The Reading Bug

With the sunshine coming in my office can feel pleasantly warm in winter.  I chose this location not because of its southern exposure, but because it is a small room and it’s a good place for books.  Although it’s January, the sun brought a shield bug to life the other day.  At first I didn’t know what it was.  I’d hear a loud buzzing followed by a rather obvious crash, but I saw no insect.  Since we had a string of sunny days it kept reawakening in the mornings, warmed by sunlight on my windowsill and spent the days climbing on and sometimes attempting to fly through the glass.  I identified the beetle quickly once I saw it.  As I watched the poor creature’s progress (or lack thereof), I was sorry that I couldn’t release it outside.  It was still quite cold out, and I didn’t think it would survive.

Spending long hours in the same room with my perplexed insect friend, I came to ponder what its experience of life was like.  I’m no Franz Kafka or Thomas Nagel, but I had to wonder when it chose to spend the night on a clay replica I had made of an Ugaritic abecedary.  I’d made this clay model when I was teaching, and I used it as one of several visual aids to help students understand how writing had developed.  (I had even ordered authentic papyrus to pass around, and the single sheet of vellum cost more than an entire book in those days.)  My doctoral work largely focused on Ugarit, and in the 1990s it looked like that sub-specialization might be on the ascendant.  We often live to have our mistakes rubbed in our faces.  But why had the shield bug picked this very spot to roost?  It looked as if it were trying to learn to read cuneiform.  It needn’t bother.

Although I habitually awake quite early, it isn’t easy getting out of bed.  Especially in a cold house during winter.  My entomological friend, of course, had to wait for the sun itself to come back to life.  Night on the windowsill can’t be comfortable, especially when the radiator is under the other window in the room.  No matter how much I try, I’ll never know if I’ve succeeded in understanding the experience of that bug.  How it is enslaved to the sun, and how it keeps on climbing, even after it falls, raising a tiny geyser of dust.  How it flies full speed into a barrier it cannot see, and then tries again.  I may not be able to understand this beetle sleeping on my Ugaritic alphabet, but I do think there’s something here to learn.

The Problem with History

The problem with history is that it shows foundational views are constantly shifting.  Let me preface this statement by noting that although I taught Hebrew Bible for many years my training was primarily as an historian of religion.  More specifically, the history of a religious idea that shifted over time.  My dissertation on the topic of Asherah required specialization in Ugaritic and in the religions of the ancient world that included Israel.  I have subsequently been researching the history of ideas, and my current, apparently non-sequiturial books on horror and the Bible are simply a further development of that interest.  The focus has shifted more toward the modern period, but the processes of uncovering history remain the same.  Many people don’t like horror.  I get that.  It is, however, part of the larger picture.

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  What eventually grew was an evolving set of premises claimed both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be the original.  Neither really is.  Then Protestantism made claims that the establishment had it wrong and the Bible, which was a bit ad hoc to begin with, was the only source for truth.  It’s a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely. 

Who’s Hungry?

I flatter myself to think that some people enjoy my daily musings, although they’re sometimes grim. Religion often is. One curious example of this is the “Hell-Mouth.” Some time back a friend sent me a link to a British Library blog post “Highway to Hell.” The story is about illustrated medieval manuscripts depicting the Hell-Mouth—a monster with wide, gaping jaws and a gob crammed full of human souls bound for eternal torment. Not a pretty picture. The BL post reasonably suggests that the image originates in early Anglo-Saxon literature. We know the Teutonic penchant for the gothic, so all is fine and good. In fact, however, the image is far older than that.

In sorely neglected and almost forgotten Ugarit there is a fascinating mythological text. Known to ancient northwest semitic nerds as KTU 1.23, the text is strange even by Canaanite standards. El, the chief god whose name translates as, well, “god,” seduces two young goddesses (presumably). The young ladies give birth to monsters—devourers with one lip reaching to the heavens and the other to the underworld. Every living thing is swept in. What is this if not a Hell-Mouth? Indeed, if I might indulge in my past passion for Ras Shamra just a touch more, the deity Mot (whose name translates to “Death”) is portrayed with an equally voracious appetite. Everything gets gobbled up, even Baal.

These lurid images of all-consuming mouths, however, aren’t direct ancestors to the Hell-Mouth. Although some of the ideas from Ugarit survived in the culture that would eventually emerge as the Israelites, the city itself was destroyed for the last time before Moses picked up his chisel. The people of Ugarit were long gone before he licked his thumb and applied his quill-pen to Genesis. Ideas, however, may be the closest to eternity that humans can come. The Bible doesn’t describe any Hell-Mouths as such, but Revelation can come close. Ras Shamra was only rediscovered in the 1920s, so no Anglo-Saxon had access to its vivid images of the Hell-Mouth that existed even before Hell itself became a thing. Humans are endlessly inventive. Ideas go underground for centuries at a time only to reemerge when the moment’s propitious. The Middle Ages with their Black Deaths and highly stratified society and burgeoning witch hunts and inquisitions were such a time. Looking over the current landscape I have to wonder if the recent revival of the Hell-Mouth might not have something to do with the time in which it has gained renewed interest as well. Some appetites will never be satisfied.


The word “hieroglyph” translates to “sacred writing.” If you’re like me, your first attempts to learn writing were probably not very sacred at all. Tongue pressed to the corner of my mouth, eyes staring fixedly at the paper flat in front of me, my hand going anywhere but where I wanted it to, writing was a burden. I soon grew to love it though, not realizing it was changing my brain even as I was assimilating how to do it. Anne Trubek introduces quite a few new angles to the story in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. She begins at the beginning, cuneiform, not hieroglyphics, and offers a brief sketch of how handwriting developed into the phenomenon we know today. And how it is now becoming something very different than what it once was.

Trubek’s book is full of delightful surprises about the development of scripts and the technologies that attend them. Like most non-specialists in cuneiform suppose, she suggests handwriting is basically anonymous therein. In fact, it’s not. Molding clay into a smartphone-shaped tablet doesn’t seem like technology, but the process of writing took a leap forward when someone figured out how to do this. Those who work with cuneiform can learn to identify handwriting. In the Ugaritic corpus, the tablets “signed” by Ilimilku can be distinguished from those written by others, and not just by his name. Technology has been devised to measure depth and order of stylus strokes in the clay, the angle the stylus was held, and many other seemingly insignificant features. Handwriting was present from the very beginning.

Perhaps what is most striking about Trubek’s study is how religion enters the discussion at almost every stage. Very early on writing was identified as a sacred activity. This continued through the middle ages when monks were those who performed writing as part of their non-secular duties. Even those who piloted penmanship in the modern period often noted that a person’s moral, Christian disposition could be measured by how said person made their letters. Writing, as those who do it for a good while know, becomes a sacred activity. Most world religions have holy books. Many of those books were the reason for an interest in literacy in several cultures. Even a surprising number of secular writers have understood the activity to have spiritual dimensions. Trubek’s book gives bibliophiles plenty to ponder. She doesn’t see the rise of keyboarding as a threat to writing because even in the computer age, individuality comes through. And for those who truly understand hieroglyphs, all writing is sacred.

Nature Watching

Whenever I travel in the northwest, I keep an eye open for what one colleague calls “charismatic megafauna.” You know, the big animals that are so rare to see that they develop a charming, if imaginary, persona. Not that I’ve ever seen much of it here. It’s rarity is part of the charm. My usual hope is to see a moose—something that happens every three or four years. Black bears are even rarer. Grizzly bears, which still inhabit this area, and mountain lions I’ve never seen. I know they’re there, but their agenda is not to be seen. My first full day here I was sitting outside working on an academic paper. My time off work is rare, and when I get a moment, even in the wilderness, I try hard not to waste it. I had the feeling of being watched. Not the creepy kind of feeling, but the kind where you think an animal might be keeping a wary eye on you.

I looked over the top of my book. Several yards distant I could see a head bobbing up and down. Then I noticed a black patch on a nearby lodgepole pine. It took a few seconds for the red head to register. A mated pair of pileated woodpeckers. Not exactly huge, but they are large birds. And since they are the personality behind Woody Woodpecker, well, I guess you can call that charismatic. Charismatic enough for me to put down my Ugaritic mythology and go inside to fetch a camera. Of course they were gone by the time I’d returned. I decided to take a walk down the track in a vain hope of finding them again. Once in a while charismatic megafauna cooperate. There they were, one going after ants on the ground, the other perched above pecking wood.

Most of our large fauna we’ve driven to near extinction. Humans can’t stand not to be the biggest thing around. The megafauna remain, however, hidden though they may be. An online site for this area posted a photo of a cougar snapped last summer. I’m not sure when the last time a grizzly might’ve wandered down from Canada, but since last November I’m not sure why they’d even bother. Even the moose seem coy. Animals don’t do what we want them to do. Those that we can’t domesticate follow their own agendas and calendars we can’t hope to comprehend. As they flap away I can swear these woodpeckers are laughing at me.

On Practicalities

In a world where a metaphorical ton of money may be made by corralling electrons into specific shapes on an LCD screen, it may be easy to think of learning dead languages as a kind of autoerotic mental enterprise. Who has the time for clay-writing anymore? We have “money” (that we never see) to “make” at the click of a mouse. Although honestly, who uses a mouse anymore? So it was strangely gratifying to see Aviya Kushner’s article “Why Dead Languages Like Akkadian Still Matter” on Forward. Unlike Kushner, I didn’t grow up with exotic dead languages. Not even Hebrew. We took our Holy Bible neat. King James, of course. In English, just like God meant it to be. When I’d read every English translation available in my small town, I began to wonder about the original languages. I taught myself the Greek alphabet before going to college, but even at Grove City I couldn’t find any faculty willing to teach Hebrew. There was obviously something mysterious here.

Hebrew, generally printed in a calligraphic font, is difficult to teach oneself. Once I began, however, I had to learn what came before. That alien, runic Phoenician script fascinated me. Cuneiform even more so. I spent my graduate years pondering over Ugaritic, learning as much Akkadian as I could along the way. Then I realized Sumerian might take me even further back in history, but it was time to get a job. Earn a living. Make some money. Or at least some electrons.


As Kushner shows, however, these ancient languages tell us how we got here. Those who earned their own day’s equivalents of millions of electrons used to spend their excess wealth on ancient clay tablets. I’ve seen them in private collections in various parts of the world—they seem to validate those who can’t even read them. Artifacts can be status symbols. Having spent years learning the finer nuances of Ugaritic, I eventually had to put my interest into my own personal museum. Universities—the only places that can afford to offer doctoral programs in impracticalities for the unwary—are the sole bastions of employment where cuneiform might come in handy. The irony is that many scholars have to travel to private collections to examine a tablet that some entrepreneur has purchased, but can’t read. Its meaning is lost to the world, but it is valued for it’s power to confer status on its owner. Those who might be able to read the thing, unless they are very lucky, will be out chasing electrons in the hopes of paying the rent. What could be more practical than that?

For Love of English

One of my most frequent imaginary dalliances is wondering what I would have done with my life if I hadn’t been raised religious. Like many young boys I found “exciting” jobs enticing—soldier, firefighter, explorer—but scientist also loomed large in my imaginary horizon. By the time I was a teen I was firmly ensconced in books. My upbringing meant that many of these books were religious in nature, and my concern with ultimate consequences meant religion was the only possible career track to make any sense. It certainly never made dollars. As someone who professionally looks backwards, I’ve found myself wondering if I shouldn’t have focused on English rather than Hebrew and Ugaritic as a career. After all, the Bible has been available in English for centuries now. Besides that, the canon is larger—from Beowulf to Bible and beyond. Reading is, after all, fundamental.

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

I only discovered BookRiot recently, and that through the mediation of my wife. For the writer of a blog I really don’t spend that much time online outside of work. I like real books, and being outdoors. Too much time staring at a screen brings me down. Nevertheless, BookRiot has stories that cause me to question my career choices from time to time. For instance, I have never knowingly heard of The Exeter Book. Dating to the tenth century, this medieval manuscript is among the earliest of English writings. Showing the interests of the monk who likely inscribed it, it has religiously themed material and riddles. As E. H. Kern’s post on BookRiot points out, The Exeter Book has inspired many later writers and has, through them, made its way into mainstream popular culture. Not bad for a book that I suspect many, like myself, have never heard of.

Old English has the same kind of draw as other ancient languages. Not nearly as dusty as ancient Semitic tongues, it contains the roots to the form of expression I find most familiar. I love looking back at the Old English of Beowulf and spotting the points where my native language has remained relatively unchanged over the centuries. Modern English even begrudgingly owes a considerable debt to the Bible of King James. Our language is our spiritual heritage. We have trouble expressing our deepest thoughts without it. Perhaps had BookRiot existed when I was young, I might have made a rather more informed decision about the direction of my career. Or, then again, religion might have found me nevertheless. From some things there is just no hiding.