures. Another material we find, apart from the stone, metal, and clay, is papyrus. Apparantly papyrus was invented by the Egyptians – the papyrus reeds grow along the banks of the Nile, especially in lower Egypt in the Nile Delta. The strips of papyrus reed were beaten with a mallet to form the sheets. Once the sheets were beaten they were dried and polished with pumice. They were then used for letters, books or scrolls. It was also possible to stick the sheets together for longer texts. The Greeks imported papyrus from the Egyptians via the Phoenicians. They called it ‘biblos’ after the Greek name of Byblos, the old city of Gebal in Phoenicia. Later biblos came to mean any book in general – hence the word ‘bible’ for the Holy Script, the Book, and ‘bibliography’ , (Dutch: bibliotheek). The last material used in the ancient world for writing was parchment made from skins. Usually sheep and goat skins were used – instead of tanning, the skins were dusted with slum and chalk after being cleaned and cured. The finer skins of calf were used as well, in wich case it was called ‘vellum’. The earliest parchment found dates from the 12th Dynasty (Egyptian). The most famous find of parchment scrolls is probably the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ found in an old ruin known as Khirbet Qumran in Jericho not far from the Dead Sea. The scrolls contain fragments of the Bible and apocryphal books such as the ‘Book of Enoch’ , which includes the vision of heaven and the visit of the archangel Metatron to Enoch. We have seen that early man’s ‘written’ communication consisted of pictorial representation. The Egyptians too used this medium in the famous hieroglyphs (a word meaning sacred carving), although the representations were already achieving a high degree of sophistication – so much so that it has taken great insight and intuition to reveal the meaning of the hieroglyphs in modern times. Egypt seems to have been to promote religion. They believed that knowledge was bound up with the influence the gods exercised on the destinies of man contrary to our twentieth century approach which separates in particular science and religion. Hieroglyphs retained much of their mystery long after the fall of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. It is known that as early as 2350 B.C.E. an extensive library existed at Memphis but little of the treasure has remained. As is often the case foreign invading powers tend to destroy anything connected to the ‘old order’ and burned. Various attempts however were made to unravel the secrets of the hieroglyphs. Alhanasius Kirchner, a German jesuit (1601 – 1680) who invented the Laterna Magica published four volumes hieroglyphs with translations. Later it was proved that his translation was completely incorrect. Other attempts followed but it wasn’t until the 18th century that Akerblad and Zoega, two Swedish-Danish specialists in Arabic believed that the signs were part of an alphabet and that the hieroglyphs enclosed in an oval ring – the cartouche – were the names of kings. But the real discovery came when the Rosetta Stone was uncovered by a French soldier in 1798. The Stone, named after the village of Rosetta, consists of three kinds of script – 14 lines of hieroglyphs at the top, 32 lines of demotic ( i.e. The popular form of Egyptian) and 54 lines of Greek at the bottom. Although the Rosetta Stone had been discovered by the French, it finally ended up in British hands. A number of people including Akerblad tried to interpret the signs, but without much succes. At the time of the discovery there was a young boy in Paris called François Champollion. He was regarded as a child prodigy – by the time he was eleven he had a good knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew an Syrian. During a visit to a museum of Egyptian antiquities he pointed to some hieroglyphs and said “I’ll discover them some day”. He gradually learnt Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit and Chaldean and and collected everything he could find about Egypt. Copies of the Rosetta Stone were circulating in Europe and Champollion had the shock of his life when he heard one day that it had been deciphered. He immediately bought a copy of the ‘Nouvelle Expliation’ where the translation was to be found, and red it from the beginning to end. His reaction was to laugh when he red the rubbish the translator Lenoir had written. He continued his work and slowly but surely he isolated various letters and names of gods, goddesses and kings. By 1822 he could really say the hieroglyphs had been deciphered. In 1828 he finally visited Egypt and he was able to decipher many of the inscriptions he found there. Unfortunately his health was very poor and in 1832 he died at the age of 31. His work was continued by the German Lepsius, who was able to work out the grammatical construction of the hieroglyphs and could methodically describe it. Since the 19th century various expeditions have been made to Egypt and many treasures have been excavated including the more recent find in the Valley of the Kings of Tutankhamon tomb. The deciphering of the hieroglyphs has opened the secret door to many of the mysteries of Egyptian life and beliefs. One of the outstanding features of Egyptian belief is in the power of magical names, spells and enchantments, and magical formulas. In many respects it is difficult to imagine how ‘advanced’ and refined their views were of spiritual and temporal matters, especially in that particular historical periods. We are often overwhelmed by the beauty and precision of the religious ceremonies and above all the way in which the divine powers were worshipped. It should be remembered though that the hieratic symbols (the opposite of demotic) were known only by the initiates of the temple. In this sence, as Michael Howard has pointed out in his book ‘The Runes and Magical Alphabets’ , the hieratic symbols were “the beginning of the true magical alphabets, as esoteric codes used to hide secret knowledge or teachings from the masses, and their purpose has changed little in the intervering centuries up to the present day, despite the major changes and technical developments in techniques of communication”. The magical alphabet, as an esoteric code, separates it from the alphabet which we would normally regard as a ‘normal’ alphabet – i.e. a particular set of letters used to represent sounds etc, which are used for purposes of written and read communication. There are some languages however which fall into both categories, such as Hebrew, and most languages can be described as having magical qualities and origins such as Sanskrit. For simplification we will define a ‘magical alphabet’ as being used specifically for magical purposes and/or as a magical, esoteric code. The underlying belief in respect of the magical alphabet is that the characters carry some ‘power’ in their own right, as a symbol carries power. It is worth pointing out that a sign and a symbol are not the same thing. The symbol has an archetypal quality which often speaks to the subconscious and consequently arises in consciousness, whereas the sign speaks directly to the conscious mind. A sign conveys information of an intellectual nature (think for example of road signs) whilst the symbol evokes a deep truth (e.g. The wheel). The symbols of a magical alphabet are often nonsense to the uninitiated and for this reason act effectively as an esoteric (hidden) code. Returning to the Egyptians it has been thought that the names of the kings and gods for example are a symbolic representation of that particular entity – the symbols characterise the qualities of the king or god in question, e.g. the throne symbolising the goddess Isis. The symbol is not merely referring to the thing it represents, it actually exists. In Man, Myth and Magic (part II) we read: “In Egypt for instance a hieroglyph which was a picture of an animal might eat the food provided for the dead man, or even eat the dead man himself. To prevent this the hieroglyph would be left incomplete or drawn in two halves, so that the whole animal could not appear”.

We see too, in the course of man’s development, that numbers have symbolic qualities as well. Israel Regardie says in ‘The Tree of Life’: “Since numbers were the means or the symbols by which the meaning of the abstract universal ideas could be grasped, in the course of time they came to be substituded for the ideas themselves”.it is not surprising the to learn that in many magical alphabets letters have a particular corresponding number. Numbers, letters names, words of power, symbols – all play an integral part in the magicians life and all play an intricate role in the subject of ‘magical alphabets’. The materials employed in making amulets and talismans on which the magical alphabets are used are equally important. In following numbers of Wiccan Rede it is hoped that some of these interesting subjects will be dealt with.


  • O. Neubert: Tutankamun
  • I. Regardie: The Tree of Life
  • C.G. Jung: Man and his symbols
  • M. Howard: The Runes and Magical Alphabets
  • M. Avi – Yonah: Ancient Scrolls
  • R. Cavendish: Man, Myth and Magic
  • E.A. Wallis Budge: Egyptian Magic
  • G. James: Alphabets used in this article for illustration, as they appearred in Gnostica no. 46